After centuries without a prophet, a wave of expectation flooded Judea and Galilee. A man dressed the way Elijah was dressed rode this wave and pushed it along with his boisterous preaching. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” What sort of kingdom did he expect? The call to repent tells us only that we must turn from the direction we are going and move into a different direction. Question the ways we live and look for a different direction.
Two astounding prophecies by Isaiah offer us intriguing, inspiring, but puzzling hints about what the Kingdom might be when he urged us to turn “swords into plowshares” and “spears into pruning hooks” so that we “study war no more” as the spiritual says and that “the wolf shall live with the lamb.” So, now we have all of creation at peace? Not quite. Isaiah tells us that the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” will “smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” Apparently taming lions and tigers and bears is easier than taming predatory humans. In calling the Pharisees and Sadducees, “that brood of vipers,” and asking who told them to flee the “wrath to come” while an ax was “laid at the trees” and his successor would have “a winnowing fork in his hand” suggests that they were not as tamable as predatory animals. The predatory lenders of today seem just as untamable. However, surely the kingdom of Heaven was not wrath of this sort, even if John, like the prophets before him, thought such wrath might clear the way for Heaven’s Kingdom.
As soon as he is baptized by John, Jesus cries out precisely the same words: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” By saying these same words, is he perhaps telling us that John the Baptist, of whom there is none greater born of woman, hasn’t quite set the right direction either. His baptism has taken him on a very different track: the Paschal Mystery. That may seem a bit anachronistic, but from the preaching the Sermon on the Mount on, Jesus takes the direction of absorbing violence rather than inflicting it. Not only does the Kingdom not consist of threshing out the bad guys with a winnowing fork and burning them, but such threshing doesn’t even pave the way to the kingdom. If anything, this violence only blocks the way for everybody as, in our righteous indignation against predatory lenders and their ilk, the axes and fires for burning chaff multiply. One might argue that Jesus himself had some choice words for the Sadducees and Pharisees. However, Jesus called them whitewashed tombs filled with people’s man’s bones. Jesus wasn’t chopping off their heads or burning them up; he was warning them about how dead they were. If Jesus isn’t a thunder deity carrying a battle axe, whose axe is laid to the tree?
In his lectionary commentary, Paul Nuechterlein provocatively suggests that the axe is wielded by us. It isn’t God but we who are chopping down trees all over the world. That is indeed what happened on Mount Calvary. Moreover, according to Isaiah, it is from the stump that new life emerged. So, whose wrath should we flee? Ours. What should we run to? How about the chopped stump from which the new Tree of Life is growing?
St. Paul solemnizes his recounting of Jesus’ breaking bread and passing the cup of wine by saying that he is passing on to the Corinthians what he had received from the Lord. The words Paul uses here are specialized terms for receiving and passing on a sacred tradition. The only other time Paul uses these terms is to testify to Jesus’ Resurrection appearances. Resurrection and eating and drinking to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” go together. After all, does not the Lord come every time we eat the bread and drink the wine?
These solemn words are an island of peace and tranquility in the middle of a storm of human passions amounting to farce. Preceding them is Paul’s denunciation of the insensitive and chaotic eating habits where some people bring opulent meals to church and eat in front of poorer members who have little or nothing to eat. The deterioration of the sharing in the wilderness that began in John’s Gospel has only gotten worse. After holding up Jesus’ shared meal as a model, Paul warns against eating and drinking judgment by “not discerning the body.” Paul may be warning us not to fail to discern Christ’s body in the bread, but he is not thinking in individualistic terms. Christ’s body surely refers to the church and, given the context, Paul is concerned with failure to recognize this corporate body in the way we share, or fail to share what we have with the community. In his fit of tempter, Paul seems to suggest that the Body and Blood of Christ make people sick cause some to die. But considering how strongly Paul insists on God’s freed Gift of grace, Christ Body and Blood can only be more free grace and forgiveness. However, when we fail to see the Body and Blood in Christ in others, sickness, hunger and many more social ills will abound.
With a church in shambles, is the miracle of the Feeding in the Wilderness a distant memory? I noted in the first article in this series that memory is not just recalling something in our heads. Memory is making present. When we eat the death of Jesus, we enter into our own discord that tears the Body apart with cries such as “I am of Cephas!” “I am of Apollos!” When we eat the Resurrection of Jesus, we eat the forgiveness with which Jesus greeted is disciples to gather them back together. We also eat the feeding in the wilderness and Jesus’ Desire to heal the people brought to him.
We are not left as orphans who have to try to stuff some ideal of human relating into our heads. We are invited to act with others the human drama of entering into God’s Desire for ourselves and all others. Most important, we are fed with the substance of God’s desire to quicken us on the way.
The feedings of the multitude in the wilderness give us a vision of the new life that baptism initiates us into and which the Eucharist sustains. (See Divinely Created Abundance) The multiplication of food through both divine and human generosity is quite the opposite of the accusatory, slave-driving society of Egypt or the chaotic violence before the Flood. All six Gospel accounts remind the reader of God’s gift of manna in the desert after the escape from Egypt. It is John’s Gospel that makes this connection most explicit. Just as the manna needed to be renewed each day, we need to be renewed by the Eucharist on a daily, or at least weekly, basis.
It is also John’s Gospel which warns us of how easily we fall away from living by mutually gifting back into contention and rivalry. First, John says that after declaring Jesus the prophet who was to come, the crowd tried to seize Jesus and make him king. Jesus had not modeled a way to rule over other people. Quite the opposite. Jesus had modeled a way of self-giving without rivalry. This is the way of life that should rule us. Making Jesus a political ruler could only drag him and his followers (us) back into the violently competitive life that baptism delivers us from. Then, the people (i.e. us) murmur against Jesus when he tells us that he himself is the bread come down from heaven. We murmur a lot more when Jesus says that we must eat his body and drink his blood. Murmuring is the very same word used of the Jews who contended with Moses and God in the desert.
We could take the murmuring as referring to the bitter arguments over the Christian centuries as to whether or how Christ can be present in the bread and wine. It seems to me that we should take Jesus at his word here and accept that he feeds us with his death and resurrected life. That’s the hard point; not the metaphysics of the “real presence.” We balk at the idea that Jesus’ death and his ongoing resurrected life can feed us. It’s like Jesus body and blood are poison to the kind of life we’re accustomed to living, which they are.
It is typical of John’s slantwise means of conveying the Gospel that he puts Jesus’ discourses about eating his body and drinking his blood in a context outside of the meal in the upper room. This has the advantage of stressing the ongoing nutrition Jesus offers in the Eucharist. Curiously, this separation also seems to spiritualize the Eucharist in terms of Jesus dwelling in us to give us life, but this comes with a shocker that English translations cannot convey. The Greek word for “eat” is trogein, a very strong verb that doesn’t mean dining nicely with good manners. It means to chew, gnash, grind. Jesus comes right in our faces with our eating as a sacrificial act. We are to be painfully mindful of the sacrificial way of life we left back in Egypt but, unfortunately find ourselves carrying with us through the desert.
The sixth chapter of John ends with most of Jesus’ followers leaving because of these hard words. By being food that nourishes us by reminding ourselves of how sacrificial we tend to be, Jesus is indeed refusing to be the king who fixes everybody else’s wagons that we want him to be. We have wandered far from the community of sharing and giving that began this chapter, the place where Jesus wants us to be.
I have added a new page under “Posts Organized by Topic” called Seasons of the Church Year. Those interested in searching by seasonal themes should find this helpful.
Baptism is our initiation into the Paschal Mystery where the death and resurrected life of Christ begin to shape our lives. But how do we keep going so that we can finish what we start so that we are not like the person who started to build a tower and didn’t have the resources to complete it? This question is all the more urgent for those of us who were baptized when we were infants, before we knew what was happening to us. (I don’t dispute for a minute infant baptism for the purpose of raising a child in the shape of the Paschal Mystery.)
Clearly it is the Eucharist that feeds us on the way we have started with baptism. St. Paul’s line “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” says everything and more. What is all the more astounding is that, as Robert Daly says in Sacrifice Revealed, it’s a throwaway line said in passing while writing about something else. That indicates how fundamental a presupposition it was in the early church.
The Passover, of course, re-lives the deliverance of the Jewish slaves from Egypt. The roots of the Passover are obscure but it may have been a protective rite of shepherds that the Jews were performing at the time they were expelled from Egypt for causing the plague that killed far more Egyptian children than Hebrew children. Nowadays, there is the simple scientific explanation that the Hebrew slaves were rigidly segregated from the Egyptians so that it is reasonable that one social group could escape a plague that struck the other. (Medieval cities copied the Egyptians by blaming the Jews for plagues that struck them and expelling them when we now know that the Jews were more intelligent about matters of hygiene.) When Jesus welcomed the children whom his disciples tried to keep away, he demonstrated for all time that God is not a child-killer. See Baptism (2)
Connecting the Eucharist to Passover and re-defining it makes it clear that the Eucharist is to be an oft-repeated renewal of our baptism. Just as the death and resurrection of Jesus are made present at baptism, they are again made present in the Eucharist. For those who, like me, enjoy science fiction and fantasy literature, we could note that these sacraments constitute time travel of a sort. This time travel is not to change the past but to change the present and the future. (The Greek word anamnesis means memory in the sense of making the remembered event currently present. The fundamental change is to bring ourselves and our communities out of sacrificial, persecuting societies into forgiving societies grounded in the forgiving victim.
In Exodus 12, there is a sense of urgency with the Passover. It must be eaten “in haste.” We don’t usually feel this same sense of urgency while celebrating the Eucharist, but maybe we should. Insofar as we are governed by Pharaoh’s way of living, we really shouldn’t waste any time moving out of that way and entering more deeply into the way of the forgiving victim. The bread and wine are gifts to give us what we need to finish what we started. When we eat Christ our Passover, we need to ask ourselves: How ready and willing are to pass over from one way of living to another?
All of the biblical types of baptism that I have reviewed in the first two posts of this series stress the social nature of this sacrament. In the Paschal Mystery, we die to one way of relating (or misrelating) with people to live to a totally new way of relating to others. The traditional triad of renunciations of the world, the flesh, and the devil confirms this social element of baptism. The three are nearly synonymous but their varying shades of meaning are illuminating.
The New Testament word kosmos (world) has mainly negative connotations, especially in John’s Gospel where it means, not the material world as created by God, but the social world organized in opposition to God. In baptism, then, we renounce organizing ourselves socially around scapegoating and persecution. It is important to remember, though, that it was this very kosmos that God loved so much that God gave his only son so that this kosmos might not perish. As Jesus was overwhelmed by the kosmos in his death, we, too, may be overcome by it if we renounce it.
Flesh does not refer to the material aspect of our existence, but rather to the tendency live our embodied lives without reference to God. When we live in the flesh, our social lives are dominated by mimetic rivalry that consumes us. The contentions that Paul denounced in his first letter to the Corinthians was cited as an example of living by the flesh. If we renounce the flesh, we renounce this contentious way of relating and we allow our embodied lives to be guided by the Holy Spirit in whom there is no rivalry or resentment.
Renouncing the devil does not mean renouncing a wicked supernatural creature with horns and a pitchfork. The New Testament word skandalon refers to no such thing. Rather this word means a stumbling block, an obstacle. When we live according to the flesh, we allow other people to be stumbling blocks to our desires and we do the same to them. That is, our rivals become the organizing principles of our life rather than God. In scripture, the Satan is also the accuser, which is what rivals do. They accuse each other endlessly as opposed to praising God endlessly.
The renunciations as formulated in the 1976 Book of Common Prayer amount to much the same thing. Renouncing “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” may seem to imply supernatural forces. I do not rule out such angelic beings who, themselves, put themselves into mimetic rivalry with God, but the anthropological level is what is most important to us in renouncing skandalons in this life. The opposition of such stumbling blocks can seem so strong that they seem transcendent but are really an accumulation of human desires out of control. Renouncing “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” acknowledges the systemic evil of the kosmos which we must renounce and “the sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God” point to our own responsibility to do what the fourth question asks of us, to “turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as [our] savior” and “put [our] whole trust in his grace and love.”
As noted in my last post, the new beginnings promised by the deliverances from the Flood and from the Red Sea were so daunting that, in both cases, those who were delivered returned to the old way of relating with each other and the same has happened with the Church. Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime sacrament in the sense of being an initiation, that is a beginning. A beginning is just that; it is not the middle and certainly is not the end. Baptism is a beginning that must be sustained day by day, hour by hour. St. Paul’s admonition to “take off” the old person and “put on” the new person are verbs used for taking clothing on and off. Living by the Spirit in baptism, then, is allowing Christ to clothe us rather than the rivals who are usually the ones who define us. Being renewed in Christ leads us into a quality of life that we don’t easily imagine. These new clothes seem much too big for us and we get lost in them. Can we allow Christ to stretch us to fit into the new clothes of the resurrected life?