Sunday, March 04, 2007

Lenten Message: The Theology of the Worm

Lent is usually a difficult time for me because it is when I enter the Dark Night of the Soul. I reexamine myself and wrestle, more so than usual that is, with questions about how I relate to God, the Church and to Creation. It is especially difficult this year because I have not been happy with the direction that my Church has been heading...and yes- even though I quite frankly have not been comfortable going to Mass for sometime- it is MY Church, being a cradle Catholic. Even when I was most detached from the Church about 30 years ago I would still circle round, reread the Passion or the works of Thomas Merton or St. John of the Cross.

(Image credit: Caenorhabditis elegans, an important organism in modern genetics.

This year I have not delved into the mystical aspects of the Church's tradition, but find myself drawn into the here and now of a Church that is sliding backwards deeper into that selective amnesia that characterizes much of modern Christianity, an amnesia furthered by the link between Christianity and the selective politics of today's social conservatives. What am I supposed to think of a Pope for instance who uses the sacrament of communion as a political weapon? Who rather than reaching out to the GLBT community and encouraging integration into the Church and the development of committed relationships the Pope says:

"[W]hen civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has
any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be
surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational
and violent reactions increase."

So GLBT people are not entitled to the basic protections of society and the basic right to form committed relationships. It is as if the Pope only cares about getting to heaven and would rather jettison large parts of the Body of Christ that don't match his conception of what that Body should be like. We are told by Paul that the body has many parts but how long will the Body survive if its parts are jettisoned?

The Church's role as a teacher is not being called into question. Recall that most Catholics at least in the United States, don't agree with important aspects of the Church's teaching on birth control, abortion and the use of condoms for instance. Certainly the Church Hierarchy needs to explain it's positions on these issues. But a patient teacher does not throw a student out because that student doesn't understand a particular lesson, nor does the teacher fail to heed the student's arguments and forget that the teacher can learn from the students. Can the Church not learn from the students? The Church's inflexibility on any number of issues is excused as upholding objective or absolute standards. Any bending is seen as giving into relativism.

For instance, in my last post I mentioned a Cardinal Biffi who views any attempt at dialogue and consensus as being due to the Antichrist as if the Rule of Faith is completely set, and inerrant and were one to grant that much, that only the hierarchy can interpret faith for us. Of course my beef here is nothing new historically, but it is sad that this same hubris is found all through out Christianity and leading to divisiveness in the non Catholic Christian world as well.

What got me motivated to write today was a response to my last post from Elissa Malcohn over at Chronicles from Hurricane Country. She writes in response to my post:

"From what I can see, and the way I interpret the scriptures, Jesus never called
himself Christ; it was a title given to him by others (Simon Peter being the
first to do so). "Christ" means "someone anointed as a ruler" according to my
Random House College Dictionary.

Instead, Jesus referred to himself as
Son of Man, reserving the accolades for God: "...whoever humbles himself like
this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:4, New
International Version)Humility versus Ruler.And Mark 10:43-45 -- "...whoever
wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be
first must be slave of all.

For even the Son of Man did not come to be
served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."Slave versus
Ruler. Ergo, "Antichrist" can conceivably mean a state closer to what Jesus had in
mind. Which makes being a pacifist, ecologist, and ecumenist quite all right."

She makes a good point. In the Catholic tradition, the the Pope is often referred to as the servant of servants. And during lent, the "slave to all" idea and the concept of God becoming human...son of man is emphasized a lot.

But people are not very good about generalizing across domains. so the Christ as the "Prince of Peace" or "Lord of All" too often gets emphasized. From my way of thinking, even the resurrection upon which Christians pin their hope, is not really at the center of Christ's message. I notice in the New Revised Standard Edition of the Bible, the phrase "son of man" is rendered "mortal" or "human" implying to me the insignificance that we have. God becoming human is at the center of the message of Christ and teaches us by example and parable how we are to treat each other. None of the political hot button issues really matter then in terms of the what God did and what we are to do. For persons of good faith may disagree on them.

Probably the best statement of what God did is not in the Bible but in the wonderful Purcell song "Lord What is Man?". This is one of my favorite pieces and it is based on an anthem attributed to Dr. William Fuller the Lord Bishop of Lincoln (1608-1675) which reads in part:

Lord, what is man, lost man,
That Thou shouldst be so mindful of him?
That the Son of God forsook his glory, His abode,
To become a poor,
tormented man!
The Deity was shrunk into a span,
And that for me,
O wound'rous love, for me.
Reveal, ye glorious spirits, when ye knew
way the Son of God took to renew lost man,
Your vacant places to supply;
Blest spirits tell,
Which did excel,
Which was more prevalent,
Your joy or your astonishment,
That man should be assum'd into the
That for a worm a God should die.
Oh! for a quill, drawn from
your wing
To write the praises of th'Eternal Love;
Oh! for a voice like
yours to sing
That anthem here, which once you sung above.


The deity shrunk into a span...that for a worm God should die. So God became as a worm to try to touch us little worms. How petty- all the hot button issues that some conservatives love to use to divide the Body of the Church become seen from the vantage point of a God who became a worm, like us.

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