Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Behind the Veil

1/17/2017 – Tuesday of the 2nd Week of Ordinary Time
Heb. 6.10-20
Mk 2.23-28
            Today both readings invoke the Jewish Temple to describe the audacity of Christian hope and the divine gratuity which underlies it. As the place of the shekinah, the divine dwelling on earth, the Temple is for Jews a source both of awe and of fear: awe, that God should elect a particular people and their particular land as his chosen mundane residence; and fear, that such a gracious favor may not be profaned by any kind of human impurity, uncleanness, sinfulness. Accordingly, the Temple was divided into progressively more sacred chambers. Only the men of the priestly, landless tribe of Aaron, the Levites, could enter the inner chambers, and only the Levitical high priest could enter the most sacred chamber of all: the Holy of Holies, separated from the outer areas by a veil.
            In some manner, Christianity inverts this arrangement of increasing exclusivity and divine removal from the profane. At Christmas, God is given to us, plainly, in a baby, born in circumstances noteworthy only for their plainness and meanness. This man is our brother; he speaks in language we can understand; he does not reside in hidden removal from what is human, especially what is profane, absurd, or ugly. Rather, he touches it. This is still the same almighty God, but now unprecedentedly near at hand. There is a merciful divine brashness, fearlessness, risk-taking revealed in the Incarnation. The light shone in the darkness, not simply the darkness of his own unfathomable being, but amongst human darkness.
            The brashness of this inversion is captured in the language of our readings. It is implied when the author of Hebrews says that the hope stemming from faith in Christ “reaches into the interior behind the veil.” The one who bears hope is the new high priest. The one who stakes his life on the promises of divine mercy already mysteriously has access, “sure and firm,” to the very heart of God, the innermost mystery of all that is.
            Likewise, against the accusations of profanation that the Pharisees level at his disciples, Jesus defends them with reference to an apparent sacrilege: David’s penetration into the holy place to eat bread consecrated for Levitical consumption alone. What justified the act? Human need. Jesus reminds the Pharisees how cruel God would be if he intended human weakness and need to be compounded and tortured by the provision of law; rather, the Sabbath was made for human beings, not the other way around. As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus is therefore the Lord of our needs. He invites us behind the veil, provides everything for us, is moved by our cries for what we need and defends us from unfair accusation born of misanthropic legalism. Our trust is in him.  


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Deliverance from the Test

January 11, 2017 – Wednesday of the First Week of Ordinary Time
Heb 2.14-18
Mk 1.29-39

            The author of Hebrews describes Jesus’ mission as his coming to share in flesh and blood with those who are “being tested” so that he might assist those who are undergoing “the test.” That humans undergo this “test” is the reason for the earthly visitation of the divine compassion. However, in the Our Father, we pray that we might be delivered from the test.
            What is this “test?” I believe that it is the burden of human existence, which is another word for suffering. To be “tested” is to experience affliction, pressure, fear, futility, inability. To be tested is to understand that there are values and convictions which shimmer with a godly glow but also to know that we ourselves and our world are at best sluggardly and at worst downright hostile to the realization of these convictions. To be tested is to know of this burden. Bodily sickness and personal failings are symbols of this weight. To be tested means that we are asked, despite this burden, to commit ourselves to God. Human existence is a judgment on our persistence in this regard, our obligation to remain true in the face of darkness and our own demons. To be tested as a human being is to be suspended between good and evil, with the immense dignity and burden of freedom existing in the choice between them.
            The knowledge that human existence is a test is the principle of all human compassion. It was that knowledge which brought God to earth. It was that knowledge which drives Jesus to preach the Kingdom of God. It was that knowledge which, in contrast to burdened humanity’s weariness, drove the God-man with unremitting energy to announce the divine compassion, the strength of divine mercy. The healings and exorcisms of Jesus are a deliverance from the test, and a motive energy for perseverance in our own test.

            We are not asked to meditate primarily on our own nothingness and bankruptcy in the face of the “test,” but on the divine energy revealed in Christ – that is, the Holy Spirit – which provides the funds, the motive force, the joy to accomplish our own work. We live as borrowers of the divine life. Whatever our own darkness, it has already been flanked and outmaneuvered by the love of Christ. The healings and exorcisms are a sign; the sacrifice of the cross and the Eucharistic body and blood are the reality. Our test is enfolded within Christ’s test, and he always passes with flying colors.  

To Meditate on the Teacher

1/10/17 – Tuesday of the 1st Week of Ordinary Time
Heb 2.5-12
Mk 1.21-28
            The gospels, as reports of the presence and deeds of Jesus, sometimes provide us momentary glimpses of what the reign of God looks like. Today, the Kingdom of God is a synagogue, a classroom. The first verses depict a perfect symphony of teaching and learning, of authority and discipleship – of generosity, sensitivity and comprehension on the part of instructor and openness, attentiveness, and suspension in the moment on the part of those listening. Because teacher and audience are so mutually attuned, the authority of the former is automatically impressed upon the minds of the latter. Jesus requires no external authority or human office to win hearts over to his authority. His pedagogical talent, industriousness and empathy are enough. This is our Brother, our Teacher, our God.
            Cacophony, however, is introduced by an unclean spirit. The disorder it presently manifests is anxiety: whereas the rest of the people in the synagogue learn of the Father – and implicitly also of Jesus as the image of the Father – by tranquil patience and attentiveness, the demon jumps to the end of the lesson too quickly. In fear and foreboding, it already knows who Jesus is: “the Holy One of God.” The spirit proves its diabolical nature in its anxiety at Jesus’ presence, which it understands to imply its own self-destruction. Thus anxious, the spirit shouts and screams, disrupts and disharmonizes; it itself cannot listen to the words of Jesus, and it will prevent others from doing so as well.
            Jesus addresses the spirit: “Quiet!” He will not tolerate a disruption of his lesson. It is clear that Jesus wished his audience not to hear the confession of the demon, who, by too hastily identifying Jesus with God, would sow confusion, bewilderment. The moment of insight into Jesus’ true identity was not yet ripe; the students required more tutelage, gradual training, increased trust in his teaching. Though the scene ends with the crowd’s amazement at Jesus’ authority, both in word and deed, there emerges even here a foreboding of the cacophonous confusion over Jesus’ true identity in the events of the Passion.

            However, the first part of the passage presents to us an image of heaven that we can treasure and ponder in our own hearts. We know that the affliction of anxiety prevents us from approaching God in confidence, that it can tempt us to establish our worries and preoccupations as an obstacle to God, even an accusation against him. However, today I pray to feel the tenderness of the heart of Jesus the Teacher, who mourns and quiets our anxiety and would have us only learn a little about life, day by day, in patience and trust.  

Monday, January 9, 2017

In Our Place: The Fulfillment of All Righteousness

Scriptural Meditation for January 9, 2017, Baptism of the Lord
Is 42.1-4, 6-7
Mt 3.13-17

            Consider that John the Baptist is the last and greatest of the prophets of the Jewish covenant, the new Elijah, herald of the Messiah and culmination of the Old Testament. John summarizes in his mission the entire function of this first covenant: to be a finger that points to Jesus.
            Yet consider also that John, such a tremendous figure, is surprised, stupefied, dumbfounded, by Jesus’ very odd request: that he, the heralded Messiah, be himself baptized by the herald; that the one “who must increase” be baptized by the “one who must decrease.” One can imagine John’s face curled in bewilderment and incomprehension. It doesn’t make sense. John, as a righteous man, is there to induce the repentance of sinners; and this man is certainly not a sinner. Why is he in the confession line?
            Yet Jesus taking this posture fulfills all righteousness; it is not simply a righteous act, a nice gesture. It is the form of all righteousness, meaning: this is the style in which God will save the world, it is a revelation of God’s nature; those who witness this act better get used to God acting so strangely, so humbly, so hiddenly. To every observer at the scene besides John himself, who knows better, this man looks like the common sinner. “He was like us in all things but sin.” “He who had no sin was made to be sin for us.”
            This is the great mystery symbolized by Jesus’ baptism: that his life is my life, yet without sin; that my life, with its particular history, mistakes, scars, wounds, experiences, dreams, and desires, is his human life on earth, yet in him that very life is freed for joy and freedom from what binds it. His life is like a mirror in which I look at myself, and what I see is healed of its imperfections. I find myself in him; he came to return me to myself, my true self.
            If there is any Christian perfection available to us in this life, it is to be gained not by “trying really hard” or “lacing up our moral bootstraps,” but by meditating on the love with which he puts himself in our place. That very love and humility led him to die the death owed to us, death as a despised thing, the death of a human life both criminal and misunderstood. This is salvation by compassion. “A bruised reed he does not break. A smoldering wick he does not quench.” Let us move with the joy and feathery lightness that the knowledge of such gentleness imparts to us. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Mary at a Wedding: Symbol of the Human Desire for Joy

Scriptural Meditation for January 7, 2017, Christmas Weekday
1 John 5.14-21
John 2.1-11

One would expect the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry to be solemn, serious, positively regal, or at least well planned and evincing fairly clear divine intentionality. However, the Gospel, as it always does, surprises us. The miracle at Cana, which inaugurates this great phase in the history of salvation, involves no blood, no fire and brimstone, seemingly no mention of serious matters. Rather, the evangelist places us at a wedding between two unnamed friends of Jesus’ family and his new Galilean friends. The situation is strikingly mundane, easy to understand: given that there is a wedding, celebration and mirth are to be expected, with milling about, bustling activity – human beings doing what they ought to do on such a festive occasion.
            However, Mary, proving herself sensitive and observant – basically a good guest – is stricken upon realizing the predicament of the married couple: there is no wine! How awkward! Embarrassing, even! How will the celebration gather up steam, how will people enjoy themselves as deeply as they are supposed to, without wine?
            And so Mary realizes that this situation places a necessity on her son to act. As the spokesperson of this poor couple and their guests, Mary is a symbol of the human desire for joy. How fitting that, for all things that ensue in John’s gospel – confusion at Jesus’ seeming mandate to cannibalism, raising of dead folks, and dread encounters with sinners like the woman at the well – the specific sign chosen by the Father to announce Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation happens at a wedding, that joyous event which we can understand so well. Furthermore, the moment of this inaugural manifestation of the divine glory was not even planned by Jesus himself, but was performed at the bidding of his mother. This beginning of Jesus’ public life clarifies the end: that it is intended to bring about joy, and that everything he says and does is subordinate to this intention.
           Meditation for me today centers on Mary’s humanity, on her sensitivity and compassion for her friends in this quite mundane matter, but above all on her intimacy with her Son and her confidence that he would be moved by the plight of the wineless couple. As John says in the epistle for today: “We have this confidence in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”

Friday, October 4, 2013

An open letter to Kuma's

Dear Mr. Luke Tobias, Director of Operations, Kuma's

I have been to your restaurant once.  It was fantastic.  I believe I ate about 2 ¼ of your burgers that night, not to mention an ungodly amount of French fries on the side.  I confess that I am, in fact, a glutton.  This is what happens when the girl to guy ratio in your social circle hovers somewhere around 3:1 and leftovers abound.   In all truth, I have long been raving about Kuma’s to any friends who have consulted me in their quest for the perfect Chicago burger.

Unfortunately, however, I cannot ignore the elephant that you have this week introduced into the room: your new “Ghost” burger, which, in a gauche and grasping attempt at humor, prominently features an “unconsecrated communion wafer and a red wine reduction” as toppings.  As you put it on your own Facebook page: "In the spirit of our undying reverence for the lord and all things holy, we give you the Ghost which we think is a fitting tribute to the supreme blasphemous activities carried out by the band itself."

I get it.  The brand of your restaurant is predicated upon capturing the rebellious charisma of modern rock and roll.  And in order to sustain the Kuma's brand, you must constantly be pushing the envelope, poking and prodding “the man” in much the same way that the anti-establishment giants of rock did in the post-British Invasion years.  And, quite understandably, most of your customers are of the cultural persuasion not to mind a delicious burger garnished with a heavy drizzle of iconoclasm. 

But, as a Catholic – and one who does happen to have something of a sense of humor, despite your defensive assumption to the contrary – I feel it my responsibility to let you know that Kuma's has stepped over the line.  I’ll admit: when I first encountered the headline announcing “Chicago burger garnished with communion wafer,” I gave a rye, annoyed smile, rolled my eyes, and nearly moved on -- that is, until I read your truly unfortunate reaction to this whole flare-up: “There are people who are offended by it,” you observed, “but we're delighted to see that generally people seem to have a sense of humor.”  The insinuation, of course, being that those who might be offended do not have a sense of humor, and that we represent the sort of old, no-fun, fuddy-duddies that are definitely not the target audience of the Kuma's brand.

Here’s the thing, though: in a world in which not much of anything is held sacred anymore, we Catholics are dogged in insisting that the Eucharist truly is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, he who is the second hypostasis of the immortal, immutable, and ineffably sublime Trinity.  He is the Alpha and Omega, Creator and Judge, the one at whose name every knee should bend.  The Eucharist is not simply a sacred object, but the most sacred object in the Catholic cosmos, an object in defense of which saints have literally shed their blood, and before which even popes bow down in self-abnegating obedience (see here, here, and here). 

I understand that belief in such doctrines may seem at best inscrutable and at worst, downright absurd.  And I certainly am not attempting to convert you – God would be much better at that than I would.  But I do believe it my duty and responsibility to let you know that you have crossed a line, and that most Catholics with any sort of substantial piety would likely agree with me.

Further, I understand that anyone – especially someone who approaches a situation like this from such a massively different perspective as yours – can quite easily fall into an ordinary lapse in judgment.  Until I read the news article about this story, I assumed that this was basically what you had done.  But to accuse those who disagree with you as being hyper-pious stick-in-the-muds who quite obviously don’t understand that the existence of the sacred is really only an opportunity for capitalistically-motivated desecration – this is unbearable.  What you are basically saying, is: “I know I have offended many Catholics, and this is their fault, not mine.”

I know that free market capitalism theoretically sets no ethical rules on how a company can brand itself or market its products and services.  At the same time, most entrepreneurs are aware that there are certain social taboos that one doesn’t touch.  It wouldn’t be right for a restaurant to conceive, let alone market, “Jim Crow burgers” in the American south, for example.  It’s not good business.  And it’s social suicide.  At least it should be.

Then why is it okay to hit Catholics where it hurts most?  It has been said that “Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice” in America.  To quote Arthur Schlesinger, this bigotry is the “most deeply held prejudice in the history of the American people.”  We would blush at a similarly systematic, intentional, and public insult to the deepest sensibilities of blacks, Arabs, Muslims, Asians, Jews, gays, lesbians, and the mentally ill.  It goes without saying that this reticence is a very good thing, because it is a sign of the hard won public civility that these groups now command.  But it is apparent that Catholics historically have not, and still do not, command this sort of respect in the public square.  This is a serious problem which needs to be remedied, and it will not happen unless Catholics speak up.

So yes, this does happen to be one of those “You no longer have a customer in me” letters.  And this will remain true so long as you continue to blame those you have offended for their “lack of humor.”  Here’s hoping that the “Ghost” burger will “vanish” from Kuma’s menu and that you can find creative and humorous ways to further your brand without violating that which any group considers to be sacred.

-          Justin Bartkus, Chicago Resident

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Culture Warfare

The culture war is, in my perception, a psychological fact in American Catholic consciousness.  The distinctive sensitivity we have to such an apprehension of our Church is perhaps made most obvious in such situations as Notre Dame's invitation to President Obama as the keynote speaker for its 2009 commencement exercises.  In that episode, many U.S. bishops publicly voiced their opposition (or endorsement) of Obama's visit to the campus, and the collective consciousness of the American Church was swept into side-taking on this particular battlefield within the interminable war between rightist and leftist Catholic cultures.  Many rightists begged for the Vatican to make a public statement denouncing the invitation, while the Vatican's own Osservatore Romano acclaimed the invitation as an opening to dialogue.  The papal household itself responded with silence, which I took to be more an expression of their wise indifference regarding the politicized nature of American Church affairs than a concession to the left wing.  Or, to take another example: the supposed "novelty" introduced by Benedict XVI in including concerns over "life issues" in a "social encyclical."  In what alien parody of a Christian community do we live when the logical connectedness between the spiritual battles fought in protecting the issue of a mother's womb and those waged to stave off hunger and cruel neglect of the poor is considered something courageous and unprecedented? (I am here thinking of NYT columnist Ross Douthat's commendable op-ed on Caritas in veritate.)

In terms of ecclesiology, any self-styled "culture war" can be considered nothing other than a grievous sin and a tragedy.  Never mind trying to advocate a middle position based on "dialogue" or to rally the Church around a pilgrimage back to basic "orthodoxy" - both of these terms, essential to the Church's own self-understanding as Christ's single body composed of plural parts - have been territorialized by one or another faction of the culture war, such that the use of these terms raises a flag in the consciousness of most semi-knowledgable ecclesial observers.  The same goes for other such terms as "tolerance," "compassion," "devotion," "adoration," "tradition," "dogma," "women in the Church," "life," "catechism," etc.  As soon as one of these words or phrases is used, we brace for battle, knowing just what our foes mean by them.

This is what happens in war.  Language is co-opted.  Messages are distorted.  The resulting suspicion is not only the moral failing of individuals, but the distinctive quality of the entire thought worlds into which people are bred.  Warfare quietly, but totally, consumes the entire imagination of those who choose to engage in it - not to mention those who are so constituted as to belligerently, credulously and unthinkingly join in the fight.  Given the power of "culture war" in the American consciousness, it is difficult to find intellectual and spiritual spaces where these categories do not reign.  Where once was unity now reigns little but territorial claims over language, embedded hostility, and the lack of common reference.  When language is militarized, the religious imagination suffers, for it is only a contemplative environment, not a militarized one, that offers human beings the ability to wield the aesthetic and contemplative weapons that build up our species rather than debase it.   Perhaps the most irksome outcome of these conflicts is the the wearisome predictability in the discourse between these two factions.  Any new arguments proffered in the culture wars are simply re-processed instantiations of the party arguments, and we all know that nothing sucks the life and dignity out of human creativity more than partisan propaganda.