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:


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


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.


Death and life

Religious people, Catholics included, can talk too readily, or too glibly about death. The afterlife has bee dangled before the faithful as a compensation for the injustices of this life in a way that hinders the here-and-now fight against those injustices. Thus the great Joe Hill:

You will eat, by and by

In that glorious land in the sky.

Work and pray, live on hay.

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

Life shouldn’t be focused as directed towards death in a way that devalues the present world, the world of which God saw that it was good. Still, there is a way of living towards death that is profoundly healthy. Because we die, we are finite, bounded creatures. And because of that it makes sense to talk of the story of our lives, a story which can be told, and in the light of which those lives are meaningful. (In this month of November, it might not be too misleading to think of Purgatory as the process by which our individual stories are edited and fully integrated into the collective story of humankind, loved and redeemed in Christ). I think that reflection on the fact that our story will have an end, can motivate us – under God’s grace – to make the best use of what time we have, for the sake of others. Because a good death is, in the normal course of things, the culmination of a good life.


All to be saints

The saints remind us of our call to holiness, and accompany us as we live out that call. It is to holiness that we are called, not the anaemic pursed-lipped look-alike that goes by the name of piety. But we are called to be holy, to be fully human, flourishing and exalted by a share in the divine life. There is nothing we can do about this, it is our vocation in virtue of our birth and our baptism.



This is worth remarking on because this central Catholic claim, that we are transformed by God’s sanctifying grace, that what Christ does for us is so much more than a matter of being let off our sins, sits uncomfortably in the modern world, speaking as it does of total demand and total transformation, and is in danger of being played down as a consequence. We all have multiple belongings these days, and create our own portmanteau view of what good living looks like, drawing on multiple influences. The Church can fit into this, to be sure, perhaps as a source of moral teaching, or as providing somewhere to attend for a spiritual uplift, or even as a source of identity. But that the whole Catholicism thing could change us, radically, in ways we can’t anticipate or control (other than by refusing), that is something quite alien to how we tend to think. It all seems too much.

And, yet the demand is there. And it’s not a demand to retreat into a ghetto. Once we recognise that our context makes living out our call difficult, or counter-cultural, we then need to realise that the call is to be transformed within that context, for the good of the world. As were the saints before us.


Inside out

The hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, about whom Mark is less than fair as a matter of history, is a running theme of the gospel. In the passage read at mass today, Jesus takes on their criticism of his disciples for eating without washing first. It is not, says Jesus, what goes into someone which makes them unclean but what comes out of them (things like greed and malice).

Here is how I think a good proportion of modern readers understand this passage: what really matters is what’s inside us (i.e. in our thoughts, or our ‘soul’), the inner life, our intentions. Ritual and religious activity is an external matter, and not that important. Mark’s Jesus, on this reading, is a kind of proto-Protestant, suspicious of externals, as well as a kind of proto-Cartesian, since he thinks that we can draw a neat line between the inner and the outer, the ‘real me’ hidden deep inside and beyond all the bodily show.


But of course we can’t. We are animals, albeit animals of a certain sort (namely ones capable, at least sometimes, of being rational). It is precisely in our interaction with the material world of which we are part, whether that interaction takes place at the picket line, the soup kitchen, or the eucharistic altar, that our character is both formed and made manifest.

And nothing in this passage suggests otherwise; Mark can’t have been that bad a theologian. Apart from addressing a particular dispute, quite possibly a live one in the community within which Mark was writing, about food regulations – hence all the stuff about ‘what goes into a person’ (ἄνθρωπος), which we ought to read literally – the key point is summed up in the quotation from Isaiah:

This people honours me only with lip-service,
while their hearts are far from me.
The worship they offer me is worthless,
the doctrines they teach are only human regulations.
It is hypocrisy which is Jesus’ target. He is not concerned with a conflict between inner and outer, between the spiritual and the bodily, but rather with conflicts within our lives, the tensions and contradictions between what we do or say at one moment and how we live our lives otherwise. Such hypocrisy makes a mockery of God’s call to us and can serve to shore up human power, using religion as a means of oppression rather than welcoming it as a gift of liberation.
So then we go to mass and proclaim the death and resurrection of the Lord, who sets us free; we share the eucharist looking forward to God’s Kingdom of justice and peace. That Kingdom is proclaimed from our pulpits. But does what we do after the dismissal sit comfortably with this – the way we live out our relationships, the way we operate in our workplaces, the way we function politically? Does the way the Church lives as an institution – and in the wake of the horror of the abuse crisis this question is urgent – sit comfortably with its gospel? Or is a comfortable clericalism simply too easy to make taking the challenge of the gospel seriously? These are questions which all of us must answer.

How not to talk about sex

If Catholics spend quite a lot of time fighting amongst ourselves about sex (what do we think about homosexuality, contraception, abortion, premarital sex…), we certainly face a quandry over how we interact with the rest of the world  on matters of human sexuality. There are two basic facts which need to be taken on board: first, that sexuality matters immensely, and two, that most Catholics (whether ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’) are considerably out of step with the mainstream of secular society on questions of sexual ethics.


There are, of course, some people who would deny that the first fact is a fact, that sexuality is all that important. Puritans and libertines alike have taken this line about sex, either avoiding the stuff like the plague or indulging in it like a harmless play-time. Wrong though both of these parties surely are, they’re not going to come into direct intellectual conflict with Catholics over sex, since they don’t think there’s anything in the region important enough to warrant conflict.

The real difficulty is knowing how to respond to people who accept the first fact but provide evidence for the second, disagreeing significantly with some things Catholics say about sex. These, I think, are most of our contemporaries. They think sex matters – sometimes they seem to think it matters too much – fulfilment in this department is an essential part of a good life. But they think that the things Catholics say about it, or the things some Catholics say about it, or the things they think Catholics say about it are damaging, perhaps even oppressive. It’s unlikely that anyone in contemporary Britain has for long let slip the fact that they are a Catholic without being teased, or greeted by a question, about sexuality.

How, then, are we to witness to what we believe without becoming insufferably pious or appearing prudish? I’d like to reflect on how not to do it, on the basis of my own experience, as a way in to some thoughts about how to do it better.

Polyamory is a thing in universities, people live the lifestyle, justify it in writing and hold it up as better (politically, ethically) than either monogamy or promiscuity. Now, I believe as firmly as I believe any ethical proposition that this is wrong: as a rational human being, I think that our intimate interactions ought to reflect that we are finite, embodied creatures with limited capacities, yet able to form loving bonds. As a Christian, I believe that monogamous relationships image the relationship between Christ and his church. Yet hanging around in universities, as I do, I came across some people, including dear friends who were into polyamory. It was uncomfortably close to home.

Uncomfortable is exactly how I felt. I reacted with fear, what if somebody I loved got into this. What if somebody wanted me to get into it? I reacted sometimes with pomposity, declaiming unwanted lessons on sexual ethics. And I retreated, assuming there was no common ground between me and them, on this issue at least. There was I, contra mundum, and there outside is the incomprehensible and erring world.

My, stupid and inadequate response, which damaged friendships, was wrong on three levels. I’ll get onto those presently. First note that my response mirrors quite precisely a common response in the Church to sexual modernity – we retreat into a ghetto of ethical propriety, the better to preach against an evil world.

First, it is never true that we have nothing in common in an ethical disagreement. We all, St Thomas reminds us, desire what is good for us. We all, I would add, value something called ‘love’. Finding common threads are ways we can begin to talk about these things in a way that is not simply shouting. The question ‘what is romantic love?’ is one that is long overdue attention within Catholic philosophical and theological traditions, and talking about it with others, even, especially, those radically different from ourselves is a sure path to truth.

Second, the idea that talking is the best way to communicate a view about sex is an odd one. We are dealing here with human relationships, and they are lived rather than proclaimed. Rather than mapping out the sins of others, we would do better to form our own relationships into attractive cases of love. People, ourselves included, will see in relationships well-lived how it is that human sexuality can lead to human flourishing far more clearly than they ever could in the pages of an ethics textbook.

Finally, we need to stop being afraid. Being afraid on this issue made me unspeakable, jealous, and generally grumpy. The gospels after all repeatedly command us not to be afraid. And Christ’s promise to Peter that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church was not followed by an exception for talk about sex.

My point in writing this is that our tradition has a lot we can offer in terms of living and thinking about human relationships, without being preachy or sanctimonious. We will only get the chance to offer that if we are not ignored, and we will not be ignored only if we are open (which is not at all the same thing as being laissez-faire). Quite apart from which, we’ll be much happier if we’re not at perpetual war with the rest of the world.


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.


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.

Mark’s original ending

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


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

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

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

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




Prophets of Pentecost


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

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

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

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

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



Mark and Mary?

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

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

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

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

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