The Perfect Church for People Who Dare to Hope For Perfection

TimothyOMalley

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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This morning on my way to work, I passed a church in South Bend that had placed the following message on their sign:  “the perfect church for those who aren’t”.   While I recognize the intention of the sign as an invitation to return for those who have left Christianity because they have felt marginalized or judged by we who perceive ourselves as fully initiated into the Jesus club, it strikes me that the sign is, at least in the end, ratherPerfectChurchForThoseWhoArent ineffective.

The sign is correct in one sense.   The Church is not the community of the perfect, the enlightened, those who have already arrived at the fullness of Christian charity.   In fact, I recognize that it often takes an incredible act of faith to even believe that the visible Church is the body of Christ.  Commenting on this reality, Blessed John Henry Newman preached:

…the Church is called ‘His Body’:  what His material Body was when He was visible on earth, such is the Church now.   It is the instrument of His Divine power; it is that which we must approach to gain good from Him; it is that which by insulting we awaken His anger.   Now, what is the Church but, as it were, a body of humiliation, almost provoking insult and profaneness, when men do not live by faith? an earthen vessel, far more so even than His body of flesh, for that was at least pure from all sin, and the Church is defiled in her members.   We know that her ministers are at best [my emphasis] but imperfect and erring, and of like passions with their brethern… (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Christ Hidden From the World).  

JohnHenryNewman

The moment that members of the body believe that they have achieved perfection through their own works, through their own righteousness, through their own good deeds–well, that’s the moment that a parish or congregation begins to look more like a political party, a country club, an awards show for those who belong to the screen actors’ Jesus guild.

At the same time, the sign is ineffective (even if it draws an occasional new body to the church) because it presents a rather beige version of Christianity.   One might ask, why be imperfect with others when I excel at being imperfect on my own?  Can’t I maintain my imperfections in some other group that meets at a slightly more convenient time like during an NFL game?

The slogan, popular among churches seeking to increase membership, doesn’t dream large enough.   Christianity isn’t about welcoming the imperfect–and then affirming all of us in our imperfections.   Rather, the Church consists of those who have been baptized into Christ, who dare to believe that human perfection is possible through the grace of God.  Those who believe that perfect love, perfect joy, perfect grace, perfect gift, perfect peace is ChristianPerfectionthe vocation of each and every human being.   And that the Church, through her sacraments, through prayer, through concrete deeds of charity performed over the course of a lifetime, capacitates us toward this perfection.

Thus, the radical claim of Christianity is not that it dismisses the possibility of human perfection.  Instead, the Church dares to dream that this perfection is possible precisely because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.   Precisely because Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God and Son of Man came among us and offered the entirety of his humanity to the Father in perfect love.   Because in baptism, we live no longer only for ourselves but in Christ.  A Christianity that denies the possibility of perfection, who refuse to believe that perfection is possible, implicitly denies the incarnation, the sacraments, all that is material in Christianity.

Again turning to Newman:

[Christians] only feel awe and true seriousness who think that the Law remains; that it claims to be fulfilled by them; and that it can be fulfilled in them through the power of God’s grace.   Not that any man alive arises up to that perfect fulfillment, but that such fulfillment is not impossible; that is it begun in all true Christians; that they all are tending to it; are growing into it; and are pleasing to God because they are becoming, and in proportion as they are becoming like Him who, when He came on earth in our flesh, fulfilled the Law perfectly (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Righteousness Not of Us, But In Us).

The possibility of perfection shouldn’t be entirely shocking to us, it shouldn’t be something that we deny.   After all, we confess faith in a God who transforms bread into his Body and wine into his Blood; a God that transfigures words of forgiveness offered by an imperfect man into God’s own absolution; a God who becomes iconically present through the play of light and darkness in stained glass windows formed by human hands.  Can’t this God transform my own mortal body, my own imperfection, my own sin into a perfect icon of the Son?  At least, this is the dream of the Church.  The perfect Church for people who dare to hope for perfection.  

 

Jesus Lives: Singing the Resurrection

Carolyn Pirtle Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Looking out my window this morning, it’s difficult to remember (let alone believe) that spring has “arrived.” The air is still cold, the skies are overcast, the wind is still bitter. Looking at my life as a Christian, it’s sometimes difficult to remember (let alone believe) that I am still in the heart of the Easter season. Easter liliesAs I walk into my parish, I notice that the Easter lilies are starting to droop ever so slightly, and the other decorations, while still beautiful, have become less dramatic—something to which I am accustomed.

In her recent post, Anna Adams spoke eloquently about the incredible duration of the Easter season and provided some wonderful insight on how to keep the Easter fire burning for those in academia who are now enduring the stress of wrapping up another semester. Maintaining this Easter joy is something that proves difficult for everyone, not just those living in the world of a university—I find myself wondering yet again how the bloom can have fallen off the lily so quickly, and how one can celebrate the joy of Easter throughout the entire season.

But the brilliance of the Easter season lies precisely in the fact that it is so lengthy. Just as our Lenten observances are intended to have lifelong ramifications, so too are our Easter celebrations. We are bathed in the radiant light of the Resurrection for fifty whole days so that it might leave an indelible mark on the way in which we view the world. This is the period of mystagogy for the newly-baptized, and a time of thanksgiving and renewal for the entire Church: we spend these fifty days marveling at the miracle of the Risen Lord, learning from Him how we are to continue to manifest His presence in the world through lives of self-giving love, contemplating the Love that conquers even death itself, so that by the time Pentecost arrives, we are ready to go out and proclaim the Good News as the Apostles did.

Emmaus iconThe time of mystagogy is a time to plumb the depths of mystery; it is a time to learn to see and hear the story of the Resurrection with new eyes and ears that have been purified by Lenten sacrifice and prepared by the celebration of the Triduum. In the early Church, this mystagogical process took place largely through preaching, and today, the weekly homilies can continue to help us understand better the mysteries of Easter. In addition, the music of the Church can provide another source of theological wisdom and mystagogical insight that continues to resound throughout the entirety of the Easter season, drawing our attention again and again to the Resurrection story, opening our ears and our hearts to hear the message anew. The different hymns of the Easter season turn the kaleidoscope of the Story as it were, presenting the brilliant colors in different shapes and patterns, holding up different facets of the mystery for our contemplation. Even those hymns that we hear every Easter resonate within us differently from year to year, for we are different people each time we encounter them, and so they become inexhaustible treasures for continuing to plumb the depths of the mystery of the Christian faith that is (to borrow from Augustine) “ever ancient and ever new.

Since 2008, one such hymn has become a sort of touchstone for my contemplation of the Easter mystery; in fact, it’s the same hymn I chose to feature in my post about Easter this time last year. I write about it again this year because it continues to teach me how to live in the reality of the Resurrection. This Easter hymn, entitled Jesus Lives, presents an incredible catechesis on the mystery of the Resurrection. Moreover, its very title presents a simple, profound statement that can serve as the bedrock for a life of faith, hope, and love. Jesus lives. Jesus lives. And the world is reborn. And I am made new.

Jesus Lives
Text by Christian Furchtegott Gellert (1715-59) from Sacred Hymns from the German
Music by Chrysogonus Waddell, OCSO (1930-2008)

Jesus lives: thy terrors now can, O death, no more appall us;
Jesus lives: by this we know, thou, O grave, cannot enthrall us, alleluia.

Jesus lives: henceforth is death but the gate to life immortal.
This shall calm our trembling breath when we pass its gloomy portal, alleluia.

Jesus lives: our hearts know well naught from us his love shall sever;
Life nor death, nor pow’rs of hell tear us from his keeping ever, alleluia.

Jesus lives: to Him the throne over all the world is given.
May we go where He is gone, rest and reign with Him in heaven, alleluia.

The reality of the Resurrection has a profound impact on the way life is to be lived in the Christian faith. The Resurrection is ever before us as the promise of our hope in Christ: that beyond dark night of suffering, beyond the Cross and the grave, lies the dawn of the Resurrection. This song—the song of Resurrection, of new life in Christ—is what we are called to sing not just during the fifty days of the Easter season, but throughout our entire lives. This is the song that sounds like a clarion call from across the waters when we seem to be lost on seas of turmoil and sorrow. It is the song that should be constantly stuck in our heads—the victory anthem that rousts us from bed each morning and the lullaby that sends us off to a peaceful sleep each night.  This is the song of a life lived in Christ; its quiet confidence and unabashed simplicity implant within us the courage necessary to go out to all the world and proclaim its message to all we encounter. Jesus lives. Alleluia.

Practical Mercy: Blessed are the Grouchy

Dorothy Therese

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“Look, we pray, upon the oblation of your Church and, recognizing the sacrificial Victim by whose death you willed to reconcile us to yourself, grant that we, who are nourished
by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.” —Eucharistic Prayer III

“Blessed are the grouchy, entitled, unappreciative, frustrating poor… For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The other day as I was driving to my job at a local homeless shelter I decided to start rewriting the Beatitudes—as you can see, I didn’t get very far.  I do feel pretty confident that God doesn’t endorse grouchiness, or a lack of gratitude for the gifts we are given, or the ability to frustrate middle class people who ‘just want to help.’  Jesus Teaches the BeatitudesBut he does say, quite directly, in the person of Jesus standing on a mountain: “Blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20).  He didn’t say “Blessed are those who are rich, and worked hard for their money, and always say thanks, and never annoy other people.  For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  No, Jesus, who knew full well that we can all be unappreciative and annoying, chose them himself:  Blessed are the poor.

It’s easy to forget, in the midst of our familiar daily lives, that Jesus was a poor man who didn’t initially stand out in a crowd—until, of course, he started performing miracles, preaching, and raising people from the dead.  Jesus hung out with the poor; he invited them to dinner; he walked with them, taught them; he called them his friends.  He was born into a family of the working poor and his entire life—as well as his Death and Resurrection—was spent among people in poverty.  He said it himself: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me” (Mt 25:40).  But why?

Six months ago, after finishing a degree in lay minstry, I chose a job that would allow me to spend my days in relationship with Christ in the poor.  It seemed to make sense to me—I had been volunteering and interning for years at various homeless service agencies, and it has only been the Blessed Sacrament itself that has rivaled my experience of looking into the eyes of a poor mother or child, or a crowd of men eating breakfast, and seeing God.

Soup KitchenAt some point during my years in graduate school, I was sitting in a field education class and let it slip that I believe I was born to serve the poor.  This startled me—was I making a commitment?  What about all my other passions?  But it had just become so clear to me that if I’m going to bask in the glorious experience of God’s love every day, which I do, then I also need to return this love where I know God exists so profoundly: “the least of these.”

I work with homeless mothers who live with their children at our shelter.  I’m in charge of each of the moms, helping them work toward their self-sufficiency, while somehow keeping order in the dorm at the same time.  I have never been in a position of such authority: I spend a lot of time disciplining and even kicking people out.  My desire to encounter Christ in the poor was quickly startled by my daily experience at work—a job that reminds me every day that love is not always warm and fuzzy.

But when I think about the moms—the way they mistreat me, yell at me, curse at me, interrupt me, treat me like a machine meant to give them what they want, and how none of that changes how much I love them—this shows me a bit of how God probably looks at me.  I’m a sinner; I’m broken; I make mistakes, I act entitled, I don’t appreciate everything that I’ve been given—and yet God loves me.

One of my favorite stories from my work so far has been with one of my more feisty moms.  She knocked on my office door one evening, and when I opened it, she stood there yelling and screaming at me, with all her five kids around her.  Her toddlers were hanging on both my hands trying to play, while her older kids ran up and down the halls and stared blankly at their mother as she screamed at me.  While trying to be affectionate with the kids, I stood there still nodding and responding to her, and finally told her we would talk about it later when she could be more calm. I walked back into my wonderfully quiet office, but within a minute—KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK—she had returned.  I took a deep breath, opened the door, and she yelled some more until we resolved the problem.  Some time passes, I’m back in my office, enjoying silence, and KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.  Again, I open the door, and all this young, tired, beaten, frustrated woman did was look me right in the eye and say, “I’m sorry.”

The irony is that the source of her screaming was the fact that I was mandating her attendance in anger management!

Christ in the BreadlinesThe point of this story for me was that love isn’t made of warm and fuzzies—and neither is the Sermon on the Mount.  Dostoyevsky said, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams” (The Brothers Karamazov). We don’t always feel it, and sometimes it is acutely clear to us that, as Aquinas writes, “love is an act of the will.”

So what does it mean to say we love God in the least among us, poor and otherwise?  I don’t think it is enough to respond, “I love God, I’m a pretty good person, so I think I’m on my way to heaven.”  God’s love for us is RADICAL, and thus we are called to radically love others, even when it is really hard.  Once we really, really believe we are loved by someone, we WANT to radically love them in return, even when it’s uncomfortable.

In oblation, we pour ourselves out completely before God: “Here I am, Lord.  Take me as I am.”  We experience the miracle of the Eucharistic celebration and we proclaim our thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice.

After a long day at work, when I’m thinking about how many people are hurting, how much I can’t control and yet how much there is left to do, I remember: It is God who saves us through deep, radical, sacrificial love.  All he asks is that we pour ourselves out to others in return.  He gives us this model as He hangs on the cross, and he reminds us that this cross is really only the beginning.

I am no expert on pouring myself out, but I can try every day, in the face of God in the poor—even when she seems pretty grouchy.

The Long Sunrise of Easter

Anna AdamsAnna Adams

University of Notre Dame

Doctoral Student in Liturgical Studies

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The following is a homily given to graduate students and faculty in theology
during an evening prayer service at Notre Dame.

“Brothers and sisters,
are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We indeed were buried with him through baptism into death,
so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,
we too might live in newness of life.
For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his,
we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
We know that our old self was crucified with him,
so that our sinful body might be done away with,
that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.
For a dead person has been absolved from sin.
If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.
We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more;
death no longer has power over him.
As to his death, he died to sin once and for all;
as to his life, he lives for God.
Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as [being] dead to sin
and living for God in Christ Jesus.” —Romans 6:3-11

Liturgist Confessions #837: I’m always surprised at how long the Easter Season lasts. Not only are we still in the Easter season, this is early in Easter. I never know what to DO with all this Easter. Resurrection - GrünewaldAfter waiting all Lent for the return of the Alleluias and the Gloria, Easter Vigil overwhelms me with joy and beauty. Easter morning celebrating the resurrection only heightens my liturgical delight. But then, I look at my calendar on Easter Monday, and the acidic taste of panic pricks gurgles up in my throat: finals are coming. I am suddenly one of Paul’s unaware ones: “Are you unaware?” “Did you miss what just happened?” Paul asks. As I plug into my laptop, I start closing my academic blinds to Easter’s light. It’s ironic, since a theologian should be basking in and contemplating humanity’s ongoing encounter with the Triune God. There’s just no time for all this rejoicing; there’s work to be done — and besides all that, light causes a terrible glare on the computer screen.

Thankfully, mother Church, in her wisdom, demands of us a great fifty days of Easter to hold all the facets of resurrection up to the light like a prism, and see if our lives are colored any differently by Easter’s dawning glow. For those of us claiming to be theologians, perhaps this is the unintended gift of Easter’s yearly coincidence with what is, for many of us, the most stressful time of the year.

We’re prompted to ask: what does Easter have to do with academics? What’s different about what we read and write and argue and type by the first glimmers of Christ’s resurrection? If our task as baptized Christians is to grow into union with Christ through a death like his and also to share in his resurrection, then this includes not only our personal, but also our scholarly lives. Thus, those of us called to the task of theology share in profound responsibility inherent in our vocation as Christians: we must be transformed into Christ in every way—including the academic aspects of our lives. But how does that work on paper?

I suspect a complete answer  to that question only comes only after an entire life of prayer. But the question demands reflection none the less. And since many of us who are students are pretty newbie priests and theologians, compared to institutional and ecclesial memory, I propose we start simply:

What do the faith, hope, and love of the resurrection have to do with our exercise here as students and teachers of theology? 

Angel of the Resurrection1In this Romans text, Paul challenges us to faith: to “think of ourselves as [being] dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.” Faith demands that we hold constantly before our eyes the ultimate purpose of our work: Do we work from life for God in Christ Jesus? Or do we work for ourselves? This is, perhaps, the trickiest distinction: because when ferreting out truth and academic advancement often go hand in hand the distinction is not always obvious. But faithful scholarship in Christ it’s integral to hope and love as well, so beginning with the right end matters.

Doing theology as work of faith demands that our academic exercise also become a study in askesis: in limiting ourselves to work that builds up the kingdom of God rather than aggrandizing our scholarly reputation. I have a close friend who, when advising me on pursuing further academic work said, “Look, I’m not telling you to quit. But if you can do anything else: do it. Because if you choose to pursue a Ph.D., it will bring up every demon inside yourself, and you’ll wrestle with most of them in your head, alone.” And it’s true. Theology is often a work done in a mental desert- an exercise in askesis and asceticism. It is easy in this place to feel deep loneliness; to struggle with insecurity; to fight (and often in my case succumb to) work-a-holism. It is easy to desire notability, advancement, and praise. But if we do theology out of those desires we fundamentally pervert the theologian’s vocation. And we deny ourselves the opportunity to offer our unique contributions of thought to understanding the Life of God in Jesus Christ for the Church we serve. Resurrection scholarship begins in askesis: as we aim to die to self in an effort to find truth rather than simply showing off our own cleverness.

But the fact that askesis that grows from faith of life in Christ Jesus is a proclamation of hope.

Angel of the ResurrectionTheologians must proclaim hope. Paul tells us, “…if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” We, like our Holy Cross family who founded the University of Notre Dame, are a people with hope to bring.[1] We don’t just witness to the Resurrection’s dawn with what we study or teach, but how we study and teach.

Hope produces the humility to be healthy people: to recognize that we will not finish the task of understanding God in one night, in one paper, or term, or even dissertation. (I find this incredibly hopeful.) The hope of the resurrection reminds us that the salvation of the world hangs not on our cleverness, but upon the Cross. The hard work is done. And while the words and hours we pour into our scholarship therefore matter more than anything; they matter only in light of the work that has already been accomplished.

We work harder yet, because we have such weighty thoughts to sift! But our working is not toil. And we need not live in fear of failure any longer. When we die to self and live to Christ, the doing of our work and study can be a proclamation of hope (some might say of sanity) to an academy that grows increasingly frenetic with itself and its own ends. During a particularly difficult time in the Congregation of Holy Cross’ history, Basil Moreau wrote to his Holy Cross family around the world: “Be what you should be before God, and I can assure you of the future.”[2] Our work may be slow, or difficult, or mind numbing at times—we may get it wrong, we may even fail—but that isn’t the end of the story. We do not walk as those who trudge. We stride. Because we have the Hope of being also united with Him in the resurrection.[3]

Jesus, Thomas, and the ApostlesAnd to all this one thing is necessary: and that is love. The fundamental gift of life we received at baptism is the LOVE of Jesus liberating us from the power of death to newness in life. The animating principle of the faith and hope theologians offer is love. To quote Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s opening to Deus Caritas Est:

We have come to believe in God’s love:
in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life.
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea,
but the encounter with an event, a person,
which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.[4]

Love changes everything. Now, don’t get me wrong. We need no more cheap charity that agrees with everything while saying nothing. If the theologian’s task is to seek truth in faith and pursue it with hope, it demands a much more costly and sturdy manner of love. Costly love calls us to seek Christ by any means possible in each book we read, class we attend, and argument we contest. Costly love is never indifferent to the truth, but neither can it abide indifference to the person with whom we disagree over the nature of truth. Costly love holds out hope for finding the Truth, which is magnificent enough to acknowledge the flaws in our own arguments as places for collaboration and revelation rather than weakness to be hidden from the “competition.” Costly love embraces faith, seeing reflected in the faces of our academic companions the first rays of the resurrection sunlight—even as it struggles to plumb the depths of truth through criticism.

At its most basic level, our work as theologians must be a work of love. We must ourselves be a contribution with our unique gifts to humanity’s ongoing encounter with Christ crucified and risen. As a people of faith, crucified with Christ, we think and converse not in the darkness, but by Easter’s first light. We have hope to bring because “We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. … He died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God.” Friends, we must not be caught unaware, for we “indeed were buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” We are, in fact, the workers of a long Easter indeed.


[1] Congregation of Holy Cross, Constitution 8, Constitutions.

[2] Bl. Basil Moreau, Circular Letter, 1847.

[3] Congregation of Holy Cross, Constitution 8, Constitutions.

[4] Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §1.

Simon, son of John: Called, Renamed, and Re-Called by Christ

Kevin Grove CSCKevin Grove, C.S.C.
Doctoral Student, Cambridge University

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14 April 2013 – Third Sunday of Easter C
St. John Fisher Catholic Chaplaincy
Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Ps 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13; Rev 5:11-14; Jn 21:1-19

As a child, I knew when I was in trouble.  Rather than calling me Kevin or any diminutive form of my name, my parents would use my full name, my given name: “‘Kevin Gregory Grove’ stop that,” or “come over here!”  And if the tone was not convincing enough, there was something about using my full name that made it so.  Perhaps your parents did this, too, I don’t know.  But there is something about using someone’s entire, given name—first, middle, and last—especially when they are in trouble.  Courts of law do the same thing.  The very tactic reminds us of the entirety of who we are, and when we have been bad that we haven’t been all that we are called to be but only a portion of that.

Jesus at the Sea of TiberiasIf we think about the power of our own given names, then the deep meaning of the exchanges between Jesus and Peter open up before our eyes.  In the Gospel for this past Sunday, Jesus appears to the disciples along the Sea of Tiberias.  And we get a glimpse into this privileged conversation between Jesus and Peter, a great reconciliation and a three-fold statement of “Yes, Lord, I love you” when just days before Peter had denied the same Lord three different times.

But this exchange between Peter and Jesus is meant to give each of us a flashback to the moment when Jesus first called Peter.  Andrew, Peter’s brother, realizes that he has found the Messiah, hurries to get his brother, and brings him right up to Jesus.  And something happens in that moment that happens to none of the other disciples.  Jesus looks into the young man’s eyes and says, “You are Simon, the son of John; you will be called [Peter]” (Jn 1:42).  Jesus does something remarkable, and Peter wasn’t even in trouble at this point.  Jesus uses his full name: You are Simon, the son of John.  Jesus summed up everything in that moment that the disciple had been, was, and would be: Simon, the son of John.  And Jesus made him even more.  You will be called Peter.  He didn’t cease to be the son of John, but Jesus Christ made him someone more, someone more himself.  And so from early on in John’s Gospel we see that this man named Peter is very specially named.  Wrapped up in that very name, Peter, is his God-given mission.  And every time we hear the word “Peter” used in the Gospel, we are reminded that Christ made him that.

And it is inevitably compromised.  In the other Gospels, the writers actually interface the two names for Peter.  Sometimes he is Simon and at other times he is Peter.  It’s not that he has a split personality, but that he has a very difficult time living into this vocation that the Lord has placed him.  And for the most part, the Gospel of John uses a compromise, calling this disciple “Simon Peter.”  It’s true; he was both.  But then he denies the Lord three times.  And then he meets the Lord on the shore of the sea of Tiberias, and a special exchange begins.  Jesus does not address the disciple as Peter, or Simon-Peter.  Jesus questions him, “Simon son of John” – his full, given name that Jesus had first called him before asking more of him as Peter.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”  “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Simon, son of John, do you love me?There is a way in which this must have been devastating to Peter.  In one sense he had failed his new name.  And from the roots of that broken disciple’s very self, Christ draws out again Peter from Simon the son of John.  And this is the great subtlety and beauty of our Savior.  Jesus doesn’t say: again, you messed up but you are once more Peter. But that’s because he doesn’t have to.  By the end of the third, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”, the Gospel writer starts calling him “Peter.”  Not Simon son of John, not Simon Peter, just Peter.  It was a transformation that Simon son of John couldn’t affect or live up to on his own.  He tried; and three times he denied his Lord.  And in three times saying “yes” he loved his Lord, Peter realized that we do not make ourselves God’s chosen, because we will fail every single time.  But God holds up the best of our human love and perfects it and makes us who we really are over and over and over again.  In asking “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”, Jesus communicated that I love you repeatedly and complete you in such a way that, no matter your fall, I am the one who makes you Peter.  It is the same for you and for me, too.  Our parents went back to our full names when we were in trouble, but for the purpose of calling something more out of us than we had become.  Like Simon the son of John, Christ renames in us the fullness of life.  And when we are called, like Simon Peter we repeatedly fall, and we repeatedly must be recalled by Christ Himself.  St. Peter Preaching in Jerusalem-Poerson, 1642And just as in that process, Simon the son of John finally grew into his God-given name of Peter, so too is God ready to name each of us in full and then demand something more.

There is a blessed ending to this story.  After Jesus had gone and Peter began his ministry, he wrote his own letters.  And in the first of these, he begins it in this way: “I, Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ.”  At last he used the fullness of the name.  The resurrected Christ names you and me again this day, names us into that same fullness.

The Eucharist and the Sacrifice of Love: A Homily From Holy Thursday

MsgrMichaelHeintzMsgr. Michael Heintz, Ph.D.

Rector, St. Matthew’s Cathedral

Director, M.Div. Program, University of Notre Dame

 

When pure love, divine love, agape, enters a world turned in on itself, a world whose operating system is self-love, closed off by fear from any other possibility, such pure love is neither fully received nor fully reciprocated.  In such a fallen and rebellious cosmos, that pure love, divine love, encountering indifference, denial, and rejection, is not welcomed with humility and delight, but is refracted in suffering.   Such pure love can be expressed fully in a sinful and contorted world only as sacrifice.  For rational creatures whose will is wounded – that is, for us – real love, pure love, agape, will always involve some kind of dying.

EthiopicFootwashing

St. John tells us that Jesus initiated this last supper with his disciples fully aware of what he was doing, fully aware of what this meal anticipated and made sacramentally present, fully aware of it was going to cost him.  Further, the evangelist links this full knowledge with a fullness of love, the real impetus of his action, commenting that Jesus loved his own – and loved them perfectly, or “to the end,” as he puts it.  It is ironic that while the three synoptic Gospels each offer an account of the Last Supper itself, replete with the details St. Paul relates to the Corinthians, tonight, the night on which the Church begins its solemn Triduum with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, it is the account found in the Fourth Gospel that the Church offers to us for our prayer.  This passage from St John recounts not so much the meal itself, but the action of Jesus which anticipates, literally and sacramentally, that meal.  Tonight Jesus foreshadows by his act of humility the kind of love that the Eucharist makes present and possible, embodying a new and eternal covenant; yet it is a meal which, because it is a gift offered with the purest of love, in and on behalf of a world powerless to free itself from itself – and thus itself incapable of such an offering – it is also necessarily a sacrifice, a sacrifice whose completion or fulfillment, and whose real cost, will be made manifest tomorrow afternoon, on Good Friday.

CrucifixSelf-Gift

Fully aware that his disciples, like most of us most of the time, were utterly clueless as to what he was about, Jesus has to explain to them the meaning of his action: in his Kingdom, it’s not about power, or control, or security, or ease, or comfort, or warm feelings, or efficiency, or success.  No, he establishes for us in himself, a new pattern, a new way, a new command, a new covenant: humble love, pure love, divine love, agape, a kind of love we would never have figured out on our own, a love that we couldn’t conjure up within ourselves even with herculean effort.  We are simply too turned in on ourselves to have imagined such a love.  And the meal he is about to share with them will become the sacrament – the efficacious, living sign – of what he will do on Friday afternoon, and make that one, perfect sacrifice of purest love, perpetually present and available to us his followers, not only as a wonder for our loving adoration and contemplation, but also as our very food and drink.

But the Mass is not simply a meal; the Mass is also a sacrifice.  And it’s a meal because it’s first a sacrifice.  The meal shared in the upper room that Thursday night has meaning only because of what was to be accomplished Friday afternoon on a hill outside of Jerusalem.  We receive Christ’s body and blood; but we also offer a sacrifice; more correctly, we join our sacrifice to his.  It’s Christ’s one sacrifice, his one perfect self-offering to the Father on our behalf, made real and present on the altar.  But it is also our sacrifice, mine and yours, joined to his, offered through him and with him and in him.  And this sacrificial dimension is too often overlooked.  There are some who, for a number of reasons, cannot receive.  But they can still offer.  That is why attending Mass should not be thought of as an experience of passivity, just piously biding our time in preparation to receive.  It is an active offering as well, whether one is able to receive or not.  As Jesus gives himself fully to his Father, so we too are asked to offer ourselves to God as well.  Our love however, unlike his, is far from pure, far from perfect; we’re too self-centered, egotistical, insecure, envious, petty, lustful, ambitious, resentful, and the list goes on.  And that is why for us, sharing in his love, his agape, will cost us too, just as it cost him.  Real love, pure love, in this fallen cosmos, will entail suffering.  It will involve all kinds of little deaths; death to my ambition, death to my willfulness, death to my self-constructed identity, death to my ego, death to my impulseEucharisticSacrificeB constantly to judge, death to all my disordered passions and desires.  And so because we offer this sacrifice through him and with him and in him, while living in, but not of, a world in rebellion against him, our self-gift, our offering of ourselves, like his, will always cost us something, it will always involve for us a dying, a sacrifice.

Hence the ancient dread, sadly muted in our age, about approaching this altar unworthily.  It’s not primarily rooted in some vague concern about ritual purity, but in an authentic understanding of what the Eucharist truly is, what is really means, and what it necessarily costs.  Worthily to receive his body and blood is an act of rebellion: against the ruler of this age, against our own trumped up self-importance, against our own willing and half-willing complicity in this world’s sin.  And so to receive his body and blood without reflection as to its real cost – his death (and our own!) – is to receive it to our own undoing.  But worthily to receive his body and blood is to receive his charity, his agape, his love, precisely because we are receiving nothing less than Christ himself.   We are freed from having to save ourselves, rescued from having to make sense of life for ourselves, liberated from having to prove ourselves, emancipated from having to do it all ourselves.  Christ in us, as St Paul says, the hope of glory.  What began at our baptism is now continued, strengthened, and renewed by this greatest of sacraments.  Jesus Christ: his life, his love, through us, and with us, and in us, for the life of the world.

 

Inklings of a New Evangelization: Laughter and the Logos

MiriamMarstonMiriam Marston

Assistant Director of Theology Programs, Theological Institute for the New Evangelization

St. John’s Seminary, Boston, MA

Contact Author

Other columns in series:
The Beacons Are Lit

Of Myths and Maps

Inside the Song

A Word on Wonder

A Word on Tooks
Secondary Worlds and Primary Truths

Escape and the Good Catastrophe
Treebeard and the Language of Reality
The Valor of Bilbo

“‘A great shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.  It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known.  But he himself burst into tears.  Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.” (Return of the King)

JesusanddisciplesWhen the Risen Lord appeared to His disciples, His greeting took the form of “Peace be with you” and “Do not be afraid”.  And what other salutation could have possibly been expected?  Here is Jesus, coming before those men and women who had witnessed His agony and death scarcely three days earlier.  Here He is, returning among those who loved Him so dearly, and believed Him to be on the other side of an impermeable and unyielding stone.  The Scriptures (as in a few other places), go a little quiet on what happened immediately after that initial encounter.  I’m referring to that window of time between the shock of recognition and when Jesus (according to Luke, at least) asked if there was anything to eat.  Can we even imagine the smiles that broke on the faces of the disciples, as the realization of the Resurrection sank in?  Can we conceive of the sound of laughter which exploded like the clamor of a happy thunderstorm, as Jesus extended His arms, as though He were holding the whole world in a cosmic embrace?

While neither Gandalf nor Frodo correspond perfectly to the Christ-figure, the dynamics of their reunion bear a certain resemblance to this part of the Easter story. In the passage I quoted above, Frodo has, for some time now, believed Gandalf to be dead, a victim of an ancient evil called a Balrog (quite a nasty creature, really).  And the wizard, for his part, had been wracked with worry that the Enemy had captured and tormented the poor hobbit; and even when it became clear that Frodo had completed his quest, there was the lingering fear that he had been lost during the spectacular collapse of Sauron’s reign after the destruction of the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom.

gandalflaughSo imagine Frodo’s surprise when he wakes up a few days after his perilous journey has ended, and he sees Gandalf standing by his side.  A great shadow has departed, Gandalf tells him.  And then he laughs, as if the horror of the past months and years had no more hold on him than a bad dream. The astounded hobbit laughs in his turn, the kind of laughing which finds its source in the purest part of the person, the part which has remained untarnished by the weariness and pain which has battered the tired traveler.

We are acquainted, after all, with other types of laughter: the courtesy laugh (a common reaction when someone has told a joke which falls flat), or the nervous laugh (sometimes heard on an awkward first date).  There wasn’t any room for mild courtesy or clumsy nervousness in the locked Upper Room, or in Frodo’s room at Minas Tirith; maybe a good deal of wonder, holy trepidation, and awe.  But nothing less than the exclamation of unadulterated delight which comes with an experience of such dazzling improbability and beauty, and which cuts right through even the most stubborn shadows.

J.R.R. Tolkien has a marvelous way of weaving in laughter throughout his tale (which, for the most part, possesses a fair bit of gravitas), and I believe he is attentive to those occasions which call for it.  The moments come as the story takes a turn, when the power of the Enemy threatens to overcome a character who is walking delicately along the edge of a choice which, if taken unwisely, could contribute to immense death and destruction.  For instance, Tolkien introduces this spirit of levity when Galadriel, the most powerful among the elves, rejects the One Ring, after being tempted by a dark fantasy of transforming into a high queen who suffers no rival.  When Faramir, the tender Captain of Gondor, is faced with this same Ring, he also laughs as he rejects it.

But it is in the following passage that I find the most striking instance of laughter: when Frodo reacts to Samwise Gamgee’s musing that one day, the unassuming Mr. Baggins might be put into a tale that will be recounted for years and years to come…

“‘“Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!” And they’ll say: “Yes, that’s one of my favorite stories.  Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”’
‘It’s saying a lot too much,’ said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart.  Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-Earth.” (The Two Towers)

What’s amazing is that the hobbits have already been subjected to pangs of hopelessness, persistently haunted by their happy memories of the Shire (though the memories also keep them moving forward – the sooner they’re finished with the journey, the sooner they can return home).  Separated from their friends and hunted by their enemies, Sam and Frodo would have had plenty of reasons at their disposal to just sit down and weep.  Instead, against this miserable backdrop, there erupts a remarkable, almost supernatural, sound.  Frodo, even in his growing weakness, stands defiant before the wasted land of Mordor, with all its threats and dangers.  His laughter is saying “No! Despair shall not overtake us, nor shall these evil days have the final word!” His sudden mirth breaks (even momentarily) the curse of that wretched place, and he robs the encroaching desolation of its power, at the moment when all seems lost. It is a glimpse of the greater joy that is to come, when they will hear the voice of Gandalf burst into a cascade of laughter, like a song from one who has come back from death itself.

Now, the curious thing is that nothing exactly “funny” has happened. Sam didn’t overbalance from carrying his bag of provisions, and fall on his face, like we might see in a scene from “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Frodo wasn’t teased for mis-pronouncing “Khazad-dûm.” None of the crude or ridiculous ingredients of humor which we find in so much of today’s entertainment figure into this scene. There hasn’t even been a good, clean joke…if anything, Frodo is simply reflecting on the sheer absurdity of such a small creature being sent to accomplish such a very large task. It is perhaps with this same amused incredulity that Nathanael responds to the invitation to meet Jesus with the question: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46)

GK Chesterton closes his book Orthodoxy with these lines:
“There was something that [Christ] covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

Jesusanddisciples2In a similar way, the Scriptures go suddenly silent at precisely those moments when the hearts of the disciples were nearly bursting with the joy of seeing the Risen Lord.  We’re not told of it, but one can almost see the brightness in their eyes, their wide-open mouths, laughing with each other, and laughing at themselves because of their little faith. And the expression on our Lord’s face?  Ah, perhaps such a blessed encounter simply surpasses the capacity of the human language to describe. But Tolkien, in his own way, has helped “fill in the gaps” and has given us a little foretaste of what it might have sounded like…something like “the echo of all the joys [they] had ever known…” May our lives be gathered up into this laughter, as pure as a child’s first giggle, and with such power that could shake the farthest star from its resting place.