Another entrée into Holy Week

The Man Born to Be King, published toward the end of Dorothy Sayers’s prolific career, is a faithful account of the four gospels in dramatic form. A 12 play-cycle, it was written for radio broadcasting and was performed on BBC first in the early 1940’s. Sayers is completely true to the eyewitness material in the New Testament but, as a great literary artist, she brings us into direct contact with the living text and the reality of the life of Christ. She adds character introductions, minor characters, stage directions, dialogue all the details that help us to remember that, like each of us, these people breathed and lived messy lives and yet they supped with Christ over a meal they had caught and grilled themselves. Through these plays, the worldly reality of the incarnation immerses the reader in scenes much like an Ignatian meditation. C.S. Lewis said that he read it each year in preparation for Lent.

Unfortunately, I am unable to find an online audio recording of the radio plays. So, only the book is available (paperback & Kindle). Nevertheless, the individual episodes are short but the cumulative dramatic effect of following the Lord along the dusty paths of Palestine from Bethlehem to Calvary, and the empty tomb is a powerful entrée to our pandemic Passover.

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Preparing for Holy Week in isolation…

We began Lent with a meditation by the late Dominican priest, Fr. Michael Morris, OP, on the Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent. Now, approaching the annual Paschal drama beginning with Palm Sunday it seemed appropriate to frame this pandemic stricken Lenten 40 days with another reflection on a painting by Bruegel, The Procession to Calvary.

The Procession to Calvary

The 2011 movie by Lech Majewski, The Mill & the Cross, uses cinematic magic to layer real actors into the scenes depicted in the painting. Here the Pascal drama is presented in 16th century Netherlands. Majewski’s interpretation is based on his own life long appreciation of Bruegel’s work aided by the masterful academic and artful in depth study by Michael Francis Gibson. The acting by Rutger Hauer as Bruegel and Michael York as his wealthy patron provide almost the only dialogue as Majewski lets the images and soundtrack tell much of the story as seems right in a movie so embedded in a painting. There is a brief scene of non-sexualized female nudity in the early part of the film.

The movie is available to stream on Amazon/Fandor as well as other streaming sites.

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Some malady is coming upon us…

from T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral – Part 1

But mostly we are left to our own devices.
And we are content if we are left alone.
We try to keep our households in order;
The merchant, shy and cautious, tries to compile a little fortune.
And the labourer bends to his piece of earth, earthcolour, his own colour.
Preferring to pass unobserved.
Now I fear disturbance of the quiet seasons:
Winter shall come bringing death from the sea.
Ruinous spring shall beat at our doors,
Root and shoot shall eat our eyes and our ears.
Disastrous summer burn up the beds of our streams
And the poor shall wait for another decaying October.
Why should the summer bring consolation
For autumn fires and winter fogs?
What shall we do in the heat of summer
But wait in barren orchards for another October?
Some malady is coming upon us. We wait, we wait,
And the saints and martyrs wait, for those who shall be martyrs and saints.
Destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen:
I have seen these things in a shaft of sunlight.
Destiny waits in the hand of God, not in the hands of statesmen
Who do, some well, some ill, planning and guessing.
Having their aims which turn in their hands in the pattern of time.
Come, happy December, who shall observe you, who shall preserve you?
Shall the Son of Man be born again in the litter of scorn?
For us, the poor, there is no action.
But only to wait and to witness.

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Virtual Via Dolorosa

By following the link in the image above we may experience the traditional Lenten reflection on the Stations of the Cross as depicted by Vonn Hartung in his beautiful paintings accompanied by Gregorian chant. It only takes 5 minutes to walk this virtual Via Dolorosa as we contemplate the work of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:

Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?
For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

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Western Genius

It is a good time to recall what the Stanford professor Robert Harrison has written in his fine book Juvenescence ,

“The greatness of Western civilization, for all its disfiguring vices, consists in the fact that it has repeatedly found ways to regenerate itself by returning to, or fetching from, its nascent sources. The creative synergy between Western wisdom and Western genius has always taken the form of projective retrieval—of birthing the new from the womb of antecedence.”

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Imagine…a virus stalking through the modern State

On a virus of a different sort, no less mortally lethal and considerably more morally so:

About the fate of post-Christian Western cultures G. K. Chesterton cannot be thought overly optimistic. But in one small way – having to do with the resilience of Catholic Ireland – he was. In a book published in 1935 – 2 years after Hitler came to power – Chesterton wrote:

“Suppose something of the type of Compulsory Sterilization or Compulsory Contraception really stalks through the modern State, leading the march of human progress through abortion to infanticide. If the heathens of North Germany received it, they would accept it with howls of barbaric joy, as one of the sacred commands of the Race Religion; the proceedings very probably terminating (by that time) with a little human sacrifice. If the English received it, they would accept it as law-abiding citizens; that is, as something between well-trained servants and bewildered children. There is a great difference; but not so great as the certainty that the Irish would not accept it at all.”

G. K. Chesteron
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Love your neighbor as yourself…

“In vain we shall search the world before Christ for this kind of outlook of man on his fellow man; we shall find it neither in Plato, who speaks nobly of Eros, nor in the treatises of Aristotle and Cicero on friendship nor even in the writings of the Stoics. In none of these will we find the kind of respect for the person of one’s neighbor that can only be established as a principle for the first time by the Christian revelation. … But should the source of God’s gracious involvement fall into oblivion, then sooner or later the face of the person will become indistinct, and he will sink back once more into mere anonymity.”

– Hans Urs von Balthasar
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A Viral Hegemonic Discourse

Over the past weeks it has been amazing to see how quickly our focus has shifted from what seemed at the time matters of urgent concern to another crisis of world altering dimensions. As we all hunker down and pray for those affected by the coronavirus, waiting for the 4th horseman of the apocalypse to ride through town; something about the images of the spread of this disease reminded me of similar images I had seen in college of the movements of peoples, cultures and ideas in history. Of special interest was how the Christian faith spread throughout the Roman Empire and how that faith changed the course of history.

For nearly two millennia in the West the prevailing underlying dynamic of social self-understanding has been (in Girardian terms) some form of the myth, ritual, and prohibitions of the Judeo-Christian tradition. While some may dispute this, none the less, it is generally agreed that this dynamic greatly contributed to the foundations of European and American societies and has influenced in profound ways many other cultures around the globe. Only recently has China emerged as a comparable competitive dynamic on the global scene. And its rise has much to do with its adoption of aspects (especially commercial) of the West’s long hegemony.

How to account for the propagation, persistence and dynamism of this hegemony has been an interest of students of history for a long time. Over the past fifty years or so there has been a concerted effort in academic and political arenas to revise the historical narrative in ways that diminish the importance of the Judeo-Christian elements of the West. The effort here seems to be to challenge the triumphalist ‘hegemonic’ characterization of this influence. Certainly, since the Enlightenment there have been overt efforts to confront and even suppress the influence of Christian institutions and ideas. And in the recent drafting of the constitution of the European Union any mention of Christianity’s legacy was explicitly rejected. However, it is difficult for me to see how this can be done truthfully. There seems to be an ideological edge to this effort that cuts off the limb it is sitting on.

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Matthew 13:33

In the Gospels Jesus uses the metaphor of yeast in describing how the kingdom of heaven spreads in our lives and throughout the world. Yeast is a living organism, a fungus – reproducing by ‘budding’ and is essential for bread & beer making. Viruses, on the other hand, replicate inside the cells of a living host organism which they have infected. The virus itself without a host organism is inert. Viruses exist at the ‘edges of life’. On earth they are the most numerous type of biological entity. Unknown until the late 19th century, viruses are viewed as an important driver of evolutionary development due their ability to spread quickly and adapt to changing environments. This characteristic has given us the metaphorical social media phenomenon of ‘going viral’.

If we were to view the ‘outbreak’ of the Gospel message and its effects as the beginning of a viral pandemic, what might that have looked like? The following is a rambling, unscientific and highly eccentric account of this dynamic over three millennia seen through the time lapse telescopic lens of a viral agent that attaches not to the mucous membranes but to the mind, soul and spirit of those it infects…

Judeo-Christian Contagion:

The spread of the Judeo-Christian dynamic in human history can be viewed metaphorically as the spread of a virus infecting the human individual and cultural host. As in epidemiology, the ‘index case’ for this infection was a Near Eastern (perhaps present-day Iraq) childless family presumably in the 2nd millennium BCE, we know as Terah’s son Abram and Abram’s wife, Sarai. A voice leads Abram and his family out away from his native culture into an unfamiliar land. There, after numerous encounters with a deity who promises the now elderly couple descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky, they are infected with a virus that embeds in them a unique bond to this deity signified by the change of names from Abram to Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah.

Both miraculous and not so miraculous children (Isaac & Ishmael) are born into this family. And so, Abraham and Sarah pass the virus on to their descendants with the to be expected variations in individual cases. After many generations, through famine, slavery and an exodus to freedom – from this family a numerous and peculiar people arise who begin to tell a story of their unique calling and destiny that claims a universal purview, all in fidelity with the deity who spoke to their ancestors.

This chosen people of a desert deity who calls himself Yahweh becomes the Hebrew nation. Their self-understanding as expressed in the Torah – the books of Moses written down long after the fact, tell the story of the patriarchs. And combined with the writings of their poets and prophets comprise what we know as the Old Testament. As they begin to claim a land promised by Yahweh in Palestine the Hebrew people appear for the first time in the historical narrative of other civilizations around the Near East before the 1st millennium BCE. Known as the children of Israel, the Hebrews experience the vicissitudes of a small nation ruled by judges surrounded by larger more powerful kingdoms. The resistance to the Hebrew virus by their contemporary cultures is formidable. Becoming a kingdom (‘like the other nations’) of its own, Israel is riven by civil war, and defeated and scattered by its enemies. Just as a virus adapts to help it better replicate in response to its environment, so the Hebrews begin to express distinct virtues that are valued by other peoples among whom they are scattered. And ever so slowly they begin to find niches in the civilizations and cultures of the Near East.

Around the later half of the 4th century BCE into and through this milieu marches the Greek educated world conquering Macedonian king, Alexander. Upon his early death his generals divide up his extensive kingdom. Within the vast empires of the Hellenistic kings are spread the ideas of Greek culture, philosophy and religion. A syncretistic cultural amalgam emerges with an openness to novelty through the contact and mixing of the various peoples and cultures of the Hellenistic world. But the hundreds of Hebrew communities dispersed among the cities of this milieu resist homogenization even when they develop individual geographic characteristics, they mostly remain separate and distinct. Many Jews of this period still live in Palestine, the land of their forefathers, continuing to pass the virus down generation to generation. Their host cultures recognize the Hebrews as a people apart. They are frequently persecuted for their difference and refusal to adapt to the ways of their pagan overlords and neighbors. The Jews of Palestine at one-point rebel and attempt to reclaim their lost kingdom only to be defeated. However, Alexander’s successors begin to fight among themselves giving opportunity for Roman military actions culminating in the decisive battle of Actium in 31 BCE and resulting in Roman hegemony.

The Pax Romana provides a period of stability in which a new more infectious permutation of the Hebrew virus first appears in the early years of the 1st century CE. A young Jewish rabbi from a small dusty village who had garnered a popular following during a few years of itinerant preaching is executed by the Romans for sedition, claiming to be the prophesied messiah king of Israel. According to those of his Hebrew contemporaries, the establishment Jewish temple authorities, he was condemned for blasphemy for claiming equality with Yahweh. But his public crucifixion does not end the matter. Three days after his death, his body cannot be found in the tomb. His disciples, who had all abandoned him at his arrest, now claim he is alive and to have seen and spoken with the one they saw tortured and executed.

This new viral strain contains all the genetic information of the earlier virus but is much more infectious – being more prone to ‘pandemic’ outbreak than the particular and more insular Hebrew version. Those infected with this more virulent version of the virus remain, like the Hebrews, stubbornly unwilling to compromise their faith, and frequently present with symptoms of a refusal of revenge for harm done them, forgiving rather than cursing, evincing an unlimited hope that perceives life beyond death, as well as a strange understanding of the mixture of matter and spirit – an unusual and mysterious understanding of bread and wine becoming the flesh and blood of their crucified and risen Lord.

Initially, mostly Jews became infected with this new viral strain, so much so that it engendered a response by the now institutionalized older virus that had been harbored by its Hebrew host for over a millennium. The subsequent persecution of these followers of the risen rabbi by their Jewish relations does not prove effective in stopping or even slowing the spread of the new strain. As often happens among health workers in a viral outbreak, one of those on the frontline of suppression, Saul of Tarsus, apparently gets too close to those infected at the stoning of Stephen and contracts the infection himself. The initial symptoms Saul experiences are disorientation and blindness. While convalescing in Damascus, Saul regains his sight as well as a new name, Paul, and a new vocation to spread what he now understands as a life-giving gospel of the risen Messiah not only among the Hebrews but to the entire multicultural Roman world. As the outbreak spreads beyond the Jewish synagogues of Palestine, eventually the Roman authorities become concerned by its virulence and they too attempt to bring it under control. Yet even the coercion of Rome is powerless to stop the spread of the infectious hope and consolation of an other-worldly love.

A final Jewish revolt against their Roman overlords in 70 CE results in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine furthering the spread of the old and new virus throughout the Roman world which extends West to Britannia, Hibernia and Iberia, North to the Baltic Sea, East through Central Europe to the Caspian Sea and India, and South to Egypt and Africa. Within three hundred years the Roman emperor is infected with the new virus and the episodic persecution of those known as Christians ends. As both the Hebrew and Christian viruses spread over and beyond the lands of the Roman empire a new dynamism is unleashed that will transform the world.

This story does indeed sound like a ‘hegemonic discourse’ so derided in current debates. Of course, the subsequent blessings of the Judeo-Christian tradition have been mixed with the sinfulness of those who carry the virus. Becoming infected does not automatically make one holy, but we do become different than we were before. Even those who resist infection with a strong immune response are changed by contact with it. The mysterious sacramental aspect of the interplay of matter and spirit ensures that the outcome of any particular infection is never predetermined and in many ways dependent upon its environment, especially the relationships to those around it. In the world the Church will always be the primary host and source of the spread of this contagion. But now that the world has had two thousand years to develop a robust immunity, the Gospel virus will need to adapt and find novel vectors of infection. This is what viruses are very good at.

That today this patrimony seems to be disappearing over the horizon as a new enlightened and hyper-secularized future dawns in the East only adds emphasis to Jesus’ question, “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”. Could this be evidence of the presence and influence of other malign viruses? The Church in her scriptures warns us to expect this opposition and to prepare for it. Nevertheless, it has been and will continue to be the faith, hope and love engendered in those who have been completely taken over by the virus that fulfills the promise made to Abraham and Sarah.

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Enthusiastically Ecclesisatic…

Henri de Lubac

“For myself,” said Origen, “I desire to be truly ecclesiastic.” He thought – and rightly – that there was no other way of being a Christian in the full sense. And anyone who is possessed by a similar desire will not find it enough to be loyal and obedient, to perform exactly everything demanded by his profession of the Catholic faith. Such a man will have fallen in love with the beauty of the House of God; the Church will have stolen his heart. She is his spiritual native country, his “mother and his brethren,” and nothing that concerns her will leave him indifferent or detached; he will root himself in her soil, form himself in her likeness, and make himself one with her experience. He will feel himself rich with her wealth; he will be aware that through her and her alone he participates in the unshakeableness of God. It will be from her that he learns how to live and die. Far from passing judgment on her, he will allow her to judge him, and he will agree gladly to all the sacrifices demanded by her unity.

Henri de Lubac
The Splendor of the Church, p 241-2
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Preparation for Lent

+Fr. Michael Morris, OP provides a beautiful introduction to the Lenten season in a reflection on the Elder Peter Bruegel’s painting ‘The Fight Between Carnival and Lent’.
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