He descended into hell

Today has an in-between feel. After the liturgical busyness of the past two days our church buildings are quiet. The office continues to be said, as though it were the heart beat of the Church, but the sacraments are not celebrated. Tabernacles lie empty; there is no holy water in the stoups.

This silence reflects the nature of the what we recall today. Not only does it demand silence, but it would be difficult to know what to say about it if it did not: a corpse lies in the tomb, the corpse of God made human. Yet somehow we want to say that in this apparently senseless end of a life there rests freedom for people far beyond the immediate earthly touch of Christ. This instinct finds expression in the Church’s belief that Christ’s soul, united to his divine person, descended into hell, and in the tradition that he preached to and released the souls of the just who had died before his coming.

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The point is one about the universality of Christ’s mission. It is for all people; the events of Easter spread out like a ripple through human history. For, in the words of the homily read at the Office of Readings today, we were not created to be slaves in the underworld.

A good death

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God cannot die, whatever Nietzsche might have thought. Nor can God suffer. It is worth emphasising these points, since a well-intentioned trend of recent decades has it that God is susceptible to emotions and, in some sense, suffers alongside us. It is understandable enough why, faced with the carnage of contemporary human existence and the private tragedies that accompany the business of simply living, someone might want to rebel against an image of God as passive and uncaring. However, there is already a mistake here: to assume that if God does not suffer, God is passive, that if God does not have emotions, God is cold, is to assume that God occupies the same logical space as ourselves, that the options available to God – so to speak – are those laid out before us. Whereas the creator of all things lies beyond our capacity to grasp; God’s nature is hidden from us. So we speak of him conscious of the inadequacy of our words, in analogy and metaphor (including, of course, metaphors involving suffering and emotion).

And yet, what God cannot do as God, God does as a human being. The Word of God, incarnate as a human being, dies a human death in Christ and suffers human sufferings in Christ. Because of the events the Church celebrates today, our God, incarnate as human and risen and ascended into glory, can empathise with our pain. Because he has died a human death he has transformed death itself. In undergoing the worst that human beings do to one another and uttering words of forgiveness he has opened the way to breaking out of the deadly cycle of revenge.

For these reasons we dare to call today, the day on which we murdered the man who is God, Good.

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.

You are dust

I try to read Lent books every year and spent the afternoon browsing my local Waterstones for this year’s selection. En route to the religion section, I chanced upon a table full of books about death:  death from the perspective of a surgeon; the memoirs of an undertaker; collections of writing about death etc. The notice on this table had as its central feature a quotation (I can’t remember who it is from): “it is only mortality that gives meaning to life”.

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Like Death Cafes, these are secular attempts to terms with the reality of our mortality. As such they are no bad thing, and certainly good deal better than the culture of repression and euphemism that has been a stable feature of particularly English and American culture for centuries. Yet there is a sense in which we can never fully come to terms with death. Built into the fabric of our materiality, it nonetheless confronts us as something alien. It is an end: the frustration of hope, the fracturing of relationships, the loss of the familiar. There is ultimately no sense to be made of it, because it marks the absence of sense. To move on from here would take a miracle, which is precisely what Christianity holds out to us.

Lent is, I think, a way of practising death. Its denials are lettings go of the things of life in anticipation of that final letting go which, in virtue of our baptism, we can now undergo trustfully. Whilst our faith points beyond death, our nature still fears it, and we cling superstitiously to possessions and position, in the hope that we might somehow cheat our own cosmic irrelevance and make a permanent mark on the universe. Through giving up time, food or comfort during Lent we try, under grace, to break the grip of these attractions. Indeed in a way we attempt to loosen our grip on life itself. For anyone who wants to save their life must lose it.

Eagleton on Materialism

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At the moment, I’m reading Terry Eagleton’s latest, Materialism. It’s a useful setting out of a particular account of what it is to be human, drawing on Aquinas, Marx, and Wittgenstein and amongst others. As you might imagine, I’m a sympathetic reader. Like much of his recent work, it engages with theological topics at some length. One passage in particular struck me:

The doctrine of the Incarnation means that God is an animal. He is present in the Eucharist as the everyday stuff of bread and wine, in the mundane business of chewing and digesting. Salvation is not primarily a matter of cult and ritual but of feeding the hungry and tending the sick. Jesus spends much of his time restoring damaged human bodies to health, along with a number of deranged minds. Love is a material practice, not a spiritual sentiment. Its paradigm is the love of strangers and enemies, which is unlikely to generate much of a warm glow.

The kind of materialism in which Eagleton is interested is not the belief that nothing exists other than material entities, which would obviously be incompatible with Christian faith. Rather, he espouses what he calls somatic materialism, the taking seriously of the embodied, fragile, historical, and conditioned nature of human beings. His immediate target is, I suspect, the tendency to overlook these aspects of ourselves on parts of the contemporary left. But Christians too need reminding of the materialism at the heart of our faith, and I commend this book warmly.

The civic religion of Donald Trump

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Today’s gospel reading, Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes might well provide us with an example of a religious text evolving for use in a particular context. Differing significantly from Luke’s version, Matthew may well have crafted the text from a shared source to address his audience and fit into his narrative.

Whatever the truth of the text’s pre-history, its interpretation – like that of any biblical text – is a matter of ongoing reception, conditioned by context. (The Catholic claim is, of course, that this process is guided by the Spirit and at moments manifest authoritatively in the teaching of the Church). A startling case was provided by the use of the text at Donald Trump’s inauguration last week.

It is fair to say that the early days of the Trump presidency have not seemed like the embodiment of the spirit of the Beatitudes. Turning away refugees, advocating torture, barring citizens of Muslim-majority countries from entering the US – if one wanted to point to actions that show how the merciful are blessed this is not where one would look. Yet the incongruity has passed largely without comment. Such is civic religion in the United States that, for all the effusive piety of much of that country’s politics, saccharine-tinged hypocrisy dealt with a leather-bound bible and a broad smile is accepted as the norm from political leaders.

This state of affairs, where God and his word have become rhetorical playthings, ever present in the discourse of public life but used to shore up the power of politicians is, amongst other things, the sign of a Christianity that is too familiar with God. If God is my buddy, if I can invoke him before a business meeting or a football game as though he were some holy performance supplement, if cartoons of Jesus in such situations appeal non-ironically, then I am in the grip of idolatry. I will be all too familiar with the divine, all too sure that I know what God wants (this tending to coincide with what I want). The awe and splendour of the burning bash and Sinai retreats, we are left with just another campaign tool.

 

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America could do a lot worse than a spot of atheism in its civic life. The god of inaugurations is one of those gods from whom we have been set free by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who demands that we have no god by him. Indeed, Mennonite theologian Stanley Hauerwas has suggested that the real name of the god of Trumpism is ‘America’. There is a word of caution to be spoken here for those in Europe who mourn the absence of religious talk from most of our politics. Speaking of God is not the same thing as speaking faithfully of God. We are not to take the Lord’s Name in vain.

Mary, the Mother of God

I remember as a child hearing an evangelical Anglican remark during my that calling Mary ‘Mother of God’ was terrible. There were people during the early fifth century who thought similarly. One of them may or may not have been Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople.

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Whatever Nestorius himself believed, the name `Nestorianism‘ came to be used for the view that so stressed the separateness of Christ’s humanity and hid divinity as to lose sight of their unity. This belief manifested itself in a refusal to use the title ‘Mother of God’ of our Lady, ‘Mother of Christ’ being one proposed compromise. In opposing this view the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Mary to be the Mother of God. Christ, although both human and divine, is one person. That person is God the Son, and so Mary is appropriately called Mother of God. She is not, for sure, Mother of God as God. Rather she is Mother of God as man. To deny this is, in effect, to deny the Incarnation. This man is God. That baby was God.

This title for Mary points to an important truth about Jesus. Those, like no doubt that Anglican minister from my youth, who think that in talking about Mary we detract from Jesus are exactly wrong. In fact, it is both interesting and important that in order to talk about Christ, the Church talked about Mary. God became a human being, a member of an animal species, and a member of a family and numerous communities. He was not some kind of divine Robinson Crusoe; he was and is a social being. And so in talking about him we naturally talk about those whose lives he touched and those who influenced him – supremely Mary, from whom he took his very humanity. It is the same with all of us. Pick up any biography, and the chances are that the early chapters will dwell on its subject’s family.

Today’s feast reminds us of the communal nature of humanity, and in a sense of the Church, present in microcosm in Christ’s family. The saving events of Jesus’ life involved people other than Jesus, as do each of our participations in those events.

O Oriens

‘Oriens’ is generally translated ‘Morning Star’. Today’s antiphon is not, however, a celebration of the Stalinist newspaper. A better rendering would be ‘rising sun’. On the shortest day of the year, in a nicely pagan move, the Church appeals to the image of the sun piercing the darkness to speak about the promised Saviour. The image is universally human; there is something primal about it. Yet it fits naturally into the particularity of Christian imagery. The darkness of sin is dispersed by the sun of redemption in Christ.

O Morning Star,

splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:

Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Clavis

It’s some time now since Johnny Cash sold well with a recording of a sympathetic live performance from a prison. In our more moralistic time, nothing could be further from the Zeitgeist than speaking of release of prisoners. Yet that is precisely what the Church does this evening. There’s an echo here of Graham Greene’s “appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”. The coming redemption is a threat because it is so universal, so revolutionary, so merciful. It leaves those aspects of ourselves which would set ourselves apart from or above others, that would see ourselves as the Good over against the Bad, with nowhere to hide. The tacit condition of the prayer “Come Lord Jesus” is recognition that his love is unbounded.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;

you open and no one can shut;

you shut and no one can open:

Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,

those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Radix

Today’s antiphon is taken from Isaiah 11:10, which speaks of the root of Jesse being a signal to the peoples. The rather inadequate translation used at Evening Prayer in English speaks of the ‘stock’ of Jesse, not justified as a translation of the Latin ‘radix’ and a throwback to the first verse of Isaiah 11. Yet there’s a wisdom, no doubt unintended, in this liturgical kerfuffle. The uniqueness of the Incarnate Word is captured in the fact that he is, as a human being, of the stock of Jesse, the promised Messiah of Davidic descent, whilst at the same time, as God, being behind and before all human kinships. “O wonder of wonders which none can unfold, the Ancient of Days is an hour or two old“.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;

before you kings will shut their mouths,

to you the nations will make their prayer:

Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.