Peter’s successor

The papacy. It isn’t the easiest aspect of Catholicism to write about in our cultural context. However much you dress things up, I believe that a man in Rome has a unique divinely-given role, that he has a direct pastoral responsibility for me and for every Catholic in the world, and that – in very particular circumstances – he may articulate Catholic doctrine infallibly by a gift of the Holy Spirit. All of this sits uncomfortably with the consciousness of an age which, against the best efforts of Donald Trump, remains rightly committed to the ideals of democracy and equality and suspicious of hierarchy.

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It is right that there is a tension between the Church’s way of existing and the usual way we organise ourselves: it reminds us that we don’t yet inhabit the Kingdom, that we delude ourselves if we think everything is OK with our existence minus a few details. It is right, furthermore, that this tension is especially apparent in the Church’s teaching office: an important function of the Pope’s declaring doctrine is as a vivid reminder that the content of our faith does not come from ourselves, it is not something we worked out through our own resources, but is rather something given as a gift. Needless to say, the exercise of this function is not incompatible with the development of doctrine arising out of the whole Church’s attention to scriptural revelation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Pope (or a council, of course) says what we believe.

So I think there are things to say in response to the criticisms that the papacy belongs to a different age and is inegalitarian. But on this feast of the first Pope it seems more important to stress a vital function of the papacy. The presence of Francis in Rome, the fact that he is named at every mass reminds us that the Church is universal. When I go to mass in England, I am not simply part of the Church in X-place, a parish, or a national church. I belong to a worldwide fellowship of the baptised, which anticipates the unity of all humankind in God’s Kingdom, and which is made concrete in our shared communion with Rome. Francis is our Pope, we are one communion, transcending national boundaries. In a world where the spectre of nationalism is once again raising its head, and where too often Catholic identity is perversely tied to that nationalism (contemporary Poland provides one example), the truly universal nature of that identity needs to be stressed. The papacy is a gift which allows this to be done.

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Mark’s original ending

One of the minor ironies of the liturgical year is that the passage set as the gospel for St Mark’s day was almost certainly not written by the evangelist. It’s important not to misunderstand what this means. Mark 16:9-20 is part of scripture, believed by the Church to be part of dei verbum, the writings through which God’s revelation is authoritatively communicated to the people of God. Facts about human authorship do not alter this. However attempting to grasp those facts can help us understand scripture better: just as Christ is both human and divine, so the Bible is both God’s word and a thoroughly human work, subject to literary norms and capable of being investigated historically.

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Our best early manuscripts of Mark’s gospel lack 16:9-20, which read like a precis of resurrection appearances from other gospels (no doubt somebody felt that gospels just ought to have stories about Jesus appearing after the resurrection). Instead, in these sources, Mark ends abruptly:

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The word that the NRSV translates here as `amazement’ is ἔκστασις· (ecstasis), the sense is of a joyful being taken out of oneself. The combination of ecstasy and fear with which the gospel ends captures beautifully an authentic response to the resurrection. The last thing Mark wanted his readers to read was a description of how the resurrection grips us and transforms us. It is an invitation to those who follow the Risen Christ to allow themselves to be similarly transformed.

Whilst we now read 16:9-20 as scripture, reading the gospel as a text which stops at 16:8 is a useful exercise. The legacy of the suffering Messiah is a group of amazed and frightened women, through whose discipleship the world will be transformed. And we certainly ought to allow ourselves to dwell with the text and reflect on our own responses to the resurrection.

 

 

 

Prophets of Pentecost

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We were each of us, at our baptism, anointed with Christ as priests, prophets, and kings. Luke’s account of Pentecost, read alongside the Hebrew Bible, encourages us to reassess the extent to which we are living out the call to be prophets.

Elijah, so we are told in the second book of Kings, ascended into heaven. His spirit rested on Elisha, who went on to work miracles and continue the great prophet’s work. For Luke, Jesus is a great prophet (of course, he is not only that, but he certainly is that) whose teaching and works of power echo those of Elijah. It is little wonder then that Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, begins with the Spirit of this great prophet, the Spirit which had come upon Mary at the annunciation and Jesus himself at his baptism, resting on Jesus’ followers. They too go on to do what he had done before: proclaim God’s Kingdom (which is now seen as breaking through in the death and resurrection of Jesus) and proclaim mighty works.

The apostles continue Jesus’ work, and they do so by his Spirit. The point of the apostolic church is not simply to tell people about Jesus, or to remember him, or to do social outreach in his name. It is to be him to the world, to make him and the Kingdom he brings present, in its Spirit-inspired actions and proclamation. And that remains what the Church is for.

In some ways, the Catholic tradition has been particularly good at understanding this. Our sacramental life, and our doctrinal understanding of it, follows directly from an appreciation that the Church is a people amongst whom the Spirit is active. As does our belief in the Church’s teaching authority.

That is as it should be. But if we are to make present Christ’s prophetic ministry, that cannot just be a matter of celebrating the sacraments, or unpacking scripture. The challenges of reaching out to the margins, of prophetically confronting injustice: these too are ways in which we work with the Spirit to make present Christ and the Kingdom, and we need, I think, to be more open to the Spirit working with us in these ways.

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Mark and Mary?

We’re nearly back into ordinary time, so I’m nearly back into blogging about Mark’s gospel. Yet there’s a Marian feel to the present time: it’s the month of May and we’re in the novena between Ascension and Pentecost, liturgically at prayer with Mary and the apostles in the cenacle. This has made me think about a potential awkwardness in reading Mark’s gospel with a Catholic devotion to Mary in mind. Not only is the earliest  gospel  near silent on the topic of Jesus’ mother, but in as much as she is mentioned she is, on the face of it, hardly presented in a good light:

 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

There’s lots to be said here but two things occur to me. First, here as in many other places, we read about Jesus’ relativising ties of familial belonging: something that the puff-cheeked advocates of ‘Christian family values’ have not taken on board. The Kingdom of God demands our all, before it all else takes second place, even the bonds of kinship. But second, if Jesus here calls certain ways of belonging into question, he points to new ones – those that go with participating in the Kingdom of God, doing the will of God.

And it is here, of course, that this passage can be reconciled to Catholic mariology, but not without challenging us. As believers we read Mark’s gospel, not simply as a stand-alone text, but as part of the canon of scripture and in the light of the Church’s faith. So we can see Mary as foremost amongst those who do the will of God. She is, so to speak, Christ’s mother within the new family of God not in virtue of biology but of discipleship (reflection on the Annunciation can help here, I think; and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception reminds us that, as with everything belonging to the Kingdom, Mary’s discipleship itself is a gift).

It is not clear that the emphasis has always fallen on Mary as a disciple (Christ’s mother in a Marcan sense) rather than on Mary as biological mother, and this has sometimes been tied up with more generally limiting or unhelpful ideas about women. Without for one moment wanting to devalue the biological or bodily (in fact, I think that we can only understand what it is to be bodily in a distinctively human way if we recognise the role of human agency), I think a redressing of the balance is more than overdue. Mary deserves to be given her place at the heart of the community of disciples, as one who shows us what it is to do the will of God and so usher in his Kingdom.

Hell, the Pope, and the Cross

Another week, another manufactured press story involving Pope Francis. Did he deny that there is a hell? Did the Vatican intervene to massage his words?

Well no, almost certainly not, on both counts. But the enthusiasm with which the non-story has been lapped up suggests a hold that the idea of hell, and its perceived function within Christian doctrine, has on the imagination. Isn’t hell a big part of the whole thing? Isn’t it, moreover, a big stick waved to scare the faithful into submission?

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Now, I take myself to be an orthodox Catholic: if anyone were finally to reject God’s love, then their soul, and ultimately they themself (after the resurrection) would live eternally in the absence of God’s fellowship. This is hell. It is misleading, I think, to put the issue (as did the BBC) in terms of whether hell exists. Hell is not a thing, such that it could exist, it is an absence (an absence of communion). All of this said, I am not bound as a Catholic to believe that anyone ever does finally decide against God. Indeed, I hope in God’s love and providence for universal salvation.

The point about hell, and Good Friday is the right day on which to make this point, is that its function within Christian doctrine is as that from which we are saved. Its power over us, the fear of it – these were defeated on the Cross, when God’s love showed itself as strong as death. Christianity does not think there are two equally balanced realities, good and evil, and two equally apt destinations for human beings, heaven and hell. Our attitude towards the world is the hard-won optimism of those who have spent hours at the Cross and seen there the victory of Love.

And yet, there is also a sense in which hell is seen day by day, not as an ultimate reality, but as a provisional one. Wherever God is rejected, wherever fellowship is broken, there is hell – in shop doorways, on battlefields, in lonely bedrooms and hospital wards. It is there, as it was on Calvary. Here, as there, may it not conquer.

The consequence of Mary’s ‘yes’

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If today weren’t in Holy Week, it would be the feast of the Annunciation. The coming together of a celebration of the Incarnation with that of Christ’s Passion is rich matter for reflection.

You can’t have an Incarnation, a truly becoming human of God, without the death of God Incarnate, because to be human in this world is amongst other things to die. And you can’t have an Incarnation in a world damaged by domination, hatred, and envy without God Incarnate dying at our hands. The Cross is quite simply what our world does to a perfectly loving human being, which is the only kind of human being God could have become. In this sense, the Cross is a straightforward consequence of the Incarnation, of Mary’s ‘yes’.

But if the Incarnation cannot be understood properly apart from the Cross, nor can the Cross be understood apart from the Incarnation. There is a temptation to think that the Cross is redemptive because of the horrendous suffering it involves, that somehow God sees the suffering Jesus goes through and decides to spare us eternal torment because of it. A grotesque travesty often confused for orthodoxy, this view is a short distance from the view that the Cross is something God does. God demands that Jesus suffer, and brings it about. Whereas the Cross is something we do (it is something God does only in the trivial sense in that every event and action in the universe is created). It is redemptive because it is the culmination of the life of God Incarnate, the life which weds heaven to earth and offers our human family to the Father, joining us to the Father through that eternal love we call the Spirit (on the Cross, notice, Jesus ‘gives up the Spirit’). We cannot understand how the Cross saves without understanding both that death is the climax of a life, the point at which a life is offered up, and that the person who dies on the Cross is God. This is the point at which a divinely human life, and us in union with it, is offered to the Father.

God became human so that human beings might become divine – on the Cross we see God’s humanity consumated. So our divinity is born.

Dorothy Day

Continuing the faith and politics theme, the Catholic Worker page has a collection of Dorothy Day’s writings available. Well worth a look.

It is one of the strange paradoxes of the Christian life that we can say with St. Paul, “As dying, yet we behold we live.” We can suffer with others, we can see plainly the frightful chaos, the unbelievable misery of cold and hunger and bitter misery, yet all the time there is the knowledge “that the sufferings of this time are not to be compared to the joy that is to come.”

Often we comfort ourselves only with words, but if we pray enough, the conviction will come too, that Christ is our King, not Stalin, Bevins or Truman. That He has all things in His hands, that “all things work together for good to those that love Him.”

Politics and faith: fragments

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Life at the moment is dominated by strike action I’m taking at work. Read about (and, if you can, support) our dispute here. This inevitably raises for me  the issue of conflict – how do those of us who sign up to a gospel full of the language of peace and unity reconcile this with the reality that, in a situation like this, someone like me is committed to fighting, and to winning, against a management that are, in respect of this at least, my enemies. At the risk of becoming a McCabe-distribution agent, his The Class Struggle and Christian Love remains the best thing written directly on this. I looked at similar issues from an intra-ecclesial perspective some time back.

Also on the subject of Christianity and politics, there’s a nice piece currently up on the Morning Star website on the Christian heritage and socialism. (Anyone familiar with the internal divisions of the left will realise that it takes a lot for me to recommend something from the Morning Star, but this really is worth a look!)

McCabe on Almsgiving and Justice

I am, honestly, reading authors other than Herbert McCabe this Lent. But this, from an Ash Wednesday sermon, struck me as succinctly getting right the purpose and dangers of Lenten almsgiving. Having already spoken about fasting, McCabe says:

The other side of fasting is almsgiving, helping those in need. But here, too, remember that we are engaged in a drama, a symbolic act. We do not give alms in Lent because we are under the illusion that almsgiving will solve the problem of world poverty; and by the same token we do not think it foolish to give alms just because we know it will not solve that problem. The point is again to dramatize for ourselves the reality of poverty and oppression and need, and of our responsibility in the face of it. Almsgiving is not a substitute for political action. Art is not a substitute for reality.

(God, Christ, and Us. p. 77)

McCabe on sin

Contemplata aliis tradere, to hand on to others that which is contemplated, is a central part of the Dominican charism, the Dominican way of being Christian. This, of course, implies that the person doing the handing on sometimes does some contemplating. With that in mind, Lent for me is going to be more about reading than about writing for this blog. I will try to share each week something that has struck me in my reading.

In one of McCabe’s sermons, in the collection published as God, Christ, and Us, he returns to an appropriately Lenten theme that he discusses in several other places: sin, and our tendency to confuse different senses of the word ‘sin’, ending up as a consequence with an understanding of sin which is too harsh on ourselves and our failings and damaging to our growth as Christian.

Sin proper, mortal sin, is the rejection of God’s friendship, into which we entered by our baptism. It is the rejection of the life of charity, hence the word, mortal. Ordinary everyday venial sin (which – he emphasises elsewhere – is what we work on in Lent) is a different thing altogether:

[Venial sins] do not destroy, or even diminish, the divine life of charity within us. Aquinas, most encouragingly, says that it is not possible for the life of charity to be diminished by any action of ours since the life of charity is the work of God. We can lose it altogether by real, serious, mortal sin. But that is all. Sin, in this [venial] sense, is simply failing to grow in charity, missing the opportunities of growth. And its remedy is simply trying to be a bit more caring towards those we live amongst.