Not long ago a friend asked me about Mary Magdalene. Yes, Mary Magdalene. Thanks to Dan Brown and others, she’s been cropping into conversations lately much more than she used to. In any case, the observation had been made in this particular exchange that there existed animosity between the Magdalene and Peter the apostle. From there it was a short step to sharing opinions about Mary’s relationship to Jesus. Were they married? Were they lovers?
After a while, my friend asked in apparent frustration. “But how do they know these things?” The Gospel of Mary Magdalene was mentioned, and then the conversation trailed off into more mundane topics. As a theologian, I was left wishing I was more informed about the Magdalene part of the discussion. I knew there were plenty of recently published books on the topic, but I hadn’t read them. Shortly afterwards, almost by sheer chance one of those books dropped into my lap. It was written by esoteric researcher Lynn Picknett and called The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess. I devoured the volume immediately finding it every bit as interesting and just as much a page-turner as The da Vinci Code.
Unlike Daniel Brown’s work however, Picknett’s work is a largely successful effort at serious scholarship. Though not writing for academicians, she uses non-canonical gospels and heretical sources as well as their biblical counterparts to substantiate her surprising conclusions. Basically, they are that far from being a reformed and eternally penitent prostitute and sinner, Mary Magdalene was actually the spouse or lover of Jesus, possibly an Egyptian priestess, and very likely black. She is the one whom Jesus often “kissed upon the mouth,” and whose intimate relationship with the Christ enraged Jesus’ male companions, especially Peter who actually threatened to kill her. Even more, in words attributed to Jesus in that Gnostic Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), she was “the All,” “The Woman who knows all,” the “apostle of apostles.” Such apostolic primacy makes the Magdalene the true founder of the church and rightful possessor of Peter’s throne. In fact, as the anointer of Jesus, Mary Magdalene may have been his equal – a true Egyptian goddess, an incarnation of Isis. Possibly, she was even Jesus’ superior.
According to Picknett, such pre-eminence even over Jesus should not astonish, for a close reading of the Synoptics and John show that even those Christian propagandists present a Jesus with feet of clay. He was often self-promoting, petulant, irrational, vindictive, and generally unpleasant. The Jesus hidden in those “sacred texts” was a bitter rival of John the Baptist, and may even have been part of a plot which ended in the Baptist’s beheading. In any case, on Picknett’s analysis, Jesus was not the Messiah; John was. And although branded as heretics, John’s followers survive to this day as bitter opponents of the Jesus Movement. Most prominent among them was Leonardo da Vinci.
Even readers of The da Vinci Code would find such positions not only surprising but shocking. But how does Picknett arrive at such conclusions, what are the details of her argument, and how is one to evaluate the evidence she marshals?
Tune in next week to find out. . . .
Next Monday: “The Methodology of Magdalene Scholarship”
Last week Congressman Todd Aikin, a Republican candidate for the Senate from Missouri caused a firestorm of criticism by using the term “legitimate rape.” The phrase arose in the context of controversy about government funding for abortions resulting from forced sex. Mr. Aikin was trying to explain his belief that conception resulting from non-consensual sex (as opposed to “statutory rape”) is next to impossible. In other words, pregnancy following rape indicates that the sexual relations in question were consensual not forced. Mr. Aikin said that when “legitimate rape” occurs, the female body “shuts down” thus preventing conception.
Response to the congressman’s assertions and his use of the term “legitimate rape” was immediate. Even the leadership of the Republican Party called for his withdrawal from the Missouri Senate race. Feminists and others identified Mr. Aikin’s remarks as yet another sign of what they’ve called a “War on Women” – a new virulent offensive against women that would deny them access not only to abortion caused by rape, but to contraception. It is a war which vilifies feminists as “Feminazis” (as Rush Limbaugh puts it). It praises rich and middle class women for staying at home with their children, but condemns poor single mothers for staying home with theirs. The chief protagonists of the war come from the ranks of fundamentalist Christians who take literally St. Paul’s words in today’s second reading – “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”
A few months ago, the Vatican set off its own firestorm by criticizing American Catholic nuns for spending too much effort on serving the poor and on peace and social justice issues, while neglecting issues of more concern to the Vatican – abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage. In response, Rome initiated what it called a process of “Doctrinal Assessment.” Echoing St. Paul and the Evangelical right, it summoned the U.S. sisters to “obedience,” i.e. unquestioning submission to the male ecclesiastical hierarchy. Catholics throughout the world wondered if the Vatican too had declared its own “War against Women.”
A couple of weeks ago Sr. Pat Farrell, the President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) gave her long-awaited Presidential Address – the first since the Vatican harshly criticized the LCWR for what it called its “radical feminist agenda.”In her presidential remarks, Sr. Farrell observed that the world is currently experiencing a very large and comprehensive paradigm shift – i.e. a fundamental change in its framework of understanding. The world is moving, she said, from a paradigm dominated by individualism, patriarchy, and competition to one characterized by equality, collaboration, expansiveness, wholeness, mutuality, intuitive knowing, and love.
To get from here to there, Sr. Farrell called for contemplation and prayer, cultivation of prophetic voice, solidarity with the poor and marginalized, celebration of differences, non-violent self-criticism – and living in joyful hope.
The readings in today’s liturgy had me thinking about the events I just mentioned: about the alleged “War on Women,” the Vatican’s “Doctrinal Assessment” of the LCWR, and Sr. Farrell’s remarks about paradigm shift. In fact today’s readings are all about “paradigm shift.”
That first reading from the book of Joshua addresses a shift in world vision that took place for a group of slaves in Egypt about 3000 years ago. The reading is part of a very important summary of Israel’s ancient faith that appears later on in Chapter 24 (as well as in Deuteronomy 26). The summary performed the same function for the ancient Hebrews that our Nicene Creed accomplishes for us; it’s a brief account of the heart of Hebrew belief. The words were to be recited at occasions of worship. And it ran something like this:
Our father (Abraham) was a wandering Aramean. He went down into Egypt and became a great people. But the Egyptians enslaved our people. In their distress, they called out to Yahweh, who raised up a great prophet. Moses led us out of Egypt, across the sea, and through the desert. He brought us to this land (Canaan) which is ours by the grace of God.
That’s it. Nothing more; nothing less. So much could be said about that summary. It’s about land. It reflects that faith common among all tribal Peoples about the sacredness and God-given nature of their physical place in the world. There’s nothing about heaven or hell in this creed; it’s very this-worldly. Someday we’ll have to pursue the implications of all that. But for now, I just want to point out the paradigm shift represented here.
The shift is connected with women and patriarchy. And it has both an up-side and a down-side as far as women are concerned. The up-side is that a whole new concept of a God of the poor is introduced with this story. It presents the liberating God, “Yahweh”, as overthrowing the God “Osiris” worshipped in Egypt as the God of Empire. With Yahweh, the poor finally have a champion. The God of the slave-owning rich is removed from his throne. In the “history of God,” that was a splendid achievement. But it had a down-side.
The down-side was that Yahweh was not just the God of the poor, he was also a patriarchal God – a God of war. And he replaced not only Osiris, but the Goddess Isis, the beloved mother of Horus, the Egyptian God of Light. In other words, with Yahweh an exclusively patriarchal God is adopted by the escaped Hebrew slaves. Something similar happened when the Hebrews invaded Canaan, their “promised land.” There Ashera was the much-loved female Goddess treasured by the Canaanites. Yahweh took her place.
All of this reflected a huge world-wide paradigm shift in human understandings of God. It went far beyond the Middle East and actually began about 10,000 years ago. With the rise of agriculture, and its accompanying need to defend fields, crops and stored grain, male warrior Gods like the Hebrew’s Yahweh everywhere supplanted their female counterparts who had reigned for 50,000 years.
I’m reminding you of all this because the world vision that resulted in the relatively recent shift from a female Goddess to a male, tribal, warrior God inevitably impacted Paul and the words he wrote in his letter to Ephesus which we heard this morning. It’s unavoidable that when God is thought of as a male, males begin to think of themselves as God. Listen to Paul’s words again: “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”
Yes, it’s true Paul tells husbands to care for their wives. But even here the reason for doing so is quite male-centered: in loving their wives, husbands are really loving themselves. As Paul put it, “He who loves his wife loves himself.”
No doubt Jesus originally had an outlook similar to Paul’s. How could he not? He was indoctrinated into that patriarchal viewpoint just like Paul. Evidently his father and mother raised him as a good Jew with all that it entailed – including a profound machismo. So Jesus imagined God to be father – “abba” (daddy) was the charming term he used. Never once however did he refer to God as “imma” (mommy), as he well might have since nearly everyone has always agreed that God is neither male nor female.
But Jesus grew (as Luke says) in wisdom as time went on. Gradually, he underwent a personal paradigm shift. In his parables he used women as images of how God acts – mixing leaven in dough, and thoroughly sweeping her house in search of a lost coin. He imagined prostitutes entering God’s kingdom with the male priests and religious lawyers trailing far behind. He forgave a woman caught in adultery, and shamed the men who would stone her. He had no qualms about speaking alone with a woman of questionable reputation. In fact his first resurrection appearances were to women.
Who knows, Mary Magdalene might well have been instrumental in converting Jesus from Jewish machismo to his kind of proto-feminism? After all, in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus praises her as the “one who knows all.” In that same Gospel, he angers the patriarchal (and jealous) Peter by often kissing Magdalene (as Thomas says) “on the mouth.” In John’s Gospel, it is to Mary Magdalene that Jesus first appears on Easter Sunday morning. (By the way, I hope everyone reading this will also read my upcoming series on Mary Magdalene – beginning on Monday.)
In any case, the Jesus who leaves machismo behind ends up embodying the virtues most often considered feminine: care, compassion, feelings, intuition, and spontaneity – the sort of things Sr. Pat Farrell was calling for in her presidential address . Such virtues enable John the Evangelist to describe Jesus as a “Spirit Person” in today’s Gospel reading. According to John, it is Jesus’ spirit, not his male body that gives life and makes him “the holy one of God.”
I suppose what I’m saying this morning is that if the War against Women –i.e. against more than half the human race – is to stop; if both Evangelical Christians and the Catholic hierarchy are to finally embrace Jesus as speaking “words of eternal life,” they (we) must begin seeing the world through Jesus’ converted eyes – and acting like the Jesus who was liberated from machismo and patriarchy.
And perhaps it’s time for church leadership to begin speaking like the women they try to censor. I at least find Sister Farrell’s words about contemplation, prophetic voice, solidarity with the marginalized, celebrating differences, non-violence, and joyful hope far more inspiring than the Vatican’s insistence upon “obedience” and submission.
Sister Farrell is probably correct. It’s time for another big paradigm shift – one that again shows us the female countenance of God. I believe she (rather than her Vatican assessors) gave us a glimpse of that countenance a few weeks ago.
What do you think is preventing God’s womanly countenance from being seen ? What can we do to stop the war on women? (Discussion follows)
Coming Monday: “Everyone’s Talking about Mary Magdalene” (First in a Monday series)
For the past several weeks, I’ve been writing off and on about my love-hate relationship with golf. Now in my declining years, my affair with the game remains as tangled as ever.
For example, when I retired a little over two years ago, I decided to get serious about the game. I bought a couple of books, subscribed to some DVDs, and for stretches played about four times a week. Of course, with all of that my scores lowered. A couple of times, I almost shot par on the easiest of the courses we play – and once (for nine holes) on a more difficult course. But mostly my scores remained in the 90s, sometimes, early in the season and on the tougher courses, creeping again above 100. More than once, I’ve threatened to pack it in completely.
But then I read Deepak Chopra’s Golf for Enlightenment: the seven lessons of the game of life. My golfing history and a life-long commitment to meditation made me pick up the book. Come to think of it, I’ve had a relationship with meditation that somewhat mirrors the golfing account I’ve been sharing here. This brings me to the ”life” and “enlightenment” part of these reflections.
You see, I had always been a religious boy. In fact, I entered the seminary to study for the priesthood at the age of 14. (Yes, the Catholic Church used to run what they called “minor seminaries” for aspirants that young despite an extremely high attrition rate.) I persevered though and was ordained in the Society of St. Columban at the age of 26. My training for the priesthood (along with the guidance I had received from the Sisters of St. Joseph in my earliest schooling) introduced me to the spiritual life about the same time my dad was acquainting me with golf. During my novitiate, at the age of 20, I was introduced to meditation in a serious way. I continued meditating every day for the next 12 years. I stopped that practice about the time I stopped playing golf – and for similar reasons. I had convinced myself I didn’t have time for it, what with job, family obligations and all.
But then 15 years ago – about the time we were in Zimbabwe and the boys were learning golf (See Part 2 of this series) – my wife showed me the error of my ways and got me meditating again. Peggy showed me a whole new approach to life – one based on the writings of Eknath Easwaran, a meditation teacher from the Kerala state in India. (Actually, the spirituality wasn’t wholly new, but a more mature reclaiming what I had been introduced to early on). Easwaran’s approach to spirituality combined the best of eastern and western traditions. All of that was completely resonant with the Catholic mysticism that had been so much a part of my training for the priesthood. Easwaran wrote of “enlightenment,” “one-pointed attention,” “slowing down,” “detachment,” and “leela” (i.e. “divine play”).
Golf for Enlightenment centralized all those concepts and more. But it not only taught spirituality; it reinforced a connection between golf and spirituality that had occurred to me independently, as well as to so many others: there is something quite spiritual about the game. Its ups and downs, its unpredictability, its frustrations and joys play out the drama of life and reveal what we are made of. Mastering the game is not about winning competitions or shooting par; it’s about conquering oneself and surrendering to life in the spirit of detachment. That’s what “enlightenment” means.
Chopra’s book is really a novel. It’s the story of Adam, a hacker just like me, and his encounter with Leela, a twenty-something golf instructor who takes him under her wing. Leela gives Adam seven lessons that change not only his golf game, but his very life. She teaches him (1) Be of One Mind, (2) Let the Swing Happen, (3) Find the Now and You’ll Find the Shot, (4) Play from Your Heart to the Hole, (5) Winning is Passion with Detachment, (6) The Ball Knows Everything, and (7) Let the Game Play You. Those are the chapter titles. And their content shows Chopra not only to be an enlightened spiritual teacher, but a skilled novelist as well. Both Adam and Leela (really the only two characters in the book) are likeable and credible.
And they made me realize that my approach to golf (and to life?) has for the most part been. . . well, unenlightened. As I said, I’ve been frustrated by the game. Like Adam in Chopra’s book, nothing I do in golf ever seems good enough. Despite my best efforts, when I step up to the first tee, I’m concerned what those watching me might be thinking. Even when I hit the ball straight, it’s never long enough for me. I might drain a 25 footer on the green; but I chalk it up to “luck” never to my skill. If players are waiting behind me, I feel pressure for playing too slowly. As I set up for my 50 foot approach shot, I find myself praying, “Don’t let me shank this.” If I have a good round going through the sixth hole, I’m convinced it will all fall apart on the seventh, and that my final score will be 45 or 46 – again. It usually is. Don’t even talk to me about bunkers and traps. In short, apart from bonding with Brendan and Patrick, there’s little joy in my game. Little fun. Lots of stress and strain.
Golf’s not supposed to be like that, Chopra reminds us. Life’s not supposed to be like that. Yes, both should be marked by dedication and devotion. But paradoxically, true dedication and devotion involve surrender, detachment, forgiveness of self and others, not worrying about results or score. They’re about transcending sorrow, jealousy, self-importance, fear, and self-criticism. What hard lessons those are to practice in a culture as restricted, unforgiving, and bottom-line focused as our own.
Chopra’s own words say it best:
When you can laugh at a bad shot, you’ve transcended sorrow. When you can take genuine pleasure in some else’s victory, you’ve transcended jealousy. When you can feel satisfied with a round of ninety-seven instead of eighty, you’ve transcended self-importance . . . only when you set your sights to go beyond outcome can you allow in the possibility of defeating the voice of self-criticism and ending the frustration that holds in check deeper, darker fears. (Chapter 7)
All of this, I hope will increase my love for the game in the future and lessen my antipathy for it. Chopra’s insights might even make me more compassionate while watching someone like Tiger Woods. You see, it’s all relative. In his own way, Tiger’s as unenlightened as I am. He’s as unhappy with his game as I am with mine. When I see him swing so hard and slice his ball into an adjacent parking lot, when I hear the expletives that follow, I realize that his game is even more filled with strain, stress and unhappiness than my own. And despite his millions, Tiger might be even less happy with his life than I am with mine.
After all, even for him, it’s not about lower scores, winning majors, or being the greatest golfer in history. For him as for me and everyone else, it’s about enlightenment.
Today’s Readings: Prv. 9:1-6; Ps. 34:2-7; Eph. 5:15-20; Jn. 6:51-58
Not long ago in my summertime parish church in Michigan, we celebrated an important anniversary. Previous pastors, religious sisters who had faithfully served our community in years past along with former parishioners who had moved away were all present. Even the bishop of our diocese was there.
Most importantly, friends from other Christian denominations were in attendance. How wonderful, I thought, that the spirit of Vatican II has prevailed in the show of ecumenism that those non-Catholic friends represented. Before the Second Vatican Council, previously “separated brothers and sisters in Christ” present at a Roman Catholic communion table would have been unthinkable.
Before Mass handshakes and embraces greetings, laughter and the usual inter-denominational jokes prevailed. “Fancy meeting you here!” I heard more than once from Catholics as they greeted their friends from our local Unitarian Church. Baptists came back with remarks about “the house of smells and bells.” Things like that . . . Great fun, great community, great meaning. . .
And the Mass itself was fine. A beloved former pastor gave a wonderful homily. In its course, he recognized the splendor of the occasion, of the reunion, of the strides in ecumenism that the congregation represented that particular day: Protestants and Catholics gathered around the communion table expressing their deeply shared faith in Jesus who before the birth of the church and way before the emergence of “denominations,” requested all followers to break bread together “in remembrance of me.”As I was saying, all of this was previously so unthinkable.
But then just when things were advancing so swimmingly, something else unthinkable occurred. Just before communion, our current pastor (just a year or so ordained) announced that non-Catholics would not be allowed to receive communion. That’s right, he said that guests invited to “the Lord’s Supper” were not to eat or drink at the Lord’s Table! In order to do so, he explained, communicants must share Roman Catholic belief in “the real presence” of Jesus in the communion wafers and under the appearances of wine. (He was talking about the arcane notion of “transubstantiation.”)
Well, following that announcement, you could have heard a pin drop. We all checked our hearing aids. Say what? More than one of us, I’m sure, thought, “What on earth are they teaching seminarians these days?” Invite your friends to a banquet, and then refuse to share the meal? That’s not only unthinkable; it’s inhospitable, rude, and profoundly embarrassing.
Today’s readings address the absurdity of such prohibition and of the understanding of God, Jesus, bread and wine that lie behind it. Such silliness is corrected by words about God’s essentially feminine wisdom, about the “real presence” of Jesus, and where to find both God’s wisdom and Christ’s presence. In doing all of this, the readings also exemplify the normalcy of diverse and even conflicting understandings of Christianity in general and of Eucharist in particular.
To begin with, the first reading from the Book of Proverbs suggests that if priests were women, nothing like what happened in our church could have occurred. In fact, the reading imagines God’s wisdom and God’s “church” in completely feminine, completely hospitable terms. Those terms have the Goddess of Wisdom setting a splendid table filled with rich foods, bread and wine. Most women, most mothers can relate to that; it’s something they do every day. On special occasions they set especially fancy tables like the one pictured in the reading from Proverbs. Wise mothers would never refuse to share food even with unexpected drop-ins. They’d simply add a little water to the soup to help it go around.
Then the female God’s agents (maidens all) call everyone to the table. In this the maidens are performing the essential function of church (in Greek: ek-klesia) – i.e. calling the people together. (They are acting as priests and bishops.) And there is no sense of exclusion here either; no pre-understanding of the menu is required. In fact, those “without understanding” are specifically invited to “come and eat my food.” Again, all of this is completely feminine.
Understanding, the text notes, is the result of eating; it is not required before eating. In terms relevant to today’s topic, one doesn’t have to understand transubstantiation (who does?) to eat at the Lord’s Table. On the contrary, according to Proverbs, the act of eating advances comprehension, which (since we’re dealing with the infinite) can only grow, deepen, and evolve in the course of history.
However, instead of such openness to growth, the Catholic hierarchy’s exclusionary understanding of Eucharist evinces deep frozen stability. It has taken an explanation of Eucharist which emerged in 12th century (long after Jesus, of course) and concretized that as the only acceptable understanding of what takes place at the Lord’s Supper – and that for all time.
In fact, the doctrine of transubstantiation emerged principally as a defensive “ideological weapon” against spiritual groups like the Cathars or Albigensians. This so-called “heresy” arose in the 12th century and was cruelly persecuted by Rome. Albigensians attacked the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the powers of priests, and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Transubstantiation was meant to defend clerical privilege. It accorded to approved priests a quasi-magical power not recognized in “those others.”
The Albigensians’ attack on the hierarchy and clergy only intensified with the Protestant Reformation. It caused Rome to further dig in its heels about clerical authority and those quasi-magical powers belonging exclusively to its patriarchy. So at the Council of Trent (1545-64) Rome declared:
If anyone should say that by the words, “Do this in memory of me,” Christ did not consecrate the apostles as priests or did not command the apostles and other priests to offer his own body and his own blood, let him be anathema. If anyone should say that the sacrifice of the mass is only an act of praise or thanksgiving, or that it is merely a commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross but is not propitiatory, let him be anathema.
The term “anathema” was a kind of “curse”, used by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to disqualify all (like our non-Catholic friends in Michigan) who did not think or believe as they did. When an “anathema” was dictated against someone, the person was expelled from the community (excommunicated) and separated from religious society as someone “cursed” by God.
In the terms of today’s readings, placing such time-bound limitations on God is “foolishness.” In this morning’s excerpt from Ephesians, Paul urges us to be open to the Spirit and to continually rethink previous understandings of God and his will.
Similarly, today’s excerpt from John’s Gospel shows how the early church was quite adept at such openness to new meanings and to creatively re-imagining the significance of Jesus and his words.
As I noted in last week’s reflections, the words about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood could not possibly have been spoken by the Jewish Jesus to a Jewish audience. After all, drinking any kind of blood – not to mention human blood – was expressly forbidden by the Mosaic Law.
However, by the time John wrote his Gospel (anywhere between about 90 C.E. and 110) John’s audience (predominantly non-Jews) was highly influenced by Gnostic beliefs. Gnostics – and John’s audience – were all quite familiar with “dying and rising Gods” and with the ritual practice of metaphorically eating the Gods’ flesh and drinking the Gods’ blood by sharing bread and wine. So to them, Jesus could be explained in precisely those terms, even if it meant putting into the mouth of Jesus words that he could never have spoken. So John has Jesus say that eating his flesh as bread and drinking his blood as wine would unite believers with him as a “dying and rising God” and open access to eternal life.
This is an example of the startling freedom early Christian teachers had to adapt their message to the social and cultural understandings of their audiences. They weren’t hampered by exclusionary doctrines, dogmas, and definitions like the one involving “transubstantiation.” They were prepared to use any “hook” they could find to hang the meaning they saw in Jesus’ life for the benefit of good-willed people.
Moreover, the “real presence” John was concerned about had nothing to do with the containment of an infinite God within a wafer or sip of wine. John’s audience was worried about connecting with the long-dead Master from Galilee. How might they do this? That was their question. John’s response was “Do what Jesus did: share food and drink.” And he wasn’t talking about “the Mass.” Sharing of bread with the hungry is what makes Jesus present. In fact “bread” and Jesus’ “flesh,” “wine” and Jesus’ “blood” are all interchangeable terms. It’s the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup with the poor that makes Jesus present.
For years before I retired from teaching I taught a required course at Berea College called “Understandings of Christianity.” If I learned anything from teaching that course, it is that from the beginning, there were many understandings of Jesus and the meaning of being his follower. I’ve been trying to communicate an illustration of that this morning. John’s understanding was not that of Mark, Matthew, or Luke. Yet John’s adaptation of Jesus’ words (not to say his invention of them) exemplifies inclusion rather than its opposite.
Our clergy might well take such lessons to heart before they misuse the Eucharist for purposes of consolidating their power and authority – for punishing others in the name of Jesus for not agreeing with them. Protestants might not see eye-to-eye with Rome about a 12th century explanation of the Holy Communion. They might not recognize the authority of the Pope. (How many Catholics don’t either?) But “our separated brothers and sisters” represent important, indispensable and authentic “understandings of Christianity.”
That’s the lesson to be drawn from today’s readings — not only from John the Evangelist, but the Goddess of Wisdom and her table set for all comers.
It’s also the message of Vatican II – which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church.
Incorporation into “The Body of Christ”
“Nomen est Omen”
The Celebrated: Orlando Peter Lehnerd-Reilly
– Maggie and Kerry Lehnerd-Reilly (Parents)
– MC: Peggy Rivage-Seul (Orlando’s Grandmother)
– Baptizer: Mike Rivage-Seul (Orlando’s Grandfather)
– Godparents: Katy Fagan (Orlando’s Great Aunt) and Brendan Rivage-Seul (Orlando’s Uncle)
– Prayers of the Faithful: Carla Perusquia Torres (Orlando’s Au Pair)
– Relatives and Friends of Orlando Peter
Music: “Down to the River To Pray”
As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way !
O, sisters let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down,
O sisters let’s go down
Down in the river to pray.
As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way !
O, brothers let’s go down. . .starry crown
O, fathers let’s go down. . .robe and crown
O, mothers let’s go down. . .starry crown
O, Orlando let’s go down . . .robe and crown
Peggy: Welcome, everyone, to this beautiful occasion – the incorporation of yet another member into the Community of Faith we call “The Body of Christ!” We have come together to welcome into our midst little Orlando Peter Lehnerd-Reilly whose parents, Maggie and Kerry, have expressed the desire to raise as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Let me begin by asking the traditional questions. . .Maggie and Kerry, why have you come here today?
Maggie: We have come to have our son baptized.
Peggy: And what is the name you wish to give your son?
Maggie: His first name is Orlando.
Kerry: And his middle name is Peter, after Orlando’s Grandpa Peter, (and also after one of his sister’s favorite literary characters, Peter Pan).
Peggy: We are so happy that you have come to have your son baptized. Remember that by doing so you are pledging to train him in the practice of the faith we all share. It will be your duty not simply to teach him in words, but more importantly by your personal example of loving God, each other and his people – especially the poor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?
Maggie & Kerry: We do
Peggy (to the Godparents): And are you, Katy and Brendan, ready to help Maggie and Kerry in their duty as Christian parents?
Katy and Brendan: We are.
Peggy: Orlando Peter, the Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name, I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of his cross. I now trace the cross on your forehead, and invite your parents and godparents to do the same. Now to set the tone for this holy gathering, please join me in listening to the scriptural account of Jesus’ own baptism.
Liturgy of the Word
Mike (Orlando’s Baba): A reading from the Gospel of Mark. (1:9-15)
Brief Reflections: “Orlando and the Kingdom of God”
Music: “Come to the Water”
Oh let all who thirst, let them come to the water
And let all who have nothing, let them come to the Lord
Without money, without price
Why should you pay the price? Except for the Lord
And let all who seek, let them come to the water
And let all who have nothing, let them come to the Lord
Without money, without strife
Why should you spend your life? Except for the Lord
And let all who toil, let them come to the water
And let all who are weary, let them come to the Lord
All who labor, without rest
How can your soul find rest? Except for the Lord
And let all the poor, let them come to the water
Bring the ones who are laden, bring them all to the Lord
Bring the children, without might
Easy the load and light. Come to the Lord
Prayers of the Faithful
Let us pray in thanksgiving for Orlando Peter whose presence reminds us of our own prophetic calling to live in innocence, gentleness, openness, love, and commitment to peace and justice. Let us pray to the Lord
Let us pray for Orlando’s parents, Maggie and Kerry, that they may grow in their own faith, and share that faith generously with Orlando Peter by word and example. Let us pray to the Lord.
Let us pray for Orlando’s sister, Ineva Kathryn , that she may continue to be a good big sister always setting a loving example for her brother. Let us pray to the Lord.
Let us pray for Orlando’s brother, Oscar Michael, that he may grow into his special name, and lead a life in the example of Oscar Romero. Let us pray to the Lord.
Let us pray for peace in the world, and for the end of war, particularly in Afghanistan, where Orlando’s godfather, Uncle Brendan, will be working next year. Let us pray to the Lord.
And for what else shall we pray? (Pause for spontaneous prayer from the community)
Peggy: God, our Mother and Father, hear our prayers. Make us all faithful followers of your Son, Jesus, the Christ. Pour out his Spirit of justice, peace and love on little Orlando Peter. May his life make a difference in this world. May he be courageous and strong in the expression of his faith just as were the great heroines and heroes of the faith we now invoke:
Holy Mary, Mother of God:
All: Pray for us!
St. Joseph, Protector of Jesus and Mary:
All: Pray for us!
St. Francis of Assisi, father of environmentalism:
All: Pray for us!
St. Clare, loving companion of St. Francis:
All: Pray for us!
Martin Luther King, tireless worker for racial justice:
All: Pray for us!
Mahatma Gandhi, “Great Soul” and liberator of millions from colonialism:
All: Pray for us!
Oscar Romero, martyred bishop of El Salvador, patron of liberation theology:
All: Pray for us!
Dorothy Day, companion of the poor, founder of the Catholic Worker:
All: Pray for us!
Caesar Chavez, hero of the United Farm Workers and of the Hispanic community:
All: Pray for us!
All you holy saints of God who worked for justice and peace
All: Pray for us!
Baptism: Incorporation into the “Body of Christ”
Mike: The time has come to incorporate Orlando into the Body of Christ. This beautiful rite makes him an official member of our Community of Faith. Before proceeding, however, we’re asked to recall what our faith means. So please join me in this profession of faith. Everyone, please respond:
Do you renounce the Spirit of the World with its greed, lust, anger, fear, violence and war?
All: We do.
Do you recognize that the promises of the world in its selfishness, advertising, consumerism, and prejudices are empty and lead to death of the Spirit rather than to the fullness of life?
All: We do.
Do you reject then the spirit of the World, its grasping, consumerism, selfishness and wars?
All: We do.
Do you choose instead to follow Christ who healed the sick, fed the hungry, visited the imprisoned, and whose life brought good news to the poor and outcast?
All: We do.
Do you promise to do so, even if it brings you to the same end as Jesus, death at the hands of Empire and of those who falsely thought they were serving God?
All: We do.
Do you believe in God, the Mother and Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?
All: We do.
Mike: Let us then profess the faith we share:
All: We believe in humankind
And in a world, in which
There is room for everyone,
And that it is our task to create
Such a world.
We believe in equal rights for all people,
In love, justice, brotherhood and peace.
We must continually act out these beliefs.
We are inspired to do so, because we believe
In Jesus of Nazareth.
And we wish to model our lives on his.
In doing so, we believe that we
Are drawn into the mysterious relationship
With the One, whom Jesus called his Father.
Because of our belief in Jesus,
We make no claims to exclusivity;
We shall work together with others
For a better world.
We believe in the community of the faithful,
And in our task to be the salt of the earth
And the light of the world.
But all of this in humility,
Carrying our cross every day.
And we believe in the resurrection
Whatever it may mean.
Mike: This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it, in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Mike (to Maggie & Kerry): Is it your will that Orlando Peter be baptized in the faith of the Church, which we have all professed with you?
Maggie & Kerry: It is.
Mike: Orlando Peter Lehnerd-Reilly, I baptize you in the name of the Father,
And of the Son
And of the Holy Spirit
Music: “We Remember”
We remember how you loved us
To your death
And still we celebrate for you are with us still.
And we believe that we will see you
When you come in your glory, Lord.
We remember. We celebrate. We believe.
Mike: Everyone, please give your blessing to Orlando as we pass among you while we sing “Sabbath Prayer.”
Music: “Sabbath Prayer”
May the Lord protect and defend you
May he always shield you from shame
May you come to be among us all a shining name
May you be like Peter the apostle
May you be deserving of praise
Strengthen him O Lord and keep him from the stranger’s ways
(bridge) May God bless you and grant you a long life
May the Lord fulfill our Sabbath prayer for you
May God make you a good follower of Christ
May he send you teachers who will care for you
May the Lord protect and defend you
May the Lord preserve you from pain
Favor him o lord with happiness and peace
O hear our Sabbath prayer, Amen
Final Affirmation of Original Goodness and Light
Anointing after Baptism:
Peggy: Orlando Peter, you have been welcomed into our community of faith. We are enriched by the presence of your Original Goodness. We recognize and accept our call to recover our own innocence as gentle, open, and loving creatures like you. As you grow, we pledge to help you preserve and live out your goodness despite the temptations and deceits of the consumer culture that would shape you by its selfishness and greed. We pray that all of us may be faithful followers of Jesus who lived for others rather than for himself. This anointing reminds us of our call – of your call – to own your power as Priest, Prophet, and Leader in your new community of faith.
Peggy: Anoints Orlando.
Clothing with the White Garment
Peggy: Orlando Peter, we now clothe you in this white garment that was worn by your grandfather, Peter, whose name you bear. Recognize this garment as an outward sign of the goodness of God’s presence within you. With your mother, father, family, and friends to help you by word and example, may you continue to manifest that presence in everything you say and do.
Peggy: (After lighting baptismal candle, she hands it to Katy and Brendan) Katy and Brendan, receive the light of Christ on behalf of your godson. I give it to you with the prayer that Orlando might be a light to our world, just as Jesus was. Please help him keep the candle of his faith, love, and good works burning gently and (when necessary) fiercely for the benefit of all.
Peggy: (Hands the candle to Katy) Receive this candle for Orlando.
Katy: May Orlando and all of us be a light to the world!
Peggy: (Takes the candle from Katy and gives it to Brendan.) Receive this candle for Orlando.
Brendan: May Orlando and all of us be a light to the world! (He returns the candle to Peggy)
Peggy: My dear friends, our celebration is ended. Let us go now to love and serve one another and the world.
All: Thanks be to God.
Music: “This Little Light Of Mine”
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine (3xs)
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!
I’m going to take this light around the world, and I’m gonna let it shine. .
I won’t let anyone (blow) it out. .
Every day, every day, I’m gonna let my little light shine!
Well, here we are again at what’s becoming an annual ritual for our clan. This is our third baptism in three years. My first thought standing here is that “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.” Maggie and Kerry, see what you can do about that!
Just kidding, of course . . . The truth is we’re all so happy to be here to at this beautiful lakeside setting to welcome into our community of faith Maggie and Kerry’s third child and Peggy’s and my third grandchild. (We all feel so proud.) We have here another child of God filled with the original goodness we celebrated and are still graced with in the presence of big sister, Eva, and big brother, Oscar. We’re here to incorporate Orlando (“Peter Pan,” “Howdy Doody”) into the Body of those aspiring to live in the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth.
Yes, we’re here to celebrate “original goodness,” even though since St. Augustine in the 5th century, the emphasis in Christian baptism has been on “Original Sin. ” That seems so negative, doesn’t it, in the presence of the innocence so evident in children like Eva, Oscar, and Orlando? I remember speaking about that at Eva’s baptism three years ago.
However second thought has made me realize that there is some wisdom in the idea of Original Sin – that we’re born into sin even as infants. And here I’m talking about personal sin. Rather, I’m referencing the atmosphere of selfishness, greed, violence, and purposelessness that all of us are steeped in, and that we imbibe with our mother’s milk. We gulp all of that in with our first breath, and we grow into it getting more and more deeply mired as the years go by. As a result even for the best of us, any thought of other-centeredness, generosity, peacemaking and faith become marginalized as unrealistic, utopian, and naïve. That’s Original Sin.
Embracing it, living according to our culture’s hopeless convictions means we’ve forgotten our baptismal promises and commitment made for us vicariously when we were infants like Orlando. We’ve forgotten what we subsequently embraced consciously on the day of our Confirmation.
The grace and beauty of an occasion like this is that it presents each of us with an opportunity to remember those commitments (vicarious and conscious) and to reorient ourselves on the path that was trod so faithfully by Jesus of Nazareth. It was a utopian path, a prophetic path.
Think about the Gospel reading we just shared. There Jesus presents himself for baptism at the River Jordan. He’s baptized. The heaven’s open and a voice reveals to him – or reminds him – that he is a beloved child of God, like Orlando here. He goes out into the desert for a forty day retreat – on a vision quest to find out what that revelation might mean. He gets the vision of angels and devils, of rocks turning to bread, of leaping from the pinnacle of the Temple, of all the kingdoms of the world that might be his. With those visions and possibilities in mind, he decides on his path.
The next thing we know, he’s in the Galilee preaching. Mark sums up his message in a single sentence: “The time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.”
In other words, Jesus’ decision was to dedicate his life not to preaching about himself, not to his culture’s beliefs that some people were inherently clean and others unclean, not to the service of the Roman Empire, not even to the ethnocentric Kingdom of David. Instead, his focus was the Kingdom of God. His conviction that it is coming to this world in the here and now is what he calls the Good News. His message is a call to change the world accordingly.
And what is the Kingdom of God? In brief, it is what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In that world everything would be reversed: the rich would become poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first; prostitutes and sinners would enter before the priests and doctors of religious law.
Following Jesus means believing living and working as though that other world were possible here and now despite all evidence to the contrary.
So here we are at another baptism. And our presence on this lakeshore proclaims to Orlando the words Jesus heard on the banks of the Jordan, “You are my beloved Son; my favor rests on you.” In the years ahead of him, Orlando’s going to try to figure out what those words mean. He’ll see those visions that Jesus saw during his forty day retreat. The world will speak the devil’s lines. “Live for pleasure, profit, prestige, and power. There’s really nothing else to life. After all, you only go around once.”
Today we’re saying “No” on Orlando’s behalf and for ourselves. We’re saying “No” to a life dedicated to pleasure, profit, power and prestige. We’re saying “Yes” to the Kingdom – to the other world our culture says is impossible, unrealistic and naïve. Our hope is that Orlando will one day make his own the “No” and the “Yes” we speak for him at his baptism.
By the way, did you know that Orlando’s name means “renowned land” – famous country? In the context of today’s celebration and our Gospel reading, his name can only be a reference to that renowned “Kingdom of God” that meant so much to Jesus. In other words, Orlando’s name, his very presence should be a constant reminder that we are Kingdom people. Orlando is our Kingdom Child, our Kingdom Boy. As long as he lives, his presence and name should remind us of this day – that our guiding Kingdom vision makes us different in what we hope for, live for, talk about, and work for.
Orlando, Kingdom Boy, thank you for reminding us of who we are!
Now let’s get on with your baptism, beloved child of God.
Thursday’s Post: The highly edited Roman Catholic baptismal ritual we used for Orlando
Readings: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51
How’s your spiritual journey going these days?
Does the question surprise you?
“’Journey’ did you say?” you might ask. “What journey?”
Well, my question was about growth in awareness of God’s presence and of God’s various manifestations. Do you feel yourself closer to God than you did, say, as a child?
“Oh, if that’s what you mean,” you might answer, “there hasn’t been much going on there. Actually, I’m quite discouraged about the whole thing. There hasn’t really been much of what I’d call ‘growth.’ I’m kind of treading water. And then when I think something’s going on – after I’ve read a good book or article on the topic – some bishop or priest tells me I’m wrong and am losing my faith. It seems they want me to stand still rather than ‘journey,’
“For instance, take today’s readings. That story about Elijah seems like a child’s tale. I mean: angels, miraculous bread . . . And then those words of Jesus: he is bread; we’re supposed to eat his flesh? It all seems so (excuse me) absurd. I suppose Jesus was talking about the Eucharist or something. But I’m finding it harder and harder to believe even what I’ve been taught about that. God in a piece of bread? I’m afraid my faith is threatened rather than strengthened by readings like those in this morning’s liturgy. Spiritually I’m feeling rather discouraged.”
If what I’ve just said reflects your own thoughts and feelings, you’re in good company. There comes a point in everyone’s life where faith has to be reassessed – where what we were taught and believed as children no longer meets our adult needs. At those times discouragement (despondency is the term used in today’s first reading) is actually a good sign. It can mean we’ve outgrown old ways of thinking and are being called to growth which is always difficult. So we shouldn’t give up in the face of discouragement, but embrace it with hope.
With that in mind, please realize that today’s readings are about the spiritual journey, the search for God and the discouragement that comes along with it. They are about finding God’s presence hidden in plain sight – within our own flesh (as Jesus put it) – closer to us than our jugular vein.
That theme of spiritual journey is announced in the first reading – the story about the prophet Elijah fed by angels under a juniper tree. Elijah did his work in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 800 years before the birth of Jesus. He is remembered as one of the great, great prophets of the Jewish Testament. In fact, he was so powerful that Jesus’ followers thought Jesus to be the prophet’s reincarnation. John the Baptist’s followers thought the same about him. (Btw: does that mean that Jesus and his contemporaries believed in reincarnation?) So Elijah is a key figure in our tradition.
In any case, today’s story about Elijah describes the classic stages of the spiritual journey that we’re all called to – from immature believing things about God and Jesus to something more holistic that finds and honors God’s manifestations everywhere.
As we join him in today’s first reading, Elijah is described as beginning a literal journey. He’s traveling to Mt. Horeb (or Sinai) – the place where Moses and the slaves who had escaped from Egypt made their Covenant with their God, Yahweh. As pick up the story, Elijah is confused about God (“despondent”), and evidently thinks that by returning to the origins of his faith, he’ll get some clarity.
At this stage of his spiritual growth, Elijah’s faith is less mature. He has a very ethnocentric idea about God. And he’s being called to move beyond that stage of development. The ethnocentric idea has it that God is all about us – our people, our nation, our wars, our prosperity. God is our God and we are his chosen people – truly exceptional. In passages from the Book of Kings just before today’s reading Elijah manifested that understanding of God in a contest with the priests of Baal – a Phoenician God that the King of Israel, Achab and his wife Jezebel had flirted with.
You remember the story. Elijah challenged forty priests to a contest – your sacrifices against ours. Call on your gods to light your sacrificial fires, and I’ll call on Yahweh, and then we’ll see who’s really God. Of course, the priests of Baal can’t get their gods to come through. They chant, and dance, and sing. But the sacrificial wood remains cold. However Yahweh comes through for his prophet; he lights Elijah’s fire even though in a display of bravado, the prophet had the wood doused with water. Not only that, but Yahweh kills the forty priests for good measure.
That’s the ethnocentric idea: “Our God is better than your god. He has more magic power.” And he’s (this is almost always a male concept) very violent and vindictive. He’ll turn on you and go off on you at the drop of a hat. That’s the God that no longer seems to be working for Elijah. It has made him a wanted man. Queen Jezebel is after him and wants his head. Life is not worth living, the prophet concludes. He wants it all to end – there under the juniper tree.
But two people (whom Elijah later understands as messengers from God) feed him, and on the strength of food provided by strangers he completes his journey and arrives at a cave high on Mt. Sinai. And there God reveals his true nature not as an ethnocentric God belonging to a single “chosen” people. Neither does God reveal Godself in nature’s elements – not in earth (an earthquake), not in air (a whirlwind), nor in fire (lightning). Instead God (definitely not predominantly male) is disclosed as a “still small voice” within the prophet himself.
And what is a “still” voice, a “small” voice? It seems to me that it’s a communication without sound – one that can be hardly heard – a far cry from the deity who magically lights sacrificial fires and slays Phoenician priests. That magical violent understanding of God seems frankly childish – a God who enters into competition with other “worthy opponents” over whom he has greater magical powers.
No, the revelation to Elijah discloses a God who is much more subtle and who resides within all persons be they Hebrew or Phoenician. By traditional standards, it is a “weak” unspectacular God. God is found within; God is small and quiet and belongs to everyone. Or rather, everyone belongs to God regardless of their nationality or race. And in Elijah’s story, it’s not clear that the prophet even grasps the point.
Elijah might not have gotten the point. But it’s clear that his reincarnation in Jesus of Nazareth did – or at least that John the Evangelist writing 60-90 years after Jesus’ death got the point. By then it was possible to put words in Jesus’ mouth that the carpenter from Nazareth could never have said – especially about eating his flesh and above all drinking his blood. Jews, of course, were forbidden from imbibing the blood of any living thing, let alone human blood. However by John’s time Jesus’ followers had increasingly left behind their Jewish origins. They had become friendly with Gnosticism and were coming to terms with Roman “mystery cults.” Both worshipped “dying and rising gods” who offered “eternal life” to those who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.
Evidently, John the Evangelist and others like John’s contemporary who wrote “The Gospel of Thomas” recognized an affinity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of the Gnostics who found God’s presence in all of creation. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say “Split a block of wood and I am there; lift up a rock and find me there.”
In other words, by the end of the first century, Christians were developing an ecumenical understanding of God that went far beyond the Jewish ethnocentrism of Elijah. By that time Christians could see that Jesus was not only a prophet, not only a movement founder of reform within Judaism, not only an insightful story teller and extraordinary healer, but a “Spirit Person” who like the Gnostics found God’s presence in every element of creation – principally in that “still, small voice” revealed to Elijah.
So Jesus found God’s presence in wood, under rocks, in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of wine, within his self, here and now (not in some afterlife) but in his very flesh and blood. In other words, shared divine presence lent a unity and sameness to everything. Bread and flesh, wine and blood turn out to be the same across time and space. John has Jesus say all of that quite shockingly: “When you eat bread you are eating my flesh; when you drink wine, you are imbibing my blood. We, all of creation, are all one!”
What I’m saying here is that faith changes and grows. Discouragement with old models and paradigms is a hopeful sign. Think of today’s readings and the distance traveled from Elijah’s Magical Killer God to the Still Small Voice to the God present in bread, wine, and in every cell of Jesus’ and our own bodies.
If your own spiritual journey has you longing for further exploration of such adult themes, I can’t do better than to urge you along your ways by recommending Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. His Meeting Jesus again for the First Time is similarly helpful. Or perhaps during Advent or Lent we can get together to discuss those books and truly renew our faith. What do you think? (Discussion follows)