Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Kiss of Peace: Strategies

By any account, it is a remarkable Holy Week for the Catholic Church. An unexpected sense of joy in the gift of a new pope has brought us warmth in spite of the wintry weather. Certainly none of us guessed when we began this Lenten fast what would transpire in these last few weeks. And yet, even in this new situation, we are also now moving toward the ancient center of the Church’s life together: the paschal mystery and liturgical participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, at Easter. At this point, of course, we have only a few days left to do the work of Lent, which is the work of preparing for that solemn and holy moment.

So: are we ready?

I find myself asking that question not only in its (already daunting) general sense, but in a very specific way. Are we ready for one particular moment in the liturgy, a moment that may in fact require some of the most demanding preparation: the “kiss of peace”? In the form it has taken in the last several decades, we are more likely to refer to it in a less intimate way—“the passing of the peace”—and we are tempted to imagine it simply as a neighborly chance to greet one another. As it turns out, though, it means much more.

Placed in the transition to the liturgy of the Eucharist, this action both symbolizes and embodies peace in a number of different ways. Especially, it asks us to consider, in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5, whether we are ready to bring a gift to the altar, or whether some conflict between us and a sister or brother makes it impossible for us to do so. Reconciliation with other, the kiss of peace reminds us, cannot be separated from our reconciliation with God. We all surely have plenty of work to do here, and yet, this Easter, I find myself thinking of one sort of division, and one sort of reconciliation, in particular. Whatever various forms of peacemaking we may be pursuing, we in the Church might well ask whether we are seeking reconciliation between a particularly stubborn and intractable set of constituencies: one another.

I am thinking here not primarily of individuals, but of “camps” in the Church that seem not only to disagree, but to have settled into chilly disdain. Now, I know the argument from history. There has always been creativity and diversity among Christians; the Church’s energetic quarrels are a strength. I wonder, though, if we have come to a place where difference is verging on disintegration. I worry not that we have disagreements, but that we may be increasingly like siblings who hardly even know each other well enough to fight any more, and have stomped off to different rooms. St. Paul chastises communities marked by dissension, but even more chilling is his indictment of those early Christians who would say to another, “I have no need of you.”

In a sense, this critique is easy. The question is what, really, is to be done? The fact of the matter is that there are real differences among us, commitments that in some cases seem directly opposed. Justice, love, and fundamental claims about God and ourselves are all at stake. It would be not only unrealistic, but wrong, to expect various factions simply to lay down deeply held convictions. So, what can we do?

What we have not always noticed is that we have, in our very midst, powerful resources for moving forward. Within the Church are teachings and practices that not only instruct us to be reconciled to one another, but that tell us how we might do it. Here, I’ll mention only one that has been transformative for me: the Focolare movement, and the writings of its foundress, Chiara Lubich.

The Focolare is one of several ecclesial movements to emerge from the Catholic Church in the twentieth century, but it is particularly relevant here in that the charism, or gift, at the heart of this movement is unity. Those in the movement are not utopian. They live out a commitment to the long, quotidian work of unity in many difficult circumstances. The successes, however, are sometimes remarkable: the work has seen success in bringing together broken families, politicians divided by party lines, and Muslims and Christians in a unity that has withstood even political realities like the U.S. “war on terror.” Maybe it could work for us, too?

Three of the most central ideals might be first steps.

The first is a transformation of vision. The real insight of the Focolare is to insist not only that we should not think of others as an obstacle to our encounter with God, but that we should see them as the surest path to it. This is perhaps easiest to understand in relation to the individual person. Chiara describes the presence of the ego and the struggle to overcome it, in analogy to a mountain we try to move. She suggests that both the ego and the struggle can be in a sense stepped lightly around in another way, which is not only to “love,” but to “live" my neighbor. If we were to apply the teaching not to individuals, but to groups, the suggestion is that others groups within the Church, including and especially those with whom we are at odds, are actually precisely the direction forward for “own own.” For us, these others represent the very possibility of salvation and wholeness. And we are not only to “love” these opposing camps, but to “live” them.

But what could that odd phrase mean? In a sense, what the Focolare calls for is empathy. But there is more. A second crucial teaching is deeply rooted in Christ himself. Here, the particular reality of Christ’s life emphasized is the most painful moment of all, the one that we will recollect soon in our Good Friday liturgies. It is the moment when Jesus calls out to the Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This pain is described in the Focolare movement as an experience of “emptiness,” and, if we would “live” the other, it is that moment to which we are called. If that all seems a little dramatic, it may help again to begin by making sense of it on an individual level. What is our first reaction when we consider turning not away from, but precisely, intentionally toward the one we find most grating, most ridiculous, most difficult to be with? What does it feel like to ready oneself to empathize with the one of whom you are most tempted to say, “I have no need of you.” Now, what if we took this teaching and applying to various factions in the Church? What might it look like for one constituency to embrace this emptiness and to turn precisely, intentionally toward another, with whom they are at odds? 

Thirdly, Chiara teaches that “living the other” means nothing less than concretely to own their good as my own. What are these “others” concerned about? What are they committed to? The vision of the Focolare pulls us far beyond tolerating, or trying to “see in the best light,” all the way toward experiencing the pain, the challenges, the joys of the other as our own. Within the Church, what concrete actions of solidarity or sacrifice might embody such a commitment? In what ways could groups occupying different places on the cultural, theological, and economic spectrum not simply tolerate one another, but actually adopt the other's good as their own? We might consider the story of the prodigal Son and a father who does not simply occupy a neutral openness to reconciliation, but rather, when he sees the one who is estranged, forgets his place and runs and offers the kiss of peace. Should we aim for any less?

We understand Lent as a time for self-examination and repentance, a time for turning again to the hard call of the Cross. In the last moments of this Lent, here is Chiara's advice:
“Where, then, can we find our typical, particular cross? In people, in our brothers and sisters who are disunited from God and from each other…. And the first brothers or sisters that we need to love in this way…. are those closest to us, those who live with us.
God does not ask of us a cruel martyrdom. We do not need to whip ourselves or wear a hair-shirt, do long vigils or fasts or sleep on the ground… but always welcome into our hearts our neighbor or neighbors, with all their burdens, aridity, trials, limits and defects, and do everything we can to help them find peace, trust, love and ardor.” (Essential Writings, 17-18)
This Easter, let us offer each other the sign of peace. And if we can’t do it perfectly by Sunday, let’s repent and exchange a kiss that’s a promise to do better.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A New Pope: The Symbolism of the Day

"Just to paint a picture of the symbolism of the day. First, he takes the name, Francis, which is pretty radical. Francis was a poor beggar and not even a priest. That is a huge departure from traditional thinking. Then he comes out on the balcony without the red and gold stole reserved for the beginning of a pontificate. The stole is the sign of priesthood. Wearing only the white cassock and cape, this is the equivalent of a habit. Then he bows before the people and asks for their prayers, calling their prayers a benediction. In other words, he reversed the role of priest and people. This is ground breaking. Then he describes the papacy as a ministry in fraternal charity, an ancient formula, but the humblest one--and one the Orthodox world accepts. In simple words and gestures, Francis I has turned the rituals around the pope's first appearance on their head."

-Fr. J. Steele, CSC

Thursday, March 7, 2013

No "Christian Seders," Please!

What follows is an argument from Dr. Mary Luti, visiting professor and director of Wilson Chapel at Andover Newton Theological School. I thought Dr. Luti had written so lucidly on this important issue that I asked if I could post here, and she generously agreed. Even if you don't agree with everything she has written, this ought to serve to spark conversation among Christians.

Holding a "Christian seder" is a widespread (and growing?) practice, but I agree with Dr. Luti that it is not a helpful one. As always, interested to hear your thoughts...


With Holy Week on the horizon,  many Christian congregations have started announcing Seder dinners to observe Maundy Thursday. People of good will recognize this as a devout and well-intentioned attempt to honor the Jewishness of Jesus, and the Jewish roots of the Christian communion meal which was, Christians say, “instituted” by Jesus on the night he was handed over--a night that fell, according to the gospel accounts, during the annual Passover observance. It is understandable, therefore, that Christians would desire to commemorate this institution with a nod to its original context.

There are many difficulties with the practice of a Seder meal by Christians, however (the biggest being that a Seder is simply not for Christians, but we’ll get to that later). The other biggie is that we really do not know for sure what the “original context” of Jesus’ ‘last supper’ was.  We think we do: since Sunday School we’ve been taught it was a Passover meal, or Seder; but scholars continue to debate the precise character of the meal Jesus shared with his disciples that night. One thing we know for sure, however, is that, although it may have been a Passover meal of some sort, it was not a Seder. We know this because the introduction of the Seder into Jewish ritual life came after the time of Jesus.

Modern day Jewish celebrations of the Passover are a melding of traditions that arose shortly after the destruction of the Temple (70 CE), through Late Antiquity and into Middle Ages. It is a developing tradition, too, with additions being made to the Haggadah even to this day. Ironically, some scholars believe that the Seder developed in part at least as a reaction and resistance to the growing influence of the Christian church and its sacred meal. If that is true, Christians celebrating a Seder are celebrating, at least in part, a meal that was meant to criticize them and establish the distinctiveness of Jewish rites over against Christian ones. This anti-Christian critique is no longer prominent in contemporary Seders, but this curious history of the Seder still makes for a polemical mish-mash that, if known by the organizers of "Christian Seders," might take away some of the romance of the night!

So… to hold a Seder as a way to commemorate the “background” meal Jesus shared with his disciples and which he “turned into” a Communion meal (as I have heard some Christians say) is anachronistic—it is a tradition Jesus did not know. More precisely and significantly, however (as I said above), it is a tradition that developed into its present forms after Jews and Christians had taken separate religious paths—a tradition, therefore, that Jews and those who became Christian never shared in the first place. It belongs to Jews only and distinguishes them as Jews in ways that make any Christian usage of it seem presumptuous, especially given the fraught and violent history of Christian usurpation and replacement of all things Jewish that we call “supersessionism.”  Given this history and this ongoing supplanting of the Jewish covenant, I wonder if we would do better to spend our time reflecting on what often befell Jews in Holy Week in many places in medieval Western and Eastern Europe—the pogrom—than to spend time appropriating one of their characteristic rituals and making it our own.

Holding a Seder in a Christian church as a Christian event during Christian Holy Week is dicey, then. Dicier still is celebrating a Eucharist in the course of the Seder or finishing the Seder with Communion. This sends an unintentional but real message that the important thing about this Seder is what (we suppose erroneously) Jesus did to transform it and make it into something else. In other words, what we imply is that the Seder's real value is to point towards or usher in communion-- that communion is really what it’s all about, when all else is said and done. This is to write Jews out of their own story. We have already succeeded in writing them out by the way we often use Old Testament texts in preaching and teaching—let’s not turn their meal into our meal for our devotional agendas, just because it feels more authentic or rootsy for us to do so.

Ritual is, after all, lodged in/ arises from a community’s corporate experience; and in this case, it is the experience of suffering and liberation, slavery and salvation that Christian share with Jews in a kind of mythical and mystical sense, but not in fact: we are not Jews (the vast majority of us, anyway) and we cannot and do not celebrate a Seder out of anything remotely resembling the lived experience of Jews, or with the theological and spiritual worldview such experience generates. We can appreciate it, revere it, admire it, learn about it, even participate in it (for example, when invited into a Jewish home during Passover), but it is and never will be ours, and we ought not treat it as if it were. Just because we are a "successor tradition" doesn’t mean that everything that "they” have is or should also be ours.

There is a danger that in a well-intentioned attempt to honor the church’s Jewish origins, and (we think) do what Jesus did that night, we may end up caricaturing the Jewish ritual we claim to honor. It can be a kind of pious play-acting that is a very far cry from the profound communal anamnesis that is proper to “this night unlike any other night.” Only Jews can experience Passover in such a way that those who ate in haste and fled the Egyptians through the Sea have no spiritual advantage over those who sit at the Seder table today.

Beyond all this is the basic question of why some of us feel we need to hold a Seder in Holy Week in our Christian congregations in the first place. The treasure chest of Christian liturgical ritual that pertains to the Paschal season is so enormously rich that one wonders why we would turn to someone else’s. Perhaps it is because so few of our churches celebrate this range and depth of options that we cast around looking for something meaningful and rich like we imagine a Seder to be.

What could Christian do instead during Holy Week if we take seriously the objection that a “Christian Seder” is anachronistic, a contradiction in terms, and a potential offense to Jews today for whom the Passover rituals are a living tradition, and not a sort of curious antiquarianism?

If we really want to understand the mysteries of Jesus' last days, we might consider participating in the classic liturgies of the Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. It is there, in the experience of the powerful liturgical traditions of those three days, that we encounter the meaning, depth, and power of our salvation. In the ritual of the Passover, the Jewish people recount their story of redemption. In the liturgies of the Great Three Days - and especially the Easter Vigil - the Christian community recounts and relives our story of redemption.

In the end, congregations that hold “Christian Seders” may simply desire to learn about Judaism, better understand their Jewish neighbors, and grapple with the Jewish roots of Christianity—all of which is commendable, even urgent. They should go ahead and do so, not with a Christian Seder, but with a visit to their local synagogue for a talk with the Rabbi about how they can facilitate that understanding with respect. Perhaps the Rabbi would come and talk to a group in that congregation about what a Seder entails and what it means to Jews. Or perhaps a Jewish friend might have an extra place at their Seder table for some folks from the Christian congregation this year.

And if Maundy Thursday still cries out for a meal, hold a potluck, an agape meal, a love feast, an elaborated communion service—choose from the Christian repertoire of feasts to celebrate with— but let the Jews have their feast. No Christian Seders, please!

Dr. Luti adds this P.S.:

At the risk of overdoing it (I am not in fact persuaded that we can ever overdo this), I want to add to my previous Note about "Christian Seders" the following precision:

On Maundy Thursday, many “mainline” Protestant congregations hold “Christian Seders” in conjunction with Tenebrae, Holy Communion, and other liturgical commemorations of the night Jesus was handed over.  They give various reasons for doing so, but in general they use the Seder as a way to recall and explore the Jewish roots of our faith, to honor the Jewishness of Jesus, to lend historical context to the institution of the Christian Eucharist, and to learn about Jewish ritual practices (i. e.., “teaching Seders”) in an open, interfaith spirit.

In some cases, these Seders are led by Jews—a local rabbi, or Jewish friends of the congregation—but the majority are not. They are a wholly “in-house” affair, for Christians by Christians. My objections are directed primarily at these in-house kinds of  “Christian Seder” celebrations.

Congregations that borrow or adapt the Jewish Seder for their own devotional purposes on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week need to understand that what they are doing is not a neutral act. Apart from other significant theological and historical objections that should be made to a “Christian Seder,”  [see my previous "Note”] the long, violent and painful story of Christian appropriation of Judaism itself—replacement theology or ‘supersessionism’—should be enough to make us think twice about doing it.

It is no accident that many a medieval pogrom erupted during Holy Week. It was a time rife with anti-Jewish preaching that placed the blame for Jesus’ death on Jews—not just on the ancient Jews, but on all Jews— and, in some cases, directly called for unsparing violence against them. Whenever Christians celebrate a “Christian Seder” that includes or culminates in Holy Communion, it is also chillingly instructive to recall that one of the great medieval slanders against the Jews is that they routinely committed sacrilege against the communion wafer in all kinds of horrific and bloodthirsty ways. This is the history we ineluctably carry with us whenever we do something like celebrate a “Christian Seder.”

My objection to the “Christian Seder” is not about the potential it has for offending Jews. It has that potential, and it does offend many Jews, and avoiding this offense is a good thing to want to do, and  I do want us to avoid giving it! But the bigger issue for me is the insidious impact it can have on us Christians.

Let’s face it, despite years of interfaith  efforts, many Christians continue to assume reflexively that Christianity has supplanted Judaism in God’s plan and affections. We might not say it that way, but it shows in the way we use certain biblical texts, talk about a God of Love (Christian) and a God of Wrath (the “Old Testament God”), and juxtapose Law and Grace—in these cases and others, the clear implication is that Christianity has not only succeeded Judaism, it has superseded it. 

In their everyday dealings with Jews (if they have such connections), most mainline Christians probably don’t regard the religion of their neighbors, friends and coworkers as inferior to their own; but in church, in the course of hearing scripture and sermons on scripture, during certain liturgical seasons, and in devotional conversations, an old reflex asserts itself. Our inner Marcionite emerges, and as long as no one corrects us, we continue to operate in the universe of stereotype and slander that for centuries made it possible for Christians to see it as a religious duty to defame and slaughter Jews. And the fact that we do so often unwitting makes it all the worse.

This is my point: not only because we have a long history of appropriating Judaism for Christian  ends, making of it a mere preparation for the true faith and regarding its characteristic practices as mere foreshadowings and symbols of the real things, we are still doing it today. The practice of a “Christian Seder” is a prime example of just how unexamined this fraught relationship remains, and thus how easily its consequences could be visited on our neighbors again, even in our enlightened, interfaith, tolerant and inclusive age.

That it could never happen here, that it could never happen again, that we would never do that—these are the lazy assumptions that allow us to meander through Holy Week up to our necks in the dangerous waters of supersessionism, plating out again and again the old patterns of reflex disdain.

Contempt takes many forms: I think the celebration of a Seder meal by Christians and for Christians is one of them. It may seem devout and altogether benign, even constructive, on the surface; but it is just one more in a long sad line of things we have tried to steal from Jesus’ people in his name, as we have systematically written Jews out of their own story because, we say (not without truth), it is also in a deep sense our story too. And if it is also our story (and here we go wrong)we can do with it whatever we please.

Although holding a Seder (for Christians by Christians) may seem like a devout and constructive thing to do, and no doubt for many Christians it lends meaning to the Holy Week journey, it is an unavoidably fraught activity. Our anti-Jewish history has “earned” us a particular responsibility to make sure that our embrace of the Jewish heritage is serious, respectful, self-conscious and well-considered. We may not borrow, play-act, adapt, or otherwise appropriate anything Jewish like a Seder without carrying with us into that activity this whole history.

Remembering and telling the Jewish story is one of the Seder’s most characteristic features. Maybe instead of holding a Seder we should make time in Holy Week remembering and telling our own story, lamenting and repenting the sad history that haunts us still, and looking to Christ for the grace to change it, once and for all.