Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tear Down and Destroy; Build and Plant

In his letter to Eustochium, written in 384 A.D., Saint Jerome relates an experience he had while on his way to Jerusalem, to live a life of penance. He had given up his family and the life to which he had been accustomed in Rome. A terrible fever came upon him, wasting away his very flesh. In the midst of this fever, he had a vision of his judgment before Christ. He fell before the throne of the Judge, and the following exchange took place: “Asked who and what I was I replied: "I am a Christian." But He who presided said: "Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For 'where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.'" He was then scourged for his impiety, finally benefiting from the prayers of those who attended to the throne. He was returned to awareness, and abandoned his addiction to pagan writings. Such a drastic act may not be necessary for every Christian, even if it was for him. The point is that Christ must be central to one’s thoughts and divine revelation must be THE source of knowledge about salvation.

It is highly unlikely that many today are addicted to Cicero. In fact, I would venture to say that there are quite a few people who disdain his writings, since his works are often used in intermediate Latin classes for translation purposes. But there is a temptation to turn to what is not of Christ, even what is against Christ, as a source of knowledge and guidance for moral living. Such a temptation can be very subtle, as it was for Jerome. We could take a survey of any number of Christian writers and ask if what they write and teach is based upon the Spirit of Christ or comes from some non-Christian philosophy. This is not to criticize the legitimate use of other philosophies to grow in knowledge of the truth. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, made great use of the writings of Aristotle to explain the rational underpinnings of Christian moral living.

But trends in thought come and go over time. Or, as Mark Twain once quipped, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Whether or not Twain really said that doesn’t matter. It’s true. One repeating philosophy that is too stubborn to die is cynicism. Having been versed in this thinking process for quite awhile, I have firsthand experience in its attributes and effects. Diogenes lived during the time of Alexander the Great, who once said that if he were not Alexander, he would want to be Diogenes. Strange idea, considering that Diogenes lived in a giant tub in the middle of town, and engaged in ipsation in public, stating that it would be wonderful if hunger could be likewise satisfied by rubbing the stomach. But apart from his moral turpitude, he had a keen eye for hypocrisy and with biting sarcasm attacked it regularly. The very word “cynicism” comes from the Greek word for “dog”, since the purveyors of this philosophy barked at the world and those who pretended to be something. The famous story goes that he walked about in midday with a lantern, looking for an honest man. To be honest, apart from the ipsation, his approach has some merit. Jesus Himself laid bare the foolishness and hypocrisy of his contemporaries; indeed, of hypocrites all over time.

But there is a difference between the cynic and the follower of Christ. The cynic sees hypocrisy and is quick to point out inconsistencies, errors and stupidity. But the heart of the cynic is ultimately self-serving and lacks charity. There is no “kind eye” in the head of the cynic. He sets up a world view that is often precise in its measurements, but empty of compassion. Fulton Sheen once wrote that the cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Condemnation comes easily to the cynic, and may be right, but the dividing wall of separation, destroyed by Jesus, remains in the heart of the cynic. As important as it is to seek to remove pretense, and in charity it may be necessary to do so, Christ did so for the sake of salvation, even of those who opposed Him so vehemently. Did He not die for the whole nation of Israel, and the world, including those who killed Him? Even those who “kill” Him today by sin and error and malice?

The cynic seeks to expose folly, but does not then help the exposed to come to true knowledge. As a cynic, we can look upon those who do not live well or who act according to error as fools, malcontents and “beneath” us, but what good does it do ultimately? How do we balance the discovery and repudiation of error with the firm desire of Christ that all men be saved? Even the fools! It is a tough line. It all depends on what we are truly looking at: the foolishness or the person? A good doctor, especially the Divine Physician, is truly interested in taking away what corrupts and destroys, but labors intensely to maintain what is good and healthy and capable of refinement.

Being jaded, another form of cynicism, is like looking at life through a peephole. We can only see one facet of life and miss out on so much. I’ve been cynical and spent time with not a few cynics. From personal experience, there is a narrow mindedness that neglects what is good and wholesome in others. The tragedy of such a mindset is that it turns itself on the practitioner and causes an inner damage that can only be called a dangerous loss of charity, towards oneself and others.

Christ was ever ready to tear down and destroy, in the best tradition of Jeremiah, but He was also about building up and planting, continuing the same thread of prophetic mission. Diogenes wanted to find an honest man, thinking himself, perhaps, to be the only one who truly was. Christ found honest men, who were simple fishermen, as ordinary as any other in history. They had a host of faults and imperfections, which Jesus worked to purge from their souls. He didn’t condemn them for their weaknesses, but took their burden upon Himself and transformed these men into apostles and vessels of grace. His piercing glance cut through the foolishness and hypocrisy of His own disciples and revealed the true inner nature of those who would be the foundation of His Church. He does the same for us, but never out of spite or contempt. He only wants us to be pure in His sight, and when He finds impurity of whatever kind, He removes it if we are willing let Him.

  And when we stand before Christ, may we not hear Him say, "Thou liest, thou are a follower of Diogenes, and not of Christ.  For where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Comfort the afflicted; afflict the comfortable

    A friend inquired about the pharisees and sadduccees, and it led me to write the following, in answer the particular question.

     Part of Jesus' mission was to "comfort the afflicted" and to "afflict the comfortable". The pharisees had a history of real religious piety, and were the descendants of those who rejected the Greek influences on Judaism, but to a fault as time wore on. They got themselves into a position of self-righteousness based upon outward religious observance, losing sight of the substance of the Law, namely, mercy and faith. Not all of them, certainly, and Jesus had friends who were pharisees. His purpose, among others, was to disclose that mercy, such as "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." And as in the passage where he cures a woman of her 18 year infirmity, on a Sabbath, but the synagogue leader objects and starts naming the law, "There are other days to be cured, come then, and not on the Sabbath." Ridiculous. A miracle takes place, and he cannot see it, or appreciate it. Lots of people like that today, focussing on the law (either in the secular sense or the religious. . .). St. Paul had great struggles with this thinking, to the point of being abused and beaten and stoned. His insistence that righteousness comes from faith in Christ was abhorrent to those who, for one, found Jesus too much (and killed him, by the way) and were sadly stuck in their addiction to legality. You've known people like that, so attuned to what's "right" that they forget to have compassion or kindness. People suffered in their consciences because of the scrupulosity of the pharisees. I might add much of my struggles have been from a too severe conversion that lacked compassion on myself. Eventually, things explode, or one turns into a tyrant, to himself or others. Better to have a kind eye, in other words, but also one that opposes the way some make themselves better than others and look down on them. That is, a kind eye towards those abused by the powerful, to the point of opposing the powerful. Hence the deliberate humiliation of Jesus on the cross, to show that being so and suffering so may be a sign of greatness (for sure in His case!).

The sadduccees had their good points, and were devoted, as a class, to the priestly office and rituals of the Law. They had become, unfortunately, likewise blind to the higher elements of the Torah, indeed, only accepting the legal and ritualistic elements, good as they were, yet lacking in something. Sadducees generally did not even accept the prophets, who often blasted mere ritual, "Does God drink the blood of goats? If I were hungry, I would not tell you. Your sacrifices are loathsome to me." and such things. To a priest, offering bloody sacrifices as a way of life, those are fighting words. So, when Jesus cleanses the temple, and talks about it being cast down, and himself being able to "raise it in three days", you can imagine the shock to their system. It was one of the major points of condemnation they used at his (show) trial. His attitude of apparent disrespect was a crime in their eyes. But, of course, He was trying to shake them out of their sullen view of humanity. This is why, when He answers their question about the resurrection, He refers to Moses' conversation with the Lord at the burning bush, showing that such a belief is central to the most basic, Hebrew faith, right there at the call of Moses, and not from some "esoteric" prophet. The pharisees, of course, approved of His answer, and they were all quiet.

As for being drawn to Jesus, this is testimony of His powerful personality and His self-assured declarations. There was a magnetic quality to His person, and no one could just ignore Him.

In Acts, 6:7, as Luke describes the growth of the Church, he says, "and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jersualem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith." This small notation is often lost on those who read Acts, and it explains some of the struggles of the early Church. Imagine the priests, who were keepers of the rituals of the Temple, hearing that food was only food, and not central to salvation. Heck, the Maccabees era was almost all about obedience to the dietary laws of Israel's Law, or at least a lot about it. A whole family of seven brothers was executed with their mother for not eating pork! Thank God for Jesus when you're eating a pork barbecue sandwich. But anyway, these men (and their families) were drawn to the "New Way" in a remarkable fashion, finding the faith to be liberating. What they had been worshiping had come close to them, and not put away behind a curtain any longer. The Letter to the Hebrews brings all of this together, as it explains that Jesus is the place where as well as the Person in whom we meet the here-to-fore remote God. How awesome is that? He's not found by ritualism for its own sake, nor is He remote and commanding obedience for obedience's sake. He's near to us and "personified" in Jesus Christ. It doesn't matter what food you eat, or what your background or your racial make-up is. The heart of His salvific plan has come to completion and fulfillment in Jesus Christ. His friendship and closeness take away the veil, if we have eyes to see.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

They took counsel together in order to arrest Jesus

In a marvelous article in the American Spectator (which can be found here: http://spectator.org/archives/2010/07/16/americas-ruling-class-and-the/print), Angelo Codevilla, writes of the contrast and conflict between the ruling class in the United States and what he calls the “country class”. There is no need here to summarize his article. Suffice it to say, I believe he is spot on as he describes the hegemony of those who have or desire power in the United States versus the two-thirds of the people who are a class unto themselves, holding such far-fetched ideas such as the importance of faith, traditional marriage, the rule of law and a strong national defense. While he notes that the country class is quite varied in its racial, religious and even political make-up, there are certain characteristics they hold in common. This made me reflect upon the various groups who appear in the Gospels.

Each of the Gospel writers had their own particular reasons for producing their work. That is, there was an existential reason for relating the words and deeds of Jesus as they did. Each writer was the head or part of a particular church with its own needs and experiences. St. Luke begins his account by making his purpose explicit: “That you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” (Luke 1:4). Of course, the main reason they all wrote their Gospels was to proclaim the truth about Jesus Christ. The Church “has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1).” (Dei Verbum, 19) Jesus really did and taught what the Gospels contain, up to and including His resurrection.

One thing we can garner from a careful reading of the Gospels is the cultural situation that existed in the time of Jesus. There was an assortment of groups, both political and religious, with which Jesus interacted. We find a similar divide between the ruling class in Israel and the people, the country class who felt that Jesus was indeed the Savior for whom they had been waiting. The Pharisees were, as stated above, lay authorities of the law and self-appointed deciders of true piety and authentic Judaism. The Sadducees were of the priestly class who ruled by virtue of their ancestry. The Herodians, who barely show up in any of the Gospels, were basically politically aligned with King Herod. The Zealots, one of whom became an apostle, were fiercely nationalistic, looking to overthrow Roman domination, by violence if necessary. (I find it interesting that Simon the Zealot is the only apostle never to have his words recorded by the Gospel writers.) Members of these groups rarely found themselves willingly agreeing with Jesus, and they found common ground in their hatred for Him. His goal of uniting the people of Israel was not based upon finding a consensus of belief among these groups, but rather of revealing and manifesting the truth which He personified, literally. They were to conform to Him, or else. The “or else” being His crucifixion and their loss of salvation. “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” (Mt. 21:43). Even Herod and Pilate became friends in the very act of rejecting Jesus. (Lk. 23:12).

These leaders and ruling class groups conspired against Jesus in secret precisely because the country class, the people, had come to believe that He was the Messiah. “Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult among the people.” (Mt. 26:5). The decision to bring Jesus to Pilate for crucifixion was so that the people, seeing their “Messiah” put to death in such a horrific and scandalous manner, would lose their faith in him and return to them. How could the Savior of Israel, expected to be a conquering hero, be humiliated and executed? The people awoke on Friday morning to see the one they had proclaimed as “Son of David” bound and condemned to death. The scandal was too much for them, and they joined the chorus, “Away with him! Crucify him!” They would, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, rediscover their nascent faith when the apostles began to preach.

The ruling class of modern American life is not unlike those who opposed Jesus during His public ministry. There are self-appointed religious ideologues who decide what is real faith and piety, now found in a belief in such things as global warming, evolution and various dietary restrictions. There are lawyers who do injustice under cover of law and the high priests of education who promote their own and dictate to the mass of humanity how they will act and think. There are, finally, the politically dominant who seek power at the expense of those they are bound to serve. Truth is the victim in this system, except for the wonderful potential of the country class to object in large numbers, and vote that way. For now, anyway.

It would be an error of oversimplification, at best, to consider the recent elections as a national commitment to Christ and His truth. Would that it were so! We have only to consider the election of 2008. The “messiah” of that election was certainly not real, though he won over a large enough number of the “country class” to win. But there is still some hope that those who seek the truth and yearn for the rule of law under the Constitution can make some real changes. It is a battle that will not end soon, unless the end of all comes soon. My hope and prayers is that those who have received a mandate from the people will bear in mind their obligation to the truth. Power is a dangerous thing and has a way of dimming one’s eyes to reality. And there is no real salvation in politics, and the Constitution is not about eternal life. The job of the Christian in this crazy world is to do his or her best to transform the world by the faith and truth that is Christ. We may not achieve the final victory in politics, but by remaining true to our commitment to the truth, we will certainly win the victory of our own conscience.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit." Mt. 27:50

Popular piety, new and old, oftentimes portrays Jesus in an almost whimpering attitude as He makes His way from Gethsemane to Calvary. It is quite understandable when we read of the "Suffering Servant" bearing the sins of the world, beaten and abused by blow and spittle, scourge and thorny crown. And who has not been moved to pity while meditating on the stations of the cross, wherein the Lord falls three times beneath His cross? I feel and think that such a portrayal misses out on some key elements of the passion narrative and of the sense of Who Christ really was and is.

Consider the aforementioned "Suffering Servant" canticles from Isaiah, for a starter. Certainly the "Fifth Evangelist" paints an image of Christ beaten, bruised and bloody, His very humanity effaced by the blows He bears for our transgressions. Yet, think of the passage again, as from Isaiah 50:6-7. "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame." There is majesty in Christ while being spit upon and abused. He "sets his face like flint". I imagine from this that those who slapped and beat Christ were astonished at his resilience and his determination to look them in the eye while they did their deeds. Perhaps it partially explains why the Jewish leaders covered his face. That gaze would have penetrated deep within them. "Where can I hide from your face?" From what I know of humanity and of bullies in general, the serene yet intense look of Christ would have enraged them all the more. He refused to feel ashamed at their taunts and abuse. Showing him downcast and almost in a state of self-pity leaves out the manliness of His character in the midst of torture.

Even while on the way to the cross, Jesus shows His presence of mind, warning the women of Jerusalem to weep for themselves. Sometimes this passage is described as Him consoling them for their grief, yet there is something more prophetic here (in the traditional sense of the term): He is shaking them from their formal act of piety, as sincere as it was, to a more profound penitence on behalf of their own salvation and that of their people. "Weep not for me, but for yourselves!" Not too consoling, from a certain point of view. It should be noted that these women were not the group of ladies who accompanied Him from Galilee, but residents of the City of Jerusalem; probably nice people, but likely a part of the culture of perfunctory religious piety that remained only on the surface. Christ's words were merciful and consoling only in the sense that waking someone up from religious torpor is merciful. Then again, the most merciful form of consolation since it can lead to true repentance! I wonder if some of them walked away saying, "Why, I never!"

And again, even on the cross, Jesus maintains His equanimity of soul. His cry of abandonment, (as terrifying as it is when one considers it comes from the Divine Son, eternally united with the Father in Godhood) is the beginning of one of those most hopeful and daring songs of praise found in the Book of Psalms. In fact, the psalm contains not only references to the details of the crucifixion, but an amazing proclamation of the ultimate victory being won in that very suffering.

Now crucifixion was one of the most painful, humiliating and shameful deaths for a person to undergo, and more so in the case of Christ. Part of its pain lay in the fact that the crucified was unable to exhale, once the weight of his body prevented his diaphragm from raising the lungs. Hence, the Romans would break the legs of the crucified to hasten death, since he would be unable to lift himself up to exhale. Even given the ability to lift oneself up to let out a breath, speaking would have been most difficult. Ask anyone who has run to his limit and needs to catch his breath before trying to speak. Run of a few flights of stairs and try to talk without "taking a moment". Yet, Jesus not only spoke, but was lucid in all of his statements.

Then there is the final breath. Even in Mel Gibson's "The Passion", the final breath is portrayed rather weakly, though dramatically. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all say that Jesus either cried out in a loud voice or uttered a loud cry. John's Gospel simply states, "When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, 'It is finished; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." As peaceful as this passing is, let's remember how the Spirit came down upon the Apostles, with a loud, rushing wind shaking the house, followed tongues of flame. Death is not a natural event, in the sense that the human soul is so intimately united to the body that the individual is one. Christ was truly human. When the soul leaves the body, there is a violence associated with it, no matter how peacefully one may appear to die.

Further, we should consider what took place when Jesus finally "yielded up his spirit": "the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs were opened." So dramatic was the event that even the hardened Roman soldiers were terrified at the earthquake and made the first profession of faith in the crucified Lord: Truly this was the Son of God!"

We know from Scripture and Tradition that the soul of Jesus went down among the dead to preach to them. Dante describes the gates of hell smashed by the entrance of Christ. I allow my imagination to envision Jesus lifting Himself up to take in a final breath, drawing all the sins of the world into His body and then with that loud cry, plunging purposefully into the shades of hades. Earth was not capable of containing Him and shuddered violently at His descent. He is the conquering hero, not the whimpering cast off. The power of that moment caused ripples of energy and grace and power to flow into the very fiber of the universe, from the belly of the earth to the heights of heaven.

There can be a tendency to view Jesus so meek that His tremendous strength of personality gets lost. The manliness of Christ is a model of strength in the face of disillusionment, betrayal and apparent failure, right up to the moment of death. His was not the way of quiet, selfish introspection, but of determined intensity in the service of His mission. He walked among us, a true man among men who was attractive to so many because of His firm resolve and His enduring strength of character. How tiring it is to think of Him so ethereally portrayed walking about sissy-like and, sadly, effeminate. Christ was no dreamer, smiling sweetly like a model social worker. He soothed wounds and healed hearts by gentle strength, but strength nonetheless.

The next time you think of Him in His suffering and are tempted to think of "Poor Jesus", remember that He chose a true poverty to enrich us, first by blasting away our indifference and softness of conscience, revealing our wounds, sometimes with violence, and then grasping us by the hand to raise us up with Himself. It is no minor feat to jump from earth to heaven. We could more easily hop to the moon and beyond. It takes a divine hand, made truly human and strong enough to raise even the dead.