Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What is Truth?

Christ the King Sunday is this coming Sunday. It's like New Year's Eve in the Church ... except we don't play Auld Lang Syne as the closing hymn. The following Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent and a new church year (Year C for those of you following the Lectionary's three-year cycle of Scripture readings).

Speaking of the Lectionary, there's something interesting in how the Sunday Gospel readings are structured from All Saints Day to Christ the King Sunday. We travel back to Holy Week for the Sundays between these two festivals. When we encounter Holy Week at the end of Lent in the spring, we focus intently for a seven day period on the events leading to the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It's an intense seven day period and the readings focus on what happens to Jesus during this time. In the fall, we return to Holy Week but not to focus on what happens to Jesus, but rather to focus on what Jesus taught during that week. So we heard warnings about the Scribes who "devour widows" and the widow who gave her mite (her "whole being") and the fortelling of the destruction of the Temple. These are all things Jesus said during Holy Week ... the kinds of things that push the buttons of the establishment and can get a guy crucified.

On Christ the King Sunday, we hear a portion of the reading from John 18 where Jesus is being questioned by Pontius Pilate. Some call this a "trial" but it really wasn't one. It was an interrogation into a minor matter as far as the Roman Procurator was concerned. But it was far more than Pilate or Jesus' accusers had ever imagined.

The lectionary text ends just before Pilate utters the question, "What is truth?" I plan to extend the reading to include that question ... precisely because it is the wrong question. When we fall into the trap of asking Pilate's question, "What is truth?" we can begin to believe that truth is something we can grasp - a thing to be possessed. The real question is "Who is Truth?"** and the answer to that question stands in front of Pilate - Jesus Christ is Truth. Jesus is the embodiment of the Truth of God and John tells us this at the beginning of his Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1,14)
And what is the nature of this truth? It is found in the new commandment Jesus gives his disciples:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (John 13:34-35)
Loving one another requires Christians to be in relationship - not just with other Christians, but with the whole world. When we live in loving relationships, God gives us the grace to become more honest and authentic with ourselves and others. Through the grace of honesty in relationships we come to know the Truth of God's love.

**(N.B. In the Greek, Pilate's question to Jesus in verse 38 is actually a bit more ambiguous. The Greek phrase "Ti estin alhyeia," "ti" can be translated as either "what" or "who." English Bible translations have historically rendered this as "What is truth?" but suffice it to say we cannot know for certain what Pilate intended.)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

For all the saints

One of the biggest misconceptions I run into on the subject of the saints of the church concerns why we catholics invoke the names of saints in our prayers.
Note: I did not capitalized the word "catholic." In this sense it means "universal." I use the term expansively to include Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, other "flavors" of Catholics, Anglicans/Episcopalians, and the various "flavors" of the Orthodox faith who are creedal rather than confessional expressions of Christianity.
I had some folks from more Protestant traditions tell me that we catholics are idolators for "praying to the saints and not God." Others tell me they believe in the communion of saints, but that means only the community of believers on earth and does not include the dead. Some have even implied that invoking the name of a long departed saint is somehow linked to occult behavior and necromancy. So, on the occasion of All Saints Day, I thought I'd set the record straight on this.

First, we don't "pray to the saints and not to God." We pray with the saints and that is a huge difference. Take for example the prayer often called the "Hail Mary." While it is a prayer to Mary, it is not asking for Mary to do anything which she did not do while she was on earth. Check it out:

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.
The opening words are the angelic greeting Gabriel gave to Mary when he announced she was pregnant (Luke 1:28). But notice what we ask Mary to do - "pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death." We are asking Mary to pray for us, nothing outside the realm of her abilities while she was among us on earth.

In the catholic faith, we believe we are surrounded by a "great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) which include the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. We believe the ultimate reality of God falls outside the realms of space, time, and physicality. If we believe in the resurrection of the dead, why would we not believe they are able to pray for us and with us?

I think of it more like an extension of how we think of prayer amongst our faith communities. Asking a saint to pray for you and with you is no different than asking the people at your church to hold you in prayer. It's not communicating with the dead in the occult sense and it isn't praying to the saints instead of God. It's joining the saints at all times and in all places in praising God and caring for each other.