OK, Let’s Try Plan B

JMJ

The assignment was to write a “reflection paper” on two chapters of God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology by Dominique Barthélemy, OP.

As this broken bread, once dispersed over the hills, was brought together and became one loaf, so may thy Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom.”
The Didache, retrieved on 12/2/21.

Barthélemy’s chapter 8, Preservation or Re-creation?, speaks of the conflict between the pessimism of the priest’s point of view and the optimism of the prophet. But when the author laid out the argument for God wanting to destroy the Temple (pp. 184-191) my mind went to the above prayer from the Didache. It is the earliest recorded Eucharistic liturgy of the Church. Most scholars believe it to have been composed by 90 AD, but some date it to the 2nd Century. At 90 AD, it could have been prayed by some of the Apostles themselves! The common Eucharistic loaf (leavened bread) is composed of grains that were once scattered in the fields “over the hills” but now they are united and the community asks that the Church be united together in the same way. Yet this prayer is said over the broken bread, ready to be dispersed to the congregants and, in those days, taken by deacons to distant folks and the sick, etc. The bread is brought together in one, consecrated in the Eucharist but then scattered again out into the world, seeding the kingdom everywhere.

The author speaks of the time for “this people, or rather the remains of this people to give birth to the “remnant”, the germ that is to be raised up to give birth to another people.” God wills to see the religious and political institutions of Israel destroyed, like the master builder who destroys the scaffolding that now does no more than conceal the definitive building…” (p.192)

I have a sort of “Plan B Bias”. When I read the scriptures I see God warning Israel (or Noah, or Adam & Eve), and then, when they fail to heed the warning, God punishes folks. Then there is a Plan B. However God always knew what would be the outcomes of human freedom and so, as I learned in RCIA and must constantly remind myself, there is no Plan B. God is always working out his purpose, always from the point of view of someone aware of all things in all times and places. God warns Israel not in the hope of possibly turning them away but in full knowledge of where they are going! As Barthélemy says so pointedly, God wants to destroy the temple! (p.190)  This so he can scatter his people like grain on so many hillsides! To make this work, though, they have to become his people first. 

This chapter walks us through that process: the need for an “impossible intimacy” (p. 171) and the steps he takes to bring the people to himself. Most importantly is the creation of an “Us” (p. 180ff) by means of ritual and telling the stories over and over to the children. The author highlights the way a father is told to tell his children “We were slaves under Pharoah…” and Barthélemy says, “Note that ‘we’ includes the father of a twentieth-century generation as well as past or future generations. This ‘we’ and ‘us’ is common to all generations of Jews who remember that ‘we were Pharoah’s slaves’. The ‘we’ refers to this same people who are actually alive now.” (ibid) The website My Jewish Learning confirms this, speaking of an almost sacramental reenactment in at Passover: “ The Ritba (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Ishbili, 1260-1330) stresses that every single individual must see and look at himself as though he had been a slave in Egypt and as though he went forth to freedom.’ Whereas the Hagaddah (the Passover table liturgy – DHR) frames in the plural its earlier comment that God redeemed both our ancestors and us, the obligation to see ourselves as former slaves is articulated in the singular. On Pesach, the Ritba suggests, it is not enough to speak of our communal liberation from slavery; rather, we must each experience this redemption also as a personal journey.”  Retrieved on 12/2/21.

This creation of a specific people, structurally enforced by being “condemned to liberty” as we read in Chapter 4, sets up a fully-resilient identity of faith so that the people of “Israel, dispersed among various empires, could never offer sacrifice to the powers in which those empires believed.” (p. 70) This is the strong seed, the strong remnant that was dispersed among the nations to grow. There is no Plan B, the God who did this knew, all along, how Israel would get – how all people get. The Temple Structure, the whole covenant was structured to bring the people together, to attach them to God in intimate connection. Israel was to be a “covenant of the people and light of the nations” (Isaiah 42:6, Jerusalem Bible). My Plan A/Plan B bias would say that God tried to get the 12 Tribes to line up behind the covenant but they failed to be a “holy nation” so Plan B happened, but Barthélemy’s writing makes me open up to a flight of historical contemplation: that the first step was the creation of a People. Actually, the final goal is the salvation of all who seek it (knowing that some won’t even bother). God is seeking everyone. So the People of Israel are dispersed, first to Babylon – where they learn to get on without the Temple. Then, fully armed with Rabbis, these “slaves of God alone” (p. 85) are dispersed around the known world to discover “righteous Gentiles” and “God Fearing” proselytes. These communities become “the germ that is to be raised up to give birth to another people,” they are the first people that Paul and the other Apostles evangelize. When they get to a new community, God-fearing Gentiles and Jews who speak Hebrew in prayer become the linguistic bridge to the locals, ready to share the Good News and whisper translations to those who come to listen to the Apostles preach. Evangelism ensues. The only plan there ever was is working.

The inward focus needed to become a people is first though. There are parallels in the Church as well. Bishop Barron says hunkering down is good, “But we should also be deft enough in reading the signs of the times, and spiritually nimble enough to shift, when necessary, to a more open and engaging attitude.” (Word on Fire, “The Benedict Option and the Identity/Relevance Dilema”, Retrieved on 12/3/21.) It is in “hunkering down” (Barron’s term) that we find the strength, grace, and identity needed to go out. This is a question of formation both for the community and for individuals. This is why we’re in school before being ordained: so that, being formed, we can go out “to the margins” as Pope Francis says to draw others into the Kingdom.

For my personal formation, the Plan A/Plan B thinking I mentioned arises from a certain Protestant apocalyptic dispensationalism which was popular when I was growing up in the South: the Jews failed to accept Christ and so the mission to the Gentiles was born. Commenting on Matthew 11:28, the Scofield Reference Bible (very popular in the world of my childhood) says “the rejected King now turns from the rejecting nation… It is a pivotal point in the ministry of Jesus.” Retrieved on 12/2/21.  And while I knew this isn’t Catholic teaching, it was such a strong part of my upbringing that I am constantly surprised by new ways it has remained hidden. Barthélemy’s writing offers a unique antidote, allowing me to contemplate the Bible as one story, one plan of salvation without any sense of replacement theology or various dispensations. Israel is God’s people scattered across the hills and gathered into one loaf in the Messiah, broken and shared and dispersed again in the Church. 

As the Church is composed of Gentiles grafted into Israel, those “who form the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16) I found myself wondering if there was a parallel between how God treated Israel at this time and what is happening to the Church today. I thought of Father Ratzinger’s (as he then was) oft-quoted comments about the “Church of Tomorrow”

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision… The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution…
– “When Father Joseph Ratzinger Predicted the Future of the Church, from Aleteia, retrieved on 12/2/21.

But the earlier part of the comments is not so often quoted:

“The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic, all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves.“  (Ibid. Emphasis added.)

Those highlighted lines parallel the various types we can imagine among the people of Israel dispersed among the Gentiles. There were some who just accommodated themselves to the new world, forgetting all their father taught (if they were ever taught). There are some, though, who became too legalistic and judged others, forgetting grace entirely. And finally, there is the rightful reaction to the legalism of the second group that, unfortunately, goes on to throw out the baby with the bathwater, becoming“spiritual but not religious” versions of the group that forgot the faith entirely. 

As Father Ratzinger predicted, we can see all of these people around the Church today. We can also say that we were slaves of Pharoah in Egypt – but Egypt is here and now, our sins and the World System around us and some of our co-religionists blend into the world, or become too legalistic, or opt for a Catholic flavor of spiritual but not religious. We should want to be gathered again to God so we strive to become “those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith.” We can hunker down, but we need to be ready, as Bishop Barron said, “reading the signs of the times, and spiritually nimble enough to shift, when necessary, to a more open and engaging attitude.” The only ingathering that really matters is the final gathering into the kingdom and we want to bring as many as we can!  Ending where we began, our Plan A must be to humbly pray the final prayer of the Didache liturgy: “Be mindful of thy Church, O Lord; deliver it from all evil, perfect it in thy love, sanctify it, and gather it from the four winds into the kingdom which thou hast prepared for it.” 

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He feeds the homeless and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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