Saturday, January 30, 2016

Jesus: Love, death, and life eternal

Readings: Jer 1:4-5.17-19; Ps 71:1-6.15-17; 1 Cor 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30

In posting yesterday's traditio, almost as an afterthought, I noted, keeping in mind that it was seeing lovers kissing by the Berlin Wall that prompted David Bowie to write "Heroes" - "Love has political implications, always and everywhere, in all times and places." As I looked at the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) this morning, passing through what is perhaps St. Paul's most well-known and probably best-loved piece of writing, even if it is usually liturgically employed in a badly out-of-context manner, and arriving at the Gospel, these words sprang back into my mind.

In (literally) seeking to flesh this out a bit more, something I read recently - though published nearly 10 years ago - also came to mind. It is from Terry Eagleton's review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion that appeared in the London Review of Books (see "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching"):
The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you
I can think of no better illustration of this than Jesus' treatment at the hands of those present at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth on that Sabbath when he quite directly and unambiguously proclaimed who he is and what he came to do. It's important that we don't treat the Lord's fellow Nazarenes with too much contempt. Why? Because, more than we care to admit, if we're honest, we react to the reign of God in a similar manner.

Our Gospel for today marks the beginning of Jesus' ministry according to St. Luke. As we know, his ministry culminated in his passion, death, and resurrection. Especially with Lent rapidly approaching, it's vital that in our rush to resurrection we don't skip his passion and death. Because of our baptism, our lives as Christians should follow this same, cruciform, pattern. To love in the manner described by Paul, in both its positive and negative aspects, is the most subversive and revolutionary way to live. We know what happens to subversives and revolutionaries. But living this way is what truly makes a Christian a Christian and is what makes being a Christian so difficult that it kills you.

Something else that struck me reading this Gospel was Jesus' escape, not that he escaped the furious mob against improbable odds, though he apparently did, but that, as Luke records, "Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away" (Luke 4:30- emboldening and italicizing mine). What I was struck by, holding in mind the rest of Luke's Gospel, is that Jesus seems to never have returned to Nazareth. In other words, he "went away" and stayed away. I think we run this risk whenever we refuse to let the Gospel challenge us, preferring instead to engage faith only according to our preconceptions, that is, without conversion. It is precisely allowing ourselves - at least those of us who live comfortable lives in stable, secure, and prosperous societies - to be confronted by the radical message of the Gospel that Pope Francis' entire papal ministry is geared towards. This simply must happen if we are not to be like the Nazarenes, people who thought they knew Jesus all too well and so dismissed him far too blithely.

This week one of the great, albeit lesser known, French New Wave directors, Jacques Rivette, passed away. In the wake of his passing I read a lovely and relatively short article about his oeuvre. The piece, "Jacques Rivette: Slave to Beauty," written by David Thompson in The Guardian, like Eagelton's piece, was published nearly a decade ago. Writing about how Rivette, despite making visually magnificent movies - in keeping with the art form of cinema - never let the visual take over entirely, Thompson observed that in Rivette's films, "The visual is a given; it is the norm; it is the world, or its engine - and Rivette, without reservation, loves that world even when it frightens him. I doubt he has ever composed a shot without seeking both grace and an austere absence of all those signs that say: 'Here is grace'" (emboldening and italicizing emphasis mine).

Ah, to love the world without reservation, even when it frightens me! Isn't this the provocation of Jesus? If so, therein lies the goal of my life! While I don't want to delve into this now, such a mission is in no way at odds with contemptus mundi. In fact, the two are perfectly harmonious and not merely in some nebulous "dialectical" manner.

It seems to me that an essential feature of the experience of grace is that it lacks neon signs that say: "Here is grace." I believe those present in the Nazareth synagogue that Sabbath long ago also lacked such signs. If the earthly ministry of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, shows us anything it is that it was not intuitively obvious to the casual observer that he is Lord and Messiah, the very Son of God, the Savior of the world. This is why spiritual praxis, especially the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, taught us by Christ himself, are so important. Practicing these is important so the "visual" acuity of our hearts improves. Only in this way can we "see" grace.

What Rivette's films and so many other works of art, as well as nature, show us is that, without a doubt, beauty is the most perceptible sign of grace. While beauty, unlike love, may not kill, she certainly wounds and leaves a scar.

As Karl Rahner, that most cerebral of theologians, forthrightly observed: "In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all." Or, as Don Giussani put it, we're "either protagonists or nobodies."

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