Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year From Mudblood Catholic!

Hey Mudbloods! It is really cool to be writing for you all. I've gotten some truly encouraging and touching comments and e-mails over the last year, and I am so happy to know that people get something out of my work. Everybody have a good New Year, and I hope all my fellow Catholics enjoy an excellent celebration of the Solemnity of the Mother of God.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Reblog: Sydney Merino

I don't usually post two days in a row, but I read this piece from my sister and I couldn't resist reblogging it. My whole family's had a difficult year: none of us are sorry to see the back of 2013, and my two sisters and their husbands have probably borne the worst of it -- yet maintaining a grace and joy that is really something to witness. (Also featuring my unbelievably adorable nephew Joseph in the pictures.)

Friday, December 27, 2013

John 1.19-28

Happy Feast of Saint John, everypeople! John has long been one of my favorite authors and one of my favorite saints. Also my birth name, Ian, is a Gaelic form of the name John, so I'm sort of prejudiced in his favor.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (for the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. -- I John 1.1-3

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And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, "I am not the Christ." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" And he answered, "No." So they said to him, "Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as the prophet Isaiah said." (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, "Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie." These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Here, the prologue being complete, we begin the story as such. The word testimony or witness, and the cross-examination of the Baptist by the religious authorities, pick up the theme of a trial. As we shall see later, the cleansing of the Temple, which was one of the motive factors in the conspiracy to execute Jesus, is placed by John just after the beginning of the public ministry -- the events are arranged thematically rather than chronologically.* This, like the continual harping upon witness, draws the reader's mind to the trials and condemnations of Jesus in Holy Week; the whole Gospel is oriented toward presenting the reader with the evidence -- Jesus' own testimony about Himself, the testimony of witnesses about Him, the miracles as "exhibits" -- and inviting the reader to pronounce a verdict; together with the implication that the verdict made by the reader about Jesus will itself be the verdict made upon the reader himself on the Last Day.

By the time John was written, martyrdom was already a sadly well-known phenomenon among Christians. St. Stephen the Deacon (cf. Acts 6-7) was probably stoned to death within a few years of the Crucifixion, having himself been examined by the Sanhedrin; and other Johannine works** present this same theme, as when Revelation 2.13 says that "you [the church of Pergamon] did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you," or when the same book includes accolades to the martyrs in 6.9-11 and 12.11, among other places. The cross-examination of St. John the Baptist here -- which to some extent foreshadows the controversy of 7.25-52 and the interrogations of the man born blind in 9.13-34 -- is not yet hostile, but it does set up the increasing contrast between the religious leaders on the one hand (spoken of collectively as "the Jews," probably signifying that the Gospel was written after the Church had fully identified itself as a new thing, and not solely another school of Judaism) and Christ and His followers on the other. The ignorance of the questioners -- who show themselves unable even to ask the right questions, due to their preconceived expectations -- is suggestive of that darkness to which John again and again returns; more particularly because the Baptist has already been identified as the "witness to the light."

It is possible (though speculative) that this may indicate some Essene influence on some members of the early Church, and indeed upon the Baptist himself. The Essenes, some of whom were probably the scribes of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, were a secretive school of Judaism, living chiefly near the Dead Sea, who were intensely apocalyptic and denounced the Temple and its sacrificial system as hopelessly corrupt. They practiced ritual washings (in Greek, baptismai), looked forward to a "Teacher of Righteousness" in their writings, and held celibacy in high regard. Given that St. John the Baptist lived in the Judean wilderness for years before beginning his mission, it's entirely possible that he met and was influenced by the Essenes. Their worldview was almost dualistic, placing great emphasis upon the division between the children of light and the children of darkness, and upon judgment. (The primitive Church, by contrast, never denounced the Temple as such, and indeed Jewish Christians continued to participate in its worship, including vows and sacrifices, until its destruction by Titus Flavius. However, certain passages such as Hebrews 7-10 suggest that even at the time, the Church had a different and more reserved attitude toward the Temple than the non-Christian Jews did.)

The inquiry as to whether he was the Messiah is easily explained; people were expecting the Messiah, not least because it was the right time period according to the prophecies of Daniel, and the call to national repentance and restoration was suggestive of the apocalyptic and messianic prophecies of Malachi, Jeremiah, Joel, Zechariah, and others. The inquiries about Elijah and "the prophet" come from these same prophecies, and also from a specific interpretation of Deuteronomy 18.15-19:

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [Moses] from among your brethren -- him you shall heed -- just as you desired from the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, "Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, or see this great fire any more, lest I die." And the LORD said to me, "They have rightly said all that they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not give heed to my words which he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him."

In its original context, the general institution of prophecy -- that is, of those Israelites who called the nation back to the covenant from its continual lapses into idolatry and apostasy -- is surely indicated. However, an interpretive custom had arisen among rabbis, by the time of Jesus, of taking almost any phrase or sentence and getting any meaning out of it that it would bear, whether it matched the author's intent or not. The Apostles themselves do this repeatedly: Matthew's prophetic fulfillments are nearly all of this type, as when he cites Hosea 11.1 being fulfilled in the return of the Holy Family from Egypt, even though that text not only wasn't specifically messianic in context, but was not a foretelling at all. John himself does the same thing when he attributes an unconscious prophecy to the High Priest in 11.49-52, and Christ Himself seems to be using the same device in 10.34ff.

In any case, there was a -- perhaps somewhat nebulous -- expectation of a the "Prophet like Moses" among first-century Jews, and it is about this that the representatives of the Pharisees are inquiring. They are looking for a category into which they can place the Baptist, and he refuses all that they have to offer. His reasons for doing so (given that, in the Synoptics, Jesus specifically does identify St. John the Baptist as Elijah), we can only speculate about.

"This porridge is too school-of-Shammai-Pharisaic."

It's possible that, in questioning him, the religious leaders were attempting to bring him under their authority and even to make him their representative, perhaps with the aim of curbing his severe criticisms of their order (cf. Matthew 3.7-12); it is also possible that their traditional definitions of these roles were so set that they did not truly correspond to his mission. It may be significant, though, that the definition the Baptist does give defines him exclusively in relation to God and to his prophetic successor. Elijah and "the prophet" seem to stand alone, at least as they are spoken of by the Pharisees here; the Baptist, in keeping with his portrait in the Synoptics and with his own words later in John, will speak of his own role solely as a function of Christ's.

This theme -- that every mission, whether of Christ or of the Paraclete Spirit or of the Apostles or any other, subsists in relationship and as relationship -- recurs constantly in John. The Upper Room Discourse, the thematic heart of the Gospel, returns to this with a dizzying mysticism of interrelated being. No wonder it took centuries to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity.

Of course, now it is all quite straightforward.

*It is possible to interpret this as a separate cleansing of the Temple. I find this interpretation completely implausible -- that a man should be able to do this once is shocking; that it should be suffered to happen twice beggars belief.

**As I've said, I am not insisting on any specific theory of authorship of the Gospel of John, or for that matter of the letters or the book of Revelation. However, even if they are not all by the same man or men, I think they share enough with each other thematically that they may meaningfully be referred to as a class.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Austin Ruse's "The New Homophiles": A Response

It tickled my vanity to find, through a friend, my own name in (e-)print a few days ago. Crisis Magazine published an article by Austin Ruse, titled "The New Homophiles," reviewing the blossoming gay Catholic movement. I don't know anything about him except what I read in this article, which has already called forth responses from Joshua Gonnerman and Elizabeth Scalia.

It's very odd to read about yourself from an outsider's perspective. Joshua Gonnerman compares the article to an old-fashioned anthropologist's study, in which the customs of a people are described with some detail and some justice, but it doesn't seem to occur to the anthropologist to talk to the people he is studying, or to try using imaginative sympathy. That would be unscientific. Now, to do justice to Ruse, I don't know whether Crisis allows for links to sources, though I'd be surprised if they didn't; but I gather from the aforementioned people, as well as Eve Tushnet and Chris Damian, that Ruse didn't actually speak to any of us before deciding to speak for us. He does admittedly quote us, but the quotes are not referenced or given any context, which leaves me unimpressed, at least with his method.*

I'd like to make several specific replies:

Tushnet is out, proud, celibate, and a Catholic faithful to the Magisterium. Tushnet says she is in love with the Church, its "beauty and sensual glamor." ... Tushnet is a true believer but she also speaks fondly in remembrance of her own lesbian experiences. All this is enough to give faithful Catholics vertigo.

Not to quibble, but a moment ago he just described her as a faithful Catholic, too. I assume, then, that by this he means faithful Catholics who also happen to be heterosexual; but Elizabeth Scalia (whom he has, for reasons best known to himself,** declared the "Momma Bear" of the New Homophiles) isn't a lesbian, and she specifically states in her own reply that it doesn't give her vertigo. What I think I sense here -- and one of the things that I tend to write about a lot here -- is a conflation of faithful Catholicism with social conservatism. The two gel quite nicely in many respects; but they are not the same thing, and shouldn't be treated as the same thing. Indeed, I think that the traditional alliance between conservatism and Catholicism (if we may call something traditional that has only been a social phenomenon for forty or fifty years) is going to become more of a hindrance than a help in the next decade, if it hasn't already.

One thing that social conservatism is unused to is, well, the LGBT movement. About the only category that conservatism has for openly gay people seems to be, roughly, Dan Savage: highly political, hostile to Christianity and especially the Catholic Church, and rather rude. And admittedly very unlike Eve Tushnet. Also, as it happens, unlike most gay people; we're really just people, except gay. Being gay -- that is, attracted to the same sex -- is our only distinguishing feature. Granted, that means we have a lot of shared experiences, but only in the same sense that heterosexuals have a lot of shared experiences.

She [Elizabeth Scalia] likely understands how difficult this new message is for the kind of Catholics who read her.

Here, I have to confess I lack due sympathy. And I don't mean that simply as a passive-aggressive "That's your problem"; I mean that the problem is legitimate, and I am really not good at sympathizing with it, which is a shortcoming of mine.

At the same time -- there are people killing themselves over this. My own outlook is of course jaundiced, not least because I have considered suicide. The woes of Catholics who are being asked to think outside of their accustomed boxes (without questioning Church teaching), are something that I have great difficulty even imagining, and whether I'm being fair or not, I am at any rate sick to death of the awkward feeling that some people get over a point of view, one just as orthodox as theirs, being given the lion's share of consideration in this discussion, by people who voice no interest in even understanding what it's like to deal with what we deal with on a daily basis.

Gay exceptionalism and charism are a regular theme for the New Homophiles. Gabriel Blanchard who calls himself a "gay, anarchist Christian" ... claims gay exceptionalism allows gays to have "lower tension in dealing with the opposite sex" and "a more intuitive understanding of certain forms of mysticism." Perhaps.

That I claim gay exceptionalism is news to me, chiefly because I don't know what that means. Exception to what? It comes in the context of a quote from Larry Kramer, a gay playwright who used that phrase; but I don't really understand what he meant by it, either.

My own words cited here, from my post Rethinking My Gay Celibacy, I would tend to stand by; though they did come before an important turning point in my blog, and, again, are cited without the context that gives them their real meaning. (Not that I would wish to accuse Ruse of distorting me -- I don't think he has; just that what I say sounds sort of arbitrary in the truncated form in his article. It bears saying, though, that Chris Damian has complained of being misrepresented in this article, and, having read the blog post from which Ruse quotes, it must be said that the point being made was that it doesn't truly matter whether Newman was what we'd call gay or not.)

The New Homophiles believe because of their gayness they have a unique ability to build close friendships, something that is lacking in our modern age.

This is also news to me. I do think we have a peculiar tendency to form deep friendships, but that has more to do with the fact that, since we don't normally have an erotic outlet (to the extent that we are living in accord with the Church's teaching), we're likelier to pour a lot more of ourselves into friendships than our married friends tend to. There's quite a difference, though, between that sort of generalization and the thesis that we have an innate talent for forming profound friendships as a natural corollary of being gay. That might also be true; I have no idea.

They are inspired by the works of St. Aelred of Rievault, a twelfth century Abbot and writer ... Aelred has been adopted by many gays, some of whom celebrate his feast day. Some claim he was gay though gays have a penchant for claiming historical figures as gay, often with little real evidence.

Admittedly, and that tendency annoys me too; though it could equally be said of Catholics that we love claiming people we like as being "so Catholic" in this or that way, sometimes in defiance of their actual profession (C. S. Lewis is a good example). In both cases, that's just the normal human instinct of liking it when someone seems to be on your team, so to speak; that isn't a specifically gay failing.

However, there is in fact concrete evidence that St. Aelred was gay (though of course, since the concept of a gay identity didn't then exist, he wouldn't have put it that way). Melinda Selmys mentions it in passing in her second comment on this post on her blog. Some of us are indeed inspired by St. Aelred -- Spiritual Friendship, founded by the formidable Ron Belgau and Wesley Hill, is a splendid example -- but this has to do with his teaching precisely on friendship and its importance in a healthy spiritual life; it isn't necessarily linked to whether he was what we'd call gay or not. (I do celebrate his feast day, but that's because I'm Anglican Use and inclined to be pedantic, not because I'm gay.)

Their ideal is that you can draw close to someone of the same sex, love them intimately and intensely, yet never cross the line into sexual activity. ... But here they are playing with the hottest of fires. Perhaps this is possible for Christ and for saints like Newman but for others it could be a serious problem. This is why married men should avoid intimate friendships with women and why priests should also. This is why married men and priests who form intimate friendships with women often lose their way and ruin their vocations.

Well, again, it's news to me that we all have the same ideal, and that this is that ideal. Perhaps we had a group meeting to which I wasn't invited. Now, it so happens that I do think that the kinds of relationships he seems to be talking about here are possible -- I know more than one couple who are making precisely that experiment. But it's scarcely our defining trait. Some of us don't in fact think it wise; others of us are romantically as well as sexually celibate; some of us, like Melinda Selmys or Kyle Keating, are married.

But let's linger over the point a bit. To begin with, I have to agree with this essay (by Melinda Selmys, it so happens) that this perspective on relationships is kind of foreign to me. Perhaps I'm secretly Canadian or something. I gather that this wasn't normal a generation or two ago, but among my generation, it is completely unremarkable to have close friends of both sexes; and not only are we in fact able to keep all the relevant bits in our pants, but the sexually charged atmosphere imagined to attend such friendships is, if I may trust my experience and that of my friends, quite simply not there.*** The idea that any genitals that can fit together, will, if they have only the time and something to hide behind, strikes me as paranoid and weird.

I have to wonder, too, whether this isn't a partly self-fulfilling prophecy. Name the devil, and he appears. You don't see the phrase often today, but Catholic moralists used to talk about the dangers of "morose delectation": that is, pleasure in thinking and speaking of the wickedness of others. I feel I see a great deal of this in a lot of conservative narratives about those godless liberals sexing each other with their sexy sex orgies all the time, and don't ever put yourself in a position where sex with someone is logically conceivable, because then you're just asking for it.**** One consequence of this -- it certainly has been for me -- is that it not only draws the mind to think about sex more than you would otherwise, but also strengthens the idea that sex is somehow irresistible by any but miraculous force. It is, in both senses of the word, demoralizing. By contrast, I've found that treating sex as simply part of the human experience enables me to realize that, yes, you can also not have sex with someone, even if they're attractive; you can have morals and common sense and everything.

More importantly, I think this approach represents a wrong-headed approach to spirituality. It's so fear based. Take the concession Ruse makes about Christ and certain saints. Well, the Scriptures command us to imitate Christ, and one of the things that a canonization means is precisely that a person is worthy of imitation. If we aren't supposed to imitate Christ and the saints, then who the hell can we imitate? Backing away from sins, and even from risks, is an obvious but wrong strategy. It is pursuing God that matters, not avoiding sin as though non-sin were an end in itself. Pursuing God always means taking some risks, and often means taking very big ones. And when we consider that we are talking precisely about building human relationships here, which are the context in which the love of God is normally expressed (as the dreadful parable of the Sheep and the Goats makes plain), I think we need to consider what we do to ourselves when we refuse to form relationships, too. After all, it is pride, not lust, that is the root of sin.

All that being said, I would add that I'm not unaware of the risks involved in this kind of thing. I attempted just this kind of relationship, and I did ruin it precisely with a selfish, stupid decision that I made because of lust. I regret that decision, the wound I inflicted on a man who was my dearest friend, and the consequent shattering of that relationship, every single day. I'm not saying there is no risk in that direction, or that the risk isn't important. What I am saying is that that is only one dimension of the issue, and possibly not even the most important one.

Other experts at lay celibacy include every faithful Catholic who has never been married ...

Well, two things. First of all, this seems to me to be a massive oversimplification. Just because you're in a situation doesn't mean you understand it (a paradox I know only too well); let alone understanding anybody else's situation. And secondly, if he really means "every" here, then we New Homophiles count. We believe the Church's teaching, we're trying to live it out, and we're mostly unmarried.

There is also something narcissistic about this claim of gay-exceptionalism, that they are experiencing things no others have ever experienced, or that they have unique gifts given to them by dint of their sexual orientation.

Ouch. I mean, I don't think this is at all fair to most of us; but for me, that barbed arrow hit home. Anyone who has spent a little time with me thinks I'm a self-centered show-off. Anyone who has spent a little more time with me sees I actually do have a lot of self-esteem issues and the like. Anyone who has spent a little more time with me still, knows that they were right the first time. I write for other reasons too, but, yeah, this one I have to concede.

What they want more than anything is a development of doctrine.

I think that's fair. I tend to speak more about a difference in spiritual style, especially when it comes to evangelism. Certainly I believe that a lot of concepts that right now are held suspect or even categorically dismissed by most Catholics, such as sexual orientation, are actually useful and helpful, if only as mental tools to help us sort of the lived experience of LGBT people. I think, too, that the language we use -- not the essential message, but the language -- has serious defects, not because of internal problems, but because of the divergence between what the Church means by certain words and what the culture at large means by them. And the thing is, when it comes to evangelism, it is we who need to go to the world. We don't get to just sit around waiting for them to recognize how right we are because they finally got around to reading a theological dictionary. It is we who must translate our language, not because Catholicism isn't right, but because it is, and its rightness is being obscured by terminological discrepancies between the Church and the culture. When that is kind of the barrier we're dealing with, stubbornness over terms suggest pride and laziness rather that steadfastness about the truth. Those outside cannot be expected to just intuit what we mean, or to just see instinctively how important it is to investigate the Catholic faith.

After all, there are good men and women trying to be faithful but who reject the gay identity, and others who are trying to deal with the psychological genesis of unwanted same-sex attraction, a process the New Homophiles largely dismiss.

When the head of the largest ex-gay organization in the world shuts it down and publicly apologizes for it, I feel fairly comfortable saying that the ex-gay movement is discredited. At least, discredited to the extent that association with it causes scandal; scandal being a worry I've heard about an awful lot in connection with being a Catholic who identifies as gay. I've written about the theoretical problems that I at any rate have with ex-gay theory before, as well as of the severe practical problems that have plagued the ex-gay movement since its inception, and the fact that I don't see much point in it. This is not mere casual dismissiveness; these are grave objections to the philosophical groundwork of the ex-gay movement and its actual results in people's lives, borne not only of abstract analysis but of personal experience.

However, I think I tend to be on the more emphatically queer end of our little Catholic rainbow anyway (other than Aaron S-C of An English Gay Catholic; I am perhaps the indigo to his ultraviolet). En masse, I don't get the impression that most of us set as much store by gay identity as I tend to, or are as hostile to attempts at conversion therapy as I am. What does definitely seem true is that the subject really doesn't interest us. I am inclined to view it as a subtler, baptized form of precisely the same sex-worship that pervades American culture in general, at least insofar as it's aimed at making us suitable for Christian marriage. But, whether that's a fair or accurate evaluation or not, neither conversion therapy nor opposition to it is a main concern for any of us, as far as I can tell; neither is how people identify or describe themselves vis-a-vis sexuality. What we're concerned with is how to play the hand God has dealt us, not whether it's possible to swap some cards.

I must admit I started out annoyed.

Don't feel bad; I'm annoyed, too.

*Fortunately for me, I have never misrepresented anyone or forgotten anything or made any mistakes, ever.

**To be clear, I would be perfectly happy for her to be given this title: she's a thoughtful, rational, devout writer whose work I greatly enjoy, and she has written of us with great kindness and intelligence.

***Obviously, as a gay man whose friends are very largely straight men and some women (I don't run to stereotype in the female friends department, for whatever reason), my experience here is going to be shaped by that. But I'm taking into account my friendships with other gay and bisexual men, Christian and non-Christian, and also both my observations of my friends and the things they straight-up tell me.

****I have tried to think of some way of removing the double entendres from this sentence. There is no way.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

John 1.14-18

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.'") For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.

This is one of the few spots where I actually don't like the ESV very much -- it uses idiomatic equivalents here where a literal rendering would be just as good (and, in my opinion, better for the fact of being literal). But I want to stick to one translation throughout, so.

The phrase "the Word became flesh" is the climax of this prologue. In the Catholic Church it is traditional to genuflect whenever this verse is read (at Masses in the Tridentine form and in the Anglican Use, it is read after every Mass). The thing is, we're used to it -- whether we are Christians or not, we are accustomed to the idea of God becoming Man in Jesus -- whereas, to an ancient audience whether Gentile or Jewish, this was shoelace-eating lunacy.

The idea of the Incarnation (dynamic equivalence).

The Logos among the Greeks was supposed to be an all-pervading, animating principle of the universe. The Divine Wisdom of Hebrew thought was a heavenly reality, a personified attribute of an utterly holy and separate God. Neither of them was supposed to be a human being. To the Greeks, no individual person could possibly be that important, and certainly not to the all-encompassing Divine, whether conceived monotheistically or pantheistically or polytheistically, or however you please. To the Jews, the notion of the absolute, transcendent Godhead being one with a human, however exalted, was raving sacrilege. Men, even holy men, even prophets like Moses, were not permitted to see God -- how could any of them be God? It's absurd!

It is this very message which is most emphatically stated in the Gospel of John; it is woven into the whole of it. The Word made flesh is practically the point of his book. There is a saying, whose origin I forget, that "God became Man so that man might become god." The Johannine perspective on the nature and origin of the Church could be summed up in that way.

The word translated "dwelt" in verse 14 is significant. A flat-footedly literal translation would be "tented" or "pitched his tent"; it suggests the erecting of the Tabernacle. Once again, as in the opening verses, the complete identity of God with the Word is made.

It is of course impossible to know whether John had read the Gospel of Luke; however, certain parallels here are rather interesting. As we shall see later, the role that John gives to the Blessed Virgin Mary is a truly fascinating one. Now, Mary is not directly mentioned in these verses -- her presence is implicitly there, insofar as the flesh which the Word received, He received from His Mother. But the use of this word that draws our minds to the Tabernacle is reminiscent of Luke's account of the Annunciation, and specifically of Luke 1.35, where the archangel Gabriel tells her that "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you". This recalls the closing verses of the book of Exodus, where, after the Tabernacle is completed, it says, "Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting". The parallelism here is strengthened by verbal and thematic parallels between the transporting of the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh to Jerusalem in II Samuel 6.1-15 and Luke 1.39-56, in which Mary goes from Nazareth to Jerusalem to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of the Baptist (and it may not be coincidence that, immediately after this verse in John, the Baptist is cited again even though what is said is scarcely new). Especially when taken together, the image of the Virgin as the Tabernacle of God's presence emerges, and indeed of her as the Ark of the Covenant -- containing the heavenly manna with which Jesus will compare Himself in chapter 6.

The comparison between Christ and Moses, a common motif in the Gospel of Matthew, strengthens and builds on this theme. Various Jewish festivals, rites, and institutions are brought up in John for the specific purpose of displaying Jesus as the fulfillment of them, the perfecting of what they had suggested. And, in perfecting them, He replaces them. The transition from "law" to "grace and truth," another expression suggestive of the writings of Saint Paul, summarizes this; it will be stated in specific instances later on.

Returning to the mention of the relationship between the Son and the Father, an important one throughout the Gospels and particularly in John, we come to one of the poorer examples of the ESV. The word they render "only" is more traditionally translated "only-begotten," and this more traditional translation is also, it so happens, more accurate. The image of begetting, used as a technical and dogmatic term in the Nicene Creed, was doubtless heavily influenced by (if not drawn directly from) these verses. The change, from the language of God and the Word to that of the Father and the Son, is interesting; taken with verse 13, it may be meant to suggest the identity between the Word/Son and those who accept Him, as the identity between Him and the Father has already been established in the preceding verses. The theme of indwellings and identities of various kinds will be picked up again, especially in the Upper Room Discourse of chapters 13-17.

The mention of receiving grace from the Son's "fullness" suggests yet another Pauline parallel, from Colossians 1:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities -- all were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

The cosmic language of this passage and that of John 1 are strikingly similar. Johannine literature is often represented as being markedly distinct from the rest of the New Testament, and in some ways that's true, but I find it impossible to read passages like these and not see the fundamental unity that underlies the two.

This idea of fullness being given from the Son to those who believe in Him is suggested again, with particular force in two passages: the Bread of Life discourse in John 6, and the Upper Room Discourse. Both contain various symbols and teachings with eucharistic overtones, and of course Catholic and Orthodox Christians take Christ to be speaking precisely about the Eucharist in John 6. The sacramental themes of this Gospel are more vivid and pronounced than in any of the Synoptics, even without a direct account of the institution of the Eucharist. (If the author knew of one or more of the Synoptic Gospels -- which he may well have, if the scholarly consensus that John is the latest of the four is correct -- then he probably felt it was simply unnecessary to go back over that familiar information.)

The clause "No one has ever seen God" is a rather intriguing inclusion. Several scenes common to the Synoptics are missing from John, including the Transfiguration, which included a vision of both Moses and the "cloud" which concealed and therefore symbolized the presence of God. It's just possible that another Pauline parallel is intended, this time to the early chapters of II Corinthians, where the Apostle points out that Moses' vision of God, even as limited and indirect as it was, left his face shining so brilliantly that it had to be veiled -- and therefore, how much more brilliant was this new covenant in Jesus? However, what is more clear is that here, as so often in the prologue of John, we have a call-forward: in the Upper Room Discourse, Saint Thomas (of course!) says "Show us the Father," and Jesus replies, "He who has seen me has seen the Father."

"At the Father's side" is another disappointing translation of the Greek, though here there is a good reason for it. That reason is that there is no perfect way of conveying the particular word involved here. I think that the (again, more traditional) translation "in the bosom of the Father" is better, but it is still imperfect. The Greek says that the Son is in the kolpos of the Father. A kolpos was a sort of pocket, formed by lifting a fold of one's garment -- like we did when we were kids and wanted to collect berries or interesting stones or what have you, by picking up the edge of our shirts. (Obviously "In the Father's pocket" sends kind of a different vibe, though as it happens also a true one.) This, as it happens, is another, more minor, call-forward. In the Upper Room, in chapter 13, we get one of our glimpses of the author of the Gospel, who refers to himself throughout only as the Beloved Disciple; he is right beside Jesus, and, you guessed it, he is described as being in Jesus' kolpos.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Mortar the Stones With Blood

We have already noted that this paradox appeared also in the treatment of the early Church. It was important while it was still insignificant, and certainly while it was still impotent. ... It was resented because, in its own still and almost secret way, it had declared war. It had risen out of the ground to wreck the heaven and earth of heathenism. It did not try to destroy all that creation of gold and marble; but it contemplated a world without it. It dared to look right through it as though the gold and marble had been glass. 
-- G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, Part II, Chapter 1: The God In the Cave

Here is the picture of Chesterton looking smart and fat and quotable that is required 
to appear on all Catholic blogs (and earns extra points on Protestant ones).

I haven't written much about my pacifist convictions, although I wrote a series on anarchism a few months ago. The controversy in the combox that extended through the last several Raw Tact posts, however (specifically Part X, Part XI, and the Appendix, as well as this interruptive but related post), has had my mind turning to the nature of reconciliation, and thus to pacifism -- for I believe that all reconciliation must, in the last resort, be pacifistic if it is to have real and lasting effects: those effects that take root in the heart, rather than in the smaller question of whether men are killing one another.

That is not irony or authorial cleverness, by the way. I really believe it. As a Catholic, I believe in the immortality of the soul; in Heaven; in Hell. That men kill one another is a horrible reality, and I long for it to cease, everywhere and forever. That men hate one another is far more hateful to me even than killing. After all, there are circumstances in which killing can be justifiable or at least excusable -- self-defense and innocent accident spring to mind. But God is love; God makes the sun shine upon the just and the unjust alike; when He was crucified, He not only cried out to the Father for the forgiveness of His tormentors -- something we have heard so often that, often, it fails to strike us -- but He was actively maintaining their life and well-being as they murdered Him. ("In Him all things hold together.")

For all his flaws, Mel Gibson got something exactly right here, I'm told: the hand holding the nail is his.

The unearned, the utterly gratuitous character of all existence, is often lost on us. Jean-Paul Sartre experienced this when he perceived all things as de trop, superfluous, unnecessary. He was right, in a sense -- but without the conviction of the being and love of God, the experience was a negative, maddening one, which he himself described by the title of his book Nausea. The obverse side of this idea is what a Catholic means by grace. Not only salvation, but even existence, is a gift that we could never earn by any amount of goodness or anything else.
'I'm not asking for anybody's bleeding charity.'
'Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything here is for the asking and nothing can be bought.'*
Or as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta put it in a little book of hers:
At a seminary in Bangalore, a nun once said to me, 'Mother Teresa, you are spoiling the poor people by giving them things free. They are losing their human dignity.' When everyone was quiet, I said calmly, 'No one spoils as much as God Himself. See the wonderful gifts He has given us freely. All of you here have no glasses, yet you can all see. If God were to take money for your sight, what would happen? ... What would happen if God were to say, "If you work for four hours, you will get sunshine for two hours"? How many of us would survive then?'**

Okay, she'd probably be fine.

The gratuity of the Divine gift of life is my chief reason for being a pacifist. Specious reasons and equally specious objections are frequently set forth by advocates and enemies of pacifism. It is perfectly possible to believe the Sermon on the Mount, and also believe in the justice of the cause of the First Crusade or the Battle of Lepanto; it is perfectly possible to believe in the justice of the First Crusade or Lepanto, and at the same time be a pacifist (at least in terms of personal vocation). But when I am confronted with the intolerable generosity of God in making me and sustaining me at every moment, I cannot bring myself to regard violence, even in self-defense or the defense of others, as anything but a distant second-best. To imitate His open-handed and open-hearted love, taking no vengeance, willing no ill, however deserved -- what can compare with that?***

It is often urged against pacifism that it is impractical. Now, I reject from the get-go that a Christian's chief concern ought to be with practicality. However, I also think that the practical effects of pacifism in history have been ignored. The independence of India was achieved through the wholly pacifist efforts of Gandhi and his followers, and the civil rights movement in this country was as successful as it was largely through the same influence. Not to turn this into a quotefest, but the following, from Gandhi's writings, seems to me to express the matter well:
Reader: I deduce that passive resistance is a splendid weapon of the weak, but that when they are strong they may take up arms. 
Editor: This is gross ignorance. Passive resistance, that is, soul-force [satyagraha in Sanskrit], is matchless. It is superior to the force of arms. ... Physical-force men are strangers to the courage that is requisite in a passive resister. Do you believe that a coward can ever disobey a law that he dislikes? Extremists are considered to be advocates of brute force. Why do they, then, talk about obeying laws? I do not blame them. They can say nothing else. When they succeed in driving out the English and they themselves become governors, they will want you and me to obey their laws. ... But a passive resister will say that he will not obey a law that is against his conscience, even though he may be blown to pieces at the mouth of a cannon. 
What do you think? Wherein is courage required -- in blowing others to pieces from behind a cannon, or with a smiling face to approach the cannon and be blown to pieces? Who is the true warrior -- he who keeps death always as a bosom-friend, or he who controls the death of others? Believe me that a man devoid of courage and manhood can never be a passive resister. 
This, however, I will admit: that even a man weak in body is capable of offering this resistance. One man can offer it just as well as millions. Both men and women can indulge in it. It does not require the training of an army; it needs no jiu-jitsu. Control over the mind is alone necessary, and when that is attained, a man is free like the king of the forest and his very glance withers the enemy. 
Passive resistance is an all-sided sword, it can be used anyhow; it blesses him who uses it and him against whom it is used. ... It never rusts and cannot be stolen. ... It is strange indeed that you should consider such a weapon to be merely of the weak.****
But it is not primarily the military or political implications of pacifism, potent though I believe -- or, more precisely, observe -- they are, that I'm interested in. Nor, though I also declare myself a pacifist in the class war and the culture war, am I focused predominantly upon those, either. I have in mind, above all else, a pacifist spirituality. I don't believe that the Lord Jesus had war chiefly in mind when He preached the Sermon on the Mount; indeed, there is no mention of the kinds of violence we are familiar with in war and tyranny at all: only the kind of day-to-day exasperations and frustrations that could be expected in a life among rowdy villagers. But there comes in the image of the gratuitous sunshine that falls with indifferent genersotiy upon evil and good alike; there, too, the blessing upon those who are persecuted, and the exhortation to rejoice and to bless when we suffer under it. That is the root of pacifism -- at least, of the kind of pacifism that I consider worthwhile. A rejection of violence merely as violence, and not as a kind of anti-sacrament that is the hatred it signifies, seems to me like a very arbitrary rule. Pacifism too must be sacramental. Pacifism, not animated by and acted to convey love -- well, if I give all I possess to the poor, and surrender my body to the flames ...

Only by choosing to end injustice in oneself -- to suffer its consequences and deliberately refuse to retaliate, with the soul as much as the body -- can the cycle of revenge be stopped. Every act of violence, of vengeance, of punishment, begins the cycle of violence afresh; and it will always be that way, until our attempts at justice are swept away in the terrible finality of the justice of God.

As illustrated here, possibly.

And this is how the Church first took root. Sanguis martyrum Ecclesiae semen, wrote Tertullian, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." A martyr is one who chooses to love to the uttermost, a love so powerful that mortal life cannot contain its force. Nor has the reality or the spiritual power of martyrdom ceased in the intervening centuries. The power of the Church has always lain in her rejection of power, her refusal to be controlled by it; when she has embraced earthly attitudes towards power, she has experienced a corresponding decline, first in sanctity and then -- and then what else could possibly matter? Seek ye first the kingdom and all these things shall be added unto you; seek these things, and you shall lose them and the kingdom with it.

This is a great part of why I cannot bring myself to be alarmed, or even particularly interested, by the decline (such as it is) of Christianity as a cultural and political force in this country. This decline has bad effects, certainly, but it will not prevent God from reaching people however He pleases. It also has good effects, or at least it can; for instance, it could lead us to ask ourselves as believers why, exactly, the people have left their temples, and left their temples very largely not for another temple but for nothing at all, an act virtually without precedent in the religious history of mankind.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs where once the sweet birds sang.

If our sole response to such reflections is that this people who knoweth not the law are cursed, then I think we need to stop and seriously ask ourselves who the hell we think we are. Do we suppose that we are doing God some benefit by being the recipients of His astonishing generosity in the Scriptures and the sacraments? Do we think there isn't enough of His love to go around, and that if we share His compassion and patience with those outside there will be less left for ourselves? And even if, on some level, we do, are we to react like the resentful workers who expected more than the denarius they agreed to work for, or the elder brother who was angry with his father's joyful reception of the prodigal son?

The point is, the path to holiness suffers no obstruction from the Church losing status or prestige. Indeed, that kind of decline can make it easier rather than harder to grow in the love of God, by moderating the temptation to (to put it bluntly) avarice. And if we should come to the point that we are actively persecuted -- rejoice. For then, ours is the kingdom of heaven.

Christmas is a time when we are disposed to think about the warm, comforting side of Christianity; it is, also, a time when the kulturkampf gets more emphatic than usual. Annoy to the world, the Lord is come. But some of us were never told, and others of us forget, that there are as many martyrs celebrated in this season as in any other. Saint Lucy, martyred brutally under the Emperor Diocletian, was just this past Friday; Saint John of the Cross, commemorated yesterday, was not killed, but was imprisoned and savaged by the thoroughly Catholic society of sixteenth century Spain, and indeed by his own religious superiors; the day after Christmas is the day devoted to Saint Stephen, the first of the Christian martyrs. And on the twenty-ninth, though it is not a well-known memorial in this country, is the feast of Saint Thomas Becket, about whom T. S. Eliot wrote his remarkable play, Murder In the Cathedral. Becket too was murdered, at the altar no less, by a society that professed itself to be wholly Christian and Catholic. There is no enclave, no shelter that will shield us; but if in Jesus we mortar the stones of the Church with our blood, they will stand fast thereafter.
Bar the door. Bar the door.
The door is barred.
We are safe. We are safe.
They dare not break in.
They cannot break in. They have not the force.
We are safe. We are safe. 
Unbar the doors! throw open the doors!
I will not have the house of prayer, the church of Christ,
The sanctuary, turned into a fortress.
The Church shall protect her own, in her own way, not
As oak and stone; stone and oak decay,
Give no stay, but the Church shall endure.
The church shall be open, even to our enemies. Open the door! 
My Lord! these are not men, these come not as men come, but
Like maddened beasts. They come not like men, who
Respect the sanctuary, who kneel to the Body of Christ,
But like beasts. You would bar the door
Against the lion, the leopard, the wolf or the boar,
Why not more
Against beasts with the souls of damned men, against men
Who would damn themselves to beasts. My Lord! My Lord! 
You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
You argue by results, as this world does
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent.
I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man.
Unbar the door! unbar the door!
We are not here to triumph by fighting, by stratagem, or by resistance,
Not to fight with beasts as men. We have fought the beast
And have conquered. We have only to conquer
Now, by suffering. This is the easier victory.
Now is the triumph of the Cross, now
Open the door! I command it. OPEN THE DOOR! 
-- T. S. Eliot, Murder In the Cathedral, Part II, pp. 73-74

*This is in C. S. Lewis' brilliant The Great Divorce, and takes place in what he calls the Valley of the Shadow of Life -- the first vale of Heaven seen by entering souls. I forget where it is exactly, and I haven't got a copy of the book with me, but, like so many passages, this one stunned me and has stuck in my memory.

**In the Heart of the World, pp. 57-58. Blessed Teresa is among my favorite figures in all Catholic history, for this and a host of other reasons.

***It may be said, and not without justice, that there will indeed be judgment at the end of time. That is of course quite true. But in my view, if God can wait that long to avenge Himself, I don't need to hurry things along. His justice will be more intelligent, more compassionate, and more just than mine, to put it mildly.

****Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha), M. K. Gandhi, pp. 51-52.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

John 1.6-13

John 1.6-13

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

Here two more of the chief themes of the Gospel of John (along with wisdom, light, and life, as we saw previously) are introduced: those of witness or testimony, and of birth in the spirit.

I think it was the Gospel of Mark that has been described, I forget by whom, as essentially a study of the death of Christ with a long prologue and a very brief epilogue. The same could almost be said of John. The idea of the trial of Jesus is continually present; the text challenges the reader, putting him as it were in the judgment seat of Pilate: it is continually presenting the testimony of witnesses to Jesus, and particularly the miracles, which are treated very much as evidence, as the testimony of the chief Witness, the Father. (The Greek word for "witness" is martus (marturo being the verb form), from which we get the English word "martyr.")

The first witness called to the stand in this great trial is St. John the Baptist. John is very different from the other three Gospels in many respects (hence the term Synoptics, meaning those who see together, to refer collectively to Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but all four Gospels make specific mention of the Baptist and his ministry. It may seem strange to a modern eye, since we are accustomed to two thousand years of Christianity; but at the time, it was by no means evident to everybody that St. John the Baptist considered himself and his function subordinate to that of Jesus. The Gospels themselves record speculation at the time that he was himself the Messiah, and his disciples continued to exist quite independently of the Christian Church for decades after his death. (Indeed, there exists to this day a small sect called the Mandaeans, living chiefly in Iraq and Iran, who believe that the Baptist was a great prophet but that Jesus was a fraud.) The choice on the part of all four evangelists to draw attention to the link between St. John the Baptist and Christ was therefore extremely important: it established the relationship between the two, and in fact made sense out of the Baptist's ministry, which would otherwise be somewhat confusing -- he came preaching apocalypse and repentance, and then died, so ... so what? If, as the Gospels report, he was specifically preparing the way for Jesus, then his mission does make sense.

Let's see: dreadlocks, ate honey and bugs, wandered around outside 
all the time, ranted at people ... Maybe we owe hippies an apology.

The word "sent," used to introduce the Baptist, is an important one in John. It is related to the word normally translated "apostle," literally "sent one" or "emissary." The idea of a Divine mission handed down to the great prophets was certainly nothing new to the Jews. It would have been a little more foreign to the Greek-speaking audience; Greek and Roman paganism were not churches or theological movements, as Judaism was, and the idea of a prophet per se wasn't really a part of their culture; they had seers and diviners, certainly, but the notion of revealed truth wasn't a staple of their religious ideas as it was for the Jews. John leaves out the missions of the Twelve and of the Seventy noted by the Synoptics (e.g. Luke 9.1-6 and 10.1-24); but, as we shall see, His conferring of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles after the Resurrection, and His commission to them, closely mirror His own mission from the Father, and echoes the frequent Synoptic motif of the Apostles being given the very authority that Jesus Himself exercised on earth.

The reference to "the true light which gives light to everyone," or, as the King James charmingly phrases it, "the light which enlighteneth every man," suggests a few passages in St. Paul -- notably the opening section of Romans and his sermon on Mars Hill. It is a commonplace in some circles to talk as though Johannine literature is all loving (meaning "nice") and Pauline literature is all hellfire. Those stereotypes are, of course, superficial, but the funny thing to me about them is that they are very nearly the reverse of the truth. Nearly everything that Scripture has to say about Hell is to be found in the books attributed to St. John; from St. Paul, as C. S. Lewis rightly pointed out, come the only verses that suggest a legitimate hope for the salvation of every single person. The supposed opposition between these two Apostles and their schools of thought is in my opinion absurd -- their points of view show to my mind several striking similarities (such as their availing themselves of Greek philosophical concepts for theological and spiritual use), and complement one another.

Yeah, this dude'll be coming up a lot. I was raised a Calvinist.

The word "world" is another important one in Johannine thought. In Greek, it is kosmos, from the verb for "to arrange," and particularly to arrange beautifully or pleasingly -- hence the English "cosmetic." There are other words sometimes translated "world" in the New Testament, but this one is a favorite in John, and it is used in two senses. One may be illustrated by the justly famous verse 3.16: "God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son". The other can be illustrated in 16.33: "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." The first uses "world" in the ordinary sense -- it was the customary Greek word for, well, the world as a whole, rather the way we use "universe" today.* The second is a specialized use, possibly finding its roots in the Jewish apocalyptic worldview, inherited by Christianity, which tended to think of the world as being in the power of evil angels: it uses the term in the sense of a "world order," and a corrupt one, alienated from God. That the world does not recognize the Logos here suggests the second meaning; but either or both may well be intended. John is extremely fond of word-play, irony, and similar sorts of humor -- indeed, to my mind, one of the most underrated characteristics of all four Gospels is how funny they can be (usually from Jesus, and often employing a Pharisee or a disciple as the straight man).

The reference to his own did not receive him is the first mention of another recurring pattern in the Gospel of John, that of Christ and His people and message being rejected by the Jews. "The Jews" here are decidedly and specifically a religious rather than a racial group -- they'd have to be, since of course Christ, His Mother, and the Apostles were all Jews themselves. It has been suggested, given that the disciples were almost all from Galilee, that it may even specifically mean the Judeans as opposed to Galileans (though I personally feel that's reading a little too much into the text). There is broad scholarly consensus that John was written after "the Nazarenes" had been decisively expelled from the synagogues; the primitive Christians had led an uneasy existence among the Jews for some decades, going to the synagogue partly to hear the Scriptures and perhaps partly to evangelize, and celebrating the Eucharist privately among themselves; but by the end of the first century, especially after the failure of the Christians to support the Jewish revolt in 66, they were excommunicated by the religious leaders throughout the Mediterranean. Judaism was a protected religion in the Roman Empire, and it may be significant that it was around this same time that Nero initiated the first formal persecution of the Church**; we are told, in a resentful and dispirited sort of way, by the second-century document The Martyrdom of Polycarp (St. Polycarp himself, coincidentally, a disciple and successor of St. John the Apostle), that the Jews were eager to assist in the execution of convicted Christians.

The bitter history of Christian anti-Semitism -- if one can meaningfully call anything so horrible, and so horribly ironic, Christian -- does come from such sources as these. But I think it a serious mistake to classify the Gospel itself as anti-Semitic; like all of the New Testament except Luke and Acts, its author was almost certainly Jewish and was quite plainly steeped in Jewish thought, taking its essential premises for granted. It was certainly used to justify anti-Semitic sentiment later, but that could in principle have been adequately dispelled by an appropriate attention to the texts that "salvation is from the Jews" and that "the gifts and call of God are irrevocable."

He came to his own, and his own did not receive him, but to those who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. Here we come to a theme that resounds, not only through the whole book of John, but through the entire New Testament: it is conversion of heart that counts, not physical descent from Abraham. This reaches back to the words of Samuel and the Psalmists that "to obey is better than sacrifice"; it echoes the words of the Baptist: "Do not say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones"; again it finds parallels in St. Paul: "not only to the adherents of the Torah but to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all". The colossal newness of Gentiles as Gentiles, rather than as converts to Judaism proper, being full participants in the New Covenant, is lost on us today. The whole point of the covenant under Moses had been to maintain the purity, the separateness, of the people of Israel; and it was essential at the time, because of the incessant tug to polytheistic syncretism that every other surrounding nation exhibited.*** John has, as a recurring motif, often expressed ironically or even unintentionally, what Acts cites from the mouth of SS. Paul and Barnabas as an epigram: "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles."

The threefold "born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man" is slightly puzzling. The NIV renders it as "not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will," which, though freer than I like in a translation as such, may well be an accurate interpretation. Alternatively -- or additionally -- it may be meant as an apposition to the "born of water and of the spirit" in chapter 3, to which this calls forward. The pairing of blood and water is common in Johannine literature (though generally they are together rather than contrasted, and are probably meant to suggest the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist); "the spirit" is often contrasted with "the flesh" in the New Testament, John 3 being a prime example.

It is possible that the specific mention of "not of the will of man" is an allusion to the Virgin Birth; it does specifically use the term meaning "man" or "husband" (same word in Greek, aner), rather than the general term anthropos which means "man, human, person." There is also a minor textual variant (supported chiefly by quotations in the Church Fathers rather than manuscripts proper) which reads who was born rather than who were born, making these phrases refer to Jesus rather than to those who believe in Him. Though the Blessed Virgin Mary is an important character in the Gospel of John, as we shall see -- she appears both at the inauguration of Christ's ministry and at His "hour" of glorification, the Crucifixion -- the Nativity is never directly addressed, as it is in Matthew and Luke. There are, however, a number of verses like 1.13 -- 7.42 and 8.48 are examples -- that may be ironical (and, on the part of their speakers, quite unintentional) allusions to the Virgin Birth of Jesus.

Better get used to her, too.

*It's been pointed out that the three phases of recorded history -- the Ancient, the Mediaeval, and the Modern -- are illustrated in certain ways by their choice of term for "everything." The Ancients called it kosmos, laying their emphasis upon its order and beauty as a harmonic system. We call it the universe, laying our emphasis upon its combination of uncountable, diverse elements, that all nonetheless obey the same set of laws. The Mediaevals, however, called it creation, choosing, unsurprisingly, to view it chiefly through the lens of its relation to God.

**The novel Quo Vadis, basing itself perhaps on Josephus' writings about her, represents Nero's wife at this time (a woman named Poppaea Sabina) as a Jewish proselyte. It is possible, especially if the Beast of Revelation 13 is indeed intended to refer to the Emperor Nero (as seems likely), that the Whore of Babylon is in part meant to suggest Poppaea, who was notorious for her intrigues, and was accused of moving Nero to murder both his mother and his first wife.

***This may also be the reason that images -- of the true God, as well as idols -- were for the most part forbidden by the Torah. Some, such as the images of the cherubim in the Temple, were specifically commanded, showing that the prohibition of images was not intrinsic and categorical; but the idolatrous conventions of the Ancient Near East was, again, oriented towards polytheism, nature worship, syncretism, and especially fertility rites, all of which would tend to dilute the essential otherness of God that the Torah constantly enjoined upon the Jews. Chesterton has some very illuminating remarks to make on this subject in The Everlasting Man.

Monday, December 9, 2013

John 1.1-5

I've decided, with the new liturgical year, to do a Bible study here on the blog. My favorite book in the Bible is the Gospel of John, and I know it best, so I will be doing that one. I'll be taking it very slowly -- a few verses at a time -- and interspersing it with my ordinary material. Although the King James is my sentimental favorite, I will be posting the text from the ESV, which is in my opinion one of the best translations linguistically (about my only disappointment with it is that it doesn't have a Catholic Edition, or, as I like to call it, the director's cut); however, I'll also draw on the Greek a good deal, since there are a lot of subtleties both linguistic and historical that a glance at the English can't convey. Apart from that, I will also be consulting The Gospel and Epistles of John by Raymond Brown, who was among the foremost Johannine scholars of the last century. I recommend the book -- it is academically aimed, but still fairly accessible.

I won't go in great detail into the questions that most manuscript critics would ask first -- who wrote it, when, why, how many times the manuscript was futzed with, and whether the author was secretly an Egyptian Gnostic lesbian fertility goddess (as one is). I don't see a whole lot of reason to doubt most of the traditional answers to these questions, but even if there is, that sort of thing is more germane to a scholarly study proper than to a devotional study, even one that relies upon scholarship.

So. Let's jump in.

+     +     +

John 1.1-4

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

To modern ears, this passage is perhaps familiar and probably bizarre. It relies on a few ideas, both Hebrew and Greek, that we really don't use much today, and certainly not under these names.

Let's start with the word Word. The Greek word Logos, which this translates, is kind of hard to convey in English. It does mean "word"; it also means "order, reason, account, argument" (hence logic and -ology). These ideas had all been wrapped up together in Greek philosophy for centuries. The idea of a cosmic Logos that held the universe together had been set forth by thinkers who predated Socrates and Plato; the Stoics, who were one of the most active philosophical schools at the time the Gospel was written (and who are mentioned in passing in St. Paul's address on Mars Hill), viewed the Logos as the animating, directive spirit of the universe, "who orders all things far and nigh," if you will.

This pagan idea had an analogue in Jewish thought during the Second Temple period. The concept of God's wisdom, personified as early as the book of Proverbs and continuing in books like Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, began to be turned almost into a distinct being, who was an agent of God in the creation and sustaining of the world. Sirach opens with a paean to wisdom personified, taken up again and again throughout its pages:

All wisdom comes from the Lord
and is with him forever.
The sand of the sea, the drops of rain,
and the days of eternity -- who can count them?
The height of heaven, the breadth of the earth,
the abyss, and wisdom -- who can search them out?
Wisdom was created before all things,
and prudent understanding from eternity.
The root of wisdom -- to whom has it been revealed?
Her clever devices -- who knows them?
There is One who is wise, greatly to be feared,
sitting upon his throne.
The Lord himself created wisdom;
he saw her and apportioned her,
he poured her out upon all his works.
She dwells with all flesh according to his gift,
and he supplied her to those who love him.
-- Sirach 1.1-10 (RSV, because ESV doesn't have it)

This twofold motif, of Logos and Wisdom, is used over and over in John; as is the importance of Jesus' logos, his word, both as truth and as testimony. (More on that later.) What were personified abstractions emerge as being really personalized and incarnated in him. The deliberate reference to "In the beginning" brings the start of the Gospel together with the creation of the world itself, in which Wisdom was supposed to be the agent of God's creative activity (from a Hebrew perspective), and which was supposed to be maintained by the activity of the Logos (from a Greek perspective).

So this Word was with God, and was God. The sentence that says this is, in the Greek, as emphatic as possible. Some translators have argued that, because the text literally says "and god was the word," it really means that the Word was a god -- i.e., that the two were essentially separate beings, against the doctrine of the Trinity defined at the Council of Nicaea. However, this is based on a misunderstanding. The arrangement of the words is designed precisely to establish that the Word and God are completely identified; there is one freer translation that I ran across that renders this verse, "And whatever God was, the Word was." The ESV's rendering, which is fairly traditional, is also satisfactory, in my opinion. Likewise, the verse that states that "Without him was not any thing made" seems to indicate that all created things were made only through him, meaning that he himself was uncreated. This flows together with his identity as the divine Wisdom; at first glance, since Sirach (like Proverbs) speaks of wisdom as being created, this may seem nonsensical -- but of course we can hardly imagine that God was without wisdom and then created it. Speaking of wisdom as being created is presumably itself a metaphor -- just as the term begotten in the Nicene Creed is a metaphor.

The motifs of life and light are also recurring themes in John. The image of a war between light and darkness, well-known from Jewish apocalyptic literature, is one of the most persistent in all the works attributed to this Apostle. There is an interesting pun in the closing verse: the word which the ESV translates as "overcome" is also, more frequently, translated as "understood." ("Mastered" may be the only English equivalent that can have both a combative and an intellectual meaning.) The pun is definitely intentional; the conflict between Christ and his enemies in the Gospel ends in him being (apparently) overcome in the Crucifixion, with the abrupt reversal of his own overcoming death, while at the same time the idea that those who reject him also cannot understand him, that they are blind to his signs and deaf to his voice, recurs, especially in the period dealing with the healing of the man blind from birth -- which leads directly into the passage about the Shepherd and the sheep who hear his voice.

The theme of life is not brought out in great detail here, though the theme of light is developed a good deal in the following verses. It remains in the background, the idea of creation and re-creation implied. (For my fellow C. S. Lewis fans, the distinction he made between bios and zoe -- natural life and supernatural life -- in Mere Christianity is not applied in the native Greek use of the terms, as he knew, using the distinction probably for convenience; however, the term used here for "life" is indeed zoe.) However, there's one little textual oddity here. The version the ESV gives here is usual. The punctuation of the text, though, says something more like, "Without him was not any thing made. What came to be in him was life, and the life was the light ..." This may be a hint at the Incarnation, by which Divinity became accessible to man -- "not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh," the Athanasian Creed says, "but by the taking of the Manhood into God" -- or it may instead, or additionally, be a sort of call-forward to verses 16 to 18, where the contrast between the law given through Moses and the new dispensation under Jesus Christ is made.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Reblog: Eve Tushnet and Dana Gioia

Eve Tushnet has just put up a post in reply to this magnificent article from First Things by Dana Gioia, which expresses a lot of things I've been thinking for a long time but hadn't articulated, or not much. (If you find Gioia's article a bit TLDR, I recommend just reading sections II, V, and VIII for a suggestion of the substance -- but I recommend even more setting aside time to read the whole thing, if you are the sort who cares about religion and/or art.) I'm not certain that I follow all of her criticisms -- I follow First Things rather irregularly, and I don't really know much of anything about the publishing world -- but I agree wholeheartedly with her point that most culture today is subculture. I've noticed it most of all in music, and to a lesser extent in literature; but the rise of web delivery of virtually every form of art has clearly allowed such individualized subtypes to develop in most kinds of art.

"The new crowd is heavily shaped by this guy named Eric, who's basically the 
Paris Hilton of the amateur plastic crazy straw design world." -- Randall Munroe

I haven't taken much time to think about it, but it'd be very interesting to work out exactly what the implications of this multiplication of subcultures are for the New Evangelization. It fills me with a profound sense of something or other.