2017, March 30, Thursday

It seems Sister Sickness was not content with her residence in my sinuses and throat. She has ensconced herself in my lungs. Well, I did not invite her and I hope her visit is short, but here she is. As I welcome the gift of a new day, and pray to know the light of the divine presence to set aflame my heart, I accept her (irritating) company. How do I know she isn’t here as a messenger?

However, lest she misunderstand our terms, though I intend to be a polite host, I do not intend to let her think this is a fine place to settle. She is here to carry out the purpose for which she was sent. So I will listen to what she has to say, but I will also rest, take herbs, drink fluids, broth, and soups, and maybe take some colloidal silver—if it comes to that. In the meantime, I’ll try to do some stretching, reading, and, if I can, writing.

And, of course, whining and complaining.

Today I commemorate Thea Bowman (1937-1990), a (Roman Catholic) Franciscan Sister and a teacher and preacher. She said, “God has called us to speak the word that is Christ” and in fulfilling that calling she taught black culture and spirituality, bringing her history (she was the granddaughter of a slave) and African-American song and dance into her vocation. Google her and learn about this beautiful soul!

Prayers for my dear friend Brittney Semone 😢, who is undergoing reconstructive surgery on her beautiful face after a terrible mishap.

Currently reading:

  • Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Volume III: The Prophet (New City Press)
  • Saint Clare of Assisi, Volume II: The Context of Her Life (Sr. Frances Teresa Downing)
  • A Right to Be Merry (Mother Mary Francis)
  • Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community (Farnham, Gill, McLean, and Ward)
  • Landing, a novel (Emma Donoghue)

One of the books I am reading now is this one. It is an examination in-depth of the charism of the Poor Sisters, their “search of a life that is more authentic, more beautiful, more evangelical and more coherent,” expressing their passion for fidelity, that is, for the truth of their charism. I am loving it.

Dear Parents: Your Teens Don’t Need Contemporary Worship” (Patheos)

Yes, every single word of this article—to the end. (Those who have gotten used to the junk food won’t appreciate this, I know.) Another mistake—to encourage the false notion that online worship can substitute for actual gathering.

As for children with ADHD, rather than starting with a frenzied “worship” experience, have them spend more time—maybe much more time, unstructured-by-adults time—outdoors, and decrease their time on electronic screens.

Oil and chemical corporations now rule us. Again, who is hit the hardest by these deregulations? The poor. See “E.P.A. Chief, Rejecting Agency’s Science, Chooses Not to Ban Insecticide” (New York Times).

Unfortunately, Steve Bannon’s anti-Francis “Catholicism” will be a strong impediment to unplugging Mr. Trump’s ears.

The CEO Of General Electric Just Called On US Companies To Defy Trump” (Occupy Democrats, not always the most objective news source.) We need to see this across the board.


Why does Matthew’s gospel begin the way it does?

The Gospel, as Matthew writes it (it becomes the Gospel “according to” so and so when there are others who write besides Matthew who write), begins with the kingdom, namely, the kingdom of David, or rather, the kingship or throne of David. Jesus is adopted by Joseph at his circumcision, bringing Jesus into the line of David, into his dynastic lineage. Jesus is the heir to David’s throne. Of course, that throne has not been occupied for centuries. The throne of the king of Israel is occupied by Herod the Great, who is not of David’s lineage. Jews indeed looked down on Herod because of his mixed blood. On learning of the birth of the child Herod feels that his own hold on the throne is being threatened and seeks to annihilate the threat. When Herod dies, Joseph is told it is safe to return, but when he learns that Herod has been succeeded by his son, Antipas, Joseph brings the child to the more obscure Nazareth of Galilee in the north.

This is the “outer” story. However, the royal imagery is abruptly interrupted once Jesus reaches the same age David was when he began to reign (2 Samuel 5:4). Instead of behaving like a king, Jesus went to John the Baptist and became a penitent. While Jesus on occasion is called the son of David, and accepts this appellation, and frequently calls himself, with irony, the Son of Man (Daniel 7:9), he never does anything to assume any kind of kingship until Palm Sunday in the opening scene of chapter 21. Then he acts like the son of David come to his own city, but rather than taking the throne from the city stewards—the elders of the city and the chief priests—he becomes the judge of the city’s leadership. In response, the Roman governor, in a mocking gesture designed to discourage other claimants, crucifies Jesus as the “King of the Jews.” In a supreme irony, he is raised from the dead and is indeed given all the authority, not only of David’s throne, but of the Son of Man (Daniel 7:9; Matthew 28:18). Only, if Jesus is indeed the Messiah of Israel (the heir to David’s throne), his kingship is all but hidden, recognized only by his disciples. It is a hidden heavenly kingship, yet to find any fulfillment in public events.

So I think something else is going on than merely what is on the surface of this outer story, which seems to be a story of public failure justified by a rather private ending. Perhaps it is the irony itself: the king who “empties” himself—taking a strange path of humility as a way to identify and enter into solidarity with his people—in order to be glorified. And his glory is no longer limited to the kingship of Israel, but as something more than a mere “king” he becomes the hope of the gentiles. However, the actual glory is delayed, he refuses it and insists that his disciples refuse it, until he comes again–at the end of this age.

Is this irony at the heart of Matthew’s gospel? I think it is. For it is this gospel that features the kingdom of the heavens. Jesus’ teaching is all about this kingdom. The theme, then, of the kingdom is not left behind after chapter 2 but rather is taken up throughout the gospel, and as we noted, the gospel ends on this theme. The kingdom of the heavens, obviously, is not the same as the kingdom of David, however, and so something must be said about this. The gospel begins with the kingdom of David, but the kingship of David, if this is what Jesus is claiming, is nailed to the cross—it ends in public defeat—and there it remains. Are the divine promises to David then left unfulfilled? So there are some questions.

What do John the Baptist and Jesus mean by the kingdom of the heavens? “Repent for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” The kingdom of the heavens drawing near refers to the presence of the “Coming One.” It draws near; it is near at hand. But the world does not yet become the kingdom of God. Something, nevertheless is fulfilled. The “Coming One” (the Son of Man in Daniel 7:9) is here, but not in glory. Rather, his coming is veiled. It is hidden. He comes in humility, to suffer and die.

The kingdom of God can refer to the rule of God over all. In this sense the entire creation is the kingdom or the dominion of God. It is already here. It never left and has nowhere to go. God rules over all. On the other hand, there is a rupture in the relationship between God and creation. There is “sin.” Indeed, there is among human beings not only alienation but opposition to the divine, even though it is impossible for anything created to insulate itself from the divine. The kingship or dominion of the heavens that both John and Jesus are referring to is not the rule of God over all, but rather the rule of God (through the hosts of the heavens) to overcome all that opposes it or seeks to be independent or apart from it; it is the dominion of God to judge and restrain and reconcile and heal the creation and to bring it to its telos in divine glory. By the incarnation of Jesus and his coming onto the public stage beginning with his baptism, the dominion of the heavens has indeed drawn near. The end has begun.

Jesus himself is under the dominion of the heavens; by his baptism he has placed himself under the judgment it implies. And everyone who binds themselves to him likewise come under its dominion. They are now in the sphere of judgment and salvation. Because they are in Jesus’ own orbit that judgment is disciplinary; Jesus himself becomes the standard of judgment and that to which his influence is conforming them. (There is more to be said about this, obviously.)

The dominion of the heavens also acts in the world. It is everywhere. It is revealed in the judgments of history. It overpowers with destruction the principalities and powers of the gestalts of the collective “lie”—in principle by simply letting the forces of creation work themselves out. It is also active among people, protecting and freeing them from these powers and enabling them to do good. The righteous gentile knows the power of its grace even if she (or he) never understands what it is.

The underside of chapter 1, that which is not public but only revealed in a dream to Joseph, then, is where the real story lies: Mary “is found to be with child by the Holy Spirit”; “that which has been begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit.” And “he shall save his people from their sins.” Matthew tells us something else, something to guide our interpretation of this: “They shall call his name Emmanuel, which translated is ‘God with us.'” The ironic outer story of the heir to David’s throne carries forward this inner story. It becomes a sacrament of it, typing it, and by doing so transforms the ancient story of David into a typological foreshadowing of what is to come. In the coming story, Matthew and his subject Jesus will be interpreting the ancient story by what is happening really, in the story that unfolded and is unfolding with and in Jesus.

Israel (and not only all the gentiles) is under God’s judgment. The prophets made this clear. It is why Israel when into exile. Nor did the exile really end, except provisionally as a sign. The prophetic promise still awaits fulfillment. Israel is still not ready for the glory of the kingdom. They must be saved from their sins. Thus the story between the Jordan and the cross.

There is another thing to consider in Matthew’s telling of story of Herod, and its connection to (1) the stewards of David’s city and the Temple in Jerusalem in chapters 21-23, on the one hand, and (2) the quest by some to establish by human zeal God’s kingdom, using the instruments of intolerance, exclusion, violence, and force, namely the “Pharisees” as Jesus’ foil. They were a particular school of the Pharisees, the school of Shammai, not all the Pharisees (the school of Hillel was excluded). Herod’s grandson, Agrippa I, had messianic pretensions himself, and persecuted the church, lending his authority to the interests of the Pharisaic zealots just mentioned. (They were the “circumcision party” mentioned by Paul: those who insisted that Jews and gentiles could not mingle unless the gentiles became proselytes.) It was on account of Herod Agrippa I’s persecution and killing of James, the brother of John, that others, such as Peter, left Jerusalem. Matthew apparently took his writing table, the tools of his writing craft and parchments, and headed north along the Lebanon coast until he ended up in Syria, in Antioch on the Orontes, a story not unlike that of the holy family. The story of the holy family may well be alluding to Matthew’s own experience, and therefore to the Gospel itself—in written form—which Matthew carried with him.

The story of the conflict, then, between Herod and the holy family, and the gentiles who recognize and honor the holy child, depicts the conflict that will follow in the Gospel between the kingdom of the heavens and a false attempt to establish God’s kingdom, the attempt of the intolerant “Pharisees,” and also the false attempt to usurp God’s kingdom for oneself and one’s familiars, on the part of the elders and chief priests in Jerusalem.

The sum of this reflection, then, is that for Matthew the Messiah, the Son of David, has come, but not yet in glory. He has come to “save his people from their sins”: to effect atonement in order to overcome the power and effect of their sins. He does this by coming in humility and powerlessness. In other words, he comes in humility and empties himself of all royal prerogatives, exactly the opposite of what the Son of Man would seem to represent in Daniel 7:9. He accomplishes atonement for his people by identifying with them in their condition under the divine judgment and entering into solidarity with them in the condition and consequence of their sin—carrying this out to the extent of the cross. It is done with such power, however, that all people are included in its embrace, even idolatrous gentiles.That atonement is indeed accomplished is revealed by the Easter story, when Jesus says that he—who he has just shown himself to be by his faithful humility—has been given all “authority” (a word that means jurisdiction) in heaven and on earth, and when he sends the message goes out to all the world. It is met by opposition all along the way by those who seek their own dominion, or who want to control the divine dominion (the “anti-kingdom,” if you will, that characterizes the “world”). That atonement is accomplished, however, means that the glorification of this “son of David” will take place, though in a bigger way than any provincial view can take in. It is cosmic in scale. We live, then, now, in the days of the Messiah in his humility, to carry on his apostolate in the way that he did. Our glory too awaits an act of God in the future.

In order for this to make sense, it becomes impossible to imagine Jesus as merely a man like David and his way of approach merely through force and intelligence, a “practical” approach. Jesus is more. He is the eschatological Son of Man; but that this is who he is is hidden, veiled in weakness, or perhaps in a paradoxical way, revealed by weakness, the weakness of his common humanity. Who then is this Jesus, whose real identity as the Son of Man is hidden in his solidarity with us? How does this work? What makes it work? The answer is contained in the words in the beginning that Matthew quotes from Isaiah: “he shall be called Emmanuel,” which, Matthew tells us, translates to “God with us.” What makes this humility so incomprehensibly powerful is that it is the humility, not only of another human like ourselves, but of God, the Creator, whose being comprehends all things. The emptying of royal glory is in fact much more: it is the Divine emptying itself of divine glory—to enter into an identification with its suffering creation, to fully suffer with it, not the vicissitudes of nature but the grave consequences of sin, the creature’s rebellion against itself, its own life and expression (because that is what the creature’s rebellion against the divine, in its insane desire to be insulated from the divine, to exist on its own, amounts to: a grand illusion).

The way of the divine nature with respect to its creation is self-emptying love. And the telos of this is the glory of the divine nature in such a way that it includes the creature. Salvation, and ultimately glorification, takes place through the poverty (to put it in Franciscan terms) of God. This is what Emmanuel means. Herein is the kernel of Matthew’s Gospel.

Ultimately, what the four gospels will reveal is that self-emptying (or poverty) and receptivity is the nature of God: the divine nature is what happens between the persons of the Father (or Mother, since the expression is genderless), Son and Holy Spirit. It is their relationship and co-inherence. It is their mutual love, their complete emptying of themselves to the other and receive all from the other. The divine Essence in three Persons is the eternal giving and receiving of active mutual love. And this is how the Divine expresses its essence in time.

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