Continuity and Rupture

In the last two weeks of the Lectionary, Weeks 29 and 30 of year A, we’ve had this story (in two parts):

The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them,”Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:15-21, 29th Sunday) 

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40, 30th Sunday)

There are, in addition, several other moments in the Gospel stories where Jesus is seen in discussion with the religious leaders of the people. It is a homiletical commonplace to use these to say, “Jesus was offering a different vision than the Jews had hitherto.” In fact, it can be tempting to do so because so may have done so. That such often arises from a covert Anti-Semitism, especially among the more liberal, is dangerous. The approach is, generally, “The legalistic religious experts were wrong. Love is the Answer”. We place a homiletic rupture between the Good Jesus and the bad Jewish elders. Specifically, it’s right up there with the Jews killed Christ in terms of misunderstanding what’s going on here.

A cursory reading of Jewish Culture will recognize what’s going on here: rabbis debate. Rabbis debate with their students to understand the law. Rabbis debate with each other to sharpen their skills. Rabbis debate with each other to correct errors. This debate can be rather calm and contemplative, or it can be heated. We see all types of this discussion in the New Testament: Jesus at dinner parties, Jesus on street corners. Now, to be clear: Jesus is God. To disagree with his point is sin – and it’s the trump card for Christians. But on the streets of the Jewish Communities in the Roman Empire of the 1st Century, AD, this was not a thing. Jesus was God using the cultural tools available. Rabbinic Debate was the way to be. Jesus’ actions are in continuity with the actions of those around him. We must read the Gospels in this hermeneutic.

Dealing with the second Gospel story first (because it’s what made me grumpy) we have to know the history behind Jesus’ response. The greatest commandment is one that pious Jews recite three times a day as part of their daily prayers. It is the obvious answer. The second one, like unto the first, though: there’s a story behind that one. I’ve heard two versions of this story – and I will cite the one I don’t like first. It’s not the first one I read, though, which is the same all the way through except the punch line. It is the one that comes with a citation, though.

One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this–go and study it!”

(The cited text backs up this version.)

The second version of the story, the one I read first, has Rabbi Hillel respond thus: The main idea of the Torah is ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Although the text of this second story is not backed up by the Talmud as such, the Rabbis tie that text with love of neighbor as self throughout Rabbinic debate.

Jesus would know this story about Hillel. Jesus would know this context. Jesus was not putting the Pharisees in their place with a new teaching, but rather taking a side in an existing Rabbinic Debate.

Specifically the question should be heard like this: Rabbi, some of us say that all the laws are equally important. But others say some are more important than others. How say you?

Then Jesus – God in the Flesh – gives a shoutout to Hillel.

That’s a much better sermon! In another Gospel passage recounting the same story, the querent responds with “you have answered well…” Jesus is agreeing with a certain party of Pharisees.

The first Gospel Passage, with the Herodians, is beyond funny. Jesus is still debating with others, but in this case, he’s debating with Herodians. They are fans of the established political order. They don’t rightly care what the religious folks do as long as the Herodians get to stay on top of the secular pecking order. They are, basically, successful, secular Jews in our modern understanding. They are as closely aligned with the political power structure as the pro-Israel lobby is in the US today.

So, on the coin, whose image is this? In Greek Jesus asks, “Whose icon is this?” The answer is correct: it is Caesar. But, brothers and sisters, Whose icon is Caesar? Every human being is created as the icon of God!

When the Herodians, not even thinking religiously, hear “Render to Caesar…” they are pleased.  Yet Jesus says something even more shocking: and much more in keeping with the Hebrew Prophets. Jesus says whatever political authority you have… This is part of God’s icon, part of God’s plan. This is the root of St Paul saying that all authority is God-given and that the King is God’s instrument. This is right in line with the Hebrew Prophets saying God has used Persia to save the Jews (even calling the King of Persia “Messiah” at one point!)

Jesus says, “You’re right… but not enough. You’re drawing distinctions where there are none to draw.”

We, friends, must stop drawing lines of rupture between Jesus and his culture. God in the flesh decided the time and the place of his incarnation. The culture, the people, the politics, the family structure, the class war, these are not accidents. Nor are they necessarily divinely ordained for all time, to be clear. But they are the choices God made for making points.

If we rob the Gospel story of those points, the rest falls apart and becomes a nice story about a hippie with a leftist political agenda… but that’s only for us, today. Another party could rob Jesus of his Judaism and make him out as a hatemonger. (Failing to invoke Godwin’s law would be an error here: Nazis said there were no real differences between Jesus and Hitler. Right wing hate groups today make Jesus out as a white supremacist. Although conservatives often have Anti-semitism in their works, I say “liberals” because they often drive this point home to toss out all the Jewish Law, including teachings on sex and morality. Also the “Jesus Seminar” and their ilk,  eliminates anything from the sayings of Jesus that other teachers were saying at the time… so that Jesus becomes almost entirely disconnected from his Jewish conversants. This idea that the Jewish Scriptures are so filled with error that we toss them out is a heresy condemned by the Church.

Albion’s Blessed Curse

Henry chose to downfall on his lust
in twain and millions rent the church
twain for where but one claim
was now one and all else
millions for without Peter
each in his own barque now rows his way.

Henry’s daughters war and slay
each the other’s pawns
until one has won
and she unwed
but not unknown
now stands bestride the altar gate
some new colossus guarding entry
and births a novus ordo saeculorum
the bastard child of fear and hatred
of all who would say her nay
rejecting all but truths approved
and holding none in esteem
for each can change with whispered oath
of crown or judgement granted
so all truths now are judged by men.

Here crowned rises Tyburn’s tri-corn’d tree
to hold all the more of those who seek
Truth, unapproved, undimmed, unreformed.
And they to their fate rejoicing go
as gallows swing and are cut down
growing thus a many tentacled beast
bestride the fields and meadows of
perfidious Albion.

But hark how now as homeward wend
the wayward sons of Regina-past,
the light that rises now from this crown.
Become a great Tri-cornered chalice
filled with wine by martyrs new-made
and now the Blood of Christ.
Here where strident heretics did faith break
with fathers and with Christ
now vows remade
and prodigals dance
with words first Cramner prayed.

Here now the feet of she
who Holy Wisdom banned
now perhaps can yeild to prayers of those
she cast aside,
and in their mercy
be forgiven as
Tyburn’s Chalice
in Priestly Hands is risen

Let Martyrs and the blessed
and all who bore this cross
prostrate in heaven beg for all that the Church
has lost and can regain
and all the heavenly host
the weak, the hanged, and the shriven
from out of purgatory can win the souls
of those
that would us very damn.

Love your enemies
pray for them that persecute you
bless those who curse
And even more now
that closer to our God you stand
bring us home
pray us in
hold aloft the chalice of Christ’s blood
as light to show the way

Arise three cornered Chalice
in hands whose necks you wrung
and open wide
the portals now
that were once jolly decked.
Full tree of fruit that was the best
our own hope we slew
now open heavenly bliss
that we can dance with the angeles
where we once death did kiss

Bells are rung
Mass is said
where heretics on martyrs trod
but over all
and for our good
there works the hand of God.

Five Very Joyful Mysteries.


AFTER THE CONSECRATION of the Archdiocese to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, on Saturday and, following Father James’ sermon Sunday… Rosary Sunday… and a lot of Marian focus recent, here is my witness to the Rosary! I wanted to share this story of how Our Lady brings us, via herself, to Christ, holding the Cantena Aurea, the Golden Chain that is the Rosary.
I was introduced to the Rosary in 1974 or 75 by my grade school friend, Barbara, who lived next door to us. One day she was doing a craft project for school, to raise money for missionaries. She was making Rosaries with plastic beads and twine, following the instructions of the sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at the school she went to. I became interested in the craft project and started to work with her. We made rather a lot of Rosaries!

Barbara also shared the story of Our Lady of Fatima.

We were in 5th grade at this time and when she told me, a member of the United Methodist Church, how to say the Rosary I took her literally. You’d be surprised how fast the Rosary goes when you say “Hail, Mary!” ten times followed by “Glory be!” And then, “Our Father!” Barbara’s story of Our Lady of Fatima did elicit one question from me: Did this really happen? I remember that Barbara had a coloring book of Our Lady of Fatima – or maybe it was a children’s book that was done in simple line drawing I can’t remember – but it showed the story including the miracle of the Sun and it amazed me. I couldn’t imagine what it might mean that the Virgin Mary was appearing to people. And at that time less than 60 years ago! Did my grandparents remember this happening?

At a local store I acquired tiny, golden statues of Jesus and of Mary. They were about an inch and a half high. Might have cost me $5 – all of my allowance. But I put them up in a tiny little shrine, the first prayer corner I ever had and I would say my Rosary in front of them. Really quickly: took maybe three minutes. When I heard that Our Lady of Fatima at told The Visionaries they had to pray at least 3 decades if the rosary a day, I couldn’t imagine why such a short prayer was so important.
A few years later in high school I found a book in a used book store that talked about several appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and how important they were to Catholic teaching. The book discuss Lourdes, Fatima, the Miraculous Medal, La Salette, and Guadalupe. I also learned how to say the entire Rosary, really. And also about the Parents οf Mary, the Immaculate Conception, her entrance into the temple, and the Assumption. In 1979, I may have been the only United Methodist high school student in Georgia who could tell you the difference between the Virgin birth and the Immaculate Conception. The Entrance into the Temple, now, and the Assumption… why didn’t people talk about these things if they were so important?

I fear that question (and the realization of differences between Catholics and other Christians) that led to much of the rest of this journey. At that time I was also getting into a learning curve of “the Cults”. And the same people who deftly (and correctly) explained why Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the Worldwide Church of God, Seventh Day Adventists, and followers of Christian Science were not actual, orthodox Christians, also explained that Catholics were a cult. Thus does Satan lie…

A retreat brought me into the “Confraternity of Christian Life”, an ecumenical community which no longer exists. I had a great profession cross given to me, actually. And I explored my first experience of community life. “Come and See”, indeed. While on retreat there, with the (Anglican) Brothers of the Holy Cross I was given an amusing mental image. One of the brothers said to me that the Wesley Brothers had been Anglo Catholics, and that John, at least, died with Rosary beads in his hands.

In hindsight, this is probably false. But even untruth can draw one out: and I was a member of the Episcopal Church within a year. And now I had a Rosary.

In that the Anglican Communion is liturgical, and that traditional Catholic piety continues in pockets (Rosary, Saints, fasting), and some places observe traditional Catholic liturgy, I mark this as my Catholic birth. The Church of St Mary the Virgin, in NYC, had full Orchestral Requiems, and Rosaries for the departed, and Cardinal Spellman was reported to have had recourse there when the Novus Ordo Mess got the better of him. Yes, it was an extreme pocket. I was told over and over by other folks, “There is no Mass in the Episcopal Church: we do Eucharist.” But when other parts of ECUSA started to fall away (eventually even this parish) from traditional piety, I had a benchmark by which to judge.

I wasn’t Roman Catholic, but I didn’t want to be. When I started that journey: ECUSA was as Catholic as I needed. And even though it was mostly a liberal mainline at a fancy dress party, there were some places that seemed, sometimes, to believe what they were saying. It wasn’t until I ran away and came back that I discovered they didn’t believe what they were saying at all. By the time I came back some folks had insisted on their right to stop saying at all what they didn’t believe. And so “The body of Christ” became “bread made holy” and what didn’t get consumed got dipped in hummus after, or sliced and passed around for buttering at the Agape feast.

I was well aware of what was going on in ECUSA was also part of what was going on in the Catholic Church: the same liturgical, theological, and moral innovations were creeping in. Liberals in ECUSA were just waiting for Rome to get on board with women’s ordination and sexual liberation. Through my college years and on into adulthood, I thought this as well. Back in the days before Internets, one could see it on the news, of course, but one really only had to go to church. The parochial vicar at our college was gay friendly and inclusive (and setting up dates) way back in 1983. My first exposure to a “clown mass” was in ECUSA, but I wasn’t surprised when I saw one in the RCC. ECUSA’s “Integrity” ministry for gays was sparsely attended: if you wanted really huge, cruisy attendance, you had to go to the “Dignity” mass at the Catholic parish uptown. And it was huge.

When I moved to San Francisco, it was the same way: both groups just as inclusive and welcoming; both groups as likely to juggle rainbow stoles and bad guitar music and call it “relevant” liturgy.

Struggling with my Rosary in a place where Mary was not called the “Mother of God” because Jesus wasn’t called “God”, I had to leave. But given what I “knew” about the Catholic Church, I couldn’t go to Rome. So I went East.

Presentation in the Temple
The Eastern Orthodox Church does do liturgy very well: eastern and western liturgies, actually. On the parish level, both are heavily redacted, but they are stately. Even the conservative places skip a verse or two every now and then, keeping most church gatherings down to under two hours. But a few get them down to 1 hour. I took me years to figure this out: to learn that what was the ever memorable and unchanging liturgy of the East was often only something done in my parish and totally different in content (not in style, mind you) from what was up the road. What they don’t do, however, is pray the Rosary.

I can’t count the number of times I prayed a Rosary on my fingers, trying to remember if I counted the thumbs right. I had a Jesus prayer rope that had beads every ten knots. I still don’t know why that was: but the odd design let me pray the Rosary! I would buy Buddhist malas because they had interesting beads and I would make Rosaries from them. I dismantled old Rosaries that were missing beads to make single-decade models. And would surreptitiously pray these in quiet ways in Orthodox churches.

Affiliating with a Western Rite monastic community, I was sad to learn they didn’t pray the Rosary, but I made do on my own. And I continued to pray my Rosaries even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to make a visualization of the thing up in my head. I was just supposed to be aware of it, so I wove in my own intercession: As Jesus was born in Bethlehem let my Sister’s baby be healthy. As Mary interceded for the married couple at Cana, accept this decade as a prayer for Anna and Mark who are getting married.

Eventually, I learned about Orthodox Liturgy what I learned about other liturgy. Although it is largely stable, there is still no “Ur Liturgy”. There is no one place to point at and say, “They Do It Right”. There’s all sorts of wonky experiments out there: revivals of older liturgies done facing the people across picnic tables parked in front of the iconostasis, open communion, altar girls. Some of these I’ve seen with my own eyes, some I’ve heard discussed by clergy who did them. Then there’s the gay stuff: bishops who support gay relationships, clergy who function as “pastoral guides” for gay couples, seminarians who run off and get married to each other (and, thankfully, become ECUSAns). It’s all the same because people are all the same. Where there’s Church there will be people.

Orthodoxy is the Church. But after 15 years, I couldn’t quite accept that she was all of it. And if Church was going to be this messed up wherever I was going, could I at least feed sme homeless and pray the Rosary?

There was one place I could go. I was, by her own account, practically, there already!

Finding Jesus in the Temple
When I first entered the parish near where my parents live in Alabama, I was, I admit, unimpressed. Later, when I heard the comment of a visiting bishop, “Is this a Church or a Pizza Hut”, I totally understood the joke. It’s not that it’s not beautiful: it’s just very… big and kinda dead. So I crept to the back right corner of the stadium seating, where the lights were low, and prayed a Rosary and waited. The preacher that day wanted everyone to pray a Rosary every day.

And fast on Fridays.

And maybe go to Mass more than once a week.

And I was hooked.

In short: What Mary had been telling me all along was here… was here. It was my pride that kept me away: my pride over my favorite sins, my liturgical pride, my cultural snobbery; but here it was still, and by a Rosary pulling me forward.

This past weekend Archbishop Cordileone preached a sermon calling all Catholics in SF to pray a Rosary once a day for peace, and once a week to pray it with their family, to Adore the Eucharist once a week (even if just before or after Mass), and to Fast on Friday, going to confession once a month. He added the 5 first Saturdays in honor of Mary’s Immaculate heart to the list. Here was again. Catholicism, even here, in the heart of the most liberal city in America. The Archbishop called us to pray for the Spirit’s revival in our Church.

When I wrote the priest that day in Alabama and said, “I want to be Catholic”, I cited the Rosary in his homily. His reply was that he can’t imagine another way how anyone could be Catholic.

Neither can I.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

I’m running for your heart.

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: If you wish you can become wholly flame.