Thursday, June 10, 2010

06-06-2010: Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi
Genesis 14:18-20 / Psalm 110 / 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 / Lauda Sion / Luke 9:11-17
Today we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ. From the beginning Catholic and Orthodox Christians have maintained the belief that, by the power of the Holy Spirit and the words of the validly ordained priest, ordinary bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ during the Mass. Thomas Aquinas would offer the word transubstantiation as a way to understand the mystery. Thomas taught that whatever makes the bread bread and whatever makes the wine wine -- that whatever -- is what becomes the body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine retain the appearances (“the accidents”) of bread and wine, they continue to look and smell and taste like bread and wine, but their substance, their essence, is what becomes the Body and Blood of Christ Himself.

It’s ironic, to say the least, that this most profound of mysteries should rest on a whatever, synonymous in teenage parlance these days with the unimportant; signifying that nonchalant, couldn’t-care-less attitude, usually embodied by your average teenager who shrugs his shoulders at the teacher who just threatened him with detention or at the suggestion he be more thoughtful of those less fortunate -- yeah whatever.

Whatever has become our contemporary expression of taking things for granted. It couldn’t possibly be what Thomas meant when trying to illuminate the mystery of transubstantiation. Or could it? Maybe that attitude that sees things as so ordinary and unglamorous is the key for us moderns to realize the import of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood: a double mystery, if you will – for both Jesus’ divinity and his humanity remain hidden under the appearance of ordinary bread and wine. What could be so unspectacular, so ordinary, than bread and wine; so mundane, we necessarily take it for granted. One might wonder at the wisdom of Pope Pius X when, at the beginning of the twentieth century, he encouraged Catholics to receive communion as often as possible. Doesn’t the commonplace breed a whatever attitude? Just imagine asking the elderly lady sitting next to you in church on Palm Sunday if, given a choice, which would she rather receive: communion or palm? Is there any doubt what her answer would be? After all, she’d probably say, I can always receive next week – but the palm

A consumer culture, some would say, rests on the perceived necessity to satisfy a need immediately and often. Perhaps the Church has not been immune to such a culture either. Every major address offered by a bishop or theologian, of late, must conclude with a reference to the Eucharist as the be-all and end-all of everything. If it really was what they claim it to be, wouldn’t it be more obviously so and, thus, less a need to point it out constantly ad infinitum. When I used to say Mass for the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s nuns) there would be a placard in the sacristy meant for the priest to read before beginning Mass. Say this mass, the saying went, as if it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass. A nice, pious sentiment – but can anyone really do that especially since it probably will be but the first mass of several that very day. It seems to be just a fact of human nature that routine robs us of that feeling of awe. Let’s face it: if you had the means to eat at Peter Luger’s every night, wouldn’t it lose it’s ‘specialness’ regardless of how delicious the steak was?

On the other hand there’s something to be said for routine. Daily routines can become rituals which provide our lives with order. Studies have shown that rote recitation of prayers, like the rosary, can produce calm and a sense of well-being. The frequent reception of communion might also work in this way, inviting us to consider the possibility that the ordinary, the mundane, the commonplace of life has the propensity for just the opposite. Ordinary people at their most unattractive, average situations no matter how boring, possess the possibility of transformation. It’s like that aloof and ostensibly uncaring teen who seems not to be paying attention to anything or to anyone (especially his parents): we know, though, that his whatever is just a coy and clever cover-up for his intense desire to pay attention and be paid attention to - what St Thomas called an accident as opposed to a substance. The whatever of transubstantiation transforms potency into actuality. Bread and wine retaining the accidents of their once-nature, covering up the awesome and powerful possibilities of their now-nature: divinity in a sliver of bread, in a sip of wine, “heaven in ordinarie.” Yeah, whatever.

[N.B. It’s that time of year once again to sign off on these Pastoral Reflections and give the patient readers of this column a well-deserved break! Until September…tfb]

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

05-30-2010: Soemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Proverbs 8:22-31 / Psalm 8 / Romans 5:1-5 / John 16:12-15
In Mary Gordon’s just published Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, she asked a priest-theologian friend of hers if he really thinks Jesus is God. “’I do,’ he said, ‘only I’m not quite sure what God is.’”

Disagreement on precisely that question has caused havoc, and not a little confusion, for quite some time. When the great Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci (who died 400 years ago this year), encountered the high culture of Imperial China he thought long and hard about what Chinese word he would use to identify the one true God. His predecessor, Francis Xavier, made a huge mistake when, in Japan, he relied on a Buddhist term to do the trick. Such difficulties ensued that Xavier decided to revert to using the Latin Deus instead. Unfortunately his pronunciation got him into more difficulty: the Japanese heard him exhorting them to believe in The Great Lie instead of The One True God. The difficulty is still evident today in Korea where, seeking to use pure Korean words and not co-opted Chinese terms, Korean Catholics and Protestants employ two entirely different words for God: a phenomenon that suggests how obscure God still remains – even for those of us who claim that the Trinitarian God is intimately closer to us than we are to ourselves.

The formulation of God as Trinity, the Feast we celebrate today, was long in the making and not really finalized until the fifth century at the Council of Chalcedon. Which begs the question: what might the first Christians have believed – how did the apostles really perceive Jesus? That famous verse from Matthew’s Gospel sums it up when Jesus asks his disciples, and Peter in particular: Who do you say that I am? Certainly the apostles could not possibly have understood Jesus to be the Second Person of the Trinity. As observant Jews it seems impossible that they could have understood or verbalized what the Church later realized was Jesus’ unique possession of both a divine and human nature.

Yet, it is clear from the gospels that the apostles saw Jesus as unique and were nothing less than mesmerized by his words and deeds. They were, literally, in awe of him. It took centuries until that feeling of awe – a term reserved for the sacred – could be verbalized in language attributable to the divine. What the Church insists we believe is that the initial feeling or perception of the apostles was eventually adequately rendered in language. What the Church does not, and cannot, insist is that the words of the Creed could ever fully express or exhaust that initial perception. In other words, for all the truth and beauty the Creed attests to in words, we still are not quite sure what the word God stands for. God remains a mystery despite our efforts to express who he is. But a mystery isn’t something we can know nothing about, Frank Sheed once said, it’s just something we cannot know everything about.

This means that the divine cannot be confined to defined categories or limited to certain actions. God can come to us in any way he wishes. In understanding God as a Trinity of Persons, the Church has left open for us an infinite number of ways to identify how the divine intimacy touches us. By defining the nature of God as Trinitarian, the Church reminds us that every time we experience the awe that the apostles felt when they encountered Jesus, we are, like them, standing before the divine.