Living in the midst of turmoil is trying in normal times, but somehow it has recently become a habit. Last week was burden enough, but just seven days later we see Hurricane Ida bearing down on New Orleans, the airport at Kabul under perilous siege, the Covid pandemic gaining strength, global temperatures soaring, and wildfires still roasting the western United States, northern Siberia, north Africa, and southern Europe.
Like the ancient Hebrews, contemporary Americans are prone to forget that there is a proviso attached to the frequent pledges that God will be near and will strengthen and protect the promised Kingdom. The proviso is the same, for the Hebrews, for the early Christians, and for us now, as we heard today in the reading from James, who in today’s second reading echoes Isaiah [1:17] as well as Deuteronomy [27:19] and especially
“Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with his neighbor; if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place, or follow strange gods to your own harm, will I remain with you in this place, in the land which I gave your fathers long ago and forever. But here you are, putting your trust in deceitful words to your own loss!” [See Jeremiah 7:5-8].
As tens of thousands of Afghan refugees crowd into makeshift shelters in Germany, the US, and other countries opening their borders, we would well in days to come to recall what Scripture reminds us so forcefully about compassion for widows, orphans, and the resident aliens in the land, because now and always God does play favorites – those same desperate people. The measure of the justice of Israel and, if St. James is our guide, of Christian faith, is how we care for those who are poor, wretched, unfortunate, displaced, and hurting. Since the Second Vatican Council, that has been known as God’s preferential option for the poor. And should be ours as well.
There will be pushback, of course. There always is. But it is not conscience that makes cowards of us all, it is self-interest.
Mark’s gospel takes up these themes by focusing on the false promise of religiosity, the smokescreen thrown up by those who promote what we now call “the virtue of selfishness” with the slogan made famous by Gordon Gecko in the film Wall Street: “Greed is good.” It is the kind of religion that elevates customs and traditions over human compassion and justice: observing the unimportant, neglecting the important. Jesus here cites Isaiah, but any number of passages in the Hebrew scriptures would suffice.
The greatest danger to Christian life, to all spirituality, is false religion, the tendency to idolize the elements of creed, code, and cult, forgetting what these verbal and behavioral metaphors stand for. Dogmatism, Moralism, and Ritualism are the enemies of the gospel from within. And yes, they do defile.
Toward the ends of the fourth century, the patriarch of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom, recognized the tendency at work in the imperial church when he said,
“Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that? Tell me: If you were to see him lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold, would he be grateful to you or rather would he not be angry? What if you were to see him clad in worn out rags and stiff from the cold, and were to forget about clothing him and instead were to set up golden columns for him, saying that you were do¬ing it in his honor? Would he not think he was being mocked and greatly insulted? [Homily 50, on the Gospel of Matthew].”
As someone who has devoted his life to the profession of religion, as we call it, I find these words scary. What they tell us is that to minister is not merely to serve, not even essentially to serve. Diakonia, ministry, means to represent, to make the presence of Christ visibly and tangibly real in the world. And the greatest danger to Christian ministry is reversion, bending spiritual energies away from the world back onto the religious institution itself. It is in this way that ministers become functionaries.
As emissaries of Christ, we are often ambassadors without portfolio, even if we have managed to survive the formal gauntlet of professional accreditation. Our message is ultimately our life, as his message was himself. In that sense, what we do is what we are, and our main task is simply to become that.
One thing is indelibly clear: the first place where Christian ministry should focus, as Jesus himself did, is on the poor, the oppressed, the infirm, the vulnerable, all the wretched of the earth. The rest will largely take care of itself.
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” [Luke 12: 29-34].
Much can happen in a week, especially if you are trying to follow it all at a great distance on the radio, TV, or all the avenues of social media. The world is in fact “mediated” to us through many channels other than our own experience, but we are affected even so, whether by the fall of Kabul, the disaster in Haiti, political infighting, or Storm Fred. And there’s little we can do about any of it short of prayer and that check to UNICEF.
One thing seems clear: the world is sorely lacking in that wonderful gift that goes back to Eden garden: harmony– social harmony and harmony with the natural order.
Today’s readings point us in a different direction. The word scripture uses for it, so widely misunderstood, is
“subjection.” The lesson begins with the story of Joshua shortly after the Hebrews cross the Jordan River into the Land of Promise.
Here, the most fundamental value of all was being endorsed by all the tribes of Israel after Moses had died — faithfulness to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and especially Moses was at stake. It would have been easy and even profitable for the Hebrews to settle in among their pagan neighbors and adopt their way of life, including their religious practices. And in fact, for hundreds of years, the judges and prophets had to steer Israel away from the temptations of idolatry to serve the one true God, even at the risk of prosperity and peace. These same prophets demanded that in the name of God the rights and welfare of the poor and oppressed were to be held sacred. Neither money nor power were to be deciding factors. Being subject to God’s Law was the first and greatest obligation. “As for me and my household,” Joshua says, “we will serve the Lord.”
The same kind of decision must have faced the early Christians. Echoes of the dilemma confronted by the community that was associated with the Apostle John are found in today’s gospel, which finishes the lengthy discourse on the eucharist that we began reading weeks ago. Will the followers of Jesus remain faithful to his teaching and promises or fall away when faced with the difficult consequences of that choice?
The dilemma surrounding values is especially sharp in the second reading, taken from the Letter written by Paul or one of his disciples to the Christians at Ephesus. Many people today, especially women, tend to cringe at the language of submission and the value system that it implies. It certainly bothers me. On one hand, it is Scripture and, we believe, inspired by God. On the other, it seems to endorse values that women and men today find repellent — subjection, submission, and deferment.
I looked a little further in the Christian scriptures to see where else such injunctions occur, and I found a number of them — almost all of them in the writings of St. Paul. And I also found a clue as to what was going on in his mind.
In his letter to the Ephesians, the writer advises them to defer [‘hypotasso’ = be subject] to one another in everything. The author, and it may have been St. Paul himself, goes on to say that wives should be “submissive [‘hypotasso’] to their husbands in everything” [Eph. 5:22].
The word he uses, hypotasso in Greek, means to subordinate something or someone, to obey or be under obedience, to place someone or even oneself in subjection. It also means to arrange something in an orderly manner. We find Paul using the same word in all sorts of ways — in regard to creation itself, which is subject to futility [Rom 8:20]. The spirits of prophets, he says, are subject to prophets themselves [1 Cor 14: 32]. In the name of good order, he tells the Corinthian Christians that “women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate [‘hypotasso’], as even the law says” [1 Cor 14: 34], which is a strange thing for Paul to say — which law? But in the Pastoral epistles, the author, almost surely one of Paul’s disciples, likewise says that children should be subject to their father [1 Tim 3:4], wives to their husbands [Tit 2:5], and slaves to their masters [Tit 2:9]. In the Epistle to Titus, he also says that “everyone should be subject to those in authority,” including the Emperor [Tit 3:1 = Rom 13:1]. The First Epistle of Peter similarly maintains that servants should be subject to their masters and wives to their husbands [1 Pet 2:18, 32:5].
We also find the notion of subjection in the Gospel of Luke, where we read that after his adventure in the Temple as a young boy, Jesus returned to Nazareth and “was subject [‘hypotasso’ again!] to Mary and Joseph” [Luke 2:51]. In a word, he obeyed them. In all these instances, the same tricky word is used.
What lies behind all these references is a notion of harmony, of peaceful order. Or the opposite: the chaos that results when people or creation itself is no longer subject to God’s rule. But it’s important to recognize that social structures change, and with that new values emerge that might well conflict with former expressions. Exactly the same word is used of relations between servants and masters, slaves and masters, and imperial subjects and the emperor and his appointed rulers. But no one today would defend slavery because of these passages in St. Paul, or argue that the best form of government is an empire governed by an absolute dictator. Just the opposite, in fact. But it took Christianity, especially the Catholic Church, a long time to reject the institution of slavery. Bishops and priests and sisters had slaves in this country right up to the Civil War.
So when it comes to the relationships of wives and husbands, it is very important that we do not read first-century values into today’s situation. The author of Ephesians goes on to say, on the other hand, “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” [Eph 5:28].
The first lines of today’s second reading are the most important: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ, be at peace with each other and Creation itself. The word here for “reverence,” by the way, is ‘phobos’ — fear, a much stronger statement. What the writer is reminding us is not that we should be afraid of Jesus, but we should be very much afraid of falling away from his teaching and example. In the gospel passage, Peter says it all: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” [John 6:69].
It is not often that the Feast of the Assumption of Mary falls on a Sunday, displacing the regular readings as it does today. This ancient feast of the Christian Church is both a consolation and a challenge. For today we celebrate not only the resurrection of the mother of Jesus and her triumph over sin and death by the special grace of God, but we anticipate our own resurrection and entrance into glory. The shadow of death hovers over our joy, but as we, too, face the sad, certain fate of all humanity, our faith tells us we shall rise again and, by the grace of God, enter the joy of heaven. The challenge to faith comes from biblical fundamentalism that refuses to celebrate because the death and resurrection of Mary as the first of faithful believers and the Mother of the Lord, is not described in the New Testament.
Catholic Christians have believed otherwise, and from the earliest times. But the testimony of scripture here, as
in many respects, is couched in poetry and symbol. Fluff, say the skeptics. But the fact remains that God’s revelation takes the forms God gives it in human words, and the most sublime of those take the form of poetic symbol.
Mary was not the first to be resurrected by Jesus. According to Matthew 27:51, when Jesus died “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” In later Christian belief, these saints ascended with Jesus into heaven. In Ephesians 4:8, we read “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to human beings.”
Those early Christians had no problem applying the Epistle to the Corinthians to Jesus’ mother, as we have seen in today’s second reading, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” [1 Cor. 15:20-23].
Whatever Matthew may have meant, Paul, and the early Christians believed or did not believe, one thing is clear: Catholic Christians have believed from at least the fourth century that Mary was raised from death by the power of God and assumed into heaven. For whatever else it’s worth, no one has ever claimed to have found Mary’s body or to have possessed a bodily relic — even in the heyday of relics.
In today’s readings, especially the gospel of Luke, Mary is compared to the Ark of the Covenant. Luke conveys the imagery in his account of the Annunciation [Luke 1:35]. Christians did not miss his point, as we hear in the ancient Litany of Loretto, where Mary is given the title, “Ark of the Covenant.” It is important to recall that the Ark did not contain God: according to tradition it contained the tablets of the Mosaic Law, the rod of Moses, and some of the manna. But the Divine Presence became manifest over the ark between two cherubim. For Luke to use the imagery of the ark for Mary, then, means that the Spirit of God overshadowed her, as he says in the gospel, that the presence of God became manifest through her.
Had Mary not heard the word of God and kept it faithfully in her heart, as Luke also tells us, not only would the world have never heard of her, but the plan of God for the salvation of the human race would have taken a very different course. But, as Einstein said, God does not play dice with the universe. Mary was free and her freedom corresponded exactly with God’s saving wisdom.
One of the oldest feasts, the Assumption of Mary has been celebrated in the Christian church from at least the fourth century. What it means for us and what it does not mean are equally important. Like the Ark, and like Jesus himself, Mary disappears from the world of human vision. She died. But death held no power over her. Her resurrection and assumption into heaven, into the unveiled presence of God, was not merely her reward for good behavior. Mary embodies the Church, she is the New Eve, the New Israel, she is the faithful hearer of the word, the true witness. She follows Jesus in his ministry, and after his death, prays with the disciples and receives the Holy Spirit, who once again hovers over the maiden mother. She follows Jesus into the mystery of death, showing us the way, and God raises her to new life in Christ, body and soul, a sign and pledge of our own transformation.
What the feast we celebrate does not mean, despite all the baroque paintings, is that Mary was taken “up” into heaven. Heaven is not physically “up” to begin with. Heaven is the unveiled presence of God, it is not a location like the place the Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin looked for and couldn’t find when he went into space for the first time. Where God is, Mary is, in Christ, the Lord of the Cosmos. What the Assumption also does not mean is that somehow Mary is different from all of us. It is just the contrary. Mary was totally and completely human, sharing everything with us except sinfulness. But, like Jesus, she, too, suffered the consequences of human sinfulness, the greatest of which was watching her son unjustly tortured and executed.
Mary is one of us, mother and elder sister of the new humanity called into being by God through the resurrection and glorification of Christ. The Assumption of Mary is an aspect of the mystery of the Ascension of Jesus, a pledge and actual inauguration of the transformation of humanity into its divinized future. When we celebrate the Assumption, we celebrate our solidarity with Mary and all human beings as the new people of God, called to glory everlasting.
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” [Luke 1:46-48].
On this nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, as we like to call it, while other Catholics around the world are hearing readings from the Book of Kings, the Letter to the Ephesians, and the Gospel of John – which continues the very long teaching on Jesus as the Bread of Life – Dominican friars, sisters, and laity are celebrating the Feast of St. Dominic. He died on the Feast of the Transfiguration in 1221, so the observance of his feast was moved to a nearby date – sometimes August 4th, and presently August 8th, which happens to fall on a Sunday this year.
Dominic Guzman is a fascinating character, who with St. Francis of Assisi, is considered one of the greatest saints of the Middle Ages. Like St. Francis, he experienced a radical change of life in his early middle age. He was already a priest of the diocese of Ozma in Spain. In 1203, he was accompanying his bishop, Diego, on a mission to Denmark when they encountered a faltering preaching band of monks from the Abbey of Fontfroide, who were attempting to counter the widespread alternative Christianity (today we would call it a heresy) that came to be known as the Cathars (“Pure Ones”) or Albigensians.
Diego assumed the direction of the preachers, insisting on adopting simplicity of life, gospel poverty, and humility – characteristics of the Cathars themselves for the most part, but not the monks. On their return trip, Diego and Dominic paused in the south of France to see how the preaching mission was going. And it was still not going well.
Diego took charge of the mission, urging the Cistercian abbots to send back their baggage trains and costly apparel in order to counter the appeal of the Cathars, most of whom lived poor and simple lives. (They were also supported by wealthy and powerful nobles, including the counts of Toulouse.) Diego himself had to return to his diocese in Spain, but he left Dominic behind to organize and direct the efforts of the preachers.
Bishop Diego intended to return but died suddenly in 1207. The Cistercians withdrew, and Dominic was left on his own in France to continue the mission. He was never very successful in converting any Cathars, but he managed to gather around himself a band of similarly dedicated preachers. For several years, they developed a simple style of life and toured the region engaged in evangelization. The work was difficult enough but made more difficult by the drawn out military campaign waged against the Cathars by troops from the north who joined a crusade called by Pope Innocent III after the assassination of the papal legate in a dispute with the Count of Toulouse. Dominic himself had no part in any military action, which would have filled him with horror.
The war dragged on until 1255, more than thirty years after Dominic’s death. In the meantime, realizing the need for a permanent mission, Dominic and his friends decided to appeal to Rome for permission to begin a new and different kind of order to promote evangelization in southern France and northern Italy. Supported by Bishop Fulque of Toulouse, Dominic journeyed to Rome in 1215, where he was favorably received by Pope Innocent, who was open to church reform on many levels. After a year of consultation with his associates, Dominic returned to Rome and gained approval of a new and radically different order in the Church – an Order of Preachers.
Reliable histories can fill in the rest of the story. What struck me recently about the founding of the Order concerns the Cathars, those “Good Christians” as they called themselves. Like many radical sects, they had a number of quirks, including forced suicide as form of self-martyrdom. What most disturbed the more orthodox Christians of the day was their extreme dualism.
Although living in one of the most beautiful and fertile parts of southern Europe, the Cathars believed that the natural world was inherently evil, having been created by a secondary, evil god. Whether or not this was owing to some influence of residual Manichaeism in eastern Europe that made its way west, that teaching denied fundamental tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition – not only the unity of God, but the goodness of Creation.
Having gazed out over the beautiful fields of the Aude from the little church in Fanjeaux, where Dominic established his first base of operations, I can only imagine how he must have felt when confronted by such a devaluation of the natural world, of Creation. Today, something like that disregard of the goodness, beauty, and also the fragility of nature over the past two centuries has brought the world to the brink of environmental disaster.
The real horrors of the Albigensian Crusade should not overshadow the deep, underlying cause of the conflict, a strange defiance of the opening refrain of the Book of Genesis: “And God saw that it was good.”
Pope Francis’ amazing encyclical “Laudato Sí” calls us to renew our appreciation of the goodness, beauty, and vulnerability of the natural world, and especially to take action to preserve and protect it. I think St. Dominic, surveying the wonders of the fields and forests below the village of Fanjeaux perched on its little hill, would understand completely.
The restrictions imposed because of the COVID pandemic have prevented many Christians from regular participation in the eucharist, to their sorrow and increasingly their protests. Perhaps the emergency has reminded us how easy it is to let familiarity lead us to take the very heart of our faith in Jesus for granted. Not that it was always easy to grasp the full significance of the eucharistic bread because we have also become so familiar with bread that we take it for granted… until the shelves go bare.
Connections are easily lost, even the best of times. Some years ago, when I was teaching a course on sacramental theology, one of my students remarked “It takes more faith to believe that the hosts are real bread than that they are the body of Christ.” He had a point. Over time, the shape, feel, and taste of bread were lost from the sacramental meal. Perhaps the longing so many Christians are experiencing for the eucharist today will lead us to recover the authenticity and therefore the significance of the elements we consecrate. We have something to learn in that regard from today’s gospel.
The reading from John continues the chapter from last Sunday that can be called his eucharistic discourse. This is obscured a bit by the
English translation that reads “where they (the thousands of people) had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks” [John 6:23], the Greek has, simply, eucharistesantos tou kuriou, the ordinary enough expression for giving thanks but here laden with far deeper meaning. The exchange with those who were now pursuing Jesus because of the miracle of the loaves and fishes leads to what was a startling claim which after nearly two thousand years does not strike our ears with the same force it would have had then: “I am the bread of life.” Because the dialogue had turned on the question of the manna in the wilderness, Jesus adds “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” [6:35].
Jesus goes on to say, scandalously to many in the crowd, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” [6:51]. More than Jesus’ claim to be the true manna sent by God for the salvation of the world, this assertion will provoke, as we shall hear over the next three weeks, anger and protests from many in the crowd, who eventually reject Jesus entirely, leaving Peter to speak for the remnant, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” [6:68].
The sixth chapter of John is the longest in his gospel, more than twice as long as many of the others. It is the capstone of his teaching about Jesus and his presence among us now as it was then. It is all the more significant because John omits the eucharistic passage from his account of the Last Supper. It’s all here.
We may miss much of the impact of this entire section of the gospel because we are so familiar with bread today, or what passes for bread on endless shelves in vast supermarkets. Bread was much harder to come by at the time of Jesus, because it was hand-made, usually at home. Without it, the poor especially would simply starve. The sixth chapter of John begins with real hunger and ends with faith in the eucharistic presence of Jesus’ body and blood. It reminds us that we should not forget that in many parts of the world today, life-giving bread is also desperately needed because of drought, poverty, and famine. When we celebrate our eucharist, we are pledging ourselves to feed the world with actual bread if we are true followers of Jesus, who took pity on the crowd, hungry and without money to buy bread, and not only gave them bread but made himself bread for the life of the world.