Friday, May 29, 2009

3-15-2009: 3rd Lent (B)

Exodus 20:1-17/Psalm 19/1 Corinthians 1:22-25 / John 2:13-25
Jesus throws a fit (and throws over a few tables as well) in today’s gospel, not only taking out some frustration on the local moneychangers, but signaling a revolution in the religious thought and practice of his day. This extraordinary glimpse into Jesus’ emotions (he could get pretty pissed) has an effect at least as equivalent to last week’s story from Genesis – the sacrifice of Abraham/ the binding of Isaac. Both stories are concerned with the notion of propitiatory sacrifice: what can a human being do to appease the deity, to cause God to be favorably inclined to me and mine? Abraham learned he didn’t have to kill his son - he could substitute an animal instead. In today’s gospel Jesus seems to take it a step further, telling people to forget the animal as well (PETA fanatics -rejoice!)

Theologians have long understood the connection between animal sacrifice offered in the Temple and the Christian revelation of Jesus as “Lamb” of God. But most of us probably do not appreciate the radical step which the cessation of animal sacrifice would have meant for the economy of ancient Jerusalem. It would have caused an economic crash equivalent to the Great Depression. Animal sacrifice was, in both a theological and economic sense, the life blood of ancient Jerusalem. It simultaneously secured the favor of the deity as well as provide for the economic well-being of the Temple priesthood and, by that proverbial trickle-down effect, for all Jerusalem.

Turn the pages of history ahead fifteen hundred years to the birth of the Reformation in Germany and we see that propitiatory sacrifice is once again at the center of revolutionary change. When Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the doors of the Wittenberg church he was questioning the sale of indulgences that had become so scandalous, the poor being victimized in a shameless way by representatives of the church. Luther, however, not only objected to the exploitation of the poor but to the very nature of an indulgence. He was asking the church – and himself - what precisely is an indulgence and what does it grant. He heard the disturbing answer to both inquiries in the depths of his conscience: nothing.

Despite the indulgence-scandal that spawned the Reformation, the Catholic Church never abandoned belief in the validity and efficacy of indulgences and continued to grant indulgences for the living and the dead until Vatican II when the practice was all but abandoned. Pope John Paul II reintroduced the granting of indulgences and Benedict XVI has increased their use over the past few years. Luther’s question, however, still remains: What exactly is an indulgence and what precisely does it do? EWTN (the Catholic television network) has produced a nice spot explaining indulgences. The young, well-spoken priest tells the audience how you obtain an indulgence: confession, penance and a complete detachment from the inclination of sin (such a caveat reminds one of the small print on your car warranty). The priest explains how the Church, as the depository of merit, holds the keys as it were to the benefit of the graces won by Christ and granted to his Church. All well and good, theologically speaking. But no one explains what the quid pro quo actually is. What do you get for the sacrifice you make, absolution from sin being already granted? Release from temporal punishment is the catechism answer. But what does that mean? No one seems to be offering a quick answer – not even EWTN. At least in the old days it was clear. If you said the prayer on the holy card three times a day for nine days, 300 days or so would be subtracted from your sentence in Purgatory. Embarrassed by that obvious trivialization, the Church no longer makes such claims, probably because no one wants to try and explain what days off in an extra-temporal purgatory could possibly mean.

But what is temporal punishment due to sin and what is the church promising when it grants release from it? Does it mean (and I’m really not trying to be facetious) that if you cheat on your income tax you won’t have to pay the fine? Or if you embezzle billions, like Bernie Madoff, you won’t have to make restitution? Or does it refer only to purgatory -- but then how does the word temporal fit with a reality that lies in a non-temporal dimension?

By reviving the indulgence the pope no doubt wants to raise our consciences to the reality of sin and its real and debilitating effects. Yet, I wonder if the resurrection of the notion of indulgence as propitiatory sacrifice doesn’t just make things, including sin, that much more obscure. So, please don’t ask me to explain the meaning and effect of an indulgence (like the one Bishop DiMarzio has granted for those who visit certain churches this Pauline Year) – I simply have no idea. Which is a bit frustrating. So frustrating, in fact, that you feel like blogging your questions - the modern equivalent of nailing them on the church door; or just turning over a table or two.

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