Eucharistic Table Prayer for Peggy’s “First Mass”

Last week I reported on “My Wife’s First Mass.” Here is the “Table Prayer” we wrote for that occasion. As we intend using it again, I’d be interested in any suggestions for making it better.

Eucharistic Table Prayer


All of us are welcome here to commemorate and celebrate this Lord’s Supper. No one is excluded from this table. No one can be excluded; this table belongs to Jesus not to us. So come and break bread in a spirit of thanksgiving, recollection, and inclusiveness. Come as you are – with your strong faith, your weak faith, with your doubts, questions, and deep-held convictions. (Pause) In that spirit of inclusiveness, please join me in our prayer of thanksgiving and remembrance.


Blessed are you, Great Spirit of the universe.

You are the one in whom we live and move and have our being. You are within and without, above and below, and all around.

You interpenetrate every cell of our bodies – the eye of our eyes, the ear of our ears, the breath of our breath, the mind of our minds, the heart of our hearts, the soul of our souls, the life of our lives.

Dear God, bless us and make us aware of your presence in every here and now – in this here and now:


Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are filled with your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!

The Table Prayer (Leader):

In particular, O gracious God, our Mother and Father, we thank you for sharing yourself with us in your magnificent creation stretching a hundred billion galaxies across an unfathomably vast universe.

In our own brief human history, we are grateful for your profound personal revelations in the Buddha, Krishna, and the Great Mother worshipped by humans all over the world for more than 50,000 years.

We thank you especially for Jesus of Nazareth who for us embodied your presence like no other.

We recall the heart of his teaching which was simply to love one another even to the point of death.

We remember how he healed and taught and organized and gave his own life as an example he called us to follow.

(Stretching both hands towards the bread and wine) And so, dear God, we ask that the Spirit of this Jesus may come upon these gifts of bread and wine. May they help us recognize his presence among us who taught that he is there wherever two or three are gathered in his name. May our sharing of the consecrated bread and wine not only transform the meaning of this food and drink, but deeply transform us and our very lives.

So we would never forget the transformation of self he called us to, Jesus asked us to break bread together and to share a cup in his name as he did with his friends the night before he died.

It was then that Jesus took bread into his holy hands. He blessed the bread and broke it. Then he gave it to his disciples and said


“Take this all of you and eat it. This is my body which will be given up for you.”


Then when the supper was ended, Jesus took a cup of wine. He blessed it and gave it to his friends. He said:


“Take this all of you and drink from it. This is the cup of my blood, of the new and eternal covenant. It will be shed for you and for all, so that sins might be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.”


Having shared himself in this way, Jesus led his friends in song. Today we sing:

All sing:

“We remember how you loved us to your death.  And still we celebrate that you are with us here. And we believe that we will see you. When you come in your glory, Lord. We remember; we celebrate; we believe.” (Repeat)

Preparation for Communion (Leader):

In this memorial, we join in spirit with all those great people of faith and who have gone before us. We unite with Peter and Paul, the apostles and martyrs throughout the ages – with Jesus’ mother, Mary, with his “apostle of apostles” Mary Magdalene, with Aquinas, Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, Hildegard of Bingen, Theresa of Avila, Teresa of Lisieux, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Malcolm, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Rachel Corrie, Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Oscar Romero, with the millions who died in the Woman’s Holocaust, and untold others.

We unite ourselves as well with the members of our own families, and with our teachers and friends who are with us still, and especially those who have gone before us in faith.  May all those faithful departed rest in peace.  (Here let’s pause to remember our deceased loved ones, and, if you like, to mention their names aloud.)


And now, to prepare ourselves for communion, let us pray in the spirit of Jesus’ Great Prayer.  . . .

“Our Mother and . . .  :”


Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, etc.

Leader: Jesus said we should reconcile with each other before worship. So let us now offer each other a sign of peace.

All: Exchange peace greetings.

Leader (Holding up the Elements):

“Come to me all of you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.


“Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”


After you have received communion, please return to your seat for some minutes of silent prayer.

Conclusion [Leader (after the meditation period has ended)]:

(Please rise.) Lord God, Creator and Mother, we thank you for calling us together this afternoon. We ask that the symbolic meal we have shared may strengthen us on your way of understanding and of love. Help us to recognize you this week in ourselves, in one another, and especially in those you called the least of our brothers and sisters.  We pray in Jesus’ name.




Our celebration is ended. Let us go forth to love and serve the Lord!

Who Was the Historical Jesus? Introduction

Let’s face it: there is no God “up there.” “Up there” is simply a metaphor for the transcendence of the divine, which is found within, around, above and below all of us. What St. Paul said is true:  God the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Moreover, that God did not “send” some pre-existing Second Person of the Blessed Trinity to die on our behalf. Like all of us, Jesus was not anxious to die; nor did the God of life want him sacrificed. Rather, the Romans killed Jesus because as colonial occupiers of his homeland, Palestine, they (correctly) perceived his words and deeds as a political threat. Those words and deeds centered neither on himself, nor on life after death but on the Kingdom of God – a very this worldly reality, that would change the condition of the poor, who are God’s chosen people.

The point of Jesus’ “miracles” was to demonstrate that choice; they were basically either faith-healings or entirely symbolic creations of the early church.

In fact symbolism and metaphor are so central to the fundamental message of the Bible and to human thought itself that it would be more accurate to treat most of Sacred Scripture metaphorically rather than as factual. This includes any references to hell, angels, and devils, which turn out to be poetic inventions. Over the history of the church those inventions have been cynically manipulated as tools of “conscience control” (especially of women) by a basically Caucasian, rich and patriarchal religious establishment that in practice has come to regard Jesus’ actual teaching (about the kingdom, poverty and wealth) as “heretical.”

To get back to the authentic teaching of the historical Jesus, believers need to acquaint themselves not only with another Jesus. They need another God to replace the one before whom they are called to be atheists. Despite formidable obstacles placed in our way by our pastors and others, meeting and embracing that other God is entirely possible. It is indispensable to save our species, our world and ourselves.

These are basically the findings of modern scripture scholarship and the theologies based on that research. And, of course, they can be shocking to conservative Christians encountering it for the first time. However, for those truly interested in developing an adult faith, the shock must somehow be absorbed.

In an attempt to assist in that process of absorption, the Monday series to be posted here will attempt to organize and unify the disparate concepts in question and to re-present them as an aid to understanding and disciplined discussion. Next week’s posting will review key events in the history of biblical interpretation.

Plucking Out Eyes and Cutting off Hands and Feet

Today’s Readings: Nm 11:25-29; Ps 19:8, 10, 12-14; Jas. 5:1-6; Mk. 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48

This, of course, is the “political season,” and debate is heating up. All the candidates claim to be followers of Jesus. Governor Romney is a Mormon. Paul Ryan is Catholic. President Obama’s affiliation is with the United Church of Christ. Like his Republican counterpart, Joe Biden is Catholic.

And that’s confusing, because often it’s precisely as “religious,” and specifically as being Christian that the candidates explain their policies.  In the name of Jesus, Republicans speak of individual independence, personal responsibility, “tough love” and of riches as God’s blessing as though such orientations represented the attitude of Jesus.  On the other hand, Democrats talk about compassion, community identity and “we’re all in this together” solidarity in the same way. In the end, however, both parties explain their policies in terms of their impact on the “one percent” and on the “middle class.” Virtually no one utters a word about “the poor.”

Today’s liturgy of the word calls into question such silence about the real People of God. Using the images of Moses and Jesus, this Sunday’s readings remind us that both the Jewish and the Christian Testaments describe a God whose people are the Poor. Moreover, the readings supply us with criteria that turn out to be useful for critiquing candidates’ discourse during this political season. In the first reading from the Book of Numbers, Moses declares that whoever speaks and acts like him has the right to prophesy (i.e. speak in God’s name) even if he or she hasn’t been officially approved. In the Gospel, Jesus says something similar. He says “Whoever is not against us is for us.” That is, no one should be silenced whose message is in line with Jesus’ own. Then today’s second reading, the author of the Letter of James specifically identifies the policies that are in line with the teachings of Moses and Jesus. We do well to take all three readings very seriously.

As for the reading from Numbers, it helps to remember who Moses was.  Though born a slave, Moses was raised in the Pharaoh’s palace. However as a young adult, when he saw an Egyptian overlord mistreating a slave, he recognized himself in the abused slave, and experienced a kind of personal conversion. So Moses fled his comfortable palace home and took off for the desert. There he discovered a Nameless God whose single desire was that Egypt’s slaves be freed. That God persuaded Moses to overcome his fear and self-doubt to confront the Pharaoh himself and demand the freedom of Egypt’s slaves. “Let my people go,” was the message of the God on whose behalf Moses prophesied.

Today’s first reading says wherever Moses’ spirit of identification with the poor and oppressed appears, it represents the Spirit of God. Would that all people of faith, Moses says in the reading, would share his spirit and speak out on behalf of the poor (i.e. prophetically). No one needs special appointment to do that, Moses says. To qualify as prophet, it’s enough to be a human being who recognizes solidarity with the least.

Jesus echoes Moses in today’s Gospel selection. It helps to recall who he was too. Jesus was a Galilean peasant from an extremely poor background.  He was born in Nazareth of Galilee, a community of about 24 families. Jesus was originally a follower of the great prophet, John the Baptist. He actually took over the Baptist’s movement after John was executed by King Herod of Galilee.

Jesus’ prophetic message was not about himself, but about the Kingdom of God which was good news for the poor (“anawim” in the Jewish Testament). That news said that God was on their side.  (It was in no way about the rich who are “poor in spirit.”) In fact, according to Jesus, the only way for the rich to enter the kingdom was for them to adopt the perspective of the poor, support them in their struggle against oppression, and to share their own wealth with the indigent.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says that anyone with a message not contrary to his proclamation of a kingdom belonging to the poor, the prostitutes and tax collectors is on his side. Standing with Jesus doesn’t depend on official approval Jesus’ disciples were so concerned about. We’d say, it doesn’t depend on religious affiliation – whether one is a Mormon, a Catholic, or a member of the United Church of Christ. Jesus’ own words say it best: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

However, the reverse is also true. That is, whoever’s message is against Jesus’ message of identification and solidarity with the poor cannot claim to stand with him. Here’s where the words of James come through so strongly.  They represent harsh criticism of the rich and of those who, like both Republicans and Democrats, implement policies that favor the rich while imposing austerity measures on the poor.

Have you been listening to the readings from James over the past number of weeks? They are so harsh in their criticism of the rich. In fact, their harshness rivals Jesus’ own words about the wealthy – “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Elsewhere Jesus reveals a clear class-consciousness. In Luke he says, “Blessed are you poor,” and “Woe to you rich! You have received your reward.” Erich Fromm has referred to the Letter from James – so faithful to the spirit of Jesus himself – as the clearest expression in the ancient world of the disdain of the poor for their overlords – the rich, the learned and the powerful.

The disdain continues in today’s excerpt from James. Be aware that he is addressing rich Christians – people of faith who thought of themselves as their community’s most respectable members. He mentions specifically employers who pay slave wages to their workers and as a result amass great fortunes. Does that sound like the globalized order that both Republicans and Democrats support? The fact is that the huge fortunes that allow 225 people to own as much as nearly half the world (nearly 3 billion people) are made from exploitation of the world’s most vulnerable.

However, in God’s eyes, James warns, such accumulation is for naught. In the Great Reversal represented by the Kingdom of God, the silver and gold of the wealthy will have corroded. Their fine clothes will have turned to moth-eaten rags. It will become evident that they were not God’s people at all. In Jesus’ fearfully poetic words, they will be cut off from the Body of the Faithful like unwanted hands or feet; they will be cast out onto Jerusalem’s garbage heap everyone knew as “Gehenna.”

Those words about cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes are written for us too – even for us who are not in the 1% that controls more than 40% of the world’s resources and wealth. The words of course are hyperbolic. They’re about the harsh choices we all have to make in following Jesus. If the food we take with our hands is produced by those underpaid workers James talks about, we have to stop eating it. “Cut off your hands” is the way Jesus puts it. If our eyes make us envious of others possessions produced by the same processes of exploitation, we have to “pluck them out.” Stop looking! Stop consuming! And if our feet need to travel despite the impact of modern motorized journeys on the environment, we told to “cut them off” and throw them on the garbage heap. These are hard, challenging words that call us all to self-examination and repentance.

“Make the hard radical choices necessary to follow me” is what Jesus commands. What radical choices do you think today’s readings are calling you to make personally?

Discussion follows

Don’t miss Monday’s posting on the historical Jesus.

My Wife’s First Mass

My wife, Peggy, said her first Mass last Sunday.

I remember my own “first Mass.” It was at the beginning of January in 1967. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t really my first Mass. I had been ordained a priest in the Missionary Society of St. Columban on December 22, 1966. So it was maybe my 12th Mass. But it was a Big Deal anyway – on a par with a wedding reception.

All my relatives were there – at some country club dining room in Downers Grove, Illinois just after New Year’s. There I was at the head table, the uncomfortable focus of all the attention. I was sitting there with my mom and dad and with Fr. Stier, my pastor. As I recall some Columbans were present as well.

As I said, it was a big deal – speeches and everything. Of course, I was the final speaker. I don’t remember what I said – except one phrase where I thanked my mom and dad, brother, Jim, and sisters, Rosanne and Mary for “virtually praying me through the seminary.” That was true. In retrospect, I don’t understand how I made it through all those years from the time I entered the seminary at 14 till I was ordained at 26. It’s enough to make you believe in the power of prayer – or something.

The miraculous nature of it all stands out because for all practical purposes, the training all those years was without women. Can you imagine that – during the most formative years in a person’s life? Thank God for my mother and sisters and for the summer vacations which brought me into (very guarded) contact with women. How can men become human without them?

In any case, I somehow overcame all of that too. So here I was a couple of weeks ago and after 37 years of marriage at my bride Peggy’s First Mass. No Big Deal. No head table. No speeches. Just Peggy standing there, hands extended the way we’ve all seen priests do, and leading us all in the Eucharistic Prayer that both of us had composed for the occasion. It was beautiful.

I say “no big deal” because the context is an ecumenical community of Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and others who have taken seriously the idea of “priesthood of the faithful.” So if “the faithful” are priests, women are priests – or at least the priesthood should be open to them.  Why shouldn’t they officiate at the Eucharist in this community seeking to break free from the bondage of patriarchal church traditions?

Even Catholics in the group didn’t blink when they saw Peggy there. We’re ready for change. Despite our best efforts, most of us have become alienated both from our local church and from the Church of Rome. And it hasn’t been just one issue – not simply the patriarchy or the absence of women in church leadership positions. It wasn’t just the pedophilia crisis, not just the Vatican’s put-down of progressive sisters, or the “Republicanization” of the hierarchy, the amnesia about Vatican II, the silly liturgical language changes that no one understands (e.g. “consubstantial” has replaced “one in being”), not just the childish sermons. It’s all of that and the general irrelevance of the church whose hierarchy despite Vatican II is hundreds of years behind the post-modern curve. It’s surprising we haven’t just written it all off as b.s.  In fact, of course, many have

On the other hand, Peggy’s First Mass was a huge deal. It and our ecumenical community represent an awakening of “the faithful” and the fruition of seeds sown at the Second Vatican Council whose 50th anniversary we are about to celebrate.

The Spirit still moves and cannot be contained.

Next Wednesday: the “Table Prayer” Peggy and I composed

Conclusions about “The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess”

To say the least, Lynn Picknett’s The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess makes a distinct contribution towards a fuller understanding of the “woman called Magdalene.”  Picknett helps us see beyond the prostitute stereotype to a financial supporter of Jesus’ ministry;  the African priestess (from Egypt or Ethiopia) who anointed Jesus as Christos; his lover and perhaps his wife;  the holy one who prepared him for crossing over to the other side; the disciple who first perceived that Jesus had risen from the dead;  first among the women who stood by Jesus in his darkest hour;  the “Apostle of Apostles” enjoying primacy among those within the Master’s inner circle; the mystic whom Jesus called by names originally belonging to the goddess, Isis; the real founder of the church, and an object of jealousy, hatred, and threat by the patriarchal Twelve. Picknett indeed helps us see how we know those things.

In addition, the book’s clear exposition of the identity of Mary Magdalene and her primacy among Jesus’ followers is invaluable for a more complete understanding of the earliest traditions within the Jesus Movement where women were not only prominent but preeminent.  Those traditions, it turns out, prove extremely meaningful for contemporary women. For they highlight the way female disciples of extraordinary talent and charisma were not only marginalized but denigrated in the church right from the beginning. They were the victims of an extreme misogyny that continues in church circles to our very day. Put otherwise, besides shedding light on the distant past, Picknett’s “secret history” exposes the extreme weakness of contemporary ecclesiastical patriarchs in their exclusion of women from the priesthood and from other forms of church leadership. It also uncovers the perversity of their other anti-woman pronouncements regarding topics such as contraception, abortion, and women’s rights in general.

As noted previously, Picknett is especially strong in her willingness to effectively question and turn upside-down long-accepted “truths” about the focus of her study. To reiterate, “Magdalene the whore” is the prime example. Examination of extra-biblical and especially historical sources revealed the sixth century origin of that smear. That revelation evidently led Picknett to better understand the smear’s source in the biblical texts themselves. As she indicates, those texts lose no opportunity to denigrate the woman from Bethany. In other words, regarding the Magdalene, Picknett’s methodology is that of scripture scholars over the last hundred years and more: she distinguishes the historical Magdalene from what biblical traditions on the one hand and patristic glosses on the other made of her. Like the good scholar she is, she peals back layer after layer till she gets to the historical woman.

It is here, however, that a curious inconsistency surfaces in the final third of Picknett’s work. There she deconstructs the person of Jesus of Nazareth, finding him, as noted earlier, to be self-promoting, petulant, irrational, vindictive, and generally unpleasant. She is able to do so only because she ignores the findings of scripture scholarship over the last one hundred years – especially the findings of Form Criticism and Redaction Criticism. Form Criticism is the branch of biblical study which has pointed out that not everything in the Bible, not even most of its contents, is history. Instead, there are many literary forms there including myth, legend, debate, fiction, poetry, genealogies, parables, allegories, law, letters – and Gospel. If one mistakes the literary form and reads legend, for instance, as history, the reader will miss the intended meaning of the text. And yes, Gospel is its own literary form distinct from history. And so the work of the evangelists cannot be treated as “lives” or biographies of Jesus. Instead (and Picknett is correct here) they are religious propaganda. This however does not mean, as Picknett often implies and even states, that they are lies, deliberately disguised half-truths, or outright deceptions. They are “Gospel” and as such express not what happened, but the meaning of what happened for those who already recognize Jesus as the Christ. Picknett however often crossly dismisses the gospel authors as charlatans and deceivers. And she reads their portrayals of Jesus as though they were falsified histories. And so she reports that believers have been deceived into believing in a virgin birth, that Jesus walked on water, fed the 5000, and that his corpse was resuscitated three days after his death (which, she points out may have been only apparent). At the same time, however, Picknett takes the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels as though they were his very words. Thus she finds him bad tempered when he curses a barren fig tree, a braggart, when he calls attention to his union with God, and in general a human failure when he fails to live up to the traditional image of “Jesus meek and mild” (186, 208).

It is here that Picknett overlooks the insights of “redaction criticism.” Redaction critics are the scholars who have helped us realize that the gospels are thickly “layered,” and as such rather far removed from what Jesus actually said and did. That is, the words and deeds of Jesus were one thing; how they were remembered in oral tradition was another, how they were written down another still, and how they were interpreted by later generations something else again.  To sharpen the point, the works of the evangelists are post-resurrection compositions (whatever the resurrection might have been).  As such, they reveal an understanding of Jesus that was not apparent, and therefore impossible before the resurrection event. Accordingly, one must distinguish between the pre and post-resurrection Jesus; one must separate the pre-resurrection Gospel of Jesus from the post-resurrection Gospel about Jesus. The Gospel of Jesus was not about himself, but about the Kingdom of God – what the world would be like if God, not Caesar were king. The Gospel about Jesus (the product of the emerging church) was indeed about Jesus. So according to that latter gospel, Jesus is made to say what would have been both impossible and highly improbable for him to utter before his death. Consequently when Jesus apparently says, “I and the Father are one,” that is not Jesus boasting about himself, but the early church “boasting” about Jesus, i.e. expressing its post-resurrection faith.

Similarly, the Gospel about Jesus is full of symbol, which as Picknett well knows, is the normal language of faith. It is not denial or misrepresentation of fact; it is more than fact. So when Jesus is presented as cursing a barren fig tree, it is not a sign of his irritability, as Picknett would have it, but probably has something to do with “fig tree” as a traditional symbol for Israel itself. Yet, despite an entire book devoted to identifying layer upon layer of tradition and unpacking symbols (relative to Mary Magdalene) Picknett finds such unpacking and layer-identification as “unconvincing” when it comes to any positive view of Jesus’ words (193) . And while she had no trouble demythologizing the Magdalene’s traditional identity as a prostitute, Picknett scandalized by any gospel departure from the “Jesus meek and mild” image that has prevailed in understandings of the central figure in mainstream Christianity (186, 208). Any departure from that milk-sop image to show him politically engaged or prophetically outspoken is interpreted as somehow reprehensible. This is a shortcoming of her book and misleads her audience.

The misdirection would have been avoided had Picknett muted her book’s sensationalist tone to explain that under the leadership of Mary called the Magdalene (possibly Jesus’ spouse) the discouraged male apostles did not give up as they would have without her encouragement. Instead they pondered and discussed the words and deeds of Jesus. They realized that inspired by his mentor, John the Baptist, Jesus had continued the latter’s ministry. Unexpectedly and scandalously however, Jesus too been executed – by Rome (rather than by its puppet, Herod as was the case with John). Meditation, discussion, and (as they claimed) the inspiration of the Holy Spirit led that first community of the Jesus Movement to realize that their martyred master had not really joined the ranks of the hundreds of failed Messiahs who regularly surfaced in Palestine during the first century of the Common Era. Instead, he was somehow more present among them than he was before his death.

But how were they to explain this to their contemporaries – to Jews first of all, and later to those outside the Jewish community? Their answer was to use one language set for Jews and one for Greco-Romans. The language set for Jews presented him in terms of a new Adam, or in reference to Abraham, David, or as fulfillment of inferences derived from the prophets. By modern standards, their connections seem forced, stretched and artificial. And no doubt, they invented some of the words and deeds they attributed to Jesus to make the point about his continuity with Jewish tradition. In other words, for the evangelists, the Jesus of faith sometimes took precedence over the Jesus of history.

In the same way, the Jesus story was reshaped for those outside the Jewish community for whom things like circumcision, the prophets, Abraham and David meant nothing at all. For these, Jesus had to be re-presented in religious terms understandable to Hellenistic culture. “Pagans” knew about Isis and the “dying and rising” gods. They knew about hieros gamos or sacred marriage with its priestesses and anointing. So Jesus was presented in those terms. We find them buried in stories like the anointing at Bethany.

Such retelling and refashioning of the Jesus story went on orally for many years. Then (beginning around 70 C.E.) the oral traditions were given written form. By then one could hardly distinguish what the historical Jesus had said and done from what was part of the retelling of his story specifically tailored for Jews on the one hand and for Greco- Romans on the other. Additionally each evangelist further reformulated the received traditions to address problems unique to his own community and its problems that Jesus could never have anticipated. This called for additional retailoring of Jesus’ words and deeds to fit the even newer circumstances further removed from the original consciousness of the historical Jesus.

Subsequently, church fathers and popes like Gregory I added their own layers of interpretation for their own communities now centuries removed from Jesus and his original intentions, words,  and deeds. In the process the Jesus of history was nearly swallowed by the Jesus of faith. However, that Jesus of history has to comprise the standard for soberly determining the essential elements of the Christian faith.

That’s what modern scripture scholarship has determined. Uncovering the Jesus of history is the work of the Jesus Seminar, whose members, it seems, would be open to most of the conclusions Picknett draws about Mary Magdalene. They would not however agree with conclusions based upon uncritical attribution of deeds and words to Jesus that fails to distinguish between layers of gospel texts.

Nothing said immediately above should detract from the fact  that Lynn Picknett is a wonderful reader, a diligent energetic researcher. She knows how to make the ever-present connections that in fact link everything that exists. Picknett is expert in applying the principle of analogy in both its negative and positive meanings. Negatively, that principle holds that we cannot expect to have happened in the past what is presumed or proven to be impossible in the present. According to that principle, she helps the non-academic community understand what scholars have been up to over the last hundred years and more. Positively, the principle of analogy says that the same natural and human forces and dynamics that are operative in the world today (especially in the realm of historiography) were also operative in the past. Those forces and dynamics indeed include lies, cover-ups, propaganda, and self-interest.  Applying that version of the analogy principle, Picknett’s Hidden History helps readers see beyond the “official story” to discern the fact that female leadership in the Christian community is nothing new. It’s the males who are the interlopers and charlatans.

I’m going to recommend this book to that friend of mine with all that rage to know “how do they know all of that?”

Next week: What Jesus Scholarship Tells Us about the Historical Jesus

Oh No: Not another Sermon on Abortion!

Today’s Readings: Wis. 2:12, 17-20; Ps. 54:3-4, 5, 6 &8; Jas. 3:16-4:3; Mk. 9:30-37

When I read today’s gospel selection, I knew it would inspire preachers everywhere in this country to sermonize about abortion. After all, the reading has Jesus embracing a child and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

That scene will lead preachers to say that Jesus loved children. We all love them, they’ll add, and go on to argue that the children most in danger today are the unborn. So homilists will conclude or imply, we should vote for pro-lifers who claim to care about the unborn, and will pass laws to eliminate abortion. It follows then that we should not support those who identify themselves as “pro-choice,” since they care less about the children so close to Jesus’ heart.

Of course, the preachers in question have the best of intentions. And concern for the unborn is well and good. No doubt abortion represents a horrendous choice. It’s painful for everyone.  Virtually no one favors abortion.

However in today’s gospel, Jesus wasn’t embracing a fetus, but a real child of the kind our culture shows little concern about once they’re outside the womb. Even pro-life politicians want to cut back on programs that would help such children. That, I think, is the issue today’s gospel should be made to address. But before getting to that, and since our preachers will inevitably bring it up, let’s talk about abortion like adults.

As adults we have to admit two facts. One is that abortion cannot be eliminated, no matter what laws are passed. Trying to eliminate abortion is like trying to eradicate prostitution. Large numbers of people have always and will always seek abortion services. The rich will fly their wives, lovers or daughters to the Netherlands or Belgium or wherever safe abortion procedures are legally available. The poor will go to back-alley practitioners or they’ll take drugs or use coat hangers to do the job themselves. No, the question is not about eliminating abortion, but of reducing the number of abortions – of lessening the perceived “need” for abortion.

The second undeniable fact is that we live in a pluralistic society where people of good faith find themselves on both sides of the abortion question. And this is because they differ (most frequently on religious grounds) about the key question of when specifically personal life begins. That is, few would argue that a fetus at any stage does not represent human life and should not therefore be treated with respect. No, the real question is when does fetal life become personal? The question is when does aborting a fetus become murder?

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas and others held the position that personal life began with “ensoulment,” i.e. when God conferred a soul on the developing fetus. According to Thomas, because of the high numbers of spontaneous abortions in the early pregnancy, ensoulment could not logically happen at the moment of conception. So in his patriarchal way, he conjectured it occurred for males 40 days after conception; for females it happened 80 days after the mother’s egg was fertilized. Before those turning points, there was no question of personal life.

Of course, Aquinas’ logical position is no longer held by the Catholic Church. Its official teaching is that personal life is present from the first moment of conception. But even within the Catholic community, prominent moral theologians beg to differ. Some, for instance, would argue their case by directing attention to the way the medical profession determines the moment of death. When the brain stops emitting brain waves, “brain death” occurs. Personal life has stopped though bodily life may continue. Plugs may then be pulled even if the patient continues to breathe with artificial assistance.  If that is so, these moralists reason, no personal life exists before a fetus’ brain begins sending off detectable brain waves. That occurs only several weeks into the pregnancy.

Other people of faith have traditionally identified the beginning of specifically personal life with the moment of “quickening” (when the mother first feels her baby move), with viability outside the womb, with actual emergence from the womb, or (as with some Native Americans) with the “painting” of the emergent child to distinguish it from animals.

[By the way, no Protestant churches took an official position on the abortion question before the 1979. It was then that the Moral Majority decided to adopt abortion as the trump issue of the Republican Party. The idea was to gain partisan allegiance by tapping into racial resentment among whites, especially in the South who saw “big government” as unfairly favoring African-Americans. Accordingly, the issue of abortion was presented as another example of “big government” in a political climate where overt racism was no longer socially or politically acceptable. “Pro-life” became an acceptable substitute for anti-Black.]

Given those differences among people whose religious traditions will not be going away any time soon, the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 probably goes about as far in restricting abortions as any law in a pluralistic U.S. can go. (Yes, Roe v. Wade does not simply legalize abortions; it restricts them significantly.) The controversial Supreme Court decision specifies that during the first trimester the mother may decide about the termination of her pregnancy without consultation. During the second trimester, she must confer with her physician. And during the final three months of pregnancy, the state recognizes its need to protect the unborn; it can accordingly forbid or otherwise condition pregnancy termination.

But aside from all that, it still must be admitted that the numbers of abortions in the United States and in the world remain unacceptably high. The question remains how to reduce those levels. Ironically, passing laws does not seem to help. For instance, abortion has been completely outlawed in many Latin American countries.  Yet those very countries lead the world in numbers of abortions performed each year. But where abortion has been legalized, as in the Netherlands and Belgium, abortion levels are the lowest in the world.

Government-sponsored social programs explain the difference. These involve provision of thorough sex education in public schools, free contraceptives, pre and post-natal care for expectant mothers, family leave arrangements and affordable child care for working parents, subsidized food grants, and a host of other child-centered programs of the very type “pro-life” politicians would like to abolish.  However, all of the programs just mentioned provide a welcoming atmosphere for children and reduce the perceived “need” for abortion.

Where would Jesus stand on all of this? We don’t know. He said not a word about abortion. But in today’s gospel he says more than a word about children. He embraces a child and says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Once again, in doing that Jesus is not embracing a fetus, but an actual living child about whose human status there can be no debate. Moreover, the child in question was probably of the type many opponents of abortion have little use for or sympathy with. After all today’s gospel scene takes place in Capernaum, the urban center that Jesus adopted as his home town after he was thrown out of Nazareth.

Remember that Jesus spent his time among the poor who represented his own origins.  So the child Jesus embraces was probably a smelly street kid with matted hair and a dirty face. He or she was probably not unlike the street kids found in any city today – the ones hooked on sniffing glue and who have learned to sell their bodies to dirty old men from way across town, and often from across the world.

I make all this supposition because the reason Jesus embraces the child in today’s gospel is to present his disciples with a living example of “the lowest of the low” – God’s chosen people.  In Jesus’ world, all children were at the bottom of the pecking order whose rabbinical description ended with “idiots, deaf-mutes and the young.” And among the young, street children without father or mother would indeed represent scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Embracing children like the one Jesus held doesn’t mean legally restricting abortions beyond Roe v. Wade. Neither does it mean “tough love,” nor forcing impoverished mothers to bring their children to term and then telling them “You’re on your own.” Rather, embracing poor children – truly being pro-life – means creating a welcoming atmosphere that receives children as we would receive the Jesus who identifies with them in today’s gospel. Yes, it suggests supporting those “Big Government” programs that work so well elsewhere.

Remember all of that when you hear your pastor’s sermon on abortion this Sunday.

Retirement Notes II

I had a revealing dream last night. It woke me up with a start and gave me the clearest feeling that I’ve got to finally grow up! There I was 72 years of age and trying out for the basketball team at the local high school all three of our children attended years ago.

Now, in “real life” (as they say), I used to be a pretty good basketball player. And in my dream, I was thinking that I still was, even though I was having trouble making my jump shot.

Then the moment of truth came. The coach was selecting the starting five. I was sure I’d be picked. To my surprise, I wasn’t. Next he started calling out names to fill out the roster. You guessed it; my name wasn’t called. So there I was at 72 left on the bench all alone and watching very inept, out-of-shape high schoolers taking “my place.”

All of a sudden I found myself wearing a suit and tie instead of my basketball stuff. Now, I hardly ever wear a suit. And one of the next times I do, I’ll probably be laid out in a coffin. Hmm.

I think the dream depicted my feelings about retirement – and perhaps life’s approaching end. I feel I’ve been told in several different and important (to me) venues that I’m not really wanted the way I used to be, and that the world can get along quite well without me.

Well, duh!

But even if it’s obvious, I’m the sort that has a hard time stomaching the message and accepting the gift of retirement and “declining years” with the grace, gratitude, and relief most people associate with leaving formal employment behind.

It’s what I have to work on. I suspect there’s a lot of “Catholic guilt” lurking somewhere here. And there’s a whole lot of “letting go” that I’ll have to work through. I’ll be reflecting on such issues here over the coming weeks.