Category: feasts

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.

 

 

 

The Annunciation

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Today’s solemnity is transferred from 25th March, which this year was Good Friday. I’m reminded of this poem by John Donne, which was brought to my attention by a Lay Dominican friend:

On Annunciation and Passion Falling on the Same Day. 1608.

TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who’s all ;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.

 

Mercy and its pitfalls

Today is Divine Mercy Sunday in the Year of Mercy. It seems as good an occasion as any on which to write about mercy.

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I must say that I’ve always been wary of the Divine Mercy ‘thing’. I’m uncomfortable with any kind of emphasis on special ‘revelations’ to individuals, which strike me as being in danger of detracting from God’s final Word, spoken in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and present in the Church, its celebration of the sacraments, and its proclamation of scripture. Then my inner liturgy geek – which, if we’re honest, is quite often also an outer liturgy geek – dislikes the Divine Mercy Novena cutting in to the Easter Octave. And I worry about the, bad, retributional, theology of atonement that seems to be present in a lot of presentations of the Divine Mercy Novena: God has a kind of split personality, his Mercy is at war with his Justice, but if we plead with him enough, Mercy will win out and he’ll not throw us into Hell. (This isn’t just a matter of abstract theology: if we believe that God is best thought of as a temperamental but bribable judge, it will affect our prayer and our action).

I may be wrong about some, or all of this, and I don’t doubt that part of of what’s going on is the devotion not being to my personal taste. In any case, the Church does not (and cannot) require that any of us accept the revelation to Faustina, or to anyone else who has lived since the last apostle died. What I do think, however, is that we certainly need to hear a lot more about mercy,  and that the Year of Mercy is timely.

The reason for this is that we live in a very unmerciful age (the spirit of this age inevitably infects the Church, whose members live in the world, and so the cynicism with which the year has been greeted in some supposedly ‘traditional’ quarters is entirely unsurprising).  This isn’t simply a way of articulating the complaint that people don’t care very much about each other, although that is far too often true, and one aspect of what I’m talking about. What is more insidious is the moralism of the modern world. Far from being the amoral free-for-all at once feared and fantasised about by a certain kind of politician and a certain kind of revivalist preacher alike, it is in fact thoroughly awash with a morality of a particularly damaging sort (and one documented by some of the more perceptive modern ethicists). This morality is founded on prohibition, functions by guilt and exclusion, and reassures a majority of their worth only at the cost of scapegoating a minority, who (we can smugly tell ourselves) deserve it. What does not enter into the picture at any point is human fulfilment, an omission that would have startled genuinely traditional thinkers about the ethical, such as Aristotle and St Thomas.

We see this moralism, of course, in the tabloid press, in moral panics, and political appeals for ‘values’, ‘standards’, and whatever else. It is not the preserve of cultural or political conservatives, though. The contemporary left, a current for which I have the loving disdain only possible for family members, is shot through with it. It is one of the most important gains of recent decades, for example, that we have taken proper account of issues around race, gender, and sexuality. It is both unfortunate and counter-productive that the way in which this is increasingly manifest is a culture of ‘calling out’ individuals: a phenomenon whose actual function is to make those on the right side of the ‘calling out’ feel good about themselves, rather to undo injustice, a cause it actively damages by allowing people who ought to be reassessing their attitudes avoid reflection by wallowing in a sense of victimhood. Here as elsewhere, a lack of mercy is injurious to justice.

What is mercy anyway? Following Luke’s gospel, the Pope has taken ‘merciful like the Father’ as the motto for the Year of Mercy. Whatever we are supposed to be being this year, then, it is ‘like’ what we say of God when we say that he is merciful. Caution is needed here, because whenever we say that any virtue of our own is ‘like’ God we need to add an account of the ways in which our creaturely virtues are unlike the perfect being of God, who is his own fulfilment (the sole exception here being the supernatural virtue of love, which just is the divine life communicated to us).

More of that in a moment. God’s mercy, says St Thomas, consists in his endeavouring ‘to dispel the misery of [an] other as if it were his; and this is the effect of mercy’. This neatly brings together two aspects of what we call ‘God’s mercy’ which might, from a human point of view, not seem to obviously belong together. God forgives sin: appropriately, today’s gospel is the passage from John where the Risen Christ breathes the Holy Spirit on the Apostles for the forgiveness of sins. God also cares for us in a more general way: wanting us to be fulfilled, to heal our ills, and to co-operate with his loving plan for us. There is a danger of tying these two together under the theme of ‘mercy’ in a way that makes individual suffering a kind of punishment for individual sin (a view that John has earlier rejected). Once we realise, with the Catholic tradition, that sin is an absence of human flourishing, and therefore a form of misery, the thomist understanding nicely captures the dual aspects of mercy without giving in to this temptation.

Thomas considers the objection that God cannot be merciful since mercy is a relaxation of justice, and God cannot go against his own justice. Against this, he says that God in acting mercifully does not go against his justice, but beyond it. He not only gives us what we deserve (as justice demands) but gives us gifts we do not (and could not) deserve, out of sheer love. Indeed, for God, who is perfectly simple, justice and mercy are one. It is of God’s very nature to go beyond himself in love. Not because God is compelled to do so, either by anything outside, or by anything internal – like an emotion. God does not have emotions; indeed St Thomas stresses that God’s mercy, unlike ours, is not a matter of being ‘sorrowful at heart’. Against the kind of soppy theology that insists on attributing feelings to God – a faddish movement which, ironically, undermines God’s identification with genuinely human feelings in the Incarnation – God doesn’t show mercy because it just feels too bad to live with our hardship, but out of the sheer gratuitous love that is his very being.

Now, we are not God (we need reminding of this from time to time). Empathy is our characteristic route to mercy. That is no bad thing, but it comes with dangers, in particular that of mercy collapsing into sentimentality. More treacherous, however, is the fact that justice and mercy are not one in us. We are, by virtue our human nature, unable to live in a fully human way without living justly, and we can come to realise this by purely rational reflection upon our life together. We are, moreover, by the divine nature in which we participate by baptism, unable to live in a way that reflects our new creation without living mercifully. Yet no more than nature and grace are the same thing are justice and mercy, for us, the same thing. There is a temptation, from a Christian perspective, of running justice and mercy together, of speaking of what is properly a matter of justice as a matter of mercy

A bit of this has happened in the response to the Pope’s call for a Year of Mercy. I’ve noticed this particularly in church responses to the sufferings of refugees. In rightly demanding that governments provide asylum and housing for refugees, Catholics have (perhaps naturally, given that mercy is ‘in the air’) used the language of mercy. Understandable though this is, it is a mistake. Providing for peoples’ basic needs is not an imperative of mercy, but of justice: it is providing what is owing to them in virtue of the basic fact of their humanity. The danger of talking about the refugees in terms of mercy, other than it somehow sounding patronising and condescending, is that once we do that as Christians, we inevitably talk in theological terms – mercy is what God shows us in the history narrated in the Bible. We thereby rule out the possibility of a natural, purely human, conversation about the refugees with all people of good will. This is urgently needed.

We are called to be both merciful and just. In so doing we will show ourselves to be children of the Father, sharing by adoption in the life of the one who is the first child of the Father. He is the model for living out mercy and justice, and if nothing else it is appropriate that we celebrate his mercy on the day when we recall his Risen Body bearing the wounds inflicted when, out of mercy, he allowed himself to fall victim to our twisted ideas of justice.

 

…was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man

Today’s feast seems a good time to say something about the minor furore that has followed Giles Fraser’s comment piece about what people insist on calling ‘the virgin birth’, but which I am going to call ‘the virginal conception’, which makes clearer what is actually at issue. As a Catholic I of course disagree with Fraser and affirm the doctrine, but his contribution is thoughtful and doesn’t deserve the opprobium that has been heaped upon it. Moreover, if his central claim is correct – that the doctrine of the virginal conception is incompatible with an affirmation of the value of human sexuality, and of female sexuality in particular – then there is a major problem for orthodox belief. Such a devaluation of the sexual would be flatly incompatible with our profession of the goodness of Creation. So I think it is vital that Fraser can be answered, as I trust he can.

First, however, a word about the line of many of his opponents. There is a curious confusion apparent in the bulk of the blogposts and commentaries that have appeared in response to Fraser. It’s clear that many people think that the doctrine of the Incarnation stands or falls with that of the virginal conception, that it is simply impossible that Christ be the Word made flesh if he were conceived sexually. This seems to me to imply a far more serious break with Christian tradition than anything Fraser wrote. It would have been perfectly possible for the Incarnate Word to have  been conceived through sex. The alternative view really only makes sense if your view of the ‘Incarnation’ is not really of God being incarnate at all, but rather of the bringing into being of some kind of divine-human hybrid, with God taking the place of a human father. This kind of position is ruled out by Chalcedon‘s insistence that Christ’s two natures undergo ‘no confusion, no change, no division’. The doctrine of the virginal conception is not that the Father is Christ’s father, in a sense of the word ‘father’ identical to that in which David Beckham is Brooklyn’s father, but rather than Christ has no father (when he speaks of his Father he is describing the life of the Trinity, the mystery of God which is beyond our power to comprehend but which we share through grace. He is not explaining his biological origins.). The conception is a miracle.

Why does that miracle occur? Not because it is necessary, but because it is appropriate. It is a sign of that reality of which Christ himself is the perfect sign, the sacrament, the breaking through of God’s Kingdom into human history. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds”. Something new has happened here, and it is fitting that it takes place in a way that makes that novelty apparent.

As such, the conception of Jesus is without a fully sufficient natural cause. However, something within the world is required for it to take place, and that is Mary’s assent: note, by the way, the free, autonomous, assent of a woman quite apart from  any male approval or oversight. It is at this point that the talk of Mary’s purity, to which Fraser takes such exception, becomes relevant. Now I think the word is probably sullied beyond redemption with a twee Daily Mailesque colouring and needs to be jettisoned. But it’s important at least to grasp that the thought that purity is all about sex, or rather lack of sex, is a hangover from Victorian moralism and that the word can mean other things. The Beatitude declaring the pure in heart to be blessed is not a christological imprimatur for prudes. Rather what is being talked about is moral integrity, the unity of heart and actions.

It is in this expansive, ethical, sense that Mary needs to be pure for Jesus’ conception to take place. Nothing but a wholehearted ‘yes’ would suffice for the God who works with, rather than against, human freedom. Nothing else could signify the culmination of the prayers and longings of Israel. It had to issue from the depth of her being, without mixed motive or evasion. That is what was necessary. This is what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, much confused with Fraser’s topic, claims was supplied by divine grace throughout Mary’s life, not to the injury but to the completion of her human freedom. Those two themes, divine grace and human freedom, in fact run through the story of Mary’s life, because the God who comes to us at Christmas is the God who wills us to love him in perfect freedom.

Everything in heaven

I like the feast of All Saints. In part, I think, this is because of the time of year at which it falls: the golden leaves, the crisp evenings, and the promise of Christmas approaching. However there’s something about the content of the celebration which appeals to me as well. It’s a feast on which any number of themes converge. One of these is the eschatological dimension of Christian life: the liturgy develops a picture of us as a pilgrim people, not yet at home, being beckoned by the saints to the future Kingdom which they already enjoy. Here we have signs and symbols, there we will have the unmediated reality. So, for example, the prayer after communion asks that we

may pass from this pilgrim table

to the banquet of our heavenly homeland

Similarly Abelard’s hymn for the feast contains the verse:

Now, in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
We for that country must yearn and must sigh;
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

We’re not yet where we fully belong; we are still – as the Salve Regina puts it – in ‘this veil of tears’. Life as it is, with its pain, its loss, and its injustice is not ultimate. Instead, what is ultimate is the risen humanity of Christ, shared with the saints in communion with him. Abelard, who had more than his share of reasons to think of his life as a Babylonian exile, develops a theme that speaks to me, and I imagine to most people. This can’t be all there is: a desperate proto-prayer, transformed by hope into the resolute this isn’t all there is. It’s a thought shot through with tension, much like Leonard Cohen’s cold and broken hallelujah: simply affirming the heavenly Jerusalem doesn’t abolish the Babylonish exile. If we rejoice because of the future, we do so in a present that often gives us precious little to celebrate.

If this spirituality of the future is appealing, it ought also to provoke a healthy dose of critical scrutiny. For aren’t we too close to comfort to Marx’s opium of the people, Freud’s wish fulfilment, and Joe Hill’s Pie in the Sky When You Die?

Possibly. There certainly are ways of receiving this tradition which provide a tacit baptism for present injustices, reassuring the victims that everything will be alright in heaven, but that in the meantime the poor will always be with us. But I think that this cannot be the authentic way of receiving it, for if it were there would be a conflict between the imperatives of hope, and those of love, which there cannot be. So instead, I want to claim that living in hope, which is really all that the ‘Babylon’s strand’ poetry is about, makes us more able to live lovingly in the present.

The first reason for this is quite a simple one: hopelessness is utterly disempowering. If we have no sense that things could ever be any better, if our every effort seems simply like an irrelevant pebble in a sea of human mess, cruelty, and oppression, then cynicism, even nihilism, will often as not follow. “Without vision the people perish”. The belief that not only will everything end well, but that in the most fundamental sense that it already has – the future glory of the saints is simply the sharing of what was already, finally, and decisively achieved at the empty tomb – frees us from the paralysing fear of failure of futility. That the ultimate victory is, and will, be won by God does not – of course – license us to sit back content in the belief that somebody else has sorted it out, so we don’t need to. That belief only makes sense if God is somebody in the same sense that we are, an inhabitant of the universe whose agency could possibly compete with our own. The conviction that this is so, shared by those US evangelicals who see concern for climate change as a form of apostasy and by Richard Dawkins (who, in a relatively uninteresting twist, doesn’t actually believe that the emasculating deity exists) has a biblical name: idolatry.

A more interesting reason for thinking that a healthy dose of eschatology makes us better inhabitants of the present is that it allows us to say something about the sheer meaninglessness and horror of human sufferings for which there is no prospect of worldly redemption, for which no restitution, no political change could be a remedy. Such are death and loss, the illnesses, the fractured relationships, the missed opportunities that spread throughout the fabrics of our lives like the shattering of a thin pane of glass. Faced with the utter senselessness of it all, the temptation is to try to impute meaning to these events: artificially imported meaning, forced on events from the outside to save an inadequate account of reality – a word for this in a non-theological language is ‘ideology’. And ideology, because it distorts our view of the world, perverts our capacity to love.

So, the dead soldier is no longer the frail friend and lover, as sinful as the rest of us, a good laugh in the pub, admirable just in as much as he was ordinary, forced into an army by economic circumstance or conscription. He is now a hero; the cause for which he died was a just one, and war must be continued lest he died in vain. Then again, the death from cancer was not so much the horrible, random consequence of events at the cellular level, but rather God’s loving way of calling the patient home (a piece of grotesque sentimentalism which cannot be true, if the word ‘love’ used of God is in any way continuous with its ordinary sense). Nor was that accident that left you in a wheelchair a tragedy, it was the Lord opening the door to new opportunities, brother. Don’t feel anger, give thanks! Heaven, on this kind of view, is an afterparty for the emotionally repressed.

The truth is that we do not need to lend these things meaning: they have no meaning of themselves, but their victims have ultimate meaning, loved unconditionally as they are by the God who first loved them into being. And the truth will set us free.