Welcoming Jesus

The entrance antiphon for today’s Mass reads, “Jesus entered a village, / where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” I was gripped by the associations and connections my mind made when reading this antiphon today. Part of what flashed through my mind was imagining Jesus walking through our neighborhood and stopping by my house for a visit. What an honor that would be! And if I’m honest, the idea is also rather intimidating. But if we believe what the Scriptures teach us, we know Jesus does this very thing. Thankfully the same Scriptures assure us, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn. 3:17).

The Incarnation of the Word of God is our promise that God welcomes all of us into his eternal dwellings. This is sheer gift and promise, free of any hint of transactionalism. It’s extremely difficult for us to actually believe this is the case, deeply poisoned as we are with transactional thinking; therefore the scandalously gracious promise of the Gospel must be preached often and boldly.

When we begin to grasp a hint of the magnitude of God’s radical love for us, it will stir within us desires to reciprocate. How then do we invite Jesus into the inner sanctum of our being, and into our families? We ask! It’s that simple. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk. 11:13) We often stumble right over the simplicity of it all, scandalized by how uncomplicated Jesus makes everything. Thankfully, the Lord even answers the prayers of those of us who cry out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24)


All Scripture excerpts were cited from the New International Version.

Some meandering thoughts about liturgy

здравствуйте, друзья! Translation: Be healthy, my friends! “Be healthy” is a Russian formal greeting, similar to the English “hello”. I’ve recently taken up a new project of learning some basic Russian and Cyrillic. I’ve long thought Russian is a beautiful language and have been casually interested in Slavic culture, but last week I decided to go ahead and try my hand at learning the language. But my linguistic hobby isn’t what I wanted to write about today, though I suppose the general subject is casually related.

Yesterday Pope Francis ignited a powder keg of controversy within certain Catholic circles when he issued a motu proprio aimed at suppressing the extraordinary form of the Mass, what’s often referred to as the Traditional Latin Mass or Tridentine Mass. It’s the liturgical rubrics approved by Pope Pius V in his 1570 Missale Romanum, occasionally revised by various popes since then. Pope Pius V promulgated this revision of the ancient liturgy and suppressed most alternate liturgies in the West as a means of unifying the Roman Catholic Church during the tumult of the Reformation era. During the Second Vatican Council in the mid 20th century, our liturgy was significantly overhauled as part of the church’s efforts to address the needs of contemporary Catholics. What is now the ordinary form (what you see at the average parish on Sundays), is quite different in many ways from the Traditional Latin Mass but it’s nonetheless based on the old Roman rubrics and is centered on the Eucharistic sacrifice every bit as much as the older liturgy.

I believe people should do their best to research primary sources when forming opinions about important matters. Therefore, here’s the motu proprio in English, the pope’s letter explaining his actions, and a good explainer about the current liturgical controversies within the Latin Rite. Anyone inclined to form strong opinions on this current event ought to at least read the first two documents.

The motu proprio doesn’t actually ban the celebration of Mass according to the extraordinary form, but it does prohibit the situation of having parishes devoted specifically to Tridentine liturgical forms. It seems to give bishops full permission to stop celebration of this particular liturgical form in their diocese as they see fit, yet it requires bishops to obtain permission from the Holy See to allow new priests in their diocese the faculties to celebrate according to the extraordinary form. I suspect in many diocese where the Traditional Latin Mass is offered in regular parishes alongside the ordinary form, life will probably go on with little or no noticeable change. Nonetheless, I don’t doubt there will be many Catholics who prefer to worship according to the extraordinary form, who will be impacted by this.

There’s a beautifully furnished parish church in my county where the Traditional Latin Mass is offered every Sunday afternoon. The large congregation and its clergy lean very traditional, and as such their liturgies are impeccable. If there’s one thing a traditional Catholic can’t stand, it’s sloppy liturgy. I used to periodically make the thirty minute drive to this parish for the sacrament of reconciliation followed by daily Mass, but over the past couple of months the lines for confession have become as slow-moving as they are long. As of late this has been a major deterrent for me, especially since I often bring with me my wiggly and frequently vocal 9 month old. Last time I went, I was informed by a fellow penitent standing in line that their congregation prefers silence.

Nonetheless, it was at this parish that I nearly fell in love with the Traditional Latin Mass a few years ago. At the time I was feeling dissatisfied with the liturgy offered at my home parish. My parish isn’t guilty of liturgical abuse or sloppiness, but the minimalism in the nave’s religious decor combined with the lack of ‘smells and bells’ from incense, pipe organ, or Gregorian chant choir, do much to leave the liturgy feeling rather bare-bones. Setting plays a big role in how the liturgy is perceived and received, even if it’s not directly tied to the actual rubrics. Restless and dissatisfied, I decided to check out what the extraordinary form was all about. If nothing else, I think it’s important as a Catholic to experience the Traditional Latin Mass at least once.

My first experience of the extraordinary form moved me with a great sense of awe and beauty. I felt almost as lost in the rubrics as I imagine a Baptist would in an Eastern Orthodox liturgy, but it nonetheless conveyed to me a sense of holy awe that I hadn’t felt in a while. I attended the Latin liturgy for a time, but after the fascination of witnessing something new and beautiful wore off and the liturgy became more familiar to me, I realized it was spiritually nourishing me no more and no less than the ordinary form. The aesthetics of a well-celebrated Traditional Latin Mass in a beautifully furnished church are hard to beat, but in my case I didn’t sense any particular benefit over a well-celebrated ordinary form of the Mass in a beautifully furnished church. Working night shift at the time, waking up early on Sundays and driving thirty minutes to attend the extraordinary form in the middle of my bedtime wasn’t worth messing up my sleep cycle, and so ended my brief journey through the land of liturgical traditionalism.

Sometime afterward I found my way to a small inner city parish near our home, where the beautiful religious aesthetics enhanced the liturgy (ordinary form) in a satisfying way. This church seemed a perfect match for me at the time, and I was quite happy. However, when the pandemic struck and COVID was in full rage mode, I noticed more and more that I was surrounded by unmasked parishioners coughing and hacking around me during morning Mass. Not wanting to infect my family with COVID or give up daily Mass, I fled back to my original parish where the smells and bells were a bit lacking but the clergy and parishioners were all very serious about enforcing masks and social distancing.

At present, I’ve found that my dissatisfaction with my parish’s liturgy had less to do with the church’s furnishings and the way they conducted the Mass, and basically everything to do with my inner state. I fell into the trap of “parish shopping”, the consumer mentality applied to churchgoing where we bounce around until we find a parish community that seems to fit just right with our preferences. In the end, such a parish is mythical and the church shopper is forever unsatisfied, unsettled and unfulfilled. Do I prefer more “traditional” religious aesthetics and chant music? Most definitely. But I’ve grown to appreciate the understated (or perhaps subtle) religious aesthetic of my parish’s nave, and I don’t even mind the folksy music produced by our worship singers. God has blessed our parish with a couple of exceptionally angelic voices in the cantor lineup who can make the responsorial Psalm an experience of true musical frisson. It took me a while to discern it, but I’m strongly convinced now that God led me to this parish community when I returned to the Catholic Church, and partly through my parish hopping experience I’ve discerned that God has told me to be planted and grow roots in this parish community. I do seem to develop better spiritually in this parish than in any of the others I’ve been part of.

I’m not particularly fussy about liturgy and religious decor these days, though if Protestant-style praise & worship ever finds its way in our liturgy I may find that I was more of a traditionalist than I realized. Liturgy is fundamental to religious identity because it’s about how we come together as a people to worship our God. Consistent exposure to the liturgy forms us according to its contents, teaches us who God is and how to pray. How we treat the liturgy is never a matter of indifference or of secondary importance, though there’s a middle ground we should occupy, with room for a great deal of variation of opinions about liturgy, wherein charity abounds and extremes are avoided. This is where I have ambivalent feelings and impressions of the extraordinary form of the Mass.

A funny thing about the extraordinary form is that it tends to be a lightning rod for cranks, conspiracy theorists, and outspoken detractors of the current pontiff and just about anything related to the Second Vatican Council reforms. It’s not even the liturgy’s fault, and I lament that a wonderful liturgy seems to be saddled with such an unfortunate reputation. It should be said that there’s probably a great many people who love the Tridentine Mass who are joyful men and women of peace, exuding Christ wherever they go. Unfortunately though, there is an undeniably strong current of resentful religious populism embedded within Tridentine liturgy subculture. My voyages into the world of so-called traditionalist Catholic blogs and websites have consistently left me with this impression.

In fact, the stated intention of Pope Francis’ motu proprio is to suppress the schismatic spirit residing within the broader Tridentine liturgy communities. The pope is a big proponent of the importance of recognizing the validity of the Second Vatican Council as a non-negotiable aspect of being Catholic, and apparently he is disturbed to find so much anti-Vatican II populism festering within the church like a wound, gathering around the Tridentine Mass as a center of gravity and rally cry. History will tell us the rightness or wrongness of the pope’s decision, but I can understand the desire to make conditions less favorable for the proliferation of a shadow church that runs parallel to the mainstream church.

Concluding this long discursive post, it discourages me that within our church we seem to be just as polarized, just as much at war with each other as the rest of the culture is. It’s not surprising in the least bit, because a wider historical view will show this current controversy is a fairly mild spat in comparison to some of the other controversies which have rocked the church. I’ve always liked the idea of having the option of Tridentine Mass alongside the ordinary form, as it reflects a church that can be united while hosting multiple liturgical sensibilities. Let’s not forget our less common Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters among us and their beautiful liturgies. But if a particular liturgical form becomes an occasion for the sin of schism, as the pope seems to believe is occurring, then we as the People of God should strive to set aside our preferences and examine ourselves to see whether our trust is in Jesus or merely in our religious preferences. In the meantime, perhaps it will do everybody some good for the cranks and conspiracy theorists to worship with the rest of us. After all, God’s family is essentially one big screwed-up family of sinners and kooks brought together by the body and blood of Christ, in the hope of our final resurrection to life. I suspect Jesus would throw us all together and order us to learn how to get along.

The ordinary death-life cycle of discipleship

“A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me.” -John 16:16

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” -John 16:20

These verses made me think of how we go through cycles of feeling the nearness of God’s presence, and also of suffering a sense of God’s absence and a corresponding spiritual dryness. It’s the consolation-desolation cycle. We’re allowed to rest at times in the joy of Christ’s presence in our lives, and it refreshes and invigorates us when we do. But we must, for our own good, also go through periods of dryness when the Lord seems absent to us. When we travel these less well-lit roads of our journey, we easily begin to forget or doubt all our previous experiences of God’s closeness and goodness to us.

In these desolate places we have to drink a feeble share of what Christ drank to the fullness for us at Calvary. During these times the world around us goes on about its business, even seeming joyful and celebratory while we feel sad and devoid of life. But because in Christ resurrection follows death, we will yet again experience a small foretaste of the life Christ promises to give us in full measure, in due time.

How often I act like the disciples when they ran away and abandoned Jesus during his crucifixion! They had to be gathered up and restored by Christ after the resurrection. We should strive to be faithful to Jesus when we’re given our personal shares in his Passion. Despite the disciples’ temporary unfaithfulness, they nonetheless tried to be faithful to Jesus and fell away only because of human weakness.

Even so, this abandoning of our Savior and having to be restored again seems to be a fitting aspect of our lives as disciples of Jesus. Jesus says he is our resurrection and life, the one who will turn all things to good. The disciples’ failures and subsequent restoration played a necessary role in the formation of Apostles who boldly traveled through the world proclaiming the good news that the crucified Son of God lives for us. Therefore let us never lose hope but turn again and again and again to Jesus the Christ who is our life, our light, our goodness.

Expectations

At this point in my Christian journey I’m coming around to the idea that expectations are inimical to being a disciple of Jesus. That is to say, the wrong kind of expectations…which is most if not all of them. Most of the religious rulers and orthodox devout in Jesus’ day didn’t recognize Israel’s Messiah when he arrived. Rather, they persecuted him and had him killed by the Romans they despised, because they were enthralled by their carefully studied and developed theological expectations.

The original twelve disciples spent much of their time with Jesus looking more like the Three Stooges than the venerable apostles of stained glass windows, because their expectations constantly clashed with what Jesus was trying to teach them. Jesus had to radically retrain their way of looking at the world, and it wasn’t a quick or easy task. The television series The Chosen masterfully portrays how the disciples’ very human expectations and concerns had to be patiently eroded by Jesus, who constantly confused and upset them by refusing to live according any discernible itinerary or sensible rules.

In my own life, expectations of how God should work have proven an implacable and intractable idol. I often expect to feel a certain way during prayer, usually a satisfactory amount of contrition or inner peace, before I’m satisfied that God hears me. This is of course an absurd approach to prayer, but it’s a very human error and something that trips me up more than I care to publicly admit. Fortunately, God is interested in patiently healing us rather than demanding proficiency as a condition to relationship.

Expectations are often a symptom of our vain efforts to control people and circumstances. A major contribution my wife Season has made to my life is teaching me to let go of my lifelong habit of trying to plan out my future and work out details for things that may or may not ever come to fruition.

A study of the history of religion is basically a study of how we try to make sense of, and thereby control, both natural and divine forces we fear would otherwise control us with cold indifference or questionable intent. Jesus Christ is in that sense, the Great Iconoclast. Jesus has a habit of radically upending our expectations only because we’re so bent and crooked, or “fallen” in biblical terminology. The hard work of shedding the expectations which come most naturally to us and learning to expect what the Lord teaches us to expect, is a lifelong project we may call “sanctification” or “discipleship”. It’s the lifelong project of being healed and learning to see aright.

Speaking of expectations, what exactly does Jesus teach us to expect?

“For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20).

“Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mk. 11:23-24).

“I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (Jn. 14:13-14).

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn. 14:12).

Is there any doubt as to why we prefer to hide in a tangled web of our own expectations? What Jesus teaches us to expect is impossible apart from him, and is therefore very frightening. What if this stuff ends up not being true? What if I step out in radical faith only to fall flat on my face because Jesus’ words prove to be false? It’s far more comfortable to hide in my churchy religiosity where walking by faith simply means assenting to certain doctrines, worshiping a certain way, and praying in a manner that comforts but doesn’t challenge me much. Where I don’t have to put any of this in practice in such a way that it might show itself to be just one more set of empty words in the history of religion.

But that’s exactly where Jesus calls us to follow him. All the way to the cross with him, where with the original disciples, we must agonizingly wait to learn for ourselves if Jesus really can or will conquer death. But if we try to take all that in at once and try to figure out how it’ll all come together, it will drive us to unbelief. Perhaps that’s one reason Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow because today has enough of its own worries.

Unbending the crooked

unknown artist

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! -John 1:29b

Our Lord Jesus said repeatedly, “It is I, it is I; it is I who am highest; it is I you love; it is I who delight you; it is I you serve; it is I you long for; it is I you desire; it is I who am your purpose; it is I who am all; it is I that Holy Church preaches and teaches you; it is I who showed myself to you here.” -Revelations of Divine Love, LT 26

Meditating a bit on this passage written by Julian of Norwich, I’ve been considering whether or not what she says here could apply not only to believers but to all humanity. At the core of all our desires, actions, and even sins, is it not a longing to worship and love the One in whose image we’re fashioned? Sin is, after all, a perversion of the good, and Catholic anthropology affirms that all of us no matter how wicked, cannot fully efface the imago Dei entrusted to us. Even if we don’t expressly recognize Jesus as the aim of our deepest and truest longings, it nonetheless seems to be the case that he is inevitably the ultimate aim of all our striving. That is, if we take seriously that Jesus is the image of the Father.

[Insert overused St. Augustine quote here.]

I think the “sin of the world” is the distortion of our ability to recognize Jesus as such. This means as sinners we’re alienated from ourselves at the most fundamental level. I like how C.S. Lewis called it being “bent” in his space trilogy. In the process of becoming becoming “unbent”, we gradually heal from our fragmentation and self-alienation to find Jesus residing within the innermost recesses of our hearts. Jesus came to set us free from the bondage to our distorted perceptions which enslave us in delusion and despair. Jesus came that we may become whole in and through him.

The Lamb of God came revealing himself to us as the true image of the Father and teaching us that our purpose is to become icons of him. Jesus came to make straight the crookedness which so tragically deforms us, that we may be free to love and worship the proper “aim” of our deepest longings. The other day at Mass when the priest elevated the consecrated Host and proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sin of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb,” I couldn’t help but think and feel down to my bones that because of this everything will be okay.

Surprise! Our bees swarmed…then came back

Yesterday afternoon Season and I witnessed a swarm for the first time. Last year we had our first swarm, but we missed the amazing mass exodus from the hive. This year’s swarm was fun to watch, but it was also an odd one because it returned to the hive and went back inside. It seems the queen wasn’t ready to leave just yet, possibly because stormy weather was coming.

We were lounging comfortably on the back porch while Peter sat in front of us playing with his toys and smiling, when I noticed an increase in air traffic around the hives. At first I thought it was just a busy day for foraging and I said something to the effect of, “It’s amazing that all that air traffic is probably highly organized.” Soon the activity escalated to a frenetic cloud of insects darting chaotically every which way in front of hive “Kenmore”. The entrance of the hive soon darkened with a thick horizontal carpet of frenzied bees, which from the distance of the porch I mistook for a fierce robbing fight. I didn’t want to go out there and get attacked by angry bees in the throes of combat, but curiosity overrode fear and I cautiously walked to the outer edge of the bee cloud.

To my surprise and delight, the bees were not fighting but were just moving really fast out of the hive. The influx of forager traffic moving against the heavy flow of egressing bees created the appearance of robbing, from a distance. I could walked around freely without the bees harassing me, and I realized Kenmore was swarming. As the swarm activity intensified the bees flew in a holding pattern in the sky above the hive, level with the tops of the trees. Their activity created an effect of a bee tornado, and at one point the mass formation even swooped down at the yard then ascended back into the sky.

Already amazed and delighted by the sight, Kenmore threw yet another surprise at us when the bee tornado, having finished leaving the hive and gathering in the sky, descended all at once back to the hive and covered the face of the bee boxes. The sight of it reminded me of movies portraying the biblical plague of locusts on Egypt. I watched several bees within the settled-down swarm cluster doing waggle dances for their comrades. We monitored for the rest of the afternoon as the thick bee carpet slowly diminished into a normal size beard, then in the evening receded back into the hive.

Beehive “Kenmore” on the left, with swarm cluster covering the front side.

Not wanting to lose half of Kenmore this late in the spring, when the swarm would be unlikely to survive on its own, I split the hive early this morning. My goal was to move the box with the queen onto a new hive stand, though this part is sheer guessing because I can’t possibly hope to find the queen in an overcrowded ready-to-swarm colony. Two years ago I successfully headed off an impending swarm with this method, though the experiment ended disastrously for the parent colony because they failed to requeen and I let them go queenless for too long. I will plan to check on both hives in about three or four weeks and promptly requeen as needed. I’m naming the new hive Nishat, which in Arabic means, “energetic, lively”. I think it’s an appropriate name given yesterday’s events and how vigorously they attempted to sting me this morning while I was making the split.

Beehive “Nishat” in the middle.

I probably should have seen this swarm coming, given how overcrowded Kenmore looked when I checked the hives a few days ago. That said, I’ve got to where I don’t like rifling through the frames if I absolutely don’t have to, and this year I’ve barely done anything with the bees except change out their beetle traps. Having a baby tends to shift my focus other places. But if I had checked through all the frames just a few days ago, I might perhaps have found queen cells evincing their plans. I didn’t bother checking today either, in keeping with my minimally invasive philosophy. A few days prior to the swarm, I gratefully pulled approximately 5 pints of honey between Kenmore and Sunset. It’s a deliciously sweet honey characteristic of springtime.

What is the gospel?: N.T. Wright speaks

Inspired by a brief conversation with “Agent X” on my last blog post, I looked up an interview with acclaimed biblical scholar N.T. Wright and thought it worth sharing. As Agent X pointed out, my blogging about gospel theology (which is, oddly, not universally agreed upon within Christendom) is certainly an invitation to discuss or debate about this stuff. I draw heavily from the gospel theology of Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, whose perspective tends to be existential in its emphasis. N.T. Wright’s basic perspective on the question “what is the gospel” is more directly connected to how it would have been understood in its original context and languages, though I think there’s a great deal of harmony between Wright and Jenson on the fundamentals. But anyway, here’s the interview which is well-worth watching. I’ll plan to share more reflections in the coming days as I ruminate over this information.

Preaching [actual] good news

No, this isn’t about the CDC’s press release that fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks. That is some rather welcome news, though!

Lately I’ve been reconsidering what the “gospel” means and how to live according to its claim on my life. When I started this blog I was quite fascinated with the theological ins and outs of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As often happens in the oscillatory nature of our lives, over time I gradually averted my attention elsewhere and took my eyes off the foundation. I took for granted what the gospel means to me until one day I realized that I was practically if not also conceptually, living as one under the law rather than grace.

What exactly do you think of when you hear or read the word “gospel”? Gospel and good news tend to be used synonymously. The good news of Jesus Christ is generally presented along these lines: God created humans; humans became corrupted with sin such that all of us inherit a nature bent toward selfishness and all manner of wickedness; Jesus Christ the Son of God became human, died for our sins, and was resurrected so that we could be saved; if you turn away from your sins and believe in Jesus, you will be rewarded with eternal life. If you don’t, you will suffer in hell forever and you’ll deserve every bit of it. But God loves you.

At an intuitive level I suspect most if not all of us recognize the horror of such a message, though if we grew up in church taking seriously what we were taught, we’re usually loathe to admit as much to ourselves. But it seems a rather odd thing to expect people to fall in love with the idea of a God who on the one hand threatens us with a fate worse than death if we don’t fulfill certain conditions (believe the right way, sufficiently repent, obey church law, etc.), while on the other hand claims to love us more than anyone else possibly could. This sounds more like an abusive relationship than any good news I’d be eager to hear. Believers who come to terms with this cognitive dissonance tend to abandon Christianity or reconstruct a very different image of God. It’s a sane response to insane theology.

Illustration by Francisco Miranda in the book Good Goats: Healing our Image of God.

In the interest of reconnecting with a proclamation of the gospel that can rightfully be called good news, I’ve dusted off my Robert Jenson and George Lindbeck books and been reviewing sections I most heavily bookmarked and highlighted. Today I also reread a short, delightfully therapeutic book entitled Good Goats: Healing our Image of God. I found this book by accident at a used bookstore and it has been a great blessing to me.

I’ve written in more detail about Robert Jenson’s theology of the gospel, but it’s worth summarizing again. He correctly points out that the gospel of Jesus Christ must be an absolutely unconditional promise for us, otherwise it cannot rightly be called good news or gift. That so many preachers bandy about the term “free gift of salvation” while in the same breath stipulating conditions on how it is to be received, shows how deeply embedded law-based thinking is in the human heart. Whether we speak in the traditional language of forgiveness of sin, or work within more contemporary concepts such as loss of meaning in life or deep-seated guilt and alienation,

An affirmation which sets a condition of any sort whatever, which in any way stipulates “you are good and worthy if you do/are such-and-such” only directs me back to that very self that is the problem.

The gospel is thereby nullified. There is a gospel because this Jesus of Nazareth came along affirming our intuition that something’s wrong with us at a deep level we cannot fix. This Jesus claimed to be our salvation, and he left us with a church claiming to be his presence on Earth until he returns in glory.

At its core the gospel states “Because the Crucified lives as Lord, your destiny is good.” The gospel is the final judgment announced ahead of time, and the judgment is truly good news for each of us! This interpretive paradigm, whereby we subordinate everything in the scriptures to the unconditional promise of life in and through Christ, is what Jenson called “metalinguistic” and theologian George Lindbeck called “metatheological”. The metalinguistic/theological paradigm does not either deny or affirm the existence of hell, but rather it focuses entirely on the promise of Christ such that hell is not even a concern that enters the equation. To summarize Jenson, the gospel is not about hell but is about Jesus’ unfathomable love for us.

Proclaiming the unconditional word of promise creates faith in the hearer (Rom. 10:17). God makes God’s self present to us in the linguistic event of gospel proclamation.

If the gospel-promise is in this sense God’s word, its occurrence is the personal presence of God; just as if I address you, this address brings me into your life. It is in and by their words that persons are present to each other.

Therefore, if the gospel promise is true and unconditional, then the event of the living word, of one person speaking the gospel to another, is the locus of God’s reality for us.

If the gospel promise is true, Jesus must be the speaker, for what the gospel promises is Jesus himself as the fulfilling partner of our End; and only he can thus legitimately promise his own life and work. Therefore, if the gospel-promise is true, Jesus is present to us in and by it.

For Jenson, the sacraments are embodied, acted-out events of gospel proclamation; when we receive the sacraments we receive Christ’s presence and promise (how could we separate the two?). What exactly is the faith that is created in those who hear the gospel proclaimed/receive the evangelic sacraments?

“Faith” is not the label of an ideological or attitudinal state. Like “justification,” the word evokes a communication-situation: the situation of finding oneself addressed with an unconditional affirmation, and having now to deal with life in these new terms. Faith is a mode of life.

Chew on that for a moment. Understanding “faith” in this sense liberates us from the Sisyphean task of making belief in Christ an impossible condition for our salvation. Because I’ve already belabored this post longer than originally intended, let me conclude with a final word from Jenson about liberating gospel proclamation.Our

Our alienated fear of the future will always seek safely conditional evocations of future possibility, that is, “law.” “Rightly dividing” the law and the gospel is the knack of so making promises in Jesus’ name as endlessly to transcend this turn back to law. “God loves you for Jesus’ sake.” “Yes, if I could believe that. But I can’t.” To which the gospel-sayer who knows his job responds, “Just by your unbelief you prove yourself the very man whom God loves, for he chooses above all the ungodly!” In actual preaching, teaching, liturgical practice, counseling, etc., the game can go on forever. He “rightly divides law and gospel” who always finds the way to make a new proposed condition into so many objects and reasons for the promise; who in the speaking of the gospel discovers how never to take “but” for an answer.


All italicized quotations were selected from the following book:

Gritsch, Eric W., and Robert W. Jenson. Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1976.

Sweeping through the darkness

Paul and Silas in prison (unknown artist)

In one of today’s Mass readings, Paul and Silas are unjustly beaten and imprisoned by order of a Roman magistrate who is either intimated by, or sympathetic to, a violent flash riot motivated by cultural prejudice and fear of economic instability. This occasion for grievous personal injury and miscarriage of justice (even by Roman legal standards) results in salvation for Paul and Silas’s jailer and the jailer’s household. I wonder what became of the jailer and his family? What far reaching consequences resulted directly or indirectly from their conversion to Christianity? The Bible doesn’t say, nor are there any additional stories about them from the early church, at least not that I’ve been able to find.

This morning it occurred to me in one of those moments of sharp but brief clarity of insight, those occasional moments we can only hope to come close to adequately translating into words later, that the Holy Spirit uses all events and occurrences and people to accomplish His ends and bring about the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. The Holy Spirit blows through our lives, events, societies, history, unexpectedly and unpredictably to bring about God’s kingdom step by mysterious step until Christ comes again in glory to reconcile all things once and for all to the Father (Col. 1:19-20).

Something that struck me in this insight is that the Holy Spirit doesn’t sweep through and leave everybody in His path converted to Christ, nor does He undo all the harm and evil and transform it overtly into good. Yet somehow, by means mysterious to us but partially perceivable sometimes in hints and inklings, the Holy Spirit makes it such that all actions, people, and events will ultimately serve as means to the end which is the renewal of all things in Christ (Matt. 19:28). This is dreadfully mysterious, discomfiting and disturbing, yet also a source of great comfort to me.

What is the “renewal of all things” mentioned by Jesus, and the reconciliation of all spoken of by Paul? I don’t know, but my understanding of eschatology has been hugely influenced by the likes of St. Isaac the Syrian, Julian of Norwich, and George MacDonald; therefore I cling to the hope that it means what it seems to imply at face value. That is, that all humanity who ever was and will be, ultimately will be united in Christ and transfigured into his likeness. Somehow, some way, I think God’s love will not, cannot relent until all are brought home safely. Perhaps this stretches or goes beyond the bounds of canonical teaching, or not. Either way, to assert otherwise would be in my understanding to place unacceptable limits on God’s love and to give corruption too much credit in our anthropology.

Therefore I choose to believe that even though the Holy Spirit seems to bypass a great many people and lets many events play out where we feel God ought to step in and intervene, ultimately even the worst of us won’t be abandoned as human refuse and left for little else than to be burned and forgotten. The Holy Spirit is described in the book of Genesis as hovering (or blowing, depending on your translation) over the Earth’s waters in the darkness of primordial chaos (Gen. 1:2-3). I believe the Holy Spirit continues to hover over each of us (water constitutes up to 60% of our bodies), whether we’re Christian or not, gently present with us and for us, in the dark chaos of our world. And as God brought order and beauty out of the darkness and chaos, so will this be true for us in Jesus Christ our Savior through the working of the Holy Spirit.

Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit:

Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of truth, who are everywhere present and fill all things; Treasury of blessings and giver of life: come and dwell within us, cleanse us of all stain, and save our souls O Gracious one. Amen.