How the Eucharist Transforms Us (Not Bread) into the Body of Christ

One Loaf

This Sunday Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), it was called Corpus Christi (Latin for “the Body of Christ”).

It’s a day when restorationist priests will preach “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected way back in the 4th century. He wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”

Most thinking Catholics have come to similar conclusions. But rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s shared bread, many of them have simply rejected the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasies akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because such rejection represents a dismissal of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

Let me explain.

To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, from the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.

But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:

Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.

“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well.

That was something even uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against Muslims and immigrants, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves.

That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.

Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.

Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.

Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All light-shafts from the sun are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.

In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one Body of Christ.

All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.

Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So, their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”

And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction is found in I COR: 12-12-27:

“12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so, we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts. . .
You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”

Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human-unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So, it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context. That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.

In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me. And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ, act together as I would.”

Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?

It’s powerful. The Eucharist is a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.

That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.

The world our grandchildren will inherit needs everything symbolized by all of that. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.

Keep that in mind this Sunday, when your priest lectures you on “the real presence.” The real presence is us.

The Ten Commandments Call Us to Joy and Peace, Not to Guilt and War

Heston

The emphasis in today’s liturgy of the word is on the wonders of God’s law. Today’s first reading reviews the expanded version of the familiar “Ten Commandments” which many of us were made to memorize as children. Then the responsorial psalm praises God’s Law as perfect, refreshing, wise, right, joyful, clear, enlightening, true, just, precious, and sweet.

On hearing that string of adjectives, many might raise their eyebrows in disbelief. “Joyful, “refreshing,” “precious,” “sweet?” “That’s not been my experience of the Ten Commandments,” we might say. “My experience of what’s called “God’s law” is entirely negative. When I hear references to the Ten Commandments I think of repressed fundamentalists wanting the Commandments posted on school walls and enshrined on lawns before every courthouse.”

And it’s true: negative reaction to talk of “Commandments” is completely understandable. From childhood, authority figures intent on controlling the most intimate details of our lives have threatened us with “The 10 Commandments,” “sin” and “punishment.” From the time we were children, and especially as adolescents and young adults “God’s Law” seemed to militate against everything we really wanted to do – especially in the area of sexuality.

However, a bit of reflection shows how misplaced such reactions are. It reveals that “God’s Law” is not something posted on a classroom wall or on a plaque in front of a government building. It’s not written in stone either. Instead, it’s enshrined deep in the human heart. And human happiness – world peace – is impossible without observing that law which in its essence is no different from nature’s law.

That recognition in turn suggests how important it is for us to come to agreement about moral and ethical behavior if we truly want peace in the world. The U.N. has realized that and has sponsored research into the content of what it terms “a universal ethic.” According to the U.N., there are just four basic “commandments”: (1) Don’t kill; (2) Don’t rape; (3) Don’t lie, and (4) Don’t steal.

People as diverse as Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung and professional atheist Richard Dawkins agree but go further in what seem to me very helpful ways.

In fact, at the age of 89, Kung has dedicated the last part of his career to peacemaking by building bridges between religions whose differences are so often the cause or pretext for violent conflict. Kung works on the four principles that (1) International peace is impossible without peace between religions; (2) there can be no inter-religious peace without inter-religious dialog; (3) there can be no inter-religious dialog without agreement about a global ethic, and (4) our world cannot survive without such an ethic that is universally accepted.

So in terms of “God’s law,” what do all major religions agree about? The Golden rule is the point of convergence.

Christianity puts it this way: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets “ (Mt. 7:12). In Confucianism the same statute is expressed in these terms, “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state” (Analects 12:2). Buddhism’s version runs, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udana-Varga 5,1). Hinduism agrees in these words, “This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you” (Mahabharata . 5, 1517). Islam’s expression is, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself (Sunnah). In Taoism the same law finds this formulation: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss” (Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien). Zoroastrianism says, “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself” (Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5). Judaism says, “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellowman; this is the entire law; all the rest is commentary” (Talmud, Shabbat 3id).

Even Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist endorses the Golden Rule. In formulating his own Ten Commandments, he leads off with his own version of that principle. Here are Dawkins’ Ten Commandments:”

* Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you
* In all things, strive to cause no harm
* Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
* Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
* Live life with a sense of joy and wonder
* Always seek to be learning something new
* Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
* Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
* Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
* Question everything

Dawkins also has something to say about that fraught area of sexuality I mentioned earlier. He adds four additional statutes:

* Enjoy your own sexual life (as long as it does not harm to others), and let others enjoy their sexual lives in private according to their own inclinations which in any case are none of your business.
* Don’t discriminate against or oppress anyone because of their sex, race or (insofar as possible) species.
* Don’t indoctrinate your children. Teach them to think for themselves, how to weigh evidence, and how to disagree with you.
* Respect the future beyond the temporal limits of your own life.

Now those laws are “delightful,” many would agree. They make sense because they reflect human nature and nature’s laws. They also can be perfectly aligned with God’s Law presented in today’s initial reading.

Imagine the world we’d create if we joined our brothers and sisters in all those religions I referenced and promoted Dawkins commandments with the same vigor the fundamentalists promote their repressed interpretations of the Ten Commandments.

Kung is right: we might witness an out-breaking of world peace.

(Sunday Homily) Matthew’s God as Mafia Don: The Religion That’s Killing Us

Mafia Don

Readings for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 27: 30-28:7; PS 102: 1-4, 9-12; ROM 14: 7-9; JN 13:34; MT 18: 21-35

Today’s gospel is a confusing one. For me, it’s troubling. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it illustrates what’s wrong with religion.

What’s wrong is that too often religion is made to justify violence, guilt, fear and economic exploitation. Its God is like a Mafia Don who intimidates, punishes, tortures, and never forgives. For the sake of money (!), He even engages in child trafficking and leg-breaking extortion.

That’s ironic, isn’t it? I mean, the gospel reading begins with Jesus’ comforting and challenging logion about forgiveness. How often should we forgive, he is asked? Jesus’ answer: “Always! In fact, you can’t put a number on it. But, if you insist, how about 490 times – 70 X 7?”

Jesus would surely say something like that. Seven times is not enough. Seventy times seven is more like it. That formula probably represents an authentic saying of the Master whose followers eventually saw as divine. His teaching: always forgive; that’s God’s way.

But then comes the confusing illustration that seems to contradict those comforting and challenging words. Matthew presents Jesus as identifying the God whom the Master embodied with a cruel king. The ruler’s actions contradict not only Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness, but everything the rest of today’s liturgy of the word says about Jesus’ compassionate God.

Think about it. In the first reading, Sirach says that anger and vengeance are hateful. Don’t cherish wrath or refuse mercy, we are told. Instead overlook the faults of others and heal, rather than punish.

In that respect be like God, the Responsorial Psalm tells us. God is always kind, merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion. The Divine One heals rather than punishes. In fact, in God’s eyes, we are for all practical purposes guiltless. He doesn’t even see our sins. As the psalmist puts it, the gap between us and guilt is infinite – as wide as that between east and west. That’s the way we should see each other too – entirely guiltless.

The alleluia verse continues in the same vein. It reminds us of Jesus’s words: “Love one another as I have loved you.” That means, as Paul says in the reading from Romans, living and dying as Jesus did – with a prayer of forgiveness for his executioners on his lips: “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” Jesus pardoned even his assassins and executioners.

But then comes that troubling illustration. Matthew presents Jesus as identifying his Father with a money lender – with a king whose first impulse towards his debtor is to sell him and his entire family – including his children – into slavery. That’s human trafficking. That’s trafficking in children.

Put otherwise, for the sake of recovering his money (!), no cruelty seems excessive. That’s evidently why the money lender employs torturers on retainer. Their job, as we see in the parable’s conclusion, is to squeeze blood from a turnip. If a debtor can’t pay with money, he’ll pay with pain. Here torture’s purpose is to intimidate – to send a message to others who might be tempted renege on their debts. Does that remind you of Mafia leg-breakers?

Nonetheless, at the end of the parable, Matthew has Jesus saying: “So will my heavenly Father do to you unless each of you forgives your brothers from your heart.” Contradictions, anyone? Silliness? Intimidation?

Yes!

In fact, Jesus could never have spoken these words because, as I said, they run counter to the instructions that precede them. They also contradict the descriptions of God exemplified in biblical teachings as found in today’s reading from Sirach, Psalms, Romans, and the Gospel of John.

Not only that. Jesus’ audience was filled with debtors whose lives were imiserated by Shylocks like the king in this morning’s story. They would never have listened to a teacher who identified God with such oppressors.

So what’s up with Matthew? Why does he insist on a punishing God who seems to support economic exploitation and Mafia ethics?

Fact is: right from the beginning it was difficult for Jesus’ followers (especially those like Matthew who never met him) to leave behind their religion’s overwhelming concept of a violent, punishing God. Moreover, despite Jesus’ teaching about the entirely new order represented by God’s Kingdom, they found it nearly impossible to distance themselves from the contradictory normality of economic exploitation, human trafficking, slavery, torture, war and violence.

So early on, all those elements crept back into Christianity – again, despite Jesus’ teaching and example. And those elements covered with a veneer of faith are precisely what is killing us today. Or, as Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer has put it: that’s why Religion is Killing Us:Violence in the Bible and Quran.

Christians have no trouble seeing that with Islam. But as Nelson-Pallmeyer has explained, it’s just as true of Christianity.

So, as I just said, Christianity like that presented in today’s gospel has been made to support everything Jesus stood against.

In the face of such contradictions, what are believers to do? My answer:

  • Be discerning.
  • Realize that Christianity is just as threatening to the world as we imagine religions like Islam to be.
  • Accordingly, embrace atheism before violent, exploitative images of God like the Mafia Don Matthew presents.
  • At the same time, embrace Jesus’ forgiving Father.
  • After the usual sermon today, question your priest or minister about the king in this morning’s gospel.
  • Most importantly, strive to act like that God as embodied in Jesus practice on the cross.

Seventy times seven is only the beginning!

(Sunday Homily) As Our Bombs Fly, I Can’t Say “Happy Easter!” Can You?

MOAB

It’s Easter. But I can hardly bring myself to say “Happy Easter.” That’s because the world is once again rushing towards war – the antithesis of the holiday’s celebration of life. And it’s being led in that direction by a nation where 70-75% claim somehow to follow the risen Christ.

[BTW did you notice that just last Thursday Christian fundamentalists dropped (on Afghanistan tribal lands) the largest Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) since Hiroshima and Nagasaki?]

What hypocrisy!

But why the bombing in Syria? Get ready . . .  It’s because of our “enemy’s” deployment of weapons of mass destruction! In Syria, it’s about chemical weapons! It’s about a leader who absolutely must be removed from office because he so resembles Adolph Hitler.

Sound familiar?

What’s his name again?

Wrong if you say Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic, or Manuel Noriega. This time it’s Bashar al-Assad. What a beast! He’s killed so many children!

But what about the victims of their WMDs, you ask – the children poisoned?

What about the poisoned children in Flint Michigan, I might ask? We stand by silent as they’re allowed to drink water contaminated by lead. Oh, but I forgot; those are American children – and they’re mostly black. And as we all know, black lives don’t matter. They’re on their own. We obviously have greater responsibility for poisoned Syrian kids. (Imagine the unborn fetuses that were killed!) We simply must protect them all from death at the hands of the dictator du jour.

Apparently we’ve forgotten about the 500,000 children our sanctions killed in Iraq during the 1990s. That was o.k. It must have been. Madeleine Albright said so.

Apparently we’ve forgotten about the millions (!) of children in Yemen currently threatened by famine directly induced by the U.S.-Saudi coalition which has been bombing that country non-stop for more than two years. We do nothing for them except continue the mayhem.

But that’s o.k. too. After all, our leaders tell us bombing is the solution to any problem you might care to name. It’s all justified. And besides Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. Poor people (especially so far away) don’t really matter either. It’s the arms manufacturers Raytheon, Motorola, Boeing, and their billionaire owners who really count. They’re our neighbors – on Wall Street.

Have you noticed; the stock market is soaring?

And, of course, the record shows that our leaders have been right – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia. Aren’t we proud of the freedom, democracy, and peace our own WMDs have brought those benighted lands?

And (once again!) the press is cheerleading it all. Check the newspapers. Look at CNN. Hardly a single editorial has criticized the rush to war. Brian Williams finds our Cruise Missiles “beautiful.”

On Easter Sunday, doesn’t all of this seem ironic – and infuriating?

That’s because everything I’ve just described is terribly out-of-sync with the Christian faith so many Americans claim as their own. Jesus was non-violent. He refused to take up arms to defend himself or his friends. He had no fear of death. Or rather, he overcame his fear and endured torture and death on behalf of others. Protecting himself by sacrificing others was not Jesus’ Way. Quite the opposite.

Imagine if 70-75% of U.S. citizens refused to succumb to today’s war fever because of our faith in Jesus’ Way. Imagine if we called upon that faith to demand that President Trump sober up, stop the bombing, and abjure permanent war that is the cause (not the solution) of the Mid-East’s problems.

A faith like that would be worth embracing; it would make a difference. It might allow Jesus’ followers to say (and truly mean) “Happy Easter!”

Abram’s Self-Butchering God (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: Gn. 15:5-12, 17-18; Ps. 27:1, 7-9, 13-14; Phil. 3:17-4:1; Lk. M9:28B-36. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/022413.cfm

For the last several months I’ve been involved with an alternative faith community in central Kentucky. It calls itself the “Ecumenical Table.” It’s composed of people like me who for one reason or another find ourselves dissatisfied with our local church experiences.

In my own case, I find Sunday experiences in my Catholic parish irrelevant to my life and disconnected from reality in general. Here we are living in a world of rampant violence, widespread addictions, permanent war, torture, climate change, drone attacks on the innocent, and rather complete cultural disintegration, and yet in church none of these problems is even mentioned.

We pretend to be following the example of a Martyr who opposed empire and religious hypocrisy on the one hand, and who literally identified with the tortured and victims of capital punishment on the other. And still we carry on as though that Martyr, Jesus of Nazareth, was somehow like white bourgeois Americans and blessed our addiction to imperial overconsumption and violence. I find that painful to endure.

And so I find myself following the hallowed example of religious protesters (Protestants) over the last 2000 years, and looking for something better. Actually, I find myself following the example of the Jewish Testament’s Abram, and that of Jesus himself as he’s pictured in today’s gospel account of his transfiguration. Abram was himself looking for something better. And in today’s reading, he receives assurance that the One in whom we live and move and have our being would lead him there. For his part, Jesus of Nazareth, received reassurance in today’s gospel episode that his life as professional troublemaker was on the right track. Let me explain. . . .

Abram was an ancient sheik, who turned out to be the furthest back ancestor the Jews could remember. He originally lived in ancient Babylon but felt called to move off to the west, to start over, find a new homeland, and start a new independent tribe. He somehow felt that God was calling him to do all these things. Problem was, Abram was already advanced in years and his wife, Sarah, was beyond menopause. Still, he felt that God was promising him a large family – a tribe whose people would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens.

In today’s readings, Abram evidently feels time is running out on God’s promise. The sheik is looking for reassurance. It comes in the form of a dream. The dream answers his question: how trustworthy is God? How far can you trust an agreement – a covenant – with this God who has promised him a large family? Can God be trusted to guide Abram as he starts over and begins a new life?

Abram’s question makes this tribal pastoralist dream of the most solemn human covenant he knew of – the “Covenant of Pieces.” According to tribal practice, when an inferior made an important agreement with a patron – say to transfer property, do work, fight a battle, or repay a debt – he had to go through an extremely graphic pledge ritual. The ceremony involved sacrificing animals from the client’s flock (in today’s reading a mature heifer, she goat and a ram along with a turtle dove and a pigeon). The inferior was to split the animals in two, and align the carcasses in rows so that they formed a path with one half the heifer’s carcass on the left and the other on the right, and the same with the she goat and ram. Then with the patron holding his hand, the client was to solemnly walk between the carcasses taking note of their dead rotting state, their putrid smell, and of the vultures flying overhead.

All of this was a reminder of the power the client was handing over to his patron. He was saying in effect, if I don’t keep my pledge, I’m giving you permission to do this to me and to my family. You can butcher us all and leave us to rot in the sun. That’s a pretty serious commitment. Sheik Abram could think of nothing more solemn, reassuring or binding.

So his dream which at first glance seems so strange and confusing to us was extremely comforting to him as a tribal pastoralist. It had God (in the form of fire and smoke) playing the role of client to Abram. God was performing the “pieces” ritual in Abram’s presence by running the gauntlet formed by rotting meat. That is if God did not keep his word, God was willing to be butchered! This, of course, could never happen. So the dream meant God could never not keep God’s word. A God willing to be butchered rather than break his word? Reassuring indeed!

Jesus obtains similarly strong reassurance from Abram’s Servant God in today’s reading from Luke. The young carpenter is on his way to Jerusalem. And something extremely risky is about to happen there. He’s determined to be part of it. The risky action has to do with the temple and Jesus’ dissatisfaction with what routinely happens there. (It was not unlike the dissatisfaction with church that I referenced earlier.)

The temple has become worse than irrelevant to the situation of his people living under Roman oppression. What happens there not only ignores Jewish political reality. The temple leadership has become the most important Jewish collaborator of the oppressing power. And Jesus has decided to address that intolerable situation.

Everyone knows that a big demonstration against the Romans is planned in Jerusalem for the weekend of Passover. There’ll be chanting mobs. The slogans are already set. “Hosanna, hosanna, in the highest” will be one chant. Another will be “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Hosanna” is the key word here. It means “save us!” The Romans won’t notice that the real meaning is “Save us from the Romans.” “Restore an independent Israel – like David’s kingdom!”

Jesus has heard that one of the main organizers of the demonstration is the guerrilla Zealot called Barabbas. Barabbas doesn’t call what’s planned a “demonstration.” He prefers the term “The Uprising” or “ the Insurrection” (Mk. 15). Barabbas has a following as enthusiastic as that of Jesus. After all, Barabbas is a “sicarius” – a guerrilla whose solemn mission is to assassinate Roman soldiers. His courage has made him a hero to the crowds. (John Dominic Cross compares him to the Mel Gibson character in “The Patriot.”)

Jesus’ assigned part in the demonstration will be to attack the Temple and symbolically destroy it. He plans to enter the temple with his friends and disrupt business as usual. They’ll all shout at the money-changers whose business exploits the poor. They’ll turn over their tables. As a proponent of non-violence, they’re thinking not in Barabbas’ terms of “uprising,” but of forcing God’s hand to bring in the Lord’s “Kingdom” to replace Roman domination. Passover, the Jewish holiday of national independence could not be a more appropriate time for the planned event. Jesus is thinking in terms of “Exodus.”

And yet, this peasant from Galilee is troubled by it all. What if the plan doesn’t work and God’s Kingdom doesn’t dawn this Passover? What if the Romans succeed in doing what they’ve always done in response to uprisings and demonstrations? Pilate’s standing order to deal with lower class disturbances is simply to arrest everyone involved and crucify them all as terrorists. Why would it be different this time? Like Abram before him, Jesus has doubts.

So before setting out for Jerusalem, he takes his three closest friends and ascends a mountain for a long night of prayer. He’s seeking reassurance before the single most important act in his life. As usual, Peter, James and John soon fall fast asleep. True to form they are uncomprehending and dull.

However, while the lazy fall into unconsciousness, the ever-alert and thoughtful Jesus has a vision. Moses appears to him, and so does Elijah. (Together they represent the entire Jewish scriptural testament – the law and the prophets.) This means that on this mountain of prayer, Jesus considers his contemplated path in the light of his people’s entire tradition.

Last week, we saw in the reading from Deuteronomy 26, that tradition centered on the Exodus. Fittingly then, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah “discuss” what is about to take place in Jerusalem. Or as Luke puts it, “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Jesus Exodus!

It is easy to imagine Moses’ part in the conversation. That would be to remind Jesus of the chances Moses took when he led the original Exodus from Egypt. That might have failed too. Elijah’s part was likely to recall for Jesus the “prophet script” that all prophets must follow. That script has God’s spokespersons speaking truth to power and suffering the inevitable consequences. Elijah reminds Jesus: So what if Barabbas and those following the path of violence are defeated again? So what if Jesus’ non-violent direct action in the temple fails to bring in the Kingdom? So what if Jesus is arrested and crucified? That’s just the cost of doing prophetic business. Despite appearances to the contrary, Abram’s faithful God will somehow triumph in the end.

Is there a message here for us – in the experience of Abram and of Jesus, both of them seeking reassurance as they embark on risky paths in response to a compassionate Servant God? Is there hidden meaning for those of us who like Abram are seeking a new home and “church” community blessed by a God who would rather die than be unfaithful? Is there a message here for followers of the Nazarene rabbi who cannot separate worship and political commitment and activism?

Those are the kind of questions Christians should ask and discuss around Ecumenical Tables everywhere on this Second Sunday of Lent.

(Discussion follows)

Urinating on Corpses and Burning Holy Books

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time : Dn. 12: 1-3; Ps. 16:5, 8-11; Heb. 10:11-14; Mk. 13:24-3 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/111812.cfm

In January of this year six U.S. soldiers had themselves videotaped while they urinated on Taliban corpses in Afghanistan. In a separate incident three other soldiers started widespread riots after they publicly burned copies of the Holy Koran. Then in September the posting of an on-line film depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a deviant terrorist was blamed for other anti-US protests throughout the Muslim world costing the lives of a U.S. ambassador and three staff workers.

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In the year 168 C.E., the Greek emperor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes  invaded Palestine and devastated Jerusalem. He hated Judaism and defiled the Jerusalem Temple by offering a pig on its altar. He also erected an altar to Jupiter in the Temple.  Patriotic Jews called it “the abomination of desolation.” While occupying Palestine, Antiochus also destroyed all the copies of Scripture he could find, and made it a capital offense to possess such manuscripts. It was against Antiochus IV and the Greek occupation of Palestine that the Bible’s Book of Daniel (excerpted in today’s first reading) was written.

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On September 8th of the year 70 of the Common Era, after a six-month siege, the Roman Emperor Titus, with four Roman legions finally captured the city of Jerusalem from its Zealot defenders. Moving from house to house, the Romans destroyed everything within reach, including the City’s Temple. Palestine would not again belong to the Jews until 1947. It was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans that Jesus predicts in today’s Gospel excerpt from Mark.

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Today’s liturgy of the word is shaped by apocalyptical writings – from the Book of Daniel in the first instance, and from Mark, chapter 13 in the second. The writings speak of wars and rumors of wars, of unprecedented suffering for all of humankind, of false messiahs and false prophets, and of the “Son of Man” coming on clouds of glory to render a final judgment.

Most of us think of such writing as describing the end of the world. And why not? That thinking is fostered and exploited by a whole industry of evangelical preachers like John Hagee who appear regularly on our television screens. The approach is foundational to the publishing success of the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

A unifying thread throughout all such understandings of apocalypse is their idea of God, who turns out to be a pathological killer. That is, the mayhem and disaster depicted in apocalypse becomes something God does to the world and the human race to bring history to a close. According to the preachers and books I’ve just mentioned, apocalypse describes a final battle between Good and Evil. The battle will be fought in the Middle East on the Plain of Armageddon. Two billion people will die as a result – including 2/3 of the Jewish people.  The remaining 1/3 will be converted to Christianity because God’s final violent revelation will be so awe-inspiring and convincing. A “Rapture” will then occur, taking all faithful followers of Christ into heaven, while leaving behind the rest of humanity for a period of “tribulation.” In all of this, God is the principal actor. As an angry father, he is finally taking his revenge for the disobedience and lack of faith of his ungrateful children – whom he loves!

Problem is: all of that is dead wrong and blasphemous in  terms of the God of love revealed by Jesus. The Rapture story, for instance, appeared for the first time only in the 19th century. In fact, apocalypse is not about the end of the world. It is about the end of empire – the Greek Empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the case of Daniel, and the Roman Empire in the case of Mark. The mayhem and unprecedented suffering referenced in both readings is not something God does to the world, but what empire routinely does to people, their bodies, souls and spirits, as well as to the natural environment.

Because it has ever been so with empire, today’s excerpt from Mark calls for a complete end to the politics of violence and domination. That meant obeying the command of Jesus to reject empire, but also to refuse alignment with Zealot nationalists. As the Romans under Titus approached Jerusalem between 66 and 70, Zealot recruiters traveled throughout Palestine calling on Jewish patriots to defend their homeland by joining guerrilla forces. Jesus’ counsel instead was for his followers to flee to the mountains (Mark 13:14-16). They were to do so not out of cowardice, but from apocalyptic conviction that God’s order of justice could not be established by the sword. Obeying Jesus’ direction meant that Christians were not only threatened by Romans but by Jews who accused Jesus’ followers of treason.

How should those readings affect us today whose Commanders-in-Chief repeat the crimes of the Seleucid Antiochus IV and the Roman Titus – both of whom thought of themselves as doing God’s work in destroying what they despised as a superstitious, primitive, tribal, and terrorist religion? (Yes, that’s what they thought of Judaism!) How should the readings affect us whose soldiers destroy holy sites, burn holy books and desecrate corpses just as their Roman counterparts did?

Today’s readings recommend that we adopt an apocalyptic vision. That means refusing to defend the present order and allowing it to collapse. It means total rejection of U.S. imperial ambitions and practices. It means refusing to treat as heroes those who advance the policies of destruction and desecration inevitably intertwined with imperial ambition. It means letting go of the privileges and way of life that depends on foreign conquest and vilification as “terrorists” of patriots defending their countries from invasion by U.S. forces. It means determining what all of that might signify in terms of our consumption patterns and lifestyles, and supporting one another in the counter-cultural decisions such brainstorming will evoke.

So in a sense, apocalypse is about the end of the world. The entire Jewish universe was anchored in the temple. Its defilement by the Greek Antiochus IV, its complete destruction by the Roman Titus seemed like the end of the world to the Jews. The threat of westernizing the Arab world might seem that way to the occupied Muslim world today.  And the end of the American Way of Life premised on resource wars under cover of a “war on terrorism” might strike us as the end of everything we hold dear.

However, the apocalyptic message of hope is that the passage of empire and nationalism is not really the end. Instead it represents an opportunity for a new beginning. In the words Mark put in Jesus’ mouth this morning, “Do not be alarmed . . . This is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.”

How might we support one another in letting go of imperialism, nationalism and the lifestyles dependent on them?

(Discussion follows)