Monday, May 27, 2019

Too Big to Succeed?

Our classical conceptions of how to think about politics originally took shape in a very different kind of world, the world of small urban communities, in which face-to-face interaction in the polis facilitated the deliberation and debate characteristic of what came to be called politics. It is historically indisputable that size set (and continues to set) real limits to certain types of political participation.  It is a commonplace observation that, while in the ancient Mediterranean world of small city-states the greatest thing one could be was a citizen entitled to participate in community discussion and debate,  citizenship as an active way of life (as opposed to what it has since so often degenerated into – just a passive possession of rights and privileges) functionally deteriorated as small city-states were absorbed into enormous empires. Discussion and debate  diminished, and people lost the sense that they could accomplish anything through political participation. As Sheldon Wolin noted way back in 1960, the corresponding questions raised by political thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau were "How far could the boundaries of political space be extended, how much dilution by numbers could the notion of citizen-participant withstand, how minor need be the 'public' aspect of decisions before the political association cased to be political?" [Politics and Vision, p. 70].

Just as the ancient Mediterranean city-state set spatial limits to the possibility of a certain sort of direct democracy, it seems that the same can be said for the modern nation-state with regard to representative democracy. The European Union may hobble on, but it can never completely repair its "democratic deficit," because the degree of real representative government and social democracy made possible by the modern nation-state cannot be replicated by imperial Brussels anymore than the direct democracy of Athens could be replicated by imperial Rome.

The widespread "populist" dissatisfaction with the European Union is easy to understand, but such dissatisfaction is evident within individual nation-states as well, as globalized elites have increasingly severed their national bonds of solidarity with their less well-off fellow-citizens. Not just artificial entities like the EU, but more importantly the various national governing cultural and economic elites (and thus the traditional political parties) have been visibly failing their fellow-citizens, with increasingly catastrophic consequences, among them the discrediting not just of the political class but, more seriously, of essential democratic and constitutional norms.

The modern nation-state, by itself, is, of course, no automatic guarantor of democratic governance and effective social solidarity. But it alone in the modern world can provide the framework for the social solidarity necessary to create a community of citizens who are more than passive consumers and claimants to entitlements. The modern nation-state, as such, is likewise no guarantor against nationalism's more problematic manifestations, some of which we see increasingly on the rise. If the history of the 20th century has taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that. But the cultural bonding that makes a nation remains essential for effective citizenship and social solidarity. It has been the breakdown of those bonds that has contributed so very visibly to the failure to produce positive and productive results in the lives of so many citizens, and it is precisely this breakdown and failure which further push people to pervert national solidarity in darker directions.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Unafraid to Forge Ahead

In the ancient world, the basic building blocks of society were the family and the household, which revolved around several pairs of complementary relationships – male and female, parent and child, master and slave. These same distinctions were basic categories for the People of Israel as well, if also somewhat secondary to the more fundamental division of the world into Jews and Gentiles.

So imagine the surprise when Gentiles started responding to the good news about Jesus and asking for baptism! Of course, a Gentile could cross over to Judaism – abandon pagan practices and convert to the worship of the Jewish God – but only by being circumcised according to Mosaic practice, and separating from the Gentile world. The first Christians were Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah sent by God to fulfill the promises made to Israel. Yet the Apostle Peter himself on at least one occasion and now Paul and Barnabas on a more regular basis proclaimed the gospel to Gentiles and baptized them - without requiring them to become Jews first. How was this possible?

No one should underestimate how unexpected and difficult this development was and how disruptive it was in the life of the early Church. It was every bit as challenging as it has been for our society forced to rethink the relationships of male and female, parent and child, master and slave. No wonder there was disagreement and outright conflict!

And yet, faced with a crisis they apparently had not been expecting and for which their previous background had not prepared them, but on which the entire future of Christianity was going to depend, that first generation of Christians nonetheless faced the challenge to resolve the problem in a radically new way, reassessing everything they had assumed up until then in light of the fundamental experience they shared with the Gentile converts – their shared faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Now we all know how they solved the problem. We just heard the decision read to us [Acts 15:1-2, 22-29]. Just as Jews could follow Jesus as Jewish Christians, so too Greeks, while still remaining Greek, could follow Jesus as Greek – not Jewish – Christians. Likewise, Romans could become Roman Christians, etc. This radical decision simultaneously affirmed both the universality of Christ’s offer of salvation for all peoples without exception, while also allowing for diversity within what, in today’s terminology, we would call a multi-cultural Church. Historically, it was this decision that made it possible for Christianity to expand throughout the ancient world and to continue to expand into a truly global community.

Thanks to that fundamental experience, that both Jewish and Gentile converts shared, of the new thing that had happened in the world with Jesus, they felt empowered to resolve the problem. Note their choice of words: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us.”

In the ancient Mediterranean world of small city-states, the greatest thing one could be was a citizen, entitled to participate in community discussion and debate. But citizenship as an active way of life (as opposed to what it has since so often degenerated into – just a passive possession of rights and privileges) had by this time seriously deteriorated, as small city-states had long since been absorbed into one enormous empire. Discussion and debate had diminished, and people had lost the sense that they could accomplish anything through political participation.

Yet, faced with the unexpected, the growing Christian community responded confidently with authentic discussion and debate. Their confidence, of course, was in the Holy Spirit, the Risen Christ’s gift to his Church. When they said “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us,” they were not equating themselves with the Holy Spirit but rather were recognizing that the Holy Spirit had really been at work in what was happening – Gentiles joining the Church – and was with them then in their collective effort to make sense of it.

So often we feel overwhelmed by problems - rather than challenged by them – and so react passively, as if we were silent spectators in the story of our lives. It was not easy for the early Christians to give up their inherited assumptions about the necessity of Jewish observance. But they were empowered to do so by the power of the Risen Christ continually present and active in his Church through the Holy Spirit, freeing them to interpret their new experience with confidence.

The history of the Church was irrevocably shaped by this event. This “Council of Jerusalem,” as it came to be called, became a model for how to come to grips with new and pressing problems – neither casually jettisoning the past nor fearing to move forward, but rather carefully considering everything, past and present, in light of the fundamental experience of what the Risen Christ has revealed about our future destiny.

As a result, the new Jerusalem is an all-inclusive, yet widely diverse society, in which the Risen Lord has brought us all together as one new people and has empowered us with his peace [John 14:27] – not quite peace as the world gives peace, but precisely the kind of peace the world needs so much.

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 26, 2019.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Called to Something Grand

History, as Pope Saint John XXIII supposedly said, is the greatest of teachers. So it is no accident that so much of both the Old and New Testaments is history of one sort or other. Nor is it any accident that every day during these seven weeks we call the Easter season we read from the Acts of the Apostles, the second volume of Luke’s Gospel, his continuation of the story of Jesus in the history of the Church.

Acts tells the amazing story of the Church’s growth, of the expansion of its membership and the widening of its mission as the Good News spread – first in Jerusalem, then through Judea, then into Samaria, and eventually into the pagan world of the Roman Empire. All this took place not by  happenstance, but as part of God’s long-term providential plan – as Saint Paul makes clear quoting Isaiah in today’s 1st reading: I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth. [Acts 13:14, 43-52]

We get some sense of what that is supposed to mean from the Book of Revelation’s vision of the heavenly liturgy, with its great multitude which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue [Revelation 7:9, 14b-17]. But how do we get from here to there? Getting from here to there – that is the mission of the Church and the history of the Church, modeled for us in the Acts of the Apostles.
The Apostle Paul (who wasn’t one of the 12 and never knew Jesus during his earthly life) eventually emerges as the central figure in the Church’s expansion. Bi-cultural and bi-lingual – a Jew from a Greek city and a Roman citizen – Paul was especially well suited for this mission. More importantly, Paul’s conversion to Christ was so complete that he felt compelled to share Christ with everyone. Paul recognized in the Risen Lord the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel and God’s plan to include all people in eternal life. Since it was ultimately Christ who counted, Paul saw no conflict between being a Gentile and having faith in Jesus – thus making it possible for the Gospel to be really Good News for all.
The world has changed a lot since Paul’s time, but the Church’s mission hasn’t. There is always a temptation to turn inward, to become a cozy kind of community, caring a lot about ourselves and our families, concerned with who we are and what we have together. But the mission of the Church, our literally quite Catholic mission, remains that of the Good Shepherd, whose voice in the world we now are – we, who have been commanded, as Paul was, to be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.
As Pope Francis has recently written, in his Message for today’s 56th annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations: “God in fact desires that our lives not become banal and predictable, imprisoned by daily routine, or unresponsive before decisions that could give it meaning. The Lord does not want us to live from day to day, thinking that nothing is worth fighting for, slowly losing our desire to set out on new and exciting paths … he wants us to discover that each of us is called – in a variety of ways – to something grand ... Every vocation is a to follow Jesus on the path he has marked out for us, for our own happiness and for the good of those around us.”
Today’s 56th annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations reminds us of what we might call the “personnel needs” of the Church for it to fulfill its mission of making the Good Shepherd’s voice heard in today’s world. The wonderful story Acts tells of the growth and expansion of the Church needed people like Paul and Barnabas to respond to the Risen Christ’s invitation to full-time involvement in the mission – even at the risk, as Acts acknowledges, that such a life might put one at odds with prevailing cultural and societal trends.
All the more reason, therefore, why it is so necessary for all of us to be always ready to respond filled with joy and the Holy Spirit to the challenge of God’s call – whatever in particular it may be in our individual lives – and to be alert to identify, encourage, and support a future Paul, a future Barnabas of our day, who may well be right here in our community today and whose energy and commitment will be needed if the Good Shepherd’s voice is to continue to be heard in our world.
Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter and the 56th Annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 12, 2019.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Spanish Princess

No, I am not referring to either daughter of Spain's Present King Felipe VI, but to the new STARZ TV series of that name that premiered this past Sunday. Based on that first episode - its script, its acting, its costumes, its sets, and its staging - The Spanish Princess promises to be well worth weekly watching, whether of lovers of Tudor-era history like me or those just looking for a well done love and adventure story.

The Spanish Princess dramatizes the famous saga of Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), the daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille, whose 1469 wedding had united and created modern Spain (the union now tragically threatened by Catalan separatism). Catherine married Arthur, Prince of Wales, the son of the Tudor dynasty's founder, Henry VII - and then, after Arthur's very early death, eventually married his healthier and longer-lived brother, the future Henry VIII (who apparently was - and is certainly portrayed as - everything Arthur wasn't). Henry and Catherine were a great medieval power-couple, who reigned together for some 24 years, the happiness of their marriage tarnished by its failure to produce the desired male heir to shore up the new Tudor dynasty, eventually causing Catherine to be cast aside, making her one of history's tragic figures and setting the stage for the first and most calamitous Brexit experience - Henry VIII's secession from the Roman Catholic Church and his creation of the Protestant Church of England.

With The Spanish Princess, STARZ continues the story so fabulously begun in 2013 with The White Queen, a 10-episode BBC drama about Elizabeth Woodville, Queen to England's Yorkist King Edward IV, during the period of the Wars of the Roses. Elizabeth was the unhappy mother of the "Princes in the Tower," murdered during the reign of their usurper uncle Richard III. But she is also, through her daughter, the ancestor of every British monarch since England's Henry VIII and Scotland's James V.  Her story was continued in STARZ' 2017 sequel, The White Princess, about the reign of that daughter, Elizabeth of York, whose marriage with Henry Tudor ended the Wars of the Roses and helped set England on the road to national greatness.

The Spanish Princess' opening episode (set in 1501) captures the contrast between rich and powerful Spain and little England, each desperately in search of an alliance with the other. It highlights the roughness and precariousness of life and the specific challenges of being royal at the time, whether perilously on the throne or - as perilously - too near to it.  It portrays powerful people - and people who would be powerful, if only to stay in the game (or just stay alive) - and how their relationship with political power defined their relationships with family, attendants, allies, country, and God.

Particularly effective are the portrayals of (besides the young, unabashedly assertive Catherine herself) the powerful women in the story and the soon-to-become most powerful man. In the order of appearance the first is, of course, Queen Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV, sister of the murdered "princes in the Tower," absolutely committed to protecting and advancing her own children. The second is her cousin, the tragic Blessed Margaret Pole ("Aunt Maggie"), destined to be martyred in her old age by Henry VIII. She held a noble title and lands in her own name, loved her commoner husband and children, was devoted to prince Arthur whose household she and her husband managed. But her life and relationship to Queen Elizabeth and the family have been forever damaged by the execution of her (probably mentally defective) brother as part of the price to make Arthur's and Catherine's wedding possible. She is played Laura Carmichael, who as Downton Abbey's Lady Edith certainly knows something about playing a privileged character with lots of bad luck. Finally there is King Henry VII's mother,  the formidable Lady Margaret Beaufort (played by another Downton veteran, Harriet Walter), who as much as anyone had worked to engineer her son's improbable access to the throne. 

Even those who know little of the period's history will almost certainly know that Catherine will eventually marry Henry. The show highlights (probably exaggerates) the contrast between them. Arthur is sympathetic but shy and overall unimpressive. Henry, from the moment we meet him, is good-looking and charming, hyper-masculine and self-confident. And Catherine is already attracted to him, as he to her. (The dramatic device of Henry's having written Catherine the letters she thought were from Arthur and having received and responded to her replies in turn is  artistic license which almost certainly never happened. But it gives great insight into Henry's character - as does his first encounter with a crossbow in Catherine's pre-nuptial apartment in the Tower of London.) As is often the case with these historical dramas, an obvious effort is being made to reveal the young Henry that charmed not just Catherine but so much of Europe - before he became the proto-Stalin of the English Reformation.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Follow Me

Modern pilgrims in Israel can quickly sense the contrast between the dry, dusty desert of Judea (where Jerusalem is) and the relative green of Galilee (where today’s Gospel story is set). Renewed annually by winter’s life-giving rains, the land around the large lake the Gospel calls the Sea of Tiberias (more commonly called the Sea of Galilee) is at its greenest in spring. And so, it was to that place at this season of the year, that Peter and six other disciples returned. It had been from those familiar shores that Jesus had originally called them to follow him. Now they’d come home – back to what they knew best. They went fishing.

But this was to be no normal fishing expedition!

Their predictable disappointment after an unsuccessful night’s work would give way to the satisfaction of a successful catch, just as their devastating disappointment after Jesus’s apparent failure in Jerusalem would give way to a new hope each time the Risen Lord appeared to them.

There’s a lovely little church on the shore that marks the supposed site of this event. In front of the altar is a rock, traditionally venerated as the stone on which the risen Lord served his disciples a breakfast of bread and fish. Staples of the Galilean diet, bread and fish seem to be staples of the Gospel story itself! Just a short walk away is another church, marking the site where Jesus had (not so long before) fed 5000+ people with five loaves and a few fish. Presumably, the disciples would have well remembered that earlier meal. And surely we should as well, as we also assemble here at the table lovingly set for us by the risen Lord himself, here in this church on this hilltop. As surely as on that distant lakeshore, he feeds us with food we would never have gotten on our own. Here too he challenges us, as he challenged Peter, with the question: do you love me?

Peter was asked this critical question three times – obviously corresponding to the three times Peter had earlier denied Jesus, his triple profession of love replacing his triple denial.
Later, we hear that another disciple was present as Jesus and Peter walked and talked. Listening in with him, we learn that what started out as a fishing story has now turned into a shepherding story.

Peter and his fellow disciples have been commissioned by Jesus to keep casting their nets, drawing people into the Church, which will continue the mission of the Risen Lord in the world. But, within the net that is the Church, the relevant image becomes that of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who here shares his shepherding task in a special way with Peter, whom he particularly and specially calls to follow Jesus as the Church’s shepherd. Hence, that little church on the shore that marks the supposed site of this story is called “The Church of the Primacy of Peter.”

Typically, in these gospel stories of the risen Lord’s appearances to his disciples, there is the sense that, while this is certainly the same Jesus the disciples had followed in life and who had died on the Cross, something about him is now different. Hence, the dramatic moment when Jesus is recognized. But recognizing the risen Christ is not the end of the story. It is but the beginning of a life lived in a community of love. We learn that love by following the risen Lord. So, even before being formally entrusted with his special mission, Peter leads the way, dressing up for the occasion, jumping into the sea, and swimming to Jesus ahead of the others.

As his role requires, Peter here is already leading his flock, leading here by example. His example illustrates for the rest of us what it means, first, to recognize the risen Lord and, then, actually to follow him.

Learning love is a lifelong process. So it was for Peter, as Jesus’ concluding words to him made clear – just as his words also make clear for us that we learn by doing, by following. If we keep Christ in the closet, confining him only to a corner of our lives, if we do nothing to bring his risen life anywhere to anyone else right here and now in the basic bread and fish of ordinary life, then well may Jesus have to ask each of us over and over again, do you love me?

And so, after everything else has been said, Jesus says to us, to each of us in his or her own way of life, in his or her particular role and vocation in the Church, just what he said to Peter: Follow me!

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 5, 2019.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Japan's "Reiwa" Era Begins

Japan began a new imperial era today. Following the abdication (the first in some 200 years) of Emperor Akihito (ending the "Heisei" era), his son Naruhito assumed the throne this morning as japan's 126th emperor, inaugurating the new "Reiwa" ("Beautiful Harmony") era. I think abdication is a dubious - and possibly dangerous - practice when an office is intended to be life-long and is modeled in some sense on the family relationship. But, in this era of longevity (with all the ills which accompany increasing old age), abdications are becoming much more common and may mark an inevitable transformation of such hitherto lifelong offices. 

Naruhito is now "Tenno," which apparently means "the ruler sent from heaven,"  a primarily religious and cultural concept, somewhat analogous to the western Christian concept of an anointed king or queen. The depredations of the 20th century have significantly reduced the number and prominence of such figures in our modern world, with no obvious benefit to societies desperately in need for forging significant social bonds against the increasing fragmentation which marks modernity. Luckily for Japan, amid all the changes imposed upon that ancient society as a result of defeat in war, the imperial institution has survived as a much needed symbol of continuity and social unity. General Douglas MacArthur had his faults, which ultimately led to his much needed dismissal by President Truman (and his famous "fade away"), but, as Supreme Commander of the American occupation of conquered Japan he did have the good sense to preserve Japan's imperial throne. 

Ironically, the first foreign visitor the new emperor and empress will host is expected to be our own President Trump. Not unlike President Trump's forthcoming state visit to the United Kingdom in June, this visit will highlight the contrast in personal and institutional values represented by the royal hosts and their American guest.

A more public enthronement ceremony will take place on October 22, during which Naruhito will parade through the streets of the capital and be congratulated by other world leaders and royalty.

A new era dawned in Japan on Wednesday as Naruhito officially became emperor at midnight following his father's historic abdication from the Chrysanthemum Throne, the world's oldest monarchy.
The 59-year-old Naruhito will formally take possession of the sacred imperial regalia at a solemn ceremony later Wednesday but he became the 126th emperor at the stroke of midnight, ushering in the "Reiwa" imperial era.
His father, the popular 85-year-old Akihito used his final royal speech to offer his "heartfelt gratitude to the people of Japan" and pray for global peace as the curtain came down on his 30-year reign that saw him transform the role of emperor.
During a 10-minute ceremony in the Imperial Palace's elegant Room of Pine, he stopped to offer a hand to his wife of 60 years, Michiko, as she stepped down from the stage and poignantly paused before exiting the room, bowing deeply to the 300 invited guests.

It was the first time in more than 200 years an emperor had stepped down in Japan and kicks off the "Reiwa" era – meaning "beautiful harmony" – that will last as long as Naruhito is on the throne

May 1 — regalia inheritance (10:30-10:40 a.m.): This is the first stage of Crown Prince Naruhito’s accession to the throne. Chamberlains will put the seals, sword and jewel on desks in front of the new Emperor as proof of his rightful succession.

The ceremony is observed by a small group that includes adult male royalty and representatives of the three branches of the government, including Abe and his Cabinet. Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko will not be present.