For those called to ministry, the Visitation provides an important model. It is immediately preceded by the story of the Annunciation, the importance of which is almost a cliché for those in discernment: Mary is called by God, and her fiat opens her up to bring God to the world in her own unique way. The story that follows might also provide us an important insight. Although in a vulnerable position herself, Mary rushes to the aid of her relative Elizabeth. No doubt, she still has questions and doubts about her own situation. This was not part of her plans, and in fact presents a huge disruption to the life she was about to have. She knows how shameful this will appear; she does not know what her parents, neighbors, and fiancé will think. Anxiety, risk, and all the natural challenges of pregnancy and childbirth still await her, but she hurries to be of service to another as soon as she hears of her need.
Those who work in ministry have not completed their journeys to God. We don’t reach some transcendent state of perpetually knowing and trusting God’s love. There are ups and downs to any human life. Our formation programs are vital for laying a foundation to carry us through those ups and downs, but we will nevertheless experience some unexpected heartbreak, some jarring discomforts, some hurt in this world stained by sin. In the midst of this messiness, though, we reach out to each other and offer service out of our brokenness and confusion.
The pair of the Annunciation and Visitation might carry both a great challenge and a great comfort to those who work in ministry. The challenge is, always, to be open to God’s message in whatever ways it comes into our lives, and to be ever-willing to act on that message. But then the comfort comes, for there are times of doubt for anyone who pursues ministry seriously. After all, we all struggle to pray sometimes; how then can we lead others in prayer? If we wonder at times whether God loves us, how can we tell other people that God surely loves them? When we have these doubts, we might remember Mary’s ministry to Elizabeth. She is best-suited to help Elizabeth through the challenging period of pregnancy not because she is above that situation, but exactly because she shares it. It is because Mary experiences God with Elizabeth that she is such an effective minister.
Mary traveled to her cousin to share her doubts and anxieties, but the closeness of God also leaves an undeniable joy, and Mary and Elizabeth share this joy as well as their challenges. The prayer said by Mary at the Visitation, the Magnificat, is the outpouring of this joy. When the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary, she finds that God is in her, more literally than for most of us. And she has to share the experience. We, too, have moments of discovering the presence of God within us, even in the midst of our confusion and messiness. May we, like, Mary, travel in haste to share the joy of that discovery with those who might need it.
As May draws to a close, I take a moment to think about this month in which we honor the Blessed Virgin Mary in a special way. In every church I’ve visited in these past weeks, statues of Our Lady are adorned with crowns or wreaths of flowers; roses are often laid in tribute at her feet; nearby votive candles seem to be burning in greater number than usual. As I prepare to turn the calendar, I wonder if the devotion practiced by so many throughout this past month will continue, or if we children will allow the busyness of the summer season to turn our attentions from our Mother and her Son. Regardless of the month or the season, Mary calls to us in order to draw us to Jesus; with a mother’s love she longs to teach us how to be more faithful children of God. Yet what is this lesson that she offers?
Saint Luke gives us a beautiful answer in his Gospel. He writes: “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (2:19), and tells us yet again: “and his mother kept all these things in her heart” (2:51b). On these two separate occasions—the presentation of Jesus in the temple as an infant, and finding Him there as a twelve-year-old child after searching for three days—Mary reacts to the mysteries of God in the same way. She reflects. She ponders. She keeps all these things in her heart. Luke’s repetition of a seemingly insignificant detail in fact demonstrates to us what it means to be a faithful disciple: one must contemplate the mysteries of the God revealed in the Incarnate Word, Jesus. In her life of contemplation, Mary provides us with an example of one who sought tirelessly “the one thing” that is needed (cf Lk 10:42). As Blessed John Paul II wrote in the apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, “No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary. The eyes of her heart already turned to him at the Annunciation, when she conceived him by the power of the Holy Spirit” (§11). And in continuing to contemplate the face of Christ throughout her life, Mary constantly discovered new depths of the Father’s love for the whole of creation, and she witnessed the grace of the Spirit being poured into the hearts of all who accepted her Son.
The beauty of Luke’s words and the perfectly serene images of Mary from the traditions of visual art can belie the intensity and the truth of what it means to live a contemplative life. Reading into the Gospel narrative from the ease of hindsight, it’s easy for us to mistakenly think of Mary as somewhat prescient, even to go so far as to dismiss her as a model for imitation on the grounds that her status as “full of grace” automatically endowed her with a perfect understanding of God’s intent with regard to her and her Son. But Luke shows us that this was not the case: at the Annunciation, Mary poses the question of logistics to the angel, “‘How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?’” (1:34). When she and Joseph find Jesus in the temple after three heart-sickening days of searching, her first words to Him are filled with the anguish of a distraught mother: “‘Son, why have you done this to us?’” (2:48b). In fact, during his account of the finding of Jesus in the temple, Luke conveys both Mary and Joseph as “astonished,” saying “they did not understand what [Jesus] said to them” (1:50). As a human being, Mary undoubtedly struggled along the way to understand the divine plan in which she consented to participate; however, the grace that permeated every fiber of her being allowed her to remain in a state of radical openness, humility, and obedience before God and the divine plan for the salvation of the world. Therefore, she who asked “how can this be” was also able to state moments later, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (1:38).
Mary’s contemplation of the divine presence in her life was anything but passive or complacent; while she pondered all things in her heart, she also carried the Good News of the Incarnation to others. Just after the Annunciation narrative, we read that Mary “set out and traveled to the hill country in haste” to tend to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth (1:39). Mary’s life of contemplation filled her with a desire to share with others the divine mysteries that had been revealed to her, so that they, too, might become people whose souls “proclaim the greatness of the Lord” (1:46b).
By first pondering all things in her heart, Mary was then able to open others up to an encounter with the mysteries of divine love, as she did at the wedding feast of Cana: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). When we imitate her spirit of profound adoration, we see more clearly the face of Christ in our midst, we discern more readily the path to which God is calling us, and the miraculous occurs.
Mary teaches us to seek the face of Christ in all facets of life, whether in the radiant light of joyous moments or in the darkness of sorrow and death, and even in the midst of our astonishment or confusion, to continue open ourselves up to profound trust by pondering all things in our hearts. As we contemplate with our Mother the mysteries of her Son, she becomes for us “a means of learning;” she teaches us “to ‘read’ Christ, to discover his secrets and to understand his message” (RVM, §14), so that we may then share that message with all people.
In the past, while praying the Invitatory Psalm (Ps. 95) for the Roman Rite’s Liturgy of the Hours, I have often found myself unconsciously troubled. The psalm extols the wonder of the Creator, exhorts Israel (and now the Church) to “bow down and worship” before the divine shepherd, and warns the reader of the psalm to listen to the voice of the Lord (unlike our ancestors at Meriba and Massah, who challenged the commitment of a God who dared to enter into history in the freedom of love).
Thus far, a perfect morning psalm, one that elicits worship and praise for the beginning of a new day. The Christian in praying the psalm is brought into the presence of the living God, entering the temple, and offering the sacrifice of praise appropriate to the Christian life. Yet, the psalm text (not counting the final doxology) concludes not with the same divine praise with which it began but a rather dire stanza:
Forty years I endured that generation./I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray and they do not know my ways.’/So I swore in my anger, ‘They shall never enter into my rest’.
Just like that, the psalm closes. No further promise of redemption but a stern warning, chilling to the one that takes such prayer seriously. In fact, the latter portion of the psalm is full of the darkness of human sin, of the hardness of the human heart even as Israel professes its desire to worship the Creator. The English translation of the psalm in the Liturgy of the Hours does not adequately capture the Scriptural memory of “hardness of heart” (the official translation declaring, “do not grow stubborn, as your fathers did in the wilderness”; the Latin is hodie si vocem eius audieritis nolite indurare corda vestra). The hardness of heart, which seized Pharaoh in his refusal to allow Israel to worship their God, his reduction of the people of Israel to servants rather than God’s own people; the hardness of heart that led to Israel’s forgetfulness to worship the LORD in the desert, to obey his commandments, including the commitment to remember the suffering of the widow and the orphan. The hardness of heart of Israel’s kings, of a nation looking to seize power and control at all costs—Solomon’s use of the Temple not simply for divine worship but as a way of entering into political alliances. And of course, the hardness of heart of all of humanity–responsible for the crucifixion of the God-man. An act of violence that is now perpetuated throughout the world as human society, including at times the Church itself, has too often imagined that violence and intrigue and secrecy are politically expedient ways to operate. Do not harden your heart.
By recalling such hardness, the present day worshipper is invited to a process of self-examination, whereby we come face-to-face with our own hardness of heart. The historical context of the psalm, most likely, is a processional psalm for ancient worshippers, singing a hymn of praise on the way to the temple. Commenting on the conclusion of this psalm, W.O.E. Oesterley writes, “The abrupt ending of the psalm with the words, so that I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall never enter into my rest’, sets in relief the stern warning directed, by implication, against those who were now standing at the entrance of the temple” (The Psalms, 421).
Those who participate in the divine worship of the Church today are implicated by this stern warning. The mere practice of participating in worship, of praying the Hours, of attending daily Eucharist, is not enough. Attendance at worship is not a moment of magic, one that absolves us of “hardness of heart”. Rather, the one who prays this psalm before the Office of Readings or Lauds, makes a dangerous commitment to cultivate a suppleness of heart, one that the Christian calls caritas.
Therefore, the one who prays this psalm each day should (together with the entire Church) feel troubled. We should know that the prayer that we offer in the morning commits us to listen to the voice of the Lord—a voice that comes to us in the often invisible poverty of the neighbor in need. It is a commitment to submit our bodies, our entire existence, as a living sacrifice to the Lord (Rm. 12:1)—an ethics of praise intrinsic to Christian prayer. This psalm that begins in praise, in worship, is ultimately (like the entire Psalter in the early Church) an invitation to a process of self-examination of our hearts, a promise to surrender the entirety of ourselves to the logic of divine love revealed in Christ.
The consequences for ignoring this fact are, according to the psalmist, dire: we will be cut off from divine rest. Inevitably, each of us will discover, perhaps more often that not, that our once supple hearts (or at least hearts that we thought were supple) have been hardened by sin. We know that God again and again invited Israel to enter into rest, rescued Israel from captivity, and in the fullness of time revealed the mystery of human possibility in the God-man, Jesus Christ. God never gave up on humanity. Likewise, the fact that this psalm begins the Liturgy of the Hours as an exhortation to be aware of our hardness of heart is a matter of hope. For the Christian who prays the Office dares to enter into the liturgical prayer of the Church with hope that the hardness of heart will be healed, softened through the tears of repentance, through the affective transformation of praise, through joining our voices to the Christ’s priestly voice of praise.
In conclusion, the Christian who prays the Invitatory Psalm of the Liturgy of the Hours is making a dangerous commitment to the fullness of Christian charity. But, we are making a commitment, which we alone are not capable of achieving. Instead, we know that the priesthood of Christ can heal us of our hardness of heart, slowly attuning us to hear the voice of the Lord in the worship that we enact, in the neighbor in need. Entering into the healing gift of the psalms in the hours, we join with Augustine in his Confessions:
Through your own merciful dealings with me, O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me. Say to my soul, I am your salvation. Say it so that I can hear it. My heart is listening, Lord; open the ears of my heart and say to my soul, I am your salvation. Let me run toward this voice and seize hold of you (I.5.5).
Ultimately, perhaps this is what makes praying the Invitatory Psalm so dangerous. Not simply that we are committing ourselves to offer our lives to the living God, but rather that in praying this psalm, we are opening ourselves to receive the very Spirit that will heal our hardness of heart. After all, inviting God to work on us, to reconfigure us into the image and likeness of God, is always a dangerous commitment indeed.
This weekend in the United States, we celebrate Trinity Sunday. For the most part, our parishes will be inundated with a series of beige homilies, which celebrate not so much the mystery of the Triune God but the mathematical puzzle of 3 and 1. Those sermons that dare to preach on the Trinity itself will often apologize for the strangeness of the doctrine. The English syntax of the Collect Prayer for this particular feast embodies the challenges that any preacher faces in preaching this weekend:
God our Father, who by sending into the world
the Word of truth and the Spirit of sanctification
made known to the human race your wondrous mystery,
grant us, we pray, that in professing the true faith,
we may acknowledge the Trinity of eternal glory
and adore your Unity, powerful in majesty.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever (Opening Collect, The Most Holy Trinity).
On one level, the complexity of preaching on this feast day pertains to its origins as “an idea feast,” seemingly disconnected from a particular mystery in the life of Christ, of Mary, and of the saints. In his magisterial, Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy, Cyprian Vagaggini, O.S.B. critiques the development of the feast in the eight and ninth centuries (the feast was approved for the universal Church by John XXII in 1334), “…a liturgical feast is not to have for its object simply an abstract idea, but rather a historical event pertaining to our salvation, or, if you will, an idea perhaps, but one that has been concretized in one or more of the historical events of salvation history” (245). Note Vagaggini’s assumption that the feast of the Holy Trinity celebrates an idea, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity itself. Catherine LaCugna, offering her own assessment of the feast, writes, “The starting point of Christian reflection on the nature of God had been the experience of the radical nearness of God in Jesus Christ. How ironic and how lamentable it is, then, that what had originated as a teaching about God’s radical nearness to us [the doctrine of the Trinity] should have become, within only a few centuries, a teaching about a self-sufficient godhead of persons” (“Making the Most of Trinity Sunday”, in Between Memory and Hope, ed. Maxwell Johnson, 257). LaCugna urges preachers to focus not on the immanent Trinity (the inner life of the Triune God) but the economic Trinity (the way that the Triune God is revealed in history).
While agreeing with both Vagaggini and LaCugna that the feast presents challenges for the preacher, including resisting the urge to engage in unnecessarily complex (or perhaps more true for most of us, unclear and unsophisticated) theological discussions regarding the interior life of God, I would like to present a more optimistic reading of the potential of the feast for the Church, including the complex images employed in the Collect Prayer. That is, Holy Trinity Sunday does celebrate a particular event–the sanctification of the Christian (that is the participation of the Christian in the Triune life of God) and the entire world made possible through the liturgical life of the Church.
The doctrine of the Trinity, even in its classical expression focusing on the interior life of God (One God, three persons) is fundamentally related to the mystery of love revealed in Jesus Christ (the economic Trinity). As Joseph Ratzinger writes:
…in Jesus’ prayer, the Father becomes visible and Jesus makes himself known as the Son. The unity that this reveals is the Trinity. Accordingly, becoming a Christian means sharing in Jesus’ prayer, entering into the model provided by his life, that is, the model of his prayer. Becoming a Christian means saying ‘Father’ with Jesus and thus, becoming a child, God’s son–God–in the unity of the Spirit, who allows us to be ourselves and precisely in this way draws us into the unity of God. Being a Christian means looking at the world from this central point, which gives us freedom, hope, decisiveness and consolation (The God of Jesus Christ, 35).
Therefore, at the very heart of the doctrine, is the peaceful salvation of the Christian; the manner in which every Christian life is defined by allowing the Word to become flesh in one’s life, to offer up one’s will, one’s entire existence as a sacrifice of love. Such a gift of self does not annihilate the individual, precisely because the doctrine of the Trinity ensures that the Persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are “distinct” even in their unity. Walter Kasper, commenting on this fact, writes:
The revelation of the Trinity is thus the revelation of the deepest and utterly hidden nature of the unity and oneness of God, which is turn grounds the unity of the church and, via the church, the unity of the world. In its content, then, the doctrine of the Trinity is the Christian form of monotheism. More accurately: the doctrine of the Trinity concretizes the initially abstract assertion of the unity and oneness of God by determining in what this oneness consists. The oneness of God is defined as a communion of Father and Son, but indirectly and implicitly also as a communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it is defined as unity in love (The God of Jesus Christ, 305).
The complex formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity acknowledges that true unity, grounded in God’s own life, does not destroy individuality but elevates it through love; simultaneously the doctrine forms the imagination of the Christian to perceive that individuality is not possible without self-gift, without communion. The destiny of all of humanity is in fact hidden within the doctrine of the Trinity–the manner in which every particular human life, through initiation into the Church, becomes a form of divine life.
Thus, Trinity Sunday is a feast celebrating the salvation that takes place in the liturgy itself. In liturgical prayer, we enter into the life of the Son, offering words of praise and lament made incarnate in the liturgical rites of the Church, to the Father. Our individual hopes and desires, our tragedies and sorrows, are not blotted out but rather become a single, nonetheless diverse gift of love offered to the Father. The affections, the insights that we come to, even our boredom in the midst of our celebration of the liturgy, is the very Holy Spirit coming to dwell among us–uniting us more closely to the Father. The Spirit of adoration, of love, that descends upon the assembly leads us forth from the celebration that we might offer the entirety of our lives as gift of love, bringing all of humanity and creation itself into the life of the Triune God through the priesthood of all believers.
In conclusion, Trinity Sunday is a feast celebrating the salvific pedagogy of the liturgy itself; the manner in which all of humanity enters into the self-giving love of God through full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgical rites of the Church. The young couple who prays the Liturgy of the Hours is not simply performing a mundane rite but allowing their common words (uttered in a different registers, with different emphases) to become Christ’s own speech to the Father. Each Sunday, as Christians throughout the world gather into a single space, the plurality of narratives embodied in each person, becomes one through the Eucharistic memory of the Church. We become one another’s through the liturgy, the Church become icons of the Triune God through practicing such self-gift. In this way, Trinity Sunday is not an idea feast but an identity feast, an imaginative, hopeful, even daring contemplation of what God has planned for those who give themselves over to the logic of love sacramentally embodied in the doctrine of the Trinity; a logic of love pedagogically carried out in the liturgical life of the Church; a love that re-configures what we mean when we say “community”. As Kathryn Tanner writes:
Owning by giving is the way the Son is the Father’s own, it is the way humanity is the Son’s own, it is the way we are the Father’s own. We are the Father’s own as his children not his slaves, his children only through a gift and not by nature as the Son of God is, his children not in the sense of those of whom one has the right to make demands but children in whom the Father delights and wills to give his fortune, despite their follies and failings. We are to be each others’ own in community in this same general sense of possession or property (Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity: A Brief, Systematic Theology, 93).
Let us, together with the entire Church, celebrate Trinity Sunday as a liturgical feast, one that forms us in the mystery that we are made for self-gift, for love, for a unity that does not destroy diversity but allows it to mirror the non-competitive, self-giving of the Triune God. For God became human that we might become divine.
“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
– Saint Francis of Assisi
Dorothy Day is famous for saying she did not want to be called a saint because she did not want to be “dismissed” that easily. “When they call you a saint,” she said, “it means basically that you are not to be taken seriously.” And we don’t blame her, because we know that to most people, saints like Francis of Assisi have become that adorable statue in the garden—literally to be adored but not imitated. We think: surely, I could never give up everything I have to follow Christ. That’s nice and all, but not me, not my call.
Sound familiar? Dorothy Day did not want to be dismissed that easily. But she also loved saints like Francis, and prayed for their intercession daily. She said: “We might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the name. We might also get used to recognizing the fact that there is some of the saint in all of us. Inasmuch as we are growing, putting off the old man and putting on Christ, there is some of the saint, the holy, the divine right there.”
So today, as you read this little piece, I implore you, for my salvation and yours: don’t dismiss Pope Francis, this man we already love so dearly. Don’t let him suffer the plight of his namesake. Don’t make him that vague sort of role model you feel you could never be. If Francis of Assisi can give away everything he has, so can you. Really. If Pope Francis can kiss the feet of a Muslim in prison, so can you. Seriously. So can all of us.
The World In Which We Invited A New Pope In the eyes of many Catholics, as well as people of all faiths, the Catholic Church today is becoming a Church that lives in fear. In this vision, it is a Church that needs to hide under the covers from the big bad world, a Church that sees secularism as the monster in the closet or the dirty air the world breathes—a Church that has forgotten that it is resting right here in the world, even while it is certainly not of this world.
And yet, we Catholics have become victim to the world’s ideals at the very same time. Sometimes we worship convenience, pleasure, and comfort (just like the world), we care about our peers but ignore the marginalized (just like the world), we reduce the Mystical Body of Christ into camps of liberal and conservative (sound familiar?), and we effectively turn Christ into a role model who tells us what not to do and occasionally makes us feel good. And we are all guilty—I don’t think a single person, myself included, can say that he or she hasn’t fallen victim to each of these idols.
So today, the world is ready for a pope like Francis. A pope who offers us, in his own life, something new, and at the same time something quite old. A pope who washes the feet of the poor, a pope who transcends political categories, a pope who knows that the Creator of the cosmos loves each of us enough to send his Son to die for us and who lives this servanthood every day, even in a position of power. Of course, all past popes from my own lifetime have also lived this way – and yet, somehow, Pope Francis shines brightly in what can feel like darkness as someone who lives what he preaches in simple, compelling ways.
The Poor, Peace, and Creation In the Audience to Representatives of the Communications Media on March 16, Francis explained the origin of his name in the now famous story. Cardinal Claudio Hummes, seated next to him and “a good friend, a good friend!” heard he would be pope, after which Cardinal Hummes “gave me a hug and a kiss, and said: ‘Don’t forget the poor!’ And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!”
“A Church which is poor and for the poor,” peace, and creation: a three-fold passion that immediately pushes those of us under the spell of our dear pope to reflect. How am I treating the poor—and how am I assisting in social sin that hurts them? What am I doing to promote peace? How am I treating the environment? These questions push up against precisely the idols that we accidentally worship: convenience, pleasure, and comfort; they resist the political boxes in which we place ourselves; and they challenge the everyday living of our discipleship.
This is not a pope who makes us uncomfortable for discomforts’ sake. No, this is a pope who wants to draw us nearer to the reason we are challenged in the first place: our Lord and Savior. And he reminds us again and again that discipleship involves sacrifice:
“When we journey without the cross, when we build without the cross and when we confess a Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord: we are worldly, we are bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord. I would like for us all, after these days of grace, to have courage, precisely the courage, to walk in the Lord’s presence, with the cross of the Lord; to build the Church upon the blood of the Lord, which was poured out on the cross; and to confess the only glory there is: Christ crucified. And in this way the Church will go forward.”
In his commentary on the conclave, Father Roger Landry reported that several days before his election as pope, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio shared with the conclave his vision for an actively evangelical, missionary Church. He said any other Church would be “self-referential” and ultimately “sick,” because, as shown so clearly in Scripture, the Church is by definition missionary—a teaching clearly stated in the Aparecida document he wrote in 2007. He said that through prayer and worship, “The next pope … will help the Church get out of herself and go to those on the outskirts of existence.”
And here we are, with this pope before us, calling us to stretch ourselves beyond the comfort we experience today. Look around right now—are you (and I) not living in luxury, while a billion people experience serious poverty? This is a challenge to go exactly where we don’t want to go: perhaps among the poor, or disabled, or perhaps just sitting in that part of the lunchroom with those people who always sit alone. Pope Francis said the laity can “fall into that trap” of “sinful complicity” because “it is more comfortable to be an altar server than the protagonist of a lay path.” Pope Francis calls out in us a humble, quiet sort of holiness while asking us to be as courageous as our Savior. He said, “…this also applies to everyone: we all have to proclaim and bear witness to the Gospel. We should all ask ourselves: How do I bear witness to Christ through my faith? Do I have the courage of Peter and the other Apostles, to think, to choose and to live as a Christian, obedient to God?” If this question doesn’t make you a little uncomfortable, you might need to read it again.
An Intimate Relationship With Christ This task is beyond the realm of possibility if we do not have an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Being a Christian is not simply about stretching ourselves to better serve others, to live more simply, to care for creation. In Francis’ first homily as pope, he insisted the Church is not “a welfare NGO,” but “the bride of Christ.” We are not called to some vague, impersonal sort of good to be done for the world by the time we die. No, being a part of the Church means being in intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Francis reminded us on April 24, “We, the women and men of the Church, we are in the middle of a love story: each of us is a link in this chain of love. And if we do not understand this, we have understood nothing of what the Church is.”
Thus, Francis doesn’t only call us to stretch ourselves in the lived experience of our faith, in our action, but also in our contemplation. He calls us out on the idols we worship – convenience, pleasure, money, comfort – and re-directs our attention to Christ: “The Lord is the only God of our lives, and he invites us to strip ourselves of our many idols and to worship him alone.” Francis challenges us, by his very life, to re-examine how we worship. He says:
“I would like all of us to ask ourselves this question: You, I, do we worship the Lord? Do we turn to God only to ask him for things, to thank him, or do we also turn to him to worship him? What does it mean, then, to worship God? It means learning to be with him, it means that we stop trying to dialogue with him, and it means sensing that his presence is the most true, the most good, the most important thing of all. All of us, in our own lives, consciously and perhaps sometimes unconsciously, have a very clear order of priority concerning the things we consider important. Worshipping the Lord means giving him the place that he must have; worshipping the Lord means stating, believing – not only by our words – that he alone truly guides our lives; worshipping the Lord means that we are convinced before him that he is the only God, the God of our lives, the God of our history.”
Is God’s presence “the most true, the most good, the most important thing of all” in my life? Is God my first priority? I might say that he is, but in reality, in my prayer and my daily living, is Christ my center?
Not Just For Nodding When Pope Francis was elected, the media repeated the same basic two-part message: first, a resounding “Whoa! this is a pope that is going to change things! Finally!”, followed by, “Oh, but he doesn’t support gay marriage or abortion. Never mind.” The liberal media was disappointed by his commitment to teachings on family and life issues, while the conservative media claimed he was too wild with his approach to liturgy. It was almost comical, in that it was so clear that the secular (and even Christian) media was completely missing the point—and the truly startling nature of this humble man. The pope’s job isn’t to change anything; he is a symbol of unity and his words and deeds represent what the Church already teaches and continues to develop. While Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign championed him as someone who would bring about change in our country, Pope Francis become pope ready to be exactly what the pope and every priest and every human person is meant to be: a servant.
He is a pope that cancels his own newspaper subscription, a pope that prefers to take the bus, a pope that kisses the disabled child and the feet of prisoners. He is embodying Christ and Catholic Social Feaching in a way that doesn’t require change; in the deepest sense, it requires being who we already are meant to be. The seventy-seven year old Jesuit from Argentina, the first pope from south of the equator, wants us all to know how much the Lord loves us and how to love him in return – and we know it already because of the way he has lived his papacy. By his life, he calls us to sainthood:
“In God’s great plan, every detail is important, even yours, even my humble little witness, even the hidden witness of those who live their faith with simplicity in everyday family relationships, work relationships, friendships.
There are the saints of every day, the ‘hidden’ saints,
a sort of ‘middle class of holiness’ to which we can all belong.”
Pope Francis consistently calls our attention back to people who are suffering, and he reminds us that any commitment to them is a commitment to change our lives to be conformed more fully to Christ’s: “Let us all remember this: one cannot proclaim the Gospel of Jesus without the tangible witness of one’s life. Those who listen to us and observe us must be able to see in our actions what they hear from our lips, and so give glory to God! Inconsistency on the part of pastors and the faithful between what they say and what they do, between word and manner of life, is undermining the Church’s credibility.” It is a challenge to each and every one of us – not one simply for nodding in agreement, but one we must live.
Of course, it is easier to distance ourselves from the challenge of radically living our faith than to actually be disciples, day in and day out. But Francis reminds us: we do not have to be afraid. The Church does not live in fear, but in the love and hope of the Resurrection of Christ—after all, we are an Easter people!
A Little Uncomfortable To be honest, I love looking at the Saint Francis of Assisi statue in the garden outside my kitchen window. I feel heartened by his simple dress, his encouraging, loving face, and the fact that the birds seem to love him too. I feel an appreciation for the simple life available to me and encouraged by my Christian faith.
But I know I can’t finish my breakfast and forget that this is, in fact, how radically I must live my life. The Francis embodied in the statue outside my window is a sign of my fundamental call to love others, a call we see so clearly lived in our newest pope. Our pontiff is an example of what you and I can be, what you and I are made to be, no matter our particular vocations.
I pray that Pope Francis will continue making me, and you, a little uncomfortable.
Church Life, Volume 2, Issue 1 will be out in the coming weeks (sorry about the delay–the general editor and our graphic designer both had newborns in their lives for the first part of 2013). The topic of this issue is Jesus Christ and the New Evangelization. To pump the primer for this issue, we’re including the full editorial introduction for your reading pleasure. Enjoy.
When I was a summer intern at a nearby Christian non-profit organization, I spent a week watching all the school-aged kids who lived at the shelter. We needed to fill up our time together, so we chose a story from the children’s Bible, created costumes and assigned roles, and acted it out for all the families at the end of the week: the healing of Jairus’ daughter (Lk 8:40-56).
Later that day, I pulled out my video camera and asked one of the little girls what she learned from the story. She responded, “God always has time for us!”
Today, I’m a full time case worker at the largest shelter in town. I took the job eight months ago as a recent graduate of a professional lay ministry program who wanted to serve God’s vulnerable people and proclaim the good news to the poor. And now…I am tired. Yesterday I accidently worked an eighteen hour day, an experience that helped me appreciate all you parents out there, on call twenty-four hours—hats off to you.
I arrived at work at 5:45 AM for a building-wide drug test, which means several staff members watch hundreds of people pee in cups. All morning I was convinced my hands smelled like pee. At one point during the tests I stuck my head out of the bathroom and shouted, “Who’s next!?”, to which one of my clients responded, “Good morning to you too!” Ooops, good morning—sorry for waking you up at 6 AM to question whether you are actually drug free… I suppose I wouldn’t love that either. Then there was the kicking people out for their drug use, watching guests cry and look defeated, and learning so much as I watched my boss hug one of the culprits and tell her to remember not to stop moving forward because we are still here for her.
I drove another mom to work after we told her she’d have to take the drug test when she got home, which would be an exception for her. I spent the rest of the morning in meetings learning about local mental health resources, contacting Child Protective Services slightly frantically, visiting with children’s services folks who decided one of the mothers needed to be asked to leave, meeting with guests one-on-one, and helping set up for a ladies’ party, where my first ‘meal’ of the day was a well-rounded dinner of crackers, cheese, and accidentally-diet root beer. The party ended at 10 PM, and it startled me, in a refreshing sort of way, to be thanked by a few of the ladies as I stood in the cafeteria chatting with a guest.
It was 10:30 PM when I collapsed in my boss’s office just to find out that the working mom from this morning would also be kicked out because she had not taken the test at all that night, but had left town for ‘a family emergency’ that would last a couple days. My wise, kind, and confident boss looked at me with such telling eyes when I responded: “Well, she could be telling the truth!” I just wanted to call the mom and tell her how much I love her.
I drove home that night through the snowy streets of my little town at 11:45 PM feeling numb but satisfied by a hard day’s work. I ran around all day (quite literally, because I walk so quickly at work that it looks like running), and still I was stopped every twenty feet and had to shout, “I’m in the middle of something!” In those moments I get frustrated thinking no one respects my time, but later when I’m alone in my office working and a homeless mother wanders in just to say hi, telling me I seem so busy lately, I blush—am I really in this job to “get things done”? What was the point of all that rushing around—it seemed so important at the time. But didn’t I take this job to be in relationship with the poor? When did my job switch from relationship building to crisis management? Is that why I’m here?
When Jesus is on his way to heal a frantic Jairus’ only daughter, he stops by a woman of faith who so longed for healing she just wanted to touch Jesus’ tassel, and he says, “Daughter, your faith has saved you, go in peace” (Lk 8:48). The crowds think his stopping to help this poor woman has ruined everything—he was on his way to save someone important’s little girl, how could he dream of stopping for anyone else? But Jesus knows better: “Do not be afraid, just have faith and she will be saved” (Lk 8:50). Everyone thinks he is crazy: he is not being practical with his time!
I see myself so clearly in those crowds, in the people who are frustrated by another woman’s need, who believe that everything else to be done must be so much more important. After all, I need to organize all my files for an audit, and call about that parenting class, and attack bed bugs with my bare hands, and contact that lawyer, and help my exhausted co-worker, and investigate new resources for a mother’s unique needs. These are all good things, aren’t they? Why do people keep knocking on my door with more and more needs? Why do people need so much?
But we all know that our first and foremost role as Christians is to love as Christ loved: radically. We’re surrounded by people and a culture that tells us how important it is to be “successful,” to accomplish as much as possible with all our gifts. Meanwhile, right in front of us stands God’s creation, asking for our help, for a few minutes of our attention, for a smile.
Sometimes after work I go home and just really want someone to listen to me talk about the intensity of my day, the heartbreak and the joy. And my roommates look up from their books and listen. It would be ridiculous for me not to offer this to the folks at our shelter, some of whom haven’t been hugged in years, who just want someone to look them right in the eye with the silent recognition that they do have dignity.
“All my own perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity
is founded upon Our Lady.” – J.R.R. Tolkien (Letter 172)
Since the publication of The Lord of the Rings, there has been some criticism leveled against Tolkien for his supposed failure to include women more prominently in his stories. One could make the case that the author was writing a tale about war – and such a context doesn’t always leave much room for the contributions of women (of course, we see a vital exception in the figure of Eowyn). But I believe that Tolkien’s female characters live at the heart of the story, moving events along in ways that may at first seem hidden and even secondary. And it is through these characters that we are granted a special look into the vibrant faith of the author. As he has done with other themes (such as the Eucharist or Resurrection), Tolkien has found a way to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary in his work. And during this month of May, it seems only right to turn our attention to the glimpses of Our Lady which shine through the pages of Tolkien’s story.
To do so, we must first return to the dawn of Arda, when the Valar are weaving creation through their song and handiwork. These Valar – the “angels” who assist in carrying out the will of Iluvatar, who represents God in TheSilmarillion – are led by Manwë. His spouse is named Varda, and she is the one who brightens the sky with innumerable stars. It is said that it is nearly impossible to describe her beauty, “for the light of Iluvatar lives still in her face.” And “of all the Great Ones who dwell in this world, the Elves hold Varda most in reverence and love. Elbereth they name her…” Elbereth is translated as “Star Lady,” and truly, she is instrumental in guiding the Children of Iluvatar through times of darkness and trial. Already, we can hear a certain similarity to some of the Virgin Mary’s titles: such as the “Star of the Sea,” who points us in the right direction as we navigate uncertain and troubled seas. And “Morning Star” – she who ushers in the new dawn as the story of our salvation unfolds. She is the bearer of that light which precedes the brilliance of day.
In the discussion of religion in The Lord of the Rings, it is frequently noted that we witness almost no act of public worship in Middle Earth. But while it is true that we do not see something as obvious as the Elves queuing up to receive Communion, Tolkien does give us a clue about their relationship to the divine:
“As a[n] ‘angelic’ person Varda/Elbereth could be said to be ‘looking afar from heaven’…She was often thought of, or depicted, as standing on a great height looking towards Middle-Earth, with eyes that penetrated the shadows, and listening for the cries of Elves (and Men) in peril or grief. Frodo and Sam both invoke her in moments of extreme peril. The Elves sing hymns to her.”
Tolkien makes a reference here to the power of intercessory prayer. When Frodo is attacked by the Ringwraiths, he cries out ““O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!” He is not appealing to Manwë, the King of Arda. He does not even utter the name of Iluvatar. Instead, he cries out to the “Queen of the Stars”:
O Elbereth Star-kindler,
from heaven gazing afar,
to thee I cry now beneath the shadow of death!
O look towards me, Everwhite!
We hear in this supplication an echo of these words from the Salve Regina:
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve:
to thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious Advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us,
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Simply the act of calling upon the name of Elbereth enkindles within the heart of Frodo the courage and strength to go on, even when his task seems impossible. She hears the cry of the hobbit, feels his pain as though she herself has been pierced by the Ringwraith’s blade. The light she imparts is not merely the absence of darkness – it is the gift of clarity and vision, the strength of the one who helped set the constellations dancing in the heavens.
In keeping with his cautious approach towards all things allegorical, Tolkien is reluctant to draw a precise connection between the heroines of his story and the Virgin Mary. But in his discussion about Galadriel, he is not shy about admitting the source of inspiration; he tells us that “it is true that I owe much of this character to…Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary.” The origin of Galadriel’s name means “Maiden Crowned by a Radiant Garland” – or “Lady of Light,” for short. Such a name is reminiscent of a popular title for Mary in the Middle Ages: “Our Lady of Light.” And I have, in earlier posts, made it clear that this particular elf is far from being a meek or peripheral figure in the story. But it is true that she is fading from the tale, to follow the well-worn path of her people, and leaving Middle-Earth to the dominion of men. Her parting gift to Frodo, as he is leaving the safe and splendid land of Lothlorien to continue on his way to Mordor, is a phial which carries a fragment of the light which had once shone in Arda, when the sun and moon were still new. This light has the power not only to dispel the shadows, but to cast out any present evil, too. When Frodo and Sam are trapped in the dark tunnels of a ravenous and malevolent creature, they remember this sacred gift, even while they had scarcely guessed at its power. Imagine their grateful surprise as they watched their enemy recoil from them, unable to face that light which blazed as fiercely as the first dawn, filling the hearts of Iluvatar’s children with hope once again.
Majesty and simplicity…It is telling that Tolkien should couple the two, as though to have an understanding of one is to have an understanding of the other. Mary, the young girl from Nazareth, who would give birth to the Son of God. Mary, Queen of Heaven is the same Mary who was the wife of a carpenter. But these curious paradoxes fit perfectly in the landscape of Middle Earth, where the mighty Elves are fading and a few ordinary hobbits of the Shire are drawn into the great and perilous mission of protecting all that is good and beautiful. We, too, have inherited this task. May we call upon Mary, the Star of the New Evangelization, to enkindle our own hearts, and move us to remember, especially in these strange and challenging times, that we should turn to Christ, who is our light in dark places, “when all other lights go out.” (The Fellowship of the Ring)
Mary “remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin.”
–St. Augustine, Serm. 186, 1: PL 38, 999 (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §510)
Think about our modern day definition of virginity. In the Oxford Dictionary we read, “a person, typically a woman, who has never had sexual intercourse,” or “ a person who is naïve, innocent, or inexperienced in a particular context.” Most of us have looked at it as a type of inexperience of an intimate act, or a lack of maturity and knowledge about something. Yet, Saint Augustine writes that Mary, as the revered Mother of God, remained a virgin throughout her entire life, even when she had the experience of giving birth and nursing Jesus. This tells us that there is something more to understand about the concept of virginity.
The Church confesses that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, which affirms the corporeal aspect of the event. She became pregnant, not in the usual biological fashion, but by the power of God, the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church sees the virginal conception as the sign that Jesus truly was the Son of God who came in a human form like our own (CCC, §496). This affirms the common belief that Mary did not have intercourse with Joseph. Rather, the Holy Spirit brought about Jesus’ conception in the womb of His Mother. Now this seems odd to our human reason. How could a man not be involved? The Gospel accounts understand the conception as a divine work that surpasses all of our human understanding and possibility. This is not simply mythology because we don’t understand the physical nature of conceiving without having intercourse. It is a fulfillment of the promise given through Isaiah. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (Is 7:14; see also CCC, §497).
It is in contemplating this mystery that we can look to the faith of Mary to help us in our understanding. Historically, there was significant opposition to the idea of the virginal conception. Though we cannot dismiss that reality, we must acknowledge that Mary’s conception of Jesus without loss of her virginity is a mystery. It is a part of the totality of all mysteries in which we have faith, from Jesus’ Incarnation to His Passion, Death, Resurrection, and beyond. Saint Ignatius of Antioch said, “Mary’s virginity and giving birth, and even the Lord’s death escaped the notice of the prince of this world: these three mysteries worthy of proclamation were accomplished in God’s silence” (CCC, §498). In that silence we are beginning to see the truth of Saint Augustine’s statement. Virginity is a state of being and not simply a physical or mental attribute that is possessed.
Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it,” meaning that Mary retained a real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Incarnate Son of God (CCC, §499). We see the meaning of virginity in the humanity and divinity that are a part of Mary’s role as the Mother of God. The divine worked in Mary; the acceptance of this life is virginal because it is entirely the Spirit’s gift to man. The spousal character in relation to God is fulfilled perfectly in Mary’s virginal motherhood (CCC, §505). This perfect fulfillment is the opposite of the definitions of virginity discussed above. In a basic physical and mental sense those definitions tell us what is missing—the experience of intercourse, the naïveté of an experience. In short, a virgin is missing out on something. But as we read before, Mary remained a virgin and was certainly not missing out on the fullness of grace and bearing a child (CCC, §722).
The meaning of virgin is gift, the Spirit’s gift to man. Mary is a virgin because her virginity is a “sign of her faith” and her undivided gift of herself to God’s will. Gift. The view shifts entirely as we understand how virginity is a gift. Mary’s faith enabled her to become the Mother of the Son of God (CCC, §506). We’ve been challenged by modern understandings of virginity. Looking at the words of Saint Augustine and the Catechism we find that virginity is a gift, something of the divine working in us, in the same image of Mary’s own grace and holiness. We realize the imperfection of language and the limitation of the definitions that attempt to capture the gift of holiness that Mary possessed. The physical and spiritual realities have been joined in her existence as a Virgin Mother, and this invites us to probe deeper into our understanding of her life and role in God’s plan, while also looking at our own sense of virginity.
Christy Ma, a Chinese Orthodox, an independent scholar, has received graduate degrees from evangelical, Roman Catholic and Orthodox theological institutions.
“Pascha” is the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic form of the Hebrew word “Pesach”, which comes from a word meaning “leap, dance, hop, turn”. In light of the Exodus event, the word may be re-interpreted as the action of the angel of the Lord passing over the houses of the Jews. The present Christian Paschal cycle begins with the Easter Vigil and culminates on the Day of Pentecost. The annual Christian paschal feast was not formed at the birth of Christianity. It is an evolution of a feast like Sunday, a synthesis of various practices and traditions. The unitary reality of the paschal mystery was realized through a progressive understanding of the Church. The following questions are offered to help guide our readers to understand how the Christian Pascha developed in the early Church.
Q1. When did this feast originate? (Background and origins)
Q2. Why did the Church have different practices? (Early Development)
Q3. How did they celebrate Pascha? (Its liturgical celebration)
Q4. Who was/is the protagonist of the feast? (Meaning of the feast)
Q5. What is the theological interpretation reflected in the celebration? (Meaning of the feast)
Q1. When did this feast originate?
1.1 The background of Pascha:
It is no accident that the feast was historically and theologically linked with the Jewish Passover (Pesach). Jesus Christ was crucified after He shared the Last Supper with His disciples (Mt 26:20-21, Mk 14:17-18; 22-25, Lk 22:14-20, Jn 18:28 and 19:14, 36) on or before the Jewish Passover. Jesus commanded his disciples to remember this “new covenant” and promised to drink it anew in the Kingdom of God.
Pesach was made up of three elements: (1)the historic event of testifying God’s saving acts in history, (2) pre-existing nomadic background and (3) an agricultural festival (Exo 12-13, Deut 16:1-8). By the time of Jesus, Passover was a domestic festival linked to the temple but consummated in a domestic sedar. The feast itself was rooted in a Jewish background. It was the remembrance of the redemption of Egypt and celebrated in expectation of the coming of the Messiah. “The festival is a reminder and thank-offering for that great migration from Egypt…” (Cantalamessa, Easter in the Early Church, 25-31). Apostle Paul later re-framed the meaning of the feast as well as the Protagonist of this Feast. Jesus Christ was perceived as the “True Pascha”.
1.2. The Origins of Paschal Feast
The early Christians such as Apostle Paul and John (1 Cor5:7, Jn 19:32-36) transformed the Jewish Pesach and reinterpreted the feast in the light of the historical resurrection of Jesus. There Jesus is identified as “the Lamb of God” near the beginning of the life of the Christian communities (John 1:36). The soldiers are said to have refrained from breaking the legs of the dead Jesus and so fulfilled the scripture requiring that no bone of the Passover lamb be broken (Jn 19:32-36; Exo 12:46; Num 9:12). “For Christ, our Passover lamb has been sacrificed” (1Cor 5:7). Jesus was “paschalized”, and the Pesach was “Christianized”. A Christianized version of the paschal feast was gradually observed early on in the light of the understanding of the true Pascha, being Jesus Christ. It is impossible to have a clear understanding of exactly when the Christian Pascha (Easter) began. It is difficult to trace back when Christian Pascha, instead of Jewish Pesach was celebrated in the early Christian community. The identity of Jewish-Christians was gradually separated from the mainstream Jewish communities during the first two Centuries after the resurrection of Jesus. It is clear by AD 165 that the Christian communities celebrated Easter, a transformed Jewish Pesach as the new Pascha (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V, 23-25).
Q2. Why did the Church have different practices?(Early development)
“Easter was not originally a fixed institution; rather it was a living reality in continual development” (Cantalamessa, Easter in the Early Church, 3). By AD 165, the celebration of the Sunday after Passover being celebrated as Easter was adopted in Rome. However, this was not the universal practice.
2.1 Two modes of Pascha Celebration
There were two modes of celebrating Pascha in the early Church. The one kept the feast on the Sunday after the Jewish Passover and focused its celebration upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The other was derived from Asia Minor, and focused on the Passion of Christ. It emphasized Pascha as a memorial of the death of Jesus and situated the feast during the night from 14 to 15 Nisan. Those who followed this tradition were called “Quartodecimans”. There was a distinct mood to both celebrations but the content was similar; sacrifice and liberation were obvious in both traditions (Cantalamessa, Easter in the Early Church, 8-9). Which one was the oldest tradition remains unclear. There was a higher probability that the Quartodeciman celebration was the original Paschal celebration of the Church. The Sunday celebration came later to separate Christians from the Jews. Both traditions could go back to apostolic times, but in two different phases. The diversity of traditions brought us to the famous paschal dispute of the 2nd Century.
2.2 The Paschal dispute:
By the time of the 2nd Century, Sunday was already the occasion of the regular weekly celebration of the paschal mystery. By AD 175, Easter was kept on the Sunday after the Jewish Passover, focusing on the resurrection of Christ. However, we do not have a clear picture whether this came from Rome or Jerusalem.
The Quartodeciman Pascha caused a dispute because Victor, the Bishop of Rome, tried to standardize the day of observing Pascha on the Sunday after Passover. Polycrates, the leading bishop of Asia Minor, fought back. Polycrates and the community in Asia Minor were ex-communicated. Irenaeus tried to mediate the conflict. He urged Victor not to cut off the entire Church of God for observing an ancient traditional custom (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V, 23-25). He urged that all could be at peace with one another and that the difference could further attest to our agreement in the same faith.
The real issues that brought controversy to the early church before the end of the 2nd Century were the day to celebrate the paschal fast and the day to end the paschal fast. The central controversy, before the end of the 2nd century, was which day to begin and end the Paschal fast. The concern was to observe the “right day” for anticipating the second coming of Christ. The early Church believed the Parousia was imminent, and they believed that the bridegroom would come on Easter/Pascha. The bridegroom was not here, therefore, they had to fast to prepare for His coming (Mt 9, Mk 2, and Lk 5). Picking a wrong day in their perception would be like the virgins found without oil in preparation for the coming of the bridegroom.
However, this diversity in celebration had existed among the apostles. Peter and Paul celebrated the Pascha on Sunday, but the Johannine community observed Quartodecimanism and celebrated on 14 Nisan. Having the same understanding of the mystery but expressed in different practices, tested the church as the living Body of Christ right at the beginning of its existence.
Q.3 How did they celebrate the Pascha?
3.1 Vigil watch and fasting
The post-resurrection appearances of Christ and the meal association had already established Sunday as the sign of this Paschal mystery. During the 1st to 2nd Century, the identity of Christianity was separating from its Jewish counterpart. This practice of fasting was further reinforced by the absence of the bridegroom as illustrated by the teaching of Jesus. They also believed the second coming of Christ was imminent. They were vigilant, waiting for the coming of the bridegroom.
Pascha was kept in the night from 14 to 15 Nisan as the memorial of the death of Jesus, the Paschal lamb. This practice might be associated with the Johannine community. It was a vigil extending after midnight and included a Eucharist (anamnesis). The content of the celebration was the entire work of redemption: the incarnation, the passion, the resurrection and glorification, all focused upon the Cross as the locus of Christ’s triumph. The observance was described as a watch, a vigil, and was kept past the midnight hour. The extended vigil or night watch seems to be a characteristic that distinguished the Christian observance from the Jewish counterpart.
Changing from 14/15 Nisan to the Sunday, the character which had primarily focused on Christ as the sacrificial lamb gradually shifted to the resurrection of Christ. The concept of Lent was introduced at the time of Athanasius (Athanasius, Festal Letter 6, 13). Good Friday and the other days of Holy Week gradually emerged during the 4th Century to commemorate the various events connected with the last days of Christ’s life. Easter also became the preferred day of baptism by that time. The development enriched the whole paschal season for the Christian. The unitary mystery was still intact. By the time of the 4th Century, the decision of the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea took the feast once and for all out of its Hebrew matrix. (The First Council of Nicaea, Decree on Easter, Report)
Q4. Who was/is the protagonist of the feast?
The original focus of the celebration was not the resurrection of Christ but rather “Christ, the Passover lamb, sacrificed for us.” Christ is the protagonist in the earliest celebration. His Passover to the Father is the culmination. It is clear that the New Testament (1 Cor 5:7), especially in the Gospel of John, “paschalizes” Jesus. He is identified as “the Lamb of God” near the beginning of the Gospel of John (John 1:36).
The theme of Jesus as the paschal lamb and his passion and resurrection, were the themes of Pascha. It was under the influence of the Alexandrian Fathers that Pascha became one of the preferred days of baptism as the Passion of Christ was spiritualized as our passage from death in sin to the life of Christ. Christ and His Body are inseparable. Those who were baptized in the Church, celebrate along with all the saints who participate in the “transitus” of Christ, together with Christ, thus becoming the protagonists of this Paschal mystery.
Q.5 What is the theological interpretation reflected in the celebration? (Meaning of the feast)
Passion or Resurrection? –Both are two sides of the same coin.
The Jewish Pesach was not fulfilled in the feast of Easter, but in Jesus Christ. Quartodecimanism and Jewish Passover (feast) both had emphasized an eschatological celebration. The Jews expected Messiah, and the Christians expected the second coming of Christ. Changing the locus of the celebration from 14/15 Nisan to Sunday, the character primarily shifted focus from Christ as the sacrificial lamb to His resurrection; from death to life; from “passion” to “passage”.
By AD165, a paschal homily or prayer by Melito of Sardis stated that the focus of the paschal mystery does not rest on Christ’s Passion in isolation but rather on that event in the context of the whole redemptive act, from His incarnation to His glorification (Melito of Sardis, On the Pascha, 1-10: Introduction).
The Quartodeciman Pascha of Asia Minor seemed to focus on the expectation of the Parousia. The Sunday Pascha of the Romans commemorated the historical events of the redemption. The bipolarity (passion and resurrection) deepened our understanding of this mystery. Cantalamessa further sketched the synthesis of this bipolarity at the very root of its origin, the dual natures of the sacrificial lamb: divine and human. “On the divine level, the Pascha consists of sacrifice, and this is henceforth realized in Christ. On the human level, the Pascha consists of what Philo called the passage from vices to virtue, expressed by Paul as the turning away from the leaven of wickedness to the unleavened bread of purity.” (Cantalamessa, Easter in the Early Church, 3-6) The passion always included the resurrection. They were indivisible: one integral unitary mystery. This theological interpretation of the feast was not fully realized at day one.
With respect to the day of celebration, two different practices of the same unitary Paschal mystery were progressively realized. Christ suffered through His passion and died on the cross. He was resurrected and was glorified by His Father. The bipolarity of this mystery: passion and resurrection of Christ became the themes of commemoration, even though the emphasis might have varied geographically. The unitary mystery of Christ included one or the other.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life