Easter Week

Happy Easter!

It’s Easter Week, or the Octave (eight days) of Easter, or Bright Week — so called because in the early church, those who had been baptized at the Easter Vigil and clothed in white garments would continue to wear those white garments all week, as they continued to be instructed in the faith, now that they had received the Holy Spirit.

As part of my Lenten and now Easter observance, I’ve been praying the Liturgy of the Hours using the excellent People’s Companion to the Breviary. During Lent, it sensitized me to Sunday, the Lord’s Day, as a day of praise: the psalms to be prayed on Sundays during the four week breviary cycle are noticeably praise psalms, especially the morning psalms.

And this week, all week, we are praying the same Sunday psalms that we prayed on Easter, over and over again. It has given me a deeper appreciation of the Octave of Easter, the eight days over which the Eighth Day is prolonged. It’s also given me a new appreciation for the function of the antiphons that precede and follow each psalm: because the antiphons are changing each day. So although the psalms themselves are the same each day, I experience them differently because the breviary places them in a different context each day. I suppose that, for those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours regularly, the antiphons serve a function similar to that of the mysteries when praying the rosary: they provide a setting, a theme, on which to meditate while repeating the familiar prayers.

The antiphons this week have been progressing through the Easter appearances: first the stories of the women at the tomb; then the story of Emmaus; then the story of Thomas. It’s been very helpful in keeping me “in” Easter.

The other thing that’s been repeating this week is the news of yet another killing of an unarmed black person by a police officer. Walter Scott was killed on Holy Saturday. Every day, this story is in the news, on the net. Every day, the same basic facts are repeated, preceded and followed by new pieces of information that come to light, new events unfolding, new commentators opining. How different the police account looks, when placed next to the bystander’s video of the shooting.

This country is in a repeating cycle of unarmed black people being killed by police officers, in eerie similarity to the breviary’s four week cycle: a cycle that is long enough that each repetition strikes us anew, but short enough that each occurrence is familiar. The similarities in the police accounts are eerie. The video evidence proving that Officer Slager’s account of the incident was filled with lies makes the earlier police accounts look different. Feidin Santana, the witness who captured the event on video, was afraid, like the women in the short ending of Mark’s gospel:

Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Those women did eventually testify to the truth, despite their fear, despite the risk, as Mr. Santana has done. Without them, we would not know the truth.

How do we hold those two things together, Easter week and yet another black person killed by police, icons of the glorified body of the risen Christ and photographs of bleeding, dying, black bodies? When I started this post, I didn’t know; I only knew I couldn’t say nothing about Walter Scott’s death. I didn’t know how to hold them together, because his unjust death at the hands of government power is surely more crucifixion than resurrection, more the cross than the empty tomb, more the Pieta than the Apostle to the Apostles, more Good Friday than Easter Sunday.

But that’s the point, isn’t it. There is no resurrection without crucifixion. There is no crucifixion without resurrection. Our faith is in the Crucified-and-Risen One. We have to hold them together.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Christ is Risen.
Truly, He is Risen!
Amen, alleluia.

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Stations of the Cross

So I finally got to Stations of the Cross last night – I’ve been wanting to get to them since I was writing my thesis last year and realized that is was a devotional practice that could foster empathy. As I was on my way over, I realized it was not only the first time I’d been in this parish — it was the first time in.. oh.. at least 20 years, possibly 30. I had only the vaguest recollection of how it goes.

Because of the traffic, I got there just barely on time. I picked up a worship aid on the way in: The Way of the Cross, with text from scripture, copyright 1965, with an introduction explaining how directly it was inspired by the Vatican II teachings encouraging Catholics to engage more broadly with Scripture than we had before.

As I entered the sanctuary, I was dismayed to see both the new projection screens lowered and showing a reproduction of Jesus among the disciples. Oh no!! I thought. Surely they aren’t going to project the stations on the screen while we sit here and watch? We’re supposed to walk the way of the cross!

Fortunately, I was wrong; apparently the picture was projected simply to inspire meditation before we began. (Full disclosure: I loathe the increasingly common practice of using projection screens in liturgy for anything at all. This is largely a personal loathing; I have some idiosyncratic vision issues that make these things problematic for me. Thinking about it more dispassionately, I can see that in theory, this kind of usage has possibilities that open up the world of sacred art in the parish setting. However, if one is going to use it this way, one should configure the machine so that the bar at the bottom of the screen with all the various icons is hidden!)

A moment later, the priest processed in behind a teen boy carrying the processional cross, and a little girl carrying a candle. (The “candle in a jar” sort, that she could hold in both hands.) The priest was vested; the young people were not. We all rose, and began with the sign of the cross. He led us in singing (a capella) the introductory verse that was in our worship aid, to the tune of Stabat Mater, and then led us in the first station, as we stood in our places.

The observance for each station was as follows:
– Priest: Station N, (name of the station).
– Priest: We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you,
– All (genuflect): Because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.
– Priest: reads a passage of scripture that describes, or is relevant to, the events of the station.
– All (kneel): read a passage of scripture from the psalms or prophets, that either points towards Christ’s sufferings or presents an emotional response to them
– All: sing the next verse, that moves us to the next station, while we process to it
Continue reading

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#RaceLetter and Other Resources for Catholics Discussing Racism

Roman Catholic Bishop Braxton of Belleville, IL wrote a pastoral letter on the racial divide in the United States for the World Day of Peace this year. In this letter, he expressed the hope that Catholics across the country would use it as a resource for prayerful reflection on the state of racial relations in our communities, church, and nation.

In early January, some of us got together on Twitter for a discussion of the letter, using the hashtag #RaceLetter. This post presents the discussion questions we used to structure the discussion, and includes a set of resources for further reading and discussion. The conversation itself was storified, so you can read and reflect on the thoughtful responses of a small but varied group of Catholics and non-Catholics to this letter.

If your parish, small group, or group of friends is looking for material with which to reflect on past and present racism in the Catholic church in the US, I hope you will find these materials useful. If you have additional resources or stories to share, please do share them in the comments.
Continue reading

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Learning to Call Myself White

(Cross-posted from BLT)

I remember how hard it was to learn to call myself a woman.

Growing up, through high school, my female classmates and I were called “girls,” of course. (Or very rarely, “young ladies,” though mostly when we were in trouble.) So that’s what we called ourselves.

That’s what our mothers called themselves, too. They talked about “getting together with the girls”, “girls night out.” Occasionally “ladies,” usually in a humorous vein.

In college, I didn’t much like any of the words I might use to describe myself. I paid close attention to their counterparts for my male classmates. We all called them “guys,” which would mean I should call myself and my female friends “gals”: which I did, often, but it felt just a little too cowboy-Western to me. If my male friends weren’t “boys” then I shouldn’t be a “girl”; only on the rare formal occasions when they were “gentlemen” should I be a “lady.” “Young men” and “young women” sounded both too young, and too nineteenth-century. “Males” and “females” sounded both insufficiently human, and even more nineteenth-century.

I remember when I went to a sleepover party, the summer after sophomore year, with some reunited high school classmates of both sexes. One of them had made signs that designated separate sleeping areas for “Men” and “Women”: spelled out in a hand that was big, bold, unapologetic, and perhaps just a little self-conscious. I remember looking at that sign, “Women”, and thinking, I would not have had the nerve to write that word.

It wasn’t until I was out in the working world, aware that I was facing sexism, aware that the male-dominated field in which I work would further aggravate it, that I got serious about actively trying to own the word. It helped that having a fulltime job with a steady paycheck and my own apartment made me feel like an official grownup, but it was still hard. I had to practice saying it. It felt awkward for about the first two years, I think. If I hadn’t been a determined feminist, I would have given up.

Because it felt so awkward. It didn’t feel like something nice girls say. To call myself a woman was to assert my adulthood, my identity, my expectation that I would be taken seriously. It meant owning my embodied, space-taking-up identity, and naming it. It was an assertion of power: not something that girls are socialized to do.

Learning to call myself white reminds me of that. Continue reading

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The Best Option for Intellectual Women

I was very intrigued to learn, some years ago, that during medieval times, the convent was almost certainly the best available option for women who were intellectually gifted or ambitious. Women in religious life were often educated beyond the ordinary education for women. Vowed religious women didn’t only pray; they studied, they wrote, they taught, they composed, and they led, all within a women’s sphere that was other than domestic. While their formal authority was limited to (and even within) that sphere, their informal authority and influence often reached wider, sometimes even into the highest reaches of church or civil government, as with Catherine of Siena’s interventions with the pope, and Teresa of Avila’s correspondence with King Philip II.

So when I read the Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America, this sentence leapt out at me:

It is important to note, however, that the very large numbers of religious in the 1960s was a relatively short-term phenomenon that was not typical of the experience of religious life through most of the nation’s history. The steady growth in the number of women religious peaked dramatically from the late 1940s through the early 1960s…

Because you know what else was happening in the late 1940s through the early 1960s? First, women were getting fired from jobs across the board: for no reason other than that the war was over, and there were men who “needed” those jobs. Then, the romanticization of what we now think of as the 1950s ideal family, which turned out to be so alienating, isolating, and toxic for many women, as they discovered while sharing their feelings in the early 60s consciousness-raising groups.

So it makes me wonder: did American women enter religious life after WWII for the same reason that medieval women did? Catholic sisters in the US worked — they taught, they nursed, they ran hospitals and schools — and they were educated to do that work.

If you were a Catholic woman who wanted to do something with your life other than be a wife and mother — who felt that God had gifted you with talents that were best used beyond the domestic sphere, but the secular world had no respect for you — then why wouldn’t you choose the bounded-but-abundant opportunities of religious life?

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Remembering The Ones Who “Fit the Description”

The description wasn’t very specific: sex, race, age range. But the wealthy elite were sufficiently disturbed that they sent law enforcement out in force, with a tacit understanding that a blind eye would be turned towards any “overly aggressive tactics” that might be “necessary” to accomplish the mission.

So it happened that all the Jewish boys of approximately the right age — still too young to piss standing — were killed by Herod’s soldiers, to restore his sense of security and supremacy in the land.

When December 28th falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, the Feast of the Holy Innocents is trumped in the Catholic liturgical calendar by the Feast of the Holy Family. But given the rising tide of awareness of police brutality particularly against black men, women, and children, it seems particularly necessary to reflect on these boys who were killed simply because they “fit the description.”

Just as in the media, scripture tells us about the boys who were killed, but not about the women and girls. Christian artists through the ages have filled this in for us, though; reflecting on human nature, the desire of mothers to protect their children, and the brutality common among soldiers, there are paintings and icons that also show these mothers, women and girls, likewise being slaughtered as they try to protect their sons. It seems likely that some of the women would have been raped as well, as additional punishment for daring to fight back.

Surely these, too, were holy families.

Holy Innocents,
who were killed simply because you “fit the description”
who were killed to assuage the fears of the powerful,
intercede for all those black boys and girls, for all those black women and men, who have been killed for the same reason.
Pray for their grieving mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends and kin, that they may be comforted.
Pray for those who killed them, for those who stood by and did nothing as they died, that they may be converted.
May your story deepen our desire for justice.
We ask this in the name
of the little Child who lived to lead us to a better way.

A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.

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Christmas Potpourri

Favorite moments from Midnight Mass:
– concelebration by all four(!) of our parish priests, & reflecting on how very lucky we are
– seeing the black priest, flanked by two brown altar girls, waiting to receive the gifts at the altar
– hearing the assembly sing the third verse of Silent Night a capella
– singing the Latin verse of Adeste Fideles (and not needing to look at the words :) )
– hearing a homily on the Incarnation (instead of superficial baby-Jesus sentiment)

Surprising moments:
– Hearing a passage from Acts as the second reading!! I had no idea we ever got non-epistles in the lectionary. Apparently we got readings 1&2 from the Vigil Mass, and the gospel from the Mass During the Night. (Is that allowed? or was it an oops?)
– Hearing the pastor describe the original purpose of Midnight Mass as “getting a jump on Christmas”, “getting Mass out of the way”, that is now outmoded since we no longer have to wait until Midnight to celebrate a Christmas mass. (??!)

Distracting moments:
– looking at the nativity scene after Mass, noticing Mary’s oh-so-very-artistic kneeling/bending position, and thinking “It really doesn’t look like she just gave birth!”

What were the highlights of your Christmas church service?

If you went to Midnight Mass, did you hear the Christmas Proclamation sung? (Have you ever?)

Does your church do Christmas pageants? Mine doesn’t, but I can’t imagine anything could be better than this perfectly delightful children’s re-telling of the story of the first Christmas from behind the scenes:

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Christmas Prayer

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Listen: A #StayWokeAdvent Lectionary Reflection

The lectionary omits portions of today’s passage from 2 Samuel to make the reading shorter. The first time I read it in its entirety, it seriously cracked me up: Did I ask you to build me a house?

David thought he had the right idea. He thought he knew what the LORD would want, and he wanted to do the LORD honor. But he also felt guilty: here am I living in a house of cedar, while the ark of the LORD rests in a tent!

This passage speaks a word to white people speaking and working in solidarity with black Americans in the struggle for justice. Like David, we are sincere in our desire to help; like David, we may feel guilty that we have privilege that our black sisters and brothers don’t share. Like David, we may think that it’s clear what we should do.

And like David, we need to stop, listen up, and realize we are not in charge here. (Isn’t that the whole point of the anti-racist work we’re trying to do?) We need to hang back, de-center ourselves (take ourselves off the “throne” of white privilege, to run with the Davidic analogy), and defer to the judgment, voices, and actions of the people we’re trying to support. And that may mean we do not get to do the thing that we want to do, that oh just incidentally would also give us some attention and glory. (It’s Solomon’s Temple that went down in history, isn’t it, not David’s.)

After telling David to whoa, there, and laying out the plan that it would be somebody else whose name would be on that Temple, the LORD made a point of reassuring David that he was still loved: maybe because it takes a certain degree of self-assurance in who we are in ourselves, or who we are in our relationship with God, in order to step back and let other people step up.

The gospel reading is the familiar story of the Annunciation: the angel hails Mary, reassures her, answers her question, and offers Elizabeth’s pregnancy as evidence that all things are possible with God. We don’t get it in today’s reading, but the previous passage in Luke tells the story of the same angel appearing to Zechariah, a priest, in the Temple, to announce the good news that he and his wife, long unable to have children, would have a son. When Zechariah questioned the angel, though, he didn’t get an answer; he got silenced because of his lack of faith. Same angel, same kind of question: so how come the difference in treatment?

Whose voice did God silence? A priest, serving in the Temple. An authority figure, a man who had privilege within his community, because of his sex and because of his priestly lineage.

Whose voice did God permit to speak? An unmarried young woman, a teenager really, living in Hicksville. Nobody important.

This difference is worth contemplating, especially given the various narratives around this weekend’s shooting of Shaneka Thompson in Maryland, and subsequent killing of two NYPD officers in Brooklyn by the same gunman, who later killed himself. Some ask, with rancor, where are the protests to support the police officers, after two of theme were killed? These people, police officers and their supporters, want to see an equal response from the community: disregarding the many differences, both in the details of the individual cases (shooter dead vs shooter unpenalized), and in the structural differences of power and privilege.

Perhaps when they see the outpouring of support for the black community, the demands for an end to police brutality and for its perpetrators to be brought to justice, they fear that police officers are no longer valued, not justly appreciated by society. Perhaps they, and others who are uncomfortable with the assertion that Black Lives Matter, are afraid because they think people are saying that only black lives matter.

Perhaps this is why the angel Gabriel greeted Mary with words of reassurance: Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. Perhaps this reassurance, like the LORD’s reassurance to David, was necessary for her to be able to embrace change, to take a risk, to put her body and her life in service to a greater cause.

Because Mary didn’t only consent to be the mother of Jesus; she consented in a way that decentered herself.

I am the maidservant of the Lord, she said.

Let it be done to me according to your word.

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Psalm of a Soiled Dove

Crossposted from BLT

**What follows is a flight of theological imagination**

Psalm 84

The original author of this psalm was a young woman, perhaps a Midianite, who was ravished away from her home by a pillaging army and forced to serve as one of the whores that traveled with the army to provide recreation for its soldiers. She was freed from sexual slavery by the Israelite forces that defeated her captors, and found refuge among the Israelite women. Psalm 84 is a song of praise to the God of the armies who freed her and of the women who welcomed her, a God who sees her as pure and innocent despite her enslavement as a whore. Although the text was later adapted for use as a pilgrim psalm during the Temple period, traces of its origin remain, as we shall see.

1 How sensual are your tents,
O LORD of armies!
2 My soul yearns, it faints
for the encampments of the LORD.
3 My heart and my flesh
cry out for the living God.

These verses mix imagery of the boudoir with that of the military camp. The erotic imagery is frequently interpreted as a poetic means of indicating intense passion for the LORD, while the remaining language is overlooked. In fact, the psalmist here deliberately uses the language and imagery of impassioned sexual desire — which she had been forced to simulate in her sexual slavery — to convey the depth of her authentic passionate response to the God who freed her from enslavement.

The incongruous juxtaposition of a boudoir response to the rough surroundings of a military encampment is clever and intentional, as can be seen by reading them together with verse 11. If the locations in these verses are interpreted as referring to the beautiful courts of the Temple, as they are often translated, the psalmist’s rhetoric is weakened.

4 Even the sparrow has found a home
and the swallow a nest for herself,
that places her fledglings by your altars,
LORD of armies, my king and my God!
5 Blessed are those who dwell in your house!
They never cease to praise you!

These verses are about the women of Israel, among whom the psalmist found a home. The words for “sparrow” and “swallow” are also the names of women, Continue reading

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