Sunday, April 14, 2024

Witnesses of These Things

 


We set out to find His friends to tell them.
We went to Jerusalem to tell them;
and with joy we told them, “We have seen the Lord!”
And as we were speaking there, He stood among us, blessed us, said to us,
“Now my peace I leave with you.” We saw Him!
Suddenly our eyes were opened, and we knew He was alive!

 

Some of the old-timers here may recognize those lines from the second verse of the hymn, In the Breaking of the Bread,* which we used to sing here at Saint Paul’s every Easter season. It recalls some of the highlights from Emmaus to Pentecost, among them the event recounted in today's Gospel, as the Risen Lord revealed himself to his disciples and transformed them into his Church.

 

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 startlement and terror before the dramatic moment when Jesus is fully recognized.

 

Jesus’ resurrection was a real event (every bit as real as his crucifixion), but one which no one witnessed first-hand. What was witnessed initially was an empty tomb – a necessary condition for the resurrection to be true, but insufficient evidence in itself. Something more had to happen, and something more did happen – a series of encounters which captured the novelty and uniqueness of the resurrection,  encounters with the glorified body of the Risen Christ in which the Risen Lord demonstrated to his disciples that he was the same Jesus who had lived and died (hence the wounds in his hands and his feet), fully alive now in a unexpectedly new and wonderful way. 


Unlike hallucinations or mystical experiences, these were authentic encounters with someone who had lived and died but was now beyond the reach of death, embodied in a completely new way.

 

The events described in today’s Gospel took place on that same eventful Sunday in Jerusalem, to which the two disciples had rushed back from their exciting encounter with the Risen Lord in the breaking of bread. Perhaps this was the same room where some of them had so recently eaten the Last Supper and where an already growing group of them would gather again after the ascension to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. Since apostolic times (long before it ever became a day off from work), Sunday has been the special day, the irreplaceably privileged day, when Christians assemble in churches to encounter Christ, the Risen Lord, present in the sacramental celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.

 

To repeat the same news over and over again is one way to bear witness to its importance. To hear the proclamation of the resurrection, over and over, during these Easter Sundays strengthens our faith by the witness of others’ faith. That is why one of the most noticeable features that distinguishes Easter in our Catholic liturgical calendar is the daily reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Through our journey through the book of Acts, we identify ourselves with that first generation of Christians in their experience of the Risen Christ, becoming like them a community which witnesses to the presence and action of the Risen Lord in his Church, a community which expresses its new life in its worship.

 

And, so, we celebrate Easter not for one day or one week but for seven weeks, during which we relive the experience of those first Christians, transformed forever by the presence and power of the Risen Lord, experienced in the here and now in his word and sacraments. We see how eager they were to share that experience with everyone around them – an eagerness we need to learn from, for each of us is being propelled by the power of the Easter story to trust in its power to transform the world. 


Some of you here may also remember how the hymn which I began with concludes.

 

We ran out into the street to tell them,
everyone that we could meet, to tell them,
“God has raised Him up and we have seen the Lord!”
We took bread as He had done and then we blessed it, broke it, offered it.
In the breaking of the bread, we saw Him!
Suddenly our eyes were opened.
There within our midst was Jesus, and we knew He was alive.
In the breaking of the bread, He is here with us again,
and we know He is alive.


Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, April 14, 2024.


* Hymn by Michael Ward, © 1989.

 

Friday, April 12, 2024

Civil War (The Movie)

 


The actual American Civil War officially began on this date in 1861, with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. Most of us have grown up with casual cultural assumptions about American democracy's exceptionalism that have made it easy for us to normalize such conflicts in failed or failing states elsewhere but have made it comparably difficult for us to imagine that another such conflict could ever again occur in the United States. We instinctively assume that our stable political culture (and our antiquated constitution) could somehow protect us from intensifying democratic failure. Yet the fact that a real civil war did actually happen here once before should, however, disabuse us of such complacency. 

Coincidentally, British filmmaker Alex Garland's new film Civil War opens in theaters this week. Civil War, which premiered at South by Southwest last month, is set in a frightening, sometime future, failed-state U.S., as experienced on screen by a group of journalists covering the conflict (for Reuters) as civil war and seemingly random violence tear an increasingly dystopian U.S. apart. We seem intended to experience the conflict through the morally constricted world of journalism. The journalists in the film seem like otherwise normal people. However, one might suggest that, with civilization literally collapsing all around them, there might be more important priorities than getting a story and taking good pictures, but that seems somehow to elude them. Or perhaps it doesn't, for they too are not immune from war's personal toll.

Early on, we experience the confusion of a socially devastated New York, although the city's infrastructure - or at least its skyline (necessary one supposes for on-screen recognition) - still seems somewhat intact. As in some real 20th-century wars, the journalists are based in a still somewhat functioning hotel, from which they set out with professional determination to Washington, DC. The conflict has apparently been underway for some unspecified amount of time, long enough to do obvious damage. Along the way, there are several dangerous encounters, but exactly with whom is not always quite clear. There are also amazing pockets of normalcy. Indeed, we are casually informed that the two female photojournalists have parents living complacently on farms in Missouri and Colorado respectively. And Canadian money is willingly accepted, which suggests that things may still be just fine north of the border. Meanwhile, the journalists eventually reach what appears to be the military frontline in Charlottesville VA, as the rebels prepare to advance on Washington, DC. 

It remains unclear what the actual originating causes of the conflict were, when or why the war started, or even exactly who started it. The film's emphasis is more on the ever-increasing violence, which is the consequence of political collapse. For context, however, we do discover that, what remains of the federal government (led by a suggestively somewhat Trump-like, authoritarian third-term president, who has disbanded the FBI) is apparently at war with two breakaway states, California and Texas, the so-called "Western Forces." So there is both seemingly random (domestic terrorist?) violence all along the way, and then there is a full-scale military force ready to do battle against whatever is left of the United States. Shaken by what they have experienced and by their personal losses, but with a certain journalistic insouciance, the press crew attaches itself to the Western Forces for the final assault on the White House. (One of the traditional arguments against the possibility of an old-fashioned "civil war" happening again in the U.S. was that the federal government has such an overwhelming monopoly of military power. Yet, one of the unexplained oddities of this film is the almost complete absence of massive military power on the federal side and the impressive display of massive military hardware in the part of the secessionists!)

Most people probably find the idea of a California-Texas alliance somewhat implausible, as indeed most Americans must find the idea of an actual armed conflict or "civil war" among Americans itself implausible. But the film seems to want to take us sufficiently out of our immediate present in order to capture the character of a potentially looming American breakup, without necessarily identifying too closely or clearly with contemporary political divisions. The allegory is there for all to see, but general enough to be appreciated beyond the narrow confines of our contemporary tribal affiliations. The through-line, if you will, that connects our present epidemic of extreme polarization and the America depicted in the film may not be any particular political positions or ideologies as much as what seems to be the extreme mutual desire of each side to obliterate the other, the phenomenon known as "negative polarization."

The allegory works, however, precisely because it is just plausible enough. Underlying the dramatic depictions of a violent, failed state is the specter of actual American democracy's real potential for failure, as it appears to follow the classical trajectory into dysfunctional tyranny. "One of the most striking facts about the political world of the third millennium," Sheldon Wolin observed twenty years ago, "is the near universal acclaim accorded democracy" and democracy's novel status as "a transhistorical and universal value." [Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, expanded ed. (2004) p. 585]. Obviously, modern democracy is not the same as the earlier democracies consistently condemned and feared by classical and early modern political theorists, from Plato and Aristotle to the American founders. Yet, it resembles its ancient namesake enough to suffer from similar disabilities, despite our era's distorted image of democracy's possibilities and liabilities, with the result that those ancient and early modern warnings remain relevant even in the third millennium.






Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Forever Elsewhere

 



"We are forever elsewhere," wrote MIT Professor Sherry Turtle in 2015 about our new life with smartphones. She is quoted approvingly by Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his latest book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness (NY: Penguin Random House, 2024). According to Haidt, "a profound transformation of human consciousness and relationships" occurred between 2010 and 2015. This was "the birth of the phone-based childhood" and it marked "the definitive end of the play-baed childhood."

Haidt is hardly alone in lamenting these developments. Even the Holy See has joined the growing chorus of concern. In the newly released Declaration Dignitas Infinita, issued by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith just this week, we read: "Although the advancement of digital technologies may offer many possibilities for promoting human dignity, it also increasingly tends toward the creation of a world in which exploitation, exclusion, and violence grow," and "the more that opportunities for making connections grow in this realm, the more people find themsleve isolated and impoverished in interpersonal relationships" [DI, 61].

Haidt is the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) and co-author with Greg Lukianoff of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018). His current book continues themes explored in the latter book.

Haidt highlights two components of the current crisis. The first was the end of the play-based childhood which has been characteristic of human beings for most of our history, right up until the end of the 20th century, when society suddenly started overprotecting children from he normal stresses of growing up. Traditional childhood was all about "the kinds of experiences humans evolved for and that they must that have in abundance to become socially functional adults." These include "the social skills necessary for life in a democratic society, including self-governance, joint decision making, and accepting the outcome when you. lose a contest." The recent move toward trying to raise children "in a bubble of satisfaction, protected from frustration, consequences, and negative emotions" Haidt argues, "may be blocking the development of competence, self-control, frustration tolerance, and emotional self-management." What'd Haidt calls "the 1990s turn to paranoid parenting" was facilitated, he contends, by what British sociologist Frank Furredi has called "the breakdown of adult solidarity." By now, we are well familiar with this critique of a social tendency and direction which preceded the smartphone and the phone-based world we now live in.

The second component of the current crisis, Haidt suggests, is that while overprotecting children and young people from the challenges of the real world, we have lately under-protected them from "the Wild Wes too the virtual world, where threats to children abounded." Among the harms he identifies are social isolation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation, and addiction. Again, unless one has willfully failed to observe what has been happening, none of this is surprising news. 

Haidt also highlights the specific but different harms being done to girls and to boys. His data demonstrate that girls are more adversely affected by social comparison and perfectionism a suffer more from relational aggression than boys. Meanwhile, "the rise of safetyism in the 1980s and 1990s hit boys harder than girls," while boys' increasing involvement with multiplayer video games in the 2000s and then with smartphones in the 2010s "pulled boys decisively away from face-to-face or shoulder-to-shoulder interaction." This is contributing to the ongoing "friendship recession" among men. "In the 1990s, only 3% of American men reported having no close friends. By 2021, that number had risen fivefold to 15%."

Haidt calls Emile Durkheim "the most profound thinker about the nature of society,"and reflects Durkheim's concern about anomie, "an absence of stable and widely shared norms and rules."  Following Durkheim, Haidt highlights how "the strongest and most satisfying communities come into being when something lifts people out of the lower level so that they h av powerful collective experiences. ... People who live only in networks, rather than communities, are less likely to thrive."

So, now, we know what we have been doing wrong. What, if anything can be done about it to correct it? Schools, from elementary through high school level, Haidt argues, "should go phone-free to improve not only mental health but academic outcomes as well." Outside of school, children should again experience real-world freedom. He favors the movement for "Reasonable Childhood Independence" Laws, but he believes schools have a special part to play in this. "Re-normalizing childhood independence requires collective action, and collective action is most easily facilitated by local schools. Parents, of course, are also primary players in this process, and Haidt provides detailed recommendations for changed parental behavior. In sum, his "four foundational reforms" are:

1. No smartphones before high school
2. No social media before age 16
3. Phone-free schools
4. Far more unsupervised play and childhood independence.

Haidt concludes that what he calls "the Great Rewiring of Childhood, from play-based to phone-based, has been a catastrophic failure" and that it is "time to end the experiment" and "bring our children home."


Monday, April 8, 2024

Total Eclipse


Historians have long been fond of eclipses, especially since historical references to ancient eclipses sometimes enable other ancient events to be dated more precisely than would otherwise be possible. One of the earliest known solar eclipses was in 1375 B.C. and was recorded in the ancient city of Ugarit, in what is now Syria. In earlier times, eclipses were often interpreted as signs or omens of some contemporary calamity. They have also been known to alter behavior. Thus, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote that an eclipse that occurred during a battle between the Medes and the Lydians in 585 B.C. caused the two armies to stop fighting and make peace. Wouldn’t it be something if today’s eclipse had that kind of effect on any of the conflicts currently tearing our world apart! 

Like the many who are traveling near and far today to experience the awesome wonder of the eclipse, we are all pilgrims seeking the light revealed amid the dark shadows of our day-to-day divisions and conflicts. 

In August 2017, together with many other "eclipse pilgrims," I was privileged to view the total eclipse of the sun from our observation point at Saint Joseph the Worker Church in Madisonville, TN, a manageable drive from Knoxville. The photo above was one of many I took that memorable day.

How I wish I could repeat that experience today! Alas, the path of totality is too far west of here to make that feasible. I do hope that as many as possible will be able to avail themselves of the opportunity to see this most amazing natural show (and that the weather will cooperate). May their experience be safe and as inspiring as previous eclipses have been for others. For myself, however, I must content myself with memories and reflections from that last total solar eclipse.

Blow the trumpet at the new moon, said the psalmist (Psalm 81:3). In Tennessee in August 2017t, he Moon blew her own trumpet, as she put on a show of shows, covering up the Sun in an amazing spectacle of light and shadow. Since Knoxville was just outside the path of totality, the four of us drove down to the southernmost parish in our deanery, which was scheduled to be more than two minutes in Totality. From there, we were able to view the eclipse in all its amazing grandeur. Needles to say, we were not alone. We left in mid-morning, hoping to avoid getting snarled in traffic and successfully got to the city of Madisonville around 11:00, which left us plenty of time to get some lunch in a crowded roadside restaurant with some of the other "eclipse pilgrims" who were swelling the town's population on that so memorable day. 


Then on to the local church, where we met up with others we knew and others who had come from as far off as Mexico and Queens, NY, to experience this awesome spectacle. Children were playing games. People were cooking food in the parking lot and picnicking on the grass. It was a real party atmosphere. Everyone was friendly and hospitable, inviting others to share their food. After making a proper visit to the church itself upon arrival, I periodically retreated to that air-conditioned building to sit down and cool off while we waited and to reflect upon what we were witnessing.


The first part of the eclipse went on for over an hour. The Moon bit more and more into the Sun, which itself as a result came more and more to resemble a kind of crescent moon! The effect of wearing the special eclipse glasses was startling! Unlike wearing sunglasses, for example, when wearing the special eclipse glasses you could see nothing at all, total darkness - except for the sun, which looked like a small yellow disk, getting progressive smaller as the hour passed. If you didn't know what you were looking at, you might think you were looking at the night sky during one of the partial phases of a harvest moon.

Towards the end of the Moon's apparent conquest of the Sun, you could feel the difference in the atmosphere, as the air got just a little bit cooler and the sky started to get darker. You could see it in the images of the crescent sun reflected in shadow in patterns on the ground. Soon it seemed like an eerie twilight. One could hear the animals reacting accordingly, as if imagining thatd it must suddenly be sunset.

And then it was dark! Two or three stars appeared in the sky, as the sun was completely covered and its hot corona suddenly shone all around the dark disk of the Moon. People cheered. People prayed. 


And then it was suddenly light again. No sooner did the Moon's movement reveal a small sliver of the Sun (on the other side this time), then normal light started to return. I suppose the poor animals were completely confused, as well they might be. We, however, who understood what we had seen and experienced could only express our joyful admiration: 

Sun and Moon, bless the Lord! (Daniel 3:62)









Friday, April 5, 2024

“It is the Lord!”

 


Modern pilgrims in Israel quickly sense the contrast between the dry desert of Judea (where Jerusalem is) and the relatively lush, 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. It had been from those familiar shores that Jesus had originally called his disciples to follow him. And now they’d come home – back to what they knew best. They went fishing. 


But this was to be no normal fishing expedition!


There’s a 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. 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, where, as surely as on that distant lakeshore, he feeds us with food we would never have gotten on our own. 


Typically, in these gospel stories of the risen Lord’s appearances to his disciples, there is the sense that, while it eventually becomes clear that this is 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 for certain, as when the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”


But recognizing the risen Christ is not the end of the story but the beginning of a new life, a new life lived in a community of love. We learn that love by following the risen Lord. So, even before being formally invested 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.


Homily for Friday within the Octave of Easter, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, April 5, 2024.



Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Illiberal America (The Book)




 
At this critical juncture in American history, NYU Professor of History Steven Hahn has taken his readers on a much needed tour of U.S. history's "illiberal" side in Illiberal America: A History (W.W. Norton, 2024). In the process, he effectively undermines what was then still largely the consensus view when I was a student, the view most famously associated with Louis Hartz and his 1955 classic, The Liberal Tradition in America. Hahn "asks readers to suspend their assumptions about the long and enduring American liberal tradition and instead recognize illiberal currents that flowed across the Atlantic and took hold well before what we would call liberalism ever appeared." He aims to show "how our present-day reckoning with the rise of a militant and illiberal set of movements has lengthy and constantly ramifying roots."

Contrary to the traditional Hartz thesis, Hahn recalls the neo-feudal, hierarchical, and pseudo-aristocratic aspects of early English settlements in North America and the colonial order which ensued. "The social relations that marked the turn of the eighteenth century, and continued for long thereafter, can far better be understood as a spectrum of dependencies along which 'free labor,' in a form familiar to us, was at the far end."

In the course of his reinterpretation of American history, Hahn calls our attention to the long tradition of anti-Catholicism, "how anti-Catholic and anti-aristocratic sensibilities could feed off one another." He highlights. links between anti-federalism and "the Christian evangelism of the Great Awakening." In anti-federalism, he discerns a persistent theme which we can certainly recognize today - "a special appeal to those who recognized power in personal and familial terms, saw themselves as members of communities bounded by ethnicity, culture, and faith, were wary of outsiders and distant legal and political institutions, and imagine proper government as closely aligned with them and protective of their 'manners, sentiments, and interests'." 

Hahn, here has decentralized the theoretically more dominant liberal tradition, highlighting instead the surprising range of alternative political currents that have characterized our country, not necessarily at first in reaction to liberalism but even prior to liberalism as a redeployment of other and older ideas and institutions, embodying them in all sorts of deeply rooted American ideas and practices ranging from slavery and Jim Crow, the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, Nativism (in particular anti-Catholicism), and such complex phenomena as the early 20th-century Progressive Movement with its interest in eugenics and its anti-democratic cult of expertise. These same currents have clearly resurfaced again in our current political polarization in the aftermath of the backlash against Obama's election that led us to where we are now. Ultimately it usually has come down to some exclusivist attempt to limit participation in the political process, thus foreclosing the possibilities participation uniquely provides, a process we see the increasingly authoritarian elements in our electoral politics currently engaged in.

"History," Hahn concludes, "is a burden and an inspiration. It is buried deep within each of us, and hovers over the worlds that have been made and the future for which many now struggle."













Monday, April 1, 2024

Trump's Bible


It has everything (both religion and patriotism) that Republicans pretend to believe in  - all in one book! 

Easter is traditionally a time when secular media make some more (or increasingly less) serious forays into the world of American religion. This year, candidate Trump beat them to it by unveiling his new bible for sale (at the outrageous price of $59.99 for a book one can purchase much more cheaply, or even easily access for free). "Happy Holy Week," the great grifter is supposed to have said. "Let's make America pray again."

It is a truism at this point that Trump (who has been quoted as saying his favorite bible verse is "an eye for an eye") is no longer the transactional deal dubiously embraced by so-called conservative Christians in 2016, but is now the central character and dominant figure at the center of a pernicious personality cult that calls itself "Christian." In this perverse melding of religion and white nationalism, this dangerous conjoining of religion and the pursuit of political power, to be a "Christian" has little or nothing to do with church or community or with faith, hope, and charity but has become effectively post-Christian, even referred to by some as the "post-Religious Right" (replacing the older "Religious Right").

Famously, Saint John's Passion Account (proclaimed liturgically on Good Friday) highlights the distinctiveness of Christ's kingship as utterly unlike any experience of worldly power. In contrast to Christ's Good Friday testimony before Pilate, Christ the King is instead being sacrilegiously transformed into an avatar of Christian nationalism and a blasphemous cult of America-worship. For his part, Trump has successfully tapped into the fantasies of religious persecution indulged in by many Evangelicals and some conservative Catholics and a consequent desire for a fighter ( a "Cyrus" figure), who personifies aggressive behaviors that perhaps many others would wish they could get away with themselves.

Were we still able to be shocked by anything Trump says, we would surely be shocked by his scandalous self-identification with Jesus. Trump may want to be identified with the Lamb of God, but as Maureen Dowd noted on Easter Sunday, "rather than a sacrificial lamb, he is the Golden Calf, the false god worshipped by Israelites when Moses went up to Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments." ["Donald Trump, Blasphemous Bible Thumper, The NY Times, March 31, 2024].





Saturday, March 30, 2024

Fast Forward


Back in the 1990s, when I was serving as a deacon in New York, a colleague, who has since passed on to his eternal reward, drew upon the then common technology of the videocassette recorder to refer to Jesus' resurrection as a fast forward. That complemented another then popular image of the resurrection as the effect of the future upon the present. All such analogies are attempts to use ordinary language to describe the totally out of the ordinary happening we call Christ's resurrection, the unique and definitive experience which enables us to say that Jesus is, instead of Jesus was.

To appreciate the uniqueness of Christ's resurrection one need only compare the gospel accounts of the events surrounding the resurrection with the same gospels' accounts of the raising of Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:22-43), the widow's son (Luke 7:11-17), and Lazarus (John 11:1-44). Those were amazing occurrences, to be sure, which overjoyed and inspired those who witnessed them. They were well beyond normal expectations, given the medical technology available at the time. But they could be recounted clearly and comprehensively. As miraculous happenings or "signs," they filled those present with hope that God was making his presence manifest among his people in an extraordinary way, which would somehow be of even wider benefit beyond the temporary extension of ordinary human life for one particular 12-year old girl, one particular young man, and one particular family friend of Jesus. That's saying a lot, of course. But those events were not saying fast forward. They were a wonderful prolongation of the present, but they hardly represented the effect of the future upon the present.

In contrast, the gospels accounts of Jesus's resurrection - or rather of the experiences of these who were made aware of it - reflect the disciples' confusion and anxiety about something both unexpected and apparently unintelligible to them at first. Besides reflecting the really unique and mysterious character of the event, these reactions do us the favor of allowing us to share in the disciples' experience from our own as yet seemingly un-futured present.

It is one thing to recognize as an abstract intellectual proposition that, of course, God - if God really exists as the Creator - can re-create something new, something unimaginably new and hence completely unexpected. It is something else, however, to experience that directly or be confronted by that personally, and try to comprehend its significance. That was the challenge which faced the disciples, who not only had to discover finally what Jesus' resurrection from the dead meant for him but what it meant for them and what it means for us - and then spread the good news to all the world.

Tomorrow, the Church will triumphantly proclaim how Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to the tomb out of curiosity on the basis of Mary Magdalene's confusingly incomplete report. That familiar Gospel reading [John 20:1-9] assures us both that the Beloved Disciple saw and believed, and that they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead.

Whatever its present effects, the future remains the future and so cannot yet be completely understood. But we are able to see its effect and so come to belief. Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of those disciples – unexpectedly (and excitedly) experiencing something surprisingly new in a world where everything else seems so ordinary and old. 

Like those original disciples, we are not all the same. Some like Mary Magdalene and the other women may come to the empty tomb in a spirit of devotion and a desire to be of service. Some like Peter and the Beloved Disciple may come out of curiosity and wonder. Some of us run fast, like the disciple whom Jesus loved. Others, beset by doubts or daily difficulties, run much more slowly, like Peter. But what matters most, the Gospel story seems to suggest, is that we get there - that we have come like those first disciples to that tomb that was supposed to stay forever closed and dark, but from which the stone has been removed, in order that we - and the world - may believe.




Thursday, March 28, 2024

Trduum

 


In just a few more hours, the Church will begin the solemn three-day celebration officially known as the Sacred Paschal Triduum of the Death, Burial and Resurrection of the Lord, or simply the Triduum. The Pauline liturgy's Paschal Triduum of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (beginning the evening before with the Solemn Mass of the Lord's Supper on Thursday and concluding with Evening Prayer on Sunday) replaces the older medieval Sacred Triduum of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (which began with Tenebrae on Wednesday afternoon/evening and concluded with  pro-Vespers at the end of the "Easter Vigil" celebrated on Saturday morning).

The Triduum reflects the likely more accurate Johannine chronology, according to which Jesus was crucified on Nisan 14, the Preparation Day before the Passover, which began at sundown after Jesus' burial. The traditional liturgy's reading of John's Passion on Good Friday, preceded by Exodus 12:1-11 highlighted the salvific symbolic significance of Christ's death on Preparation Day and his identification with the Paschal lamb. Chronologically, then, Jesus, knowing that his hour had come [John 13:1]that he would be already dead by the time of the Passover ands would in fact never again celebrate the old Passover, anticipated the festival with a uniquely new Christian reconfiguration of the ritual meal at the Last Supper which has since become the Lord's Supper.

Chronological considerations aside, the Triduum is more than an historical commemoration - much less a theatrical reenactment of the great drama, as Christ were not already risen and reigning at his Father's right hand and we were instead waiting for something new to happen on Easter Sunday. It is the Risen Christ we celebrate these days - as we do every day. It is the Risen Christ whom we will receive in the Eucharist tonight, not the historical Jesus at the Last Supper nor tomorrow the dead and buried Jesus of Good Friday. The Triduum is, of course, an invitation to contemplate Christ's death and burial before celebrating his resurrection in order to identify with his death and burial so as to enter fully into the benefits of his resurrection.

The Triduum is, finally, the ritual reception of Christ's revelation of who he is and, therefore, who God is. We commemorate the Incarnation at Christmas, but we experience its fuller meaning and relevance for us in this Triduum. For God, as Hebrews says, in these last days having now revealed himself to us by his Son, we now experience and understand in an altogether new way, which would hav been impossible apart from Jesus, who God is and how God is for us. As Romano Guardini wrote long ago in his famous work The Lord, "What Christ did, God did. What Christ suffered, God suffered.  The Father rejected not part of the life of his Son" [tr. Elinor Castendyk Briefs, Gateway, 1954].

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered [Entrance Antiphon, Mass of the Lord's Supper].

Photo: "Hewit Crucifix," Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, 2010.



Monday, March 25, 2024

76!

 


Another birthday!  

I'm now 76!!! 

At this particular point on life's trajectory, one has obviously only a very limited number of birthdays left. So it behooves one to cherish every one of them. After all, as Saint Augustine wrote in one of his letters:

As you look ahead in life you begin to realize that all of us are going to die someday. In your infancy you look forward to being a child. When you are a child you look forward to being a teenager. As a teen you look forward to being a young adult. In your days of young adulthood you look forward to being middle-aged. When you reach middle-age you look forward to old age. But when you finally get old you realize that there is nothing more to look forward to in this life. There is no age after old age (Ep. 213, 1).

That said, on one's 76th birthday one ought above all to be grateful - and certainly I am genuinely grateful -  for having lived this long, indeed for having lived at all, and for having lived so well, such an interesting, fulfilling, and in at least certain respects privileged life in this remarkable period of human history. I am grateful too to all those who have been a part of my life - living still or already dead - my parents and sisters and other family, friends and colleagues past and present, fellow Clergy and Religious, former parishioners in the places where I have been fortunate to serve. As Saint Augustine also said:


Signs of love coming from the hearts of friends shine through eyes and mouth and speech and thousands of gestures. They make one out of many, bringing hearts together like bundled kindling. (Confessions 4.18.13)


What a wonderfully uniquely complex journey it has been - and still continues to be! 

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Palm Sunday

 

Pre-pandemic, Palm Sunday was one of the most popular days of the Christian year in terms of church attendance, and normally no pastor would ever want to be caught with an insufficient supply of palms to satisfy the earnest demand of the eager crowds. When I was a pastor, there was always that annual moment of worry whether the palms had arrived - and if there were enough of them. (They always did, and there were always enough!)

Even before the pandemic, however, a novel and rather disturbing trend had begun to appear, as some people left their palms in the church at the end of Mass instead of taking them home (a consequence, perhaps, of insufficient catechetical formation on sacramentals and on the apotropaic function of blessed palms). Another contemporary challenge to Palm Sunday's fullest celebration may come from an increasing tendency for people to arrive late for Mass. When many participants arrive during or even after the procession is over, what is the point of the procession? (In retrospect, the post-conciliar liturgy's relocation of the Blessing and Distribution of Ashes from the beginning of Mass to the middle, while liturgically illogical, has proved to be a great and wise pastoral success!) 

Palm Sunday is certainly about more than getting palms, but the palms have given the day its typical title at least since Saint Isidore in 7th-century Spain and Saint Bede in 8th-century England. One of the multiple misfortunes of the Pauline liturgical reform of Holy Week was renaming this Sunday, Passion Sunday (formerly the name of the previous Sunday). That renaming has not caught on - a very visible instance of liturgical non-reception. In any case, whatever the day's name, my personally favorite feature of Palm Sunday has always been singing the hymn Gloria Laus et Honor during the procession (its original 39 verses composed by Bishop Theodulph of Orleans in 818). It is a fantastically glorious hymn, well worth waiting once a year for. 

In contrast to the exuberance of the procession, however, the Roman Rite historically has long emphasized the memory of Christ's Passion and Death during the Mass, the centerpiece of which was traditionally the proclamation of the Passion According to Saint Matthew(In the contemporary liturgy, instead of reading each of the four Passion accounts on a different day of Holy Week each year, the three synoptic Passion accounts are rotated on Palm Sunday. So, this year, the Passion reading will be from the Gospel according to Mark.)

In the traditional sung liturgy, the Passion reading acquired additional drama from its proclamation by three deacons, singing in three different tones - Christ's voice low and slow, the Narrator medium, and the third voice high and fast. (Originally, each of the deacons was also distinguished by the color of his stola latior - black for the deacon singing the words of Christ, white for the narrator, and red for the third voice.) Charlemagne's 9th-century successor, Louis the Pious, popularized the practice of kneeling briefly at the words emisit spiritum ("He gave up his spirit"), a popular practice which has somehow survived late-20th-century liturgical informality and ritual iconoclasm.

Ritual, by its nature, is inherently somewhat dramatic. . The great ceremonies of Holy Week are even extravagantly so They are intensely dramatic, emotionally affecting, over-the-top. They are extravagant in the best sense of the word. Not unlike Mary with her expensive perfumed oil (of which we will hear in the liturgy tomorrow), the Church practices a sort of holy excess in her worship this week. In this case, however, it is we who are the beneficiaries.

Outside of communities of Religious men and women and those commendable individuals and occasional congregations characterized by liturgical enthusiasm, most people's experience of Holy Week (apart from Easter Sunday itself) starts and ends on Palm Sunday. So it falls to today's celebration to tell the Holy Week story in an attractive and memorable way. That highlights its importance, for there is nothing more inspiring and undying than the Church's annual celebration of our basic story.

In his 2011 meditation on Palm Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: "The Church greets the Lord in the Holy Eucharist as the one who is coming now, the one who has entered into her midst. At the same time, she greets him as the one who continues to come, the one who leads us towards his coming. As pilgrims, we go up to him; he comes to us and takes us up with him in his 'ascent' to the Cross and Resurrection, to the definitive Jerusalem that is already growing in the midst of this world in the communion that unites us with his body."

Photo: A much younger version of me blessing palms in Toronto, ON,  in the late-1990s.



Saturday, March 23, 2024

The World's Oldest Hatred

 


In the Jewish calendar, the festival of Purim is celebrated tonight and tomorrow. Purim is a holiday that commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from the genocidal Haman's plan to exterminate all the Jews living in the ancient Persian Empire in the 5th century B.C.. (How fittingly like Hamas Haman's name sounds!) According to the Book of Esther, the ur-anti-Semite Haman persuaded King Ahasuerus (possibly to be identified with the Persian Emperor Xerxes I) to kill all the Jews in his empire. But his plans were foiled by Mordecai and his adopted daughter Esther, who had previously providentially risen to become Queen of Persia. The day destined for the genocide became instead a day of deliverance and since then a day of feasting and rejoicing - a fun holiday with a seriously relevant message and a reminder of the world's perennially oldest hatred.

The Purim story highlights how hatred of Jews is even older than the Christianity that historically - and understandably so - has born the brunt of the blame for most of the anti-semitism that has poisoned western civilization for so many centuries. While remnants of that may still survive, anti-semitism is now widely in evidence especially on the secular post-religious left. (Of course, Marxism and its variants were themselves secularized versions of Christian eschatology. But very, very secularized!)

In the April Atlantic, Franklin Foer, in an article entitled "The Golden Age of American Jews Is Ending," describes the growing experience of American Jews' seemingly newfound recognition that the rising tide of anti-semitism in the U.S. is bringing to a close what he calls "an unprecedented period of safety and prosperity for Jewish Americans." Certainly the escalation of anti-semitism in the U.S. since the October 7 terrorist attack on Israel appears to have come as something of a surprise to many. 

Revealingly, one of those referenced in Foer's article is quoted as having "moved her family from Chicago to Berkeley six years earlier, hoping to find a community that shared her progressive values." Perhaps a little more mature reflection on some of those "progressive values" might have been in order, if not to avoid such a move then at least to accompany the move with an open-eyed perception of the persistence of the world's oldest hatred. The author himself admits to having "consoled myself with the thought that once Trump disappeared from the scene, the explosion of Jew hatred would recede. America would revert to its essential self: the most comfortable homeland in the Jewish diaspora."

"Among the brutal epiphanies of October 7," however, has been the author's recognition that "a disconcertingly large number of Israel’s critics on the left" do not "believe Jews had a right to a nation of their own."

There is, I believe, a particular pathology to left-wing anti-zionist anti-semitism. At any moment, there are wars and ethnic and racial violence going on all around the world, oppressions of various sorts from Africa to Tibet. Yet seldom do any of these conflicts result in, for example, local government agencies like the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board demanding a ceasefire! There seems to be something special about Jews defending themselves that somehow deeply offends certain "progressive" sensibilities.

In his article, Foer effectively depicts an important transformation which American culture has been experiencing:

"America’s ascendant political movements—MAGA on one side, the illiberal left on the other—would demolish the last pillars of the consensus that Jews helped establish. They regard concepts such as tolerance, fairness, meritocracy, and cosmopolitanism as pernicious shams. The Golden Age of American Jewry has given way to a golden age of conspiracy, reckless hyperbole, and political violence, all tendencies inimical to the democratic temperament. Extremist thought and mob behavior have never been good for Jews. And what’s bad for Jews, it can be argued, is bad for America."

Even now, after all that has been said and done by the anti-semitic left since October 7, some still want to suggest that there can be legitimate "anti-zionism" which is not anti-semitism. Of course, insofar as Israel acts as a state in the international order, its particular leaders are obviously fallible and its policies subject to analysis and legitimate critique. Witness, for example, Senate Majority Leader's laudable speech challenging Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policies and indeed his long-term continuation in office, effectively calling for much needed regime change in Israel. But criticizing a particular politician and advocating a change in government is one thing. Rejecting the very concept of the Jewish state (in a way that few would reject the very concept of an American or British or French or German state) is a very different matter. As one correspondent quoted by NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg on this issue expressed it, “Israel is the political entity through which the Jewish people exercises its natural right of self-determination and control over its own fate. How is singling out the Jewish people to deprive it of those rights not antisemitic?”

Photo: Esther Denouncing Haman (1888) by Ernest Normand (1857-1923) 

Friday, March 22, 2024

Entering the Passion

 


O God, who in this season give your Church the grace to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary in contemplating the Passion of Christ, grant, we pray, through her intercession, that we may cling more firmly each day to your Only begotten Son and come at last to the fullness of his grace.

This alternative collect for today is all that remains of the feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Septem Dolorum Beatae Mariae Virginis) that for centuries was celebrated on this Lenten Friday. (A second feast of the Seven Sorrows still survives, somewhat renamed, on September 15.)

Formerly, the Fridays of Lent used to be cluttered with a number of particular passion-related feasts permitted pro aliquibus locis, but the Seven Sorrows - a medieval feast focused especially on Mary's compassion at the foot of the cross - was the only one which eventually made it  into the universal calendar, which it did in 1727. The duplicate feast in September - originally proper to the Servite order - made it into the universal calendar in 1814, and was more focused on the (traditionally seven) sorrows of Mary throughout the course of her life, from the prophecy of Simeon to Jesus' burial. Distinctive to both feasts was the special sequence Stabat Mater by Giacopone da Todi (1306), which Pius Parsch acknowledged as "certainly one of the finest religious poems from the Middle Ages."  Fortunately for the Stabat Mater - and thus for us - that sequence still survives especially in the popular Lenten devotion of the Way of the Cross, where its verses are traditionally sung by the congregation as processional music while walking from Station to Station, in the intervals between the 14 Stations. The Stations just would not be same without it! And the familiar and easily singable popular tune to which it is typically sung also lends itself, by its familiarity, to congregational participation even when the physical circumstances of the place preclude everybody actually joining in the walk from station to station. 

It is, of course, of more than antiquarian interest among liturgical enthusiasts that the reformed Missal laudably retains this Marian collect today. In these last two weeks of Lent (traditionally termed Passionatide) the liturgy's focus very visibly shifts from penitential preparation for initiation and/or penitential preparation for reconciliation to the remembrance of and ritual representation of the paschal mystery of Christ's passion, death, and resurrection. In actual popular piety, one entry point for contemplating the Lord's Passion is through Mary's compassion. The two devotional entry points for that are through the Five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and through the Stations of the Cross. The many portrayals of the Pieta in Christian art testify to the enduring popularity of the image of the Sorrowful Mother in popular devotion - an image which renders the human dimension of the Passion story especially accessible. Communally sung, the Stabat Mater certainly captures the spirit of Passiontide particularly well, using our natural human sympathy for the Sorrowful Mother to guide us through the deeper mystery of Christ's passion.

Today's Collect reminds us that these final days of Lent challenge us to identify ourselves with Christ suffering and dying - and in an important respect still suffering in his people. All the more should the image of Mary's identification with her son's sufferings resonate today in a world overflowing with so much undeserved and gruesome suffering - from Ukraine to Israel and Gaza, to the under-reported human tragedy in Sudan. 

Photo: The Fourth Station (Jesus Meets His Mother), The Way of the Cross, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

One Life (The Movie)

 

One Life, starring Anthony Hopkins, is based on the true story of British humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton, looking back on his efforts 50 years earlier, when, as a 29-year-old London stockbroker visiting German-occupied Czechoslovakia, he enabled over 600 refugee children (many of them Jews) to escape Nazi rule just before the beginning of World War II. The film's title refers to the Talmudic expression: Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.

In both real life and in the movie, Nicholas Winton went to Prague shortly after the 1938 Munich Conference to work with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia and took it upon himself to do something to save as many refugee children as possible. Actively supported by his mother (played by Helena Bonham Carter), Winton overcame bureaucratic obstacles, got visas for the refugees, collected conditions, and found foster families for the children in England.

Fifty unassuming years later, wanting to do something useful with his scrapbook from that experience, Winton contacts the media and ends up on a BBC show, That's Life, which surprises him by inviting some of the children he helped to save onto the show to meet him, which provides some of the most moving scenes in the film. In recognition of his efforts, Winton was knighted by the Queen, and this movie is yet another tribute to his accomplishment and the lives he saved.

In this era of renewed anti-semitism around the world (and here in the U.S.), this film functions as a warning of what happened when too much of the world was willing to appease evil and as an encouragement to individuals to stand up personally and collectively to the growing menace. Meanwhile, it also highlights the dangers which refugees everywhere experience. The asylum seekers on our southern border may not all be as endangered as those refugees stranded on Prague on the eve of war were, but many of them are in fact at risk of their lives and have needs that only concerted outside efforts can relieve. 

Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Christendom (The Book)

 

Peter Heather is the chair of medieval history at King’s College, London, and has written an historian's history, Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion AD 300-1300 (NY: Knopf, 2023). In over 700 pages, Heather deals with a thousand years of European history, the first millennium of Christian Europe ("Christendom"). The premise underlying what he sees as his new approach to the subject is the change caused by our own contemporary experience e of the decline of Christianity in the modern world. In the past, it was possible to assume that Christianity's victory over its Roman and post-Roman rivals reflected Christianity's religious superiority. Christendom is the author's response to "the pressing intellectual challenge of reassessing Christianity's rise to pre-eminent hint he light of its modern eclipse, by re-examining the historical processes that first generated the defining coincidence between Europe and the cultural dominance of the Christian religion."

This leads him, for example, to reinterpret Roman religious history after Constantine's conversion less as the Christianization of the empire but rather more as the "Romanization of Christianity." This leads him to emphasize the element of contingency on the historical process. At any number of points, things could conceivably have gone differently had not this or that non-inevitably development occurred.

Part One deals with the late imperial period, when, in the aftermath of Constantine's conversion, the Christian religion recruited classical philosophy and institutionalized itself as part of the Roman state system, with all the advantages that gave it. Part Two examines the end of the empire in the West and the crisis that created for Christianity (specifically Nicene Christianity), resolved by a combination religious "self-reinvention" as a religion suitable for a warrior society and success in terms of the eventual embrace of Nicene Christianity by the successor states, which inherited the Roman emperor's religious role. Finally Part Three considers the coherent leadership of the restored empire of Charlemagne and the subsequent spread of Christianity to virtually all of Europe and its successful transformation into the popular mass religion and highly institutionalized structure we are familiar with from the High middle Ages. In the process, the reader learns an enormous amount of incredible detail about the political and cultural history of Christian Europe's formative thousand years.

Heather fully recognizes that some (maybe many) Christinas embraced their faith for authentically religious reasons and practiced and promoted authentic Christian piety. However, he always gives greater weight to the multitude of other complex considerations and motivations and contingent events which made the growth and expansion and triumph of Christendom possible, particularly among political and social elites. That faith itself was a key component in Christianity's constant "self-reinvention" is not denied, but tends to seem secondary to other more humanly explicable explanations for Christianity's success. Of course, a faith perspective will accept much of Heather's more secular data but also consider those developments as providential.

It is valuable to know the contingencies that - whether by historical happenstance or by the plan of providence - produced Christian Europe. For, as the author rightly recognizes, we are once again in a world where there are other alternatives, and Christianity can only benefit from fuller reflection on his the faith has managed at other times when here were other alternatives.

The author himself acknowledges that the present situation is not entirely new. Christendom also experienced a radical reduction in the aftermath of the rise of Islam, which not only conquered considerable Christian territory but provided an analogous situation (but this tine in reverse) to the mass conversion experience in the late Roman Empire. So the contemporary situation is not as new as it might seem. Then the old heartland of Christianity fell to Islam and was replaced by a new European centered Christianity. Now that European heartland seems to be giving way to a secular, post-Christian alternative, and seems likewise to be in the process of being replaced by a new "self-reinvention" of Christianity, based in the Global South.

Likewise, his emphasis on the weakness of the papacy in the first two periods he describes was in an analogous manner repeated in modern European history, in the period prior to and immediately after the French Revolution, only to be followed by the present period in which the papacy appears religiously more centralized and powerful than at any previous period, including even the High Middle Ages - but this time without the coercive powers he ascribes to the late medieval Church.