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The Christic Imagination - II

In her reflection on the Good Friday Liturgy Rita Ferrone writes:

The choice of John’s Passion is pivotal. Jesus reigns from the cross. His hour of glory is on the cross, for it is not simply an instrument of his humiliation and suffering but the access point of life and salvation for those who believe.

Bach's faith-filled imagination sublimely proclaims this truth in the majestic opening chorus of his Saint John's Passion, "Herr, unser Herrscher:"

The hammer-like repetition of "Herr, Herr, Herr" and the sinuous melodic line that follows resounds both plaintive and triumphant.

Lord, our sovereign Lord, your glory reigns in every land. Show us by your Passion that you, the true Son of God, are ever glorified, even in the most profound humiliation.

 

 

National Poetry Month - Mary Szybist

I could take the easy way out and tell you to read Christian Wiman, whose words are currently featured in the magazine. But instead I'm going to suggest Mary Szybist, whose 2013 collection Incarnadine won the National Book Award.

In Incarnadine, Szybist returns again and again to the Annunciation--or, it might be more accurate to say that she returns to "the annunciations," since she's interested not in a singular incursion of the eternal into the temporal but in an intersection that is more habitual. Think of Eliot's Four Quartets. There, Eliot describes epiphanic moments as "hints and guesses, / Hints followed by guesses," and goes on to claim that "The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation." For Szybist, the hint half guessed, the gift half understood is Annunciation, and this revision hints at some of the collection's major themes: motherood; the female body; the bewilderment and ecstasy of being called in love.

Like Wiman, Szybist is haunted by transcendence: yearning for something beyond her that can't be articulated completely but must be brokenly, desperately gestured towards. Take these lines from "Yet Not Consumed":

But give me the frost of your name

in my mouth, give me

spiny fruits and scaly husks--

give me breath

 

to say aloud to the breathless clouds 

your name, to say

I am, let me need

to say it and still need you ...

In his interview, Christian Wiman talked about the unselving that occurs in joy: "the obliteration of the will," he called it. In "Here, There Are Blueberries," Szybist envisions a similar obliteration of the will in her sheer gratitude for sensuous, delightful creation:

What taste the bright world has, whole fields

without wires, the blacked moss, the clouds

 

swelling at the edges of the meadow. And for this,

I did nothing, not even wonder.

 

You must live for something, they say.

People don't live just to keep on living.

 

But here is the quince tree, a sky bright and empty.

Here there are blueberries, there is no need to note me.

The Liturgies of the Triduum

It’s Holy Thursday. The Paschal Triduum is about to begin this evening with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. For Catholics these are our “high holy days,” a single celebration of the Paschal Mystery spread out over three days, the center and high point of which is the Easter Vigil.

How important is it to get to the three great Triduum liturgies? For a lot of Catholics, it’s getting harder and harder, because of work.

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The Christic Imagination

We just concluded the Tenebrae service at Saint Theresa's in the Bronx: the psalms were chanted, as were the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Several classes of the parish school were present -- and participating! After each psalm two candles are extinguished. At the end, the lone candle remaining lit was taken from the candelabrum and led the procession out of the church. There was rapt silence.

One of the readings is from the ancient homily of Melito of Sardis. Here is an excerpt:

There was much proclaimed by the prophets about the mystery of the Passover: that mystery is Christ, and to him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

  It is he who was made man of the Virgin, he who was hung on the tree; it is he who was buried in the earth, raised from the dead, and taken up to the heights of heaven. He is the mute lamb, the slain lamb, the lamb born of Mary, the fair ewe. He was seized from the flock, dragged off to be slaughtered, sacrificed in the evening, and buried at night. On the tree no bone of his was broken; in the earth his body knew no decay. He is the One who rose from the dead, and who raised man from the depths of the tomb.

 

Passages

 “Before the feast of Passover [Pascha], Jesus, knowing that his hour had come that he should pass out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1). Pascha, brothers and sisters, is not, as some think, a Greek but a Hebrew word, but in this word the two languages come together in a most appropriate way. Because the Greek verb for “to suffer” is paschein, it has been thought that Pascha means “suffering” [passio]. In its own language, Hebrew, however, Pascha means a passage, and for that reason the people of God first celebrated Pascha when they fled from Egypt and passed across the Red Sea (Ex 24:29). Now that prophetical symbol has been completed in reality when Christ is led like a lamb to the slaughter (Is 53:7); his blood marks the lintels of our gates, that is, his cross is signed upon our foreheads, we are freed from the ruin of this world as if from an Egyptian captivity or destruction, and we enact that most salutary passage when we pass from the devil to Christ and from this unstable world to the solidly founded Kingdom. We pass to God in his permanence lest we pass away with this passing world. Praising God for this grace given us, the Apostle says, “He rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us across into the Kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13). ....

But why should we wonder that he rose from supper and laid aside his garments, who, being in the form of God, emptied himself? And why should we wonder, if he girded himself with a towel who took upon himself the form of a servant and was found in the likeness of a man? Why wonder if he poured water into a basin with which to wash his disciples' feet, who poured his blood upon the earth to wash away the filth of their sins? Why wonder, if with the towel with which he was girded he wiped the feet he had washed, who with the very flesh that clothed him laid a firm pathway for the footsteps of his evangelists?...

All that suffering of his is our cleansing. About to suffer death, he performed his act of service beforehand, and not only for those for whom he was about to undergo death, but even for the one who was about to hand him over to that death. So great is the usefulness of human lowliness, that divine loftiness commended it by its own example. Lofty man would have perished for ever unless a lowly God had found him. The Son of Man came to seek and to save what had been lost. As we had been lost by imitating the devil’s lofty pride, let us, now that we have been found, imitate the Redeemer’s lowliness. (Augustine, In Ioannem Tr. 55, 1 and 7; PL 35, 1785-1786, 1787)

Secretary Kerry: Nice Try

Secretary of State John Kerry's effort to bring the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off to another level is clearly failing, if it has not already failed. So what's next? Some weary but knowledgable observers offer their thoughts. I read them to say in general: time for the United States to sign off.

Tom Friedman at the NYTimes: "The truth is Kerry’s mission is less an act of strategy and more an act of deep friendship. It is America trying to save Israel from trends that will inevitably undermine it as a Jewish and democratic state. But Kerry is the last of an old guard. Those in the Obama administration who think he is on a suicide mission reflect the new U.S. attitude toward the region. And those in Israel who denounce him as a nuisance reflect the new Israel."

Henry Siegman at Haaretz:  America has been seen by the entire international community as “owning” the peace process, not because its statesmen are believed to be wiser than all others, but because it enjoys leverage with Israel that uniquely enables it to influence the Jewish state’s policies.....[I]t is the consequence of the many decades of unprecedented U.S. generosity towards the Jewish state in the form of virtually unlimited military and economic assistance.... It has long been assumed that a point would surely come when Washington would use its long-accumulated leverage to inform Israel’s government that it could no longer fend off international criticism of Israel’s occupation without incurring serious damage to its own credibility and national interests. It was believed that when the U.S. reaches that point, Israel would have no choice but to withdraw from the West Bank to the pre-1967 lines, subject to minor mutual border swaps and appropriate security guarantees....But that moment of truth never came, and no one believes any longer it ever will.

Paul Pillar at National Interest: Reviews "What to Do After Peace Process Failure."

Elsewhere

Dean Baker on education and inequality:

The patterns in the data show that inequality is not a question of the more-educated gaining at the expense of the less-educated due to inevitable technological trends. Rather, it has been a story in which a small group of especially well-situated workers — for example, those in finance, doctors, and top-level corporate executives — have been able to gain at the expense of almost everyone else. This pattern of inequality will be little affected by improving the educational outcomes for the bottom quarter or even bottom half of income distribution.

Jonathan Cohn on taxes:

Relative to other countries, tax rates in the U.S. are relatively low, even when you throw in local and state taxes and add them to federal levies. Overall, according to the Tax Policy Center and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which supplied the graph above, taxes in the U.S. are among the lowest in the developed world. The average for countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an organization of rich countries, is higher. And in countries like Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands...the average is much higher. In those nations, taxes account for more than half of total national income.

That level may sound scary but, as many of us have written before, you could make a good case that the people of Scandinavia and Northern Europe know what they are doing. They are far more secure, thanks not only to national health insurance but also to generous provision of child care and unemployment benefits. And despite the high tax burden, their economies have historically been strong—in part, because the combination of investment and a secure safety net makes people more comfortable with a dynamic, ever-changing economy. The wonks used to call this economic model “flexicurity.”

Thomas Nagel on regret:

If someone breaks his promise to drive you to the airport, causing you to miss your flight, then even if the flight crashes with no survivors your friend is not excused: he shouldn’t have broken his promise. The retrospective effects of later outcomes have to do not with justification but with affirmation or regret, which are independent of justification or its absence.

New stories on our homepage

Now on the homepage, "Being Prepared for Joy," Anthony Domestico's fascinating interview with poet Christian Wiman. An excerpt:

AD: You’re currently teaching a course called “Accidental Theologies,” which you define as the kind of theology that gets done in seemingly nontheological texts—letters, poems, and novels, for example. Why are you drawn to this kind of writing? What in particular interests you about the kind of theology that gets done in, say, the novels of Fanny Howe or Marilynne Robinson? And how do the pleasures you get from accidental theology differ from the pleasures you get from the more traditional theology of a Karl Barth or Hans Urs von Balthasar?

CW: I seem immune to ideas that have no concretion to them. Most systematic theology—modern theology, I should specify, like Barth or Balthazar—just bounces right off the stone of my brain. I don’t mean that I don’t enjoy it—I do—but it seems not to stick with me in any meaningful way, seems ungraspable the minute I’ve closed the book.

Embodied theology, though, ideas about God that have some music and physicality to them, ideas, that is to say, that aren’t primarily ideas—these sorts of works I understand and love and am able to carry with me in my life and faith. I’m not ranking the ways one does theology, though; just diagnosing my own magpie method, which has its own strengths and weaknesses.

But you should really read the whole thing.

Also, the editors write on Republican efforts to tighten voting rules in a number of swing states:

Republicans in nine states have pushed through laws with strict photo ID requirements as well as a variety of limitations on early voting, extended voting hours (including weekends), same-day registration, and absentee voting. All of these restrictions would disproportionately affect minority voters. Many African Americans, especially those living in cities, do not have the state-issued photo IDs, such as driver’s licenses or passports, required by the laws. Many cannot get to the polls until early evening. Sunday voting, often organized around church services in African American communities, is especially important for increasing turnout. How can prohibiting Sunday voting, as Ohio has just done, be anything but discriminatory?

Read all of "Voting Rights & Wrongs" here.

Finn flayed.

Last week, Kansas City Detective Maggie McGuire was honored for her work on the troubling case of Shawn Ratigan, a now-laicized priest serving a fifty-year sentence for possessing and creating child pornography. Recall that in 2012 Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph was found guilty of failing to report suspected child abuse--after diocesan personnel informed him that they had found pornographic photographs of minors on Ratigan's laptop and the bishop failed to notify police. Obviously Deputy U.S. Attorney Gene Porter hasn't forgotten the details of that case, because when he presented the Crystal Kipper & Ali Kemp Memorial Award to McGuire, he delivered a stinging rebuke to Finn and his diocese:

When it becomes clear at the outset of the investigation that the entire hierarchy of a centuries-old religious denomination does not seem willing to recognize that the children depicted in the images are, in fact, victims of child exploitation, nor seem very willing to help establish the identity of the children depicted, and instead are spending millions of dollars on legal counsel in an ill-advised effort to avoid having the priest and bishop accept legal responsibility for their crimes, then you know, as an investigator, that your work is cut out for you.

He continued:

But for [McGuire's] work, multiple victims might not have been identified, a predatory priest might not have been removed and sentenced to the functional equivalent of life in prison, and Robert Finn never would have become the first cleric of his rank in the United States to sustain…a criminal conviction for failure to report suspected child abuse.

A judge sentenced Bishop Finn to two years of probation. He has not been censured by church authorities.

(H/T NCR)

Greater grace, greater praise

The heavens will confess your wondrous deeds, O Lord” (Ps 88[89]:6). The heavens will not be confessing their own merits: “the heavens will confess your wondrous deeds, O Lord.” In any mercy shown to the lost, in the justifying of the wicked, what do we praise if not the wondrous deeds of God? You give praise because the dead rise again; give even greater praise because the lost have been redeemed. What grace! What mercy of God! You see someone who yesterday was a whirlpool of drunkenness and today is a model of sobriety. You see someone who yesterday was a cesspool of excess and today is a paragon of temperance. You see someone who yesterday was blaspheming God today is praising God. You see someone who yesterday was a slave of creatures today is a worshipper of the Creator. People are being converted from all those desperate conditions. Let them not consider their own merits. Let them become heavens and let those heavens confess the wondrous deeds of the one who made them heavens. (Augustine, EnPs 88[89], 6; PL 37, 1123)

Christian seders: always a bad idea?

Can Christians host seders? Should they? It's a question I've seen raised and answered in a few places this Passover, with some interesting responses, mostly in the negative. I've never been to a seder, Christian or otherwise, and no parish I've been in has ever tried it, so I'm interested in the question without being very invested.

Everyone whose opinion I've read concedes that Christian seders are a well-intentioned practice -- usually, anyway, an attempt to learn more about what Christ believed and did, and what Jewish neighbors do today. But most think they're a bad idea nevertheless. An exception is Mark Silk, who gives the Christian hosts his blessing.

He notes concerns raised by Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy ("a Christian woman married to a Jewish man") in a piece at Religion Dispatches: the practice appropriates a Jewish ritual, ignoring the history of Christian persecution of Jews as well as the still-vibrant religious experience of Jews today. She gives a clear explanation of the danger of theological insensitivity and error:

Christians mounting their own reading of the Haggadah almost always want to discuss how Jesus is like the paschal lamb, using the occasion to show how all the Hebrew scriptures point to Jesus as fulfilling the prophecies. This theological exercise, known as supersessionism, is problematic enough in a purely Christian context, but as part of a Jewish ritual it is deeply out of place.

At Religion News Service, Silk writes,

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Losing my religion? I blame the Internet!

This is kind of an old story in online time, dating all the way back to last week, on a study that links declining interest and participation in religion to the rise of the Internet. Of course, there's been handwringing over the weakening of interest in religion almost as long as there's been organized religion, something Elizabeth Drescher tidily sums up (again) at Religion Dispatches: from the piper on the English green to colonialism in the New World to Industrial-age indifference to--according to "research" from 2010--Facebook, there's always something steering people away from church. And she doesn't even mention radio, TV, professional football, or kids' soccer games. 
 
Never mind whether any of these have been definitively linked to "the problem" anyway; like video games and gun violence or vaccines and autism, blaming the Internet for [insert name of ailment here] has that easy intuitive appeal that comes with any simple, single-cause explanation for something that had seemed too complex or concerning to consider more deeply.
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A poem for Palm Sunday

I meant to post this yesterday, but forgot. Perhaps it is not too late.

The Donkey
BY G. K. CHESTERTON

When fishes flew and forests walked  
   And figs grew upon thorn,  
Some moment when the moon was blood  
   Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
   And ears like errant wings,  
The devil’s walking parody  
   On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
   Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,  
   I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
   One far fierce hour and sweet:  
There was a shout about my ears,
   And palms before my feet.

Abducted in Cameroon

Sr. Gilberte Bussiere; photo courtesy Congrégation Notre-Dame

Two Italian priests and a Canadian nun were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in Cameroon on April 5. The radical Islamist group Boko Haram from Nigeria is suspected. I don’t remember how I came across the story. Did I read it? Was it on the radio? But I know it registered. These were Catholic missionaries. Who were they? The news story didn’t say.

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Connecting the Circuits

The leitmotif of the great father of the Church, Origen, in his commentaries on Scripture was: "not only then, but now." The narrative of faith is not merely "in illo tempore," but "in hoc tempore."

It is the challenging task of the preacher to proclaim God's Word as relevant in our own day. But, of course, it is the task of every believer to appropriate the Good News, to pass over from a merely "notional" to a "real" apprehension and assent.

Here the great artists – poets, painters, musicians – can be occasions of grace for us. Perhaps none more so than Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach's two surviving Passions coincide in the current liturgical year with our reading of Saint Matthew and Saint John today and Good Friday. I have been listening these past days to the Saint Matthew Passion and will towards midweek begin to play/pray the Saint John Passion.

In his masterful, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner devotes ninety dense pages to an analysis and appreciation of the Passions. Here is an excerpt:

As everyone familiar with either of Bach’s surviving Passions knows, participating either from the outside as a listener or from the inside as a performer, the placement of the chorales is central to the overall experience – pulling the action into the here and now, confirming, responding to, or repudiating what has just happened in the narrative, and obliging one to consider its significance.

 

It is the judicious choice and placement of chorales that provide the essential scaffolding and punctuation of the narrative and that simultaneously articulate the underlying theological themes. You could of course remove them (together with the meditative arias) and the piece would still make sense at one level; but to do so would break the circuit –obliterating the connections to Bach’s time and to ours.

The Consistent Ethic of Pope Francis

Pope Francis met this morning with members of the Italian Movement for Life. In his remarks to the group he said:

Thank you for the testimony you give by promoting and defending human life from the moment of conception! We know it, human life is sacred and inviolable. Every civil right rests on the recognition of the first and fundamental right, that of life, which is not subordinated to any condition, be it quantitative, economic or, least of all, ideological. “Just as the commandment 'Thou shall not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shall not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills .... Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, n. 53). And in this way life, too, ends up being thrown away.

National Poetry Month - Tracy K. Smith

Last week, I talked briefly about the prosy-yet-still-poetic work of Spencer Reece. This week, I wanted to draw attention to a very different writer: Tracy K. Smith.

Smith has truly catholic (small "c") tastes. The high and the low, the verbal and the visual, the jokey and the philosophical: all serve as lenses through which Smith--and, with her help, the reader--sees the world and culture anew. In 2012, Smith won a Pulitzer Prize for Life on Mars, and it was a well-deserved honor. It has helped me to see the poetic possibilities of everything from cosmology (Smith mines the metaphoric implications of dark matter and dark energy), to science fiction (the film Soylent Green makes an appearance), to pop music (David Bowie hovers over the whole collection; see below), to the Iraq war. 

Here is the opening to "Don't You Wonder, Sometimes?" Smith's work shows that wonder is the proper attitude to take towards the immense strangeness and beauty of the cosmos--and towards our place within it:

After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure

That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?

For the complete poem, go here.

Pope Francis apologizes for sexual-abuse scandal.

 

Today, in an address to members of the International Catholic Child Bureau (BICE)--an NGO that works to protect the rights and dignity of children--Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the "damage [abusive] priests have done for sexually abusing children." Noting that the total number of abusive priests is high, "obviously not compared to the number of all the priests," Francis reassured the audience that "the church is aware of this damage; it is personal, moral damage carried out by men of the church." He promised that "we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed--on the contrary, we have to be even stronger."

Is this earth-shaking? Not really. But given that the last time he spoke on the subject it didn't exactly go over too well, this is a marked improvement. And--significantly--these remarks were not part of the prepared text. Francis could have read through the speech as written and avoided the uncomfortable subject altogether, bringing headlines like, "Pope Speaks to Child-Protection Group, Ignores Sexual Abuse." But he didn't. And what he said carries some force.

Francis pledged not to "take one step backward." He referred to "sanctions that must be imposed." Of course, the question remains: sanctions for whom? For abusive priests? We're aware of those sanctions. What about the bishops who enabled abusers? Francis has made it clear that he's not afraid to investigate an accused cardinal. But is he willing to penalize bishops who have put kids at risk--even after the hard lessons of 2002? That's the great unfinished business of the sexual-abuse scandal.

 

A Lenten Love Letter

There is something characteristically, beautifully and powerfully Catholic about CRS Rice Bowl

Characteristically, because Rice Bowl is an intensely incarnate program.  The flimsy, yet sturdy, fold-together Rice Bowl on the dining room table is something you can see and touch.  The aromas of Rice Bowl's meatless dinner recipes fill the kitchen on Friday nights, stimulate the taste buds with flavors both new and familiar, and fill the stomach (or not, which provides its own lesson). 

Beautifully, because Rice Bowl's educational materials are thoughtfully and artfully prepared.  They're inviting to the eye and always feature, first and foremost, photographs of CRS beneficiaries from around the world and across the US.  Unlike some charitable programs, Rice Bowl doesn't innundate its donor-participants with images of blank-eyed impoverished victims on the brink of death.  Rather, Rice Bowl's photographs, stories and videos steadily and subtly offer images and reminders of the hope and joy that come from faith and love made incarnate. 

Powerfully, first because Rice Bowl raises $7 million annually to support CRS programs in 40 countries around the world. (1/4 of money raised stays in local dioceses.)  Second, because Rice Bowl deepens the meaning and practice of Lent...especially for children:

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Horizons

 A new book and a film have revived interest in a famous quote of Donald Rumsfeld speaking about the question of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq:

Reports that say there's -- that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.

The quotation has sometimes been criticized and even mocked. But it called to my mind the use made long before of the same threefold distinction by Canadian philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan. He appealed it to explain what is meant by the term “horizon,” much-used by existentialist philosophers, in particular Martin Heidegger.

Visual horizons are defined by a viewpoint and a field of vision, the first determining the second. On the tenth floor of the Empire State Building, a certain field is open to view until the meeting of sky and earth define one’s physical horizon, the point beyond which one cannot see. Go up to the 86th floor, and a much larger field is open to view. Move from the western to the eastern side of the observation deck and a different field of vision appears. Your viewpoint determines what you can see, how far you can see, where the horizon is beyond which you cannot see.

Lonergan proposed to consider one’s existential viewpoint as the sets of questions one is asking or could ask.

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