I have been asked to provide a Christological foundation to a renewed sense of mission. This sounds rather daunting, but as I am not a systematic theologian rather a pastoral one, I have thought to do this in a relatively creative manner and to share with you the choice of three themes important in my own journey and reflection:
- Christ Lives
In the light of current challenges before us, I wish to start with good news: Christ lives!
“That life was made visible: we saw it and we are giving our testimony, telling you of the eternal life which was the Father and has been made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we are telling you so that you too may be in union with us as we are in union with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing this to you to make our own joy complete” (1 Jn 1:3-4).
Christ lives! This is the opening line in Francis’ most recent exhortation to us, Christus Vivit:
“Christ is alive! He is our hope, and in a wonderful way he brings youth to our world, and everything he touches becomes young, new, full of life . . . He is in you, he is with you, and he never abandons you. However far you may wander, he is always there, the Risen One. He calls you and he waits for you to return to him and start over again. When you feel you are growing old out of sorrow, resentment or fear, doubt or failure, he will always be there to restore your strength and your hope.”
It is a beautiful echo of a comment by St Pope John Paul II in 2000 when he taught:
“[Christ] is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great in your lives.”
And an echo also of Benedict XVI at the beginning of his own pontificate, “There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.”
As Francis puts before us in his first Exhortation, therefore, “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVIwhich take us to the very heart of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” It was a recapitulation of what he had shared with his electors in first Mass after his election:
“We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord. When we are not walking, we stop moving. When we are not building on the stones, what happens? The same thing that happens to children on the beach when they build sandcastles: everything is swept away, there is no solidity. When we do not profess Jesus Christ, the saying of Léon Bloy comes to mind: “Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.” When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.”
It is a contemporary voice to the injunction of St Paul, himself, when he writes to the Colossians:
“You must live your whole life according to the Christ you have received – Jesus the Lord; you must be rooted in him and built on him and held firm by the faith you have been taught, and full of thanksgiving. Make sure that no one traps you and deprives you of the freedom by some second-hand, empty, rational philosophy based on the principles of this world instead of Christ. In his body lives the fullness of divinity, and in him you too find your own fulfilment, in the one who is the head of every Sovereignty and Power” (Col 2: 6ff).
Thus, in Evangelii GaudiumFrancis puts this imperative before us all:
“I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since ‘no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.’ The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: ‘Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.’ How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another ‘seventy times seven’ (Mt18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!”
Jesus lives! We are the people of the Resurrection who utter this day in, day out: Jesus lives! And because of the constancy of his presence we can live our present with enthusiasm and our future with confidence.
And we are those who believe not only that Christ lives, but that in him we find the meaning of the world, the meaning of our experience, our history and its future.
“We can compare the cosmos to a “book” – Galileo himself used this example – and consider it as “the work of an author who expresses himself through the ‘symphony’ of creation. In this symphony one finds, at a certain point, what would be called in musical terms a ‘solo’, a theme entrusted to a single instrument or voice which is so important that the meaning of the entire work depends on it. This ‘solo’ is Jesus. . The Son of Man recapitulates in himself earth and heaven, creation and the Creator, flesh and Spirit. He is the centre of the cosmos and of history, for in him converge without confusion the author and his work.
The patristic and medieval tradition, in contemplating this “Christology of the word,” employed an evocative expression: the word was “abbreviated”. The Fathers of the Church found in their Greek translation of the Old Testament a passage from the prophet Isaiah that Saint Paul also quotes in order to show how God’s new ways had already been foretold in the Old Testament. There we read: ‘The Lord made his word short, he abbreviated it’ (Is 10:23; Rom 9:28) . . .The Son himself is the Word, the Logos: the eternal word became small – small enough to fit into a manger. He became a child, so that the word could be grasped by us. Now the word is not simply audible; not only does it have a voice, now the word has a face, one which we can see: that of Jesus of Nazareth.”
The Catechism brings all this into summary: the name “Jesus contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation . . . His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies.”Yes, Jesus is the one Word ever spoken by the Father. Therefore, in the words of Ignatius of Antioch, “Do not let anything catch your eye besides him . . .”
We are the people who proclaim these five simple words, “Jesus rose from the dead” – the people of the Resurrection. Sometimes we drift into a consideration of the Resurrection simply as resuscitation of Jesus. But as Pope Benedict taught,
“Of course, the Resurrection of Jesus was not simply a return to the life he had before. In [that] case [it] would have been [simply] something [in] the past: [as if] two thousand years ago someone was raised and returned to the life he had before. The resurrection [though] is situated in another dimension: it is the passage to a profoundly new dimension of life [so that] it now concerns us . . . involv[ing] the entire human family, history and the universe.”
The Resurrection of Jesus is a far more complex, a far more wonderful thing than simple resuscitation. Jesus was not resuscitated after he died. He was resurrected.
The first thing this means is that, as with which we have opened, Jesus lives now: he is present to us as we are to one another, interacting informing, influencing us just as we interact, inform and influence each other. In other words, Jesus is not just a memory or an idea. He is not just an historical figure who might inspire us or motivate us to live good lives. No, he is a living person with whom we can interact and who, by his presence, influences us. All of this resounds with the recognition that Christian life is an encounter that is always personal, i.e. person to person. It is a spirituality of intimacy. The encounter is a response to the invitation to a fuller, more human and more divine life that is the promise contained in such an encounter. The encounter opens up new height, and new depth, of possibility.
However, this brings us to the second thing that we proclaim by our belief in the Resurrection, and that is, if Jesus continues to live, he does so in a body that is real, physical, present. But what is this body in which Jesus lives? Jesus lives now in the body which is the community of his friends. His friends together are the body in which he lives. Together in our following of him we form a new body in which Jesus lives and through which others can see and hear him and touch him.
The body of the Risen Christ is the physical reality of the community of his disciples, the Church which we call ‘the sacrament of the Risen Christ.’
“The whole history of salvation progressively demonstrates this profound bond between the word of God and the faith which arises from an encounter with Christ. Faith thus takes shape as an encounter with a person to whom we entrust our whole life. Christ Jesus remains present today in history, in his body which is the Church; for this reason our act of faith is at once both personal and ecclesial.”
We cannot believe in the Resurrection without believing in the Church.
“Conscious of this pneumatological horizon, the Synod Fathers highlighted the importance of the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of the Church and in the hearts of believers in relation to sacred Scripture: without the efficacious working of the “Spirit of Truth” (Jn 14:16), the words of the Lord cannot be understood. As Saint Irenaeus states: “Those who do not share in the Spirit do not draw from the bosom of their mother [the Church] the food of life; they receive nothing from the purest fountain that flows from the body of Christ”. Just as the word of God comes to us in the body of Christ, in his Eucharistic body and in the body of the Scriptures, through the working of the Holy Spirit, so too it can only be truly received and understood through that same Spirit.”
The sacramental theologian Chauvet puts it profoundly this way:
“The Absent One is present in his ‘sacrament’ which is the Church: the Church rereading the Scriptures with him in mind, the Church repeating his gestures in memory of him, the Church living the sharing between brothers and sisters in his name. It is in these forms of witness by the Church that Jesus takes on a body and allows himself to be encountered.”
He goes on to say very significantly that it is precisely in the integration of these three elements in which we touch the risen Christ. Where we try to capture him in only one of the three we end with an “illusory and fatal capture of the Living One.” Jesus takes on a body now as his friends come together and re-read the story of his life, as they re-enact the gestures he himself gave us particularly in the celebration of the Eucharist, and in the quality of the way in which we live in openness to one another.
To believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, therefore, is at one and the same time to believe in the Church, the community of his friends, the community that comes into being as his friends join together in memory of him. We therefore cannot have a deepening belief in the Resurrection without a growing appreciation of the Church and the sacramental life.
Herein, however, a problem arises. For we know that the experience of both Church and sacramental celebration is an ambiguous one. This is, one might be as bold to suggest, the scandal of the Resurrection: the Risen Christ incarnates, enfleshes in an historical reality that can be experienced with such ambiguity. This, indeed, can be a difficult word for those of us who may have personally at times experienced the Church, institutionally, not as a conduit for a discovery of the Risen Christ but rather as an obstacle. Yet, this stumbling, stuttering, motley group of people, full of idiosyncrasy, vulnerability and ambiguity remains thesacrament of the Risen One, the body of the one whom we proclaim to live even now. Yes, we, in all of our weakness and vulnerability, are the body of the living Christ. As the community of friends of Jesus, we bear his life so that his life becomes seen and heard and touched by others. As Jürgen Moltmann indicates:
“[God] is known in the true human community of women and men, parents and children. And if this is so, then the place for the experience of God is not the mystical experience of the self; it is the social experience of the self and the personal experience of sociality. The individual soul, detached from the body, and isolated from the community, must first of all again become ‘in-corporated’ and socialised, before it can know God as God himself knows the soul. There is no mysticism of the soul without the mysticism of sociality. It is only the spirituality of the body and the spirituality of sociality or fellowship which realise, or ‘embody’ what the Fathers of the church again and again tried to assert, with all possible emphasis, in opposition to the Platonism of the cultured, and the gnosticism of the common people: the ‘expectation of the resurrection of the body.’”
Thus, our desire to meet the Risen One meets a challenge: can we love the Church in all its paradox? This scandal can be too confronting for those who want a Risen Christ presented in an immediate, ethereal ‑ a kind of ‘unblemished’ way. If we want to touch the Risen Christ, we must be prepared to confront an all too human reality: the present community of disciples, the Church. Chauvet again:
“faith has a body, it adheres to a body . . . divine Providence, by a wise pedagogy, has made available to human nature which cannot accede to the intelligible without passing through the sensible . . . one stumbles then, on the sacrament, as one stumbles on the body, as one stumbles on the institution, as one stumbles on the letter of the Scriptures – if at least one respects in its historical and empirical materiality. One stumbles against these because one harbours a nostalgia for an ideal and immediate presence to oneself, to others and to God. Now in forcing us back to our corporality the sacraments shatter such dreams . . . They thus indicate to us that it is in the most banal empirical details – of a history, an institution, a world, and finally, a body – that what is most ‘true’ in our faith thrives.”
The celebration of the Resurrection thus places an extraordinary responsibility and accountability on us. Yes, on the one hand, does our life together as a community of persons demonstrate the features of the Risen Christ? Does our attitude to one another, our welcome to one another, our interest in one another, the quality of our care for one another show forth the presence of Christ, the one who lives now in us, through us, with us, and by us.
But most importantly can we do this in the face of the ambiguity of the wounded nature of our relationships as Church?
As I wrote to the people of Broken Bay at the end of February in light of the events surrounding Cardinal Pell as they first became published.
“The verdict of guilt by a court of law is one thing, shocking enough as it is. Our reactions to this outcome will be diverse and complex. However, the social reaction and the widespread commentary to the verdict is another. We cannot ignore or underestimate the community’s response to the verdict that has been given, and which further adds to our distress. In different ways, the energy of this social response highlights the remarkable collapse of the credibility of the institution with which we are identified – whether by our belonging to our local Catholic parish, or by our association with our Catholic schools or agencies. It places our affiliation under extraordinary stress. It is shameful for us to have to stand before the constant analysis, the critique, and the commentary about our Church, and the declarations of its failures and inadequacies. It forces us to address the question, “Why would we wish to be identified with an institution condemned with such widespread disdain?” We cannot avoid this question. This is the crossroad to which moments such as this bring us. Each of us must answer it, personally, uniquely. We must answer the inevitable question put to us by the sad circumstances of this week with humility, integrity and courage, such that a new sense of purpose might motivate and guide us into the future, not with stoic resignation but with genuine Christian hope. In this way, this dreadful moment in the life of our Church in Australia can act to purify and clarify our discipleship.
“In this inevitable personal struggle, I come back to the words of the famous Scripture scholar, Walter Burghardt, who put it this way once in a homily he gave at a baptism. He said to the woman, Sonia Maria:
Sonia Maria, before we welcome your through symbol and ritual into this paradoxical people, this community of contradictions, let me make an uncommonly honest confession. In the course of more than half a century, I have seen more Catholic corruption than most Catholics read of. I have tasted it. I have been reasonably corrupt myself. And yet, I take joy in this Church, this living, sinning people of God; I love it with a crucifying passion. Why? In spite of all the Catholic hate, I experience here a community of love. For all the institutional idiocy, I find here a tradition of reason. For all the individual repression, I breathe here an air of freedom. In an age so inhuman, I touch here tears of compassion. In a world so grim and humourless, I share here rich joy and earthly laughter. In the midst of death, I hear an incomparable stress on life here. For all this apparent absence of God, I sense here the presence of Christ. I pray, Sonia Maria, that your life within this community, your experience of a strange God and a still stranger people, will rival mine.
The question for each of us, however, will be, can I live with this paradox? For many, the paradox presents as a contradiction too difficult to reconcile. But there will be those of us who can enter the paradox and discover a new possibility there.”
The spiritual writer of late last century, Carlo Carretto would put it even more dramatically when he wrote:
“How much I must criticize you, my church and yet how much I love you.
You have made me suffer more than anyone and yet I owe you more than I owe anyone.
I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence.
You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
Never in the world have I seen anything more obscurantist, more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful.
Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face – and yet, every night I have prayed that I might die in your arms!
No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you.
Then too – where should I go?
To build another church?
But I cannot build another church without the same defects, for they are my own defects.
And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ’s church.
No, I am old enough. I know better.”
The imperative underlying this is that our gaze must be local. As I wrote again to the people of the Diocese towards the end of August
“. . . for those of us of faith who continue to hope in a Church of beauty, truth and grace, it is vital that we not lose sight of our experience which is local in character. Can we see that love into which we are invited by Christ exercised in our local communities? Do I see this love exercised in my parish, my school community, in my agency? I can find the resource to continue to belong to this parish, or to this school, or to this agency – this Church – if I see there, the mystery of Christ’s sacrificial love, being lived out in a way that calls me forth to the sense of what is really true, what is really beautiful, what is really good. Even in the face of these current disturbing events, I know that this truth, beauty and goodness is evidenced in abundance, by the remarkable witness, generosity and faith of those who are present with us in our parishes and in our schools and in our agencies.”
It is a theme that is beautifully portrayed in Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate. Most are anonymous: people working within the context of their own profession and by their own faith-filled commitments in diverse and myriad contexts – the saints ‘next door’ as Francis refers to them. The question for us as ordained ministers, is do we love them?
“The priest is called to learn this, to have a heart that is moved. Priests who are — allow me to say the word — “aseptic”, those “from the laboratory,” all clean and tidy, do not help the Church. Today we can think of the Church as a “field hospital.” Excuse me but I repeat it, because this is how I see it, how I feel it is: a “field hospital.” Wounds need to be treated, so many wounds! So many wounds! There are so many people who are wounded by material problems, by scandals, also in the Church . . . People wounded by the world’s illusions . . . We priests must be there, close to these people. Mercy first means treating the wounds. When someone is wounded, he needs this immediately, not tests such as the level of cholesterol and one’s glycemic index . . . But if there’s a wound, treat the wound, and then we can look at the results of the tests. Then specialized treatments can be done, but first we need to treat the open wounds. I think this is what is most important at this time. And there are also hidden wounds, because there are people who distance themselves in order to avoid showing their wounds closer . . . There are people who distance themselves through shame, through shame, so as not to let their wounds be seen . . . And perhaps they distance themselves with some bitterness against the Church, but deep down inside there is a wound . . . They want a caress! And you, dear brothers — I ask you — do you know the wounds of your parishioners? Do you perceive them? Are you close to them? It’s the only question . . .”21]
Francis’ call to us reminds me of a very poignant scene in the film Black Robe. The main character in the story is a young missionary, part of the European expansion into Canada. He is named as Paul Laforgue, and he saw his mission as one to convert the Canadian Indians to Christianity. He was a sensitive and cultured man and at first seemed unable to appreciate the people to whom he had come to minister, people who lived in a Huron village 1500 miles from Quebec.
At some stage on a journey away from the village in which he was based, however, another tribe, the Iroquois, captured him. Eventually, he escaped. Full of doubt and despair, broken and overwhelmed with the sense of his own fragility, he arrives back at the village that in the meantime has become stricken with fever and European disease. For the first time, Laforgue sees the Indians as people, not just as a category of ‘souls to be saved’. He appears more vulnerable; his eyes convey compassion. His defences are down. He is powerless and poor.
The Huron Chief comes up to Laforgue and asks him a question. Surrounded by the sick of the village, the warriors and the medicine man, he asks, ‘Do you love us?’
The chief is asking in other words: ‘Will you now enter into communion with us as we are, today, in our neediness, in our disbelief, in our desperation? For this is the test as to whether you are truly with us, for us.’
‘Do you love us?’ This is the question of all of us. It is one of the deepest hungers of our heart: to know that, precisely in our neediness, in our brokenness, in our sin, we are loved.
The risen Christ, in his Body, the church – the community “rereading the scriptures with him in mind, the Church repeating his gestures in memory of him, the Church living the sharing between brothers and sisters in his name”– continues to stand before us, and ask, ‘Do you love me?’
Our future as clergy belongs in the way we answer the question.
2. Christ Awakens!
The living Christ “rouses us from our slumber,” stirs us from our passivity and inertia and brings refreshed vision and new energy.It is St. Paul who reminds us that we “do not live in the dark” for “we are children of light and children of the day: we do not belong to the night or to darkness, so we should not go on sleeping, as everyone else does, but stay wide awake.” (1 Thess 5:4-6; Rom 13:11).
By instinct and by choice we can shield ourselves from seeing too widely, and from hearing too deeply.
In her 2004 book, Putin’s Russia, the murdered Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, lamented that her society, “wants nothing more than to be lulled into sleep.” There is a part in each of us, more or less, that wants to live life asleep. Our vision is blurry for as T. S. Eliot suggested,
“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.”
Michael Leunig once portrayed in a customary drawing one of his figures, eyes wide open, haversack over his shoulder, following his duck, (symbol of the soul for Leunig), on a journey over what at first looks like the tops of mountains. Closer analysis of the picture reveals the apparent tops of mountains to actually be the noses of upturned faces that are asleep. This is Leunig’s inimitable way of declaring that the spiritual person is the one who lives their life awake, whilst the rest of the world slumbers. It is not surprising that elsewhere, Leunig prays, “God awake us, and awaken with us.”
Yet, as Thoreau observed at Walden Pond,
“I have never met a man who was fully awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not be mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep . . . To [the one] whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labours of [people]. Morning is when I am awake and there is dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep . . . The millions are awake enough for physical labour . . . only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive.
It is the Spirit of the Risen Christ, the One who Lives, who awakens us. He is the One who comes to greet us, and who calls us, “to come and see.” (John 1:39). The Risen Christ, in the Spirit, continues to touch and open our eyes and our ears, so that we might see and hear, might listen more deeply, and might perceive more fully the truth of ourselves, of the world and of the promise that is offered us. The Spirit touches the ear and the eye that we may ‘hear more’ and ‘see more.’ Hence, the juxtaposition of the cures of the blind and the deaf (e.g. Mark 7:31-37; 8:22-26). They are given their interpretation in the passage:
“Much as you hear, you do not understand; much as you see, you do not perceive. For the heart of this people has grown dull. Their ears hardly hear, and their eyes do not dare to see. If they could see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart, they would turn back and I would heal them. [Is 6:9]. But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears, because they hear. “(Matt 13:14-16)
If Jesus has come that we may have life and have it to the fullest, he does so not in some ethereal way. He does so by first awakening us, by touching our ears and our eyes, so that hearing more and seeing more, we become more aware, more receptive, more alive; he does so by enabling us to move beyond our fears and to trust that life is, in the end, entirely gracious. Life belongs to the one who is awake, no longer fearful, but enlivened by love.
Our discipleship of the Risen Christ demands that we ‘stay awake’ in constant expectation of the varied ways in which his approach is incarnated within our experience (cf Matt 24:42; 25:13; Mk 13:33, 35).
“Stay awake” (Matt 24:42; 25:13)
“Be alert and watch . . .” (Mk 13:33, 35)
“Be ready, dressed for service and keep your lamps lit, like people waiting for their master to return from the wedding. As soon as he comes and knocks, they will open to him. Happy are these servants if he finds them awake when he comes at midnight or daybreak.” (Lk 12:35-38)
“So, take care how well you listen; for anyone who has will be given more; from anyone who has not, even what they think they have will be taken away.” (Lk 8:18)
“If anyone has ears to hear, let them listen” (Matt 11:15; 13:9, 13, 43)
All of this means that the living Christ calls us to approach all of life with a sense of expectancy, with a heart that strains to hear and to see the coming of the Kingdom in our midst (Lk 17:21; 21:29-33). It was St Benedict in the 6thcentury summed up in the simple, single word that begins his Rule: “Ausculta!” Listen with the ear of your heart.
This finds its modern expression in what Metz terms “the mysticism of open eyes” –
“Christian witnessing to God is guided through and through by political spirituality, a political mysticism. Not a mysticism of political power and political domination, but rather – to speak metaphorically – a mysticism of open or opened eyes. Not only the ears for hearing, but also the eyes are organs of grace! . . . With all respect for Eastern mysticism and spirituality let me stress . . . In the end Jesus did not teach an ascending mysticism of closed eyes, but rather a God-mysticism with an increased readiness for perceiving, a mysticism of open eyes, which sees more and not less. It is a mysticism that especially makes visible all invisible and inconvenient suffering, and – convenient or not – pays attention to it and takes responsibility for it, for the sake of a God who is a friend to human beings.”
Metz goes on to realise the implications for this mysticism:
“It is a mysticism that especially makes visible all invisible and inconvenient suffering, and – convenient or not – pays attention to it and takes responsibility for it, for the sake of a God who is a friend to human beings . . . Such witnessing to God is not allowed political innocence. In the end, witness is intimately involved, with eyes that see, in that history where people are crucified and tortured, hated and miserly loved; and no mythos far-removed from history, no world-blind gnosis, can give it back the innocence that is lost in such an historical trial. The God who comes near in Jesus obviously is not primarily interested in how and what we think about him, but rather first in how we behave toward the other; and only in this – how we deal with others – can it be known how we think about God and what we think of God.”
For Metz, it is biblical poverty – the incapacity to let oneself be consoled by myths or ideas that are remote from history – which acts as the foundation for a new public mysticism. He provides the statement of such a mysticism under the umbrella ‘of suffering unto God’, “found particularly in Israel’s prayer traditions: in the Psalms, in Job, in Lamentations, and last but not least in many passages in the prophetic books. This language of prayer is itself a language of suffering, a language of crisis, a language of affliction and of radical danger, a language of complaint and grieving, a language of crying out and, literally, of the grumbling of the children of Israel. . . Jesus’ God-mysticism is also a part of this tradition. His is in an exemplary way a mysticism of suffering unto God . . .It is found today . . . wherever we pose to ourselves the ultimate and decisive God-question, the question about God in the face of the world’s abysmal history of suffering. Not vaguely undirected questions, but surely passionate and focused questioning belongs to that mysticism in which we have to form ourselves in order to find true consolation.”
Ultimately our ears and eyes are opened to her and see where people today are being crucified – those places where there can be no words in the face of the encounter with agony, where the situation is defined by the psalm line, “My God, my God why have you abandoned me.”
If we are not alive to these places in my life and in the lives of others, then in the life of the Spirit we are no longer awake. We are asleep; we are dead.
3. Christ Transforms
“Brothers, let us indeed acknowledge our weaknesses, but also let Jesus transform them and send us forth anew to mission.”
In each of the resurrection accounts we are brought, in different ways, to the truth of the paschal reality that we meet the Risen Christ – the One who lives – the One who comes to awaken us and enliven us – at the place where we experience darkness, absence, fear, sadness, disillusionment.
- Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, whilst it is still dark (John 20:1);
- Peter and John stand in a tomb that is empty, in an experience of absence (John 20:8);
- The disciples are locked in their room, for fear of the Jews (John 20:19);
- The disciples walk to Emmaus, downhearted (Luke 24:17);
- The apostles return to the life they had left, disillusioned (John 21:2-3).
The Spirit continues now, therefore, to bring us to the empty tomb, to the place of absence, to the recognition of our fears, to the experience of shattered hopes, in order, there, to open up to us unimagined possibility: the stirrings of new life. If we want to find the God of Jesus Christ, there is no other route: we must go to that place of darkness, awaiting light; we go to that place of emptiness, awaiting fullness; we go to that place of death, awaiting life. Christian life is about how “we move on in our lives from what is deadly to what is life-giving, from what is selfish to what is gracious, from what is shadowed to what is luminous.”
In this way, we ‘are never to dry off from our baptism,’ according to Gerard Baumbach, i.e. we are always entering into the waters of the Lord’s death and rising with him to newness of life.As St Paul puts it, “You have been buried with him, when you were baptised; and by baptism, too, who have been raised up with him through your belief in the power of God who raised him from the dead. You were dead . . . he has brought you to life with him.” (Col 2: 14)“The art of dying is part of the charismatic art of living,” as Johannes Metz would say.
What Norvene Vest has written about the Benedictine vow of conversatio has something to teach us about this place that we would rather resist, but which must be the place from which the Easter future is born:
“Above all, conversatio is about the paschal mystery of death and life as it is lived out daily for a lifetime. Conversatiois about being broken and renewed, being overwhelmed and being raised up. It is a willingness to suffer and be utterly confused, because we have learned that is one way God leads us into the encounter with brand new life. Conversatiois about being in the hands of the living God, the God who always surprises us, always shatters our expectations, the God who surpasses our imaginations.”
She recounts how Panikkar in his work, Blessed Simplicity reminds us that:
“If we would see and love the Real, there must first be a rupture, a break, a conversion of the tissues of the heart. Although we know by faith that this rupture is always a response to God’s initiative in our lives, we must still suffer the painful losses involved. Such theoretical language takes an all-too-real shape when we find ourselves confronted with circumstances that seem likely to fragment our very identity, isolate us from our brothers and sisters, call us to unpopular witness, and/or topple all we have held dear in the past.”
There is always a certain ‘rupture’ in discipleship, a certain ‘death.’ We see this in the call of the first disciples (Mk 1:16-20) and in the account of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man (Matt 19:16-22). The place of apparent death, then, is not simply the place that must be ‘resolved.’ It becomes the place, rather, in which we learn that there is no resurrection, no experience of the risen Christ, no receipt of the Spirit of life creating anew, without entering and engaging the experience of death. As Bonhoeffer explains it,
“The Cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship, we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus, it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning or our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man; he bids him come and die.”
It was the lesson that Jesus wished his disciples to learn most fully. Yet, it was the one that they had most difficulty in understanding.Jürgen Moltmann offers us a wonderful commentary about this enduring evangelical counterpoint. He gives us this extraordinary commentary on Mark chapter 8, the passage in which this tension between understanding and misunderstanding reaches a kind of climax:
“Peter wants what all men want. What is it, in this respect, that all men want? They love strength, power, success. We want to achieve. We want to be immune from suffering, frustration and contempt. That is why many compensate for their uncertainties with omnipotent fantasies, and look for strong men and ideologies of power. It is only power which impresses. It is only success which succeeds. Therefore, those who idolize power, honour, success, must not suffer.
“Here the altercation between Peter and Jesus proceeds. There is man wishing to be God, fleeing suffering, guilt and fear, pursuing honours, and a life of bliss, and here is the God who is man, taking upon himself man’s despised and vulnerable humanity and permitting himself to be humiliated.
“There is the man fighting his way up, who wants his gods and ideals to be impassible, powerful, victorious and promising success – and here is the suffering, swooning and crucified God who loves his people as they truly are: uncertain, mortal, at each other’s mercy. It is the confrontation between Satan dehumanising man because he promises them a divinity they cannot bear, and God, the Son of Man, making men human by taking upon himself their inhumanity.
“But now they are called to follow him, and drawn into his way, they will recognise in his sufferings who he is, and his sufferings upon the Cross will shatter their wishful dreams. They will serve life and find life by following him in their own sufferings and the realities of this life will fundamentally change their notions about life.”
In our ministry we have to let go of the illusions we have of ourselves, our self-protective instincts(Matt. 10:37-39). As Jesus leads us onwards to a deeper life, above all he calls us to let go of that which inhibits our freedom to follow him in such a self-emptying become a self-giving.
In this regard, let me share a story with you from American actor Alan Alda’s wonderful biography, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned.The title of the book is taken from an incident in Alda’s youth, when he lost his pet dog, Rhapsody, to some left over Chinese food that his family had brought home one night. So inconsolable was the young Alan that, at the burial of the dog, his father suggested they have the dog stuffed so that he might always be a part of Alan’s life. They took the dog off to a taxidermist to achieve this end. Some weeks later, when the task had been achieved, they went to collect the stuffed dog from the taxidermist.
“We pulled off the brown butchers’ paper he was wrapped in and looked at him. The dog had a totally unrecognizable expression on his face. He looked as if he’d seen something loathsome that needed to be shredded. Nobody in our family knew who this was. He sat on his blue velvet board, looking up at us like something with rabies. We were kind of afraid of him.
My parents made excuses for the taxidermist. He didn’t really know the dog, he did the best he could, we’ll get used to the look on his face.
We put what now passed for our dog in the living room near the fireplace. But after a couple of days, it became difficult to walk into the room without feeling that a wild animal was going to spring at you. You were aware, out of the corner of your eye, that there was something alive but perfectly still in the room, and then you would see those glass eyes staring at you and the vicious mouth, hungry for your flesh. When guests visited, if we didn’t warn them that the dog wasn’t real, they’d walk into the room and stand dead still. Sometimes they would back slowly out of the room, trying to escape before it leapt at their throat.
We realized we couldn’t keep him in the living room, so we put him outside on the front porch—not far, in fact, from where he’d died. The trouble now was that deliverymen were afraid to make deliveries. They would leave packages on the grass.
Losing the dog wasn’t as bad as getting him back. Now that he was stuffed, he was just a hollow parody of himself. Like a bad nose job or a pair of eyes set surgically in eternal surprise, he was a reminder that things would never again be the way they were. And the longer you looked at his dead skin stretched inaccurately over a wire frame, the less well you could remember him as he was. As time went on, my memory of the real Rhapsody was replaced by the image of him sitting lifeless on the blue velvet board with a hideous look on his face. And anyway, it wasn’t memories I wanted; I wanted the dog. I wanted him sitting at the end of our first day in the new house, patiently watching my face while I pulled foxtail burrs from the fur on his long ears.
Yet the effort to keep him had seemed to make him disappear even more. I couldn’t understand why. As I did about most things in my life, starting with my mother, I kept asking the same questions: ‘Why is it like this? What’s happening here?’ But I couldn’t figure it out.
I understand it a little better now, and I see now that stuffing your dog is more than what happens when you take a dead body and turn it into a souvenir. It’s also what happens when you hold on to any living moment longer than it wants you to.
Memory can be a kind of mental taxidermy, trying to hold on to the present after it’s become the past. I didn’t know this then. Change was coming, and I was going to have to come out of my cocoon soon. But I wasn’t ready for the next stage in my life, and I hung on to the early times as long as I could.”13
Let us not be like those who have sought ‘to stuff the dog’, those who have tried to hold on to an expression of something well after it has become a past expression. Let us not be guilty of the mental taxidermy to which Alda alludes.
In whichever way we are uniquely and personally being called to die and to rise with Jesus, we realise that this movement renders us vulnerable. The call of Jesus to die and to rise with him takes us to the place where we both hurt and hope at one and the same time. This is the sacred place of encounter – to which I refer, whatever our gender, as the ‘womb of our own spirits’, the place in which the Word of God is conceived spiritually in each of us.
Being prepared to stand in our confusion, our fear, our struggle – our own empty tomb – being prepared to risk and let go, even of that which we had thought most precious, and ready to be blessed by a new experience we are given back our heart. Our heart is given us, though, only through such a paschal experience, and not despite it, or apart from it.
The Life of the Risen Christ is always Paschal.
It is the beauty of the Lord, the one Word of the Father, the Word of acceptance, of dignity, of love, of desire that gives us that space in which our vulnerability might be transformed into hospitality. But especially, when vulnerability is transformed into hospitality there the Kingdom of God most brilliantly shines in the world.Perhaps this brings us to the heart of “the wounded healer” first described by Henri Nouwen. The wounded healer is the one who can celebrate their common humanity with those to whom they minister – albeit with sensitivity and pastoral responsibility. Yet further, it is critical for us to recognize that healing comes when we give to someone else what we don’t have. I recall reading this somewhere for the first time and thinking there must have been a printing error. This presents as a contradiction to what we instinctively think. We easily think we heal from what we have. We give from what we have. This is a fundamental psychological law. However, coming across the insight for a second time unexpectedly, I wonder if it is, in fact, the opposite. Healing comes when giving to someone else what you don’t have. There is in this paradox a gospel truth. It is the insight that underscores the transformation of five loaves and two fish into a great banquet of abundance.
In June of this year, it was my privilege to join the bishops of Australia on their Ad Limina. Many are the memories of the adventure but I think one of the enduring insights I came away with was from the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who shared with us in our meeting with him, “You may have lost credibility but you must not lose faith in your ministry.”
Given all that we have experienced in ministry we might not have a great deal of confidence, we might not have much certainty. We may suffer even from a loss of self-respect. But when we give these experiences to others through the quality of our relationship, by our hospitality, we are surprised. Our vulnerability- become-a-hospitality releases life. Where we see shame, we offer dignity; where we encounter despair, we bring hope; where we find bitterness, we suggest forgiveness; in those places of estrangement, we offer embrace. The Christian minister searches for these places, listens for them, identifies them. In the new order of relationship created by such ministry, the Kingdom comes about.
And I wish to suggest that this is the miracle of Pentecost. It is the miracle awaiting us in our own day. Are we not in a similar situation? Of course, we cannot read the account of Pentecost in Acts 2 without averting to John 20: 19 – “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’
Are we not, too, in different ways cowered by fear, paralysed and rendered passive in the face of our concerns and anxieties? Have we not become the half-asleep, rendered so by our fears, for nothing renders us more somnolent, more closed in, more defensive than our fears? I think Francis expresses it well in his letter to us a month or so ago,
“Perhaps at times our gaze can begin to harden, or we can feel that the seductive power of apathy or self-pity is about to take root in our heart. Or our sense of being a living and integral part of God’s People begins to weary us, and we feel tempted to a certain elitism . . . Perhaps at times we can feel tempted to withdraw into ourselves and our own affairs, safe from the dusty paths of daily life. Or regrets, complaints, criticism and sarcasm gain the upper hand and make us lose our desire to keep fighting, hoping and loving.”
Yet whenJesus callsar behind (Mk. 1:16-20; Matt. 19:16-22). The miracle of Pentecost is the transformation of slumber, the New Testament metaphor for fear, into wakefulness, which is its metaphor for love. It bursts open the armour of self-protection, self-concern into a new horizon of possibility. It transforms fear which is always self-enclosing into love which is self-opening. And this transformation of fear into love results in what the New Testament refers to as parrhesia. It literally means bold speech. It denotes free and fearless confidence, cheerful courage, assurance. It literally means, ‘speech which says it all.’It underscores the fruit of Pentecost, when “suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each of them” so they “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues.” It is the Spirit that, “enabled them to proclaim the Gospel to the Jews form every nation under the heaven staying in Jerusalem.” (Acts 2-5). It is what enables us John and Peter to stand boldly before the authorities as we read in Acts 4:13: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realised that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognised them as companions of Jesus.”
“Let us ask the Lord for this parrhesia,” preached Pope Francis on his own feastday several years ago, “this apostolic fervour that impels us to move forward, as brothers, all of us forward!”
Yet what I wish to suggest is that this parrhesia cannot simply be regarded as speech. It must be considered as action. In fact, our words mean little now. We have sinned, through our fault, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do. We can say nothing in our defence. We can however act, and we can act boldly. And in the end redemption is not given as words, it is given as an event. And what is the nature of this event? It is the action of sacrificial love, of Eucharistic love.
And so, I wish to come back to, and conclude with, the story that I shared here in this place with you several years ago. I have had the fortune of being able to visit the island of Malta upon which Paul had been shipwrecked on his way to Rome. It was an extraordinary opportunity to enter those accounts of Paul’s story. I realized especially that the texts of Paul’s time on Malta were not simply historical in character but were, in fact, highly elaborate commentaries, not simply on Paul, but on the Church itself for which Paul is presented as a metaphor. The actual account of Paul’s shipwreck detailed in the chapter 27 of the Acts of the Apostles teaches us it in a very particular way. Taking the peculiarities of the chapter into account this is not just a chapter about Paul’s arrival on Malta. It is not just a story of Paul battling rough seas and who is seeking to reach the shore safely. Much more profoundly, it is actually the story of the early Church at sea and in the midst of storms threatening to shipwreck it, discovering that which is most essential to it – the very mystery of the Eucharist. What brings Paul to safety in the midst of his own storm is the mystery of the Eucharist. At the heart of the storm as the text says, “he took bread, gave thanks to God in everybody’s presence, broke it and began to eat. All were encouraged and they ate too.” (Acts 27: 35-36). This is a clear scriptural allusion to the Eucharist and demonstrates what is most central for us. In the midst of the storm of our own moment in history we too must not cease to take bread, give thanks, break it and share it. This means that in the midst of all that we face we must come back to the essential Christian act: the act of self-emptying become a self-giving which is what the Eucharistic mystery is about. This is the mystery that is its true anchor and through which alone the Church must find its harbour and safety at this time. As the story alludes everything else can be jettisoned overboard.
In the very midst of the storm the mystery of the Eucharist, that mystery of Jesus’ self-emptying become a self-giving, is the one thing, however, we must remain true to, that gives meaning to all else, and that holds us together.
It is our fidelity to a Eucharistic way of living that will bring about the transformation for which we so desperately long.
Pope Francis, Christus Vivit, Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation to Young People and the Entire People of God, (25 March 2019), nn. 1-2.
John Paul II, Discourse at the Prayer Vigil at Tor Vergata, 19 August 2000: Insegnamenti XXIII/2 (2000), 212.
Benedict XVI, Inaugural Address, 24 April 2005.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel. Apostolic Exhortation (24 November 2013) n.7.
Pope Francis, Homily at “Missa Pro Ecclesia” with the Cardinal Electors, 14 March 2013.
Francis, Evangelii Gaudium.n. 3
John Paul II, Novo Millenio Ineunte, n.10.
Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini: On the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation (30 September 2010). The orginal footnotes are maintained in the quote to provide a reference for the quoatatin in the text.
Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini: On the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation (30 September 2010).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Book IV, n. 2666.
“The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul.” John of the Cross, Maxims on Love, 21 in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, (London: Thomas Nelson, 1964), 675.
Ignatius of Antioch, “The Letter to the Ephesians”, n.11, in The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings: A reader, edited by Bart D. Ehrman, (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 320. (Another translation has it, “Apart from him let nothing fascinate you.”)
Benedict XVI, “Easter Wednesday 2009 Catechesis: He rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures.”
Benedict XVI,Verbum Domini: On the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation (30 September 2010).
Benedict XVI,Verbum Domini: On the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation (30 September 2010).
Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, translated by P. Madigan and M. Beaumont, (Collegeville, MN: Pueblo, 1995).
Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 94. ‘Sociality’ itself is a term coined initially by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1923-1945). Bonhoeffer, whose 1931 thesis was Sanctorum Communio, used the term to denote the Christian concept of person that is inseparable from Christian beliefs about community and mutual inter-relationships.
Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament, 154
Carlo Carretto (1910-1988), “Letter to the Church,” in I Sought and I Found: My experience of God and of the Church, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984).
See Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, “Rejoice and be Glad,” Apostolic Exhortation, (19 March 2018), nn. 6-9.
Pope Francis, Address to the Clergy of Rome, 6 March 2014, https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2014/march/documents/papa-francesco_20140306_clero-diocesi-roma.html
Unhappily, I am not able to trace the source from which I sourced this account of the film.
Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A sacramental reinterpretation of Christian existence(Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1995) 154.
Cited in James Button, “A Tough Crusader Falls,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 14-15 October 2006, 27.
T S Eliot, Four Quartets, ‘Burnt Norton,” I.
Michael Leunig, A Prayer Tree, (Melbourne: HarperCollins, 1990).
Henry Thoreau, Walden, (Signet Classics, 1960), 65-66.
Metz,A Passion for God: The mystical-political dimension of Christianity, translated by J. Matthew Ashley, (New York/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1998); 163. Metz is clear that he is not advocating a partisan politics: “The task of the Church is not a systematic social doctrine, but a social criticism. . . [Thus] the Church, defined as social-critical institution, does not become a political ideology. No political party can have this criticism as its sole plank. Moreover, no political party can embrace in its political activity the whole scope of the Church’s social criticism which covers the whole of history under God’s eschatological proviso, otherwise it would drift into either romanticism or totalitarianism.” Metz, “The Church’s Social Function in the Light of a ‘Political Theology,” in Faith and the World of Politics, edited by Johannes B. Metz, Concilium36, (New York/Glen Rock, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1968) 17-18. [Italics in the original].
Metz, A Passion for God, 163.
Metz, A Passion for God, 158. See also 81-83, 125-126. See also Johann Baptist Metz, “Suffering from God: Theology as theodicy,” Pacifica 5 (1992), 281-284. For a full account of Metz’s appropriation of the place of spiritual poverty, see Johannes Baptist Metz, Poverty of Spirit, translated by John Drury, (Paramus, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1968).
Metz, A Passion for God, 66-69. Johann M. Vento applies Metz’s approach to the issue of violence against women. See Johann M. Vento, “Violence, Trauma, and Resistance: A Feminist Appraisal of Metz’s Mysticism of Suffering unto God,” Horizons29 (2002), 7-22.
Pope Francis, Letter to Priests, 4 August 2019.
Paul J. Philibert, The Priesthood of the Faithful: Key to a living church, (Liturgical Press, 2005), 26.
Buambach’s phrase is cited by Philibert, The Priesthood of the Faithful, 22.
See Johannes B. Metz, Followers of Christ: The Religious Life and the Church, trans. Thomas Linton (London/New York: Burns & Oates/Paulist Press, 1978) 18-22.
Norvene Vest, ‘Monastics and Oblates: Mutual blessings’, unpublished paper.
Raimundo Panikkar, Blessed Simplicity: The monk as universal archetype(New York: Seabury, 1982).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship,(London: SCM Press, 1948/2001), 44.
Jürgen Moltmann, Meditations on the Passion(New York: Paulist Press, 1979) 11-12.
13From Alan Alda, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned(New York: Random House, 2006) 21-4.
See Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in contemporary society, (New York: Image Books, 1990, originally published Doubleday, 1972).
Pope Francis, Letter to Priests, 4 August 2019.
Pope Francis, Sermon on the Feast of St George, 23 April 2013.
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