Thoughts on Palm Sunday

This photo shows the palm fronds we received when we went to church for Palm Sunday this morning (the two braided ones didn’t come to us that way — they represent my husband’s creativity). When we arrived at Mass, I thought I came prepared for the emotional haul of the reading of Jesus’ suffering and death, from the Gospel of Matthew. But when the reader began and the Palm Sunday drummer commenced his soft, steady drumbeat in the background, it seemed to me that perhaps no one who takes these events seriously can ever be completely prepared for their emotional impact. They are too shocking, too terrible, for complacency.

Our palm fronds

Our palm fronds

As the cast of readers made their way through word after painful word of the narrative, a few things surfaced in my mind as I listened and read along. The first thing that surfaced was a rueful thought along the lines of: “Well isn’t this just like the human species? God sends a part of Godself to become God’s divine Son, to teach us what the kingdom of God is like, and to provide for us the perfect model of how to be holy and to realize that kingdom within and amongst ourselves, and what do we do? We murder him.” And is that any surprise? The human species is often violent, short-sighted, and susceptible to mob mentality. At any given time there is a war going on somewhere, and the 20th century was the most horrifically violent century in the history of our species (think two World Wars, scores of other wars, and multiple genocides, all carried out with unprecedented destruction due to new technology).

The next thought surfaced for me at the point in the narrative when Jesus goes outside to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper, when he knew that his betrayer was about to arrive with the authorities and an angry mob to haul him away to torture and a gruesome death. As I listened to and read the account of Jesus in the Garden, I thought about how clear the Gospels are about the fact that Jesus had ample time to flee if he had chosen to do so. The Gospels describe an agonizing scene that drags on for hours on that night that we would come to venerate for the next 2,000 years (and counting) as Holy Thursday. Half the night goes by while Jesus prays in the Garden, and waits, and waits, and waits. The Gospels are clear: he knew what was coming, and he asked his disciples to wait and pray with him. He was anguished, yet he did not flee. In those days, all a successful escape would have entailed would be a quick dash out of the city and a few days of walking, and voilà — a new life in safety. But instead, he waited for them to come; and when a disciple tried to prevent the arrest by drawing his sword and cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers, Jesus himself stopped the disciple and told him to put away his sword.

No, this was a sacrificial death to which Jesus went without defending himself, a divine act born from divine sacrificial love. As he said of the broken bread at the Last Supper: “Take and eat; this is my body.” And as he said of the wine in the cup: “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the Covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28). As he hung dying on the cross, malicious observers mocked that he saved others but does not save himself. Saving himself was not part of the plan. Indeed, that’s what’s so astonishing, because neither the disciples nor anyone else were expecting a suffering and dying Messiah, and certainly not one who would die the most disgraceful and ghastly death of the Roman cross. If you want a prime example of “you can’t make this up,” this is it. Nobody wanted to make this one up.

The good news, of course, is that Jesus’ death wasn’t the end of the story. Nobody was expecting the Resurrection either, even though the Gospels have Jesus hinting at it while he was still alive, trying to prepare the disciples for it. But nobody understood it. It was not yet in anyone’s vocabulary. And when he died, the disciples were utterly destroyed emotionally. The Gospels paint the bleak picture of it: their hope was snuffed out. They believed it was over, as anyone would. They didn’t expect that Jesus would be resurrected. So on the third day, Easter Sunday, nobody was more surprised than the disciples when the man they thought dead and lost forever was no longer a dead body, but rather started appearing to them in a kind of transfigured but definite physical state. First in ones and twos (and first among these were the women who had come to the tomb), then to large and disparate groups of his followers. Reading the Gospels’ account of it, you can feel their amazement lifting off the page and coming right at you. And later when they would face rejection, and even arrest, torture, and execution unless they recanted this story, they would not recant. Many of them (the most famous being Peter and Paul) went straight to their early deaths proclaiming this Resurrection.

But Easter Sunday is still a week away. We are just now entering Holy Week, and this week holds much to reflect on before we get to the joy of Easter and the fifty days of the Easter season. Today after the reading of Jesus’ suffering and death, our priest said that Jesus wants our union with him more than he wants our sympathy. Just so. As the pastor wrote in the church bulletin for this week, Holy Week is the time when Jesus’ followers “celebrate these sacred and ancient liturgies of the church. Easter Sunday and the fifty days of Easter will have so much more meaning for us if we take the time to remember the love that Jesus poured out for us on the cross.”

© 2014 Elizabeth Keck

The Open Tabernacle

The Tabernacle at Our Church

The Tabernacle at Our Church

This photo is of the Tabernacle that is in our church. Every Catholic church has one of these, although they don’t all look the same. The Tabernacle is the place where the consecrated Eucharist, also called the Host, resides. The Hosts in the Tabernacle are those that were not received during the last Mass and have not yet been taken out for the next Mass. There is never a time (other than the Liturgy of the Eucharist during Mass) when the Tabernacle is empty. Because it is Catholic faith that the Presence of Christ inheres in the Eucharist in a real way, in every Catholic church there is a perpetual flame burning beside the Tabernacle, an ever-present witness that in this place dwells the Presence of the Lord. The word “Tabernacle” comes from the Old Testament: it was the structure in which God’s Presence was understood to dwell in a special way in ancient Israel. Each day — depending on the individual church, it could be all day or a certain time of the day — Catholic churches are open so that anyone can come in and pray or meditate in silence before the Tabernacle, in Christ’s Presence.

I mentioned that the only time the Tabernacle is empty is during the Mass’s Eucharistic Liturgy, when its doors are opened and the Body of Christ within is distributed to all present, along with the newly-consecrated Hosts. Last Sunday after receiving Communion, we returned to our pew as usual to kneel in interior prayer and close our eyes, to be in communion with Christ. When I opened my eyes, the final people were going up for Communion, and my gaze happened to land on the Tabernacle (we tend to sit close to it). Its doors were still open, since Communion was still being distributed, and as I looked at it I reflected on what those open doors mean.

Those open doors signify a God who revealed Godself to us through a self-limiting act: becoming incarnate as a human, to be carried and borne by a human mother, to experience human bodily needs and suffering. God did this in an act of supreme humility, of self-emptying (kenosis), of solidarity in suffering and in joy, and of service to us. As Pope Francis is fond of saying, Christianity is not primarily a system of ethics, although the ethical treatment of others, especially the most weak and vulnerable, obviously flows from what Jesus taught. Pope Francis frequently and rightly reminds us that Christianity is primarily a living relationship with a person — divine yet human — who suffered, died, and rose from the dead to teach us that death is not the end of life, only its changing. This person, Jesus, taught us to orient ourselves to “the kingdom of God,” which he alternately described as being “within you,” or “like a treasure buried in a field,” or “like a pearl of great price,” or “like seeds that a farmer scattered” that land on three different types of ground (rocky, thorny, and fertile), or “like a mustard seed,” the smallest of seeds, which grows into a full-bodied tree. Jesus came to show us what the kingdom of God is.

The picture that God reveals of Godself in Christ is a picture of self-denial, self-gift, service, infinite mercy, and infinite love. After all, God demonstrates what God is calling us to. The Tabernacle’s open doors last Sunday spoke to me about Jesus’ eternal self-gift through Communion, which he inaugurated when he distributed the bread and wine, pronounced them his Body and Blood “given for you,” and said to “do this in memory of me.” The Tabernacle’s open doors signal that even today, 2,000 years later, Christ is still distributing his Body in a mystical way that never ends, and in which we are invited to take part. Yet a final thing the open Tabernacle made me think of was the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, which the Gospels describe as Jesus’ feeding thousands of people from scarcity. The food, to the crowd’s astonishment, just kept on coming, and Jesus just kept on distributing it. The open Tabernacle reminds me of that event because that event (like the open Tabernacle) is connected to the endless distribution of Christ’s self in Communion. Like the day with the loaves and fishes, Christ keeps on giving food to us — but as the open Tabernacle will always remind us, the food that he gives now is Himself.

© 2014 Elizabeth Keck

“May God Grant You Pardon and Peace”

This year my daughter is preparing for her First Communion at our Catholic church. Before taking part in the Eucharist, though, she has just celebrated her first Reconciliation, or confession. Naturally, my husband, daughter, and I have spent a lot of time the last few months talking about this sacrament, so now feels like the perfect time to put forth a few reflections on what I think it all means.

In Catholic theology, each sacrament constitutes a genuine — not merely a symbolic — encounter with Christ through the Holy Spirit. As such, the sacraments are believed to impart real divine grace within the person who is participating (provided he or she is doing so with a “willing disposition,” which basically means free will and a heart open to receiving God’s grace). It isn’t magic or some kind of hocus-pocus. The theology is that if the person is internally disposed to cooperate with God’s grace — because God doesn’t force Godself upon us — then the grace received will take root and grow within that person. If that grace continues to be nourished with prayer and action, its positive effects on the person will become more and more clear to that person and the outside world.

So I’m beginning to put myself to sleep with all this theologizing. The real question is, does it work? As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. Well, in my experience it does work. But I can also say without fear of exaggeration that after my daughter took part in Reconciliation, I noticed a genuine difference in her that lasted for about a week afterward. I’d like to call it a grace bump, if that doesn’t sound too silly. She’s a kind, good girl to begin with, but still I noticed a consistently better attitude from her, more patience, more cooperation. There was a positive effect.

So what about this sacrament in particular? It’s relatively easy to see how partaking in the Eucharist could bring one into encounter with Christ. But with Reconciliation, we don’t take the Body of Christ into ourselves. Instead, we meet in particular with Christ as Shepherd. My daughter’s religious education program emphasized for the kids how Jesus is always their shepherd, who is willing to walk about the entire pasture to find them and to make them safe with him. They also emphasized the story of the prodigal son. In this story, the human father who unconditionally welcomes back his contrite son stands for God the Creator who waits to welcome us back with open arms as soon as we turn to meet him.

But since God’s forgiveness of sins isn’t conditioned on the sacrament of confession (especially where common everyday sins are concerned), why do we go? To put it simply, we go because it feels good. Even my daughter, with only seven little years under her belt, understood and experienced that with her first participation. It feels good because we are unburdening the weight of our negative thoughts and actions; we are surrendering them to God through Christ and then hearing the priest’s advice and assurance of God’s forgiveness.

This is spiritually and psychologically cleansing. In fact, it’s downright liberating. It’s peace-inducing in a major way, because you know that you’ve just taken ownership of your shortcomings, with no denial or excuses. You’ve simply admitted it: yep, I could have done better for others, I could have thought better of others, and hearing of God’s forgiveness sure makes me feel good right now.

According to the New Testament, Jesus gave his apostles the ability to absolve sins — to pronounce them forgiven on Jesus’ behalf. He said that “the sins you release are released, and the sins you retain are retained.” I used to wonder why he specified this. Then I thought of a couple of answers a little while ago. I can’t claim they’re the answers, but to me at least, they make sense. So here’s the first one. Sometimes we can tell someone we’re sorry, but they might not want to forgive. That’s between them and God, but what Reconciliation does is release the contrite person from the sin he or she is genuinely sorry for — whether or not the other person is willing to release them. Christ has released them.

There are other occasions, too — times when it’s impractical to ask the other person for forgiveness. For example, maybe I wasn’t having my finest hour one day, and I indulged some uncharitable thoughts about someone. Maybe I even muttered some nasty things about them privately. Sure, I felt like they were making me irritated, but it isn’t as if they ran over my dog and then laughed about it. I probably could have entertained fewer nasty or judgmental thoughts if I’d really wanted to. In such a situation, it isn’t really practical to walk up to someone and announce, “Hi, I just wanted you to know that yesterday I was thinking that you’re a real jerk, but I’m sorry about that so please forgive me.” It’s safe to say that would fall into the category of making things worse rather than better. Best to save it for the Reconciliation Room, if you ask me.

To pronounce the Lord’s “release”, the priest, acting in his capacity as Christ’s minister, repeats the words of absolution that millions of people have heard, and will continue to hear, across the globe, day in and day out, in dozens of different languages:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen!

Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Keck

I Don’t Have to Like You to Love You (and You Don’t Have to Like Me to Love Me Either)

Yes, it’s a truism that we can love someone without liking them. Usually when we hear of this happening, it’s a case within families. Someone has a family member — spouse, sibling, parent, whoever — who’s put them through hell, and it’s hard to muster up a cozy affection for this person. Or it’s an old friend that’s just gotten a little hard to like lately. Yet you love these people anyway, because you just do. It’s a given. You want what’s best for them, even if they’re not your first pick when you think about going for that nice nature walk in the woods.

But there is a whole other dimension, too, in which this can happen. At our Catholic parish, we’re fortunate enough to have two grace-filled, down-to-earth, insightful priests. One of them gave his homily this Sunday on what it means to love in the way that Christ taught. He mentioned that St. Thomas Aquinas defined this kind of love as being rooted in the will, not just (or not so much) the emotions. Then he went on to clarify that this kind of love, simply put, wants what is best for the other person.

It seems to me that one obvious way to see this is to realize that loving another person in Christ-love doesn’t require believing that they’re a great person or even a good person, especially when it’s quite clear that they’re not. It doesn’t require “feeling” the same kind of affection we feel for our spouse when we’re in a happy marriage, or for a family member with whom we get along swimmingly. What Christ-love requires is that we recognize the other person as another child of God, whom God loves, and that we therefore want what is good for them. This is a liberating realization, and it’s one that can be applied to everyone — not just to the person we already know we love, but also to the colleague or co-worker or neighbor who makes life difficult.

And most significant of all from the perspective of Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemy”: we can apply this understanding of love even to people who commit the worst kinds of sins, without ever thinking that loving them in this way implies any kind of validation, justification, or understanding of what they’ve done. When St. Paul said, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” this is what he meant. He didn’t mean that by loving the sinner, they’re your natural go-to person for dinner and a movie (and yes, I know they didn’t have movies in the first century A.D.). He meant that you don’t want evil to befall them; you don’t want vengeance; you don’t want them to suffer for the sake of it; you can feel compassion for them. You want what’s best for them despite their actions, because you know that this is the love of Christ and you cannot wish against it. What’s best for them doesn’t mean they should never have to face up to their sins, and just go blithely along through life getting whatever they want — in fact, that’s very far from what is best for them. What is best for them is whatever God thinks is best for them, and that’s not for us to know. But it is for us to want, and if we can, to pray for.

This concept of love isn’t limited to Christianity, of course. I think immediately of Buddhism with its central teaching on compassion for everyone and everything, including one’s own enemy. It has been scientifically proven that Buddhist monks meditating on compassion, while their brains are monitored with a PET scan, register the highest levels of happiness that we’ve been able to record. Not long ago, I read a book by the Dalai Lama in which he explicated many Buddhist teachings, including the teaching to cultivate universal compassion. Acknowledging that jumping immediately to universal compassion is an impossibly tall order, the Dalai Lama said it must be approached in small steps if one is to achieve it. These small steps include first imagining something or someone for whom it’s quite easy to have compassion: a young child, for example, or an injured bird. When imagining this category, it shouldn’t take long for a feeling of compassion to arise. We can then continue on gradually and over time, in small steps, to imagine other, less sympathetic entities: a person whom we find irritating, for example. Meditating on compassion for that person then opens us up even more to the next level, and so on and so forth, until eventually we find ourselves capable of having compassion (and therefore love) on a universal level. Compassion is the door to love.

You don’t have to like someone in order to love them in the way that Christ taught. Practicing love in this way might or might not change another person; but it will, without a doubt, change the one who loves. We too can be like those Buddhist monks who experience the highest levels of happiness on the planet.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

 

 

Shared Suffering

This is a post about suffering, and the suffering of God with his creatures. One of the most radical things about Christianity is its central belief that God didn’t choose to make the Messiah a glorious political leader, but to make him God’s own incarnated Logos — which in Greek signifies Word, Mind, Logic, Reason. Even more radical than this is the belief that in joining himself to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, God took upon himself all of the human condition. Not just love, laughter, and all the good stuff; he took suffering, pain, heartache, betrayal, abandonment, grief, and the weight of all the sin of humankind as expressed through the torture and gruesome murder of a Roman crucifixion. His purpose wasn’t the establishment of a political kingdom, but the once-and-for-all reconciliation of humanity to God through forgiveness of sins and infinite mercy…and the ultimate transcendence of death through the Resurrection. Indeed, the oracles of the Suffering Servant of the Lord in the Book of Isaiah predicted a Messiah who suffers by taking upon himself the sins and guilt of us all, making reparation for us.

We don’t have a comprehensive answer to suffering. But Christians believe that we do have a God who suffered for us, and suffers with us even now. That fact doesn’t solve the problem. But it does situate suffering inside a circle of meaning, which helps to provide us with some strength and the comfort of God’s solidarity with us. Anyone who suffers anything that Christ suffered — violence, grief, cruelty, humiliation, fear, sadness, and all the rest of it — can know that their suffering isn’t done alone, for God suffers with them in love and companionship. He shares our suffering — just as when we suffer, we share in the sufferings of Christ. And we know that even though Christ suffered, his suffering gave way to the Resurrection, which meant that suffering didn’t have the final word. That is God’s promise to us.

The Pietà, one of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures, is a marble picture of suffering.

Michelangelo's Pietà

Michelangelo’s Pietà

Saint Mary the Blessed Mother cradles her recently scourged, abused, pierced, and murdered Son. We don’t know how much she knew about what was going to happen afterward; we don’t know if she had any sense of his upcoming victory in the Resurrection and Ascension to God. It seems unlikely, given the intense surprise and confusion of Jesus’ disciples over the Resurrection. But all we know is that her suffering at this moment must have been unimaginable. Parents suffer along with their children at even minor problems and injustices. Here Mary suffers the worst pain a parent can ever suffer: living through the death of their child. And, it can be argued, the worst kind of death: death that involved intense pain and abuse before it finally claimed the body that had been pushed to its limit. She, too, knows suffering. And she, too, wants us to know that suffering is not the end, just as it was not the end for her or for her Son. Here is an excerpt from the fourth and final oracle of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah, which Christians believe foretells Jesus:

“He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain/ Like one from whom you turn your face, spurned, and we held him in no esteem./ Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured,/ We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted,/ But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity,/ He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we are healed./ We had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way;/ But the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all./…Because of his anguish he shall see the light; because of his knowledge he shall be content;/ My servant, the just one, shall justify the many, their iniquity he shall bear./ Therefore I will give him his portion among the many, and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,/ Because he surrendered himself to death, was counted among the transgressors,/ Bore the sins of many, and interceded for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:3-6, 11-12)

It turned out, according to Christian faith, that this Servant who suffered for us and with us was none other than a Messiah who embodied both full God and full humanity in one Person. Suffering will exist as long as this world endures. But as long as it does, we can look to the Cross of the Suffering Servant and know that even though we don’t have all the answers, our suffering is shared. And then we can look at Jesus’ empty tomb and know that suffering doesn’t have the final word.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

 

Loosening the Padlock on My Compassion

This year, Lent begins on February 13. During Lent, practicing Christians undertake certain disciplines to achieve spiritual purification and growth. Lent is the unavoidable annual reminder to Christians that Jesus didn’t teach us the easy, feel-good spirituality of self-fulfillment that we find all around us in pop culture. A Christian spirituality that assimilates itself to this ignores the primary commandment that Christ taught, which is that we practice unconditional love, compassion, and non-judgment. Even when it doesn’t suit us, and even when we feel we shouldn’t have to. 

Sure. Love and compassion and non-judgment are easy to say, and are frequently said; but what does it mean to practice them in a real way, in a way that doesn’t lead to all of us making hypocrites out of ourselves? This is the question we often want to steer clear of, because it requires us to step outside our self-focused worlds and our grievances and the things we feel we deserve. The hard reality is that Christ calls everyone who says they want to follow him to walk down a road that our natural instincts would prefer not to know about.  What does this road entail, that we want to avoid it so much? 

Well, it certainly doesn’t entail drawing careful demarcation lines around those who we feel deserve the love and compassion Christ is always talking about: people we already love because they are family, or people we already like because they are nice to us and give us the consideration we feel we’re entitled to. As Jesus says: “What credit is that to you? Even the sinners and tax collectors do the same.” The reality is that most of the time, we expect the divine call to love, compassion, and non-judgment to be meticulously carried out when it is we ourselves who would be on the receiving end of it. If we’re honest, we have to admit that we’re not nearly so generous when it comes to extending those things to other people — especially people who are outside our boundary of those we love and those we like. 

The next category — people who have actively wronged us or our loved ones — are even farther outside our guarded boundary. They, we righteously feel, will never be the objects of our compassion because they simply don’t deserve it. So what if Christ still expects that I release my compassion from the fenced-in area in which it dwells, and extend it not just to myself but also to them? Well, I’m not Christ. I’m not able. It’s too much to ask. I’m too angry. What they did was too unconscionable. They certainly don’t have compassion toward me, after all; they don’t give me a second thought, and if they did, it’s a nasty one. Anyone who asks me to do otherwise is naïve.

But this is, in fact, what Christ not only asks but requires of anyone who claims to follow him. His repeated instruction — not to mention his example — to “love your enemy” and not just your neighbor is an inconvenient truth at the center of all Christ said and did. Most of us give it lip service on a good day. We prefer to be on the receiving end of such a thing, not on the giving end. Even the suggestion that we have compassion (to say nothing of love!) for one who is our enemy feels like an offense to us. I believe the reason it is so difficult is that we have an inside view of our own minds, but not those of other people; so it’s far easier to see a whole person when we look at ourselves, but only a one or two dimensional person when we look at the other. 

Yet that other person is as three dimensional as I am, whether I actually see those dimensions or not. More important, I am forced to recognize the uncomfortable fact that the God who I know loves me, also loves them. And not just a little: every bit as much. Because God sees everything that went into making them who they became. Just as God sees everything that went into making me who I became. I have no privileged status because God feels their pain no less than God feels mine, and God loves them no less than God loves me. How, then, can I permit myself to hate what God loves? Before long, I can feel the heavy-duty padlock begin to loosen on that fence where my compassion and love dwell, and the one who is loosening it is God. And now I myself don’t feel so cramped up anymore. I feel freedom instead.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

 

“Whatever You Bind….”

The other day, I went to confession for the first time in about seventeen years. Confession is more formally known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation; it’s sometimes also called penance, even though that more accurately refers to the small gestures of restitution (such as prayers or good deeds) that the penitent makes after confession. This is done both in repentance and in gratitude for God’s mercy. In Catholic theology, even though God is believed to forgive a person as soon as he/she is sorry for whatever wrong was committed and seeks forgiveness, the act of confessing those sins to God’s minister, and hearing the words of absolution — which is the assurance of God’s forgiveness — is considered eminently useful for the penitent’s psychology. Confession can be done either face-to-face or with the anonymity of a confessional booth, and in either case, the priest is bound by the sacred seal of confession, which he cannot break under any circumstances. He may reveal neither the identity of the penitent (if he knows it) nor the sins confessed, nor may he ever use anything said in the confessional for any reason, because he is witness to internal matters of conscience. The seal of confession is respected by United States law.

For part of the seventeen years before my recent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I didn’t see the point. Why bother with the potentially uncomfortable and likely unnecessary step of confessing one’s sins to a minister of the Church when those sins were forgiven by God anyway? Shouldn’t they just stay between me, my conscience, and God? What business were they of anybody else anyhow?

The first small chink in my armor here was benignly inflicted by a professor of Russian literature, from Eastern Europe, who I (very) slowly came to realize was one of the most intelligent people I’d ever encountered. He commented one day during a discussion of Chekhov that the idea of confession/penance and the Sacrament of Reconciliation was one of the most useful ideas the Catholics had ever had, and one of the least useful ideas the Protestants had ever had was to get rid of it. Naturally, my youthfully self-satisfied mind wanted to know why such an otherwise intelligent person would say such a thing. I expected him to answer with theology, but got basic human psychology instead. He said that on a basic human level, just feeling sorry for things you’d thought or done, and hoping that God heard you and forgave you when you said so, wasn’t enough. Humans need concrete, external feedback, or validation, or whatever you’d like to call it, because we are concrete beings. It is useful for us to heave heavy burdens off our consciences to another human being on a regular basis, to hear that God has forgiven those very burdens, and to do some small penance as a way of showing restitution, expressing humility and gratitude, and starting on a fresh path. And it is very useful indeed to have that other human being be an impartial and pastoral third party, who doesn’t even need to know your name unless you want him to know.

The theological basis for confession and Reconciliation comes in large part from Jesus’ statements to Simon Peter. The Gospel of Matthew 16:15-19 relays a scene in which Jesus talks with his disciples about the public confusion over his identity; Simon, the uneducated fisherman, is the first person to get it right, and he is given the new name Peter. Here I translate from the Greek. “He said to them, ‘But who do you [plural] say that I am?’ And Simon Peter answered and said to him: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered and said to him: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven. And so I say to you that you are Peter [Petros: Greek for “Rock”], and upon this Rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not overcome it. I will give you [singular] the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.’”

One wishes that this language of binding and loosing would be a bit less esoteric to the modern ear, but most theologians and scholars (and certainly the early and modern Church as well) think it refers to sins and forgiveness. Jesus gave to Peter, the Rock, an extraordinary power. This power was not intrinsic to Peter, but was given to him by Christ, and given by proxy to Christ’s church to carry on after Peter’s death (indeed, the binding and loosing language is used again in Matthew 18:18 in the plural form, to the disciples). From the practical standpoint of an everyday Catholic, what this means is that you can confess what is weighing you down, hear the consoling words of the prayer of absolution, and go your way feeling renewed and relieved. Absolution, which is the assurance of God’s forgiveness, cannot be denied unless it is painfully obvious that the penitent is not sorry at all — in which case, he/she would probably not be at confession in the first place.

At the conclusion of my run of seventeen or so years, I was interested to see how I would feel going into it. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I nearly cut and run while sitting in the parking lot. In the end, though, my sense of curiosity — and my desire for that concreteness that my very intelligent Chekhov professor had talked about — got the better of me. After celebrating the sacrament, I left the church wondering whether I would again feel that lightness and freedom of conscience soon, as the Catechism says usually happens. It didn’t take long.

Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Keck

Chi Rho

Chi rho — with the “ch” in chi pronounced as it is in “Bach” — are the Greek letters that have served as the sign for “Christ” since the early years of Christianity. They are the first two letters in the Greek “Christos,” and they look like an English x and p, respectively. But who or what is the entity the Chi Rho stands for? Christian understanding of Christ’s nature has never been a straightforward road — nor should we expect it to have been, given the depth of the issues that become apparent as soon as one looks even a little closely.

The area of theology that deals with the nature of Christ is called Christology, and the christological disagreements (some more major than others) that existed right from the inception of Christianity are so numerous that it is impossible to raise them all here. The primary disagreements surrounded the question of whether Christ was fully God incarnate with only the outward appearance of humanity; whether he was God incarnate with both true divine and true human natures in the same body; or whether he was a subordinate, semi-human semi-deity whom God created and endowed with special attributes. It fell to two main Ecumenical Councils to hash out these questions: first Nicea and then, to address further christological questions that followed from the Nicean decision, Chalcedon.

In the year 325 Emperor Constantine, the first emperor to convert to Christianity, wearied of all the arguing and called the Council of Nicea to work it all out, hoping that everyone would then quiet down and be satisfied. The council, drawing on years of theological work, determined that Christ was of “same substance” (homoousios) with the Creator, rather than “like substance” (homoiousios). Both views had many advocates, and these advocates themselves differed with respect to the details of Christ’s nature, and how Christ would thus relate to the Creator. The strongest defender of the Nicean “one substance” view at that time was Athanasius, while the strongest proponent for the “like substance” view was Arius.

Though it may sound trivial and overly speculative to the point of meaninglessness, the “substance” debate gets to the heart of the identity of the Creator and the role of Christ, which in turn is a matter at the heart of Christianity. The “high Christology” of John’s Gospel contributed to the co-identification of Christ’s nature with the Creator, particularly John 1 with its statement that all things were created through the Word (Logos: reason, word, logic) that then came down and became flesh among us in Christ. Other statements in John that are attributed to Christ, such as “I and the Father are one,” also contributed to the Nicean understanding. Other words and actions of Christ, however, particularly in the other Gospels, give a strong impression of Christ’s true humanity: Jesus prays to God, gets hungry and thirsty, weeps, feels physical pain, and experiences the desire to be alone and to remove himself for a time from the throngs. These facts contributed to the Arian view that Christ was not of one nature with the Creator but rather a subordinate, created being who at some point became endowed by God with suprahuman characteristics and purposes. In the Arian view, Christ did not eternally exist with God before time; in the Nicean view, since Christ is a same-substance manifestation of God (a hypostasis), he did eternally exist with God before time.

The attraction of the Arian view is immediately apparent. It contains no paradoxes and no mind-bending issues involving the relationship between God and Christ as co-equal Persons sharing one substance. (And this is not even to raise the matter of the Holy Spirit as the third Person of the Trinity!). The Arian view at first glance is simpler and more common-sense to us. And it certainly resolves the question of how Jesus could have been praying to God if he had any divine nature. But it does not take into account major statements in John’s Gospel, such as those mentioned above. Now from a strict historian’s perspective, this is no problem at all: the different portrayals of Christ simply illustrate different understandings of Christ among early Christians who wrote the New Testament. This is well and good and no doubt accurate. But from the perspective of a Christian theologian or laity, how these different portrayals coalesce to form an overarching image of Christ matters a great deal. To the theologian or laity, the ultimate nature of who Christ was or is becomes a central matter. The New Testament portrayals of Christ are the basic documents such a person has to construct his or her own answer to the question: “Who was this man?”

Where the Arian view runs into real difficulty is the question of human salvation through redemption from sin and the consequent assurance of eternal life. The Gospels and many epistles in the New Testament (from Paul and otherwise) identify these things as wrapped up in Christ’s purpose on Earth, to one or another degree of emphasis depending on the text. How is Christ’s birth, suffering, death, and resurrection redemptive or salvific on a global and eternal scale if he is only human? Or even if he is semi-divine, adopted in some special way by God to perform an extraordinary purpose? How is his life redemptive and salvific for the human species for all time if he is anything less than fully divine? No entity, it was argued, who is not God could accomplish — could have the right to accomplish — such a feat. When followed through to its end, the Arian view seemed to raise more problems and inconsistencies than it solved. So Nicea determined that Christ was of one substance with God: he became fully incarnate as a human, but he was the Word, the Logos, who from the beginning was begotten from the Creator and not made.

But christological analysis did not end at Nicea. After that council, people continued to examine the further consequences of the Nicean decision. If Christ was of one nature with the Creator, how could he have been praying to that Creator in the Gospels? Would he not then have been praying to himself? If he was of one nature with the Creator, how did he appear genuinely to feel most of the things that humans feel, both physically and emotionally? The danger of glossing over these human traits became apparent as an unintended consequence of Nicea. A school of thought gained strength in Antioch that did not deny Christ’s divine nature, but most emphasized his human nature and the importance of clearly distinguishing the two Persons, the Creator and the Christ, even if one allowed that they shared the same substance. The Antiochene school sought to avert any simple blurring of the Christ and the Creator that failed to note any distinction between the two. On the other hand, Alexandria, a competing theological center, produced some theologians who emphasized Christ’s divine nature almost at the expense of his human one (sometimes inadvertently so). A growing group that came to be known as Monophysites (from “one nature/body”) asserted that Christ had only one true nature — that of God. At most, the divine Logos took up residence in Jesus’ human flesh, but the two were not inherently connected or inseparable in the person of Jesus.

The Council of Chalcedon of 451 was convened to form a definitive position on these christological issues, and to answer the Monophysite contention that Christ had only one nature. Chalcedon re-affirmed Nicea but went further in detail, asserting that Christ indeed had two natures, one divine and one human, and that each of these natures was “full.” That is, neither the divine nor the human nature in Christ was adulterated or incomplete; both cohered together in his Person. The natures were not commingled — Christ was not some divine-human hybrid or demigod. Each nature existed in itself, full on its own, not watered down — yet in his Person completely inseparable, indivisible, inextricable. Christ would not be Christ without the divine nature, and Christ would not be Christ without the human nature. Thus the Second Person of the Trinity became Jesus Christ at the incarnation, within a woman of ordinary rank, in a tiny and powerless country that had been subsumed into the Roman Empire. Before this incarnation, the same Word was still the Second Person of the Trinity, and had eternally been so.

The Nicean and Chalcedonian formulations allow both for the necessity of Christ’s fully divine nature in his redemptive activity, and for his clearly human traits. The christology put forth by these councils contended that in one man dwelt God-nature and human-nature each full in itself, yet in that man inseparable from one another. This, it was determined, is the entity behind the Chi Rho.

What does all this matter to a Christian going about his or her life, trying to live by Christ’s admonishment that the two greatest Commandments are to love God and love your neighbor? Perhaps, not much. Certainly, not every Christian embraces the christology of Nicea and Chalcedon. But perhaps, we could take more seriously the divine mandate to honor, respect, and love one another if we saw in our own species the potential that our Creator has always seen.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

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* For a comprehensive but clearly-written overview of the major developments in historical theology, I recommend to interested readers A Short History of Christian Doctrine by Bernhard Lohse, translated by F. Ernest Stoeffler.