At the moment, I’m reading Terry Eagleton’s latest, Materialism. It’s a useful setting out of a particular account of what it is to be human, drawing on Aquinas, Marx, and Wittgenstein and amongst others. As you might imagine, I’m a sympathetic reader. Like much of his recent work, it engages with theological topics at some length. One passage in particular struck me:
The doctrine of the Incarnation means that God is an animal. He is present in the Eucharist as the everyday stuff of bread and wine, in the mundane business of chewing and digesting. Salvation is not primarily a matter of cult and ritual but of feeding the hungry and tending the sick. Jesus spends much of his time restoring damaged human bodies to health, along with a number of deranged minds. Love is a material practice, not a spiritual sentiment. Its paradigm is the love of strangers and enemies, which is unlikely to generate much of a warm glow.
The kind of materialism in which Eagleton is interested is not the belief that nothing exists other than material entities, which would obviously be incompatible with Christian faith. Rather, he espouses what he calls somatic materialism, the taking seriously of the embodied, fragile, historical, and conditioned nature of human beings. His immediate target is, I suspect, the tendency to overlook these aspects of ourselves on parts of the contemporary left. But Christians too need reminding of the materialism at the heart of our faith, and I commend this book warmly.
Today’s gospel reading, Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes might well provide us with an example of a religious text evolving for use in a particular context. Differing significantly from Luke’s version, Matthew may well have crafted the text from a shared source to address his audience and fit into his narrative.
Whatever the truth of the text’s pre-history, its interpretation – like that of any biblical text – is a matter of ongoing reception, conditioned by context. (The Catholic claim is, of course, that this process is guided by the Spirit and at moments manifest authoritatively in the teaching of the Church). A startling case was provided by the use of the text at Donald Trump’s inauguration last week.
It is fair to say that the early days of the Trump presidency have not seemed like the embodiment of the spirit of the Beatitudes. Turning away refugees, advocating torture, barring citizens of Muslim-majority countries from entering the US – if one wanted to point to actions that show how the merciful are blessed this is not where one would look. Yet the incongruity has passed largely without comment. Such is civic religion in the United States that, for all the effusive piety of much of that country’s politics, saccharine-tinged hypocrisy dealt with a leather-bound bible and a broad smile is accepted as the norm from political leaders.
This state of affairs, where God and his word have become rhetorical playthings, ever present in the discourse of public life but used to shore up the power of politicians is, amongst other things, the sign of a Christianity that is too familiar with God. If God is my buddy, if I can invoke him before a business meeting or a football game as though he were some holy performance supplement, if cartoons of Jesus in such situations appeal non-ironically, then I am in the grip of idolatry. I will be all too familiar with the divine, all too sure that I know what God wants (this tending to coincide with what I want). The awe and splendour of the burning bash and Sinai retreats, we are left with just another campaign tool.
America could do a lot worse than a spot of atheism in its civic life. The god of inaugurations is one of those gods from whom we have been set free by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who demands that we have no god by him. Indeed, Mennonite theologian Stanley Hauerwas has suggested that the real name of the god of Trumpism is ‘America’. There is a word of caution to be spoken here for those in Europe who mourn the absence of religious talk from most of our politics. Speaking of God is not the same thing as speaking faithfully of God. We are not to take the Lord’s Name in vain.
I remember as a child hearing an evangelical Anglican remark during my that calling Mary ‘Mother of God’ was terrible. There were people during the early fifth century who thought similarly. One of them may or may not have been Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople.
Whatever Nestorius himself believed, the name `Nestorianism‘ came to be used for the view that so stressed the separateness of Christ’s humanity and hid divinity as to lose sight of their unity. This belief manifested itself in a refusal to use the title ‘Mother of God’ of our Lady, ‘Mother of Christ’ being one proposed compromise. In opposing this view the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Mary to be the Mother of God. Christ, although both human and divine, is one person. That person is God the Son, and so Mary is appropriately called Mother of God. She is not, for sure, Mother of God as God. Rather she is Mother of God as man. To deny this is, in effect, to deny the Incarnation. This man is God. That baby was God.
This title for Mary points to an important truth about Jesus. Those, like no doubt that Anglican minister from my youth, who think that in talking about Mary we detract from Jesus are exactly wrong. In fact, it is both interesting and important that in order to talk about Christ, the Church talked about Mary. God became a human being, a member of an animal species, and a member of a family and numerous communities. He was not some kind of divine Robinson Crusoe; he was and is a social being. And so in talking about him we naturally talk about those whose lives he touched and those who influenced him – supremely Mary, from whom he took his very humanity. It is the same with all of us. Pick up any biography, and the chances are that the early chapters will dwell on its subject’s family.
Today’s feast reminds us of the communal nature of humanity, and in a sense of the Church, present in microcosm in Christ’s family. The saving events of Jesus’ life involved people other than Jesus, as do each of our participations in those events.
‘Oriens’ is generally translated ‘Morning Star’. Today’s antiphon is not, however, a celebration of the Stalinist newspaper. A better rendering would be ‘rising sun’. On the shortest day of the year, in a nicely pagan move, the Church appeals to the image of the sun piercing the darkness to speak about the promised Saviour. The image is universally human; there is something primal about it. Yet it fits naturally into the particularity of Christian imagery. The darkness of sin is dispersed by the sun of redemption in Christ.
O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
It’s some time now since Johnny Cash sold well with a recording of a sympathetic live performance from a prison. In our more moralistic time, nothing could be further from the Zeitgeist than speaking of release of prisoners. Yet that is precisely what the Church does this evening. There’s an echo here of Graham Greene’s “appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”. The coming redemption is a threat because it is so universal, so revolutionary, so merciful. It leaves those aspects of ourselves which would set ourselves apart from or above others, that would see ourselves as the Good over against the Bad, with nowhere to hide. The tacit condition of the prayer “Come Lord Jesus” is recognition that his love is unbounded.
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Today’s antiphon is taken from Isaiah 11:10, which speaks of the root of Jesse being a signal to the peoples. The rather inadequate translation used at Evening Prayer in English speaks of the ‘stock’ of Jesse, not justified as a translation of the Latin ‘radix’ and a throwback to the first verse of Isaiah 11. Yet there’s a wisdom, no doubt unintended, in this liturgical kerfuffle. The uniqueness of the Incarnate Word is captured in the fact that he is, as a human being, of the stock of Jesse, the promised Messiah of Davidic descent, whilst at the same time, as God, being behind and before all human kinships. “O wonder of wonders which none can unfold, the Ancient of Days is an hour or two old“.
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
Jewish traditions have generally been a lot more sensitive to the problems that attach to naming the divine than is modern Christianity. The Lord, the Creator of all that is, lies beyond our speech – it falls to us to name creatures, not the Creator. God is encountered in glory and majesty, as cloud and fire. Here is something outside our ordinary world Our talk of God, then, should recognise its own difference from ordinary speech, and thereby its inadequacy of its object. ‘Adonai’ is a plural of respect, meaning literally ‘Lords’, the plural expresses the majesty of the Lord. Used to replace the divine name ‘YHWH’ when read aloud, it has itself acquired a sense of holiness sufficient for some to replace it with simply ‘the Name’ (HaShem).
The one we long for in Advent is mysterious, beyond our comprehension. The Incarnation (which as the Athanasian Creed reminds us was ‘not by conversion of the godhead into flesh, but by the taking of the manhood into God’) does not change that. Rather, through the humanity of Christ, the mystery of God becomes our mystery, in which we participate by grace.
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
“I’m so clever, but clever ain’t wise”, sang Babyshambles. Wisdom is in short-supply, I don’t exclude myself from this judgement. For Aquinas wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit, bestowing ‘rectitude of judgement according to the moral law’. Stern though this may sound, the point is a basic one: there is a state that goes beyond mere knowledge of facts, that consists in seeing situations in their true light and having a sense of how one ought to act within them to best show love for God and one’s fellow human beings.
The antiphon for the Magnificat at vespers today:
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.
The gospel at this evening’s mass struck me as timely. It’s an interesting passage from Luke’s gospel for various somewhat geeky reasons. It is appealed to by those who want to date the gospel later than 70AD, describing as it does in some detail what happened to Jerusalem in that year. It also sits comfortably with the idea that Luke was written for a community grappling with the delay of the eschaton. Had they been forgotten? Had God failed to honour his promises? Was their hope in Jesus misplaced?
Throughout Luke the theme of not losing heart recurs; the reader is encouraged to keep on hoping. In this passage, the very collapse of the world as the gospel’s cast knew it is interpreted as a sign of the coming Day. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The world at the moment is, it is fair to say, in a bit of a mess. The growth in racism and the politics of the radical right on a global scale makes contemporary life a frightening affair. Texts like today’s gospel are appealed to by the religious right who recently helped elect Donald Trump to underwrite a practical nihilism – who cares if the environment disintegrates? That, after all, might just hasten the rapture. Perhaps the “days of vengeance” are to be seen in contemporary Middle Eastern politics. Even if we reject the religious right’s reading as the nonsense it palpably is, isn’t there a danger of the gospel, and other similar passages in Luke, of us being encouraged to turn our backs on the world, hoping for pie in the sky when we die?
Well, there certainly is that danger, but succumbing to it is not compulsory. The thing about fear of the kind that we feel at today’s geopolitics is that it can be paralysing. Things are so bad, it is tempting to conclude, that we may as well just give up. The realisation that history is directed towards an end other than destruction, namely the Kingdom of God, which what Luke wants to instil in his readers, far from dragging us away from the world can give us the courage to remain engaged with it. We should not lose heart, because, after all, Donald Trump does not have the last word.
Today the Order of Preachers keeps the feast of All Saints of the Order. As the Proprium describes it:
In today’s celebration we faithfully recall the memory of ‘those who have gone before
us in the family of Saint Dominic and who offer us the example of their way of life,
their company in the communion of saints, and the help of their intercession’, that ‘we may be moved to imitate them and be strengthened in the spirit of our vocation’ (LCO 16; 67)