Our Very Authentic 2020 Easter

Below is my bulletin column for Easter Sunday, 2020: 

A Blessed and Joyous Easter to all of you! We are of course all very accustomed to typical Easter routines and rituals that are painfully and strangely absent this year.  There is sadness in this fact that one cannot help but acknowledge, even on what could be called the birthday of joy itself.  How does one make sense of it all?

Perhaps it is helpful to return to the first Easter and consider it in the light of our current situation. The only gatherings we are aware of through the Scriptures that took place on the Sunday following the crucifixion consisted of two or three women in the morning, and about 10 or so disciples in the evening.  Therefore those gatherings were, by and large, “shelter at home” compliant.

They gathered in an atmosphere of collective and total bewilderment over what had become the most heart breaking and unsettling opening to Passover that they had ever experienced. Their teacher, Jesus, was dead.  He had been taken from them, and many of them had not been able to make any proper good bye, or understand how it was all going to turn out until it was done. Their hearts were heavy.

By this point, one could say it was too early for them to have the Eucharist or the Sacraments in the way that they would very quickly take root in the heart of the early Christian community experience.  An assembly on Sunday, around the breaking of the bread and the proclamation of the Word, and with elders to instruct them was not on their minds that first Easter. These things were just on the horizon, just outside of their possession.  One might say they knew them in concept, but not yet in reality.

So, with heavy hearts, and without sacramental rituals, or large gatherings, or customs, etc, what did they have on that first Easter Sunday?  The Gospels do provide a clear and instructive answer.  As that Sunday unfolded, from the dawn until the evening hour, they did know without a doubt that Jesus had risen.  The reality of the Resurrection was planted deep into their hearts and minds by their encounters that day with Jesus himself.  To a group whose world had been shattered, especially by death, they came to know that He is Risen.

Yes, that encounter in its authentic and full manner is given to us in the Eucharist and in the Word proclaimed, which this year are lacking.  However, we do know, without question, because we have been taught it, that Jesus is Risen.   He is Risen even to a world that appears shattered.  Because He is Risen, there is a path forward, beyond this shattered world.

Maybe Easter this year will be, in its way, remarkably similar to the first one.  Maybe, therefore, it will be just as powerful.  He is Risen, He is Risen Indeed.

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Palm Sunday: De-throning Corona

 

Here, a few days in advance, is my parish bulletin column for Palm Sunday. Start scouting out now the best branches in your yard in preparation for our great feast. 

Dear Friends at Saint Mary’s Immaculate Conception Parish and Saint Frances Cabrini Parish:  Praised be Jesus Christ!

Today is Palm Sunday, even though we are not in church to celebrate it.  Today, perhaps more than any other day so far of our virus-induced purgatory, the irony of this whole situation seems especially thick.

Palm Sunday is the day when Christ is acclaimed as King by the crowds accompanying him to Jerusalem, who are going up to the holy city for Passover.  It is the day when we celebrate in ritual what the pilgrimage group would have spontaneously done as they crested the Mount of Olives, to descend down the slope heading into Jerusalem: they ran to the palms and olive trees along the roadside, broke off branches, and waved them before Jesus.  It is a gesture for someone who reigns, and whose very presence alters the existence of those around him.  It is a gesture for kings.  For those who wear crowns.  In the case of the Lord, the only crown he would ultimately wear, as this Holy Week will again show, is one of thorns and suffering.  Yet, in his loving acceptance of it, and of that crown, he will triumph.

You may know, that our word for “crown” comes from the Latin word for crown which is: “Corona.”  The origins of the common word for our current viral scourge are rooted in similar etymology.

Right now, the virus called Corona is king. It has altered all of our existence around itself with unparalleled power. It has even dethroned public worship on this Palm Sunday.

So, I think that today a fitting way for us to begin Holy Week, since we cannot walk in procession in church as we normally would, is to stage our own, ritual protest against the Corona virus.   Like the crowds that welcomed the real King, Jesus, to Jerusalem, it is important for us to welcome Christ as the real King over suffering, death, and despair.

I encourage today any family who wishes to do so, to go out into your yards, to cut or break off a pine branch, or any branch that belongs to your own property, and march in procession in the grass, proclaiming as loud as you may wish:  “Hosanna to the Son of David!”   This virus is only king temporarily.  Christ wears the true corona.  He is our eternal king.   Today we acclaim him so, with all of our hearts, in any ritual that we can offer.

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Safe From All Distress: Christian Perspective on the Coronavirus Threat

Tribulations come to each era in a variety of shapes and forms, generating their own corresponding cultural anxiety and distress.  The outbreak and reach of the Coronavirus has indeed become a source of severe global worry, to the point where its perceived threats to bodily health are now becoming matched, if not surpassed, by its threats to global economics.  The various responses to its outbreak by nations around the world has led to situations of serious social strain on local populations who deal with the isolation and fear associated with quarantines and the severe disruption of daily routines.  At present, these realities do not appear to be dissipating.

What is the Christian perspective on our current social tribulation, and the threats to health, life, and routine that we are now enduring?  Multiple points can be brought to bear for our reflection, from varying angles.

The Christian Answer to Suffering and Death In General

At the outset it should be said that sound Christian theology does not claim that mass outbreaks of dangerous diseases and health scares are some form of divine punishment on the human race.  God did not send the Coronavirus because he is mad at the world, even if it might be true that the world can be a very dysfunctional and sinful place.

That said, sound Christian theology has always made the careful distinction and claim that while God does not cause these types of things, he does in fact allow them to occur as an element of a natural, free world containing its own forces and threats.  It is a world that, while still good, has been distorted since the dawn of time by the Fall of Man.  God permits outbreaks of diseases, even if he does not necessarily cause them.

This explanatory truth of what God permits in our dangerous world also has a Christian response that is broad, deep, and multifaceted.  For one, we know that the Gospels are full of examples of Christ intervening in the fallen world to bring healing.  We know of miraculous cures through the prayers of the Saints, in the Sacraments, and at holy sites.  God does maintain power over sickness, and even to today we can hope in his power of deliverance from our ills.

While we are told by the Lord that we should ask for cures, and that we should pray for deliverance, we also know that those prayers are not always answered. God understands better than we do that sometimes our salvation requires us to undergo suffering.  We know that suffering teaches lessons and has the potential to deepen faith.

We know that the proper response in the face of suffering is to tend to the sick, to take care of each other, and to utilize medical knowledge appropriately to bring assistance.  We know that all of these responses, especially medicine, are necessarily limited by the unavoidable reality of death that must come for all of us.

We know that the core of the Gospel and of the Christian life is the promise that we will escape permanent death if we hold tightly to the outstretched hand of the Lord Jesus.  Which means that while we work diligently in this life to preserve health and human flourishing in ways that are in accord with human dignity, we ultimately do not fear earthly death because Christ has risen.  His sacraments offer mercy and authentic power to bring us through the necessary pathway of earthly death, leading us ultimately into eternal life.

We know that as suffering and death approach us, in any way shape or form, including economic loss, that a gaze upon the crucifix reminds us that we do not suffer alone. God has entered into the suffering of his people and of his world so that our sufferings, and our death, is not empty of meaning.  In those realities, we may find and know the Lord, and in that knowledge, we are offered deeper eternal life that is not destroyed in earthly death.

The Christian Perspective On the Current Coronavirus Threat 

With all that in mind, what are some practical, contemporary Christian responses to the Coronavirus fallout?

This Suffering Will be Instructive

As time passes, there will be much prayerful unpacking about why God has allowed this particular cycle of events associated with this outbreak to occur.  Buried in this experience is a wealth of realities to ponder about how much we seek to control, about all the confidence we have placed in all of our economic and scientific systems that have proven to be so vulnerable, and about our highly interconnected society.  We have also become very confident in our ability to cheat and escape death, which, for all of its obvious benefits, has the unfortunate side effect of weakening faith and our awareness of our need for God.

A clear lesson from all this needs to be the reminder that humans are not invincible, nor can we outmaneuver nature for long.  The fallen forces of nature in which we live, for all of their beauty, remain a threat that is only adequately addressed by the Christian doctrine of redemption.  Man cannot save himself.

We Should Pray Publicly and Privately For Help

To that end, when serious social threats of any variety have emerged in prior eras, Christians have quickly resorted to prayer.  Turning to prayer is not done in place of needed medical, economic, and scientific interventions that human talents can offer.  Rather, it is done because in all humility we recognize the limits of our powers, and because God has instructed us to call upon him when we are afraid or are in trouble.

It would be very refreshing to hear the leaders of nations around the world, and the established authorities in our medical and economic sectors, inviting everyone to call upon the power of God to calm our anxieties and to bring us the healing that we reasonably seek.

As private citizens, we are free to pray whenever we like.  We have a great tradition, especially in the face of health dangers, of invoking the intercession of the Saints to come to our aid.  We should do that now as much as possible, publicly, privately, as families, and as communities.

The Wisdom of Taking One Day at a Time and Remaining Calm

The Scriptures and the writings of the Saints repeatedly assert that the most appropriate outlook for a believer who trusts in God’s providence is to live as much as possible in the present moment, rather than worrying about tomorrow.  This is especially important in times of anxiety.  Granted, prudent planning in the face of challenges has its necessary place.  However, we do not know what tomorrow will bring, and we must take life day-by-day.  We are wise to accept this fact with peaceful trust in our Father who loves us and promised to provide for our needs.

Living day to day, on whatever economic or health blessings we happen to have only that day, is how humans have lived for most of our history.  It has only been the modern world that has brought us both the luxury, and the curse, of such apparent control over “tomorrow.”  Such control, while indeed helping to save lives, also breeds deep anxiety that rapidly spirals out of control when we sense that we have lost control.  A Christian trusts in God’s power, and remains calm.

We Hang Crucifixes and Wear Saint Medals for Good Reasons

A Christian also has great faith in the nearness of Christ in times of suffering.  It is good to keep crucifixes around and visible, it is good to keep images or medals of Saints visible.  Such things remind us of God’s promise to deliver us from all suffering either in this life, temporarily, but most definitively once we have died and pass as a result of his mercy into the next life.

We Can Practice Spiritual Communion

In places where it has already become the case that people are not allowed to gather in churches or in crowds to pray, such that access to sacraments is not possible for a brief or extended time, then we know that we can make a sincere Act of Contrition for our sins.  We know that we can find other ways to prayerfully assist each other across time and space in the Communion we enjoy in Christ.  We can pray with the Scriptures and the readings for Mass even when we are alone.  We can look forward to the day when we can again gather properly at our altars to thank God for his blessings, and emerge from these times of deprivation with renewed gratitude for the gift of the sacraments that we take for granted in times of comfort.

The Command to Take Care of Those In Need Remains Unchanged

If we are aware of others around us who are sick, we are still commanded by the Lord to care for them and to love them so that they do not feel that they are alone, or are an outcast.  If we find ourselves hurting financially or going without because of any type of economic strain, we have a long history of sharing our resources with each other, and we are still commanded to take care of anyone who is going without, knowing that God rewards us for doing so.

The Lord Tells Us We Have No Reason to Fear

If we find ourselves experiencing rising anxiety or fear, then we have only to remember what is said frequently in the Scriptures: Be not afraid.  May we hear the Lord say to us again: “Take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).

This current threat is an important opportunity for us all to make the prayer of the Mass our own personal daily prayer:  “may we be safe from all distress.”   The Lord is near us in life and in death, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad times.  He is the great and master teacher who allows challenges so that we can deepen our faith both as persons and even as an entire people under his care.

Our Lady Is Always Near

May we run always and often to the Blessed Mother, who through the ages has shown such tender care for the sick and the distressed, and ask her to keep us firmly under her protection and mantle.  Through her prayers and power we may we all know firmly, that the greatest good that we have, even more than the goods of health and material blessing, is the grace of eternal salvation.  That is the ultimate lesson to be learned as we pass through this whole experience: that God alone suffices.

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A Lament For Election 2020

We find ourselves just under one year away from the official 2020 Election Day in America.  Contemplating it from this vantage point, in the light of what seems to be in front of us, one searches for a reason to be hopeful.  A statement of Saint John Paul II comes to mind from an address he gave in 2003 to the Vatican Diplomatic Corps, addressing the unfortunate reality of war:  “War is always a defeat for humanity!”   The question before us seems again to be: will the next election, especially for the United States Presidency, be a defeat for humanity?

 Of Wars and Elections

Consider briefly the basis of this comparison.  Does the Church acknowledge that war is sometimes necessary in our fallen world?  Yes of course. Is it always accurate to say, with the late Pope, that war always bruises and scars the face of humanity, even when justified?  Yes.  Wars present real dilemmas to nations, leaders, soldiers, citizens about the difficult ethical questions of whether or not, and how, to wage them.  It seems no matter which direction one leans, humanity is going to suffer for waging war; it also seems clear there is sometimes no avoiding it.

Are elections necessary? Yes, based on our current mode of governance in the West.  Are they inevitably bruising defeats for humanity in their manner of being conducted?  In a fallen world, even the most Christian election scenario is still going to leave a taint and do its share of damage.  Do elections present real dilemmas of hard choices for nations, leaders, and citizens? In a fallen world, yes.

That being said, elections do not have to be defeats for humanity in the same way that war is.  There ought to be enough of a broad-based, Christian-inspired cultural consensus on the meaning of personhood, on the nature of a just society, and on the proper role of government that an election isn’t an occasion for a civil war.  Similarly, there ought to be a large, critical mass of citizens who are well-schooled in civility, ethics, the art of governance, and the practice of right judgement so that an election is not a brawl.  Similarly, there ought to be at least a handful of qualified leaders to choose from who are good examples of integrity, as well as compromise, so that elections do not inevitably result in the selection of dysfunctional leaders.  Indeed it is true that the creation of such a favorable atmosphere takes genuine dedication, labor, and sacrifice on the part of a whole nation that rests firmly on the principles of Divine Revelation.  While not easy, such a setting is not out of the realm of the possible, even in a fallen world.

The Unavoidable Dilemma of Defeat

Election 2020 finds us miles and miles away from the essential ingredients listed above that are required to avoid a defeat for humanity.  Our electoral moment is not unlike staring an inevitable war in the face, realizing we have no choice but to fight in it, facing impossible choices along the way, and knowing when it is all over, we are all just going to lose.

When it comes to the Democratic Party platform and its current main front runners for presidential office, it is impossible to ignore their increasingly strident stance against traditional Christian values and worldview.  One is aware that, barring a miracle, should a Democrat become president, it will bring systematic and organized hostility to the Christian community in America.  The message of the Gospel, with its specific implications for how we are to properly understand the nature of men, women, gender, marriage, children, and families, along with its mandate to publicly shape the fabric of society in accord with these truths, is directly at odds with the stated agendas of the modern Democratic Party in America.  These are truths that are at the very core of what it means to be a human and to live in society.  A Democratic victory in 2020 leaves humanity defeated, if they put into practice the message on which they are campaigning.

When it comes to the Republican Party, certain elements of the party platform are, on the surface, less overtly hostile to the same principles of human life noted above. However, the agenda of the party as it is often articulated does not offer a systematic defense of the above principles either.  There are powerful segments of the Republican establishment that appear to subject what should be non-negotiable principles of life and human dignity to the more powerful forces of simple economics.

The above would be true whether President Trump is again the Republican nominee, or if he is not.  As of today, odds are that he will be the nominee.  In which case, his re-election will also be a defeat for humanity, based simply on the objective standards of good and decent behavior.  It is impossible to deny that his manner of expressing himself, and his style of public example (legal questions aside) are a disgrace, especially for the leader of our nation.   As a nation we need to be able to freely admit this is an objective fact.  His ongoing occupation of the Oval Office, simply in virtue of his disposition, barring a miracle, is a defeat for civil social discourse.

So, we are facing yet another election year when the choices we have in front of us are not really choices at all.  What a defeat for humanity indeed.

Such defeats lead to the uncomfortable realities of Christians becoming very strident defenders of one side or another, which tends to happen when one’s defense is knowingly weak, and when one has no real options, leading to a decline of civility and reason all around.  It’s not unlike a war zone.

Engaging the Election 2020 Dilemma with Grace: Some Points

What does one do?  Perhaps one sits out the election entirely, like a conscientious objector sits out a war.  If that is where one’s conscience sincerely leads them, it is understandable.  However, such a stance has its own problematic implications and effects, and such a person has to wrestle with the fact that everyone else is getting his or her hands dirty. Totally “clean” living from the taint of the culture, even corrupt ones, is something of a luxury in a fallen world such as ours.

Assuming an inevitable engagement with the American two party system as it currently exists, some principles and behaviors are critical on the part of men and women of faith.

Everyone needs to begin by acknowledging that no good Christian can defend either of the two major party choices in this election without some type of qualifier or lament. Just like no one should be excited about wars, even the necessary ones, no one should be overjoyed at their vote in the 2020 Presidential Election.  The note of lament is important as a way to tone-down the frequently rough rhetoric in our discourse, it is intellectually honest about the objective problems with each side, and it is a spiritual opening to receive God’s grace that needs to move us, personally and collectively, to a better cultural reality than the one we currently have.

Secondly, it is very important to be very well informed of accurate Catholic teaching on the major questions of our cultural moment.  I will grant that it is not easy to know which voices in the Church to trust on these matters.  Nonetheless, our traditional teachings, most especially on the areas of personhood, are consistently clear throughout the ages which makes them easily identifiable.

Additionally, it is important to be passionate advocates for specific issues and ideas, rather than for parties and platforms.  A faithful Christian and Catholic is likely going to find themselves very passionate about positions, or policies advocated by each major party.  Such a parceled approach leads to more critical and nuanced thinking about complex issues, and it allows one to have to weigh more effectively the moral dilemma posed by two unappealing options, as one weighs the issues carefully.

Cultural Transformation Is The Goal.  Prayer is the First Step

Being passionate about issues as they are informed by the light of Divine Revelation eventually alters the public discourse away from the status quo two party scenario that drives so much of the debate today.  What must replace this are re-shaped parties, re-shaped platforms, and re-shaped candidates who are more accurate reflections of the full breadth of the Gospel.

At the core, if our elections are to be something better than repeated defeats for humanity, then each of us needs to seriously commit ourselves to praying for our nation, for our parties, for our candidates, and for a conversion of heart.  We all need to give ourselves the freedom to think outside the broken boxes of the current electoral reality, going in search of new alignments around issues that will produce authentically Christian options for governance. We need to share with others around us a re-imagined vision of what our political landscape can look like so that, more and more, it becomes concrete reality rather than a mere mental theory.

Elections do not have to be defeats for humanity.  Yet, without all the serious personal and cultural conversion that is required by the Gospel, our elections will only bring defeats, rather than victories.

Off to war we go in 2020, and it will be brutal.  God is eager to teach us lessons from our defeats, and if we do learn from them, in accord with his grace, then there is always hope for 2024.

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Dead Funerals

It is a challenging task to explain to people, Christians and non-Christians alike, the reasons why our contemporary views and practices surrounding death are often unsatisfying. Everyone reacts to the fact of mortality, that is clear.  However, while it is evident that everyone reacts to the reality of mortality, it is less clear if the most common reactions these days are very helpful, for the living or for the dead.

Death ought to provoke a truly meaningful and uniquely human response, one that conveys the awareness of the frailty and wonder of our human existence, and also one that acknowledges the grandeur of God. A meaningful response that encapsulates the mystery of the human with the divine allows death to be dealt with properly, allowing for its integration into the fabric of life.

However, more often than not in our contemporary culture the reactions to death, the rituals that accompany it, are less than truly meaningful on the deepest levels that our nature requires. They leave an empty hole in our souls that we are eager to dismiss, and that we often do not acknowledge.  As time passes, this tendency dehumanizes the living, the dead, and the culture.

Death in the Context of a Monastery

A helpful way to illustrate the often inadequate reactions we offer is to contrast them with another perspective, or set of reactions, rooted in a more classically Catholic worldview of the mystery of God and man.

Consider the example of traditional monastic communities.  One manner of tending to mortality has to do with the basic and intentional layout of a monastery itself, especially on a Medieval plan.  The long abbey chapel is often the northern edge of the monastic footprint, and to the south of it is the main entry to the dormitories of the men or women, accessed by a short stairway leading to the church.  Directly opposite that stairway, across the chapel and on the outside of the northern wall of the church, is frequently found the cemetery.   This structural layout ensures that daily, when it is still dark, the community members make their way to the church to pray the Vigil Office, and they descend (as if into a tomb) into the church.  They descend while also staring at the location where, at the end of their lives, they will be buried. In the community Mass that follows the chanting of the morning offices, the monastics celebrate the resurrection that is the source of their joy and hope. It is a daily brush with death and resurrection, both their own and that of those who have gone before, given authentic meaning in the Paschal Mystery.

Some religious houses incorporate a chapel of the dead.  In it might be found statues of skeletons carrying on their heads a tall candle symbolizing that the resurrection has triumphed over mortality.  In such a chapel, either a temporarily erected one or a permanent space, each recently-deceased member of the house pauses for a couple days on the way to the abbey church for the main funeral Mass, while the living brothers or sisters each take turns praying the psalms on each side of the casket.

In many houses there is a daily procession to or from the main meal, wherein the men or women walk reciting all of Psalm 51, offered for the forgiveness of sins of the dead. There is often a daily reading of the necrology, during which all listen while someone reads off the list of the members of the house who, over the last several centuries, died on that date.  After that another psalm is prayed for mercy on their souls.  The general prayers for the dead are also offered each day as part of the meal prayers.

It is common to reserve one Mass each month offered in black or violet vestments, for all the deceased, especially the members of the specific religious order.  Masses are frequently offered for the repose of the soul of some recently deceased member, or more impressively perhaps, for the souls of major monastery benefactors who are remembered annually, most of whom died hundreds of years ago.  It is as if they died only yesterday in the collective liturgical mind of these communities.

This portrait of the monastic view of mortality and its accompanying ritual reactions to it, demonstrates well the classic mindset that those who have died need the assistance of the living, and that in Christ the dead are very close to us. It is a duty and a privilege to extend care to the dead after their earthly life has ended. The bridge of care that is extended from the living to the dead is only made possible by the linking of the living and the dead that is accomplished in Christ’s death and resurrection.  Only a thoroughly Christian worldview allows for this conviction. It is also critical that one always keeps before his or her eyes their own mortality, so that the opportunities for virtuous living in this life will not be wasted.  This life is short, it is a gift, and it is given so that one may know, love, and serve God- period.

Death Is No Longer About the Dead

The monastic viewpoint and its corresponding practices are impressive for what they convey about proper, loving care for the deceased.  At the same time, by way of contrast to much of the contemporary outlook on death, they highlight the shifting nature of grief and changing views on death that have led up to our own day.

The author Charles Taylor summarizes the differences between Medieval views of death as opposed to those of today in this way:  centuries ago, the chief anguish over the deceased had to do with the fear that their soul would not be saved, whereas today the chief anguish is over the fact that the living will not see them anymore alive.  The Catholic liturgical tradition, most especially maintained in monasteries and via the customs noted above, operates out of the older understanding or viewpoint as the chief driver of the rituals.  Previously, our main duty to the dead was to pray for their souls, and our chief concern upon their passing was whether they will be rescued from damnation.  Something of a secondary concern, though certainly valid, was the consolation of the living on this earth who have to say “good bye.“

In popular culture, and even in most Catholic circles these days, these ideas or priorities have become inverted.  Most people simply assume that when someone dies they are automatically with God, in heaven, or wherever.  The deep concern is no longer about the deceased.  “They are in a better place now, “  or “They are not suffering anymore,“ we often say.   Rarely does anyone pause to ask or wonder how those things are known with such certainty.  This fact is what is commonly assumed without qualification.

With such a large and unproven assumption now directing our reactions to someone’s death, the focus of the mourning, and the source of any pain, becomes exclusively about everyone left behind: the grief of the living.  We quickly focus on how much we will miss the deceased, how sad it is that they are not here, what will we do now.  Or, more and more these days, we focus on how we can hang on tightly to them, and to their memory, and even to their existence so that we do not have to part from them.  Increasingly there exists the desire not to bury the remains of the dead, but rather the need to keep them in our home, near our bed, in our garden, or even around our neck in a locket.  Each survivor wants to get a piece of the deceased so that we can possess them and keep the dead for ourselves, like an exclusive possession.

In such a climate funeral Masses, if they happen at all, become almost totally about the living and not about benefiting the dead.  We cease to offer prayers for the dead because, in an abrupt way, once they are dead we do not worry about them anymore.  Instead, our chief focus is on ourselves and how we are feeling about it all.  Without a deeply held desire to commend them to the care of the living God, who is the only bridge between the living and the dead, we are left to have recourse only to our memories of them. A funeral becomes a means to “celebrate their life,” which can now exist only in the past.  Our frame of reference to soothe our pain depends directly upon how mindful we are of the deceased, rather than on our knowledge of God.  There is no means available to us to resolve our grief, or integrate it into God’s pattern of salvation, when the link between the living and the dead is so horizontal.

The Need to Bury Dead Rituals and Bad Theology

Any mode of thinking, or ritual, that is so deeply self-referential is lonely, sad, and unfulfilling.  In this way, most contemporary funerals and funeral practices are dead.  Yes, there is of course a needed degree of comfort in a community gathered and in mutual support, but without a firm hope in the God who saves, and without a strong awareness of one’s own role to go on caring for those who have died, any comforts of a funeral ritual are short-lived. They cannot adequately speak to the nature of God, of man, of life, or of death.

Much healthier and also much more charitable is the classic Catholic viewpoint of the dead that focuses our concern not so much on ourselves, though that does have its place, but more importantly on THEM.  It is an outwardly-directed sentiment, a more loving sentiment, a less self-focused sentiment.  It is authentically communal, appropriately transcendent, more theologically accurate, liturgically beautiful, and in all those ways it is simply better for us.  It is better for the dead as well.

Such a shift in current practice rests upon a wide-scale revisiting of the assumption that everyone who dies automatically goes to heaven.  This requires a much longer conversation about current theological gaps that exist across the systematic spectrum of Catholic life. For present purposes, it is at least important for us the living and the mourning to step back and objectively analyze our experiences surrounding mortality and grief.  We should ask if we are missing something critical that those in prior eras understood more clearly.  It is true that the entire world is not a monastery, however the monastic practices described above are illustrative of a more theologically accurate outlook on life and on death that wider parish life and contemporary culture can seek to emulate in whatever ritualistic ways seem sensible.  Doing so would benefit everyone, both the living and the dead.

 

 

 

 

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In Search of Halloween Joy

I have pleasant memories of Halloween in the Upper Midwest of America growing up, most especially because I have a fondness for all things “Autumn.”  A little dress-up here and there in the crisp weather, some decent candy bars from the neighbors- I would say my memories of it could be called “subtle” in the best sense, and harmless.

That was roughly 30 years ago.  By comparison, today’s observances of Halloween in our culture I find to be less than subtle, I would say even disturbing.  From a purely objective standpoint, two focal points of necessary discomfort with contemporary Halloween can be safely illustrated.  Both of them might be best explained using some references to the thoughts of Charles Taylor in his very comprehensive book, A Secular Age.

Taylor’s project in this book is to trace the development throughout the centuries of a secular sphere of society that is distinct from institutional religion or piety.  He shows in his book that our very parceled thinking today about religious versus non-religious zones of culture would have been unthinkable until very recently in the long sweep of history.

“Fun” is King

One important factor that Taylor identifies in the emergence of our contemporary, divided outlook is the prevailing mindset about the importance of personal satisfaction or wellness.  He says that ours is the first culture in world history where the highest good is the maximum personal fulfillment in this life; there is nothing more important than this.  Prior to our era, the prevailing understanding held that only in the next life could one achieve maximum fulfillment, which meant that in this life we settled for the reality of lack, of want, and of the inevitably-unfulfilled.  One could say we settled for “less than great now” because we were sustained by the promise of “later,” whereas our current era is defined by the reversal of this: we want it all now, whereas later (whatever that is) is something like icing on the cake that we’ve already eaten.

What does this have to do with the objective problems of contemporary Halloween?  Taylor’s articulation of our cultural inversion of priorities is one way among many of laying bare the modern problem of excess.  Halloween has become in so many respects a grand display of sensory gluttony, fueled in large part by the prevailing Western attitude that this life is about fulfilling every emotional fantasy that we can dream up.

Contemporary Halloween is especially susceptible to the problem of excess.  At the core of its current observance, if one goes in search of its existential purpose as a holiday, is really just one word:  fun.  It is fun, nothing more.  There is no other religious, political, or higher meaning to anchor it in anything other than the pursuit of fun.

What is fun?  In our current usage, it equates to whatever brings us pleasure, and in a worldview that is centered only on the maximum of the now, fun and pleasure is always going to reign supreme if there is nothing to reign it in.  Contemporary Halloween is nothing more than celebration just for celebration’s sake, which gives rise to its stunning level of sensory overload in recent decades.

Moving From “Fun” to “Joy.”

“Fun” does not exactly exist in the Christian vocabulary in its current usage.  There is, perhaps, “community,” and there is of course “family,” and we have a long tradition of “festivals,” to be sure.  However, for the Christian all of those things were firmly tied to the deeper dogmas of the faith and to God-given patterns of human life: marriages, births, dedications of sacred spaces, etc. The pleasure and the fun of it all was not an enduring end in itself to be pursued to the limits of our credit card maximum balances.

The better word in the Christian tradition for what contemporary Halloween is chasing after, but cannot fully reach, is “joy.”  Many in our commercialized culture make the mistake of thinking that greater excess will bring greater joy.  More fright, more thrills, more enormous inflatable yard decorations, bigger bags of candy, longer and longer days of anticipation are all an attempt to catch joy and hang on to it tightly, savoring the emotional high that excess temporarily delivers.  When that gets boring, then the contemporary answer is to get an even more elaborate set of inflatable goblins in the front yard next year.  This is a chasing after the wind, to quote Qoheleth.

Joy cannot come, in our finite world, without temperance and moderation.  If there is one major difference between the Halloween of today and that of my childhood, it can easily be summarized as one of scale: today it is way, way over the top.  As a “holiday” that exists really only for the sake of celebration itself, totally unmoored from its earlier Catholic elements, in an age where we feel obliged to squeeze every drop of pleasure out of this life that we can, then it makes total sense that the subtle and relatively harmless Halloween of my childhood has mushroomed into a glorification of sensory gluttony.

To rescue it we need to tone it down.  A Christian family, trying desperately to raise decent children in our neo-pagan era, can do a great service by simply celebrating the day with sanity and moderation, in every possible aspect.  Moderation is a great antidote, and it can only come from hope, which is the deep-seated viewpoint oriented to the world to come.  Which is another way of saying that only the correct grasp of the purpose of this life, the next life, and the bridge of hope that unites them is strong enough to reign in contemporary Halloween. Without that, one’s credit card combined with the limitless supplies at the Halloween Store are going to destroy moderation every time.

A Lack of Vision

The second objective problem with contemporary Halloween besides its gross excess is perhaps more subtle.  Again, Charles Taylor is helpful.  In the same book, he articulates well that our modern era, in contrast to the Medieval world, is one that has stripped the mysterious from our everyday worldview.  It has happened so thoroughly, that a modern person really cannot begin to grasp what it was like to see the world through the eyes of someone in Medieval Europe.  For them, all of reality was mystical.  Persons, places, things, and even ideas were all animated by their own type of spiritual light and darkness, either for, or in opposition to the Trinity.  Problems and their solutions were entirely a function of turning the object in question over to the power of God who would in turn liberate it from the evil that possessed it.  Headaches, for example, were viewed as the result of a harassment of the forces of evil.  Today, by contrast, we simply take Advil.  The current practice, while effective, is at the same time boring and not at all spiritual.

In the earlier world view, God’s power was highly concentrated in things: relics, Sacraments, rites, shrines, the presence of the Saints, etc, etc.  Charles Taylor traces a development of the contemporary prevailing worldview in which, over time, God’s presence was gradually de-coupled from “things.”  For us today God is essentially “everywhere.”  God is also highly abstract, numinous, and as a result also not very pushy or demanding.  God, or the “spiritual,” has taken on the same attributes as background music, soothing us as we drift through our days.

Such a modern world that takes sacred “things” so lightly also has a way of trivializing evil. If God has now become vague and “everywhere,” then it makes little sense for images or scenes of witches, ghosts, and goblins to be anything other than mere vague play things.  Today many people intuitively believe that psychics, spells, Ouija boards, pentagrams, pagan symbols and ideas are really just empty entities that we can manipulate at will.  In a de-sacralized worldview, this is a logical conclusion. Some today do still believe in and embrace the evil forces at work in such entities,  which is of course its own dangerous reality.

A similar desacralized culture that lacks the vital tools of Christian revelation to navigate the realities of life, death, resurrection, and personhood in a dignified way is also going to fall prey to the glorification of gore, just for gore’s own entertaining, shock-value sake.  Contemporary Halloween is marked by a heavier and heavier glorification of gore.

The Proper Way to View Evil, the Proper Way to Celebrate Halloween

For the Christian, our appropriate fear of the Lord cultivates in us at the same time and appropriate abhorrence over any glorification, as well as any trivialization, of evil and of gore.  We do not dabble in things of darkness because we know that God is concrete, and God is real, and that his strongest desire for us is to free us from the powers of darkness.  We do not celebrate gore.

It is abhorrent for a faithful Christian to encounter the elements of modern Halloween that glamorize the demonic.  It is also deeply distressing to encounter elements that make light of it, NOT because they believe God is stronger (which is something akin to the earlier roots of Christian Halloween) but RATHER because they don’t believe there is such a thing as good versus evil in the first place.  It is disturbing to witness such widespread indifference to the Christian understanding of the spiritual universe.  Modern Halloween has elevated this indifference of our secular age to new heights.

What does a Christian do?  Perhaps one avoids the pagan and gory trappings of the holiday entirely. Or, maybe one works on the careful catechetical balance of the Medieval mindset:  God is real, God is powerful, God lives in His followers, and when one firmly believes in grace, then one can safely laugh in the face of the devil and death whose power has been crippled by the Savior.  In our decidedly non-Medieval world, that is very difficult message to communicate well.  If all one can pull off is simple avoidance, then maybe that is the safer route these days.

Simply put, Halloween is only rescued by households, communities, and societies that deeply believe in Christian revelation.  Doing so does not necessarily eliminate the holiday, as its Catholic history clearly shows, but it does put all the excess, and all the spiritual indifference, into its proper place, correcting all that is flawed.  In such a place of true faith, Halloween is appropriate.  With its celebration is authentic fun, community, and maybe even…. Joy.

 

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Green and Christian

‘The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He has given to men.” Psalm 115:16

Is Greta Thunberg crazy? A prophet? Both?

Even some members of the German press raised an eyebrow at her dramatic address at the recent United Nations Climate Summit in New York. If they, the leaders of the climate protection charge in Europe were taken aback, then there should be no arguing about the fact that young Ms. Thunberg over-reached in that most visible of world pulpits. Over-reach and over-emote she certainly did.

That said, it would be foolish to dismiss her too quickly. Like it or not, she has become the face of the latest mass social change movement to ripple its way through the cultural and political fabric of the Western world, that of climate activism.

It is a social cause and force that is not going away anytime soon. Certainly the volume of media stories on the topic of climate change, and the rhetoric for action to protect the earth has continued to grow in the American cultural and political scene. The level of conversation in America about climate activism pales in comparison to the place the same topic holds in the public square of Europe, most especially in Central and Northern Europe.

Largely unnoticed in America until very recently, the “Fridays for Future” rallies for the protection of the environment, in which thousands of young children skip school classes on Fridays to advocate for climate change legislation, have become a major public fixture in Europe. The Green parties have made major gains in recent European elections, pushing all the established centrist European parties on the Continent to up their public rhetoric on climate protection. The interest in climate activism is growing among the young who, like each new generation, hunger for some cause to promote. Climate activism has arrived on the scene as a major captivator of minds and hearts across a wide demographic spectrum.

Whose Turf is Greener?

What does a Christian make of all this? Like so many things these days, it is confusing, which underscores the need for some critical ecclesial analysis of this latest social activist cause.

Noteworthy is the case of another recent person in the press who did not grab nearly the media attention of Ms. Thunberg but whose story nonetheless brings the crux of the dilemma of an adequate Christian response into clearer focus.

Bishop Stefan Oster of the Diocese of Passau, Germany drew some public fire for openly marching in the recent Fridays for Future Climate Strike march in Passau with the youth and other activists of the city. He expressed his admiration for the cause of protecting the environment and the passion of the youth. For his public support, Bishop Oster received sharp criticism from the local leftist political leadership for showing the Church’s face in an arena in which they said it does not belong. The implication being: “this is a secular, government matter in which you and the Church have no voice.”

The Bishop Oster story is instructive for different reasons. For one, the sentiments of that local official sum up much of what is wrong with the Green movement in its current manifestation. Also, one might argue that Bishop Oster is on the right track for what is needed by way of response from the Church, although his example is only a small first step.

The Green Counter-Religion

A purely secular Green movement, or even a mildly Christian version that is awash in neo-pantheistic thinking, is a flawed ideology. Ironically, it is not difficult to identify the manner in which it also has all the trappings of its own religion.

Consider the parallels (which others have pointed out long ago) between Christianity and the ideology of climate activism in its secular manifestations. At the heart of it is what every modern social activist movement requires for its success, namely, a victim. Impactful political, social movements in recent times have come to the rescue of the vulnerable victims of racial minorities, of unborn children, of people who are attracted to the same sex, of people who are unsure of how to live their gender just to name a few. In the Christian West, as Rene Girard so astutely noted, the ongoing need to come to the defense of some publicly identifiable victim in a social system is deeply ingrained.

In the case of the climate activist movement, the latest victim for public concern and heart-felt sympathy is the earth itself, with a variety of victim subsets being especially fragile species and environmental zones. Only secondarily, contrary to the Green rhetoric, is humanity itself the real victim of concern that is driving the activist forces. This is because, again following Girard, systems also require scapegoats which in the current cultural discourse of climate activism is modern humanity itself.

With the identification of a victim comes the necessary moral codes of conduct, the “Commandments” about what is required of persons and societies in order to protect the victim. From this comes the growing litany of personal, social, or corporate wrongs, or sins, that are harming the victim of the environment. From that follows the shaming of any entity that does not adhere to the emerging commandments of environmental protection.

There are creeds in this religion. They are formulated by the high priests and clergy of secular green activism, namely, the scientific community. The scientists are the holders of the knowledge that makes clear the pathway to perdition, and they are the ones who can offer any new scientific remedies that alone can bring salvation.

There are sacramental events, or rituals, in the Green religion, for example recycling. There are indulgences, most specifically the selling and purchasing of “Carbon Offsets” by those who can afford to buy their way into emission neutrality. There is also the apocalyptic vision of the end of our known existence with rising seas, falling skies, and a whole host of predictions of serious environmental imbalances.

Which all also leads to language of the earth as “mother,” essentially as a pagan deity, and with its deification comes the need to offer up sacrifices to protect and satisfy her. The most benign of those sacrificial offerings is the elimination of wasteful systems and ways of living, for example doing away with air conditioning, or with air travel. The most serious sacrificial offerings are the elimination of humans themselves by proposing, for example, that we abort children in impoverished parts of the world in order to save the planet.

Understanding the secular Green movement as a religion, or perhaps a counter-religion, offers important insights into its persuasive power, its appeal to emotion, and its ability to change hearts for good or for ill. It also explains how it is easy for adherents of the secular Green activist movement to view themselves as an alternative power center to traditional institutions such as governments, or more interestingly to the Church.

An authentic Christian response to the rising, secular climate activist movement must begin by honestly assessing the movement for exactly what it is: a competitive religion that is in some key ways incompatible with the Christian faith.

The Green Movement Is Not Without Merits and Requires Engagement

That being said, our response cannot stop only at the point of merely identifying a competitor. Doing so misses the truth at the heart of the climate activist movement, namely, that it is possible and important for humanity to act as more careful stewards of creation. Indeed every heresy or false religion has truth buried inside of it, and this new counter-religion is no different. Some of the concrete behavioral change practices that Green activism promotes are responsible and appropriate.

Choosing to view the secular Green activist movement merely as a competitor also keeps the Church on the margins of what will be a major and important social movement of the current era. We cannot allow that to happen for a variety of reasons.

Christ Is The Authentic Redeemer of Man and of the Entire Created Order

For one, and here Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis deserve some credit, the proper care of God’s creation is an important moral issue in an authentic Christian ethos. The primary reason for this has very little to do with secular science, but rather it is a matter of the recovery of, or maintenance of, a proper understanding of the human place in God’s created order as the link between the rest of the created cosmos and God himself. Indeed, God has given the earth to men as the Scriptures indicate, but it is given to us to be utilized in the context of radical communion with God.

Proper Biblical theology, proper Christology, and proper Christian anthropology situate redeemed man at the heart of the divine work of the redemption of creation. At the heart of THAT redemptive work is the Incarnation of Christ, the proclamation of the ethic of discipleship, the death of Christ on the Cross, and His Resurrection.

To put it succinctly, divine revelation teaches that man cannot understand himself, or properly heal his relationship to the rest of creation, without the placement of Christ directly at the center of the entire picture. Only in Christ does man fully understand his divine vocation as link, and steward, over the rest of creation. Only in Christ’s Good Friday sacrifice and Easter Sunday Resurrection can man live out this divine vocation. From this follows the essential role of the Sacraments, in which earthly matter (creation) is elevated in grace for the right recovery of our proper role vis a vis creation, and also for our sanctification to live this vocation.

Furthermore, only in the ethos of the Cross, and Good Friday, does man discover the means to live simply and sacrifically in order to truly use creation wisely and without needless waste. Only in the Resurrection does man fully realize the broad vision of the life to come that liberates us from the narrow vision of a life that is sustainable only by this, temporary planet. Only in the fullness of Biblical revelation does man understand that creation is not identical with the Creator. Only in the fullness of revelation does man understand that human life cannot be sacrificed or killed off in order to satisfy the needs of the resources for humanity as a whole. Only in grace is it possible for man to see that we will be the lynchpin, or the crowning of the created order rightly cared for, rather than the obstacle to its existence.

A More Authentic Christian Response Is Necessary

Sadly enough, it is rare to encounter a well-integrated Christian response to secular Green ideology that both recognizes the merits of the need to care for the earth, while at the same time presenting the necessary solution that comes to us in divine revelation. The secular Green movement, with Ms. Thunberg and all the rest, have landed upon a correct and important cause. However, without Christ, the Sacraments, and revelation, their cause will be forever denied the necessary means for its fulfillment or solution. What is worse, their cause will devolve into a dangerous, anti-human force for evil.

Which brings us back to Bishop Oster. One could say that an important step in the process of evangelizing the secular world on both the merits, as well as the limitations, of their thinking on climate activism is to at least get behind the passion of the cause. The cause for more careful stewardship of the earth’s resources is a good, holy, and noble one, regardless of the continually shifting conclusions of secular science. The Church’s voice needs to be at the table in this ongoing and growing conversation if we are to have any hope of trying to salvage what is good in it, and to change what is flawed or even evil. This will be especially important if we are to allow the youth an arena to find an appropriately Christian expression, or outlet, for their well-placed passion for this cause. For these reasons, I am glad that Bishop Oster marched with the youth.

That said, it is also true that the pastors of the Church, from the very top down, need to sharpen our theological responses and official statements on this topic because most of us do not sound much different than the secularists and pantheists who find all of their salvation in more legislative initiatives and apocalyptic fear-mongering. Our message at the core must be one of grace, of the tradition, of fasting, of prayer, of the ethos of the Saints, of the person of Christ, and of the correct understanding of the person. Without those things, we are just furthering the problem and failing at our prophetic vocation to flood the world with God’s true voice, the only voice that can save.

Our endorsement or advocacy for more specific policy initiatives must be a secondary fruit of our primary reflection upon and articulation of the authentic human vocation. WHAT does it mean exactly to say that God has given the earth to men? The Christian tradition holds all the tools to adequately answer this question in every era, including our own.

It would be interesting for the bishops to publicly announce that our already established norms of Fridays as days of penance, which is still true for all of the year not merely in Lent, can be offered for the conversion of hearts to better care for creation. The only authentic “Fridays for Future” are those that center on the sacrifice of Good Friday. Without that, we are all lost, and no behavior will change at the core. The Church must join in these sentiments now and seize the narrative with authentic thinking before it is too late.

Perhaps this is a naive hope. The secular forces are indeed very ingrained, and maybe some bishops showing up in some Friday marches here and there are not going to accomplish much in the face of the secular machinery that is already such a juggernaut on this, and so many other topics.

That said, what do we have to lose? Especially since, at the core of it, this issue of authentic care of creation has always been our message in the first place, as the Book of Genesis makes very clear. We may as well claim our rightful place as the God-given stewards of the one message there is that can authentically restore the balance of human flourishing and the flourishing of all of God’s creation.

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