Advent, Day One: Prepared? Yeah, No.

This year, I’m following along with an unusual Advent devotional that renders the anger and outrage of the prophets into contemporary colloquial language: #FuckThisShit. For those who just can’t pray with expletives, there’s a toned-down version: #RendtheHeavens . For an introduction from one of the devotional’s co-creators, check out To Convey a Visceral Gospel, We Must Sometimes Use Visceral Language.

Each day, there’s a word and a bible verse. On days when the word is an expletive, like today, I’ll put it behind the jump.

Continue reading

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But since we are of the day, let us be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet that is hope for salvation.

– 1 Thess 5:8

Hope, if we define it as holding to the eventual good outcome of justice and the reign of God, anchors our present situation to an eschatological framework. It therefore and thereby places our current circumstances, however distressing they may be, in the context of the ongoing story of salvation history. It weaves our stories into God’s story. Christian hope is not simply a feeling and it is not the same as optimism: it is a theological virtue that is cultivated and practiced. It is profoundly eschatological, rooted in the deep conviction of God’s justice, God’s mercy, and God’s promised reign.

Weeping, Lamentation, and Hope

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Hear the Text, but Hear it Slant: Liturgy Notes

1. Beatitudes (Mt 5:1-12)

What if this isn’t a list of instructions? What if it’s a list of who you should suck up to? ie, a list of the really important people. What if it’s Jesus doing here what he did when he washed the disciples’ feet, and inverting/subverting/recreating hierarchy?

  • the possessors of the kingdom of heaven: the poor [in spirit]
  • those who God will console: the mourners
  • the heirs to the land: the meek
  • those who God will satisfy: the hungry and thirsty [for righteousness]
  • those to whom God will show mercy: the merciful
  • those who will see God: the clean of heart
  • the children of God: the peacemakers
  • the possessors of the kingdom of heaven: the persecuted [for righteousness’ sake]
  • those whose reward will be great in heaven: the insulted and persecuted and slandered for Jesus’ sake

Written this way, with the last phrases first, I see a chiasm (envelope form) from verses 3-10, with mercy in the central, most important location. Happy Jubilee Year of Mercy!

2. Who comes in the name of the Lord?

The setting of the Sanctus that we’re singing has an echo, sung by the choir:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (who comes in the name of the Lord)

But this week, I didn’t hear it as an echo: I heard it as a challenge: Who comes in the name of the Lord? You??
You sure about that? You up to that?
You wear that name Christian, you come in that name: would you pass that challenge?

3. Under Whose Roof

Happy are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.
Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof

Called to the supper of the Lamb — read eschatologically, that’s a future invitation to a feast: come into the home of the Lamb, enter under Jesus’ roof, and share a feast.

Our response? We tell Jesus, with the Roman centurion, we’re not worthy for you to come into our home, to enter under our roof.

That’s weirdly reciprocal, but inverted.
If we’re not worthy for Jesus to enter under our roof, how much less worthy are we to enter under his?

To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners, hope in your abundant mercies, graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all your Saints: admit us, we beseech you, into their company, not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon, through Christ our Lord.                  — Eucharistic Prayer I

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Have you ever been lost?

Walking through the woods, sure you knew where you were going until the landmark you were aiming for wasn’t there.. and wasn’t there.. and still wasn’t there… and all the trees look alike and omg now what do I do, should I turn around and go back or try to figure out which direction I need to go oh shit where’d I put my compass…

Driving somewhere unfamiliar, following the directions someone gave you, but the directions don’t match what you’re looking at: did I miss a turn? where is this street going to take me? where the heck am I anyway, is this a safe part of town to stop and ask directions?

Or driving a route that you drive to work every day, but today the road is blocked off and you don’t actually know the area at all, you just learned the route… so you follow the people ahead of you and hope that they’re going the same way you are.. but apparently the 5 cars in front of you all lived in this one neighborhood and every other street is a dead end and you have no idea how to get back to a main road that will hook up with some road you know and get you back on your familiar route.

Being lost is scary.

And Jesus said to Zaccheus,
“Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost.”

For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.
And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?
But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O LORD and lover of souls,
for your imperishable spirit is in all things!

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Reflecting on “Flow and the Christian Experience of Time”

Lexi Eikelboom’s interesting blog post on Flow and the Christian Experience of Time (Module 1, Class of The Rhythmic Theology Project) defines “flow” as

Flow is a perfect state of concentration without struggle. In flow, one is working on something with such absorption that one’s sense of time disappears.

She places this concept in conversation with the liturgy, in light of “O’Donnell’s conception of liturgy as disintegrating the barriers between past, present, and future so as to more tightly integrate them,” and then raises a number of questions to which I thought I’d try responding, although in a slightly different order. My responses focus on the Catholic celebration of the eucharist, “the source and summit of Christian life.”

2. what is the creative challenge in liturgy that we are attempting to creatively meet that might induce a state of flow?

Communion. The eucharist is a foretaste and promise of that heavenly banquet at which we will be in perfect communion with God and with each other. In this life, that’s quite a creative challenge! 😉

It’s why we begin with a penitential rite, confessing our failings and seeking reconciliation with God and with each other. The latter is best evidenced in the Confiteor, with its parallel “I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters” and “Therefore I ask blessed Mary ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.” It’s why, immediately before communion, we pray the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him how to pray; and then share a sign of the Peace of Christ that is not the world’s peace.

Another way to spell communion is love.

1. I have had plenty of experiences of simply checking out during worship and having my muscle-memory take over. In fact, sometimes I have to work hard to not let this happen and I suspect I am not alone in this. So, if it is the case that occasionally the opposite happens and we find ourselves in a state of flow during liturgy or worship, I think it’s worth asking what it is specifically about that situation that enabled an experience that might otherwise be unusual.

Ah, this is why liturgists care so much! Continue reading

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Lectionary Reflection: The Virtue of Outsiders

It’s so frustrating when the lectionary leaves out half the story!

Here’s what was going on in today’s first reading: Naaman is a king from Syria, who has come to Israel after his Hebrew slavegirl (looted in war) suggests to him that the God of Israel could heal his leprosy. He goes to Elisha (after having no luck with the king of Israel), who won’t even come out to see him, but tells him to go bathe seven times in the river Jordan and he will be clean and healed.

Well. The king is offended. He expected the prophet to come out and pray over his sores to heal them. On top of that, the Jordan is a muddy river, whereas Syrian Damascus was famous for its clear mountain springs: if bathing was required, surely the Syrian springs would be better than this second-rate foreign river! He goes off in a huff, intending to do no such thing.

But his servants, who have of course been dragged with Naaman along on this entire adventure, offer some common sense: if the prophet had told you to do something exotic and complicated, you would have done it without question. So why not go bathe in the Jordan – what can it hurt?

This is where the lectionary reading begins: Naaman heeds the wisdom of his servants, goes to bathe in the Jordan seven times, and lo! he is healed, just as the prophet said.

He goes back to Elisha, confesses his faith that the God of Israel is the only true god, offers valuable gifts in thanksgiving which Elisha refuses, and then he does something fascinating: he asks to bring home 2 mule-loads of earth. Continue reading

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Gossip and the Scapegoat Mechanism

[One of gossip’s functions is] bonding. When you talk about absent others you’re constituting them as an out-group and yourselves as an in-group: if what you’re sharing is sensitive information, like a secret or a negative opinion about someone,that will strengthen the feeling of intimacy among those present. (emphasis mine)

This is a quote from Personally Speaking on how women & men use (and are stereotypically thought to use) language. The entire essay is worth reading, but this is the bit that hit me between the eyes.

In mimetic theory, bonding over against some other person or group is the constitutive characteristic of the scapegoat mechanism, which strengthens the unity of the ingroup at the expense of belittling and ultimately dehumanizing the outgroup. In mimetic theology, the scapegoat mechanism is a sinful and only temporarily effective mechanism for achieving unity and quelling a mimetic crisis, typically a crisis over group identity and norms; and Christ’s saving work is directed at subverting and undoing it — teaching humans that there is a different game they might play, in the words of James Alison.

I’ve always known that gossip was considered sinful — it’s mentioned as such in both the Shared Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures. But it seems such an ordinary, banal, even trivial, even harmless sin.

But a connection with the scapegoat mechanism? Now I get it. Even aside from the objective harm that gossip might do to the gossiped-about, it harms the gossipers by means of the emotional thrill of scandal, the sense of superiority and intimacy based on disparagement and exclusion. It fosters factionalism and divisiveness, against which the Christian scriptures also preach. It accustoms the heart to that extra thrill, and accustoms the spirit to identify over against the other, instead of receiving our identity from Jesus.

When our communities are so deeply divided, when the very identities of “American”, “Catholic”, “Christian” are contested, it is especially tempting to gossip about the people on the other side, to trade witticisms at their expense.

Let’s pray for the strength to resist that temptation, and pray for the people on the other side instead.

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Thoughts on sacramental preparation in the Catholic Church today

Note: some of what I’ve written here is based on my studies, and some on my lived experience and general impressions as a first generation Vatican 2 Catholic. I welcome comments from those with a living memory of the pre-Vatican 2 church, or with expertise or contemporary experience in sacramental preparation.

Let’s begin by reviewing the sacramental framework held by the Catholic church. The seven sacraments (the number and precise set of sacraments was finalized only in medieval times, and was defended vigorously at the Council of Trent) are understood by the church today in three groups:
– the sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, eucharist
– the sacraments of healing: penance, anointing of the sick
– the sacraments of the state of life: matrimony, ordination

One of the great liturgical contributions of the Second Vatican Council was the retrieval, from the early church, of a theology and praxis of the sacraments of initiation as profoundly related and normatively administered to adults in one celebration, at the Easter Vigil. The RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) has been called one of the great successes of Vatican 2. It recovered (restored and adapted) several preparatory rites from the church of the first millennium, along with the expectation that preparation would occur over a minimum of several months, and involve the parish community in some way (eg, by praying for the catechumens, and celebrating the preparatory rites at parish masses).

Although the liturgical structures are from the church of the first millennium, it is clear from the New Testament and from patristic sources that Christians have always received some form of instruction, or formation, before being baptized, receiving the Holy Spirit, and being admitted to the Lord’s Supper. So sacramental prep for the sacraments of initiation has always been part of Christian practice.

But remember, RCIA in its current form is a new practice: less than 50 years old.

It’s also beating against a couple of older traditions. Continue reading

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Blogiversary: Five Years Old

Chocolate_cake_with_strawberriesLittle kids get excited when they turn five because that uses all the fingers on their hand. I’m pretty excited, too!

My top ten posts this year:

#1: Topics in Early Church History? – a perennial favorite among students looking for paper topics. I hope it’s been helpful!

#2: Mercy and Misogyny – an annoyed feminist reading of a passage in a brochure on the Jubilee Year of Mercy that the Catholic church has been celebrating this liturgical year.

#3: Natural Law and the Gender Bimodal – observing the world with 21st century eyes reveals that anatomy is outcome, not ontology. There is no gender binary. One of my favorite pieces.

#4: Bible Translations: Formal or Functional? – another perennial favorite, with apologies to those who rightly observe that this distinction isn’t a binary, either!

#5: Rape Culture and the Construction of Virgin Saints – the story of Thecla and Trifina through a feminist mimetic gaze. Another one of my favorites.

#6: Impressions from Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Philippians, Corinthians, and Philemon – from my summer project on Paul a couple years ago.

#7: Rejecting the Glamor of Evil – one of my foundational blog posts on mimetic theory.

#8:Erased, Silenced, and Distorted: A Catholic Woman’s Lament – a cry from the heart, occasioned by a passage from the first part of Sr. Dr. Elizabeth Johnson’s book Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints , which I read with a few reading buddies this year.

#9: Hermeneutics, Suspicion, and Generosity – another perennial favorite, although I suspect this is because there’s little available online about a hermeneutic of generosity.

#10: Perpetua and Felicity – another feminist mimetic reading of another story of two women from the early church.

For the first time ever(?), my post on Models of the Church, part 1 didn’t make the top ten cut. Just barely, though: it was #11.

Three of this year’s top posts were written during the past year: that’s an encouraging trend! The remaining seven were also in last year’s top ten. Looking over what I’ve written this past year, I’ll nominate the close reading of a fascinating piece of devotional art in the Walters Art Gallery as a good post that didn’t get very much attention — if you missed it, please do check out Art, Co-Redemption, and Kenosis: Reading the Vierge Ouvrante.

My posting pace has remained slow this year, partly because I lost one of my favorite conversation partners last August. I didn’t realize how often our conversations had driven my blogging. There remains more going on in the world and in the church that I’d like to blog about and don’t find time for. But hope springs eternal!

Thank you, readers, friends, and commentariat, for your company along the way, and for celebrating today. Have some cake…. with strawberries!     😎


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Random musings after mass on this Feast of the Assumption

It’s not a holy day of obligation in my diocese, but because I had taken the day off work, I went to the noon mass today, which had about 4 times the usual number of attendees. There was a lily-ish white flower in front of the statue of our Lady. No musicians, so we sang a capella: the opening and closing songs were not Marian.

Listening to the first reading, I thought of Mary as the Ark of the Covenant, visible in the Temple. What I noticed about the last part of the sign in the sky of the woman with twelve crowns and the dragon with seven heads, when the child is born and taken up by God in safety, and the woman flees to the desert where she had a place prepared by God, is that this suddenly sounded like the story of Hagar, who was sent into the desert to die with her baby, to whom God sent an angel to provide water, and who eventually finds a place in which to live out the rest of her life safely. Hagar’s story is presented in elaborated form in the Qu’ran, and I believe that a re-enactment of her searching for a place in the desert is a traditional part of the Hajj.

I couldn’t remember what the gospel would be for the feast day, and I was pleased that it was the story of the visitation. When I was in high school, one of the catechists (a lovely irreverent woman from whom I learned that it was possible to be a devout Catholic with an irreverent sense of humor) pointed out that after the Annunciation, Mary was essentially a teenage girl who had turned up pregnant. And like pregnant teenagers to this day, she went or was sent off to a relative conveniently out of town. That made a lot of sense to me then. Today it additionally occurred to me that Mary might have made this visit to test the proof that the angel had offered her: that her older barren kinswoman was with child. I imagine her thinking, Maybe it was all my imagination. Maybe I’ll get there and Elizabeth will have no idea what I’m talking about; then I can relax and go back to my normal life. But if it is true — if it is, then… then at least I can ask Elizabeth, how do you cope with such a miracle? How do you reconstruct your life around such an intimate and life-changing divine action?

I imagine her planning what to say.. planning not to say anything, unless Elizabeth told her she was pregnant. And then, oh, then when she arrives, Elizabeth rushes outside to greet her and immediately confirms the angel’s message and speaks of the child in her own womb… and then it’s all real, and she is overwhelmed with joy.

The story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is one of my favorites.

During the sermon, when the priest was describing Mary as the vessel or the tabernacle of the Lord, I realized that’s not true, that’s not right. Those images present Mary as an empty space, in whose body Jesus came to dwell before being born. But Mary’s body is the locus of the Incarnation and the source of his human nature. The Creed says Jesus was consubstantial with the Father; but he was also consubstantial with Mary. It is of her flesh that his human flesh was formed. Mary is not just the God-bearer, but the human mother of the fully human Jesus: by the Holy Spirit, out of the Virgin Mary, he was made human.

For the first time I wondered, if Mary was “assumed into heaven body and soul”, which is distinct from the resurrection of the dead, then does that mean that she among all creatures will not receive a resurrected body after the Eschaton? Wouldn’t that be just like patriarchy, apparently honoring her above all others but then leaving her in a plain ordinary mortal body while everybody else gets a better one. Then I decided that a glorified body must be the same as a resurrected body, somehow, and felt better. Still, it’s interesting that I don’t remember ever being taught anything about this.

During and after communion, I was particularly aware of how, when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we take Jesus into our bodies in a way that is not so different from how Mary held him in her body.

We sang “Hail Mary, Gentle woman.” Twice. At preparation and at communion. It is beyond me why, if you don’t have guitarists that have to be able to play a guitar song on a Marian feastday, you would voluntarily choose that banal piece of work instead of a traditional Marian hymn; but, ah well. We did chant the Doxology and Great Amen, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Agnus Dei (in Latin, even!), so that was nice.

But I sang “Hail Holy Queen” as I walked back to my car after Mass.

ps – Today is the first anniversary of the death of my dear friend Mark. I prayed for him during the general intercessions. If your tradition supports prayers for the dead, please pray for him; and for his widow, his mother, and all those who loved him. Thank you.

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