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.

Catholic Baptismal Liturgy Edited for Baptism of Orlando Lehnerd-Reilly

THE BAPTISM OF
ORLANDO PETER LEHNERD-REILLY

 

Orlando immediately following his baptism (without a tear)
Mike holds up Orlando following the baby’s baptism

Incorporation into “The Body of Christ”
“Nomen est Omen”

The Celebrated: Orlando Peter Lehnerd-Reilly

Celebrants:

–          Maggie and Kerry Lehnerd-Reilly (Parents)

–          MC: Peggy Rivage-Seul (Orlando’s Grandmother)

–          Baptizer: Mike Rivage-Seul (Orlando’s Grandfather)

–          Godparents: Katy Fagan (Orlando’s Great Aunt) and Brendan Rivage-Seul (Orlando’s Uncle)

–          Prayers of the Faithful: Carla Perusquia Torres (Orlando’s Au Pair)

–          Relatives and Friends of Orlando Peter

I

WELCOME

Music: “Down to the River To Pray”

 As I went down in the river to pray

Studying about that good old way

And who shall wear the starry crown

Good Lord, show me the way !

O, sisters let’s go down

Let’s go down, come on down,

O sisters let’s go down

Down in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray

Studying about that good old way

And who shall wear the robe and crown

Good Lord, show me the way !

O, brothers let’s go down. . .starry crown
O, fathers let’s go down. . .robe and crown

O, mothers let’s go down. . .starry crown

O, Orlando let’s go down . . .robe and crown

Peggy:  Welcome, everyone, to this beautiful occasion – the incorporation of yet another member into the Community of Faith we call “The Body of Christ!” We have come together to welcome into our midst little Orlando Peter Lehnerd-Reilly whose parents, Maggie and Kerry, have expressed the desire to raise as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Let me begin by asking the traditional questions. . .Maggie and Kerry, why have you come here today?

Maggie:   We have come to have our son baptized.

Peggy:                         And what is the name you wish to give your son?

Maggie:                       His first name is Orlando.

Kerry:                          And his middle name is Peter, after Orlando’s Grandpa Peter, (and also after one of his sister’s favorite  literary characters, Peter Pan).  

Peggy:                         We are so happy that you have come to have your son baptized. Remember that by doing so you are pledging to train him in the practice of the faith we all share. It will be your duty not simply to teach him in words, but more importantly by your personal example of loving God, each other and his people – especially the poor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?

Maggie & Kerry:         We do

Peggy (to the Godparents):     And are you, Katy and Brendan,  ready to help Maggie and Kerry in their duty as Christian parents?

Katy and Brendan:     We are.

Peggy:                         Orlando Peter, the Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name, I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of his cross. I now trace the cross on your forehead, and invite your parents and godparents to do the same. Now to set the tone for this holy gathering, please join me in listening to the scriptural account of Jesus’ own baptism.

II

Liturgy of the Word

Mike (Orlando’s Baba): A reading from the Gospel of Mark. (1:9-15)

Brief Reflections: “Orlando and the Kingdom of God”

Music: “Come to the Water”

Oh let all who thirst, let them come to the water
And let all who have nothing, let them come to the Lord
Without money, without price
Why should you pay the price? Except for the Lord

And let all who seek, let them come to the water
And let all who have nothing, let them come to the Lord
Without money, without strife
Why should you spend your life? Except for the Lord

And let all who toil, let them come to the water
And let all who are weary, let them come to the Lord
All who labor, without rest
How can your soul find rest? Except for the Lord

And let all the poor, let them come to the water
Bring the ones who are laden, bring them all to the Lord
Bring the children, without might
Easy the load and light. Come to the Lord

III

Prayers of the Faithful

Carla

Let us pray in thanksgiving for Orlando Peter whose presence reminds us of our own prophetic calling to live in innocence, gentleness, openness, love, and commitment to peace and justice. Let us pray to the Lord

Let us pray for Orlando’s parents, Maggie and Kerry, that they may grow in their own faith, and share that faith generously with Orlando Peter by word and example. Let us pray to the Lord.

Let us pray for Orlando’s sister, Ineva Kathryn , that she may continue to be a good big sister always setting a loving example for her brother. Let us pray to the Lord.

Let us pray for Orlando’s brother, Oscar Michael, that he may grow into his special name, and lead a life in the example of Oscar Romero. Let us pray to the Lord.

Let us pray for peace in the world, and for the end of war, particularly in Afghanistan, where Orlando’s godfather, Uncle Brendan, will be working next year. Let us pray to the Lord.

And for what else shall we pray? (Pause for spontaneous prayer from the community)

 Peggy: God, our Mother and Father, hear our prayers. Make us all faithful followers of your Son, Jesus, the Christ. Pour out his Spirit of justice, peace and love on little Orlando Peter. May his life make a difference in this world. May he be courageous and strong in the expression of his faith just as were the great heroines and heroes of the faith we now invoke:

 Holy Mary, Mother of God:

All: Pray for us!

St. Joseph, Protector of Jesus and Mary:

All: Pray for us!

St. Francis of Assisi, father of environmentalism:

All: Pray for us!

St. Clare, loving companion of St. Francis:

All: Pray for us!

Martin Luther King, tireless worker for racial justice:

All: Pray for us!

Mahatma Gandhi, “Great Soul” and liberator of millions from colonialism:

All: Pray for us!

Oscar Romero, martyred bishop of El Salvador, patron of liberation theology:

All: Pray for us!

Dorothy Day, companion of the poor, founder of the Catholic Worker:

All: Pray for us!

Caesar Chavez, hero of the United Farm Workers and of the Hispanic community:

All: Pray for us!

All you holy saints of God who worked for justice and peace

All: Pray for us!

IV

Baptism: Incorporation into the “Body of Christ”

Mike: The time has come to incorporate Orlando into the Body of Christ. This beautiful rite makes him an official member of our Community of Faith. Before proceeding, however, we’re asked to recall what our faith means. So please join me in this profession of faith. Everyone, please respond:

Do you renounce the Spirit of the World with its greed, lust, anger, fear, violence and war?

All: We do.

Do you recognize that the promises of the world in its selfishness, advertising, consumerism, and prejudices are empty and lead to death of the Spirit rather than to the fullness of life?

All: We do.

Do you reject then the spirit of the World, its grasping, consumerism, selfishness and wars?

All: We do.

Do you choose instead to follow Christ who healed the sick, fed the hungry, visited the imprisoned, and whose life brought good news to the poor and outcast?

All: We do.

Do you promise to do so, even if it brings you to the same end as Jesus, death at the hands of Empire and of those who falsely thought they were serving God?

All: We do.

Do you believe in God, the Mother and Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?

All: We do.

Mike:   Let us then profess the faith we share:

 All:      We believe in humankind

            And in a world, in which

            There is room for everyone,

            And that it is our task to create

            Such a world.

            We believe in equal rights for all people,

            In love, justice, brotherhood and peace.

            We must continually act out these beliefs.

            We are inspired to do so, because we believe

            In Jesus of Nazareth.

            And we wish to model our lives on his.

            In doing so, we believe that we

            Are drawn into the mysterious relationship

            With the One, whom Jesus called his Father.

            Because of our belief in Jesus,

            We make no claims to exclusivity;

            We shall work together with others

            For a better world.

            We believe in the community of the faithful,

            And in our task to be the salt of the earth

            And the light of the world.

            But all of this in humility,

            Carrying our cross every day.

            And we believe in the resurrection

            Whatever it may mean.

            Amen!

Mike: This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it, in Christ Jesus our Lord.

All: Amen.

Mike (to Maggie & Kerry): Is it your will that Orlando Peter be baptized in the faith of the Church, which we have all professed with you?

Maggie & Kerry: It is.

Mike: Orlando Peter Lehnerd-Reilly, I baptize you in the name of the Father,

            And of the Son

            And of the Holy Spirit

 Music:             “We Remember”

                        We remember how you loved us

                        To your death

                        And still we celebrate for you are with us still.

                        And we believe that we will see you

                        When you come in your glory, Lord.

                        We remember. We celebrate. We believe.

Mike:   Everyone, please give your blessing to Orlando as we pass among you while we sing “Sabbath Prayer.”

Music:             “Sabbath Prayer”

May the Lord protect and defend you

May he always shield you from shame

May you come to be among us all a shining name

May you be like Peter the apostle

May you be deserving of praise

Strengthen him O Lord and keep him from the stranger’s ways

(bridge) May God bless you and grant you a long life

May the Lord fulfill our Sabbath prayer for you

May God make you a good follower of Christ

May he send you teachers who will care for you

May the Lord protect and defend you

May the Lord preserve you from pain

Favor him o lord with happiness and peace

O hear our Sabbath prayer, Amen

V

Final Affirmation of Original Goodness and Light

Anointing after Baptism:

Peggy: Orlando Peter, you have been welcomed into our community of faith. We are enriched by the presence of your Original Goodness. We recognize and accept our call to recover our own innocence as gentle, open, and loving creatures like you. As you grow, we pledge to help you preserve and live out your goodness despite the temptations and deceits of the consumer culture that would shape you by its selfishness and greed. We pray that all of us may be faithful followers of Jesus who lived for others rather than for himself. This anointing reminds us of our call – of your call – to own your power as Priest, Prophet, and Leader in your new community of faith.

All:      Amen

Peggy: Anoints Orlando.

Clothing with the White Garment

 Peggy: Orlando Peter, we now clothe you in this white garment that was worn by your grandfather, Peter, whose name you bear. Recognize this garment as an outward sign of the goodness of God’s presence within you. With your mother, father, family, and friends to help you by word and example, may you continue to manifest that presence in everything you say and do.

All: Amen.

Lighted Candle

Peggy: (After lighting baptismal candle, she hands it to Katy and Brendan) Katy and Brendan, receive the light of Christ on behalf of your godson. I give it to you with the prayer that Orlando might be a light to our world, just as Jesus was. Please help him keep the candle of his faith, love, and good works burning gently and (when necessary) fiercely for the benefit of all.

Peggy: (Hands the candle to Katy) Receive this candle for Orlando.

Katy: May Orlando and all of us be a light to the world!

Peggy: (Takes the candle from Katy and gives it to Brendan.) Receive this candle for Orlando.

Brendan: May Orlando and all of us be a light to the world! (He returns the candle to Peggy)

VII

Conclusion

Peggy: My dear friends, our celebration is ended. Let us go now to love and serve one another and the world.

All:      Thanks be to God.

 Music: “This Little Light Of Mine”

 Chorus:

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine (3xs)

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

 I’m going to take this light around the world, and I’m gonna let it shine. .

I won’t let anyone (blow) it out. .

Every day, every day, I’m gonna let my little light shine!

Orlando’s Baptismal Homily: “Welcome, Kingdom Boy!”

Mike reading the text for the day: Mk. 1:9-15    Kerry (holding Orlando) Maggie, Oscar
Well, here we are again at what’s becoming an annual ritual for our clan. This is our third baptism in three years. My first thought standing here is that “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.” Maggie and Kerry, see what you can do about that!

Just kidding, of course . . . The truth is we’re all so happy to be here to at this beautiful lakeside setting to welcome into our community of faith Maggie and Kerry’s third child and Peggy’s and my third grandchild. (We all feel so proud.) We have here another child of God filled with the original goodness we celebrated and are still graced with in the presence of big sister, Eva, and big brother, Oscar. We’re here to incorporate Orlando (“Peter Pan,” “Howdy Doody”) into the Body of those aspiring to live in the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth.

Yes, we’re here to celebrate “original goodness,” even though since St. Augustine in the 5th century, the emphasis in Christian baptism has been on “Original Sin. ” That seems so negative, doesn’t it, in the presence of the innocence so evident in children like Eva, Oscar, and Orlando?  I remember speaking about that at Eva’s baptism three years ago.

However second thought has made me realize that there is some wisdom in the idea of Original Sin – that we’re born into sin even as infants. And here I’m talking about personal sin. Rather, I’m referencing the atmosphere of selfishness, greed, violence, and purposelessness that all of us are steeped in, and that we imbibe with our mother’s milk. We gulp all of that in with our first breath, and we grow into it getting more and more deeply mired as the years go by. As a result even for the best of us, any thought of other-centeredness, generosity, peacemaking and faith become marginalized as unrealistic, utopian, and naïve. That’s Original Sin.

Embracing it, living according to our culture’s hopeless convictions means we’ve forgotten our baptismal promises and commitment made for us vicariously when we were infants like Orlando. We’ve forgotten what we subsequently embraced consciously on the day of our Confirmation.

The grace and beauty of an occasion like this is that it presents each of us with an opportunity to remember those commitments (vicarious and conscious) and to reorient ourselves on the path that was trod so faithfully by Jesus of Nazareth. It was a utopian path, a prophetic path.  

Think about the Gospel reading we just shared. There Jesus presents himself for baptism at the River Jordan. He’s baptized. The heaven’s open and a voice reveals to him – or reminds him – that he is a beloved child of God, like Orlando here. He goes out into the desert for a forty day retreat – on a vision quest to find out what that revelation might mean. He gets the vision of angels and devils, of rocks turning to bread, of leaping from the pinnacle of the Temple, of all the kingdoms of the world that might be his. With those visions and possibilities in mind, he decides on his path.

The next thing we know, he’s in the Galilee preaching. Mark sums up his message in a single sentence: “The time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.”

In other words, Jesus’ decision was to dedicate his life not to preaching about himself, not to his culture’s beliefs that some people were inherently clean and others unclean, not to the service of the Roman Empire, not even to the ethnocentric Kingdom of David. Instead, his focus was the Kingdom of God. His conviction that it is coming to this world in the here and now is what he calls the Good News. His message is a call to change the world accordingly.

And what is the Kingdom of God? In brief, it is what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In that world everything would be reversed: the rich would become poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first; prostitutes and sinners would enter before the priests and doctors of religious law.

Following Jesus means believing living and working as though that other world were possible here and now despite all evidence to the contrary.

So here we are at another baptism. And our presence on this lakeshore proclaims to Orlando the words Jesus heard on the banks of the Jordan, “You are my beloved Son; my favor rests on you.”  In the years ahead of him, Orlando’s going to try to figure out what those words mean. He’ll see those visions that Jesus saw during his forty day retreat. The world will speak the devil’s lines. “Live for pleasure, profit, prestige, and power. There’s really nothing else to life. After all, you only go around once.”

Today we’re saying “No” on Orlando’s behalf and for ourselves. We’re saying “No” to a life dedicated to pleasure, profit, power and prestige.  We’re saying “Yes” to the Kingdom – to the other world our culture says is impossible, unrealistic and naïve. Our hope is that Orlando will one day make his own the “No” and the “Yes” we speak for him at his baptism.  

By the way, did you know that Orlando’s name means “renowned land” – famous country? In the context of today’s celebration and our Gospel reading, his name can only be a reference to that renowned “Kingdom of God” that meant so much to Jesus. In other words, Orlando’s name, his very presence should be a constant reminder that we are Kingdom people. Orlando is our Kingdom Child, our Kingdom Boy.  As long as he lives, his presence and name should remind us of this day – that our guiding Kingdom vision makes us different in what we hope for, live for, talk about, and work for.

Orlando, Kingdom Boy, thank you for reminding us of who we are!

Now let’s get on with your baptism, beloved child of God.

Mike baptizing Orlando
Orlando’s baptism in Canadian Lakes Michigan, August 12th, 2012
Thursday’s Post: The highly edited Roman Catholic baptismal ritual we used for Orlando

How’s Your Spiritual Journey Going? (Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Readings: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51

How’s your spiritual journey going these days?

Does the question surprise you?

“’Journey’ did you say?” you might ask. “What journey?”

Well, my question was about growth in awareness of God’s presence and of God’s various manifestations. Do you feel yourself closer to God than you did, say, as a child?

“Oh, if that’s what you mean,” you might answer, “there hasn’t been much going on there. Actually, I’m quite discouraged about the whole thing. There hasn’t really been much of what I’d call ‘growth.’ I’m kind of treading water. And then when I think something’s going on – after I’ve read a good book or article on the topic – some bishop or priest tells me I’m wrong and am losing my faith. It seems they want me to stand still rather than ‘journey,’

“For instance, take today’s readings. That story about Elijah seems like a child’s tale. I mean: angels, miraculous bread  . . .  And then those words of Jesus: he is bread; we’re supposed to eat his flesh? It all seems so (excuse me) absurd. I suppose Jesus was talking about the Eucharist or something. But I’m finding it harder and harder to believe even what I’ve been taught about that. God in a piece of bread? I’m afraid my faith is threatened rather than strengthened by readings like those in this morning’s liturgy. Spiritually I’m feeling rather discouraged.”

If what I’ve just said reflects your own thoughts and feelings, you’re in good company. There comes a point in everyone’s life where faith has to be reassessed – where what we were taught and believed as children no longer meets our adult needs. At those times discouragement (despondency is the term used in today’s first reading) is actually a good sign. It can mean we’ve outgrown old ways of thinking and are being called to growth which is always difficult. So we shouldn’t give up in the face of discouragement, but embrace it with hope.

With that in mind, please realize that today’s readings are about the spiritual journey, the search for God and the discouragement that comes along with it. They are about finding God’s presence hidden in plain sight – within our own flesh (as Jesus put it) – closer to us than our jugular vein.

That theme of spiritual journey is announced in the first reading – the story about the prophet Elijah fed by angels under a juniper tree. Elijah did his work in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 800 years before the birth of Jesus. He is remembered as one of the great, great prophets of the Jewish Testament. In fact, he was so powerful that Jesus’ followers thought Jesus to be the prophet’s reincarnation. John the Baptist’s followers thought the same about him. (Btw: does that mean that Jesus and his contemporaries believed in reincarnation?) So Elijah is a key figure in our tradition.

In any case, today’s story about Elijah describes the classic stages of the spiritual journey that we’re all called to – from immature believing things about God and Jesus to something more holistic that finds and honors God’s manifestations everywhere.  

As we join him in today’s first reading, Elijah is described as beginning a literal journey. He’s traveling to Mt. Horeb (or Sinai) – the place where Moses and the slaves who had escaped from Egypt made their Covenant with their God, Yahweh.  As pick up the story, Elijah is confused about God (“despondent”), and evidently thinks that by returning to the origins of his faith, he’ll get some clarity.

At this stage of his spiritual growth, Elijah’s faith is less mature. He has a very ethnocentric idea about God. And he’s being called to move beyond that stage of development. The ethnocentric idea has it that God is all about us – our people, our nation, our wars, our prosperity. God is our God and we are his chosen people – truly exceptional. In passages from the Book of Kings just before today’s reading Elijah manifested that understanding of God in a contest with the priests of Baal – a Phoenician God that the King of Israel, Achab and his wife Jezebel had flirted with.

You remember the story. Elijah challenged forty priests to a contest – your sacrifices against ours. Call on your gods to light your sacrificial fires, and I’ll call on Yahweh, and then we’ll see who’s really God. Of course, the priests of Baal can’t get their gods to come through. They chant, and dance, and sing. But the sacrificial wood remains cold. However Yahweh comes through for his prophet; he lights Elijah’s fire even though in a display of bravado, the prophet had the wood doused with water. Not only that, but Yahweh kills the forty priests for good measure.

That’s the ethnocentric idea: “Our God is better than your god. He has more magic power.” And he’s (this is almost always a male concept) very violent and vindictive. He’ll turn on you and go off on you at the drop of a hat. That’s the God that no longer seems to be working for Elijah. It has made him a wanted man. Queen Jezebel is after him and wants his head. Life is not worth living, the prophet concludes. He wants it all to end – there under the juniper tree.

But two people (whom Elijah later understands as messengers from God) feed him, and on the strength of food provided by strangers he completes his journey and arrives at a cave high on Mt. Sinai. And there God reveals his true nature not as an ethnocentric God belonging to a single “chosen” people. Neither does God reveal Godself in nature’s elements – not in earth (an earthquake), not in air (a whirlwind), nor in fire (lightning). Instead God (definitely not predominantly male) is disclosed as a “still small voice” within the prophet himself.

And what is a “still” voice, a “small” voice? It seems to me that it’s a communication without sound – one that can be hardly heard – a far cry from the deity who magically lights sacrificial fires and slays Phoenician priests. That magical violent understanding of God seems frankly childish – a God who enters into competition with other “worthy opponents” over whom he has greater magical powers.

No, the revelation to Elijah discloses a God who is much more subtle and who resides within all persons be they Hebrew or Phoenician. By traditional standards, it is a “weak” unspectacular God. God is found within; God is small and quiet and belongs to everyone. Or rather, everyone belongs to God regardless of their nationality or race. And in Elijah’s story, it’s not clear that the prophet even grasps the point.

Elijah might not have gotten the point. But it’s clear that his reincarnation in Jesus of Nazareth did – or at least that John the Evangelist writing 60-90 years after Jesus’ death got the point. By then it was possible to put words in Jesus’ mouth that the carpenter from Nazareth could never have said – especially about eating his flesh and above all drinking his blood. Jews, of course, were forbidden from imbibing the blood of any living thing, let alone human blood. However by John’s time Jesus’ followers had increasingly left behind their Jewish origins. They had become friendly with Gnosticism and were coming to terms with Roman “mystery cults.” Both worshipped “dying and rising gods” who offered “eternal life” to those who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.

Evidently, John the Evangelist and others like John’s contemporary who wrote “The Gospel of Thomas” recognized an affinity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of the Gnostics who found God’s presence in all of creation. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say “Split a block of wood and I am there; lift up a rock and find me there.”

 In other words, by the end of the first century, Christians were developing an ecumenical understanding of God that went far beyond the Jewish ethnocentrism of Elijah. By that time Christians could see that Jesus was not only a prophet, not only a movement founder of reform within Judaism,  not only an insightful story teller and extraordinary healer, but a “Spirit Person” who like the Gnostics found God’s presence in every element of creation – principally in that “still, small voice” revealed to Elijah.

So Jesus found God’s presence in wood, under rocks, in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of wine, within his self, here and now (not in some afterlife) but in his very flesh and blood. In other words, shared divine presence lent a unity and sameness to everything. Bread and flesh, wine and blood turn out to be the same across time and space. John has Jesus say all of that quite shockingly: “When you eat bread you are eating my flesh; when you drink wine, you are imbibing my blood. We, all of creation, are all one!”

What I’m saying here is that faith changes and grows. Discouragement with old models and paradigms is a hopeful sign. Think of today’s readings and the distance traveled from Elijah’s Magical Killer God to the Still Small Voice to the God present in bread, wine, and in every cell of Jesus’ and our own bodies.

If your own spiritual journey has you longing for further exploration of such adult themes, I can’t do better than to urge you along your ways by recommending Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. His Meeting Jesus again for the First Time is similarly helpful. Or perhaps during Advent or Lent we can get together to discuss those books and truly renew our faith. What do you think? (Discussion follows)

How My Sons Brought Me Back to the Game (of Life)

It’s been nearly a month since my last “Golfing for Enlightenment” posting. That realization along with this week’s PGA “Major” brings me back to the topic. My last entry had me rehearsing my love-hate relationship with golf. Given my frustrations, around the age of 30, I threw in the towel.

But then for some reason, in my mid-fifties, I introduced the game to my two sons, Brendan and Patrick. Their uncle, Gerry encouraged and instructed them further and from then on there was no stopping them. As early teenagers, they spent a year in Zimbabwe, while my wife, Peggy, was doing her Fulbright at the University there in Harare. In Zimbabwe, Brendan and Patrick’s after-school activity was playing golf. Their venue was the Royal Harare, where (with an extremely favorable exchange rate), the annual membership fee was something like $150 USD. In no time at all, they were threatening to break par and winning golf tournaments.

They also lured me back to the course. I remember playing with Patrick early on in Zimbabwe. He was 12 at the time. It was at about the thirteenth hole, that he realized he was going to beat me for the first time. I recall the confusion in his eyes when our conversation made that apparent. He wasn’t sure it was right to beat his dad. But he forged ahead and whipped me soundly. Soon my pre-teen was instructing his 58 year old father on the differences between what he called “effortless power” and the “powerless effort” he saw in my swing. Since 1998 I’ve never even come close to challenging Patrick. His drives of 300 yards + make my 180-200 yard efforts laughable. Still he and his brother like me to play with them. And they’re usually pretty kind about their dad’s pedestrian performances. If it weren’t for the bonding between the three of us on the course, I’d have quit the game for good long ago. 

When I retired two years ago, I decided to get serious about golf. I bought a couple of books, subscribed to some DVDs, and 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 just shared. This brings me to the”life” and “enlightenment” part of these reflections.

 I’ll deal with those in my next golf posting.

Thanks to Faith (and the Digital Revolution) A World without Overwork Is Possible

Today’s Readings: Ex. 16:2-4, 12-15; Ps. 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54; Eph. 4:17, 20-24; Jn. 6:24-35

Bonnie Ware, an Australian nurse working with Hospice International has written a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Nurse Ware worked in palliative care for 12 years. And during that time she recognized an unmistakable pattern especially in dying men. As they talked of their past lives many of them expressed similar regrets. According to Ms. Ware, at least among men, the top death-bed regret was, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time working.” They regretted not spending more time with family and doing the things that make life enjoyable and really worth living.

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There was an interesting article in The New York Times about a month ago. It was about happiness and its connection with money. The article was entitled something like “How Much Money Does It Take to Be Happy?” What do you think the figure was?

The Times article said that while everyone recognizes that money can’t buy happiness, levels of contentment stop increasing once households reach a level of $75,000. As incomes increase beyond that, more money and the consumption it allows do not actually make people more content. Do you find that surprising? It suggests that six figure salaries and the incomes of millionaires and billionaires might in the end be rather pointless – and not worth protecting (as many of our politicians seems so hell-bent on doing).  Am I correct?

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I recently published an article in the on-line news source, OpEdNews. The piece was called “Thank God for the Jobs Crisis.” (The article was also posted on this blog site last Labor Day.) Calling on authors like Jeremy Rifkin, J.W. Smith, and Juliette Shor, I argued that the unemployment crisis that has stuck with us since 2008 is actually a good sign. It indicates that the promise of what used to be called the “Cybernetic Age” has finally come true. Computers and robots have taken over the job market to such an extent that the only way to solve the “jobs crisis” is to share the work. That means that none of us has to work that hard unless we want to. Thanks to the new technology, we could all share the work and put in four-hour days or three-day weeks. Alternatively we could work for only six months a year, or every other year and still make a living wage.  We could retire at 40. And this would be possible world-wide.

We’d pay for all of this by cutting back the military budget 60% and by taxing the rich and corporations. Remember the 91% top-level tax bracket that was in place in the United States following World War II? We could reinstate that, I said. Share the wealth. Boldly restructure the economy. Embrace the new technology’s promise along with the life of leisure that it offers.

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Please hold those thoughts if you will. They were about spending too much time working to reach income levels that don’t really make us any happier, and about the possibility of a whole new way of life that disconnects consumption from the type of employment many of us resent.

In fact, all three of those considerations are closely connected with this Sunday’s liturgical readings. All three readings are about God’s economy of gift and abundance – unbelievable gift and abundance with no work required. The readings are about work, consumption and the power faith supplies to break away from overwork, competition, scarcity, and fear that have most of us overworked.

Consider that first reading. The Israelites have just been liberated from Egypt. It was an economy where God’s People were even more literally enslaved by their work than we are. (Can you imagine how many Hebrew slaves died with regrets about working too much?) But their slave labor, unsatisfying as it was, at least provided food. In fact, the Hebrews were so bound to Egypt’s enslaving economy that they could hardly conceive a reality outside it. Who would feed them now that they were without work? At least they had something to eat in Egypt. The Pharaoh ran a tight ship there and put food on their tables. But who, after all, was this rebel leader, Moses? How would he feed them out there? The Hebrews actually resented Moses and his “false promise” of a better life.

And the story’s response? Through the provision of manna, God suggests a new order God has in mind not only for Israel, but for all of humanity. Unbelievably, God rains bread down on the people. No work needed. The main requirement: don’t take more than you need. Don’t hoard. It’s like Jesus’ desert feeding of 5000 in last week’s readings. The message: everybody deserves food whether they can pay for it or not, whether or not they work, whether or not they want to work. There will be enough for all, as long as no one takes more than he needs. (Actually Gandhi said something like that: “There is enough in the world,” he said, “to satisfy everyone’s need, but not to satisfy everyone’s greed.”)

When you heard my proposal this morning about sharing the work, did you react like the Hebrews? “Yeah, right,” you might have thought. “When’s that gonna happen?” I mean, we find it almost impossible to break out of the mindset of overwork. We can hardly allow ourselves to imagine that God is so generous that overwork is not required to enjoy the good life. We can’t conceive of what we’d do if our needs were met without enslaving ourselves to those who would convince us that scarcity rather than plenty and abundance represent God’s way – God’s will for us.

Consider today’s second reading as well – still in the context of our work lives. There Paul tells the Christian community at Ephesus that the lives of those without faith are (in Paul’s words) “futile.” That’s because they are deceived by what Paul terms “desires” for more than they need. Those desires, Paul implies, always make promises beyond their capacity to deliver. I don’t care what The New York Times says, the better off among us might tell themselves, $75,000 per household is not enough. Others say neither is a million or a billion. More is always needed. But, Paul points out, despite what our unbelieving culture tells us, beyond the point of satisfying basic needs, more actually adds little to our happiness. In fact, it can greatly increase unhappiness. It seems The New York Times agrees.

Such considerations have relevance to today’s political scene. So-called “experts” argue that there are not enough resources to feed, clothe, house, and cure the earth’s seven billion people. But, of course, that’s not true. Remember my reference last week to the U.N. study that said that a mere 4% tax on the world’s richest 225 men (They are men almost without exception) could meet all those needs. What if $100,000 or even a million were set as the highest income anyone was allowed to earn in a single year? If the Times is correct, no one would be any unhappier for it. And think of the resources that would be released to enrich the lives of those for whom today’s cybernetic economy can’t supply jobs. (Keep that in mind the next time you hear a politician resisting tax increases on the world’s richest.)  

For Paul, it’s a matter of faith – yes even questions of taxation, I’d say. (And that brings us to that third point about a new future of abundance with greatly reduced hours in the workplace.) We used to believe in the world’s promise of unlimited more, Paul reminds his readers. But that was our old self listening. The New Self which we’ve adopted through faith in Jesus has learned God’s way from the Master not to mention Moses and the manna in the desert. And of course God’s way is the way of the Kingdom – a world with room for everyone. That’s what Paul tells us.

The gospel of today’s liturgy completely supports Paul’s point. John the Evangelist has Jesus say “Don’t work for bread that perishes. Work for imperishable bread – those relationships with family and friends, time with your spouse and kids, the fruits of creative self-expression in tune with your unique gifts,” Work for those, Paul suggests, and avoid the “top five regrets of the dying.”

Don’t we all wish we could do that? However to do so we must ignore that old self Paul refers to, and make room for the New Self to emerge. And what a struggle that is! It means actually believing that there is a Giver who will provide for us the way the Great Provider did in the desert with Moses and in the desert with Jesus when he fed the 5000.

Do we really believe there is such a Provider? Think about it in the context of work, deathbed regrets, money’s inability to make us happy, and structural unemployment connected to the digital revolution. What are the implications of that belief for our personal, familial, political and work lives? (Discussion follows.)

What if the Catholic Church Responded to Its Sex Scandal the Way the NCAA Did to Theirs?

 

Pope Ratzinger confers with his Cardinal colleagues
Pope Ratzinger confers with his Cardinal colleagues

Many were pleasantly surprised by the severity of the sanctions the National Collegiate Athletic Association placed on Penn State following its investigation of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. The NCAA’s measures evidenced an appropriately serious approach to unspeakable crimes.  At the same time, however, the athletic association’s aggressive sanctions contrasted sharply with the lack of appropriate response to much greater crimes on the part of Roman Catholic clergy.  It made some wonder what it might look like if the Catholic Church handled its infinitely larger scandal in a fashion similar to that of the NCAA.  

Of course, the Penn State’s board of trustees had initially tried to defuse its shameful situation by having the institution’s president resign and by firing Joe Paterno, the football program’s legendary coach. Eventually, they even removed “Joepa’s” statue that (dis)graced the entrance way to the football stadium in Happy Valley.   

But the NCAA went far beyond that – even further than most had expected.  It appointed high profile Independent Counsel, Louis Freeh, to investigate responsibility for Sandusky’s crimes and the cover-up that followed. Then in the wake of Freeh’s damning final report, it fined the University $60 million dollars – the amount the football program takes in annually. It ordered the program to vacate its winnings since 1998 (thus depriving Paterno of his legacy as the winningest coach in NCAA football history). It forbade the program to extend any football scholarships for the next four years, and released all of its current players from their ties to Penn State, making them immediately eligible to play elsewhere. The football program will be devastated for years to come.

The NCAA’s bold sanctions couldn’t be further from the response of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to its child abuse scandal. There instead the “old boy” defense of the institution and the members of its all male club kicked in just as it did at first inside Penn State’s football program when the Sandusky crimes initially came to light. At Penn State, the wagons were circled, Sandusky was mildly chided while everyone in charge from the University president and Joe Paterno on down denied any knowledge or responsibility. The attitude that “boys will be boys” threatened to carry the day.

The equivalent of that attitude and (non)response still prevails within the Holy City despite the shameful involvement of priests in raping and otherwise sexually abusing children on a worldwide scale that absolutely dwarfs anything that happened in Happy Valley. In the face of thorough investigations by independent groups (e.g. the absolutely devastating indictment published last year in Ireland) the Cardinal of New York invoked the “bad apples” defense, and protested that “only” a small portion of the clergy was tainted.

But what would it have looked like (impossibly!) if the Catholic Church had responded like the NCAA?

If it had done so:

–          Pope Ratzinger would have resigned immediately.

–          All cardinals and bishops who had covered up the scandal would have been removed from office.

–          The canonization process for John Paul II would have been terminated, because of the way he played down the sex scandal. This would be the equivalent of removing Joepa’s statue.

–          An investigation independent of the Vatican would have been launched headed by an unimpeachable figure – say the Dali Lama, perhaps joined by Sr. Pat Farrell, President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) which is currently being investigated by the Vatican.

–          Upon completion of its investigation (assuming it would have reached conclusions similar to the one in Ireland), the commission would have:

  • Fined the Catholic Church $500 billion – the equivalent of one year of the R.C. church income. The money would be used world-wide to aid victims of sex abuse and to institute programs to educate clergy about human sexuality using the best insights of current sociology and psychology.
  • Removed from the list of genuine popes all those whose public crimes made them unworthy of the title “Vicars of Christ.” Here the Borgia popes come to mind, as well as Pope Pius XII for his silence about the Jewish Holocaust. (Obviously, the process of his canonization would be abruptly ended.) This would be the rough equivalent of Penn State’s vacating its football wins since 1998.
  • The exclusion of women from the priesthood would be reversed, and seminary scholarships would be extended world-wide to women desiring to receive Holy Orders.
  • Mandatory celibacy would be set aside as a requirement of the priesthood.
  • A reforming Church Council (Vatican III?) would be ordered to deal with the sex abuse and related problems – to be attended only by bishops not involved in the abuse scandal and subsequent cover-up. Their places would be taken by women elected by national bodies equivalent to the LCWR in the United States.

Of course, nothing like the results just described is remotely possible. Roman Catholic insulation from the external processes necessary to achieve such outcomes prevents that eventuality. The only external source capable of moving the church in the desired direction belongs to the Catholic faithful itself. It alone has the authority to withhold church attendance and contributions till the desired decisions of reform are taken.

Such pressure from the faithful will eventually be applied willy-nilly. That is, the faithful will either wage a purposeful campaign of withholding attendance and financial support in the light of failed church leadership. Or alternatively (and more likely) the once-faithful will be driven away from the church as the realization dawns that a college sports organization possesses sounder moral character than what pretends to be the “Mystical Body of Christ.”