Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Now See Here

One of the things I love about traditional worship is that all the senses are involved. Body movement, seeing art and architecture, touching water, hearing music, smelling incense, and tasting Eucharist. On my curmudgeony days, I bemoan the lack of regular incense and good music, but still, in theory, worship should be a full-on experience. Going into a church envelops me; it is truly set apart from the world, sanctus.

I’m a visual learner, so perhaps that’s why the look of the church means so much to me. Sometimes I worry that I’m just making a big deal out of my personal tastes, but it’s not that I just like pretty churches. I need pretty churches; they help me worship. They’re essential aides. As I was being less-than-focused during Mass Sunday, I realized how even when my attention wanders from the homily, the church building itself makes sure my mind still stays on Christ. Veering away from the priest as he spoke, my eyes hit upon an upper stained-glass window. The pascal lamb, with its banner of victory. Then I realized wherever I looked, there was something: the tabernacle, the corpus, Mary in her May crown of flowers, Joseph, Jesus with his Sacred Heart, a stained-glass window depicting the life of Peter—his fishing net, the cock crowing, his keys, his upside-down cross. At least three stations of the Cross—Christ condemned, Christ being taken down from the cross, and Christ’s burial. There were candles and flowers and the baptismal font. My eyes couldn’t look away without something else telling me to pay attention.
The Eastern Church really gets this.

Catholic churches are often accused of being too ornate, wastefully decadent. The Calvinists and Anabaptists stripped churches to the bare bones: plain walls, plain windows, maybe a simple cross, and a pulpit. Gold and marble and colored glass distracted from the message, they claimed. But I think the gold and the marble and the colored glass share the message. (Not to say the art has to be expensive, just that religious art has a message). This place is set apart; this worship demands all of you; this is an encounter with the holy.

Picture a stereotypical teenager’s room. It’s messy. She’s not that focused—her attention is split between school demands, extracurriculars, college applications, hormone-fueled crushes, friendships, and social media. The space is an intersection of all of these. On the walls, posters of favorite bands, celebrities, movies. On her desk, pictures of friends and kitschy souvenirs of beach trips and music festivals. Somewhere close by, but tucked out of sight of friends, a cherished stuffed animal. The teenager has made this room her own; she has claimed it as set apart from the household and filled it with reminders of who she is, or rather, who she wants to be. A teenager is still figuring out her identity, and her room showcases reminders of what she loves and what she strives to become.

Corpus Christi is a good Sunday to be reminded of the tangibility of the faith. We’re not Gnostics; the material and spiritual are not mutually exclusive. God created the material world; he loves matter! He gave us creation and physics and bodies. God became man himself. He interacts with his creation. He lets Mary wash his feet and Thomas touch his wounds. Our God-given senses can direct back to God. I’m an easily distracted child, and Mother Church is snapping her fingers, drawing me back to where I need to be. Look at this, feel this, taste this, and believe. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Saturday Afternoon

It was raining as I pulled up to the church. One of the front doors was open, letting in the momentary cool air. In the narthex, two women had covered much of the floor in a patchwork of felt. The color squares had names and decorations on them, but I didn’t look too closely. I made a beeline for the confession line, which was already formed, even though confession didn’t start for another 15 minutes. There is always a line here, which is nice to see even if it is a bit time-consuming. There was a group at the front of the church taking pictures. They had just finished up a baptism, and the baby was the center of attention as the rest of the family rotated in and out, taking photos in every combination. They waved and made funny faces to get him to look toward the camera. Ultimately, they let him have a toy, and he rattled and cooed obliviously to his adoring family and the row of onlookers in line. My ovaries took over my brain, and I watched the baby for a long while before remembering why I was there. Then I had to go over my examination of conscience again. Afterward, as I left, the women in the narthex had affixed the felt squares to a cross. It was clearer now that they held the names of kids getting confirmed or first communion. Baptism, confession, confirmation, communion. The church was chock full of grace this Saturday afternoon. I stepped outside. The rain had stopped, and the sun was softly shining. I was slightly disappointed. I love gloomy weather, and I was ready to interpret the cleansing rain as a sign of my absolution. But this wasn’t a story with a beginning, an end, or satisfactory metaphors. It was just another afternoon. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

A Brimstone Beatnik

The only sermon ever studied in my public high school was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” (Although I’m sure people were pushing for more.) For generations it has set on the curriculum as representation of the Great Awakening and colonial writing. The class read it in conjunction with The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible and learned that, man, those Puritans were hardcore. It’s the fire and brimstone sermon. It’s fear-driven and threatening, and I never understood why it was supposed to be effective. Who would go to church every Sunday to hear this? It was far, far from the sermons I was used to, extolling us to love Christ and love as Christ.

The culture shock wasn’t because of the 250-year gap. I didn’t go up in revival culture. There was no emotional manipulation; no praise band hitting the right chords or yelling pastors pleading for altar calls or Road to Damascus testimonies. Church was not a place of emotional highs and fear of hell; it was place of comfort. There was the regular community, the regular sacraments, the regular social justice work. We ebbed and flowed with the liturgical calendar. We never clapped. Both Edwards’ church and the one of my childhood were under the “Presbyterian/Reformed” banner, but the only thing they seemed to share was a 66-book canon. Edwards’ God sounded completely different to one I knew.

But as I sat in my old church recently, buffered by all the old familiarity, I felt that it could do with a little Edwards in the pulpit. I don’t like fire and brimstone; it’s foreign and it’s uncomfortable and feels manipulative. But it’s in the Bible, and it has its time and place. After hundreds of Sundays of listening about Christ’s love and tolerance and open table, one needs to be reminded that he also spoke of hell, of repenting, of coming with a sword.

Jesus is not a hippie or a socialist or just a good moral teacher. He’s not a guru or therapist. He makes demands. He sets conditions. He stops the men from stoning the adulteress, but he also tells the adulteress to stop sinning. “Go, and sin no more.” You are free to come as you are, but you shouldn’t leave the same way.

The more you get to know someone, the more dimensional they become. That nice guy has an angry streak and that office bitch has a big heart. People are beautifully multi-faceted and complex. Loving someone is more than a fuzzy feeling. It’s more than an open door policy. Love is a work. It takes effort to get to understand someone’s complexity, to see those facets harmonize into a unique creation, to desire the good of that individual. We have to make sure our image of Jesus isn’t one-dimensional, that we don’t make him a caricature of a violent warrior or a tolerant beatnik. Those who are threatened with hell need a message of comfort, and those who are comfortable need a message of hell. Both messages are of Christ, a complex, multi-faceted man. 

But ultimately, Christ’s message is secondary. It doesn’t matter so much what kind of man Jesus is, but that he is man at all. The scandal of the Incarnation is supreme. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is fully God and fully man. He might not be the kind of man we want him to be. He might not smite down the adulterer. He might not lead a political coup against Rome. He might not be financially frugal or clean-shaven or vegan. He might not support the troops or bless same-sex weddings. Instead, he is who is. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that everything?

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Go to the Winchester

There is rumor that the pope is forming a commission on reestablishing women deacons. I have to admit, I’m a bit torn on the subject. Within the Church, I’m all for deaconesses, whether officially ordained or not. In the earliest days of the Church, women performed ecclesiastical duties. Women baptized women entering the church, they led prayer, and they provided worship space. Phoebe was one of the first deacons, in fact, she’s the only person given that title in the Bible. She is introduced by Paul as a deaconess, an emissary of Rome, who is instructed to share his letter with the church in Cenchreae (Romans 16:1-2). Priscilla, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis are also listed as women working for the Church, and they are commended by Paul (who, you know, is commonly regarded as a backwards sexist in some modern circles).

At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, it was stated that women shouldn’t receive the laying of hands as a deaconess until age 40, “and then only after searching examination.” I think the age limit shows that deaconesses were probably widows but certainly women with leadership and some life experience. The “laying of hands” isn’t clear if they were specially-blessed laity or actually ordained. So that is a matter that the Church will have to still decide. The role of deaconess stopped in the West in the 13th century, although Orthodox churches continued it. If the diaconate were be opened to women again, there is a ritual on the books (so to speak) for ordaining deaconesses from the 10th century, and their role would be the same as what is laid out in the Second Vatican Council’s reestablishment of the permanent diaconate for men. So there is some sort of precedent, although the Church would have to determine if a deaconess actually receives Holy Orders or is just an elevated lay role. In either case, I’d like to see the role of deaconess in the Church, in the tradition of Phoebe.

But I worry about the message others might take from deaconesses. Like the “spirit of Vatican II,” this could get out of hand for the uninformed. Within the Catholic community, both far right and far left will go nuts. There will be cries of Pope Francis going off the rails. The radical socialist out to upend the Church. And the implementation could be disastrous, (like, 1970s religious music bad)— an adrenaline shot to the “spirit of Vatican II.” Women joining to prove a point, not because of a calling. Photo ops all about girl power and fighting the patriarchy.

Outside the Catholic community, you can already see the headlines: “Vatican finally accepts women.” “Catholic Church changes position, gets with the times.” It would be broadcast as the Church capitulating to the zeitgeist, to overturning its beliefs, to changing for the sake of staying relevant. News of such a change would overlook the history and doctrine and just focus on the visual: a woman in an alb overseeing a Catholic wedding. It would cause people to complain that the Church is willing to forego its beliefs for popularity while at the same time people would complain that it’s not doing enough.

And for the people who want the Catholic Church to morph into whatever they desire, it will be regarded as a victory. Today, women deacons; tomorrow, women priests! And gay weddings! And abortion on demand! They will think they have gained something from all this. They will push for women in the priesthood even harder. Because to them there is no difference in a deacon and a priest. Because to them there is no difference between anything, ever. All is relative. Ontological truths or morality or divine mandates are secondary to current culture wars. The Church is their tool for social adequation instead of a vessel of God’s grace.

At this point, there has only been the suggestion that a commission might seek clarification. That’s a lot of ifs and a lot of boring bureaucracy. We’re not the East; we like to minutely define our doctrine, in our legalistic, Roman way. Slow, steady, and wordy. According to Catholic News Service, “Pope Francis had said his understanding was that the women described as deaconesses in the Bible were not ordained like permanent deacons are. Mainly, he said, it appeared that they assisted with the baptism by immersion of other women and with the anointing of women. However, he said, ‘I will ask the (Congregation for the) Doctrine of the Faith to tell me if there are studies on this.’” Of course, deciding that no, women can’t be ordained deacons will also cause a media frenzy about the big, bad Catholic Church whose stances won’t fall in line with 2016 America.

So the Church takes a reasoned, academic approach to clarifying an issue, and the world around it freaks the fuck out. Nothing changes.