Tag: Easter

People of the Empty Tomb

The connection between Easter and baptism isn’t as established in our minds as it should be. It was brought home to me when I attended an Easter Vigil at a university chaplaincy some years ago, during which numerous adults were baptised by total immersion. There, in the still dim light of the chapel, amplified by the newly lit paschal candle, there was a real sense that these people were entering the tomb with Christ in order to rise again with him.

baptism

 

It is baptism which, in the usual course of things, makes Easter real for us. Through it we become members of the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, by which the Risen Christ continues to be present in the world, and through which his saving work is present. We are, as St Paul put it, dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

For through the sacramental life, lived out in the Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the celebrations of the past three days are not simply commemorations. We, as Catholic Christians, are not in the business of merely recalling past events (although we are at least recalling them: the messy drama of Holy Week being a unique feature of the liturgical year). In our participation in the sacraments we enter into those events, they become our events.

It is our job then as Christians, as people who have died to the old order of hatred and injustice through the waters of baptism, to make Christ present in a world that sorely needs to see that death is not the last word on human existence (I write as Donald Trump is sabre-rattling over the Middle East and North Korea). This is not a moralistic imperative, a call to staunch godly effort, but rather an invitation – only made possible by God’s loving action towards us – to be consistently what we are, people who have entered the tomb sacramentally with Christ in order to rise with him. We are living proof that the idea that the combination of fear and force is the only way to live alongside our fellow human beings. Fear and force brought Jesus to the Cross, and his Father answered with the Resurrection.

 

resurrection

To be what we are, an Easter people, is indeed – as the hymns have it – a joyful experience. But joy is not the same thing as fun. A world still in love with the old Adam will not welcome the good news that its work of destruction is frustrated, “he is not here he is risen”. The Jesus of John’s gospel tells us that if the world hated him, it will hate us too (the ‘world’, of couse, means here not the physical creation, nor the human race, but rather those structures that resist God’s offer of love through his Word). The celebrations of the past hours hint that even this hatred might be the occasion for joy. The priest places incense grains into the Paschal Candle, signifying the wounds of Christ; and the whole of which they are a part becomes the sign of Christ’s presence in our midst. We respond to our wounded, risen , saviour, the light of the world Deo Gratias – thanks be to God.

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.

he-qi-pentecost1

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.

 

 

 

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.

mercy

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.

 

The Shadow of the Empty Tomb

One of the dubious advantages to having a social media presence is that you learn all kinds of things you never wanted to know. For example: today, apart from being Palm Sunday, is International Happiness Day.

I have what people younger or more American than myself would call a bone with International Happiness Day. As a sufferer from chronic, and sometimes severe, depression I really do not appreciate being told to feel happy. I have had more than my share of random passers-by telling me to ‘cheer up mate, it might never happen’ and of, better-intentioned but still crushing, pep talks from people who would never dream of telling a cancer sufferer than a more positive attitude could make everything better.

Even if my own capacity to produce happiness were more reliable, there is something morally questionable about the suggestion that happiness is an appropriate default disposition towards the world. A planet on which the Syrian people continue to suffer at the hands of multiple warring parties and where the post powerful nation on the planet may well elect a man who wants to build a wall to exclude Mexicans does not obviously warrant a smile. If I break into raucous laughter upon learning that a friend has a terminal illness then I need either a doctor or a confessional.

The culpable cheeriness of those who haven’t noticed that the world is a mess is closely related to a certain kind of glib optimism, Terry Eagleton’s target in his excellent Hope Without Optimism. Of the many problems with this upbeat creed is its incapacity to take seriously the reality and indelibility of human misery. If the bad is immediately and trivially outweighed by the good, or at least due to be swept away from sight or memory by the forward march of History, then efforts to improve our present lot are unlikely to be a priority.

This disturbingly positive attitude is very different from the joy that is taken to characterise Christian hope. This does not consist in obedience to an imperative to always look on the bright side of life. The joyful Christian has a quiet confidence that ultimate victory belongs to God in Christ. She has no idea, given the current state of the world, how this could possibly turn out to be the case, but she believes that the one Jesus calls ‘Father’ brought about the empty tomb after the Cross. Agreeing with Karl Barth that,

‘The No is not the last and highest truth, but the call from home which comes in answer to our asking for God in the world.’  (The Word of God and the Word of Man)

she does not assume that this will make everything OK. She does, however, believe that history is ultimately in the hands of Love. This changes her understanding of everything, whilst making no perceivable difference.

This attitude is present throughout the liturgy for Holy Week; in fact we would hardly be keeping the week were it not for it. The news of the resurrection is the lens through which we view the passion and death of Jesus. Palm Sunday, already shot through with the tension of triumph and coming tragedy, is a Sunday. The week begins, as does every week, with the memorial of the Lord’s resurrection. The palm procession is to an altar, where the sacramental presence of the Risen Lord will be celebrated. In the evening, the Church will sing at vespers: ‘It is written: “I will strike the shepherd down and the sheep of his flock will be scattered.” But after my resurrection I will go before you into Galilee; there you will see me, said the Lord’.

The daily Eucharist – an action which flows from the resurrection as much as the Last Supper – contextualises the journey to the Cross through the week within the wider story of God’s triumph. On Good Friday, when there is no Mass, the priest nonetheless wears a chasuble, the garment of the wedding banquet of the Lamb. The day is not a collective funeral, but a solemn celebration. The passion is read from the Fourth Gospel, for which the Cross is Jesus’ ‘hour’, the moment where he reigns in triumph, and over which he is sublimely in control. Without the raw humanity of the synoptics the impression we would get from this story would be at best misleading, at worse docetic. In combination, they capture the essence of the Christian faith. Whilst the wood of the Cross is venerated, the chants speak of the resurrection. On Holy Saturday, meanwhile, our waiting is punctuated with an account of the victorious Christ harrowing hell.

There is a converse to the subtle thread of good news running through these days. If the Risen Christ is already present in our commemoration of the passion, the resurrection does not undo the reality of Christ’s suffering, or the history (one hesitates to speak of ‘reality’) of sin. I find that the rites of the Easter Vigil show, in ways words could never say, how Christianity can dare to speak of hope in a world like ours. One of the first actions performed with the new paschal candle is to pierce it with incense grains in memory of Christ’s wounds. The exsultet sings of the slaying of Christ the paschal lamb, and is prepared to talk of the felix culpa that brought this about: yet the tone is festal. And this is as it should be, the Risen Christ still has his wounds.

Death is indeed swallowed up in victory, but the scars remain.