Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Take These Gifts...Make Them Holy..." - A Meditation on Thoeotic Ministry

As I labour in the vineyards of academia, I thought it would be nice to share the fruits of my toils, here in the form of a final reflection/meditation paper I composed for David Yeago as part of our seminar on "Theologies of Salvation." We were asked to speak to the pastoral implications of the various accounts of soteriology we encountered; the following draws primarily on The Life in Christ by 14th-century Byzantine theologian Nicholas Cabasilas, St. Bernard's treatise "On Loving God," and the Sacred Meditations of 17th-century Lutheran great Johann Gerhard. This is definitely more of an article than a post, but I pray it offers as much delight in the reading as it did in the writing.


An old Vincentian priest who used to preside at our weekly Thursday evening Eucharists at the Denver Catholic Worker was fond of attributing to Karl Rahner the belief that “each human being is the unique and unrepeatable expression of the creative love of God.” When he presided at table, during the Great Thanksgiving, he would often pause over the words “take these gifts; make them holy; may they become for us the body and blood of Our Savior Jesus Christ,” taking care to enunciate the words “these gifts…make them holy…may they become for us…” and as he did so, his eyes and hands would drift from contemplation of the uplifted host to gaze upon the small rag-tag assembly of old nuns, young upstarts, mentally ill residents, drug addicts playing clean for a meal, and all the other jagged edge of the mosaic of the Body of Christ. His intent was clear: what we were about to eat was sacred, but not more nor less sacred than what we would become in the partaking of it.

Father Tom was a liberal Catholic in every sense of the word. Yet, I think in this subtle but profound gesture from Christ’s sacramental to His ecclesial body, he ingrained in me spiritually and in my desire what our present seminar has given me words to express in my intellect and tongue. My transgression of Roman Catholic Eucharistic policy not withstanding, Father Tom moved from second order claims like Rahners or Augustine’s famous “become what you are,” and in worship drew us into a participation of the highest theological order, enfleshing Nicolas Cabasilas’ claim that “there is nothing so sacred as a human being to whom God has imparted His nature,” for, as the Thessalonican pondered, “what then could be more sacred then this body to which Chirst adheres more closely than by any physical union? Accordingly, we shall hold its high estate in veneration and preserve it when, conscious of so wondrous a splendour, we at all times hold it before the eyes of the soul.” What Father Tom’s gentle dramatics made transparent was nothing less than “the dignity of our nature, and also a clear perception of the loving-kindness of God.” Such a ministry, I should like to suggest, lies at the heart of a pastor’s vocation to proclaim the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.

Lutheran pastors in general, and this future one in particular, have long fallen prey to the tendency towards an over-emphasis on humanity’s helplessness and perpetual struggle with their sinful condition. They do so, I believe, in order to safe-guard that most important of Lutheran emphases, the beauty, power, and passion of grace to love the unloveable, redeem the unredeemable, and resurrect the dead. Too often, we allow Bonhoeffer’s stern critique of cheap grace to move us to lay an emphasis on humanity’s need for the costly grace of the cross, even if such moves serve only to back us into the Forde-ian crater of a life-long passivity masquerading as dependence in the face of sanctification. While scathing meditations on one’s wormhood, so much the staple of the spiritual ruminations of a Johann Gerhard, no longer leap from the pulpit to scare the hell into us, we do have the strange phenomenon of 20th-century Lutheranism’s obsession with the simul, in which we cannot quite stand to let go of our corruption, lest, we fear, we lose the grace we need to cover over those practices that keep us feeling alive and relevant.

What is lost, of course, is that just as true sin is often watered down in the lukewarm tea of pseudo-paradox, so too, a true understanding of the dignity of a Christian is ultimately surrendered. By refusing to bend too low, we also reveal our fear of ascending too high; we fear true worth, lest with it, we incur worthy responsibilities. We speak much of God’s unconditional love for us; thereby, we forfeit the opportunity to participate in the exceedingly delightful pleasure of getting to love God in return. And, as Gerhard reminds us, “no one can have hope of loving God perfectly in the age to come, who does not begin to love God in this present age…Love for God is the chariot of Elijah ascending into heaven. Love for God is the delight of the mind, the paradise of the soul; it shuts out the world, conquers the devil, closes up hell, and opens heaven. Love for God is the seal with which God seals the chosen and the faithful.” As the current state of affairs in the ELCA self-evidently attests, not only has the church failed to shut out the world – she has also, in so doing, neglected to open up the heavens.

Just as Father Tom tantalizingly pulled back the corner of the veil of the Bridegroom’s chamber, so too must we pastors see our entire ministry as one of unfolding for our congregation, and before the watching world, the naked beauty of the human being’s true beauty in the eyes of God. For, as Cabasilas notes, “the thirst of human souls needs, as it were an infinite water,” pointing to the fact that human beings, made in God’s image, contain more desires and mysteries than merely their capacity for atrocity. We are finite creatures who have been ordained to infinite ends, and our the groanings and longings of our bodies and our hearts strain towards the One who has made us for Himself. Yet, such infinite means exceed our finite human capacities. St. Bernard of Clairvaux makes clear that such desires cannot achieve their end, that is, a mind “drunk with divine love,” in that time when God “will cause everything to conform to its Maker and be in harmony with Him,” for, in addition to our sin and the persistent presence of the needs of others, “it is impossible to draw together all that is in you and turn towards the face of God” unless the Lord Himself makes such turning possible. Ministers hear every day the thirsty yearnings of their people, longing to slake the parched throats of their souls with the liquid of the eternal Meribah. But we are poor stewards of this mystery, for we are not given merely to reflect thirst back to the thirsty, but also to offer them the water to drink in which they have already bathed. Too often, we believe ourselves to be beggars, and this is most certainly true. But we are also beggars into whose hands have been pressed alms of infinite value, and the Giver would not have us squander such charity on more rags.

Rather, we pastors can take a cue from Gerhard when he urges us: “let Christ be the target at which your life aims; follow him on the journey, so that you may arrive with him in the heavenly homeland. In all things, let your greatest concern be deep humility and burning love. Let love lift your heart to God so that you may cling to him; let humility hold down your heart lest you grow proud.” We are beggars, but the Bridegroom’s servants have been sent out to invite such as us to the feast, and has given us the means with which to purchase our wedding garment! Or, in plain terms, Christians are not called to remain in the gutter of their sins, for in the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, and in the sending of His Spirit, God has made a new creation, and won for God’s children a share in Christ’s very nature! It is the privilege and mandate of pastors to act as stewards of the feast in extending as full and as warm an invitation to those who have been invited, not merely restating sinfulness, but also enticing, enthralling, and enchanting those whose imaginations have been so weighed down with the truth of what Christ has done – united Himself with them, and thus, conferred on them a life that grows from stasis to pilgrimage, desires that blossom from selfishness into service, and a beauty that is a sharing in the Beauty of Christ Himself!

Because of Christ’s grace, we can proclaim with Cabasilas that “it is clear that joy in every way corresponds to the abundance of love,” that it is “apparent, then, that human souls have a great and wondrous capacity for love and joy, and that it is perfectly employed only when He is present who is truly loveable as well as beloved.” As both he and Father Tom make clear, it is not only when pastors proclaim the fullness of the theotic dimension of the Gospel, but also enact it by enabling participation in its sacramental-renewing manifestation that this capacity of the human is made a possibility. As Cabasilas notes, “the table, however, is set forth for those who already have been united…it enables us to use the power and the weapons which have been given us and to pursue goodness, no longer as though we were being carried or dragged along, but spontaneously bestirring ourselves and moving as already skilled runners.” Christ does not gift us merely so we can enjoy the pleasures of loving and being loved in God, but also so that such love by use might grow, and thus overflow into invitations to others to come and join the feast. By orienting their preaching, pastoring and presiding towards this positive dimension of the Gospel, ministers and leaders will not only inspire the imaginations and ignite the desires of their people; they also equip and empower them with the means to live more abundant Christian lives, to experience salvation as ever present, and thus to heighten their eschatological anticipation, creating a feedback mechanism of reciprocal grace whereby desire and service mutually amplify one another until, like a hurricane, the entire world is gathered into the rushing winds of the Spirit, which demolishes the flesh, and clears the space upon which God builds the kingdom, in individual hearts, in the community of the church, and upon the face of the creation.

Meditation upon the wonders of the Gospel in its fullness could and ought to consume never-ending pages of delight and exclamation; sadly, these short pages afford me means to have pondered this small slice of the banquet. But in nuce, what I am suggesting is that in reclaiming the positive orientation of the Gospel towards the dignifying deification of human beings who in being joined to Christ are able to transcend narcissistic obsession with God’s love for them in order to join with God in the pleasure of becoming loving agents, pastors are given not only food to sustain their own grace-fired imaginations and scriptural meditations, but also a deeper sense of their call and a greater vocabulary with which to proclaim the Gospel, making their chief aim not merely the care and maintenance of broken sinners, but more radically, the nurturing, encouraging, and empowering of redeemed saints and lovers of God. Contemplation will beget action, and such action will flower forth in new contemplations in the hearts and minds of those who hear the beauty they have been promised incarnated on the tongues and in the hands of the one preaching and presiding at their table. Then worship will begin not only to anticipate, but also to participate, in the feast that is to come.

Lest this all seem to prematurely lift off into the ether of speculation, I recall in closing the point from which we set off in this reflection. Let us go back to that cramped room in a Catholic Worker house, to a withered old Rahnerian priest, reminding the scraps of the world that they are in fact the feast of the Bridegroom, while pleading in his priestly role that God would “take these gifts...make them holy…may they become for us the Body and Blood…” Such gestures, such promises of God, do not merely lead to monastic navel-gazing; they are the words spoken over chaos which transforms it into new creation. To those true beggars whose dignity has never been known, these are truly words that bring new life. The liturgy of the Worker house forms a people who, in Dorothy Day’s words, strive to create “a society in which it is easier to do good.” Believing the Gospel of God’s gift of Godself to the unlovable, believing in the infinite ends to which all strive, the Workers offer hospitality and aide, material gifts meant to help foster the growth of the seed of beauty they know God has planted in the hearts of all God’s children from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1.4-5). Pastors who practice what they preach seek to live out in and for the body that which they proclaim of and in the Spirit. Even if one is not a Catholic Worker, one can do the same for one’s people, blazing paths of discipleship such that the desires of the heart can become the movements of the body, and the Body can become the movement of the Spirit through the world.

Let us as pastors continue to act as loyal stewards of the mysteries, inviting beggars to be clothed in the wedding garments of the Lamb, supplying them with the wealth of the Bridegroom, and being willing to walk with them as together, we return to the hall of feasting, where eternal desires are given eternal food, in anticipation of the fulfillment of all desire in the world to come. Lord, take us...make us holy...may we become the Body and Blood of Christ. Amen.

(Sources: Bernard of Clairvaux, Selected Works. Trans. G.R.Evans. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.; Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ. trans. Carmino deCastanzaro. Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1974.; Johann Gerhard, Sacred Meditations. Trans. David Yeago (unpublished), 2000.)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this. We read Cabasilas in my Philippians class last semester. I hope you're surviving the season of final papers.