Monday, March 23, 2015

A Homily on the Passion

Holy Week and the Triduum approach us, and I am dreading another bizarre dramatization of the arrest, trial and crufixion of Jesus. The Liturgy of the Word is certainly lengthy, and perhaps the participation of all (the Faithful get to read the part of  the 'Crowd') is something of an antidote for the apparently soporific duration. This kind of thing used to be trendy, and designed to show the artistry of the evangelist, as in, for example, the Collegeville Bible Commentary on the 4th Gospel. Of course, the evangelists had access to the genre of drama, and the option of writing one was always there.

Often, because of the undue burden placed on all by the sheer mass of the Gospel readings, a homily is abbreviated or omitted. I present this homily for Lenten reflection and as a contingency plan.

The narrative of events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus is a human story about a human person. No one seriously questions the historicity of the general contour of the story of a man betrayed by a friend, falsely accused, tried by his peers and delivered to a foreign power for judgement and execution at the hands of the state. It is also a personal story about a particular man. He had a mission and was joined in it by close associates. His initial success captured the popular imagination which led to general admiration for him in certain circles, even though his success was a threat to others.

The final events of his life were concentrated into hours. He passed from fame to ignominy in a flash, abandoned not just by the general populace but by his closest associates as well. He was personally betrayed by someone who might have even been especially close.

In the flow of fleeting time he is disavowed by everyone. He is completely abandoned, a no-body totally subsumed into the unspeakable and ineffable power of the state. He is publicly mocked, marched through the streets to the jeers of the mob, and finally nailed to a cross, humiliated, defeated, separated from everything, and awaits an exquisitely painful dying.

We must imagine ourselves there: we witness to the event through the witness of the Gospel. We are at the foot of the cross, watching, hearing the anguish and abandonment of someone waiting for death to come.

Now imagine he is your son, brother, husband, friend. Imagine he is anyone's child, sibling, spouse, friend.

Here is your son, in the power of the state, on a gurney about to receive a lethal injection. You are there, separated from him perhaps by a pane of glass; you are there as a witness to the death of your son. Is he innocent? Is he guilty? At this point, what is the difference?

Do you rush to the glass, pound on it, try to break through it to embrace your son, hold him close, prevent it from happening?

You are restrained as you struggle against this impossible moment. Do you scream a scream so screaming the scream itself is impossible?

The injection is given and you see your son's body convulse, tortured in the throes of death. What are you thinking? Saying? Feeling? Does the word 'justice' come to mind?

You see your son's body finally relax. He is dead. What sounds do you make now? Where were you when he suffered death? Where were you in his moment of passing into that death? Does the word 'God' come to mind?

Now imagine God the son and God the father, on Calvary, in the moment. What is it like for God, united to his son, but unable to change the outcome? What kind of sound does God make when he is screaming against the suffering of the son? What kind of terror overcomes the son to witness God the father who cannot break through to the moment?

This is the Cross.

The Cross of Christ's death bears witness to us everyday, and we bear witness to the Cross when we hear its call.

Every celebration of  the Mass is a confrontation with the Cross, but especially on the Sunday of Holy Week, when we get to safely drown it all out with really bad acting.

Robert Barron reminds us, and rightly so, that we call the Friday of Christ's death on a cross, 'good.' It is 'good' not because of the horror beyond words acted out this day, but because of our deepest hope that the resounding scream of God overwhelms the howls of execration at the Crucifixion and the powers of the world.

The scream of God does not shatter glass, collapse mountains or hurl the planets into the sun; it is a scream that whispers on Elijah's breeze, barely perceptible perhaps, but beckons insistently, insisting to be received. It is a call without words that asks to exist; the sound that a Sunday morning makes; the sound made that inexplicable first day of the week so many years ago. The sound of the past made present.


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    1. The poignancy of this comment warrants a response, however inadequate it will be. I know it is inadequate before I write it.

      There is not only no solidarity here; there is no possibility of solidarity: ever.

      I do not know where mercy was on that day Omayra died, or the days leading up to it. The decision to let her die is mind-boggling, horrific, evil.

      All these Crosses, all this suffering, go, it would seem, unmarked, unheard, unknown. I wonder if all these crosses of past, present and future pass through the one Cross. Perhaps they are all one and the same Cross, in which past, present and future are silent.

      The Cross is never empty, even after resurrection, whatever that could mean. If so, then neither is resurrection ever empty, whatever that could mean.

    2. So we finally found a way to put God himself on the crosses he merely witnessed before in silence.


      Good for us. I'll take that moment. And I'll look at God looking at his crossed Son like God looked at muddy Omayra. I will look on the suffering of God with supreme indifference.

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  5. If we can suspend the problem of 'God could' our task still remains daunting with the remaining 'God has' and 'God doesn't.'

    First a homily allows for greater freedom of exploration and expression than other genres. My goal was to put before us a level of emotion and materiality that is lost on Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion. So I broke all my analytic rules of eschewing analogical language. Brevity insists on the economy of imagery.

    But the theological element should not be so subverted as to be a retraction of all I have written before. Allow me the Homily.

    There is no denying 'God has' and 'God doesn't.' That might inform what's going on in 'God could.'

    So back to the theological:

    1) The resurrection as surprise: Certainly for his followers, Jesus's R is a surprise. They never saw it coming, did not hope for it, and as the Gospels depict, did not believe it with their own eyes until they 'recognize' Jesus.

    2) Is God surprised by the R? Perhaps!!!! Is this not the way it is with Love, the gift and hospitality? When giving alms Jesus taught that the left hand should not know what the right is doing: the hands would be surprised at each other. This is a logic of theopoetics; it is impossible, but God is the possibility of the impossible.

  6. 3) Catholicism confesses that the deepest reality of Jesus is that he is both human and divine, not that he is really, deep down, God pure and simple: that interpretation is certainly logical, but monophysitism as well. Faith does not simplify; it complicates by 'folding.'

    4) Jesus most certainly had a death just like ours; that is the materiality of the Cross. If that death were not the death of a human, no soteriology worth its salt could have arisen.

    5) The R of Jesus is definitionally different from what our own might be. Faith tells us that Jesus's R had a clear trajectory, and religion tells us what it is: eternal life conquers death; vindication of all Jesus was, all about him affirmed and ratified. We are not resurrected to the perichoresis of the trinity. Our R is ordered to something else.

  7. 6) History itself presents a God that has material presence in events: Creation, the Theophany on Sinai, the Incarnation--'God has.' But it is no less true that God has been historically silent ever since, at least with respect to the magnitude of what 'God has' done. With respect, therefore, to our own eyes, 'God doesn't.' And all the theodical nightmares, all too real, seem to point to a God that could but won't; this is a nightmare from which awakening is not an option. This is the predicament of faith and the human condition. Our only option is to conclude that a God who could but won't, simply "isn't." This the case for many.I am looking at another option that is experienced on another horizon.

  8. 7) All Christian faith is R faith. There is no other. We cannot 'wink' the bodily R away, and continue anyway because we really need the eggs. It is the earliest teaching of the Church that if Christ is not raised faith is in vain. It is the most stunning, inexplicable event in the bible. It is the saturated phenomenon par excellence, and presents its phenomenality to theology, not any kind of philosophy. The R is impossible.

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  10. This passage from Ott discusses the Catholic understanding of God's omnipotence. It amplifies the idea that God's power is ordered to a particular reality. 'Impotence,' though a provocative term (especially as weakness), is not the way an ordered omnipotence is framed:

    Speculatively, God's omnipotence flows from his being pure act. The efficacy of a thing is determined by the grade of its real being: (Unumquodque agit secundum quod est in actu) (S. th. I 25, I ad I). To God's Infinite Reality of Being there corresponds an (intensively) Infinite Power. This extends over the whole sphere of real and possible being (extensively infinite). As God's power is identical with God's Essence, it cannot imply anything which contradicts the Essence and the Attributes of God. Thus God cannot change, cannot lie, can make nothing that has happened not to have happened (contrary to the teaching of St. Peter Damian), cannot realise anything which is contradictory in itself. 2 Tim. 2, 13: (He cannot deny himself) negare seipsum non potest. Cf. St. Augustine, De civ. Dei V 10, I; S. th. I 25, 4.

    God has determined in a certain mode His omnipotence, by freely choosing to realise one definite world-order from many possible such orders. God's might, which activates itself in the framework of the real world-order, is called "potentia ordinata " to distinguish it from His " potentia absoluta."

    _Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma_ p.47.

  11. God loves Himself of necessity, but loves and wills the creation of extra-Divine things, on the other hand, with freedom. (De fide.)

    God is not free to choose between good and evil, according to Catholic dogma:

    The imperfection which belongs to created volition must not be ascribed to the notion of the Divine freedom. Therefore the Divine freedom is not libertas contrarietatis, that is, a freedom to choose between good and evil; for the possibility of willing evil is indeed a sign of freedom but it is not of the essence
    of freedom, and signifies rather imperfection (De verit. 22, 6). The Divine freedom is positively to be defined as libertas contradictionis, that is, the freedom to act or not to act (for example, to create the world), and as libertas specificationis, that is, freedom to choose between various good or indifferent actions (for example, to create this or that worId).

    Ott, 46-7.

  12. Joseph:

    I hope these 2 comments meet your request for the Catholicity of a qualified omnipotence.

    If this is not the kind of 'evidence' you were looking for, perhaps you could be more specific.