Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Christ the King of My Disappointment (Matthew John Paul Tan)

This morning, a friend put on his Facebook page a link to an excellent article by Matthew John Paul Tan, a Roman Catholic theologian based in the Archdiocese of Sydney, an author and adjunct senior lecturer in theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia, and a member of the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission. He is the author of Redeeming Flesh: The Way of the Cross with Zombie Jesus (Cascade 2016) and Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ: The Theolopolitical Complex of the Social Justice Approach to Ecumenism in Vatican II (Pickwick 2014).
A sample of his writing and presentations can be found here.
This reflection is shared with readers because of the large number of friends and parishioners who seem to need a little bit of encouragement right now. 
Over the weekend, we celebrated the Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe, more commonly known as the Feast of Christ the King.
This feast was introduced into the calendar by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in his encyclical Quas Primas (“In the First”). Though addressed to the universal church, the encyclical itself was partly a response to a number of local historical factors, which included the rise of fascism in Italy.
As the title suggests, Christ was reasserted as being the first of all things, opposed to the growing sense of putting nation either before or in the place of God. The Lectionary for the day put Christ’s reminder in the Book of Revelation:
I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
This line in the readings loomed large in my mind, for it juxtaposed with another theme I came across this week. This was the theme of disappointment.
This was the result of reading Bryan Stoudt’s moving article on learning of his son’s autism in Desiring God. The story can be extrapolated to a range of other scenarios, but the theme that endures is one of the closing of possibility by the circumstances of life.
How does Christ being King of the Universe square up with this very visceral experience of disappointment, especially given that this feast also stands at the threshold of Advent, where we wait the coming of the Incarnate Word? Is God incarnate or not? If he is, does his reign show its limit in the experience of disappointment?
What struck me in reading Stoudt’s article was his wife finding, if not the solution to her problem, certainly a response to her question, which she found in the book of Job. When Job asks God “Where were you in the maelstrom”, God asks in turn:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth, tell me if you have understanding?
At first glance, this passage smacked of reinforcing the image of the distant king, exercising great power from afar. What corrected my imporession was the phrase “when I laid the foundations of the earth”. The image there was that of Psalm 113, where God sits on a throne and yet stoops down to look at the earth. But not only stoop down. He would lay it down, his fingers working into the earth, leaving his mark in the very foundations of the ground we inhabit.

His rule is not just from a distant centre. It operates in the dissemination of his imprint in the very texture of creation. In the vein of St Bonaventure, that imprint is none other than God himself in the Word, through whom all things were made.
What does that say of Christ’s rule as King in the midst of disappointment? It means that Christ the Word is part of the DNA of creation, and nothing falls outside the purview of the Word. Every event, every move of every creature occurs under the oversight of the second person of the trinity, because it is operative in everything that occurs.
What then of situations where disappointment or even trauma reign? The passage from Job looked at the foundation of God’s order, so what of the disorder that we see outside and experience inside?
It is here that Stoudt’s article reminded us of a well worn, but no less true, motif of the Christian faith, that Christ suffered on the Cross for us. God’s stooping down meant that His rule extended to having a cross for a throne, the death of God being the font of life for all creatures. Put another way, because of Christ’s passion, God’s rule extends even to the disorder within creation. In the words of the founder of Focolare, Chiara Lubich, because of Christ’s experience of abandoment from the source of order, the seeming abandonment of order, the divisions and separation that comes from it, paradoxically makes the person of the King – not just his rule – present in the foundations of the earth.
Still we return to the question: what does it say of His rule as king?
In the Office of Readings for this feast, the long reading is a passage by Origen, reflecting on the line in the Lord’s Prayer “Thy Kingdom Come”. Origen suggests that the kingdom is already present, especially in the jarring experiences of one’s life. Furthermore, it is not merely left as inert presence. As suggested in a previous post, the imprint of the Word imprints also those words in the Apocalypse: I am the beginning…
His rule thus extends to what Aaron Riches and Creston Davis call the imputation of “pure beginning” into the DNA of creation, its events and experiences.
This is why Origen can say in the midst of our disappointment “with God ruling in us, let us be immersed in the blessings of regeneration and resurrection”. The rending of our expectations and plans is thus the doorway through which the King enters.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Let light perpetual shine upon them - All Souls' Day

At the end of the Second World War, Austin Farrer preached a sermon in All Souls' Chapel, Oxford, recalling how the chapel had come into being for the purpose of praying for the repose of those who had died in the numerous wars and conflicts involving medieval England. This passage from that sermon (part of the collection published in 1960 by Faith Press as Said or sung: An arrangement of homily and versedeserves to be better known. Indeed, the whole sermon draws together many of the  theological, spiritual and pastoral considerations that undergird the Church's habit of praying for the departed.

(Use the SEARCH tool in the sidebar of this blog to find some other excellent All Souls' Day resources.)

‘May they rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon them’ - those millions among whom our friends are lost, those millions for whom we cannot choose but pray; because prayer is a sharing in the love of the heart of God, and the love of God is earnestly set towards the salvation of his spiritual creatures, by, through and out of the fire that purifies them. 

The arithmetic of death perplexes our brains. What can we do but throw ourselves upon the infinity of God? It is only to a finite mind that number is an obstacle, or multiplicity a distraction. Our mind is like a box of limited content, out of which one thing must be emptied before another can find a place. The universe of creatures is queuing for a turn of our attention, and no appreciable part of the queue will ever get a turn. But no queue forms before the throne of everlasting mercy, because the nature of an infinite mind is to be simply aware of everything that is. 

Everything is simply present to an infinite mind, because it exists; or rather, exists because it is present to that making mind. And though by some process of averaging and calculation I should compute the grains of sand, it would be like the arithmetic of the departed souls, an empty sum; I could not tell them as they are told in the infinity of God’s counsels, each one separately present as what it is, and simply because it is. 

The thought God gives to any of his creatures is not measured by the attention he can spare, but by the object for consideration they can supply. God is not divided; it is God, not a part of God, who applies himself to the falling sparrow, and to the crucified Lord. But there is more in the beloved Son than in the sparrow, to be observed and loved and saved by God. So every soul that has passed out of this visible world, as well as every soul remaining within it, is caught and held in the unwavering beam of divine care. And we may comfort ourselves for our own inability to tell the grains of sand, or to reckon the thousands of millions of the departed. 

And yet we cannot altogether escape so; for our religion is not a simple relation of every soul separately to God, it is a mystical body in which we are all members one of another. And in this mystical body it does not suffice that every soul should be embraced by the thoughts of God; it has also to be that every soul should, in its thought, embrace the other souls. For apart from this mutual embracing, it would be unintelligible why we should pray at all, either for the living or for the departed. Such prayer is nothing but the exercising of our membership in the body of Christ. God is not content to care for us each severally, unless he can also, by his Holy Spirit in each one of us, care through and in us for all the rest. Every one of us is to be a focus of that divine life of which the attractive power holds the body together in one. 

So even in the darkness and blindness of our present existence, our thought ranges abroad and spreads out towards the confines of the mystical Christ, remembering the whole Church of Christ, as well militant on earth as triumphant in heaven; invoking angels, archangels and all the spiritual host.

(Click on this flyer to enlarge it . . .)