Mary as Viewpoint Character

Catholic devotion to Mary is often disturbing, if not actually scandalous, to most non-Catholic Christians in the West. Having grown up during the first decade after Vatican 2, when liturgy, calendar, and religious education were re-emphasizing the fundamentals that we share with all Christians, I find some of it disturbing, myself, as I’ve written elsewhere. As I engage with traditional practices of Marian prayer, then, I frequently find myself considering them in new ways, to find paths that will be more spiritually fruitful for me.

During my studies, I encountered a form of praying with a passage of the Bible in which the reader is invited to reflect on a passage by identifying with the character to they feel most drawn. It can be used alone, or as a nice technique for a Bible study: after taking some time in silence for everyone to reflect, it’s interesting to hear which characters other people chose, and why, and how they thought about the passage from that character’s perspective.

In a similar way, through the mysteries of the rosary, the church offers us Mary as the character from whose perspective we are invited to reflect on these events of salvation history.

A little background for my non-Catholic readers: when people talk about the rosary, they usually talk about the rosary beads, and the prayers that we say on each bead: the Lord’s Prayer, ten Hail Marys, the Glory Be, and so on.

However, these prayers are only the outward form of the rosary: in reality, the rosary is a meditative prayer. Reciting the prescribed prayers on the beads of each decade keeps the front of our brains busy, freeing up the back part of our brains to contemplate the scene from salvation history that is assigned to each decade. We call these assigned scenes “the mysteries of the rosary.” Likewise, when we talk about Mary in relation to the rosary, we often emphasize the words we recite, which ask her to pray for us.

But by framing these scenes from salvation history as “events in the life of Mary”, the Church implicitly invites us to reflect on them from Mary’s perspective. Mary becomes our viewpoint character, our guide to the familiar stories in the moment we are praying. We can focus closely on Mary’s internal life in these moments: how did she feel, what did she think, how did she react? Or take a broader view: where is she in the scene, who is she talking to, what is their interaction like? How would we feel, what would we say, if we occupied Mary’s place in the scene?

Although I’ve led here with an example from Bible study, the concept first occurred to me in relation to icons. As Glenn Peers explains in his excellent book Sacred Shock: Framing Visual Experience in Byzantium, it is not uncommon for a painted icon to include a small portrait of the donor who commissioned the icon, portrayed as kneeling humbly in prayer, or offering gifts: sometimes as part of the scene, sometimes as one of several framing elements. Peers describes these portraits as “pathetic figures,” not in the contemporary pejorative sense of the phrase but as a technical term, a figure who embodies and models the pathos, the feeling state, for the viewer meditating on the icon, and suggests an approach to its subject.

As we meditate, then, each mystery of the rosary becomes an icon in our mind’s eye. In some, Mary is one of the central characters; in some, peripheral; in others, her presence is only implied. As we prayerfully contemplate each image, Mary’s presence within it — and her encounter with the divine — silently suggests a direction for our own encounter with God in prayer.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God,

That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

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Longing for Ordinary Time

I know, I know: “ordinary time” comes from the Latin ordinal, meaning counting time. The liturgical season of ordinary time doesn’t really have to do with ordinariness.

But here we are.

10 days since the violence at the Capitol.

10 months into the pandemic, with vaccines being administered ever-so-slowly and extra-infectious variants of the COVID virus in circulation.

Four years minus 3 days into the still-current administration, with threats of more violence and investigation revealing more troubling information about the events of Jan 6.

My soul longs for ordinary time.

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

May the souls of the faithful departed, and all our beloved dead, rejoice in the presence of God. Amen.

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Eucharist means Thanksgiving: a Lectionary Reflection for the morning after the night before

32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Wis 6:12-16, Ps 63, 1 Thes 4:13-18, Mt 25:1-13

It seemed as if the readings today had been specially crafted for the moment our country finds itself in today. Even the opening prayer:

Almighty and merciful God,
graciously keep from us all adversity,
so that, unhindered in mind and body alike,
we may pursue in freedom of heart
the things that are yours.

validated my sense that I have been so very hindered, in mind and body alike, by all the adversities of the last four years, of 2020 in particular, of this election in particular, of this week in particular. That my inability to attend mass, even by streaming, over the past several months has had to do with all the adversities and difficulties that I was facing, personally and communally. Even last Sunday, the Feast of All Saints, my favorite feast; the Sunday before the election, over which I had great anxiety, which I deeply wanted to bring to church and pray for our country in the sacrifice of the mass… I just couldn’t.

This morning? I woke up early, looking forward to mass. Eucharist means thanksgiving, and that’s what I wanted to offer.

The first reading felt written directly for our country on this day, after celebrating the Biden-Harris win last night: seek wisdom. Resplendent, unfading, and whoever for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care. Wisdom perfects prudence. Such a contrast to the increasingly negligent foolishness of the last four years; but it won’t come to us automatically with a new administration — we are called to seek wisdom.

And that psalm… oh, my. It was recited rather than sung because of the pandemic, but there’s a musical setting by Michael Joncas (composer of On Eagle’s Wings, that Biden quoted in his speech Saturday night) engraved in my heart that the words evoked, and I was singing its translation under my breath as the lector recited.

Oh God, you are my God, for whom I long
For you my soul is thirsting
my body cries for you
like a dry weary land without water

Today felt like the blessing of a first gentle rain, after a long dry weariness.

The passage from Thessalonians made me think of how it has been misinterpreted to support a Left Behind theology of the Rapture among certain American Christian groups. Learning that, in the world of the New Testament, the leaders of a city would go out beyond its walls to meet its visiting overlord, to welcome him and escort him back into to the city, provides context and emphasizes the point Paul is making to the church of Thessaly: when Christ returns in glory, our beloved dead will go out (up) to meet him, welcome him, and lead him back here.

The gospel further contrasts wisdom and foolishness, with the parable of the wise and foolish women of the household waiting to welcome the bridegroom. I’ve typically heard this preached from the perspective of prudence, as I did today. But prudence isn’t the same as wisdom, and the prudent women’s refusal to share doesn’t exactly strike me as a virtue, either.

Rather, I read this parable through the lens of “what do we put first?” The foolish women were foolish for abandoning their vigil for the person of the bridegroom to go get a thing, more oil for their lamps. What’s more important, our relationships or our stuff? Our welcoming presence when an absent loved one returns, or the traditional symbols of welcome in our hands?

In this pandemic year, when so many of us have been deprived of the loving presence of family and friends for months, it’s easier for us to keep those priorities straight: if you could be with your beloved family and friends for the holidays this year, would it even matter if there was turkey at Thanksgiving, or gifts around a Christmas tree?

Foolish women. The bridegroom wasn’t looking forward to the light of your lamps; he was looking for you.

As we begin to consider the priorities and policies for the next four years, and contacting our politicians to advocate for them, we are called to keep that in mind: people are more important than stuff. The Catholic preferential option for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized calls us to further seek wisdom by prioritizing the poor over the rich, the oppressed over the oppressors, the marginalized over the comfortable: centering their concerns, and including their representatives, and following their lead.

If that sounds like upside-down foolishness rather than worldly wisdom… well, that’s what Paul told us the gospel would sound like, isn’t it.

And yes, the cantor sang the song, during the distribution of communion. 😇

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For us men?

The Christological portion of the Nicene Creed, in Latin, contains the phrase et homo factus est. Both both the 1970 and the 2011 missals translated this phrase as and became man. In this post I argue that this is a poor translation.

The reason for translating homo as “man” rather than “human” comes from a Vatican document. The argument is that, in Latin, homo can mean both an individual human being, and the entire human race. Theologically, this works beautifully (in Latin) to describe the Incarnation, because it carries with it the connotation that Jesus not only became an individual human being, but took on the human condition and (in substitutionary atonement theory) the sins of the entire human race. So poetically this is an excellent text, in Latin.

The argument continues that, in [some dialects of] English, “man”, also, can mean both an individual human being, and the entire human race. “Human”, however, cannot carry both meanings. Thus, to retain the dual meaning carried by the Latin text, the English word “man” should be used.

I respect the argument that is made, and agree that it is valid insofar as it goes. The problem I have is that this theological consideration of the text is considered to outweigh the anthropological and pastoral problems with this translation. (Well, strictly speaking, the document in question does not acknowledge those problems, so I’m not sure it actually was considered to “outweigh” them or whether they were simply not weighed at all.)

The anthropological problem has to do with how human language shapes thought. In 21st century America, the primary definition of the word “man” is “male human being”. “Generic human being” is at best a secondary definition. Furthermore, there is experimental evidence indicating that people think of a male human being, not a generic human being, when supposedly-generic masculine language is used. (Thus on a purely technical level, the selected translation is, it seems to me, plainly flawed, because it chose an ambiguous English word when an unambiguous word was available.)

This is especially true in a church like the Roman Catholic church, where “man” often explicitly does mean “not woman”. One of the conditions for ordination is that you must be “a baptized man”. Christ came “for us men and for our salvation”, and “baptized men can be priests”. “Men” either means “human beings” or “male human beings”, depending on the context. Therefore, as a Catholic woman, it is not possible for me to assume that the supposedly-generic “man”, “men”, “he” always includes me: I have been explicitly, repeatedly, and vehemently instructed that it does not.

The pastoral problem is that, in a world and a church plagued by the sin of sexism, it is uncompassionate to prize a poetically apt expression of doctrine over the pastoral issue that many women will not be able to identify either with “us men” or with Christ when they pray this section of the creed. The whole point of this section, as written in the original Latin and Greek, is to emphasize that for people like me, Christ became someone like me. If the language doesn’t facilitate that identification for all Catholics, then the language is poorly translating the text.

Likewise, in a world and a church plagued by sexism, there is the potential of misleading English speakers who only know the English, and don’t know the Latin or Greek, into the mistaken belief that the theology expressed in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed emphasizes the maleness of Christ. It does not. The church fathers, had they wished to do so, could have written (vir, andros) rather than (homo, anthropos). Indeed, there was a controversy in the early church about whether Christ took on (assumed) the whole of human nature, including the nature of women, and it was definitively settled in the affirmative, because “that which is not assumed is not redeemed.”

It’s crucial to the sense of the Creed that Christ became human, not male. Translating the word as “man” potentially, and I believe _usually_, gives a mistaken impression of the underlying theology.

I did learn something new about this section of the Creed concerning the earlier phrase, “for us men” at the parish presentation introducing the 2011 missal. The way many, many Catholics have actually recited this phrase is “For us (pause), and for our salvation”, so as to avoid the exclusive language without messing with the rhythm. As far as I know, this was a spontaneous adaptation that arose all over the country. The proposed translation submitted to Rome used this language. It was rejected, and the word “men” reinserted, on the grounds that the “for us” phrase and the “and became” phrase needed to use the same language, to underscore the parallel.

That argument resonated strongly with me. Now I recite “For us humans… and became human.”

This post was originally a comment in response to a question on my 2011 post Incoming Missal.

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What are we deconstructing?

This question was asked of Kevin Miller during this evening’s session of the online Collaborators Conference, a mimetic theory/theology conference that is a successor of sorts to the Theology and Peace Conference I attended once or twice while in grad school. (Are any of my readers also attending? Let me know in the comments!) Here are a few of my scattered thoughts around and in response to that question.

What are we deconstructing, and what are we reconstructing, in this social and historical context? My first thought was “white supremacy”, from my perspective as a white American in 2020.

The trick to deconstructing and reconstructing, of course, as with revolution, is to avoid a superficial reordering of the same social structures that simply put someone else in charge. The opposite of dysfunction is still dysfunction.

White supremacy in the US defines and privileges white people over against non-white people. US society is white-normative: white people are considered “normal” people while non-white people are seen as Others, defective and even dangerous by virtue of their non-whiteness. This reminds me of dual-nature anthropology, that defines and privileges men over against non-men. In both cases, the Other is the pharmakos, the vulnerable semi-insider, the ideal scapegoat candidate.

I believe that in this moment, what we are deconstructing is white supremacy, particularly against Black and Native Americans whose specific egregious sufferings at the hands of white colonists were constitutive to the formation of this nation. I believe this because of the widespread, persistent #BlackLivesMatter protests that sprang up in multiple cities after the police killing of George Floyd and are still going on; and particularly because there are large numbers of white people at these protests, standing up for black lives, for black people, quite literally standing with the victims of racist police brutality and putting their bodies in the place of the victim, being beaten and tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets and arrested.

Perhaps the opposite of over against is in solidarity with. Can we reconstruct our society on the basis of the solidarity between white people and non-white people that we see in these protests?

Perhaps we can deconstruct and reconstruct St Paul here:

If we are for God, who can we be against? For the Spirit of God has set us free.

riffing on John Foley, “If God is For Us”, Romans 8
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At the hour of our death

“At the hour of our death.” For Catholics, those words are instantly recognizable as the end of the Hail Mary. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen.

Although we often pray the Hail Mary, it is something we particularly pray when someone is dying, or is in danger of death. We pray it when we hear a siren, for those who are in danger, and perhaps approaching the hour of their death. When my dear friend Mark was in his final hours, what I needed to do was pray the rosary. I didn’t even really understand why; only, “I am Catholic, and this is what we do.”

There’s another liturgical phrase that most Catholics recognize, although it has more variation in the exact wording: By sharing in his suffering and death, may we also come to share in his resurrection. It’s Jesus’ suffering and death that we’re talking about, of course. I was originally puzzled by the variant that said “by suffering a death like his,” because I took it literally: Jesus’s death was crucifixion, and that’s not how most of us die.

Eventually, I figured out that the crucifixion was only the means of his death, not the substance of it. Fundamentally, Jesus died because he was human. Through the Incarnation, he took on our humanity, our mortality. Humans die: it’s constitutive of the human condition. By one means or another, we all die. The words of the prayer have it backwards: Jesus suffered a death like ours.

And his mother was there.

Mary was there, at Calvary. She saw him nailed to the cross. She witnessed his suffering. She watched as he drew his last breath. She saw him die. Tradition has it that she cradled his dead body in her arms, grieving, after he was taken down from the cross, before he was placed in the tomb.

And that’s why. That’s why we pray to Mary when someone we love is dying, or has died, or when someone is in danger of death: because Jesus suffered a death like ours, and Mary was there.

Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners,

Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

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Holy Week

Palm Sunday. Good Friday.

Holy Saturday. Easter Sunday.

This year, because most Christians in the US were not able to go to church on Palm Sunday, many of us “cut branches,” as it says in scripture, and put them on our doors. I participated in this enthusiastically, cutting a leafy branch from one of my bushes Sunday morning before mass, holding it up during the blessing of the palms and holding on to it throughout as I usually do with my palm, and then taping it to my door afterwards. (I was pleased I had some tie-dye Duck Tape to use, to add a touch of Godspell vibe to it!) I liked how it looked as well as its witnessing/evangelizing aspect, and decided to keep it up throughout Holy Week.

I’m not usually a visual arts person, but the idea for this montage came to me all at once a few days later, when I noticed how the now-drooping branch I’d put on my door resembled the drooping body of Christ on many crucifixes.

Holy Saturday is often skipped over in discussions of Holy Week, in our rush to get to the joy of the resurrection. But the sorrow and emptiness of Holy Saturday makes a liturgical space for those who mourn, and counters our culture’s discomfort around grief, bereavement, and death. In 2020, we need this witness more than ever.

However you observed Holy Week and Easter this year, dear Christian readers, I hope you found them consoling, inspiring, faith-deepening, and at least momentarily joyful. And for my non-Christian readers, I hope you too found moments of consolation, inspiration, and joy this week along whatever path you follow.

Happy Easter!

Christ is risen!

Truly, he is risen!

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Good Friday Moments

During the Passion reading, this verse rang loudly against too much of the news these days:

“If he were not a criminal,
we would not have handed him over to you.”

– John 18:30

And the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in a liturgy:

the Veneration of the Cross was no-contact.

One by one, each of the five liturgical ministers present approached the cross, but only as far as a mark on the floor about six feet away. They knelt, and gazed at the cross from a distance to venerate it in silence; then rose and walked away, so the next person could take their place.

Behold, behold, the wood of the cross
on which is hung our salvation:
O come, let us adore.

“Behold,” but nothing more.

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We Are All in the Garden

On Holy Thursday, after the procession, after we sing the Tantum Ergo, gathered around the altar of repose, I usually meditate on being in the garden with Jesus, keeping watch and praying as his friends didn’t, because they couldn’t stay awake.

This year, gazing through my screen at the tabernacle on the altar of repose, things were different.

Gazing through my screen at the physical changes in my church — which are beautiful, but have taken away something that was dear to me — and mourning that loss, it felt wrong. Foolish, and silly, and small.

I apologized to Jesus for being so distracted over such a small thing, but then I thought, “No… no, Jesus understands.” Surely, the losses he faced when he was in the garden seemed foolish, and silly, and small, compared to the purpose for which he had come. Scripture doesn’t give us much detail about his thoughts in the garden, but we can imagine:

Did I tell my friends enough? Did they understand? Will they remember? Will they remember me?

How bad is it going to be? As bad as I’m imagining? Worse?

When is it coming?

Oh, God, isn’t there any way out?

This year, it is we who are in the garden, alone and afraid of the suffering to come.

This year, Jesus keeps watch in the garden with us.

Deliver us, Lord, from every evil,

and grant us peace in our day.

In your mercy keep us free from sin,

And protect us from all anxiety,

As we wait in joyful hope

For the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ.

– Holy Thursday, 2020

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The Purpose of the Papacy, Francis, and the Synod

This blog post was inspired by a quote by Pete Buttigieg going around, “[T]he purpose of the Presidency is not to glorify the President, but to unify the American people.” What struck me was how easily it could be transposed into an ecclesiological context, specifically a post-Vatican II context.

The purpose of the papacy is not to glorify the pope;
but to unify the Christian people.

The first part is easiest to demonstrate. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Pope John XXIII being carried in to the opening of the Council, in all his pomp and circumstance, it’s easy to read that kind of thing as glorifying the person of the pope. I think of Pope John Paul I as the person who most clearly put an end to that kind of pomp: instead of a coronation, he was inaugurated by receiving a pallium, such as bishops receive when they are installed (albeit a special papal one). Since the council, much of the traditional papal regalia has been put away to be admired and studied, rather than used. Popes have gone out and travelled all over the world, face to face with thousands of ordinary Catholics. There’s still an aura of celebrity attached to the pope, but his public appearances are clearly more aligned with servant than with king.

Pope Francis has embodied this understanding of the papacy even more clearly: from the moment of his first appearance as pope, when his first action was to ask the assembled faithful to pray for him, in the words of the familiar prayers that every Catholic learns in childhood. Other striking moments early in his time as pope exemplify this as well: his choice to move out of the papal palace and live in Casa Santa Marta, among ordinary people; and his choice of a modest economy car to get around town. I was especially impressed, when he went out to say Mass at a local church, that he stood around outside the doors of the church before mass, greeting people as they arrived, just like an ordinary pastor.

The second part requires a bit more unpacking. “Unification” and “Christian people” are both doing a lot of work here when translated into an ecclesial register. Continue reading

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