Pastor, prior, artist, goth and iconographer. I live in Chicago, with my wife in an intentional Christian Community (the Community of the Holy Trinity). I pastor the Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler, an ecumenical congregation in Chicago.
I have been writing icons for 9 years.
This story takes place at the edge of empire and completely out of sight of the state and its power. Though in ways unintentional and unknown to the powerful and the State act in concert with God, for their own undoing. Not immediately, not in away that to us looks timely or efficient, but undone all the same.
A Christianity associated with empires and conquerors, especially as it did the period of European colonization, distorts this story of God’s incarnation in the person Jesus of Nazareth. As Mary’s song, the Magnificat, says God never sides with the powerful and the conqueror. So much of White and European Christianity is condemned in this story of the birth of Jesus.
No one of import in the Roman Empire is aware of this moment when God comes into the world as one of us, a human, a Jew. In this moment of the Holy Nativity the rich and powerful have no standing and aren’t even in the picture.
God is born under the oppression of the Roman Empire, whose dictates must be followed, whose peace is achieved through the brutality of its military. This is the situation in which God comes, and becomes human: God’s people Israel, are still a conquered people, and God doesn’t come to King Herod’s, a puppet king of Rome, but comes to the common oppressed. Not only comes to them but becomes one of them. Yes, they may have traced their lineage to King David, but make much of that supposed lineage and the might of Rome would put an end to any who made such claims.
There is something odd and counter-intuitive to the joy of this is good news worthy of Joy. God doesn’t come this time and defeat Rome like God defeated Pharaoh and Egypt at the Red Sea. Rather God comes vulnerable and becomes one of the oppressed and poor of the world. This time no emissaries are sent to the halls of power, rather heralds announce God’s arrival to shepherds in open fields. This extraordinary story of the birth of Christ, is a most ordinary story, of God coming in our midst, among the poor and powerless,- as the poor and powerless. There is no shock and awe here, no show of force, no threat.
The light that shines in darkness doesn’t come from halls of power, but from a small village in the back-water corner of the Roman Empire, a village that few of significance in Rome knew existed. This is where God choose to live.
This is liberation, that God is one with those who are deemed unworthy, who are seen as lazy, who are forgotten and
abandoned. This announcement o our liberation in the Holy Nativity says, and if we are looking for God to show up in the halls of power, the
Holy Nativity tells us we are looking in the wrong place. The powerful may move but if it is movement in concert with God’s work among the people of the world, it is for their own undoing, not that the powerful act with or for God. This is Christmas, the Holy Nativity, the world upended, God changes the world through becoming a powerless human being, that everyone of import can ignore.
King David, once a shepherd boy, the youngest of his brothers, now he has secured his position as king of Israel and the territorial integrity of Israel. With a fine palace to show for it, while the god of Israel has a tent and not a palace. The ark of the covenant is still in the tabernacle. David want’s something more impressive for the creator of all things and the god of Israel. David wants ot do what other Kings do for their god’s build God a proper temple and solidify the relationship between the God of Israel and the King of Israel.
God, Adonai, doesn’t see it that way and opposes this idea. God is content with the tent and the ark on the move among the people. God reminds David that not long ago God chose David when he was just the youngest son of Jesse, a shepherd boy. David should not imagine that he could be like other kings of the nation’s equating himself with his God, as he solidifies his power. After all it is God who chose David and established David and rather than build God a house God says he will establish David’s house. God prefers to be among God’s people, God has done and will do just fine with the tent. The tabernacle suits the creator of all that is just fine.
The history of Israel contradicts God’s promise to David in part because the Kings of Israel and Judah never escaped this idea that the gods legitimate the power of kings and their princes. God of Israel wouldn’t be so used, and through the prophets consistently declared that God wasn’t on the side of kings and princes and the rich and powerful even if they were technically god’s anointed. The God of Israel and all that is, was concerned for the poor the oppressed and the needy and sided with them not with the powerful and wealthy who oppressed.
God doesn’t need David’s power and prestige, and God isn’t going to let David think he can establish the relationship between him and God. God is free, God acts, David and we respond to God’s action in the world. David wants to connect his success and his sovereignty as King to God, by establishing a temple and cult for God (and Solomon will do this). God refuses the equation, and reprimands David for the idea telling David that on this God has been clear; While God has given David his position as King in Israel, he wasn’t the first “shepherd” of Israel and God has never desired a central location, God chose Israel as God chose David, as God chose the other leaders of Israel, but it isn’t to make the equation between David and God, God and David. The God of all creation is the God of Israel, this is a difference, Adonai isn’t a tribal God, though God cares for and desires good for Israel and Israel’s King, David.
The confusion of David and even the prophet Nathan, is a confusion that one can trace through much of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is a mistaken conclusion based the God of Creation, interacting with the created order in its minutia to achieve global ends. This is what some have called the scandal of particularity. As God renews a relationship with humanity, God does so through particular persons and times. The temptation is to believe that choice means that time or person or place is on its own terms special, rather than point out God’s way of doing things. We may have some understanding of God through the universal character of God as creator, but we come to know god personally through God’s choices, first of Abraham and Sarah. The God of Israel is always the God who meets us through others of God’s choosing.
When God sends the messenger Gabriel, to announce to Mary God’s intention that she is chosen, this is in line with God’s actions throughout time. Abraham and Sarah were no one of significance to the emerging States and the powerful of their time. We are told that Mary is a descendent of David. The promise to David is kept, but that promise was always for God’s purposes, as God renews a relationship with each of us and all creation. Mary a descendent of David, a member of the people of God, young just beginning her journey of life, see’s something that her Ancestor David failed to see, though God tried to remind David of this, tried to get him to see that God isn’t about power in the way kings and the powerful among humanity understand power. Mary see’s that God is set against those who try to dominate. God’s deeds of power lift those we who look for prestige and power ignore. God moves among the people not among the halls of power.
We remember Mary and her ancestor David, and Sarah and Abraham. Mary is and isn’t special. She is among the long list of those whom God has chosen in specific times and places to participate in God’s plan to restore a relationship with God. God choose particular persons, like Mary, and a particular nation, Israel, to relate to each of us personally.
This confounds us, this is the mystery that was hidden but is now revealed in Jesus Christ, that the God creator universe, of the vast expanse of Galaxies upon galaxies, cares for the minutia of the universe. God doesn’t think like a human managing some vast realm or corporation, letting others attend to the minor workers, the janitors, the easily forgettable workers. God isn’t limited like us, able only to care so much, God relates to all creation in all its particularity and minutia, not in distant only in its global and universal aspects.
Each of us through Jesus Christ and the Spirit, are like these ancestors of our faith, Mary and David and Sarah. Through them we know that God doesn’t reside in the halls of power neither in Washington, in congress or the Whitehouse, nor internationally in New York at the U.N. God moves among us whom the rich and powerful care little about, and give little thought except when they need us to vote, or buy something, or work for them. God isn’t like the powerful.
Through Mary God is one of us in her child Jesus. God was and is and will always be God with us, joined to our human flesh and God’s creation through this descendant of David, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, a Jewish Palestinian peasant who lived far from the powerful and the rich who except for God, would have long been forgotten by the world and the rich and powerful.
This is what we are called to embrace that God cares for us in our seeming insignificance and powerlessness, that the rich and powerful seek to hide from. God doesn’t deal with us as an anonymous collective of being to be controlled but comes to us and deals with us in our particularity, and did so by forever becoming one of us, Jesus of Nazareth. And so we remember Mary and honor her, and consider her blessed, because it is through her that we know God and it is through her particularity that God comes to us and meets each of us in our own personhood. This is what we are about to celebrate, this astounding love of the creator of all that is.
The Scriptures read on the Second Sunday of Advent lead us to contemplate repentance and waiting.
Repentance isn’t just confession and being sorry for one’s sin. Repentance is opening up to transformation, thus turning around and going in a new direction. Repentance isn’t saying I’m sorry and then carrying on as before. Repentance responds to an offer for a different way of life one in line with God’s vision of the world. Repentance is a response to God’s offer of a different way of life. Repentance is not only asking forgiveness for doing a thing called a sin, but being open to change and transformation that leads one away from doing particular sins. Repentance prepares ourselves and the world for the presence of God that reorient ourselves and opens us to our true selves.
In the work of John the Baptist repentance is what prepares the way of the coming of God in Jesus Christ. In 1 Peter, there is a connection between our repentance and waiting for the ultimate transformation of the whole cosmosthat is to come. The radical transformation we open ourselves to in repentance is what Peter envisions is happening to the entire cosmos. It’s not that the burning up of the cosmos ends the cosmos but to use a Pauline term purifies it like smelting silver and gold. The physical universe will not cease but is transformed by a smelting fire to burn away all that is opposed to what is true, good, and whole. This is the work we open ourselves to through repentance. It is why the earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was preceded by this call to repentance. God was reforming God’s people in and through the work of Jesus of Nazareth. This restoration always connected with the Jewish people into which the other peoples of the world were grafted into as God restores humanity in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.
This restoration and transformation requires a repentance which in turn upends and undermines the presumption of the State and its demands of loyalty and assertion that it is the solution to human need and oppression. The good news of Jesus Christ Son of God, is a radical and political statement that sets things a blaze by using the political mythology of the Emperor for a Jewish peasant in the back water of the Empire (As Jason Chesnut has pointed out in his recent Advent reflection.) The repentance the Gospel, the good news, calls us to is to turn from our faith in the salvific claims of the State, the power of the sword as St. Paul the Apostle summarizes it. As Paul indicates that power of the sword may be necessary to constrain evil, but that power can’t transform the cosmos and cannot bring about the deepest and permanent change we desire. Only God at work in Jesus of Nazareth does this. God does the patiently, slowly burning away the dross of sin, unrighteousness, injustice and oppression, transformig us and the entire cosmos.
In repentance we willingly become subject to this work and become participant in it. repentance is a waiting for the consummation and a movement by which we are participants in God’s work in Jesus Christ. We are acting and waiting in repentance. During Advent we are at the beginning and the end. How does this good news of Jesus Christ move you? Do you know what you are waiting for? Have you made the turn and opened yourself to God’s transforming love?
Saint Nicholas is one of the first Saints of the church, after those mentioned in the New Testament, that I learned about as a child (Santa Lucia was the other one, but that’s for another post). Protestants aren’t big on Saints, “All Christians are saints.”, so the logic goes. But being German remembering Saint Nicholas on December sixth was a significant for my father. He relished telling us of the real Saint Nick. I grew up hearing about that fourth century bishop, Saint Nicholas of Myra when most other kids my age were hearing about some guy in a read suit at the North Pole with flying reindeer. I never received a gift from Santa Clause. Each year dad would remind my sister and I of the “real Santa Claus”. We didn’t really celebrate St Nicholas day. On occasion there might have been chocolate, European chocolates, but no gifts and no mention of Krampus. I didn’t learn much about St. Nicholas of Myra, beyond his being a bishop and that he gave a gift of bags of gold to three daughters of a poor widower.
This limited knowledge created a great puzzle for me. Why in the world did Saint Nicholas a bishop from what is today Turkey, ever end up being associated with a figure that lives at the North Pole with magical reindeer? Why is St Nicholas associated with Christmas at all even in the distorted figure of Santa Claus? As a child December sixth was a long way off from Christmas. Except for Saint Nicholas and Santa Lucia we never celebrated Saints days. We celebrated Advent, but I was also a little vague on its relationship to Christmas (there was a time I attempted to figure out how the Twelve Days of Christmas counted in the song fit in Advent) . Myra wasn’t in Germany, Nicholas wasn’t German. It was all very perplexing.
Saint Nicholas was a popular saint among Europeans, he wasn’t German, or French, or Italian, or Dutch, he was Middle Eastern, a citizen of the Roman empire. Our love of Saint Nicholas wasn’t because he was German, but because we came to belong to him, that is we became Christ’s.
This puzzle kept a fourth century Middle Eastern bishop as a significant figure for my Christian identity. Eventually I learned more about the Liturgical calendar and embraced the Saints as those that imaged for us Christ, and with whom we are in communion, as those who have died in Christ. In this fuller knowledge of the life and culture of the church, the puzzles resolved themselves as I had all the pieces. My dad’s strange Germanic affection for this Bishop of Myra (who wasn’t even German) worked itself in me, kept me asking who is this Saint Nicholas and why is he so important.
As my parents spoke of this Saint, I was taught the story of what it means to be like Christ, through the example of someone different from me and the community in which I grew up. Saint Nicholas taught us that exchange of gifts at Christmas wasn’t supposed to be about things and receiving. The gifts were a reminder that the Christian life was to be one of self-giving, because God gave of God’s self to us. Generosity and justice, not greed and accumulation, was the meaning of the gift giving at Christmas, St. Nicholas of Myra a Fourth century bishop helped us remember this. He was an exemplar of this divine self-giving, the divine generosity in which we were to share in and emulate.
One won’t get this from the cultural celebrations of the Germans and the Austrians and other Europeans any more than you will get this from the Jolly man in the red suit who comes down your chimney bearing gifts. But my father gave me a gift of remembering this fourth century bishop, the “real Santa Claus.” Dad allowed the cultural memory of this Saint, to instill in me a sense of generosity and love, that bound me, an American son of immigrants, to someone beyond my nationality and ethnicity.
There’s no reason, neither based on American Manifest Destiny nor German heritage, that I should know or care to remember Saint Nicholas. There is only one reason, that God entered the world in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, and in a chain, that crossed all boundaries, grabbed hold of a fourth century orphan of wealthy merchants, whose Christ like generosity and zeal for justice, grabbed the hearts and souls of Germans. This Saint Nicholas ever teaches us of Christ. Through him we are called to be zealous for a world transformed by love, generosity, and justice, given to us in Jesus Christ, God in human flesh.
It was not uncommon in the ancient world for kings to be described metaphorically as shepherds. This metaphor carried the ideal of a king as protector of the week and the innocent. This was the fable of kingship. The king was to be in solidarity with those in need of justice and protection. The reality was quite different. Much of the proclamation of the prophets including Ezekiel was aimed at this discrepancy of how the kings and princes were expected to treat the vulnerable and the poor in Israel and what Israel’s kings and princes did. Both in Israel and in the nations kings and princes were as likely as not to use their positions of power not to protect the vulnerable but to shore up their own power prestige. God expected the kings and princes of Israel to act according to the law and be just and not accumulate wealth and power to themselves. Thus, the judgment of Ezekiel upon the leaders of Israel. As Christians we read Ezekiel’s “servant David”, the shepherd to come, as Christ. Thus, Christ the King. Jesus Christ is the king who is the true shepherd who is in solidarity with the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.
Jesus describes himself as a king concerned for how the poor and the vulnerable and the oppressed are treated. In Ephesians Jesus Christ is the cosmic ruler, Emperor, ruler of all, for the Church. Ephesians takes Ezekiel’s promise of God being the shepherd of God’s people and the Shepherd God’s people, God’s servant David, moves it beyond Israel into the whole cosmos. Christ isn’t just the shepherd of God’s people Israel, but is ruler over all nations, and peoples and over all cosmic powers of the Universe. God in Christ shepherds the entire universe.
But what does this mean for us? How we might live as members of Christ’s body the Church, with this knowledge?
In the parable of the last judgement, Jesus Christ the king, brings us to a point of self-examination. the heart and solidarity of the shepherd is revealed in this parable. It’s not enough to read this as a check list for righteousness: “Have I fed the hungry?” Check. “Have I clothed the naked?” Check. “Have I cared for the sick.” Check. “Visited people in prison?”. Check. At the same time, we can’t ignore the call to right action. But we should be moved into action by knowing God’s heart, and living as Christ in the world. We miss the meaning of the parable if we see ourselves as isolated from Christ and a those with whom Christ identifies as king and judge of the nations.
Liberation theology encourages us to read this as a judgement not of individuals but of nations, Christ the King in the parable gather’s the nations and divides people from sheep and goats. This highlights for us that the parable is about groups, collectives and thus solidarity. On this interpretation, the parable has collective action not necessarily individual action as its focus. This parable isn’t just about individual charity, but justice: it’s about how we together, not just isolated individuals, treat the poor the oppressed the sick and the imprisoned.
The question isn’t simply what are you individually doing, or did you individually do all this but were you part of communities where the vulnerable the hungry the sick, those without shelter or clothing, the imprisoned were attended to, or were you part of communities that ignore the least of these. It also asks with whom are you identifying? Do we identify with the prisoners in our prison industrial complex the victims of what Michelle Alexander call “the New Jim Crow”? We the U.S. imprison more people per capita than just about any other nation in the world, we accepted tough on crime legislation and demanded more prisons be built, and reports from the conditions of those prisons is horrific and, our prisons are the place of perpetuating the racist white supremacist heritage of our country.
On to our self-examination:
In Jesus’ story of judgement, the heart and goodness of God is revealed: God in Jesus Christ, identifies themselves with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. Christ the King identifies himself with those in U.S. Prisons, with those who are the streets experiencing homelessness, with those without food or the ability to care for themselves or provide for themselves. God knows are weaknesses, and while Jesus’ story is stark sheep and goats, Ezekiel and Ephesians are less stark, put more weight on God’s action then human action, and encourages us that we can grow into knowledge and action. This is the heart and goodness of God: God in Christ identifies with the poor, vulnerable, oppressed, and forgotten. God seeks us to even when we don’t have God’s heart and we are able to grow into identify as Christ Identifies. We don’t act alone but we enter God’s work of justice and care for the vulnerable.
So, examine and pray for wisdom, and growing in love. Jesus Christ the good shepherd is seeking you out along with all the other lost and hurting humanity including the hungry the sick, the naked, the thirst, the imprisoned.
In our examination we ask do we separate ourselves from those we see as weak or in need or do we share the solidarity that Christ has with them? Before we ever step out to act on this parable of the judgment seat of Christ, we must ask do we share Christ’s solidarity with the vulnerable oppressed and marginalized, or do we seek to separate ourselves from vulnerable, oppressed, and poor humanity. Is your response to this story of judgment to help those unlike you, or are you driven to recognize your solidarity with those mentioned by Christ?
Our action can’t be from s place of doing for those who are less than us or other than us, but helping those who are our equals, because Christ says the least of these, those who are suffering, are Christ, are those with whom the King of the universe says these are mine, how you treat these human being is how you treat me. Do you want to know how to live out your faith and what faith means for the world, then Begin here, in solidarity. From this beginning, you will know what you are to do, and you will grow in knowledge and wisdom and love. Let Christ take you over, let the Spirit of Christ fill you, such that you can have solidarity with those the powerful will pass by and harm without a thought, or those our society and world use up for the sake of preserving wealth and status and power.
Eugene Peterson’s answers to Jonathan Merritt’s questions on gay marriage and Gay and Lesbian Christians didn’t read to me like a resolute advocacy for LGBTQ Christians and their full inclusion in the life of the Church. His retraction the day after the RNS interview was published, would appear to confirm this reading. Peterson’s answer to Merritt’s questions, fit with the measured tone and local pastoral focus of his writing. He spoke not from the place of moral theology but from his pastor’s heart. His retraction is disappointing and disheartening for many LGBTQ Christians. Yet, given his celebrity and Lifeway Books threat to remove his entire body of work from their stores, the retraction isn’t surprising. Currently, for many in American Christianity, both progressives and conservatives, this is where the Gospel stands or falls. Merritt’s question, Peterson’s answer, the reactions to Peterson’s answer. and Peterson’s retraction, tell us what pastoral and theological postures are no longer possible within American Christianity.
Merritt, reveals a hermeneutic clue: in his prefatory remarks he said he asked Peterson the questions about gay marriage because he couldn’t find anything on the subject matter either in his published works or in any public remarks. Peterson in his long career has been silent on the subject. This is significant in and of itself. The silence already positioned Peterson within the American Christian landscape, but the position is one currently unavailable (for good or ill) to Peterson (or anyone). This position is one of neither viewing LGBTQ Christians as sinners whose sin is beyond the pale and must be denounced, nor viewing LGBTQ Christians as those in need of active universal affirmation and advocacy in the church. As a former professor of mine said 22 years ago when asked about LGBTQ Christians in the Church: “It is a local pastoral question to be dealt with on case by case basis”. Peterson’s answer is an example of this position, as he accepts the scenario Merritt presents, with a simple “yes.”
I’ll unpack this more in a moment: Peterson’s retraction is from this same position, his retraction is in part motivated by his remarks being taken as global moral theology, and not local pastoral theology.
In the interview, Peterson is careful, he knows he’s walking a tight rope, he knows LGBTQ and affirming Christians read him and he knows evangelicals and Fundamentalists read him. Peterson answers the question within the context of his “brand”, the careful thoughtful pastor who is above the fray of the American Christian culture complex. He speaks first of not having awareness of gay Christians in the early periods of his ministry, but then tells a personal pastoral story of young gay man and musician who seeks to take up the position of organist and music director after the music director stepped down. The young adult gay man comes out to the congregation in the process and the congregation embraces and doesn’t prevent the out young gay man from serving in this leadership position. He concludes that he was very proud of his congregation. In the polarized moment we are in, in which there is only two possible places one can occupy, this story and Peterson’s answer was read as advocacy.
Peterson’s answer was also taken as a “change of mind” (an assumption Merritt and the RNS editors make). Peterson didn’t intend to convey a change of mind, but of a consistent pastoral approach, which was neither LGBTQ ally nor viewing LGBTQ Christians as unrepentant sinners. I’m not claiming this is or was a middle ground, rather I’m claiming it was a position one could take, and one can no longer take up this position in the American context. Both Fundamentalists and Progressives now demand you take their position or you have sided with the other side and have abandoned the Gospel. It may be true that this is that serious, but we must recognize viewing it as such is a recent development within American Christianity.
Peterson’s retraction in part is his attempt through the use Evangelical code to both assuage the conservatives and take back the terrain in which he has lived on this and, most other moral theological questions.
Peterson affirms the Biblical view of marriage one man one woman. But it is noteworthy that he follows up that Evangelical code language with “I affirm everything that is Biblical”, which for a pastoral theologian of his attentiveness is either strangely naïve or intentionally meaningless and ironic. He is a Biblical pastoral theologian, his entire career has been about getting pastors and their congregations to be confronted and transformed by engagement with the Scriptures, so of course his positions are “Biblical”, that’s the entire point of his life’s work! To think otherwise is to misunderstand “Eugene Peterson”, and to have never read him.
Significantly he doesn’t talk about homosexual sin or that we need to love the sinner or hate the sin. Like a cranky old man irritated by a commotion outside, he’s irked that he is drawn into a dispute he has avoided his whole career. “I’ve said my piece! Now get off my lawn, and leave me in peace!”. We should also recall that is in this same interview with Merritt, that he announced his withdrawal form public Christian life.
In his retraction, Peterson says that he assumed Merritt was asking the question in relation to the pastoral situation in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A (PCUSA), so he answered the hypothetical scenario in which he was once again a Presbyterian Pastor of a PCUSA congregation. Since his approach is local and pastoral and not globally moral theological, he took the situation within the PCUSA in which “the question was settled.” And people either were going to be in the congregation because they accepted the position of the PCUSA, or if not, they would have left. Since Peterson doesn’t see the question of LGBTQ inclusion as a Gospel question nor one upon which pertains to orthodoxy, he can contemplate the situation within the PCUSA and the cultural context in which gay marriage is now legal marriage, answer with integrity of his pastoral theology that yes in the PCUSA today he would marry a gay Christian couple.
The reactions to his pastoral local answer to Merritt’s “hypothetical question”, draw his answers into a camp, that made him out to have “changed his mind” and sided with one position within the American Christian landscape. (A position he does not share , as he holds a different position) The reactions both rejoicing and condemning took his comments as global moral theological statement about LGBTQ inclusion in the Church and the moral and ethical status of homosexuality. As his retraction shows this was not his intent (and why would “Eugene Peterson”, speak outside pastoral theology). However, the position shown by Eugene Peterson’s silence on LGBTQ Christians his entire career is no longer a position available within the American Christian landscape especially if you are a celebrity and have a Brand threatened by being forced to “change one’s mind”. Eugen Peterson speaks on local pastoral theology, not global moral theological questions. When he thought he was speaking to the pastoral situation within the PCUSA he could speak in affirming terms. However, “Eugene Peterson” won’t (can’t) speak in global moral theological terms. His affirmation is local pastoral, his retraction is a refusal of the global moral theological pronouncement on Homosexuality and gay marriage. But, within American Christianity, the only positions available are “affirming” or “Biblical view of marriage.”
At work in all of this, as I’ve alluded to throughout, is brand and celebrity. These were also in play in Merritt’s question, Petersons answer, people’s reactions , and Peterson’s retraction, but this exploration is beyond the scope of this post.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:27 (NRSV)
As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The Kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleans the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment: give without payment. Matthew 10:7,8 (NSRV)
Christians in the early centuries of the Church were known for the care of those in the margins, this included caring for the sick. I recently painted the icon of St Camillo who had a chronic health condition, and founded a religious order for the care of the sick and the wounded on battle fields. In the history of the United States Christian denominations saw it as part of their Gospel mandate to found hospitals and health care institutions. Whatever one’s politics if one is a member of Christ, the care of the sick and the disabled is part of the mandate of the Gospel. We may disagree how that should be achieved but our views of how best to achieve must be motivated by this: that the care and healing of the sick and disabled, especially those who cannot provide for themselves and who are vulnerable and abandoned by society is part of what it means to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In our moment how might members of Christ, given the Gospel mandate, evaluate and act around the government’s role within a for profit health care system where having health insurance (or the type of health insurance one can get) determines one’s access to health care? Reflecting on our call in terms of “charity” and “solidarity”, may offer a means to discern what the current out working of this call should look like.
Some wish to argue that the Gospel only calls the church to be charitable. Those with access to health care and the wealth enough to buy insurance, need of their own free will to give some part of their wealth to organizations or directly to people to help those who aren’t able to provide for their own health care. “Charity” says the Gospel mandate is to be achieved through the more well-off Christians giving of their money to make sure that the less fortunate are provided for.
The limits of “charity”-
My denominations hospital in Chicago, Swedish Covenant Hospital, has a good charity care program. My wife and I have benefited from this when we have received treatment there that we could not afford and insurance didn’t cover (or when we didn’t have insurance.) Even though Swedish Covenant has good charity care, to receive it we still had to go through a process to prove that we indeed needed it and couldn’t pay our medical bills. I understand this. But this is the limit of “charity” it places the less fortunate as petitioners and secondary status in which the poor must prove in some way that they truly need help. I understand why this is so, in providing charity one wants to be sure that the charity is being received by those who truly need it. But the necessary result of this need is to create a division between those who provide “charity” and those who receive that “charity.”
Several of St. Paul’s reflections on giving in the church were written as he was seeking to raise money for the church in Jerusalem, which was in need. There are two outliers in responses to St. Paul’s Jerusalem collection: The Macedonian churches who gave without bidding and enthusiastically and the Corinthian church who when asked began with enthusiasm and then were contributing little and reluctantly. Those who made up the churches of Macedonia were largely poor yet they gave with joy and more than the Corinthian church was contributing to the collection, though on the Corinthian church was wealthier. The Corinthian Church was giving out of charity, while the Macedonian churches was giving out of solidarity. The Macedonian churches knew what it was like to be poor and so was motivated out of being with the church in Jerusalem in their suffering. The Corinthian church were giving to charity in their actions they show themselves to be distant from the plight of the church in Jerusalem and in giving out of charity are weighing if they should. Whereas for the Mecedonians there seemed to be no question of giving to aid those in a similar position as them. Being poor they understood experientially the situation of the Jerusalem church, while the wealthier Corinthian Church was giving out of their relative comfort showing pity towards the Jerusalem church. The motivation of acting charitably wasn’t as powerful a motivator as solidarity.
So, what is “solidarity”? “Solidarity” is care with others through identification and not as an act of momentary condescension to aid someone in need. Solidarity seeks either in some literal way or through compassion identifying with and seeing things through the eyes of the poor, not to merely help them but to be with them and in their suffering in a way that also can alleviate that suffering.
Charity and solidarity interpret our call-
I don’t believe that charity and solidarity are at odds, but charity without solidarity has severe limits and often puts burdens upon the recipients of charity and can let the “more fortunate” remain comfortable in their distance from the conditions of those whom they are choosing to help. Those who are in the position to give out of their abundance remain in their abundance and often charity fails to lead to a sharing in the conditions that bring about the poverty or suffering. In contrast, Solidarity requires feeling with those who are in need. It is either being willing to enter into another’s experience or to recognize our shared needs. Solidarity is to put oneself in the place of those who can’t, in this case, provide for their own health care. This may lead to charity (as it did in the Macedonian churches), but it also may mean doing more than simply giving out of one’s abundance.
Charity is a response to the Gospel call. But what of solidarity? What does empathizing with those who risk losing what they need to maintain their health and to eat or have a roof over their head? Also, in solidarity seeks to understand the fear and the concern of those disabled persons who protested in front of Mitch McConnel’s office on capitol hill. Can you put yourself in place of those who need to make choices between food, shelter and health insurance? The question I’m asking is what changes if , our charity follows solidarity, on the way to fulfill the Gospel mandate.
Giving priority to solidarity–
I don’t know what is the “best” way for the church, in our moment, to ensure that healing is brought to those who can’t afford health insurance apart from government assistance. But I do know that many of those who couldn’t afford health insurance and/or to pay for their own health care, are provided for under the ACA and its expansion of Medicaid. My fellow members of Christ, are you truly prepared to stand with and care for those who can’t afford needed health care except through the provisions of the ACA that repeal and replace threatens? Are our hospitals and health care systems prepared to take up the slack should ACA be repealed? I stand in support of the ACA, not because I think it is perfect, but because I know from experience that it helps those who were unable to afford health insurance. And, the law the Republicans are proposing would eventually leave me and many in my position without access to health care except through charity care.
One way or another, either through supporting government policies that ensure that all have health care (not simply “Access”) or through institutions of the Church, we as members of Christ are to care for the sick and provide healing without cost.
We, as the Church, must ask ourselves is letting the market dictate how health care is distributed truly in keeping with the Gospel and following the path of Christ? I urge you to consider that the conception of free market provision for people’s health is not consistent with the Gospel and the Mind of Christ. However, if you don’t agree and reject that the government provide for the health of your fellow citizens, then you should be able to show me the foundations and institutions and the money you will give to those institutions in order provide for those the free market will abandon on the way and walk on past without a care. “You received without payment: give without payment.”
As of right now, I don’t see the church in the United States being able to step into the gap that “repeal and replace” will leave. In the absence of the means to ensure the health of my fellow citizens I oppose the law proposed by the Republicans in congress and do so as a member of Christ. From my conviction based upon the Mind of Christ, I support the imperfect law of the ACA. This all demands prioritizing solidarity over charity so that at this moment we may live into the Gospel demands to heal the sick and care for the marginalized, without payment.
Today in many grocery stores In Chicago you will find the polish pastry paczki, prominently displayed for sale. Today is of course Paczki Day, or Mardi Gras. If one is from New Orleans the celebration of Mardi Gras isn’t confined to this Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, in Brazil and other Countries this SEASON before Ash Wednesday is known as Carnival. Tomorrow, many Christians of various traditions will begin the season of Lent by receiving ashes on the forehead. This all may appear to be very disjointed and individualized. How does this all fit together? What connects Mardi Gras, the eating of paczkis and receiving of ashes upon the forehead?
A sense one may have from all this is individual indulgence followed by Forty days of individual self-denial. Celebration of life and abundance and the confrontation of mortality and limits. This picture isn’t entirely wrong but it largely misses the point. Carnival, Mardi Gras Ash Wednesday and Lent are all of a piece. We feast and we fast aiming for the same goal. In each we are preparing to receive again the mysteries of the faith of the church.
The dishes of Mardi Gras, are intended to use up items that one won’t be eating in one’s fast. In this way, the feasting of Mardi Gras is a holy act of preparation, so that we might be prepared (through not having in our cupboards empty of the items from which we will be fasting during Lent. Of course, buying the paczki from the grocery store on Fat Tuesday forgets this aspect of our feasting.
Preparing to Receive again the Mysteries of the Faith
Yet even if our feasting doesn’t literally empty our cupboards, we should recall that feasting and celebration of Mardi Gras are as much part of our preparation for Holy Week and Easter as is the fasting of Lent. However, we may observe the Lenten fast Today is part of that practice. Feasting today is part, our observing Lent.
In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday before ash is put upon the forehead and we hear “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are called to the observation of a holy Lent. What is a holy lent? It is one in which we take up with greater focus the practices fasting, alms giving and other acts of pious act of charity and justice. This all from carnival to Ash Wednesday up to Holy Week is all preparation. A holy Lent is one that prepares us to return to who we became through our baptism, ready to reaffirm those vows of baptism and receive again the mysteries of our faith, “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again”. A holy lent is preparation is what we do as the Church, members of Christ. None of this is some individualistic celebration and navel gazing upon our individual mortality.
Unfortunately the way we often observe lent reduces it to individual piety, “What will I give up for lent” and we focus on one aspect of the liturgy of Ash Wednesday (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”) that we forget that this remembrance of mortality is to send us into the arms of Mother Church, the body of Christ, to regain and renew our being as the baptized who are being joined together as the body of Christ, holy stones of the holy temple of God. Our repentance, our fasting, our alms giving all are oriented to this goal or remembering who we are that we may be renewed by the great mysteries of our faith.
We should stop and question the ways we may individualize and separate ourselves off from this corporate feasting and fasting in preparation to receive the mysteries of our very being as the body of Christ. Lent is to return us to ourselves as the Church, the Body of Christ. However, we observe Lent, we are to seek to be more like Christ and to grow more into our Baptism. If we aren’t focused growing father into Christ anticipating and preparing ourselves to renew our baptism and return to the Church, then we aren’t observing a holy Lent. So, do what your community or your spiritual director encourages you to do. Don’t worry if you are doing too little or too much, don’t worry about how strict or lax you are. Focus on being ready for Easter. Whatever you do have as your goal to renew and deepen your sense and understanding of yourself as a member of the Church, our mother.
Examining a practice “Ashes on the Go”
A few years back some priests and ministers experimented with getting Christian liturgy in the streets on Ash Wednesday with Ashes on the Go. I wonder if Ashes on the Go by focusing on the moment most individuated within the liturgy of Ash Wednesday if this fails to communicate the meaning of receiving these ashes in this time of preparation? Given that we already have the tendency to view Lenten disciplines as individualistic private pious acts disconnected from our being called back into the church and back to our baptism, there’s a danger this innovation reinforces individualistic interpretations of Lent and Lenten disciplines.
If Ashes on the Go is just this one moment of the Ash Wednesday liturgy I see “Ashes on the Go” reinforcing an individualistic pious interpretation of the day. How would one communicate the corporate nature of this act without a gathered body of believers? There would need to be some reminder in the liturgy of Ashes on the Go that those who receive the ashes should also be finding and involved with a local body of believers in following through on their having received ashes, some reminder of their baptism and membership in the body of Christ. Otherwise this innovation risks (whether the priest intends this or not) of reinforcing the individualized misinterpretations of Lent and Ashe Wednesday that are prevalent in our treatment of Lenten practices.
Ash Wednesday as an act of becoming church.
Ash Wednesday isn’t about confronting my own mortality, nor an individual penitence. It includes those things, but only as an act of joining with the other members of Christ. It is more importantly a collective entering a time of self-examination and repentance to be prepared to receive again the central mysteries of the faith of the Church.
In Ash Wednesday, we are asked as members of Christ to face how we have both individually and collectively exhibited a failure to live into the call l or baptism and our collective mortality. We are reminded that being a member of Christ isn’t a space of triumphalism nor a celebration of our ability as individuals to bravely face our limits. Rather, it is a space of humility, to again remember we need God and each other, to be what we are called to and that we often forget in a short time, what it means to be the body of Christ, we were initiated into at our baptism.
When we receive ashes, and reflect upon our mortality as an act of corporate repentance and humility, we are called back to who we are as baptized members of Christ Body, the temple of God.
As you feast today, and as you receive ash and begin your Lenten practice tomorrow, let it be focused upon return, renewal and receiving again the mystery of who we are as the church, baptized members of Christ. Then we can know that we are observing a holy lent no matter what we do, or don’t do, as we prepare ourselves to come face to face with the mystery of our Faith.
The sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) concludes with the parable the wise and foolish builders. The wise builder builds on a rock as the foundation for the house. This builder who builds upon a firm foundation is the one who hears Jesus’ teaching and practices what Jesus teaches. Putting Jesus’ teaching into practice is to build upon a solid foundation. The apostle Paul in his letters, also uses this image of building upon a foundation, which is Christ. However, we tend to treat the sermon on the mount as a structure that we are to live in and which we must remodel or deconstruct. The parable suggests that practicing Jesus’ teaching is more like building a structure than inhabiting something already in existence. The sermon on the mount provides a foundation for living in a way that builds upon Jesus Christ and Jesus’ teaching.
How is Jesus Christ and the teachings in the sermon on the Mount foundation? Are we building upon this foundation? What does it mean to build upon Jesus and these teachings of Christ.?
Taking Jesus Christ and the Sermon on the Mount as foundation means reading the Sermon on the mount not so much as rules to be applied in all situations, but a teaching that gives us a dynamic life giving way of being. In hearing and studying the sermon on the mount we become familiar with this way of being.
Some aspects of this we won’t go into here: The Sermon on the mount is itself a summary of Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah. Jesus is describing himself in his own teaching, Jesus is the way and fulfillment of the Torah. As the Word made flesh Jesus is the Torah interpreting Torah.
Jesus’ teaching is a whole, not discrete isolated instructions. Only as a whole are they the firm foundation on which to build. Any one saying or teaching isn’t , isolated and discrete, able to stand on its own, rather Jesus’ teachings provide the interlocking basis for life and for our building upon this foundation. Take for instance the teaching of turning the other cheek this instruction is bound up with Jesus teaching on hate and murder, with the charge to love enemies, the charge to not worry, the blessing of those who seek after justice and righteousness etc… Seeing this as foundation and way of being means that every part is part of the other unable to be removed and atomised, and picked over for its supposed utility in following Jesus.
Once we accept Jesus and Jesus’ instruction as foundation, we are not meant to build upon this foundation individually by ourselves. This way of being isn’t an individualistic path anymore then the teachings of Jesus are individual disconnected rules applied by our own wisdom. We are to build upon this foundation with others, namely other baptized members of the Church.
This is Christ’s way of being, the very nature of the church. We can’t answer how we are to live out this way and build upon the foundation individually. We can do this only as the body of Christ, only in conversation with others, both those who are living and those who have lived upon the foundation out in the past: Like St. Francis and St Clare, St. Benedict, St. Scholastica and the Benedictines, and the first monastics, like St Anthony of Egypt. The lives of the Saints show us how others have lived upon this foundation. This is a spiritual and Eucharistic practice of becoming Christ, it requires regularly taking in Christ and being with other’s who are baptized members of the body of Christ, encouraging each other to practice and build upon Christ and Christ’s teachings.
A note on false prophets and those who teach but don’t live on the foundation Christ:
If you still have misgivings about the Sermon on the mount or some of Jesus’ sayings, because some interpretations of the teaching seem to support the status quo, or oppressors, or the wealthy, remember Jesus warns against those who would twist his words for their own ends. Jesus warns of false prophets and those who would claim to speak for Jesus but do works that have nothing to do with the Jesus or Jesus’ way of being.
Jesus wraps up the Sermon on the Mount with warnings against false prophets and those who say “Lord, Lord” and claimed to do great works in Christ’s name but who don’t do the will of God as found in Jesus’ teachings. The harmful interpretations of the sermon on the mount, come back to these false teachers and false disciples. We are called to watch out for those who distort the foundation or who teach but do not live upon the foundation of Christ. But such misapplication misinterpretation and false teaching doesn’t alter the solid foundation which is Christ. Turn aside from those false prophets, and those who claim knowledge but know nothing of Christ. Do not let them shake your confidence in this foundation and the life-giving way offered by Christ.