Saturday, September 26, 2020

Diakonia requires kenosis

Philippians 2:1-11

Because this Sunday's readings include the so-called Kenotic Hymn from the second chapter of Paul's Letter to the Philippians and because kenosis, which means "to empty," is so key to diakonia, I am pulling something from my dissertation for my reflection on this week's readings. It is important to note up-front that Paul is likely not the author of the Kenotic Hymn. Rather, it was a hymn in use among some early Christians that Paul appropriates to set forth the point he is trying to get across. What is that point? His point is an exhortatory one: that the Christians of ancient Philippi
Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others. Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus (Phil 2:3-5)
He then uses the hymn to describe what Christ's attitude is.

Below is the beginning of what I wrote and published. The ellipses at the end of the paragraph indicate the parapgraph that follows is not the subsequent paragraph in the original text. Of course, the footnote numbering is unnique to this blog post, starting with 1 and proceeding sequentially. This is from the third chapter of my dissertation. The title of this chapter is "Kenosis is the essence of diakonia."


It is the very nature of the tri-personal God to be self-emptying for the Other. It has been noted that the Incarnation of the Son of God is an event “so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma” on the world.1 The Incarnation is the profoundest instance of God-being-God. As previously noted, perhaps the best way to translate the first phrase of Philippians 2:6 - (ὃς ἐν μορφῇ Θεοῦ ὑπάρχων2 ) - is “Being in the form of God…” Stated another way, it is because “he was in the form of God” that Jesus “did not regard” his divinity “as something to be grasped,” or made use of in a debased manner.3 Stated a bit differently, the Lord’s self-emptying was not despite his divinity but precisely because of it. Too often what is usually referred to as the “Kenotic Hymn” is understood and communicated in such a way that it is made to seem as if Christ’s self-emptying was at odds with his divinity rather than being surest sign that he is “true God from true God.”4 Hugh Montefiore points out that “Jesus’ disclosure shows that in his very nature God is self-effacing.” This observation, he goes on to note, stands in direct contrast to traditional Christian orthodoxy, which “has thought of him as the opposite; majestic, glorious and triumphal”5 This observation, he goes on to note, stands in direct contrast to traditional Christian orthodoxy, which “has thought of him as the opposite; majestic, glorious and triumphal”6...

When considering a theological concept wrought from a single word, even when that word is taken from the Scriptures, or perhaps especially when the word comes from the Scriptures, it is important to carefully examine it. The Greek word used in Philippians 2:7 that is often translated into English as “emptied” is ἐκένωσεν. ἐκένωσεν transliterates as ekenōsen. The root word of ἐκένωσεν is κενόω, which transliterates as kenoó. Κενόω, along with its variants, such as ἐκένωσεν, is a verb. Like most words in every language, κενόω has a range of meanings, each one emphasizing an aspect of the word while maintaining its general sense...

The verb ἐκένωσεν in Philippians 2:7 is in the aorist tense. While it is easy to reduce all verbs in the aorist tense to the indicative sense and so relegate the action to the past, it is important to remember that the aorist tense also has what is sometimes referred to as an ingestive or inceptive sense.7 When used in the inceptive sense, an aorist verb expresses an action without indicating or even implying either its completion or continuation. Aorist verbs used in the inceptive sense tend “to stress the beginning of an action or the entrance into a state.”8 It seems clear from its context in Philippians that ἐκένωσεν is used in this inceptive sense to stress the beginning of Jesus becoming impoverished, or emptying himself of what humans all-too-readily perceive, if mistakenly, as divinity, by entering into the human state...

The implications of the Kenotic Hymn as a whole and verse 7 in particular for the diaconate seem quite clear. Applying the Kenotic Hymn to the diaconate bolsters James Keating’s claim that “without service (diaconate)” there cannot be acceptable sacrifice (priesthood).9 A deacon’s willingness to sacrifice is a prerequisite for ordination. Teaching his closest disciples about the only leadership that can authentically be called Christian, Jesus asks them: “For who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves? Is it not the one seated at table?”10 He then emphatically tells them: “I am among you as the one who serves.”11

It is interesting that Paul’s Letter to the Philippians contains one of the few references and certainly the earliest reference to deacon as an office in the church: “Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to all the holy ones in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and ministers.”12 The last phrase in Greek is σὺν ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις.13 This literally translates as “together with bishops and deacons.”

1 John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek, Creston Davis, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology, 7.
2 Eberhard Nestle, Novum Testamentum graece.
3 Philippians 2:6.
4 The Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” sec. 18.
5 Hugh Montefiore, “Jesus and the Revelation of God,” 111.
6 Ibid.
7 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics - Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament with Scripture, Subject, and Greek Word Indexes, 556-559.
8 Ibid., 558.
9 James Keating, The Heart of the Diaconate: Communion with the Servant Mysteries of Christ, 2-3.
10 Luke 22:27.
11 Luke 22:27.
12 Philippians 1:1.
13 Nestle, Eberhard. Novum Testamentum graece.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Letting go for dear life

It's Friday again. I am on a kind of retreat. I'm doing anything formal or well-structured. I have enough of that every day. Just a few days away by myself. Even though I don't do it often, I have to be careful when doing something like this. I become very conscious of what a privilege it is to have the time and resources to do such a thing. In other words, it's hard not to feel guilty. I think of my upbringing and everyone saying at the idea of doing something like this- "What!?" Anyway, I owe a debt of gratitude to my wife not only for allowing me time away but positively encouraging me to take this time. I am very blessed.

Apart from just need to step out of the busy-ness of my everyday life, there was something I had to discern. It's a strange thing because my poin of discernment was something I agreed to do earlier this year. It's a big commitment on top of my marriage and family, my full-time job, and my parish ministry. Frankly, it's a demaning and daunting task. Since accepting it and even making a lot of progress working at it, I had yet to fully commit.

Last night, as I prayed, pondered, poured my worries and concerns, my whines and my gripes, I was thrown back 20+ years. I realized that what I wanted at that time. After a tumultuous decade (to make a long story short: my young adulthood was chaotic- I am still recovering), I wanted a prosperous, comfortable, and (yes) boring life. I began to consider how eventful my life has been and remains from that point forward. It's a blessing.

I am glad God paid no attention to those mundane (i.e., worldly) desires. Amid the chaos to which I parenthetically alluded, Jesus found me. I sometimes forget what a difference my encounter with him made and continues to make in my life. I take him for granted. When you heed Jesus's call to follow him, you never know where he'll lead you. As Michael Card sang so beautifully: "There Is a Joy in the Journey."

I can't ever lose track of that joy. I don't lack it. It's just that sometimes (often in these crazy times) ignore it. This brings me back to being very blessed. What I have been called and agreed to do (it is a call- from my bishop, no less).

Yesterday, evening I was able to get over that hump. My discernment was confirmed this morning as I meditated on and prayed with this Sunday's Gospel (Matthew 21:28-32). It's Jesus's parables about a father who has two sons. Tells both of them to go work his vineyard. The first son initially says no but then "changed his mind" and went to work. His other son said he would but then did not work. Jesus then asks his listeners- the inspired author has him addressing "the chief priests and elders of the people- which of the two did the will of their father. Without hesitation, they responded, "The first."

Exegetically, this has something to do with Jews. Specifically, the chief priests and elders of the people. In this parable, they are like the second son. But those less faithful Jews: those who worked as tax collectors on behalf of the occupying Romans and, as a result, were reviled among their own people and prostitutes, who are looked down on in virtually every society. Unlike the chief priests and elders, the tax collectors and prostitutes, when they encountered John the Baptist and then Jesus changed their minds and followed the way of righteousness. In short, they repented and entered on the path of righteousness. The path of righteousness is not the way of strident rule-keeping and public displays of piety.

After that irresistible digression, I'll just add that I didn't want to be like the second son. I don't want to say yeas and then bail on the project. Accepting does not mean I have all the answers or that I don't have doubt and uncertainty. I accepted a call from my bishop, who I promised at ordination to obey and respect. When I expressed my preference to him to remain exclusively doing parish ministry, he told me that he'd rather have remained a parish priest but Christ, through the Church, called him to serve as bishop.

These words from the Sermon on the Mount also came to mind: "Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one" (Matthew 5:37). I want to be a person who keeps his word, especially to someone to whom I have made a sacred vow. Like the second son, it was not a matter of changing my mind but sticking with my commitment. The commitment that should underlie all my commitments is the one I made some 30 years ago: following Jesus. He seems to enjoy leading out of my comfort zone, away from that self-satisfied existence I seem to think I want. In truth, it is unsatisfying. I am made and redeemed for more.

Well enough about me (said the self-absorbed person). How are you? I hope you are well during these trying times, these times when we are reaping the whirlwind as a result of our unwillingness to respect creation, respect each other, our refusal to be good stewards of creation or to be our brothers and sisters keeper.

As the twenty-third anniversary of his sudden death came and went this month, I've been listening to a lot to the music of Rich Mullins. And so, with zero hesitation, our traditio for this final Friday of September in the time of COVID is "Sometimes by Step." Because I want you to meet Rich, too, it is a live version. Hey, if you speak Portuguese, you can follow along too!

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 55:6-9; Ps 145:2-3.8-9.17-18; Phil 1:20c-24.27a; Matt 20:1-16a

When we hear or read something from scripture written in the voice of God saying something like what heard in today’s first reading- your ways are not my ways- your ways are not my ways1- we often think what is being referred to is some inaccessible part of God, some aspect of God about which we know nothing. At least in our reading from Isaiah, this is not the case.

In this oracle from deutero-Isaiah, captive Israel, to whom it is initially addressed, is urged to “turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous and forgiving.”2 Only after this exhortation is the difference between God’s ways and human ways mentioned. In short, God is not like us because God is merciful, generous, and forgiving.

In no way do we, like the apostle Paul, express that for us “life is Christ” than by being merciful, generous, and forgiving.3 To live in and through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, you must die to self. This is the central paradox of being a Christian, which was elaborated clearly by Jesus in our Gospel reading a few weeks ago: “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”4

When you read or hear the words “The kingdom of God is like…” in any of the Gospels, pay close attention. What follows is an analogy, what we might call “a real-world” example of God’s kingdom. At least from the perspective of contemporary society in the United States, the kingdom of God as taught by Jesus is something of a bizarro world.

In reality, the natural human response to the parable we just heard is, “That’s not fair!” You’re right to respond that way. Fairness and justice, while related, are not synonymous. But there is an even greater difference between fairness and mercy.

Mercy, as the Latin word for it- misericordia- indicates, is a matter of the heart. Translated literally misericordia means having a heart for the poor.5 It is precisely this that we see in the landowner in Jesus’s parable, making him analogous to God.

I imagine that picking day laborers was a bit like how we used to choose sports teams during recess at school. So, the fittest, strongest, those whom the one choosing judged to be most able-bodied, were chosen first. The fifth group, who made themselves available to work but were not hired by anyone all day, were likely those judged not fit to work.

Since the Nazi slaughter of Europeans Jews, the phrase “not fit to work” carries an eerie echo, one that undermines human dignity. In Jesus’s time and place, the was no social safety net. No work meant no pay. No pay meant no food for the worker and his/her family. This often reduced men to begging and women to prostitution.

Summarizing an analysis of the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas by theologian Yves Congar, Cardinal Walter Kasper notes:
God is not like a judge or a public servant, who justly applies the law established by a higher authority. God is the sovereign Lord, who is not subject to the law of another, but rather is the Lord who imparts his gifts in a sovereign way…[God] does not proceed in an arbitrary fashion; rather, he acts according to his own loving kindness. Therefore, mercy is not opposed to justice. Mercy does not suspend justice; rather, mercy transcends justice; mercy is the fulfillment of justice6
To those for whom “life is Christ,” the Kingdom of God is not a dream deferred. God’s kingdom is not only present in our midst but is made present wherever and whenever God’s high and exalted ways are followed; wherever mercy is found. This is why in the Beatitudes, which constitute the core of Jesus’s teaching, he asserts: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”7

I think today’s Gospel is well-summarized in the words from the refrain of a song by the late Rich Mullins:
Let mercy lead
Let love be the strength in your legs
And in every footprint that you leave
There'll be a drop of grace
If we can reach
Beyond the wisdom of this age
Into the foolishness of God
That foolishness will save
Those who believe
Although their foolish hearts may break
They will find peace8

1 Isaiah 55:8.
2 Isaiah 55:7.
3 Philippians 1:21.
4 Matthew 16:25.
5 Walter Kasper, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, 21.
6 Ibid., 23.
7 Matthew 5:7.
8 Rich Mullins, "Let Mercy Lead."

Saturday, September 19, 2020

To Christ through Mary

I am still making my way through Born From the Gaze of God: The Tibhirine Journal of a Martyr Monk (1993-1996). Right now, it is my morning spiritual reading. For this, I choose books I can read just bit from each day. Hence, it takes time for me to finish these books. It's a nice change of pace for someone who reads a lot of books. This book are the published journals of Blessed Christoph LeBreton, OCSO, who, along with six of his confreres, was murdered by Islamic insurgents in Algeria in 1997.

Our Lady of Sorrows, possibly by Carlo Dossi, 18th century

I just so happened that last Tuesday, 15 September, the observance of the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows (one day after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross), that in normal course of reading through Bl. Christoph's journal chronologically, I came upon his entry for 15 September 1994. It just so happened that in 1994 the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows fell on the same as the Jewish Day of Atonement- Yom Kippur:
Yom Kippur. Peace through the blood of the Cross...

        Today- Our Lady of Sorrows...
Mom [Mary] has given us a mission to fulfill: to offer up our lives that the world may be saved, that the Lord may do his will in... us, through Mom's hands
Doing Christ's will through Mary's intercession. The last words Mary speaks in the Gospels is at the Wedding Feast. What does she say? To the waiters at the wedding, with reference to Jesus, she says: "Do whatever he tells you" (John 2:5).

The Miracle at the Wedding Feast of Cana, which in Saint John's Gospel marks the beginning of Jesus's public ministry, is the second Luminous Mystery of Our Lady's Most Holy Rosary. The fruit of the this mystery is To Christ Through Mary. Being a model disciple, Our Blessed Mother always draws us to her Son, not to herself. Like her Son, she bids you take up your cross.

Liturgically, Saturdays are devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. As one of the intercessions for Morning Prayer in the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin May on Saturday asks:
Saviour of the World, your mother stood at the foot of your cross,
        -grant, through her intercession, that we may rejoice to share in your passion
If I may be permitted to indulge in a bit of sentimentality; this post reminds me of those spontaneous posts I used to compose in my early years of blogging.

Friday, September 18, 2020

"Empty prayer, empty mouths talk about the passion"

Friday and time for our traditio. I am trying to avoid mentioning how quickly time passes and concomitant reality that I haven't listened to a lot of music this week. Not listening to music makes the quality of my life poorer.

Because I have a difficult time falling asleep even at the end of a 14-hour day, which makes it impossible for me to read- tired, not sleepy: a condition that is most unpleasant- I have been serially watching two Danish television shows: Borgen and Herrens Veje (Riding On the Storm). Both shows were created by Adam Price. Both shows are intense, even a bit melodramatic, but good.

Having spent some time in Denmark throughout the ninties and being something a devotee of Kiekergaard, I appreciate how these shows deal politics (Borgen and religion (Herrens Veje) in contemporary Danish society. It's interesting, Danes don't seem to be that into Kierkegaard. I am tempted to spout something trite referencing a prophet in his own country. In reality, Danish society ultimately bought into Søren's critique of Christendom. They did not disestablish the Church but the status of the national Danish (Lutheran) Church is much reduced.

I find myself wishing that Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (the main character in Borgen) could run for president. Just like I am trying avoid the rapidity of time's passage, I am also avoiding politics in this post.

I am going on retreat by myself next week! I am leaving Thursday and coming back on Sunday. I've never felt the need to get away more acutely than I do right now.

Because Fridays are penitential days and because I am still going through my REM revival, our traditio for this September Friday is "Talk About the Passion," off Murmur, their debut album on the legendary IRS Records. It contains a line I sometimes need to remember: "Not everyone can carry the weight of the world."

Monday, September 14, 2020

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Readings: Num 21:4b-9; Ps 78:1bc-2.34-38; Phil 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

Even though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard our debased understanding of divinity as something to clutch. What do I mean by our debased understanding of divinity? I mean seeing God in a pagan way: powerful, self-serving, manipulative, perhaps capricious. Far from being contrary to the being of the one true God, it is the essence of God's being to be self-emptying.

Nonetheless, we hold that one of God’s attributes is omnipotence. What does it mean to say God is omnipotent? Yes, it means God is all-powerful. What it often means is that God can and does use power coercively to get his way. But in reality, God chooses the power of powerlessness.

This is why, from a Christian perspective, it is utterly silly to be worried about God striking you with lightening or the Church falling down because a sinner entered. Here’s news: sinners have been entering the doors of this church for 40 years and it’s still standing!

Christ’s cross shows the power of powerlessness. Saint Paul discovered this, which is prompted him to exclaim, “when I am weak then I am strong.”1 This what Jesus means when he tells us: “Take up your cross and follow me.”2 You can't trust God more than when we relinquish control, even to the point of loving and doing good to our enemies as well as bearing wrongs patiently.

Christ on the Cross, Leon Bonnat, ca. 1874

Today especially, we worry that the political power of Christianity weakening. Why? Jesus never sought to take control of the Roman Empire or even the small Roman province of Palestine. At every turn, Jesus rejected calls urging him to seize and/or exercise power, including when he was chided: “If you're the Son of God, come down from the cross!”4 He even had to deal with this after the resurrection when his still clueless disciples ask “are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”4

No nation is a Christian nation even if, maybe especially if it claims to be one. As Christians, one of the biggest threats to our faith is its usurpation for political purposes. Success in this only succeeds in dividing the Body of Christ, thus compromising the Church’s witness.

Another name for the power or powerlessness is agape. Translated from Greek, agape refers to self-sacrificing, self-emptying love. Power is divine love radiating from Christ's holy cross. Here at Saint Olaf parish, we are blessed to have the large crucifix over the altar. What seeing this should put us in mind of is “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”5

A Christian understands that she succeeds by failing. To paraphrase Saint Paul: where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.6 For God’s will to succeed in your life, you must fail. As Jesus said to some scribes and Pharisees: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”7

Our refusal to accept God’s humiliation on the cross as the fullness of divine self-revelation renders us little more than pagans. Triumph only comes through failure. Nonetheless, we remain success-oriented.

Jesus tells us our riches and ease are obstacles to God’s Kingdom, not sure signs of God’s blessing. But we persist in our pursuit of wealth and luxury. Jesus tells us to love and forgive one another, to build community, but we're quick to walk away when things aren't to our liking. But then, we only sacrifice for what we truly love.

My dear friends in Christ, on this Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, let us recommit ourselves to following Jesus along the path to glory. The path of glory is a different way than the path of glamor.

1 2 Corinthians 12:10.
2 Matthew 10:38; Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23.
3 Matthew 27:40.
4 Acts 1:6.
5 John 3:16.
6 Romans 5:20.
7 Mark 2:17.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Additional thoughts on today's Gospel

Matthew 18:21-35

In thinking more about our Gospel for this Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A of the Sunday Lectionary, I felt the need to address its threatening ending. If you remember, the master turned the wicked servant over to the torturers until his debt had been paid. The master did this because the wicked servant, after being forgiven a large debt, went and squeezed a fellow servant, literally choked him, for a much smaller debt. Jesus then tells his disciples: "So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart" (Matt 18:35).

This has a similar ring to "Beatings will continue until morale improves," does it not? I am not just to forgive the brother or sister who has sinned against me but to do so from my heart. I take "from your heart" to mean to really and truly forgive. This is very different from when one of my boys hauls off and hits his brother for some real or perceived slight or injustice. When I insist he apologizes, he says in an unconvincing voice, not making eye contact: "I'm sorry." I then insist the other boy accept the apology out loud, which is often given with the same lack of sincerity.

The point I am trying to make is even a dire threat can't change your heart. Yet Jesus insists you must have a change of heart toward the person who has sinned against you.

Exegetically, this pericope makes a dialogue between Peter and Jesus from a teaching in Q (the source that Matthew and Luke have in common that is not the Gospel According to Saint Mark). It is probably what is termed "a homiletic midrash" on a section of what we now call the Lord's Prayer and a teaching that immediately follows it (see Matthew 6:12 and Matthew 6:14-15). This midrash (a Hebrew word that refers to the interpretation of a text) was likely written by the author of Matthew as a hellfire and brimstone statement to bring home the importance of forgiving others, which is what it means to be holy as God is holy.

Hence, there is no little irony if not an outright contradiction in warning his disciples that if they do not forgive not only will God not forgive them or they certainly can't expect God to forgive- Sirach's rather holistic take on the issue, echoed in the Lord's Prayer- but God will harshly punish them. It's like yelling at your children for yelling at each other or spanking a child for hitting another child, etc. On the other hand, there is some resonance with the fact that in the Gospels Jesus is only harsh with those who are harsh with others.

Let's not forget what our Psalm today tells us: God is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.

Something else is worth noting: the punishment is not everlasting. It seems at some point the debt will be paid. What is payment but a changed heart? As it is stated in Psalm 51: "a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn." (Psalm 51:19).

Do you really think God seeks to change your heart after the manner of the state in Orwell's 1984 à la Winston and the rats? Is learning to love God by loving your neighbor by making yourself a neighbor by forgiving your neighbor like learning to love Big Brother? I can't believe for one second that's how it works. God is not, contra many self-professing Christians, a moral monster.

In her beautiful Treatise on Purgatory, Saint Catherine of Genoa observed that in Purgatory one can no longer ignore his/her issues, that is, those habits and affections that landed her/him there. Bearing witness to God’s great mercy and love, she went on to observe, "I believe no happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise."

What matters in this parable, as Luke Timothy Johnson points out, is "forgiveness becomes the characteristic attitude of those in the Church" (The Writing of the New Testament, "The Gospel of Matthew," 207). The late New Testament scholar, Father Raymond Brown, observed that "this has a very real application in church life, for the number of people who turn away from the church where they have not found forgiveness is legion" (An Introduction to the New Testament, "The Gospel According to Matthew," 193).

Diakonia requires kenosis

Philippians 2:1-11 Because this Sunday's readings include the so-called Kenotic Hymn from the second chapter of Paul's Letter t...