Holy Saturday – April 19, 2014

The Gospel reading tonight began with the words, “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning . . .” (Matthew 28:1) The reading describes the experiences of two women who were disciples of Jesus. They went to his tomb, and found that it was empty. An angel told them that Jesus had been raised from the dead. As they were leaving the vicinity of the tomb they encountered Jesus who gave them a message for the Eleven apostles.

I quoted the first line to you because of its relationship to the Easter Vigil we celebrate tonight. The current form of the Vigil begins on Holy Saturday night, after sunset. This current form is an accommodation to modern sensibilities. The original form of the Vigil was a proper Vigil: it was a night watch. It began at night, shortly after midnight, and continued until dawn. That is the meaning of “vigil,” a watch through the night until dawn.

Catholicism has always put a very high value on symbolism. In the Scriptures, and in Catholic theological imagination, the darkness of night time is a symbol of the darkness of unbelief. In John’s Gospel Jesus described himself as the light of the world, and said, “If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” (John 11:9-10) Saint Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “All of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness.” (1 Thes 5:5)

The Easter Vigil begins in the darkness of night, referring to the darkness of unbelief that is characteristic of a life without faith in Jesus the Crucified. During the night the Church proclaims “Resurrexit sicut dixit,” that is, “He (Jesus), has been raised just as he said,” the joyful message proclaimed by the angel at the empty tomb. (Matthew 28:6) Originally, the Vigil ended at dawn on Easter Sunday, a symbol of the Resurrection of Jesus and a promise of resurrection for all creation.

The current form of the Vigil is a recognition of the fact that few people would be interested in waking early enough (or staying awake late enough), at night in order to participate in a liturgy that would end at dawn. While I won’t feel the least bit guilty about sleeping until it’s almost dawn tomorrow, I do wonder about the cumulative effects of making accommodations to our religious practices. There is a point at which our accommodations will dilute our worship and belief into mediocrity and indifference.

All of us make accommodations, for our personal convenience, from time to time. A few years ago, during Lent, some friends of mine invited me to dinner on a Friday night. As those friends are Catholic I assumed that we would be going to a seafood restaurant. Eating at a good seafood restaurant is hardly a penitential practice befitting Lent, but I was willing to make that slight accommodation for the sake of spending time with good friends. I was in for a surprise; my friends had made dinner reservations at a steakhouse.

At the time, they were experiencing a period of disaffection that happens occasionally to Catholics. They felt the need to live dangerously by flaunting some minor penitential practices. I didn’t want to chastise them about their obdurate behavior, as that was probably what they were expecting. Neither did I want to be seen in public violating the Lenten prescription to abstain from meat, as I’m always eager to appear more virtuous than I really am. Fortunately, the steakhouse listed one fish entree on the menu; unfortunately, it tasted so bad that it fulfilled both the requirement for Lenten abstinence from meat and the Lenten spirit of penance.

Do these kind of minor accommodations make a lot of difference in one’s faith life? Probably not. Ignoring the Lenten fast either by eating meat or by eating at a really good seafood restaurant probably doesn’t even register on God’s radar. On the other hand, there is certainly a point at which our accommodations, either for self or others, become the real sin of faithlessness.

There is, on the other hand, another danger to be avoided in religion. While half-hearted faith is a failed faith, a rigorous faith is no better. Catholicism is rife with rigorism. Lent is intended to be a time of repentance, but for some it is an opportunity to make a very public show of personal piety. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is intended to be an opportunity for repentance, but some use it to bolster their self-righteousness. The Eucharist is intended to be our participation in, and weekly renewal of, the new Covenant in the blood of Jesus; for some, participation in Eucharist is an act of pride and exclusivity.

Both impenitence and rigorism are variations on the same theme; both are expressions of too much self-concern. It will always be necessary to struggle with the two opposing values of sensible practice and faithful practice. Faith, however, isn’t the “happy median” between laxity and stringency; faith is described by the Scriptures as a choice to rely solely on God’s power. There is a way to have certainty about where we place our faith and about the efficacy of our faith. Tonight’s third reading provides instruction about the certainty of faith.

Chapter Fourteen of Exodus recounts Israel’s victory over the army of Pharaoh. Israel’s victory consisted in doing little more than obeying God’s commands. Pharaoh had complete confidence in the invincibility of his army; the People of Israel had only their trust in God. An impressive number of chariots, horsemen and infantry was laid waste by the trust that Israel put in God’s power.

Just as the story of Israel’s victory is actually the story of God’s victory over the faithlessness of Pharoah; the story of our victory in baptism is the story of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. In the third Responsorial Psalm tonight we sang, “In saving waters, we sink like a stone. To God be praise and glory!” Israel’s victory over Pharaoh (and faithlessness), began with a cry for help, and ended with a song of thanksgiving to God. In the same way, our victory over sin and death begins with an acknowledgment of our own weakness, and is completed with a song of praise for God’s mercy.

The measure of real faith is an uncompromising focus on God. Faith in the One, True God is not focused on ourselves, neither on our comfort nor our strength. Faith does not celebrate our own accomplishments or virtues. Faith cries out for, and rejoices in, God’s action on our behalf.

How can we know when our sensible accommodations have degenerated into lukewarmness of faith? How can we know that our religious practice is too rigorous? The metric is the same for both situations. We have only to ask this question: what is made visible in my actions? Is it my own confidence or is it God’s power?

In a short time, we will renew the vows of our Baptism. All of the penance, fasting, prayer and almsgiving of Lent have led up to that moment in which we reject evil, and affirm our faith in God. When you stand in the light of the candle you will hold for that renewal of faith, keep one thing in mind: the Scriptures’ definition of a life of faith. St. Paul described that life of faith in his Letter to the Romans. “Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day.” (Romans 13:11-13)

Good Friday – April 18, 2014

You might have seen a reference in the news to a purported ancient document that has been called the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” The document is a small fragment of papyrus that was first publicized by the Harvard Divinity School in 2012. There has been some skepticism about its ancient provenance. Some recent test results seem to indicate that it is as old as the Harvard religion professors claim.

Much of the controversy and disagreement about this fragment of papyrus derives from the combination of a lack of knowledge about the ancient world and a defensiveness on the part of organized religion. If this fragment is really as old as is claimed, it is the product of an ancient religious phenomenon called “gnosticism.” Gnosticism pre-dated Christianity and, although it often borrowed ideas from Christianity, was never associated with Christianity.

This fragment of a document might be quite old, and it might be an actual remnant of an ancient religious text, but it is no more related to Christianity than ancient Roman pagan religion was. It does provide us, however, with a very useful perspective from which to read today’s Gospel. It provides us with an opportunity to understand a question that is central to the Passion narrative in John’s Gospel.

In John’s Passion narrative, Jesus was arrested by the religious leaders of Jerusalem, and put on trial. Those religious leaders questioned him “about his disciples and about his doctrine.” (John 18:19) He responded by saying, “I have spoken publicly to the world. I have always taught in a synagogue or in the temple area where all the Jews gather, and in secret I have said nothing. Why ask me? Ask those who heard me what I said to them. They know what I said.” (John 18:20-21)

When Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate, he was questioned about his background, activities and intentions. Pilate asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33) Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

After this interchange Pilate asks a poignant rhetorical question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) According to the religious leaders in Jerusalem, truth was what supported their leadership, and falsehood was anything that threatened their leadership. They arrested Jesus, and agitated for his death, because he threatened their authority. In Pontius Pilate’s life, truth was whatever the Roman Emperor proclaimed as truth; Pilate knew that his job consisted in supporting the claims of the Roman Empire. Because Pilate knew how fluid “the truth” was, he was the perfect character in the story to ask the famous question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

The standards of truth today are nearly as fluid as they were at the time that Jesus was arrested and put to death. Governments throughout the world publish versions of “the truth” that are calculated to support their regime. Certainly, in religion and religious practice, there appear to be no agreed upon standards of truth. The faculty at Harvard Divinity has a tradition of blurring the lines between orthodox Christianity and its ancient non-Christian contemporaries. Organized religion today often reacts defensively toward novel ideas, and novel religion has no limits to its inventiveness.

I saw a news brief recently about a local congregation that called itself something like “the church of happy thoughts and rainbows.” The minister of the congregation was offering a seminar entitled “Mystikal scents.” “Mystikal,” with a “k”? Scents? Really? The seminar could be about either earth religion or smelly monks. Who can tell?

The falling numbers of participants in organized religion, and the proliferation of novel religions, are not the only tragedies of faith today. There are many people who have heard the Gospel, and still don’t know the Truth. There are some who read the Gospels, but don’t understand the message. Sadly, faith is a rare thing, something too often rejected in favor of sentimentality or superstition or self-righteousness. In this regard, we live in a situation very similar to Jesus’ time.

When Jesus testified to the Truth, he said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37) Please note how radical a statement this was. The religious leaders of the time thought that they alone possessed the truth. Pontius Pilate lived a life that required him to acknowledge that the Roman Emperor was sole arbiter of truth. For Jesus, the Truth was what he was answerable to. He said, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37)

This time of year is rife with religious sentimentality. Television and the movie theaters are full of emotionally moving quasi-religious entertainment that offers a very narcissistic version of truth; it is truth as self-escalating emotion. Even churches offer very self-righteous versions of the truth: truth as pious devotions or heroic virtue that affirm individual ego. What is truth?

Truth was anything but fluid for Jesus. His life and preaching was truth for those who belonged to the Truth. During these three days of Easter, we do not go seeking truth. The Truth is not something we will ever possess. Rather, we should hope that this Truth possesses us.

Holy Thursday – April 17, 2014

The washing of the disciples’ feet that is recounted in tonight’s Gospel reading was a common act of hospitality. At the time, everyone but the super-wealthy traveled by foot. A guest who traveled even a short distance to attend a dinner party would have walked through dust and animal waste in the streets. A host always provided a servant, or low-status family member, to wash the feet of his guests. This act of hospitality allowed guests to partake in the meal without offending their host and fellow guests by the smells and dirt from the public roads.

This particular instance of foot washing in John’s Gospel is unusual because of both the circumstances and the agent. A host provided foot washing to a guest when the guest arrived; this act of hospitality was not delayed until during the meal. The host himself would never have washed his guests’ feet, as this was a menial act. The fact that Jesus washed this disciples’ feet, and did so during the meal, points to a metaphorical or analogical meaning rather than a literal one. This was not intended to be understood as hospitality, as Peter seems to have done. Rather, Jesus intended this act to have a metaphorical meaning.

Hebrew spirituality saw metaphorical connections between the personal world of the individual and the wider world of creation. The various parts of the human body, for example, were seen as having metaphorical and analogical correlations to the rest of the natural world. In the second biblical creation account, woman is described as having been made from a rib taken from man. (Gen 2:22) The notion of creating a woman from a man’s rib sounds strange and senseless to us, but it made perfect sense within the metaphorical world of Hebrew symbolism.

If the woman in the story had been made from the man’s head, she would have been superior to the man. If she had been made from his foot, she would have been inferior. The creation of the woman out of a rib taken from the man is a metaphorical statement about the equality of men and women. Neither is above or below the other. They are equals. Their equality is symbolized by the fact that they stand side by side, literally, rib by rib.

The human body, in Hebrew spirituality, was a microcosm of the universe. The relationships between the senses, the musculature and skeletal structure, the affections, the intellect, etc., were seen as reflections of the relationships between the various elements of the natural world.

In this symbolic interpretation of the human body, the hands and feet were metaphors for labor and other physical activities. Farming, shepherding, building and the like, were activities performed with the hands and feet. The many references in the Scriptures to “the hand of God” (Exodus 32:11), or the “finger of God” (Luke 11:20), were references to God’s activity and the exercise of God’s power.

In this symbolic interpretation of the natural world, foot washing can be seen as spiritual purification for immoral actions. The hands and feet can not only build, but they can destroy. The hands and feet are both instruments of production and instruments of sin. The feet are lower on the body than the hands, and consequently, the feet refer to lower, baser activities. When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet he was making a metaphorical reference to the forgiveness of sins that would be accomplished by his death. He was washing away the spiritual weakness and moral failure to which human nature is prone.

This metaphorical meaning is portrayed in the events that took place at the table. Judas walked away from Jesus, both literally and figuratively. Judas left the meal early; he left Jesus’ company in order to betray him. The other apostles strayed from the path of holiness by their lack of faith in Jesus. When Jesus was arrested, they ran away from him. Peter abandoned Jesus completely by denying that he knew him. When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples he was offering them forgiveness for the lack of faith that had led (and would lead), to their walking away from him and his teaching.

This unusual act of self-abasement by Jesus was a metaphorical reference to his self-sacrifice on the Cross that would provide forgiveness for our sins. As host of the dinner he was not obliged to stoop so low as to wash the feet of his guests. He did so as a reflection of the self-emptying love of God. He told Peter that this humiliating self-gift was required for membership in the cohort of disciples. He said, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” (John 13:8)

Jesus concluded the meal by addressing the disciples about the meaning of his actions. He said, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13:12-15)

This is most often interpreted to mean that we, Jesus’ disciples’, should put ourselves at the service of one another. This is true, but in one, particular sense. Rather than a moralistic parable about serving the physical or emotional needs of others, this is a command from Jesus to serve one another’s need for forgiveness and faith.

Throughout Lent we have been preparing ourselves by fasting, almsgiving and prayer for the renewal of our baptismal vows. In the liturgy of Baptism, and in the renewal of our vows, we reject sin, and affirm our allegiance to the One, True God. Our Lenten observance will culminate at the Vigil on Holy Saturday when I ask you to reject evil and sin, and to profess your faithfulness to God the Creator, to Jesus the Redeemer and to the Holy Spirit who sanctifies and guides us.

Jesus’ command, “as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:12-15), requires that we give of ourselves in order to model faith and forgiveness to one another. It is not enough that we have empathetic feelings for the poor; Jesus commands that we preach the Gospel to the world. It is not enough that we live innocuous lives; Jesus commands that we give our full obedience to God. There is no virtue in giving others the same leniency to sin that we allow ourselves; Jesus calls all people to contrition and repentance. Merely walking into the lives of others in order to provide them with some wanted or needed items or services does not bring salvation; holiness of life consists of walking the path marked out by Jesus, and teaching others to do so.

Each year at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper we memorialize Jesus’ act of self-abasement in order to remind ourselves of our obligation to be the hands and feet of God who offers the world forgiveness and reconciliation. In an ideal world I would go around to each of you, and wash your feet. In the real world, it’s like pulling teeth each year to get twelve people who will sit still for this. Happily, we don’t need an ideal world. The sacramental nature of memorializing makes it possible for all the baptized to participate in this act of Jesus inviting us to have an “inheritance” with him. (John 13:8)

Those of you who will have your feet washed can come forward now. The rest of you can sit there grateful that you don’t have to do this. All of us, however, have to imitate Jesus who gave his life for our sakes. All of us are being called, at this very moment, to make our lives a public proclamation of faith in God and in Jesus, the Savior.