Faith and Life

New Theories and Old Traditions

 

In the protective recesses of Yale’s museum is an ancient fresco fragment. To the average eye it is humble in appearance: the outline of a woman, bending down to what seems like a well. The long-held belief, logically, is that the fresco depicts the Samaritan woman at the Well, from the Gospel of John, Chapter 4.

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This simple fragment has been at Yale for decades, but is having a renewed moment in the spotlight because researcher Michael Peppard is proposing a new interpretation of this work of art: the fresco is not the Samaritan woman, but Mary at the Annunciation!

If you are at all familiar with the Lukan version of the Annunciation, you are already saying to me, “but Melissa, there is no well in the story. This guy is off his rocker!”

And you would be correct, if Mr. Peppard was not basing his theory off of another ancient text: the Protoevangelium of James. The Protoevangelium of James is a popular work testifying to Mary’s holy beginnings, upbringing, and early time with Joseph. It is a bold move on Mr. Peppard’s part to use this text since it is apocryphal, but not completely out of turn. The Protoevangelium of James is alluded to by Ss. Jerome and Justin Martyr, among other early Church luminaries, and continues to leave an impression on Catholic tradition and Her liturgical calendar. It may not be far off to say that the only reason the text remains apocryphal is because despite it’s lack of heretical over-or-undertones it never gained the universal traction and approbation that the canonical books did.

But you know one place where the Protoevangelium of James would have been very popular? In Syria, where James the Lesser (as far as scholars can tell) is believed to have preached after Pentecost! And this fresco fragment happens to be an artifact from Dura-Europos, a border settlement on the Euphrates River in modern-day Syria.

Aleteia featured the endangered site of Dura-Europos and Peppard’s fresco interpretation, and besides being a sucker for all things archaeology and Church history, I was struck by a bit of background information that the article offered:

The wall painting was taken from the small baptistery of the 3rd-century house church. Christians had met for liturgical celebrations there before Constantine allowed Christianity to be practiced openly, said a 2014 article at Vatican Insider:

The church in Dura-Europos kept its function as a private house on the top floor; but on the ground floor, around 230 A.D., a small room containing no more than 60 people became a Christian place of worship. The frescoes on the walls prove this; there are the first known representations of the Good Shepherd, the healing of the paralytic and Jesus walking on the waters with Peter. It is worth remembering that the very idea of a church separate from private houses could exist only after the 313 A.D. edict, through which the Emperor Constantine recognized Christians’ freedom of religion.

It is worth remembering that the very idea of a church separate from private houses could only exist after the 313 A.D. edict…” Wait, what? In the early Church, churches were…domestic? Who would have ever thought of a domestic Church?

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Sadly, the reality we often forget about the early Church is that it did not have the luxury of material ability to put the boundless love of God on radiant display as in later centuries. In fact, the treasury of stone, marble, stained glass, art, and ornamentation that many of us take for granted, or take as the epitome of faithful expression, is really just the Catholic version of Solomon’s Second Temple. And that is okay!

But the reminder that the Church began, survived, grew, and conquered within the home is much-needed today. Saint John Paul II re-proposed the Domestic Church to the world, and started a frenzy. The simple Well-woman fresco, having yet another moment to evangelize to those who have the courage to hear, is also re-proposing the domestic Church but in a very specific and simple way: bring back the practice of sacred spaces in the home!

I know many people who already do this, but I know many more who don’t. I’ve wanted to set up a sacred space in our home for a while, but it just hasn’t happened yet. When we move to O’ahu in June, planning what wall gets to be our sacred space is #1 on my list.

A sacred space (a Holy Hot-Spot? called it!) is a single location in your home that you designate as a center for prayer, meditation, and a frequent visual reminder to keep Christ front and center in your life (and the life of your family). Like the home-Church in Duro-Europa, pictures and icons that speak to you and your family should decorate the area. A crucifix is a must, as is Scripture and a selection of prayers and other devotionals. Statues are always good, especially to hold your rosaries. Candles, smells, and bells are at your pleasure; add a holy water bottle and you are set! Really, just take an afternoon to browse Monastery Icons and go nuts.

Most importantly, gather your family around your Holy Hot-Spot daily. Pray, read, or just talk about your day, but do it at that sacred place in your home. Invite your parish priest over for dinner and ask him to bless the area. Use it well, and share it with others. A time is coming, as it was in the beginning, where the Church may only be allowed behind the doors of our homes. And that is okay too. It worked the first time, didn’t it?

 

Faith and Life

God Bless the C/E-ers!

Happy Easter!

Christ is Risen

It’s that wonderful moment in the Liturgical year where churches around the US see members come out of the woodwork and actually go…to…church. Yay! Yay?

For those of us whose butts are in the pews every week, Easter and Christmas are probably considered the most frustrating times of the year. It’s a reminder of how seriously most people aren’t taking their faith, and how much we, the weekly warriors, are depended on to keep the parish or church community alive. If memory serves, less than 20% of a parish’s registered families provide over 80% of the time/talent/treasure needed to keep the lights on, the CCD program running, and the roof from falling in. In a boon year, we get excited that there may finally be enough to fix the A/C!

But what if we weekly warriors took a step back and reevaluated the value of a once- or twice-a-year church attendee? Consider this:

(1) They are at church! Right now! Who cares why, or what their rationale is for being there on this particular day and no other. Catholics believe that every human person conceived has until the moment of death to reconcile with God, and every moment we have is an opportunity. And what better moment to give God an opportunity to work His miracles than in church on Easter?

(2) If you only have one chance to be a Christian witness to someone, how would you do? Those who attend church once or twice a year offer us an incredible opportunity to evaluate how authentically we witness to our faith. Do we go to church every week and worship like it’s the last time before we die and face eternity? Do we first seek out the image and likeness of God in every person we see, including that gorgeous soul in the mirror? Do our yeses mean yes, and our no’s mean no? In short, are we habitually living and loving in a manner that resonates with others and creates an access point for the Holy Spirit after just one encounter?

Pharisee and tax collector

(3) Many of the encounters we read about in the New Testament are one-on-one, and are not repeated. We never hear about the Samaritan woman from the well again, or Zacchaeus, or any of the lepers, the blind, or the suffering souls who reach out to Jesus for healing. We, as Jesus likely did, only have one experience with these people before they return to their corner of the world.

Could it be that the one or two Sundays a year where weekly warriors and C/E-ers collide at church is everyone’s chance to be authentic, active participants in the Gospel, just like we read in Scripture?

We do read Scripture regularly…right? ; )

Simple Things

Return

Over the last two years I stepped away from this baby to do some incredible things. Crazy things. Overwhelming and insanely rewarding things.

And yet, just like that, I find myself called back here.

Today is Good Friday, a day where we must face the fact that if we choose to follow God we will go in some strange and sometimes uncomfortable (to say the least!) directions. But, oh man, what a journey, and what a destination we have to look forward to!

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Why Can’t the Church Support Gay Marriage?

The topic of homosexuals, gay marriage, and Catholicism weighs heavily on people’s minds. I understand how confusing and hurtful Church teaching seems on this issue, and a good friend has been gently nudging me to address this for a while now. His most recent comment to me is as follows:

One thing, as you might imagine, that I wonder about with the Catholic position on procreation is where, exactly, it leaves same-sex couples. Obviously the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality is no secret, so I get in terms of systematic theology. But in life, in practice, and with a Pope who has opposed same-sex marriage and adoption but has also said some pretty impressive (and I think holy, Jesus kinds of things) about embracing people regardless of sexuality…how does this all fit?

It’s been a journey, but my understanding of my faith has led me to support same-sex marriage, and a I think these kinds of conversations have to keep happening. Even in the progressive UCC, lots of churches are slow to embrace official “Open and Affirming” status for a variety of reasons, some of which are well-considered and pastoral…even while being, in practice, exactly that.

My friend deserves a good answer. Everyone who is confused or hurt by the Church does. This week, I’m going to do my best to give you one. This week I’m not going to talk about Pope Francis. Instead, I am going to try my best to talk like him. Here we go…

First, it’s not possible to separate the theology from the praxis. If you don’t practice what you preach, it’s hypocrisy. If you don’t have a rudder, you can’t steer your ship. I think everyone agrees that a consistent ethic is ideal, and that that ethic should be one of goodness. For Catholics, the most fundamental ethic is the source of our existence. God created all people in His image and likeness; this marks us as having a priceless value that commands an almost divine dignity.

I’ve often heard that the Church’s position on gay marriage denies the value and dignity of homosexuals. In all fairness, it certainly seems that way. Homosexuals are losing out on civil benefits that their straight counterparts take for granted, and on top of that they are made to feel like their love is not as good as a straight couple. From this perspective, both the moral and economic dignity of homosexuals is impugned.

That’s a heavy charge, linking personal dignity with the ability to get married. And that’s what moves us to what this debate is really about: defining the purpose of marriage. We’re asking what marriage was created for, the reason for its existence. We’re looking at settling an issue of theology, of abstract ideology, to suit our desired practices.

Marriage, civilly speaking, has serious economic considerations. From the government’s perspective, the more people get married, the better. When people argue that a ban on gay marriage hurts the economic dignity of homosexual couples, they make a valid point because marriage has been made an economic tool. This is the purpose of marriage in the civil sense. The Church doesn’t take economic dignity into consideration, however. A person’s right to civil benefits isn’t necessitated by their state in life; their very existence necessitates the right to civil benefits. When talking about marriage, economics is a secondary function for the Church.

The Church and society don’t agree that economics offers a legitimate reason why marriage exists. Both agree that marriage entails a moral component, though. It is on moral grounds, then, that the Church’s position should be understood.

Let’s go back to being made in God’s image. This simply means that we were created, as individuals, to manifest certain qualities as we moved through life on Earth. These qualities remain constant because God is constant. Circumstances may change, but the qualities can’t. I do mean can’t; insinuating that God can be something other than Himself amounts to negating His existence. The point to this is that circumstances do not substantially affect our personal dignity. Slavery doesn’t lessen a person’s created value. Being a mass murderer doesn’t lessen it, either. These only change a person’s outer appearance.

I think we can all agree that a person’s outer appearance, as described above, has some effect on our created value. If we are created to be the likeness of God, but use our life to look like everything but God, then that’s a problem. That would be like Picasso putting his personal touches on the Mona Lisa. The created value of Mona Lisa is still there, but it’s overshadowed by whatever you want to call Picasso’s work.

Marriage, in the eyes of the Church, is a praxis that guides two people’s outer appearance to reveal God’s likeness. Marriage is not an end to itself. It’s only a means to an end. All things should lead to God, and all people should reveal Him. Homosexual marriage leads neither to God nor helps homosexuals reveal their created likeness of Him. Not in theory, and not in practice.

Heterosexual marriage accomplishes this in theory. This is the argument that most people hear given by theologians, bishops, cardinals, and conservative religious pundits. But the reality is that in practice, heterosexual marriages are not guaranteed to do what they were made to do. It is a disparity between theory and practice that is rightly called out. In fact, I think it should be called out more. Broken heterosexual marriages have grossly obscured marriage’s fundamental dignity and set the stage for this entire debate. But the theory-pushers are correct on one thing: inconsistent praxis does not invalidate theory.

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A New Doctor of the Church

Pope Francis declared Saint Gregory of Narek a Doctor of the Church this morning. From Vatican Radio:

St. Gregory of Narek is widely revered as one of the greatest figures of medieval Armenian religious thought and literature. Born in the city of Narek in about 950 A.D., St. Gregory came from a line of scholars and churchmen.
St. Gregory received his education under the guidance of his father, Bishop Khosrov, author of the earliest commentary on the Divine Liturgy, and from Anania Vartabed, abbess of Narek Monastery. He and his two brothers entered monastic life at an early age, and St. Gregory soon began to excel in music, astronomy, geometry, mathematics, literature, and theology.
He became a priest at the age of 25 and dedicated himself to God. He lived most of his life in the monastery of Narek, where he taught at the monastic school. St. Gregory began his writings with a commentary on the “Song of Songs,” which was commissioned by an Armenian prince. Despite his reservations that he was too young for the task, the commentary became famous for its clarity of thought and language and its excellence of theological presentation.
He also wrote a number of famous letters, sharagans, treasures, odes, melodies, and discourses. Many of his prayers are included in the Divine Liturgy celebrated each Sunday in Armenian Churches around the world.
St. Gregory’s masterpiece is considered to be his Book of Lamentations. Also known as Narek, it is comprised of 95 prayers, each of which is titled “Conversation with God from the depth of the heart.” A central theme is man’s separation from God, and his quest to reunite with Him. St. Gregory described the work this way: “Its letters like my body, its message like my soul.” He called his book an “encyclopedia of prayer for all nations.” It was his hope that it would serve as a guide to prayer for people all over the world.

I’m always excited to get to know a new (to me) saint; I’m geeking out over the fact that this particular saint started his writing career with the Song of Songs (the topic of my Master’s thesis and hopefully my academic future)!

St. Gregory of Narek, pray for us!

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The Banal Evil of the Broken Love Story

Imagine my great surprise when, a few years ago, I was told that my marriage was an anomaly. I don’t remember much of the exact wording, but I think the phrases “not normal” and “freakishly harmonious” sum it up well. I was frankly dumbfounded that the love my husband and I have for each other was being summarily dismissed as an aberrant example of a untenable ideal.

I hadn’t thought of my marriage that way before. I was blessed to grow up in a family filled with strong, happy marriages. I never thought that marriage was effortless. Neither did I have the illusion that a happy marriage required perfect people. The examples that I grew up with taught me that marriage is supposed to be an easy union between two people who are perfect together. I just thought that’s how it was supposed to be.

Hence my marriage never felt like something strange. Even as I came to know people who had difficult relationships and failed marriages, I didn’t consider my experience of marriage anything other than normal. I was moved for the broken-hearted because they were getting less than my normal, and I knew they deserved, at the very least, what I had. I still believe this. I’m very vocal in this belief, too. One of the few things I will run my mouth off about, actually.

I’ve come to find that I am a part of a very small minority who holds this belief. Most people believe that there is no such thing as the “perfect-for-me” soulmate. There is no “happily-ever-after.” A relationship that doesn’t involve at least a weekly fight isn’t a healthy one. The best people expect is “good-enough” and “happy-ish.” Forever is replaced with “for now.” Is this really what normal is supposed to look like? Is this all happiness amounts to?

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I don’t think so. An “ideal” marriage, like the one I describe above, should not be dismissed because not everybody has one. In fact, why do we call this an “ideal” and not a “norm?” I argue that difficult “norms” have been relabeled as “ideals” to ease the sting of our failures. Kind of a I couldn’t do it, so it’s an unreasonable standard type of mentality. You could apply this argument to many other topics. The Christian faith is a classic victim of this line of thinking.

I don’t mean to impugn any of the suffering that is experienced by a bad situation. Whether its in love, politics, religion, or what-have-you, the infliction of pain and suffering is disgusting and wrong. But is it fair to say that a singularity of failure, or even many singularities, proves the failure of an entire “norm” or “ideal?”

I think it’s exactly the opposite. A norm or ideal wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t proof that it can and does exist. In the case of marriage, a freakishly harmonious marriage can also be called a complete one. There is nothing that is missing in the marriage. There is nothing you could add to make it better. Anything less means that there is something missing. Depending on how dysfunctional, maybe many things are missing. The point is, less-than-whole is a ridiculous standard to start with.

Think about it in terms of faith. Adam and Eve started out whole. They were in complete harmony with each other, God, and nature. Then they broke. Pieces fell away, and the rest of human existence has been about picking up our missing pieces. Humans didn’t start broken. We aren’t meant to stay broken. That is why we have Christian norms and ideals, like the 10 Commandments and the reality of the Incarnation. These norms and ideals were created to fix our brokenness. Do these lose their fundamental purpose and power because people failed to get it right the first time and twisted these creations into their own personal Frankenstein?

Let me ask another question. Is your worth as a person lessened by those who treat you badly? The answer, to both questions, is NO.

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On Rabbits and Responsibility

Note: This post originated on radinfinitum. I’m sharing it here because future posts will revisit parts of this one, and I want y’all to have the background. 

Rabbits. Out of an entire lengthy interview that covers some incredibly heavy subjects, all people could talk about this week were rabbits. I think Mr. Cuddles aptly expresses my feelings on the Papal news blitz this week:

crazy rabbit

Mr. Cuddles and I want to direct your attention to the more relevant “R” word used in this notorious portion of the Holy Father’s interview: “responsible.” Pope Francis spoke of the irresponsibility of a woman who was having her eighth child after having seven cesarean sections. The Holy Father was not calling the number of children irresponsible, but how she seemingly disregarded prudence under the guise of “trusting in God.” In cases like these, “trusting God” is really just Pilot-esque hand-washing; life is going to happen, especially when we just sit there and let it.

The flip side of this responsibility–of this prudence–is responsible justice. Having large families and “being open to life” may seem an odd thing to be labeled as responsible justice, but think of it in terms of the second of the Great Commandments: love your neighbor as yourself. This essential teaching of Jesus tells us four compelling things about how we’re meant to live. One, everyone deserves love. Two, each of us is responsible for giving love to others. Three, we are responsible for accepting the love that others give us. Four, the two cannot be separated. When we give love and accept love it is an act of justice. The “responsible” part just means that we are making a conscious effort to act justly towards everyone. So “being open to life” is much more than just having lots of kids. It means being open to giving all people the love they deserve,

When you put these two together–responsible prudence and responsible justice–you can see Pope Francis’ mindfulness of human dignity in whole. Love your neighbor as yourself can’t become love your neighbor more than yourself or love your neighbor less than yourself without somebody getting the shaft.

And that, in my opinion, is the Holy Father’s point, a message that was dwarfed this week by rabbits. In case you aren’t able to read the whole interview, let me catch you up to speed. Pope Francis said:

One of the things that is lost when there is too much wealth or when values are misunderstood or we have become accustomed to injustice, to this culture of waste, is the capacity to cry…We Christians must ask for the grace to cry. Especially wealthy Christians. To cry about injustice and to cry about sins. Because crying opens you to understand new realities, or new dimensions to realities.

When I say it is important that women be held in higher consideration in the Church, it’s not just to give them a function as the secretary of a dicastery — though this would be fine. No, it’s so that they may tell us tell us how they experience, and view reality. Because women view things from a different richness, a larger one.

But don’t forget that we too need to be beggars – from them. Because the poor evangelize us. If we take the poor away from the Gospel, we cannot understand Jesus’ message. The poor evangelize us. I go to evangelize the poor, yes, but allow them to evangelize you. Because they have values that you do not.

Another curious thing in relation to this is that for the most poor people, a child is a treasure. It is true that you have to be prudent here too, but for them a child is a treasure. Some would say ‘God knows how to help me’ and perhaps some of them are not prudent, this is true. Responsible paternity, but let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child.

Today, paper and what’s left over isn’t all that’s thrown away. We throw away people.

I don’t know what to say after that last one. It’s a brutal, brutal truth.

On a final note, Pope Francis threw out a book recommendation that will help frame his thinking behind “ideological colonization.” Written in 1903 by Robert Hugh Benson, it’s called “Lord of the World”. From his preface I think Mr. Benson will be quite entertaining:

I am perfectly aware that this is a terribly sensational book, and open to innumerable criticisms on that account, as well as on many others. But I did not know how else to express the principles I desired (and which I passionately believe to be true) except by producing their lines to a sensational point. I have tried, however, not to scream unduly loud, and to retain, so far as possible, reverence and consideration for the opinions of other people. Whether I have succeeded in that attempt is quite another matter.