2017, April 1, Saturday

2017, April 1, Saturday

I am still recovering for Sister Sickness is keeping me congested in the chest and short of breath. I went to work for a couple of hours this morning, but did not feel as though I would have the strength to walk the floor for five hours in the evening without it taking a toll on me, so I called in sick.

I spent a little while working on my stiff hips and ankles. They have a long way to go before I get them to the way they were; my right side is quite a bit more stiff than my left. There are several seated yoga postures that help; I hold each pose on both side for three minutes each. My muscles still remember, so I expect that with daily practice my agility will return. How did they get so stiff in the first place? I neglected yoga—though not entirely—for three years, first because of a pinched nerve in my lumbar, and then because of the extraordinary amount of stress I was living through. Seated poses in a yin style is all I can handle until I am feeling better.

Here is a quote from Sister Diana Papa’s book (The Poor Sisters of Saint Clare, Tau Publishing, 2007) that struck me, when she was discussing how enclosure was not part of the charism given to Clare but imposed on her and her sisters by the papacy. Rather, what Clare strove for was “to realize the project shown her by Francis.”

Clare’s “was a life which wanted only to abandon itself in poverty to God’s provident love, working through dependence on other’s, and in the simplicity of manual work or of having no prestige. It was a vigilance of heart supported by silent prayer; a loving attention which gathered suffering and pain into itself” (pages 62-63, quoting C. Gennaro, Chiara d’Assisi; Qiqajon, Magnano, 1995, page 78).

For a long time, I have been concerned about the “form of life” to which I have been called, defined in some way by my Franciscan vocation and especially by my attraction to Clare and her charism. The Sermon on the Mount may well be the earliest Christian form of life, and if Matthew is to be followed, given by Christ himself to his disciples. It has always been of special interest to me since pre-adolescent childhood, when I read it greedily and saw it modelled in figures like Francis of Assisi and Gandhi and the nonviolence movements of my youth: the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the sixties. It continued, however, as a motif threading its way through my life. Christianity, it seemed to me, lacked authenticity of expression if it did not express the radicality of the Sermon; if in expression it was too mediocre, the profession of its basis was suspect. Such thinking can lead one quite abroad, and it did for me. It takes quite a bit of discipline to reel that in to a more mature view. What I mean by that is that extreme applications of anything usually shortchange something else that also needs emphasis. Watering down the substance to get everything to gel (that is, finding the right synthesis by way of compromises), however, was never an acceptable option for me. What I was looking for was an understanding that made room for the right paradox, a paradox that embraced things more organically and holistically, that did not depend on linear logic but was more mandalic.

Matthew’s gospel, once we partition off the not insignificant frame of chapters 1—2 and 26—28, consists of five teaching sections, each marked by a longer than usual “sermon” (chapters 5—7, 10, 13, 18, and 24-25), each of these sermons being concluded by the words:

  • “and when Jesus finished these words …” (7:28)
  • “and when Jesus had finished given instructions …” (11:1)
  • “and when Jesus had finished these parables …” (13:53)
  • “and when Jesus finished these words …” (19:1)
  • and “and when Jesus finished all these words …” (26:1)

As I said yesterday, each of these sermons is preceded by a story collection (chapters 3—5, 8—9, 11—12, 14—17, and 21—23). The only part that does not seem to fit the pattern is the collection of pericopes in chapters 19—20. I suggested yesterday that thematically they can be appended to 18 since everything in chapters 14—20 relate to the theme of Jesus’ new community. In actuality, after the collection of stories in 13:54—16:20, the “teaching” in 16:21—20:34 is divided in three, each being introduced by Jesus foretelling his coming passion and resurrection (16:21; 17:22-23; and 20:17-19). The middle section, 17:22—20:16, hangs together, though it is further divided at 19:1 by a change in location. The fourth of the major teaching sections of Matthew, chapters 13:54—20:34 is thus more complicated than the others, though it still has a collection of stories subsection in 13:54—16:20 and a more formal teaching subsection in 16:21—20:34, though that subsection in comparison to the others is more complex than what we have called in the other sections a “sermon.”

That said, what we have are five teaching sections, each acting almost like a catechetical manual for catechists (teachers) in the churches or “workers” working with the apostles among the churches. The manuals—all having to do with the dominion of the heavens having come to us in Jesus, God-with-us, might be summarized like this:

  1. chapters 3:1—8:1, penitence (the call to discipleship)
  2. chapters 8:2—11:1, the apostolate (or mission)
  3. chapters 11:2—13:53, apprehensions (people’s different reactions)
  4. chapters 13:54—20:34, the community (the impact on relations)
  5. and chapters 21:1—27:1, judgment (the judgments effected)

The apostolate creates the Jesus-communities, they are two institutions that hang together (the episcopacy and the churches), and therefore there is a correspondence between these two sections. Penitence, as I explained yesterday, is related to judgment: we embrace the divine judgment of ourselves to live in the divine beneficence. However, judgment is also effected; it is dealt out to different people in different ways. So, these two sections correspond as beginning and end. That leaves the middle section that has to do with whether the coming of Jesus—whether this message—is apprehended. When the apostolate gets through to people, and people repent—become disciples of Jesus—faithful communities are created. When it does not, judgment follows. So it seems that this sequence makes sense, and it does so in a chiastic way, 1 corresponding to 5, 2 to 4, with 3 being the hinge: whether we apprehend Jesus—the meaning of his coming, the drawing near of the dominion of the heavens in him—or not.

Having recognized these patterns, we can return now to the first section, chapters 3—7. I explained what I think is the meaning of the eight Beatitudes that begin the Sermon on the Mount. To reiterate: they are spoken in the third person and without a verb. Literally, “blessed the poor in spirit,” etc. They are descriptions of the “place” where Jesus is and to which he has taken his disciples by virtue of their relationship to him. They are not like that yet, but it is what they will become in his company. The Gospel according to John introduces the Holy Spirit and tells how Jesus will come to dwell in his disciples by the Holy Spirit, so what is going on here is not merely a matter of willful imitation. But that anticipates too much. Right now it is something about who Jesus is that makes a disciple’s relationship to him transformative. We enter into the space where he is, and where he is has to do with his having taking on the role of a penitent at the Jordan. Jesus is the “poor in spirit,” etc., one who has nothing in the sight of God, that is, poor before God. Of course, we know that it is in this poverty that Jesus has everything. Outwardly, however, that is not evident. That plenitude has to be revealed.

It turns out that the Sermon on the Mount is also artistically organized. There are the eight Beatitudes (5:3-10), spoken of in the third person. Then a switching to the second person in 5:11-16. Then a section on fulfilling (obeying) the Torah and the Prophets (5:17-48). Then a section on “acts of righteousness” (almsgiving, prayer, and fasting) in 6:1-18. This is followed by a section having to do with worldly goods and divine providence (6:19-34). Chapter 7 provides what seems to be a string of quotations on assorted topics: on judging (verses 1-6), prayer (7-11), the “golden rule” (12), the narrow way (13-14) and false prophets (15-23), and the foundation on which we build our lives (24-27). There does not at first glance seem to be much order, much less artistry in his arrangement. However, I want to find its pattern. I would like to think this was all arranged on purpose, and I want to reflect on it until I discover it.

For starters we might take a look at the section in the middle, the one on “acts of righteousness,” the three being cardinal acts of penitence to a Jewish way of thinking: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting  (6:1-18). The center instruction on prayer (verses 6-15) has the same pattern of words as the instruction on almsgiving and fasting (verse 1-5 and 16-18), but it is also longer because it adds a piece to it: what we know as the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father (9-15). The prayer is framed by “You then pray in this way” in verse 9 and the words in verses 14-15. The prayer itself consists of a string of seven petitions, the last two being coupled by a strong “but” (alla), so that we might also see the petitions as three and three, divided in the middle by “as in heaven so upon the earth,” the first three petitions being about “heavenly” or divine concerns and the last four concerning our earthly affairs. They are introduced by the address: “Our Father who is in the heavens.” Depending on the reading of verse 13, whether it includes what we call the doxology, the address may be the first half of a frame.

Let me simplify what I have said so far about 6:1-18 in a diagram:

  • Introduction (verse 1)
    • Almsgiving (2-5)
    • Prayer (6-8)
      • “You then pray in this way” (9a):
        • “Our Father who is in the heavens” (9b),
          • “may your Name be sanctified” (9c),
          • “may your dominion come” (10a),
          • “may your will be done” (10b)—
            • “as in heaven, so also on earth” (10c)—
          • “give us the bread we need for today” (11),
          • “and release us from what we owe you
            as we also have released those who owe us” (12),
          • “and steer us away from the test” (13a),
            “but rather rescue us from the evil one” (13b).
        • [“For yours is the dominion, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen”] (13c, in some manuscripts).
      • “For if you forgive humans their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you also; but if you do not forgive humans their offenses, neither will your Father forgive your offenses” (14-15).
    • Fasting (16-18)

There seems to be a chiastic patterning in these verses, everything radiating from a center. We have seen that center before, in 3:16 where the heavens were opened to Jesus. It was also at that same place where the Divine identifies itself as the Father of the Son.

Just a note: It seems very patriarchal to keep referring to the divine as Father, which Jesus does. The Father is the Divine always in a loving relationship. I think Mother might be just as appropriate, and in Aramaic (the language Jesus probably was speaking) I am told that the appellation is not gendered. It is “parent,” though this is rather impersonal in English. I would like to substitute Mother for Father since it summons a more intimate image than a father does. The father in a patriarchal society is also loving, but certainly not in the same way as the mother. In our own post-industrial society, we often experience confusion with respect to our parents because the household has taken on such an unnatural form.

I want to continue to reflect on the shape of the Sermon on the Mount but I am not going to do this tonight. It is now late.

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