All posts tagged: Lent

Resurrection Sunday: That Flesh on Which Salvation Hinges

Wait a while. Christ has not yet subdued his enemies, so as to be able to triumph over them in company with his friends… —Tertullian, Carn. Chr. 15 Since I grew up Catholic I take for granted certain Catholic teachings. The idea of a God who died an actual human death (not to mention: rose again several days after the fact) never occurred to me as something absurd. Even today, I forget too easily that according to ordinary human logic, the idea of God being willing to take on human flesh and experience all the vulnerabilities and weaknesses that come with it for the sake of creation is laughable. In other words, I too often neglect to remind myself of the depth of God’s love for us. The Latin Church Father Tertullian (c. 155 – 220) left us with a comprehensive scriptural reflections on these strange realities, the corporeality of Christ’s real human body and resurrection, in the treatises De carne Christi (On the Flesh of Christ) and De resurrectione mortuorum (On the Resurrection of …

Martyrdom Is No Bloodless Myth

The fifth canto of the British poet Geoffrey Hill’s poem “Genesis” contains what I think are among the most quietly terrifying lines in modern English religious verse: By blood we live, the hot, the cold To ravage and redeem the world: There is no bloodless myth will hold. And by Christ’s blood are men made free Though in close shrouds their bodies lie Under the rough pelt of the sea; Though Earth has rolled beneath her weight The bones that cannot bear the light. Hill structures his poem around the days of biblical creation, each day placing himself in the immanent frame of the divinely-authored world, a world right on the razor’s edge where despoliation and redemption meet with such a mathematical precision that neither seems to intermingle with the other. The violence of Hill’s sinful world resists its redemption through the generation of pain and the production of blood; the redeemer, however, meets blood with blood, his own blood, a counter-blood by which “are men made free.” Thus, when Hill delivers the line, “There …

Not All Sacrifice Saves

Sacrifice in the popular mindset entails a “giving up” or a “destruction” of something one loves. The word can also involve a calculative risk, wherein one surrenders what one values to get something of greater value in return. Robert Daley rightfully indicates that these prevailing notions of sacrifice represent pastoral and theological challenges.[1] Negative conceptions can be harmful because they sever us from our loves. Scheming notions can turn us into fratricidal envious individuals who maneuver against each other to get a bigger piece of the pie. Nothing heroic or saintly exists in such ideas of sacrifice. There can be, however, a heroic form of sacrifice that is detrimental to the human spirit, specifically when it takes the form of mastery over and against others. This hypertrophy of sacrifice with its language of heroism and conflict can seduce persons into a cult of hardness or virile fundamentalism, living in a self-absorbed dualistic “us” vs. “them” universe. Recent history has been marked by those yearning for self-mastery in the face of death and denying modernity’s tendency to …

Can We Feast Unless We Fast?

Halfway through Willa Cather’s novel Shadows on the Rock, the protagonist Monsieur Auclair, a French apothecary living in Quebec, meets an old friend Fr. Hector. Though a relatively minor character in the overall novel, Fr. Hector’s appearance teaches something essential to the Christian life. Fr. Hector is cultured and intelligent, “fond of the decencies and elegancies of life,” but has spent the last few years in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. When he returns to his friend, he is overjoyed. “Only solitary men know the full joys of friendship,” he responds. Upon receiving the gift of a dinner, he says, “If one had not been through little experiences of that kind [he almost starved to death], one would not know how to enjoy a dinner such as this.” The wilderness has taught Fr. Hector something, and it is one of the lessons that the Church attempts to teach us with her weekly and seasonal penances. Yet we have forgotten this wisdom. This is not only evinced by the near total lack of meaningful penitential …

The Serious Sacrificial Body

I am embarrassed by the sacrificial body of Jesus. Don’t get me wrong. When I teach undergraduates, I am more than happy to address Jesus’s identity as the suffering servant who takes upon himself the sins of the nation. I am pleased to teach how in John’s Gospel, Jesus is the light of the world that conquers the darkness of sin and death. I delight in showing how the Lamb once slain in the book of Revelation is a counter-polis to the Roman Empire (and thus every Empire that follows—including our own). In each case, I seek to lead students beyond a moribund fascination with the death of Christ to its broader location in salvation history, its meaning for humanity hic et nunc. I want students to see Christ’s death as a coherent sign, pointing toward a form of life in which self-giving love is the very meaning of existence. I suspect that I mean well in my approach. But in doing so, I (and thus my students) am too quick to pass over the serious …

Death Clarifies What We Love

Christmas Morning, 2017 There is a kind of theology that is not written in words, but written in lives. It is a type of religious reflection, not the reflection on religion of lettered men and women, but the reflection of religion through the performance of active love. If both are indispensable to the Christian tradition, it is also clear that they are neither equivalent nor, perhaps, equally important. It is the latter task: the daily, difficult, and often unremarkable practice of being in the world as a Christian that is the material of Christian life. Rosemary Therese was that kind of Christian. The oldest daughter of a Polish father and an Irish mother, she grew up in an age when that arrangement was not yet unremarkable nor, amidst cultural and financial pressures, unremarked upon. By certain lights her life was a humble one. As the oldest child, she was not to go to college, but to care for her parents, which she did until the end of their lives. (She once told me she thought …

Where Does the Healing Power of Music Originate?

“Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast.” —William Congreve, The Mourning Bride (1697), Act I, Scene I Music seems to possess a boundless capacity to ease the suffering of a wounded heart. Whether at a funeral, a prayer service in the wake of a local or national tragedy, a reconciliation service, a regular Sunday Mass in Ordinary Time, or even in the car on the way home from work, music speaks to the heart in ways mere words never could, often requiring no words at all to bring a sense of peace and solace to those who suffer from emotional, spiritual, even physical wounds. Why? Woundedness, at its core, is the result of disintegration. There has been a rupture of some kind, and life’s relative equilibrium has been suddenly and perhaps even violently thrown out of balance, leaving a person feeling like she is no longer herself, like she no longer even knows who that self was in the first place. This spectrum of disintegration is vast and varied, including anything from minor events like …

Lead Us Not into Temptation

Next Wednesday commences the Church’s annual celebration of Lent. The feasting of Carnival season will give way to fasting, alms-giving, and prayer. The goal of this season is not merely to discipline ourselves for the festive celebration of Easter, as if “the best Lent ever” will give way to the “most excellent Easter.” Instead, during the season of Lent, we must come face-to-face with a fact about the human condition: Something is wrong with us. And perhaps more importantly, we can’t fix it. Christ’s temptation in the desert in both Matthew and Luke diagnoses our malaise. The Reformed philosopher, social scientist, and theologian Jacque Ellul provides an interpretation of this moment in Christ’s life, one that sees in these three temptations “the sum of the temptations that man can encounter.”[1] Jesus is first tempted to turn stones into bread, by the supposition that material needs are the most important dimension of human life. Christ’s responds to the Devil’s tempting by teaching that the divine word of obediential love is what is ultimately determinative of the …

On the Particular Grace of Palm Branches

“See the palm trees? They tell you anything’s possible. You can be anything, do anything. Start over.” So mutters Terrence Malick’s wayward young pilgrim near the start of his Lenten meditation Knight of Cups (2016). The voiceover accompanies a sequence of restless days and nights in Los Angeles: our Augustinian wanderer stalks empty studio lots, paces his sparsely furnished apartment, frolics through unnamed hotel rooms, mingles about impersonal party mansions. The places he haunts are not really places at all but vacant stages for his own libidinous self-expression. While in the grip of these confessedly errant passions, forgetful of himself and his surroundings, palm trees bespeak boundlessness. For those possessed of a liturgical imagination, palm branches send nearly the opposite message. As firmly as any other symbols in our yearly cycle, they affix in us the impression of a distinct time and place. They reinforce the scandalous particularity of our creed: that for us and for our salvation, God was not content to “be anything” or “do anything.” Instead, God chose a particular people, rooted …

Hitting the Lenten Reset Button

It’s hard to believe, but there are less than two weeks left of this Lenten season. I don’t know about you, but this Lent has been a struggle for me. It seems like every which way I turn, there’s something luring me to indulge instead of fast (I had a stressful day and I want to eat my feelings!), tempting me to slack off instead of pray (It’s so late/early and I’m so tired!), or enticing me to spend money on myself instead of give to those in need (I’ve done really well with fasting and prayer—I deserve to treat myself!). There is something hard-wired within human beings that runs away from the difficult and retreats into the comfortable familiar. There is also something equally innate that is all-too-eager to excuse one’s own failures, to overlook one’s own flaws (something that, oddly enough, seems all-too-eager to condemn the failures and flaws of others). We are masters of rationalization and justification, and Lent—the Church’s annual invitation (challenge) to look at ourselves with an honest eye—somehow turns …