Category: feasts

The scandal of universality

There’s a picture circulating on social media at the moment which I love. Entitled ‘Jose y Maria’ by comic book artist Everett Patterson it relates the journey of Jesus’ parents to contemporary American poverty:

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If the particularity of Jesus, the arbitrariness of the Word’s becoming incarnate in a certain time and place have caused problems for some, there are more subtle difficulties getting to grips with Jesus’ universality, the fact that his birth is of decisive importance for each and every person. Jose y Maria makes that clear, the story of Jesus is part of the same same story as contemporary Mexican refugees (and not only because he himself was a refugee, although certainly for that reason). Because of the Incarnation every human being has something in common with God, namely humanity. We also have in common with Jesus the life of God, since by virtue of him coming as a human being, divine grace is poured out on us. He is our brother, in a real and intimate sense, no matter who ‘we’ are. In this light of this we ought to read the challenge of Matthew’s gospel, that our failure of the poor is a failure of Jesus, as having real, and more than metaphorical, force.

Because of this universality, because there is no part of the human story which doesn’t concern God’s saving plan in Christ, we cannot allow Jesus, his work and his teaching, to be relegated to a special ‘religious’ bit of life, leaving the rest untouched. Insisting on this has been a hallmark of Pope Francis’ teaching, and it has been the area in which he has met most opposition. I think when you really probe the motivations of this opposition very often what people are objecting to is the doctrine of the Incarnation itself. They’d prefer a cleaner Jesus, who didn’t sully himself with the dirt of the stable floor, who perhaps appeared human, but didn’t engage in bodily functions beneath his dignity. He certainly didn’t really have anything in common with the likes of us, let alone mix with prostitutes and bandits.

But tonight the Church kneels as the Catholic faith is proclaimed: et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est

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The scandal of particularity

There’s a nice custom of beginning Christmas midnight mass with the announcement of the birth of Christ. Taken from the Roman Martyrology, this goes as follows:

Today, The twenty-fifth day of December, unknown ages from the time when God
created the heavens and the earth and then formed man and woman in his own
image. Several thousand years after the
flood, when God made the rainbow shine
forth as a sign of the covenant.
Twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah;
thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt.
Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the judges;
one thousand years from the anointing of David as king;
in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel.
In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome;
the forty second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
the whole world being at peace,
Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to sanctify the world
by his most merciful coming,
being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and nine months having passed since his conception,
was born in Bethlehem of
Judea of the Virgin Mary.
Today is the nativity of our Lord
Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

It would be entirely missing the point of this to complain that the historical details are dubious (some worry along these lines, I think, makes the use of the text uncommon). This is a proclamation of an event, the coming of God’s Christ, not the assertion of facts about that event. The tin-eared way those of us who live in modern Western societies tend to approach language other than the plain, fact-stating, sort makes it difficult for us to get a handle on this distinction, but that makes it all the more important that we try.

Still, if the proclamation is not supposed to be a distilled episode of a History Channel programme about Jesus, the contents are not unimportant. First the gift of Jesus is situated within the context of the convenants God formed with humankind; this baby is the living sign of God’s faithfulness. Then, crucially, he is situated within the story of Israel, the religious life of the people to which he himself belongs, and in terms of whose relationship to God he is to be understood. Finally, he is situated within world history: his birth is a world-historical significance; he fulfils the genuine aspirations of every human being, and, in an important sense, is the culmination of history, even for those of us who come after him. Then again, in order to be genuine human, as the Catholic faith insists that Jesus is, he has to be born at a definite time in human history.

That is the key to our belief in Jesus, the Incarnate Word. There is a constant temptation to make Christian faith rest on something more universal, something we could reason our way towards, not so limited, no so dependent on the vicissitudes of history, than one particular baby, born in obscurity. The 19th century scholar Lessing complained about an ‘ugly wide ditch’ between Jesus and modern humanity. Others have talked about the scandal of particularity. I sense the same desire to make the Christmas message seem less arbitrary, less of a Palestinian Jew in the actions of those well-meaning clergy who replace scripture readings (those confusing texts from ancient Jewish poems) with Christmas poems and the like. Scriptural revelation, however, is particular in exactly the same way Jesus is. (The Episcopalian Bishop Spong went the whole hog some years back and complained that the use of the Old Testament at Christian services encouraged people to think of Jesus as fulfilling prophecies!)

We cannot make Jesus in our own likeness, we cannot make him our contemporary. We cannot know every detail of his life. If God is to make humanity divine by becoming human then God has to take up a particular human life, in a particular place, distant from some, far from others. He will be puzzling to many of us, obscure, and frustrating to our attempts to understand him. It could not be otherwise, or else we would not be saved.

nativity

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.

Keeping faith with reason

Matthew’s story of the visit of the Magi is ripe for reflection: the topic of art and poetry, it can help to communicate central themes of the Christian gospel. Matthew himself almost certainly intended that the story speak of the inclusion of the Gentiles within God’s covenant and of the fulfillment of God’s promises to God’s people.

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Myself, I am struck by an aspect of the account which speaks to a contemporary need. The Magi (Greek magoi – the sense is of something intermediate between a priest, a magician and a scientist) are led by the sight of a star. I imagine these wise ones (the plural magoi doesn’t force an image of an all male group, even if that is what was intended in context) pondering maps, charts and books of lore in order to interpret the appearance of the heavenly body.

Unlike Luke’s shepherds, the Magi do not get a vision of angels. There is nothing obviously revelatory about anything that happens to them. Instead, their natural reason, their human capacity to reflect on the world around them leads them to Jerusalem.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Catholic tradition for me, and especially of the Dominican strand within it, is our high view of human reason. Even without access to God’s self-revelation as communicated in the Bible, our Church thinks, human beings can come to know things about God. Nor does possession of that self-revelation render human reason irrelevant. Rather, through our reasoning about and grappling with the content of revelation we come to appreciate it better. It is though we were both the shepherds and the magi at the same time. Needless to say, for me, the combination is most clearly seen in the Summa Theologiae.

I think that at the present moment there’s a tendency to retreat from our high view of reason. Partly that’s for understandable reasons – contemporary culture can have too narrow a view of reason, as something cold, bloodless, and discarnate, whereas we want to affirm that our religion is the stuff of emotion, ritual, and raw, animal, self-giving love. Rather than ditch reason as the sole preserve of Mr Spock types, though, we could reclaim a more generous understanding of reason. More challenging is the modern world’s relegation of religion to the sphere of the non-rational, or even the irrational. For many friends and foes of religion alike, faith is a matter of blind acceptance, where it starts reason stops. Upon passing the church door, one ceases to be a thinker. Whether or not one considers that to be a good thing is very much a secondary matter.

This is disastrous for all sorts of reasons. It effectively involves the abandonment of any claim that the Christian faith is saying anything true (the notion of a truth with which we cannot reason is nonsensical), so if it is intended as a maneuver to protect faith from criticism it is self-defeating. That aside, it is both dangerous and beneath our dignity as human beings to put our ability to reason to one side. The use of religion to further bigotry and violence ought to persuade us of this if more abstract considerations do not. Crucially though, and seasonally, in the Incarnation God has assumed and redeemed everything it is to be human – including our reason – the thoughtfulness of our engagement with our faith is not a pretension, or simply a pass-time, but a witness to that redemption, to the fullness of our redeemed humanity. It is therefore a matter of faith that we continue to reason.

Corpus Christi

Today’s feast is focused in the first place on a person, not on a doctrine. We celebrate Jesus, present to us as our food and the source of our communion in the Eucharist. This however is likely to prompt doctrinal reflection. How, we might naturally ask, can what seems to be bread be the Body of Christ? Indeed, in what sense of the word ‘body’ could this even conceivably be so? Nor are these questions merely possible: non-Catholic Christians ask them frequently, as do various non-Christian critics of Catholicism, often in less than polite tones. For many people, transubstantiation sits at the top of a list of ridiculous things believed by Catholics. This, it should be urged, is not unreasonable. (And I speak as a defender of the doctrine).

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As is so often the case, what critics reject with regard to the Eucharist is not what the Church believes. Roughly, their target is the thought that at the moment of consecration God makes some bread vanish, and replaces it with human flesh, disguised as bread. Thus all those pious stories about bleeding hosts and gushing prose about the ‘prisoner of the tabernacle’.

The Church rejects this view, in spite of the aggressively professed orthodoxy of some of its champions. Christ is not present on the altar as I am present at this computer keyboard. The ‘species’ of bread is not a disguise, but a sign. Christ is not vulnerable, or constrained by, his eucharistic presence. In fact, most of our talk of the Eucharist has to take the form of denials: ‘he is not present like this’, ‘this is not bread’. The purpose of these denials is to preserve the coherence of our trust in the Lord’s promise to be present with us in the Eucharist. We cannot understand the nature of that presence itself, because that would be to understand the Lord’s Risen Body and the nature of the creative act by which he is made present. As the hymn puts it, “thou art here we ask not how”.

And that he is here is central to the Catholic faith. We express it, not primarily in words but in a way of life – genuflecting, kneeling, burning incense, going from the Mass to be the Body of Christ in the world. However, we do need to believe the claim behind these actions (“This is my Body”). On that subject I can do no better than recommend Elizabeth Anscombe’s excellent essay On Transubstantiation.

Guinness against gnosticism

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St Patrick’s Day fell yesterday, as it often does, during Lent. This coming together of a festival not known for quiet celebration and a penitential season has been the cause of some anxiety. Is  it really the done thing to be so baccanalian during a time of reflection, some ask? The US bishops were divided over relaxing the Friday abstinence rules.

This all strikes me as very strange. There is something profoundly right about Lenten observance being put on hold by feasts (as, of course, it is every Sunday during Lent). The Christian understanding of the world is not one where happiness and sorrow, good and bad, feast and fast, are to be kept in balance, as though if we don’t have a thoroughly downbeat and uninterrupted Lent we risk upsetting the tuning of the cosmos. Even our most unsettling periods of self-examination take place in the light of the empty tomb; even our mourning takes place in the knowledge of Christ’s victory. It is as thought there is a happiness always just beneath the surface, bubbling up constantly and pressing to burst through. The irruption of feasts into fast times enact this liturgically. They remind us of the important truth that, as Barth put a related point, “the first and last word is Yes and not No”.

St Joseph’s day on Monday provides another occasion to recognise this. Now, this won’t be greeted with nearly as much controversy as was St Patrick. There are good reasons for that; St Joseph is a solemnity of the universal Church. But there are also bad reasons, namely a disdain for the way St Patrick’s day is celebrated in many places. To be frank, there’s quite a bit of class and ethnic based sneering in the background, and a nonsensical concern about the ‘Christian roots’ of the feast being lost (we hear this a lot about Christmas as well, of course: would it be better then if people didn’t celebrate at all? Doesn’t the occasion for celebration always pose the possibility of a question about its reason? And isn’t natural human joy an intrinsic good?): but at heart it is the beer-drenched, riotousness of the festivities that worry people.  We are, I assume, to suppose that the wedding at Cana presented in John’s gospel was a quiet affair at which people politely shared family news and played parlour games. All I can say here is that a good party and a good beer are excellent, and soundly Catholic, responses to any suggestion that the world is evil or that fun is to be regarded with suspicion. In a culture where the allotted role of the religious is as prudes, we should bear that in mind.

The bodily assumption

I needed Mass for the Assumption this morning. Things have not been good, and the message of triumph which runs through today’s liturgy struck exactly the right chord. We are given images of the angels rejoicing, of a woman clothed with the sun, of the heavenly chorus ‘Victory and Empire have been won by our God’, and are told – in the eucharistic preface – that this is a foretaste of what will one be shared by the whole Church, that is by us.

This is not a message of trite joy, the liturgical equivalent of a chipper ‘cheer up, it might never happen’. The point of today’s feast is precisely that it did happen: the Cross happened, the sufferings of the Church symbolised by that dragon in the first reading happened, and our individual upsets and tragedies happen. Yet somehow love is triumphant, triumphant throughout creation as it was once in the body of a Jewish Palestinian peasant woman.

For such a victory to be of more than theoretical worth for us, it has to encompass us. And that is why the bodily nature of the Mary’s assumption is essential. Indeed it would not be Mary‘s assumption were it not bodily. For Mary is a human being, as we are, and therefore a particular kind of animal, a particular kind of living body.

There’s a tendency to fudge this corporeal side of things. Partly this is, I think, a misplaced attempt at ecumenical sensitivity. Partly it is in deference to a culture that is happier talking about reincarnation and spirit regression than it is resurrection. However much our contemporaries might profess that everything we are boils down to neurology, Descartes still rules in their less guarded moments. So we content ourselves with innocuous talk about ‘new life’, ‘heaven’ and so on. If the word ‘resurrection’ is used, we are often less than clear what it means.

I’m reading at the moment Surprised by Hope by the Anglican bishop and biblical scholar Tom Wright in which he makes exactly this point about Christian belief in the afterlife. Both accessible and scholarly at the same time, the book constructs a persuasive case for the primarily bodily (and social) nature of human redemption as this is understood in the books of scripture. There are aspects of what he says I take issue with – as you might expect, I do not agree with this evangelical Anglican’s assessment of the doctrine of purgatory – but I commend it to you.

Catholics in particular are prone to be misled by the language of the soul, much as we are by the trinitarian language of persons. Terms used in our historic formularies change their meaning over the centuries and our default position is then to approach those formularies whilst trapped in a picture utterly alien to the worlds of those who wrote them. For Aristotle, and for Aquinas after him, and for the Church at key moments in its doctrinal evolution, the soul is the form of the body. To be a creature with a soul is not to have an extra bit (as having an extra kidney or a spare finger would), it is rather for one’s body to be a certain kind of body, namely a rational body, caught up in a world of meanings, within which one can interact with others. The soul is not some sort of thing. I would be making a mistake if I counted myself and my soul as two (which is not to say that I am my soul – Aquinas insists ‘my soul is not me’ – better, my soul is something about me, akin to, although more important than the colour of my hair. It is my humanity).  I am not a spirit trapped in a body. Aquinas finds it quite difficult to reconcile this view with the Church’s teaching that the soul survives death before the general resurrection. Catholics do indeed believe this, but we believe much more fundamentally that our ultimate destiny is bodily – that we will join together in a New Heaven and a New Earth, and flourish as the kind of things we are – rational animals – taken up by grace to share in the nature of God.

Mary assumed into heaven is the sign of this. What has already taken place for her, we hope will happen to ourselves. This is the message of hope that I needed, a hope not simply for the future, but breaking in to the presence. Human bodies: healthy, homeless, battered, exhilarated, sweaty, broken, dancing, eating, drinking – these are the building blocks of the Kingdom. And this ought to be visible in how those bodies are treated now – by which I mean not, after the fashion of upwardly mobile Christianity that the baptised are bound to spend hours in the gym, but that belief in the resurrection should have political outworkings. He has, after all, put down the mighty from their seats.

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Rahner on the Sacred Heart

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June is traditionally dedicated to the Sacred Heart (presumably because the feast usually falls this month).

Here’s Karl Rahner on the topic (source, here):

The center of our hearts has to be God; the heart of the world has to be the heart of our hearts.   He must send us his heart so that our hearts may be at rest.   It has to be his heart.   But it must not be the heart that embraces each and every thing in unfathomable unity.   He must make us the center of our being a heart that is really the heart of the infinite God, and that nonetheless is a heart that is not everything, a heart that does not signify only one, a heart that is not only the ground of one.   For the mortal fear over his ambiguous infinity and for the need of our hearts to depart from us, he has to let his heart become finite.   He must let it become the unequivocality that is our life.   He must let it enter into our narrow confines, so that it can be the center of our life without destroying the narrow house of our finitude, in which alone we can live and breathe.

And he has done it.   And the name of his heart is:   Jesus Christ!   It is a finite heart, and yet it is the heart of God.   When it loves us and thus becomes the center of our hearts, every need, every distress, every misery of our hearts is taken from us.   For his heart is God’s heart, and yet it does not have the terrifying ambiguity of his infinity.   Up from this heart and out of this heart human words have arisen, intimate words, words of the heart, words of God that have only one meaning, a meaning that gladdens and blesses.

This captures wonderfully the key theme of the devotion: in Jesus, divine love takes human form, and is expressed in a human way.

The devotion’s modern flourishing began in 17th century France, in a context where Janseinism, with its pessimistic and stern picture of God’s relationship to humanity, was rife. Against the Janseinist picture of a totally corrupt humanity trembling before a capricious deity, the Sacred Heart speaks of tenderness and compassion. However naff some of the imagery and popular piety that has developed in subsequent years (I had a friend who described it as ‘the cult of the glowing strawberry’), that message is very necessary in a context in which a frightened response to secularism leads far too many Catholics into stringency, rigorism, and reaction.

“Love bade me welcome”

He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”

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It’s been a funny day. A good day, but a painful one, involving working through some stuff and facing up to something that I don’t want to talk about in a public forum. My reason for mentioning this at all is that I went to communion this evening with a keen sense of need, of brokenness and failure, and of the sheer ambiguity of life; and receiving holy communion made sense. By this I mean the sacrament made sense to me; part of what we mean by calling the eucharist a sacrament is that it always makes sense, it always communicates the reality it signifies, quite regardless of our thoughts or feelings about it.

This in itself is something I find very helpful. At a time when there’s a widespread tendency to think about religion in experiential terms, the Church’s calm insistence that the eucharist is not a means to get the warm fuzzies, and that these in turn are not a prerequisite for reception, is something I – as someone not prone to bouts of religious enthusiasm – find a relief. But it is interesting to me that today, of all days, Corpus Christi (in England and Wales at least*), the act of reception spoke to me.

It was, I think, that this meal, given by a frightened man at a time of fracture, betrayal, and uncertainty, with tension and provisionality at its heart, not only reflected back at me my own situation, but it also communicated God’s solidarity with our situation, both messed up and wonderful as it is. Yet that solidarity is transformative, Christ doesn’t meet us where we are at solely to be with us amidst the mess, but to point forward beyond it all, and to strengthen us to journey through it.

This might seem a peculiar way for a Catholic to talk about encountering the eucharist. Isn’t the point of our eucharistic faith that Christ is truly present in the sacrament, and once we’ve acknowledged that, doesn’t the rest of it fade away into insignificance? Well, it depends what you mean. The presence of Christ in the eucharist is absolutely central to our faith and practice, yes. But our faith is that Christ is present under the signs of bread and wine. We need both aspects of the eucharistic faith – sign and reality – they stand or fall together. Signification is not in competition with the real presence, as though each were aspects of the eucharist making opposite demands on our fragile attention, it is the vehicle of Christ’s presence with us. It is through the signs that Christ is truly present. In one of his hymns for today’s feast, St Thomas writes,

Here beneath these signs are hidden
Priceless things, to sense forbidden,
Signs, not things, are all we see.

Flesh from bread, and Blood from wine,
Yet is Christ in either sign,
All entire, confessed to be.

The eucharist is not bread and wine, it is the Body and Blood of Christ (I take this, by the way, to be a matter of faith – anyone who didn’t antecedently believe the Catholic faith – ought to think that it is bread and wine, since everything observable – chemical structure, function, and so on – suggests that it is). However, it is important that it is bread and wine that it is not. These signs are part of its meaning, they show us who Christ is, and what he does.

This signification works on so many levels. Again, I find one of St Thomas’ texts helpful:

O sacred banquet!

in which Christ is received,

the memory of his Passion is renewed,

the mind is filled with grace,

and a pledge of future glory is given to us!

 

It is not accidental that this is a meal given at a moment of betrayal, in which the Host is broken, as one of the central actions, suggesting both sharing and the broken body of an executed criminal. “The memory of his Passion is renewed”: the central means by which the Risen Christ is given to his people is not one unambiguously short through with glory, something that really would be the opium of those people, given that they continue to suffer, die, and wrestle with complicated and confused lives. Just as his body continues to bear his wounds, so his presence with us is tinged with his full identification with us in the reality of our lives, as they are. That is a genuine comfort in a way that a triumphalist rite could never be.

It’s good, and as far as I’m aware, a unique claim of Christianity, to have the comfort of a divine person who has been through it all and worse. Still, when all is said and done, knowing that one is not alone in the murk is good, but doesn’t get one out of the murk. Hence, the eucharist is also a “pledge of future glory”. It speaks of that future Kingdom in which God, who is love, will be all in all, not in spite of our lives and agency, but through their co-operation with God’s grace. In several places in scripture this Kingdom is imagined as a banquet, and so the eucharist anticipates it by presenting us with a meal. In so doing it is a sign of hope; and all of us need hope.

 

It is as a meal that the eucharist both recalls the past and prefigures the future. There’s been quite a lot of disquiet about emphasising what people insist on calling the meal aspect of the eucharist (there is no such thing, the mass is a meal: it would be nonsense to talk about the human aspect of me, I am a human being, there is no remainder). In part this is because the societies in which the loudest voices in the Church live are ones that have lost any sense of the importance of shared meals, these being indulgences that take up time which could be spent making money. But it is also because people can’t hear the mass described as a meal without hearing the word ‘just’ in front of it. And this is where I complain.

The eucharist is a meal (a banquet, a convivium, from ‘living together’). Yet to say this is not to deny for one moment that it is a sacrifice, a sacrament, or any number of other things. To say that it is a meal, in which food – Christ himself -is shared is immediately to relate it to community. Again, the word ‘community’ is one that we’ve become increasingly unable to hear without the word ‘just’, a confusion that is tied up with the wholly inadequate language of ‘horizontal’ versus ‘vertical’ understandings of liturgy (as though God were ‘up there’, or somehow competed for space with the community and its actions: a very odd idea indeed). To say the mass is concerned with community is not to say for one moment is that it is something we do by our own efforts, because it feels good, and which is thoroughly under our control and our property. The community that celebrates the mass, through its ordained priests, is a community that is given to us, born out of love. It is central to the meaning of the eucharist that we receive it as part of a communio, a worldwide fellowship. I am given grace as one of us, my life, my journey is tied up with that of the rest of the Church.

So, part of what is communicated in communion is that I am not alone. I, as one of us, am on a journey, a journey which leads from the Cross to the future banquet. On that journey, like the people in the dessert, we are fed with manna so that we can journey on. The eucharist is not given as a final goal, like all sacraments it will cease. It is provisional, given to us in our broken, confusing lives. It puts those lives into the context of a greater narrative of Love, and gives us strength to live on, for the future.”For here we have no abiding city”.

Behold the Bread of Angels,

For us pilgrims food, and token

Of the promise by Christ spoken

*I don’t like the fact that Corpus Christi is kept today, rather than the preceding Thursday, in England and Wales. But it is.

The Gift of Oddness

Pentecost is an odd one. It is a major feast, third in priority in the Church’s year, that gets overlooked. The culmination of Easter, it seems to sit uncomfortably with the rest of the season.

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Our discomfort with Pentecost isn’t entirely due to the touching thought Luke attributes to Peter that nobody could be drunk at nine o’clock in the morning. (As someone who spends much of my time around students there are things I could say about this). Instead, it all smacks a bit of magic for contemporary minds. There are strange happenings, tongues of flame and utterings in unknown languages. It’s all a little too X-Files for comfort, and matters are not helped here by the enthusiasm with which the pentecostal event is claimed by a certain type of Christian. For these perpetually excited souls, the Lord is ever performing new miracles. Life is just one upset in the laws of nature after another.

There’s something contradictory at the heart of the pentecostal movement, and I don’t think the fringes of the Catholic charismatic movement escape here unscathed. The concept of a routine miracle is oxymoronic: God’s, say, dispensing the gift on tongues on demand would be just another regularity, like water’s always boiling at 100 degrees at standard pressure. And nothing that is part of the regular workings of the universe is God. In any case, for all that it appears to be an affirmation of the ‘otherness’ of God, the anxious grasping at the  miraculous is nothing more than an attempt to domesticate the divine, to make of the reason why there is something rather than nothing at all, the ungraspable mystery that lies behind all things and in all things, an on-tap dispenser of the otherworldly. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob becomes, for this school of thought, the supernatural equivalent of a petrol pump. The God whose story is told in the Jewish and Christian scriptures is altogether more anarchic. “The wind blows where it chooses“.

More anarchic and more sensitive to the nuances of symbolism: the God whose story is told in these texts works through signs to a narrative purpose. So it is with Pentecost; this is an eschatological event, belonging to the end times, one of those moments when that which is beyond the world breaks through into it, remaining all the time mysterious. And yet, as Luke has Peter say, it is also the realisation of a pledge, “ I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” (Just in case we don’t get the symbolic register, Joel, whom Peter is quoting, goes on to speak about the sun being turned to darkness and the moon to blood.) 

The point of Pentecost is this: in fulfilment of the promise of the Risen Christ, the Holy Spirit is given to us as a free gift. The Holy Spirit is nothing other than God, existing eternally as the bond of love between the Son and the one Jesus calls ‘Father’. And, as God, the Holy Spirit lies completely beyond our ability to comprehend in this life. The Spirit cannot fit into our conceptual schemes, or else the Spirit would not be God. And yet we are given the gift of the Spirit, making us by grace what Christ is by right, sharers in the divine life. And what that means, we cannot understand at the moment.

That does not mean we can’t say anything about this gift. Historically there has been a tradition of talking about its effects in terms of the seven gifts of the Spirit. In general we can come to a certain kind of truthful talk about God by denying of God anything incompatible with being the creator. And since this is true of God, this is true of God the Holy Spirit. In particular, the Spirit cannot bring about anything that is a case of that falling short of creaturely perfection which we call ‘sin’. The Spirit will make for flourishing.

Human beings flourish in community. It is unsurprising, then, that Pentecost is presented as a communal happening. And so it remains. The gift of the Spirit is not given first and foremost to individuals, as their personal dollop of divinity; it is given to a community, the Church. (And it is characteristically given to individuals as they enter that community, at baptism). In a world that separates, forcing us into competition with one another, the Spirit unites. In a world that  is increasingly fearful of the ‘other’, of the foreigner, the migrant, the Spirit makes union with them a condition of sharing in the divine life: I cannot receive the Spirit without joining a global ‘us’. Pentecost undoes Babel.

In this respect, I was struck by this from the Office of Readings yesterday, by an anonymous sixth century author:

And so if anyone says to one of us: ‘You have received the Holy Spirit: why do you not speak in tongues?’, he should reply: ‘I do not speak in every tongue because I am in the Body of Christ, the Church, which speaks in every tongue.