“Ephphatha” Be Opened (Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s readings: Is. 35:4-7a; Ps. 146:7-10; Jas. 2:1-5; Mk. 7:31-37

Recently Bill Moyers wrote an insightful column picked up by the alternative news and commentary website AlterNet. The article highlighted the clip from President Obama’s 2008 campaign speech we just watched (see immediately above).

Moyers’ piece was about the invisibility of the poor in the United States. We can’t see them, he wrote, not because they’re not there; the numbers of U.S. poor are actually growing by leaps and bounds. According to the federal government, a family of four making less than $28,800 is considered poor. This year the number of Americans at or below that level is expected to reach 66 million. And they’re facing the prospect of an incoming government bent on shipping jobs abroad, cutting unemployment benefits, further restricting food stamps, eliminating Medicare as we know it, and “reforming” Social Security to the point of its elimination.

In the light of such prospects, Moyers asks Candidate Obama’s question, how can we allow this to happen? How especially, Moyers asks, can someone like President Obama allow this to happen?  After all, he should know better. He was a community organizer in Roseland, one of the poorest most despair-driven neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. In Dreams from My Father, Mr. Obama calls his work there “the best education I ever had.” The experience motivated him to attend Harvard to gain the knowledge and resources he needed to return to Roseland and make an even bigger difference than he did before. “I would learn power’s currency,” he wrote, “in all its intricacy and detail” and “bring it back like Promethean fire.”

Since writing those words, Mr. Obama, of course, has become President. However since his election he has not given a single speech about poverty. It’s difficult to do so, his staff says. If you talk about the poor, the middle class says, Hey, what about us?  And the 1% who lay out fat campaign contributions say So what?

Today’s liturgy of the word, addresses the question of blindness to poverty, of deafness to the voices of the poor, and the inability to speak with or about them. Taken together, the readings for today implicitly and explicitly call us to open our eyes and ears and to be the voice of the voiceless. Jesus’ healing Aramaic word “Ephphata” (Be opened) is central here. We’re called to open ourselves to the poor.

The first reading from 2nd Isaiah addresses the captives in Babylonia in the 6th century before the Common Era. Following their defeat in 581 the cream of Israel’s society were held captives by their Babylonian conquerors. Speaking as one of them, and acting as a prophet of hope, Isaiah promises that the “Babylonian Exile” will soon come to an end. Then everything will be wonderful, he assures his readers. The desert will bloom. The blind will see; the deaf will hear, and the mute will speak. The inclusion of this reading in today’s liturgy implies that Jesus and his works of healing on behalf of the poor is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.

Isaiah’s sentiments are reinforced by the responsorial psalm. To Isaiah’s insight it adds the specific identification of Yahweh as the God of the poor and oppressed. According to the psalm, Yahweh sets captives free, secures justice for the oppressed, feeds the hungry, and protects immigrants, widows and orphans. Yahweh is on the side of the poor, the psalmist says. Hard as the words might sound to us, God prefers the poor to the self-satisfied rich – to people like us.

Today’s second reading – from the Letter of James continues the theme of the responsorial psalm. James warns against showing partiality for the rich. “Don’t be judgmental about the poor,” he warns. They after all are the ones God is partial towards. “God chose the poor,” James says, “to be heirs of the kingdom.”

All of this celebration of the poor as God’s people reaches its zenith in today’s Gospel selection. There Jesus cures a poor man who is deaf and who cannot speak. There are at least three noteworthy elements to this cure. Considered as a whole, all three are connected with the topic of poverty and its absence from public perception and discourse.

The first thing to note is that this episode is almost certainly an accurate reflection of something Jesus actually did. The detail about Jesus’ curing ritual – his use of spit, his loud sigh, and the quasi-magical Aramaic word he used (ephphatha) to effect the cure indicate the account’s authenticity. In this passage, the healer Jesus is acting like what indigenous Mayans in Guatemala call a “curandero” – a traditional healer, or what unsympathetic outsiders might term a “witch doctor.”

The second noteworthy element of today’s story is where it occurred – in the Gentile region of Palestine. Here we have Jesus (and this is one of the recurring themes of Mark’s Gospel) treating non-believers – people outside the Jewish community – the same as those inside. Jesus constantly crossed such boundaries. And he usually got in trouble for doing so. But he continued those boundary-crossings because he found more receptivity among non-believers than among would-be people of faith.

The third noteworthy element of this story goes along with the previous one. It’s the response of the non-believers to the Jesus’ cure of the deaf-mute. Tremendous enthusiasm. Despite his best efforts, Jesus couldn’t keep quiet the people who witnessed the cure. Once again, this reaction stands in sharp contrast to Jesus’ own disciples who in Mark’s account never quite “get it.”

The rich liturgical context for the account of Jesus cure of the deaf-mute including  Isaiah’s promise to the exiles and  James’ words about God’s preferential option for the poor directs our attention towards the social meaning of Jesus healing action in chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel. It indicates what curing blindness, deafness and impediments to speech might mean for us today.

We are called, the liturgy suggests, to be opened to the invisible poor among us and to cross forbidden boundaries to meet them. We are summoned not only to see them, but to hear what they are saying. They, after all, possess what theologians call a “hermeneutical privilege,” i.e. the most reliable and accurate insight into what really ails our society, our culture, the world. This means that if we truly listen, we can learn more about the world from the homeless person on the street than from all the learned tomes in our libraries or from the pop-sociology we find on the New York Times best-seller list – or for that matter from our politicians, bishops and popes. [Isn’t it ironic that Christians today should be the ones downgrading the poor implying (with atheist Ayn Rand, the hero of the religious right) that they are “lazy,” “moochers,” and “useless eaters?”]

On top of that, the suggestion today is that as followers of Jesus, we have to drop the “Hey what about us?” attitude Bill Moyers referenced and that keeps President Obama from addressing the issue of poverty. Poverty and God’s poor are biblical categories. Following Jesus means putting our priorities aside so the poor may be served. This means trying to be the voice of the poor in the places from which they are excluded, but to which we have access. We are being directed to overcome our reluctance (inability?) to break the silence about poverty. Here I’m not just talking about letters to the editor, attending public meetings, joining the “Occupy Movement,” or phoning our President, senators and congressional representatives. I’m also speaking about conversations around our family dinner tables, at the water cooler, in the locker room, and in our schools.

Following Jesus, we can’t allow the enemies of the poor and those who are indifferent to them to twist the Gospel. We can’t allow them to carry the day as if Jesus and the Biblical tradition so well reflected in today’s liturgy shared our culture’s prejudice against the poor.

Today in response to our biblical readings let our prayer be “Ephphatha! Lord, open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts. Loosen our tongues” — not only to speak the truth about poverty (as President Obama did in 2007), but to act on that truth ourselves and stimulate our elected leaders to do their part.

Please consider these thoughts as you listen to the beautiful prayer-song, “Ephphatha.”

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Don’t miss tomorrow’s third installment on Mary Magdalene: “The Magdalene Code”

The Method of Magdalene Scholarship: (Second in a series on Mary Magdalene)

Last Monday I was previewing the shocking conclusions Lynn Picknett draws in The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess, London: Magpie Books, 2003. In this posting I promised to say something about Picknett’s method which leads her into forbidden territory. It strikes me that her method yields some insight into the way that modern scripture scholarship works. Those  interested in such matters should keep that in mind.

Basically, Lynn Picknett’s method is to reverse scholarship’s usual procedure. That method privileges biblical sources, while approaching extra-biblical and heretical fonts with a skepticism and suspicion bordering on contempt. Why should this be so, Picknett asks? Was Nicaea’s choice of the Synoptic Gospels and John over the Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Philip or that of the Egyptians somehow inspired by God or specially guided by the Holy Spirit?

Actually, she observes, the choice was directed by the vested interests of an exclusively male patriarchy and by doctrinal convictions that were and remain completely debatable. In fact, The Gospel of Mary, with its brief for the Magdalene’s feisty leadership and power is as sober and apparently “inspired” as Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John. Church father, Clement of Alexandria admitted as much, but still chose to keep its teachings secret from ordinary Christians (51). The church similarly treated many of the other Gospels that came to light in 1945 with the Nag Hammadi discoveries.  In other words, Nag Hammadi’s 52 mostly Gnostic texts as well as Gospels which had earlier been unearthed have as much claim to “inspiration” as their canonical counterparts.

As for the heretics, why denigrate or exclude their voices? After all, the early Christian Councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), and Chalcedon (451) artificially reduced Christian belief to a single dogma. The Councils thereby proved false to decidedly pluralistic understandings of Jesus and his message that emerge from the official Christian Testament. Even excluding John’s idiosyncratic version of the Jesus story, there are distinctly variant perceptions found among the so-called “Synoptics.” The variations touch upon key items such as Jesus’ origins, family tree, his miracles, words, and the nature of the resurrection itself. Why not let a thousand flowers bloom now as they did then instead of uprooting all but one while anathematizing the rest as heretical and perversely deviant?

With such reasoning, Lynn Picknett replants and cultivates the flowers that over the ages have refused to die despite the poisonous herbicides so freely applied by the church’s malevolent gardeners. So she defers not only to The Gospel of Mary, but to The Gospel of Thomas, to the beliefs of the Cathars, the Priory of Sion, the Knights Templar, the Mandaeans and others.

Meanwhile Picknett classifies canonical sources as mere “propaganda” no more worthy of literal interpretation than the pamphlets that fill mailboxes just before election time (54). Accordingly, she treats those “official” sources with the same skepticism and “ideological suspicion” that orthodox apologists generally apply to heretics and their gospels. She does so without apology. After all, “the canon” was selected by a coterie of male patriarchs without any female input whatever.

Moreover, the old boy efforts at suppression have resulted in endemic deceit that has kept and continues to keep Christians ignorant not only of the Bible generally, but of Nag Hammadi, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the findings of scripture scholarship over the last hundred and fifty years.

Such “leadership” has resulted in ignorant congregations, the imperialization of Christianity, the violent persecution of “heretics,” the Inquisition, the Women’s Holocaust, innumerable wars, sexual scandals, pedophilia, and unrelenting misogyny. “By their fruits you shall know them,” Picknett soberly reminds her readers. It is time to change course.

Next Monday: “The Magdalene Code”

“What if Jesus Had Been a Republican?” (Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s Readings: Dt. 4:1-2, 6-8; Ps. 15:2-5; Jas. 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk. 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Tikkun Magazine (the Israeli-American quarterly published by Rabbi Michael Lerner) recently published an article called “What if Jesus Had Been a Republican?” It rewrote three well-known Christian Testament scriptures to reflect the world vision and morality of the Republican Party. The piece was reproduced on the news and analysis website “AlterNet.” (Here’s the reference http://www.alternet.org/belief/what-if-jesus-had-been-republican?paging=off).

The first rewritten episode was entitled “The Lazy Paralytic.” It was about the paralyzed man whose friends removed roof tiles on a home to bring him into Jesus’ presence, when the Master was otherwise inaccessible because of the large crowds around him. The revised story has Jesus saying to the paralytic, “Can’t you take care of your own health problems? I’m sure that your family can care for you, or maybe the synagogue can help out.” . . . . What would happen if I provided access to free health care for everyone? That would mean that people would not only get lazy and entitled, but they would take advantage of the system. Besides, look at me: I’m healthy. And you know why? Because I worked hard for my money, and took care of myself.”

The second rewritten episode was called “The Very Poorly Prepared Crowd.” It re-imagined the feeding of 5000 people usually understood as the “Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.” Only this time there was no feeding. Jesus says that would make the improvident crowd too dependent on authority figures like himself. People would never learn to think ahead and the lesson of self-sufficiency would be lost. So applying the principle of “tough love,” Jesus eats one loaf and one fish himself and gives the remaining four loaves and one fish to his twelve apostles.

Even more to our readings’ main point this morning, the reformulated story of “The Rich and Therefore Blessed Young Man,” has a rich man kneeling before Jesus to ask, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus learns that the man has been born into wealth and privilege, Jesus’ admiration knows no bounds. However, he says, one thing is lacking in terms of God’s kingdom: “A bigger house in a gated community in Tiberias. Buy that and you will have a treasure indeed. And make sure you get a stone countertop for the kitchen. Those are really nice.” Jesus’ disciples are scandalized by all of this and ask, “But Lord,” they said, “what about the passages in both the Law and the Prophets that tell us to care for widows and orphans, for the poor, for the sick, for the refugee? What about the many passages in the Scriptures about justice?” 7. “Those are just metaphors,” said Jesus. “Don’t take everything so literally.”

I point you towards those rewritten parables not only because they made me laugh, or because we saw the Republicans in action at their convention last week, but because the last rewrite I mentioned is closely related to this morning’s readings. Those readings remind us of how religion, and specifically the person and words of Jesus can be distorted to reflect what Jesus calls “human traditions” rather than “God’s commandments.”

Today’s first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy reminds us of what the heart of God’s commandments actually was. The Deuteronomy reading shows Moses preparing the ex-slaves just escaped from Egypt for a law that centralizes social justice and care for the orphans, widows, (and immigrants).  The Law of Moses was about setting up a community where what we today would call social structures protected society’s most vulnerable. Its Jubilee statute made provision for the periodic cancelling of debt and the return of land and homes to those who had lost them to the bankers.  The Mosaic Law even forbade charging interest itself – as the words of today’s responsorial psalm remind us. In fact, up until the late Middle Ages, when capitalism began to emerge, charging interest on loans was considered immoral and contrary to Scripture. But then, of course, the Tikkun Jesus would remind us, “Don’t take everything so literally.”

Today’s second reading from the Letter of James’ stands firmly in the Mosaic tradition and defines religion in terms of specific acts directed towards the poor. In fact, James definition of pure and undefiled religion consists entirely in taking care of the orphans and widows in their affliction.  That definition reflects the very attitude of Jesus himself. Recall that in Matthew 25 – our only unambiguous account of the final judgment – the entire affair is based on specific acts of compassion, even though those performing the acts were utterly unconscious of any spiritual motivation. Jesus welcomes into his Father’s kingdom those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the immigrant, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned. Those who don’t do such things are condemned.

What I’m saying is that in James’ following of Jesus we find a definition of religion that is not only down to earth and practical, but calls for day-in and day-out embrace of society’s marginalized rather than leaving them to fend for themselves. James’ words, like those of Jesus, challenge us all to self-criticism about our own neglect of the poor and those at risk. The implication here is that God is not happy with us when our only response to poverty is “tough love” instead of the hands-on compassion and involvement Jesus demanded and exemplified.

However since James’ time – and especially after the 4th century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christian faith became more abstract, intellectualized and (in terms of today’s Gospel reading) Pharisaic. Essentially “true religion” was transformed into simply believing things about Jesus rather than imitating him as healer, feeder, and champion of the poor. Since the fourth century, Christians are those who believe in God, the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, and his resurrection. Unlike Jesus’ words about the hungry and thirsty, none of those beliefs directly ask believers to be any different from others except inside their heads.

That leaves true believers free to act like the Pharisees Jesus confronts in today’s Gospel. So believers condemn “those others” who don’t see things as we do. Religion then becomes a cause of separation rather than of unity. This is especially true when the life choices of “those others” differ from those of believers. So the essence of Christianity becomes condemning the poor as “lazy.” Christians condemn Muslims as terrorists. Straight people condemn gays as immoral. Celibate men condemn married people for practicing contraception. And believers well beyond the age of child bearing condemn “those others” for resorting to abortion. Conservatives condemn liberals for not thinking as they do. Liberals do the same thing to conservatives. In virtually none of those cases is anything asked of the condemners except scorn and contempt for “those others.” It’s the others who must change, not us!

In today’s Gospel selection, Jesus calls us away from that kind of self-centered complacency to self-criticism. That’s the first step in identifying and changing the elements all of us find within ourselves that deprive us of compassion for others – especially for the widows, orphans and immigrants. The elements Jesus names as enemies of compassion sound like a description of the cultural values we “Americans” celebrate: greed, envy, arrogance, deceit, licentiousness – and the murder (as in wars) necessary to keep “our” stuff.

Taking the example of Jesus “more literally” calls us to the type of humility and personal transformation that recognizes our very selves in those we have been taught to despise as unworthy. The simple understanding of religion espoused by Moses, Jesus and James reminds us that its “pure and undefiled” form calls us to community, to seeing ourselves in “the least” – to our own humanization.

Here I recall a relevant sign I saw at a political rally I once attended. The sign reminded me of James’ doctrine-less definition of religion. It read simply “Do what God did: become human.”

That’s the essence of our Christian faith.

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Don’t miss Monday’s second installment of the series on Mary Magdalene

“Everyone’s Talking about Mary Magdalene” (First in a Monday Series on Mary Magdalene)

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” 

“Legitimate Rape,” Jesus and “The War against Women” (Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s Readings: Jos. 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ps. 34:2-3, 16-17, 20-21; Eph. 5:21-32; Jn. 6:60-69

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.”

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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.”

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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)

Golfing for Enlightenment (Conclusion of 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.

On Refusing Holy Communion to Non-Catholics (20th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

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.