After teaching a full day program on the importance of sacraments this past Saturday, I did the unthinkable; I was late for the Vigil Mass in my hope parish. Yes, the traffic in town for the Daytona 500 was significant, so I’ll throw myself on the mercy of the Court. I did not get into the building till after the proclamation of the Gospel, so I stood respectfully at the rear during the sermon, hoping to make an unobtrusive dash to my wife’s place in the second pew during the Creed when everyone was standing. I hadn’t counted on the rite of sending the catechumens off to the diocesan rite of election. (The RCIA is becoming our new “high church,” but that is for another entry.)
The Gospel I missed, of course, is the famous and classic narrative of the temptation of Jesus, proclaimed on the First Sunday of Lent for at least 500 years. The Tridentine Missal (in use prior to 1970) chose the narrative of St. Matthew for annual proclamation. The present day rites rotate Matthew, Mark, and Luke on the three year cycle, and this is the Markan year. Although we think of the “Temptation” as a prolonged narrative between Jesus and the devil, St. Mark’s account is actually all of two lines! Mark, as the earliest evangelist, probably has the closest description of the event, to which future evangelists added their particular theological interpretations.
And indeed, in looking at a survey of modern scholarship, there is agreement that the theology underlying Mark is quite basic, almost primitive, one might say. Each noun and verb in this tiny paragraph is selected with great care to convey this sense. The subject of verse 1:12 is not Jesus, but “the Spirit,” who of course has just affirmed Jesus in the previous paragraph after John’s baptism and now immediately (implied in the Greek verb) “sends” him into the desert. Francis Moloney’s commentary notes that until and including the desert experience, things “happen” to Jesus; a vocational formation is still in play.
The desert is one of the Bible’s richest theological symbols. Historically, the anguishing sojourns of Moses alone and later with the Israelite nation through the desert were benchmarks of Jewish religious identity, places where God is met and destinies changed. That all Gospel accounts of Jesus’ own desert experience occur after his passage through water (i.e., the Jordan River) suggests parallels with the Exodus. But the term “desert” goes beyond even this. By the time of Jesus’ ministry the desert was considered in Jewish apocalyptic literature as the site of the final showdown battle between the angels of God and those of Evil. It is no accident that John the Baptist did his preaching and baptizing in the desert, believing as he did that the terrible day was soon at hand.
Over all, the desert was seen, as one might expect, enemy territory for the human species. The author of Genesis 3 was describing the travails of desert farming, the famous curse in the banishment from the (watered) Garden of Eden. Its animal population was dangerous and fierce. Mark 1:13 calls the desert “a wasteland.” It was in these circumstances that Jesus spent the (historically symbolic) forty days. Again, in the passive voice, things happen to Jesus. He was “put to the test” by Satan, and wild beasts were with him, and angels waited on him.
The sequence of Satan, beasts, angels gives us the best understanding we will ever have of what Jesus actually experienced. One commentator describes Satan’s role in the Bible as a “prosecuting attorney.” This is certainly true with the Book of Job, where Satan is the “common sense” advocate that a God who permits suffering is really no god at all. That Jesus experienced internal questions about his suffering ahead and whether he ultimately wished to embrace a prophet’s fate would make sense. That in this harsh retreat Jesus made the consummate choice to embrace the Kingdom is also clear from the context. The phrase “with the wild beasts” rings of the Prophet Isaiah’s apocalyptic vision of the lion and the lamb, and the child and the cobra. Jesus, by his desert decision, has made things right, restored the harmony of the Garden of Eden. The presence of angels suggests who has the upper hand in the cosmic battle of good and evil.
It is no literary accident that in Mark 2 Jesus assumes the active voice in his life and ministry.
If my blog entry today seems too heavy for Mardi gras, I am including an intriguing article about four Catholic priests who serve as college campus chaplains, and how they observe Ash Wednesday on their campuses. The sponsoring website is Focus, a national network of young Catholic evangelists on college campuses. A very uplifting site of young faith-filled idealism.
As I noted a few days ago every parish and every blog site is creaking under the weight of Lenten Programs. Honesty compels me to observe that the intoxicating wine of novelty and innovation does get mingled into the austerity of the penitential season. On the other hand, parishes, dioceses and other religious communities take advantage of the traditional appeal of Ash Wednesday and the forty days to introduce the blessings and benefits of community and individual prayer and reflection upon the Scriptures.
The three building blocks of Lent are quite simple: prayer, fasting, almsgiving. The spirit of Lent is more about examining our attitudes toward these three dimensions of the Christian life than engaging in a marathon of sorts to see how much one can take.
With regard to prayer, I remember a quote from years ago (the author, alas, escapes me.) “A man’s kneeling to pray does nothing for God but does everything for the man.” I have never met anyone who seriously asserted that he prayed enough, but life’s observations show us that in fact we really are self-satisfied. For starters, prayer is the moment we make the profound statement about ourselves, that everything we have, everything we are, is the result of the creating power of God. The opposite of prayer is hubris: a pseudo-pride that I have accomplished everything by my own diligence, the kind of pride that is incapable of gratitude, embittered with setbacks.
Fasting is denial. It destroys the sense of entitlement we all secretly live with, the material equation that if I do X, I deserve Y. Fasting puts to bed our illusory sense of self control. In truth we are enslaved to such mighty gods as potato chips. One reason we shy away from voluntary fasting is the grossly disturbing fact that for many, even in own counties, fasting is not religious/bourgeois/cosmetic sport but a grim way of life. And unless we are so scripturally dulled as to be mindless, we know deep inside that it is the involuntary hunger of others upon which we will be judged.
We have a pope today who is preaching a global sermon on the meaning of almsgiving. Many years ago my parish youth conducted a car wash for an international disaster, charging the princely sum of $2 for a full service job. That evening, after the Vigil Mass, a man with a giant luxury sedan came up to me while I was still vested, and began to vent his anger over the his claim that these kids had not done a very good job. I did not hit him. I did happen to have my wallet under the vestments, and it did contain two singles. I took the two bills and gave them to him with the unspoken prayer that he drive his Cadillac up the road next Saturday night.
There is almsgiving and there is almsgiving. Tossing a few discretionary dollars toward the poor is not the Gospel mean. Entering the state of mind of Christ is the true Lenten challenge. Jesus talked about almsgiving in the language of extravagance: baskets of bread and fish left over, grain falling out of the folds of one’s robe, feasts for the blind and lame: to participate in God’s overly generous heart and his infinite impartiality is the ultimate Lenten goal. “Your heavenly father makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”Perhaps we may lose a pound or two this Lent; but pray to gain an ounce of insight (whatever program you choose.)
Today marks the Feast of St. Scholastica, who died in 542 A.D. She is best known as the sister, possibly twin, of St. Benedict, recognized as the father of western Roman monasticism and the author of the Benedictine Rule. She herself lived much of her life as an abbess, and was evidently very much the equal of her brother in theology and spiritual insight. The limited details we have about her life record that her brother visited her for one day a year, during which they discussed spiritual insights. Legend has it that Scholastica prayed to God to intervene when toward sunset her brother wished to return to his monks, as his new law required. God intervened with a violent storm, and the two conversed on spiritual matters throughout the night.
Benedict, Scholastica and the long tradition of the Rule and its observance by thousands of communities of men and women monastics have had a deep influence upon many individuals. Throughout the fifteen centuries of Benedictine life, the monastery has always served as that solitary location where a man or woman could step from the madness, the noise, and the distractions of the world and find the God who lives within. Wil Derkse, a married man with degrees in philosophy and chemistry, carries a deep attraction for the monastic life and is himself an oblate of his local monastery. His A Blessed Life: Benedictine Guidelines for Those Who Long for Good Days is a brief 110-page reflection on living in the world with a monastic heart. An Amazon reviewer of the book wrote: “I had no idea that the principles of monasticism could apply to an ordinary daily life. These principles have helped me toward a quieter, more balanced existence. Definitely worth reading and studying.”
Derkse has led several long retreats (three weeks or more) for lay persons wishing to understand the Benedictine charism of monastic living. He observes humorously that a number of his retreat alumni have written over the years to tell him that they left the monastery with a burning desire to de-clutter their residences. The monks treat their residence and property with great respect and a divinely inspired order (and without neurosis, I hasten to add.) We forget that Thomas Merton, America’s best known monk and man of letters, served as “forester” of his monastery’s large holdings in Kentucky.
Derkse observes that the first word of the Benedictine Rule is Audire or “Listen,” and this forms the spiritual and psychological ground of monastic health. Benedict himself believed that the quiet listener was all the healthier for it. Speech was sacred in his plan, but specifically a well-informed speech, the product of sacred reading, meditation, study, examination of conscience. When I see people on cell phones incessantly, I ask myself what they could possibly have to say that is anywhere near live giving or sustaining. Twelve times in his Rule Benedict warns of murmuratio, a type of conversation that needs no English translation here.
It would be a wonderful thing if every liturgist (or all catechists and ministers, for that matter) could participate in a monastic liturgy. I have had the chance on several occasions, and I was struck by its quiet but marked solemnity, its attention to the most basic gestures and rites, the ease of singing the psalms and hymns dating back 1500 years. Surprisingly, the Masses I have attended impressed me, too, with their brevity. The atmosphere of Mass comes from the life of the community, but even we guests were drawn into something we sensed was palpably sacred.
Derkse describes the monks as purposefully happy, as opposed to jolly. Praying, eating, peeling potatoes (the monasteries of my experience were meatless), studying, even sleeping—these are a folk who enjoy a profound satisfaction in being where God has put them. I do not mean to simplify the human complexities of such a life, but removed from unnecessary distraction the monk can better understand his unique demons and seek the abbot’s guidance. Interesting, too, is the daily schedule of study: every monk devotes a chunk of his day to the scholarship of the ages, from the Scriptures to Church Fathers to modern theological insight. Monastic prayer has roots; the monk speaks of what he has heard and read, not “what he feels,” a troubling tendency in current parish life.
The claim has been made that monks “run away from the real world.” Actually I think the reverse is true: monasteries are preserves of the only things that genuinely matter. Strive to keep the monk alive in your heart.
Last week I fear I left you hanging when I talked about the four different strains of authorship in the Pentateuch—that is, the first five books of the Bible. This encompasses Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. For most of the Christian era the common belief held that Moses had been the author of these five books, though no one ever quite arrived at a satisfying answer as to the author’s recording of Moses’ death in Deuteronomy 34. As I noted last week, the gifted scholar Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) created the working synthesis of four identifiable authors (more likely, schools of authors and theological outlook.) The four traditions are known today as “J” (800 B.C.), “E” (700 B.C.), and “D” (600 B.C.), and after the Babylonian exiles returned, beginning in about 539 B.C., a fourth school composed of temple priests, the “P” tradition not surprisingly, took a heavier hand in rearranging the other three into the narrative of today’s modern bibles.
That there are multiple authors of “Moses’ books” should not come as a surprise. A very quick look at the two creation accounts (Genesis 1; Genesis 2ff.) contrasts two entirely different literary styles and, more to the point, descriptions of God. Genesis 1 is patterned by men of the temple and clearly shows priestly influence. An impersonal and all powerful God creates order out of chaos, creates his universe in six days—from the lowest life forms to the highest (man)—and then, like any good observant priest, God rests on the seventh day. Wellhausen was the first to see “P” influence here: divine omnipotence, an orderly seven-day progression, and of course Sabbath observance.
The second creation account (Genesis 2:4ff) rewinds the film and starts all over again. Scholars believe that this account comes from the “J” or Yahwist tradition (the letters J and Y interrelate in translation). We have here an “anthropomorphic” God; he sounds and acts like a human being, carries on multiple discussions, “gets his hands dirty” and the like. In the J account God creates man first, and then goes on to create all the other kinds of wildlife in a valiant and compassionate effort to provide Adam with suitable companionship. Whether the authors intended this or not, there is a touch of humor in all this, but J is also a masterpiece of philosophy. God takes a rib from Adam, that is, from the middle of his body, as a sign that the new woman is neither lower nor higher in class, but his partner. J goes on to attempt to explain the origins of evil (the created snake), the reason why human work—farming in sweat around thorns and thistles—is man’s lot, and the strange power of sexual drive that a woman craves her man despite the pain and mortality of childbirth. Even with the catastrophic sin of the Garden of Eden, the J authors have successfully conveyed God’s love of humans as the climax of his creation.
It is helpful to remember that all of these traditions (including D and E) arose long after Israel had become a nation, and thus represent theological and philosophical thinking of a more modern people (relatively speaking). The Pentateuch as a whole—particularly Genesis—combines the most fragmentary history available from collective memory with the contributions of these thoughtful theologians/philosophers to create the compelling Biblical narratives we observe and celebrate in our liturgy. The ultimate content of Scripture is theological and not scientific.
I recall a retreat for priests years ago where the speaker observed the large number of canonized saints in Christendom. He elaborated that each was unique in temperament, style, philosophy and ministry, but that each reflected a special color in the perfect Jewel that is God. This is a good metaphor for our study of Scripture. It is the one God who has revealed himself to us in sacred revelation. As hearers of the Word we observe God as the distant stately master of universal chaos, the intimate confidante of Moses and David, the protagonist in the drama of Job, whose Son Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry but cursed unproductive fig trees and proclaimed damnation to the unrepentant. In teaching the Scripture we cannot shop for an aspect of God we happen to like (or fear less). From Genesis to Revelation, we proclaim the fullness of God. Get to know Him. Our ancestors—J, D, E, P—set the template.