Thursday, April 26, 2012

Jesus and Wealth

I regularly participate in a weekly forum in which a group of us at a local parish discuss various political, economic, and social issues from a theological perspective.  Last Sunday, the topic of our discussion was the issue of Mitt Romney’s wealth and whether his wealth prevents people from being able to relate to him and vice versa.

It was interesting to me that no one in the room really seemed to think that his wealth was a problem.  Reference was made to ‘benevolent wealth’ and to the idea that the problem is not whether someone has money, but about whether they’ve been taught to use it benevolently.  But no one talked about money and wealth from a theological perspective.

There are a few paragraphs in G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a masterful work of theology, in which Chesterton discusses the challenge Christianity poses to prevailing attitudes toward wealth.  Responding to the idea that societies have generally placed their trust in the rich and so have bestowed political and moral authority upon them, he writes:

" be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck"
"Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man's environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest—if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this— that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world…The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck (emphases mine)."

The question is not whether a man as wealthy as Romney can relate to the middle class, but whether we as Christians can support a system in which the wealthy are consistently given the reins of political power.  The voice of Christ rings through the examples of women and men – Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant – who have taken Jesus’ words seriously: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).  And yet, in so many of our communities of the faithful, Jesus’ teaching and example is ignored entirely or explained away as being ‘unrealistic’ or as being relevant only to a select few of those who follow him.  I have even heard one person try to explain Jesus’ teachings away by appealing to biblical criticism and so suggesting (it would seem to me) that we can pick and choose the Jesus we liked by deciding what can actually go back to the ‘original Jesus.’

Jesus cannot be so easily dismissed.  Christianity preaches, at its core, selfless love.  We believe in a God of selfless love who exists in Trinity as a community of selfless love eternally and who selflessly became a human being like us.  The community to which Jesus calls us is a community that lives in imitation of divine Love.  Wealth – or the pursuit of it – cannot but turn us inward, towards ourselves and away from the other.  Displays of generosity might assuage one’s conscience, but anyone who actually paid attention to the message of the Gospel cannot but feel that there is a tension between the attainment of wealth and living the Christian life to the fullest.

I should note that I write all of this as a complete and total hypocrite.  And I feel the tension between the life to which Christ and the Church calls me and my family, and the life we actually live.

Jesus’ teachings and example continue to offend because they are, for those of us who buy into the materialism that is so central to human life, offensive.  What is most interesting is that those who actually follow Jesus are often the ones most offended by him.

Here's a sketch by the Daily Show with Jon Stewart that nicely encapsulates how we as Christians tend to ignore those aspects of Jesus that don't fit nicely into our understanding of the world.  You need to watch to the end of the sketch for the pay-off:

Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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Friday, April 20, 2012

St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s "Little Way"

Last week I re-read St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s classic autobiography, Story of a Soul.  St. Thérèse was a Carmelite nun in France who died at the young age of 24 of tuberculosis in 1897.  She completed her autobiography only months before she died, and upon publication, it became an instant classic.  She was beatified in 1923 and canonized in 1925.  In 1997, Pope John Paul II declared her a “Doctor of the Church,” a distinction granted to only 33 figures in the history of Christianity (and to only 3 women).  Her immense popularity continues to this day amongst Christians of various traditions.

When I first read Story of a Soul a few years ago, I must admit that I was somewhat underwhelmed.  I’m not sure what I expected, but I emerged from my reading without a clear sense of why Thérèse is so popular, and even more confused about why she was declared a “Doctor of the Church.”  I’ve read most of the other “Doctors” – including Augustine, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, etc. – and it seems quite obvious that they merited that distinction because of the profundity of their thought.

But Story of a Soul didn’t strike me as overly profound upon my first reading.  In fact, it struck me as being overly simplistic.

However, after reading it again last week, I realized that it is precisely the book’s supposed simplicity that makes it so profound.  Thérèse describes her spirituality as a “little way,” which means simply that one becomes Christ-like through fidelity in little things.  By this, Thérèse means that we are continually to seek the way of Christ’s humility in everything we do.  Precisely what this could look like is made clear in the following story:

I was in the laundry doing the washing in front of a Sister who was throwing dirty water into my face every time she lifted the handkerchiefs to her bench; my first reaction was to draw back and wipe my face to show the Sister who was sprinkling me that she would do me a favor to be more careful.  But I immediately thought I would be very foolish to refuse these treasures which were being given to me so generously, and I took care not to show my struggle.  I put forth all my efforts to desire receiving very much of this dirty water, and was so successful that in the end I had really taken a liking to this kind of aspersion, and I promised myself to return another time to this nice place where one receives so many treasures (250).

“[Y]ou can see,” Thérèse writes in conclusion, “that I am a very little soul and that I can offer God only very little things.”

Thérèse defines the key barrier to her attaining Christ-likeness as her excessive self-love, by which she means her struggle to put herself ahead of another, to assert her own self over against another.  She endeavoured, therefore, always to put others before herself.  That does not mean that she was a pushover or that she allowed others to walk over her.  Rather, it meant that, in circumstances where asserting the self would simply be a manifestation of a selfish desire to put herself above another, she would resist and would endeavour to love instead.

It was after re-reading Story of a Soul that I quickly became very aware of the many opportunities I have each and every day to assert myself over another, be they my spouse, my children, my students, etc.  It may be as simple as me not wanting to get off the couch in order to help my son find some dress-up clothes; or always feeling the need to express my opinion whether called upon or not; or always thinking about the books I could be reading when I’m involved in another necessary task (these are all examples from yesterday!).  But in these ways, and in so many other ways, my desire to assert myself above another is abundantly clear.

It appears to me that there’s nothing little at all about St. Thérèse’s “little way”.  But there is something compellingly profound and beautiful about it.  Too bad it took me two readings of Story of a Soul to realize it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Film Suggestions?

I will be teaching an introductory theology course for undergraduates this summer.  This is a course I regularly teach, but I would like to incorporate some films into the class.  I structure the class loosely around the Apostles' Creed, and wondered if any of you out there might have some suggestions for films that could be tied in to one or more of the following sections of the creed:

Section One: The Father and Creator

I believe in God,
the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth

Section Two: The Incarnation and Soteriology
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

Section Three: Pneumatology, Ecclesiology, and Sacramental Theology
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.

Any assistance would be most appreciated!

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Exsulstet (Part I) - A Radical King

Our Easter season now lasts until Pentecost, and is a time when we as Christians continue to celebrate the joy that was so beautifully expressed in the Exsulstet.  This hymn, which dates to between the 5th-7th centuries, is sung only once a year at the Easter Vigil.  It is usually sung without instrumentation, and it usually takes a cantor 7-8 minutes to sing.  It is sung while the church is in total darkness save for the newly lit paschal candle and for the candles of the faithful, all of whom share the fire and new light of the paschal candle.  Here's what the Exsulstet sounds like:

The Exsulstet is a profound poem of joy, theologically rich and complex.  It seems only fitting to spend some time with this hymn, to meditate on it, as we continue our 50-day celebration of Easter.

The first stanza reads as follows:

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lightning of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.

What strikes me immediately are the two references in this stanza to Jesus Christ as ‘King.’  This notion of Jesus as ‘King’ is one we’ve encountered a number of times in the readings over the past week.  On Palm Sunday we celebrated Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem as a king.  On Good Friday was read the entire passion narrative of John, which contains the rather cryptic dialogue between Jesus and Pilate where Jesus talks about himself as a king.  And we read as well that Jesus was ‘crowned’ by his persecutors with a crown of thorns to mock his self-professed kingship, and that over Jesus’ head on the cross were written the words, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’

And now, in the Exsulstet, we praise ‘our mighty King’s triumph.’

This imagery of ‘kingship’ indicates that there are political implications to Jesus’ death and resurrection.  We are not talking about Jesus as king in a metaphorical sense.  Jesus is truly ‘King.’  But what we see in this idea of Jesus as ‘King’ is a redefining of the political, a revising of what it means to be political.

In Jesus we see kingship modeled as utterly selfless love.  Jesus’ kingship is not one that revolves around power, but is one that manifests itself as a servant washing his disciples’ feet.  It manifests itself as one willingly going to death like a lamb to the slaughter rather than one who is willing to use force.  It manifests itself by being raised onto a cross rather than onto a throne. 

The triumph of our ‘mighty King’ to which the Exsulstet refers is the triumph of selfless love over the violence of the political.  The new life made possible by the Resurrection is not only the life that triumphs over death.  It is a new life insofar as it is a new way of being in the world, one modeled for us by the selfless King who consistently chose servanthood over power.

This is a radically new way of being.  But it is even more a radically new way of being political.  Now, when churches in this nation seem to understand being political only in terms of the nation-state, we are confronted by a radically different ‘Kingdom’ inaugurated by our triumphant ‘King.’  This is a kingdom that, as Jesus said to Pilate, is not from this world.  This is a kingdom that operates in an entirely different way in the here and now.  It is one where the first are last and the last are first.  It is one marked by selfless love for all within and without the church.

The Resurrection is, among other things, a call to be radically different.  It is a call to follow a new ‘King’ whose kingdom quite literally threatens all that most people, including ourselves, hold to be most important.  It is a call to be a political community - to be the Kingdom of God on earth - insofar as we as local communities within the Church become communities that truly demonstrate and be the selfless love that is God as manifested by Jesus Christ.  It means being radical communities that demonstrate to those around us an entirely other way of being together, of living together, of loving together.

What we cannot lose sight of as we praise Jesus' triumph as King is that he was, and through the Resurrection is, a truly radical King.

To understand concretely what this could look like, I recommend William Cavanaugh's book, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Challenges in Contemporary Theology).  In this book, Cavanaugh describes the situation of the Catholic church in Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and chronicles how the church came to understand a new way of being political - a way marked by the experience of Christ in the Eucharist.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

O truly blessed night!

I've just returned from the Easter Vigil.  The liturgy this night is so rich, the symbolism and pageantry so incredible.  There are a number of things I feel like writing about.  But I'm quite sure that anything I write cannot come anywhere close to the poetry and theology of the Exsulstet, a hymn that dates back to between the 5th-7th centuries that is sung at the Easter Vigil each year.  And tonight when I heard it I realized that I need to spend some time with this text.  I need to delve into the words.  For now, however, I rest in them and I exult in and through them.  Happy Easter!

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lighting of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.

(Therefore, dearest friends,
standing in the awesome glory of this holy light,
invoke with me, I ask you, the mercy of God almighty,
that he who has been pleased to number me, though unworthy, among the Levites,
may pour into me his light unshadowed,
that I may sing this candle’s perfect praises.)

(V/: The Lord be with you.
R/: And with your spirit.)
V/: Lift up your hearts.
R/: We lift them up to the Lord.
V/: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
R/: It is right and just.

It is truly right and just,
with ardent love of mind and heart,
and with devoted service of our voice,
to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father,
and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten.
Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father,
and pouring out his own dear Blood
wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.
These then are the feasts of Passover,
in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb,
whose Blood anoints the doorposts of believers.

This is the night, when once you led our forebears,
Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
This is the night that with a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin.
This is the night that even now, throughout the world,
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin,
lending them to grace, and joining them to his holy ones.
This is the night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death,
and rose victorious from the underworld.
Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed.

O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
O truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and hour
when Christ rose from the underworld!

This is the night of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.
The sanctifying power of this night dispels all wickedness,
washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,
an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church.

But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honour,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.

O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.
Therefore, O Lord, we pray you that this candle,
hallowed to the honour of your name,
may persevere undimmed,
to overcome the darkness of this night.
Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,
and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.

May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son,
who coming back from death’s domain
has shed his peaceful light on humanity
and lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen