Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Your Priest is Pilate and Judas (and so are you)

People get up in arms sometimes about the symbols that we use around the Eucharist. That's fair. If people don't know what's going on, then it makes sense to be afraid that they are having the wool pulled over their eyes. And, if they get the sense that the priest doesn't know what's going on either (!), then it makes sense to get very uncomfortable.

The problem is complicated because we are centuries beyond what these forms originally meant. We have layers and layers of accreted meaning on simple acts (like the use of incense for odour control!). What should we do? Should we throw them all out? No, I say. Let's give our fathers and mothers in faith the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume that they had something important to do or say with these forms, and let's open our liturgical and theological imaginations to explore the meaning that might be found there.

Take two quintessentially 'catholic' forms: ritual hand washing and kissing the altar. Priests often have their fingers washed before the beginning of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. It seems to represent a washing away of sin and lines up with the Old Testament images of the priests washing themselves in preparation for their priestly service. But, if you haven't seen it before, it can strike you as a little odd. Why is it there?

Also, in some higher church parishes, it is customary to lean down and kiss the altar during the service. This has been seen as a kiss of homage and obedience, as Michael Hunt puts it. It may also be a kiss reverencing the place where the Holy Spirit changes the earthly elements into spiritual food and drink. Either way, it can make many of us uncomfortable.

One of the amazing things about the Eucharistic liturgy is that it retells the story of the Passion. It starts with the "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" as Jesus enters Jerusalem. It continues through recounting the events of the Last Supper. It culminates in the breaking of the bread that both represents and re-presents the broken body of Christ. The offer then of the bread and wine is a hopeful sign of Christ's resurrected and living presence among us.

If the 'narrative' of the Eucharist puts us in the story of the Passion, where might hand-washing and a kiss fit in?

It fits with the prototypical rejecters of Christ. Pilate washes his hands. Judas betrays with a kiss.

What would it mean to see these symbols as re-presenting not only the sanctity of the Passion but also the priest's (and our own) complicity in Christ's death? What if we saw every kiss as the kiss of the betrayer as well as the kiss of homage and obedience? What if we saw the hand washing as simultaneously a sign of handing Christ over to the crowd and being made clean by his sacrifice? Might that draw us into the Eucharist differently? Perhaps more faithfully? Would that be enough to salvage these catholic practices for the evangelical proclamation of the Gospel?

Your priest is Pilate and Judas. And so are you.

[Photo by Rick Jernberg]

Monday, September 19, 2011

God's Good News for the Poor

The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church is meeting 15-20 September in Quito, Ecuador. Many of the sessions have involved giving on-the-ground introductions to liberation theology, "a Christian movement in political theology which interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of a liberation from unjust economic, political, or social conditions" (Wikipedia).

In the 16 September update from the Episcopal News Service, a curious sentence crept in:

All three speakers spoke of how the principles of liberation theology, which is God’s good news for the poor, can speak to our various church contexts.

Granted, this is part of a press release, prepared by members of the HoB likely at the end of a long day of work. In that context, I would be surprised if I could string together a coherent set of sentences, much less something polished enough to publish with ENS.

However, given that caveat, this still strikes me as a rather odd way to put it. The sentence seems to be saying that liberation theology itself, which only began in any formal way in the 1950's, is itself God's good news for the poor! Can that be right?

Alternatively, we could read it to say that the "principles of liberation theology" are God's good news for the poor. I imagine this is a little better, because the principles of liberation theology, as the next sentence put it, are involved with "authentic biblical witness today." However, even this sounds strange, since even though liberation theology's principal theologian Gustavo Gutierrez articulated God's "preferential option for the poor," he still emphasized praxis over doctrine, which sounds rather like emphasizing practice over principles or at least raising practice to the level of principles.

Liberation theology by itself cannot be God's good news for the poor. If that were true, then the poor received no good news from God before the 1950's. The principles of liberation theology aren't either. At its best, those principles are generalities taken from Scripture. They can be great, but they cannot be God's good news for the poor because the Bible by itself is not that either.

But by grace the Bible does show us the way. It points to God's good news for the poor and that good news is not a set of principles, no matter how faithful, but a Person who lived, died, and was raised again, stripping the authorities and rulers of their oppressive power and calling a people to witness to this reign in the here and now in part by taking the side of the weak against the strong. We do ourselves a disservice when we equate this or that theological movement with God's good news for the poor, whether we do it intentionally or not. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and he is the one who fights for us, who pours himself out on the cross for all of us, especially the weak, marginal, and oppressed, and raises us up with him into newness of life.

I suspect, if asked, those three speakers on the 16th would agree substantially with these thoughts. I think we would agree that it would have been better had all three spoken of how the Person of liberation theology, who is God's good news for the poor, could speak to our various church contexts today. He can, and is, we pray, through the speakers' ministry to our bishops in Quito. May the Lord bless them all richly.

[Photo by Dimitri Castrique]

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Christianity, a word among the words?

In the Incarnation, the Word becomes a word among words, or so said David Bentley Hart in his The Beauty of the Infinite. This idea came to mind when I read a new blog over at Cranmer's Curate.

There the author quotes a woman overheard on the BBC saying this about the mandatory acts of public worship at her school:

"We are a very multi-cultural school and were we to mention Jesus it would exclude some of our students."

The Curate promises a cool appraisal and then promptly, and very un-
coolly, calls the woman a "high priestess of political correctness."

While it is plain that the UK is a post-Christian nation and that it would take a radical shift in culture for it to be at ease again with its Christian orientation, I don't think the best route is fulmination. Perhaps the answer is to let Christianity become, as its Lord did, a word among the words. For too long, Christianity was THE word among words, and it alliance with political power in the UK only problematized the faith's relationship to the Commonwealth.

Perhaps it is time for the church to enter graciously into its own kenosis, not counting equality with God as something to be grasped, but taking upon itself the form of a servant in order to proclaim the true Lordship of Christ in our secular age.