Tuesday, December 22, 2009

True knowledge wounds us

In his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, the Holy Father wrote that "[t]he Church's deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacrament (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable" (par. 25a). The first of these, martyria, or, stated simply, giving witness, is, indeed, primary. Hence, liturgy and service are ways of giving witness to the One who was crucified, rose again, ascended, and who will return: Jesus Christ.

Being a witness means really and truly having an encounter with Christ, an authentic and genuine, if mediated, experience of Him. After all, we cannot give witness to what we have not seen. I recently had the opportunity to be present for the reception of two women who are in very poor health, so poor that their days are clearly numbered, into the church. While baptized, confirmed, and brought into communion with the church via the Roman Rite, they were carefully prepared to be Byzantine Catholics by family members. So, our small celebration had many of the trappings of an Eastern Rite celebration, which is more ecstatic than our solemn and beautiful Roman ritual. Because I was present to witness this great event, I was given a martyr's ribbon, a small bow with a small gold medallion on it. I cherish it. The whole afternoon and evening I continually thought about what it was I witnessed. I saw Christ that day in the water, in the sacred chrism, in the bread, in Msgr. Mayo, the celebrant, but most of all in the faces of these two women, who wanted so badly to be united to Christ in and through their chronic and even terminal suffering unto death. I bear a wound from that day, it was awesome because it was awful, meaning full of awe.

I am currently reading Rowan Williams' The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of Cross. Dr. Williams is currently the Archbishop of Canterbury, as such he is the head of the worldwide Anglican communion, which currently presents him with no shortage of suffering as controversy rages and division threatens, all of which was only exacerbated by the Holy See's promulgation of Anglicanorum Coetibus. Before ascending to this position, before being made an Anglican bishop, he was and remains a highly respected theologian and scholar of ancient and Eastern Christianity. In all his works, at least the ones I have read, Williams highlights the centrality of the cross. At the beginning of The Wound of Knowledge he highlights what a scandal the cross remains for too many Christians. "Our healing," Williams writes, "lies in our obedient acceptance of God's will; but this is no bland resignation." It cannot be mere resignation to what happens to us, such a bland approach has no place in Christian praxis. If Christianity means anything, it means not being fatalistic because through Christ God is intimately involved, not just in the world, but in my life. He goes on to write that our healing "is a change wrought by anguish, darkness and stripping. If we believe we can experience our healing without deepening our hurt, we have understood nothing of the roots of our faith" (20).

Experience is, indeed, the instrument for our human journey, all of our experience, nothing excluded. "The desire to be in God's image without attaining Christ's image is a desire for immediacy, which wants everything without detour and without self-actualization" (21). Self-actualization can only be realized (i.e, made real) through experience. Such a desire for immediacy, Williams points out, is "a narcissistic desire of the ego to settle down in God, immortal and almighty" (21). A person who approaches life in this way "doesn't find it necessary 'to let [her/his] life be crucified' and to experience the night of pain" (21). This attitude is operative among young and old alike in these days leading up to Christmas, when we want to get through all the build up, all the violin concerts, choral recitals, church services, shopping for others, etc., and just rip open those packages with my name on it!

Writing about the witness of the early martyr Ignatius of Antioch, on whose memorial my youngest son was born, Williams says that in the letters he wrote to the churches of Asia Minor on his way to his own gruesome death at the hands of the Roman authorities, Ignatius understands that "the death of God is that which uniquely gives meaning to the death of the martyr" (25). Conversely, Ignatius give witness to the fact that "there is equally a sense in which the death of the martyr gives meaning to the death of God-made-man" (25). Be that as it may, "[t]he martyr has no illusion about the reality of his bonds, his fear, and his pain. Yet in it he knows the closeness to God" (25). Citing the fourth chapter of Ignatius' letter to the church in Smyrna, where he became a Christian under the tutelage of Polycarp, another early bishop/martyr, Williams quotes the martyr: "To be in front of the wild animals is to be in front of God"(25).

Where is God? We often ask this when experiencing something difficult. God is in the wild animals you face. God is using these circumstances and all the circumstances of your life to accomplish His purpose in and through you, not only to perfect you, but with your cooperation, to reconcile the world, just as he did through Jesus, who was also perfected through suffering (Heb. 5:8-9). Already, less than century after Jesus Christ lived, died, rose, and ascended, there were those in the church who "found it intolerable that the Savior, the agent and embodiment of God, should share so wholly in the vulnerability of humanity" and submit himself to an unjust and shameful death (25). It is against these people and this notion that Ignatius, even as he marches towards Rome to his certain death, "turns all his polemical vigor" (25). His vigor is not exhausted by rhetoric. It is completed by his own gruesome death, which he accepted joyfully, offering himself as a sacrifice, albeit one made acceptable by the perfect sacrifice of his Lord.

God becoming man for our sake. God sharing wholly in human vulnerability. This is what we celebrate at Christmas, not cozy little manger scenes and nice, warm yet small thoughts. We are confronted with reality that liberates only because it shakes us awake, out of our slumber, out of our desire domesticate God, to to reduce Christ's humanity. Green Day hit the nail on the head when they sang that "the Jesus of suburbia is a lie;" for so indeed he is.

When you hear that God loves you, you have but two choices that indicate you understand the reality those words convey- either you run for your life, or you willingly lay it down for others. I will let Jesus himself testify to the truthfulness of this observation: "whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:24). I always joke around and say that someday I am going to sing this dismissal at the end of Mass: "The Mass is ended, run for your lives!"

In his second letter to the church at Corinth, St. Paul writes that he pleaded with the Lord three times to remove "a thorn was [that was] given [him] in the flesh," but the Lord responded, telling him "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:6-9). So, Paul resolves that he "will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:9-10). It is an aw(e)ful(l) thing to realize that it is through our brokenness that we best witness to what God has done for us in Christ; so much so that when those who persevere, surviving the time of tribulation, are resurrected, like Christ, their wounds will be the most beautiful parts of them. The wounds in his hands, feet, and side mean so much more than anything He ever said, or anything else He did, all of which was done for us in humble obedience to the Father.

Sts. Stephen, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Perpetua, Felicity, and all holy martyrs- pray for us as we, in turn, pray Maranatha-Come Lord Jesus!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post, Deacon Scott. I truly enjoy reading your longer reflections. I am particularly drawn to St John de Crucis, and he is in fact that patron saint of my oldest son. We need to stop preaching the "Jesus of the suburbs" in our culture--and having worked with teens for a long time, I have come to the conclusion that this kind of Jesus does not appeal to them at all--perhaps an explanation for why so many of them leave the faith...They need to understand the demand, challenge, adventure, and heroism that is required of them to take God seriously, and which comes with experiencing his love.

    As my wife pointed out this morning, it's ironic that the church by Liberty Park is called the "Adventure Church." That kind of a church can only appeal to a certain type of person--whereas in the Catholic Church, we find it all--the adventure and heroism, coupled with the stability and tradition--something that appeals to all, if it is preached and taught by example the right way.

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