Scripture and the Crisis – Part 4

Eamonn Clark

See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. We’ve looked at homosexual cliques and various kinds of cover-ups. Now we turn to the Second Book of Samuel to do some psychology.

2 Samuel 13

In the course of time, Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom son of David. [Incest is wrong, in part, because a general allowance for it would cause such intense love so as to blind the lover – and the beloved would be too frequently present. And how blinded Amnon becomes.]

Amnon became so obsessed with his sister Tamar that he made himself ill. [The exterior illness is a sign of the interior illness. His repressed feelings, which have not been dealt with by appropriate counsel and prayer, physically hurt him. How will this tension be resolved? We shall see…] She was a virgin, and it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her. [Like the average creep, Amnon is a secret admirer, held back only by societal expectations. Unlike the average creep, his desire is for something particularly wrong in itself – relations with his half-sister. What does the perverse aspect of his obsession do but tend toward guaranteeing its severity? After all, perversion doesn’t usually “stick” with people who only dabble with it… They go “all in,” so that it might become normalized in their mind.]

Now Amnon had an adviser named Jonadab son of Shimeah, David’s brother. Jonadab was a very shrewd man. [As many therapists are, no doubt. But many times, therapists are sought when only God and His grace will suffice.] He asked Amnon, “Why do you, the king’s son, look so haggard morning after morning? Won’t you tell me?”

Amnon said to him, “I’m in love with Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.” [Confession of such deep, dark secrets can attach a person to the therapist. It creates an inordinate trust… Unless one is confessing to God, that is! But now, Amnon is in Jonadab’s hands.]

“Go to bed and pretend to be ill,” Jonadab said. “When your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘I would like my sister Tamar to come and give me something to eat. Let her prepare the food in my sight so I may watch her and then eat it from her hand.’”

So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill. When the king came to see him, Amnon said to him, “I would like my sister Tamar to come and make some special bread in my sight, so I may eat from her hand.”

David sent word to Tamar at the palace: “Go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some food for him.” So Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon, who was lying down. She took some dough, kneaded it, made the bread in his sight and baked it. Then she took the pan and served him the bread, but he refused to eat.

“Send everyone out of here,” Amnon said. So everyone left him. 10 Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food here into my bedroom so I may eat from your hand.” And Tamar took the bread she had prepared and brought it to her brother Amnon in his bedroom. 11 But when she took it to him to eat, he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister.” [An appropriate intimate social situation – which is reminiscent, we should notice, of the Mass, despite clear differences – is distorted and turned into an inappropriate sexual intimacy through a violent exploitation of the victim… Does this sound familiar?]

12 “No, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me! Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. 13 What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.” 14 But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her. [Tamar is the precursor to such saints as Maria Goretti – she is not only concerned for herself, but she is also concerned about the sin of the rapist and the glory of God in Israel, even going so far as to offer marriage as an alternative to this immediate gratification. She is a paragon of feminine holiness. Amnon’s desire is surely due in part to such devotion – and that goodness has been twisted in his mind from something to be enjoyed through spiritual friendship into a mere source of carnal and egoistic pleasure. The exertion of himself over Tamar is a pathetic and disordered attempt to revel in her own goodness and innocence.]

15 Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!” [Tamar’s presence now represents Amnon’s egregious sin to him. His fleeting pleasure has passed, and now he is faced with the shame he has brought upon her and himself – and he cannot deal with shame upon himself through repentance, so he becomes zealous for “appropriate separation,” shall we say. Those who wonder how a certain former cardinal could have led the charge against sex abuse – while working to make sure that bishops themselves were not included as being held accountable – can perhaps find here a similar psychological phenomenon at play.]

16 “No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.”

But he refused to listen to her. 17 He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of my sight and bolt the door after her.” 18 So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. She was wearing an ornate robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. 19 Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went. [Here is a great symbol for victims of abuse, no doubt.]

20 Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.

21 When King David heard all this, he was furious. 22 And Absalom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar. [There is perhaps excuse for delayed action, as this all happens within the same family… Whatever the case, the analogy fails with clergy, who are not closely united by flesh and blood but rather by common offices and mandates. The diocesan bishop does not take the place of King David – he does not let “brother priests” behave in this way – nor “brother bishops.”]

23 Two years later, when Absalom’s sheepshearers were at Baal Hazor near the border of Ephraim, he invited all the king’s sons to come there.24 Absalom went to the king and said, “Your servant has had shearers come. Will the king and his attendants please join me?”

25 “No, my son,” the king replied. “All of us should not go; we would only be a burden to you.” Although Absalom urged him, he still refused to go but gave him his blessing.

26 Then Absalom said, “If not, please let my brother Amnon come with us.”

The king asked him, “Why should he go with you?” 27 But Absalom urged him, so he sent with him Amnon and the rest of the king’s sons.

28 Absalom ordered his men, “Listen! When Amnon is in high spirits from drinking wine and I say to you, ‘Strike Amnon down,’ then kill him. Don’t be afraid. Haven’t I given you this order? Be strong and brave.” 29 So Absalom’s men did to Amnon what Absalom had ordered. Then all the king’s sons got up, mounted their mules and fled. [Things ultimately do not end well for Amnon, who never repented, it seems, but rather presumed to be in good standing with his brother, going for cocktails after not speaking with him for two years. And yet, should we think that Absalom’s tactics were justified? He took justice into his own hands and murdered his brother – a member of the royal house.]

King David mourned for Amnon, and then Absalom ran away eventually tried to usurp the throne, ending with his own dramatic death. Those who are overly zealous to stamp out evil among their brethren are indeed running a similar risk as Absalom – to retaliate rashly, occasioning the swelling of pride and presumption which ends with spiritual ruin.

Thus ends our little series on “Scripture and the Crisis.” If you enjoyed, please subscribe and share! I will soon begin a similar ongoing commentary on the Gospel readings throughout the week – not necessarily Sundays, but just the ones I find particularly appealing to write on, specifically for the sake of showcasing the kind of theology which I am hoping to help revive and advance… Stay tuned.

Prophets in Israel

Eamonn Clark

A little prophetic history to mull over on your Monday…

When Israel entered Egypt, it took them 430 years to escape and get to Canaan. Solomon’s Temple is around for about 430 years. After the Exile, Malachi is the last of the prophets, for… about 430 years, up until John the Baptist (or arguably the ones giving us any of the Lucan canticles – but really John is the culmination of the prophetic tradition).

What does this mean? At least 3 things…

1 – God has a plan, and it involves patterns. Numerology is not necessarily “superstitious,” and it deserves serious consideration in the study of salvation history. God knows that we like patterns and that we are inclined to look for them and understand things by them, so it stands to reason that He would use them, just like other natural inclinations (like mythic archetypes, bodily communion, etc.)

2 – These ages are mirrors of each other in some way. I leave that for your own reflection… Deserts, places of prayer, spiritual patronage… and those things’ beginnings and ends.

3 – You can’t fake being a prophet in Israel. One would think that if you could, it would have happened at some point in 430 years. But it didn’t. Prophets were truly extraordinary teachers and preachers with the grace of God ensuring the success or at least the authority of their prophetic career.

True Myth Part 4: Jesus and the Tricksters

Eamonn Clark

Jumping ahead quite a bit in Scripture in our “true myth” series, today we will look at an incredibly powerful relationship between Jesus Christ and the “trickster archetype.”

Fans of the Baltimore Catechism will recall that God “neither deceives nor is deceived.” How then, could God incarnate fit into this paradigmatic role of the Trickster, occupied by deceptive figures such as Loki, Hades, various coyotes, ravens, and other such creatures – including serpents – throughout the history of mythology? These figures use trickery in order to gain power… What does Jesus have to do with this?

Without a full exploration of the ins and outs of the trickster paradigm, we can point out just a few commonalities which apply to Jesus:

  1. He is, in many ways, in between life and death. (See Levi-Strauss on this characteristic of tricksters qua mediators of life and death for more… think of how the animals which normally portray trickster characters are neither herbivores nor hunters but eat already dead animals…) Here are some examples of this “in between” space:
    1. The Baptism in the Jordan – in between the Nations (death) and Israel (life), in between the Sea of Galilee (full of fish and where He calls the first disciples) and the Dead Sea (…dead…), in the midst of the flourishing jungle but in the lowest part of planet Earth, and in water (which both gives and takes life).
    2. His first act after the Baptism – He goes out into the desert (to deal with a real trickster) in between Jericho, the city of sin and death, and Jerusalem, the city of spirit and life… This same space will be the setting for the story about the Good Samaritan (representing Himself), who picks up the half-dead (!) sojourner (Adam), of which He is the renewal.
    3. He touches the unclean (symbols of death) and gives healing/life – For example, the raising of the little girl in Mark 5, or the healing of the leper in Matthew 8.
    4. The Resurrection – Did He actually die? Is He really alive? Whatever the case, it’s clear that our sense of the “in between” is tapped into… The psychology of the uncanny valley is maxed out.
  2. He normally dwells on the outskirts of society, frequently retreating to the wilderness for solitude. Much of the 3 years of the public ministry is spent camping just near the Decapolis and other such places. Bethany is another place worth mentioning, as it is not quite in Jerusalem, but it is near it, where he raises Lazarus from the dead (more “in between” life and death imagery) and prepares for Passover for the last time… Gethsemane and Golgotha are also just outside Jerusalem.
  3. He claims the role of a gatekeeper to the underworld. (Even more death-life ambiguity.) “I hold the keys of life and death,” He says in Revelation 1:18. Or take John 10:9 – “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved,” or John 14:6, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
  4. He is a shapeshifter.
    1. The Resurrection – He is the same, but different. (More ambiguity!) The disciples can only half recognize Him, though the wounds give testimony that it really is the same man they knew. But He is changed somehow.
    2. The Eucharist – Jesus literally takes the shape of bread and wine.
    3. God has become a human being – certainly a kind of changing shape, albeit in a qualified sense.
  5. He cannot be contained or caught by the power of opponents. He passes through the crowd, or He hides effectively, as seen in many passages in the Gospels, such as the rejection at Nazareth in Luke 4. Instead, only He has the power to lay down His life… and take it up again (John 10:18).
  6. He does not often give direct answers. Instead, He speaks in parables, riddles, questions, and ambiguities. He arguably only directly answers 3 questions of the over 100 put to Him, and He arguably asks over 300.

Other “trickster” characteristics might be noted as well, such as spiritual power, unclear origins, and a preference for working in the midst of obscurity and chaos. What are we to make of all this?

It is that Jesus goes to the most “uncomfortable” place in our psychology and asks us, nonetheless, to trust Him. So one of the deepest parts of our mind, which is intuitively inclined to see the brokenness of the world, is “cured” by His reversal of the trickster archetype.

God “deceives” in a way by becoming human (thus not “looking like God,” as He did on Mount Sinai with fire and thunder), in order to gain the power of persuasion or condescension. But also, and perhaps in a deeper and plainer sense, God is not only reversing the trickster’s goal-paradigm but inverting it as well… Instead of deceiving to become powerful, God becomes weak in order to tell the truth.

 

Scripture and the Crisis – Part 3

Eamonn Clark

See Part 1 and Part 2. Today we look at the story of the Levite and his concubine at the end of the Book of Judges. Warning: do not read while eating.

Judges 19-20

In those days Israel had no king. [The chaos of Israel after Joshua’s death is ominously summed up in this line, which is repeated several times throughout the Book of Judges. It is a lawless land. Here, near the end of the age of the quasi-vigilantism of the Judges, we see moral corruption at its peak in a story which is perhaps the most gruesome of the entire Old Testament.]

Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. [The Levites were the sacred tribe which held no land of its own and from which all the priests came. What is this Levite doing in the wilderness, away from civilization? He is near the tabernacle at Shiloh but is not obviously personally dedicated to it. He certainly does not seem to be interested in the hermitage for the sake of private prayer… Why is he taking a half-wife from a city already known (from the previous chapters of Judges) to be a source of intense corruption of worship (namely, idolatry)? This shady situation already blurs some lines: the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the natural, and the conjugal and celibate. Nothing is immoral in itself so far, but we should expect trouble with such ambiguity and proximity to sin. And how we have allowed these same lines to be blurred in the past decades… It is no longer the flesh descendants of Levi, but the spiritual descendants of Melchizedek – the clergy – who have been wandering about, swinging close to sin, and blurring lines. Much of this also has to do with concern for proper worship.] But she was unfaithful to him. [An idolatrous hometown breeds unfaithfulness – go figure.] She left him and went back to her parents’ home in Bethlehem, Judah. After she had been there four months, her husband went to her to persuade her to return. He had with him his servant and two donkeys. She took him into her parents’ home, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him.  His father-in-law, the woman’s father, prevailed on him to stay; so he remained with him three days, eating and drinking, and sleeping there.

On the fourth day they got up early and he prepared to leave, but the woman’s father said to his son-in-law, “Refresh yourself with something to eat; then you can go.” So the two of them sat down to eat and drink together. Afterward the woman’s father said, “Please stay tonight and enjoy yourself.” And when the man got up to go, his father-in-law persuaded him, so he stayed there that night. On the morning of the fifth day, when he rose to go, the woman’s father said, “Refresh yourself. Wait till afternoon!” So the two of them ate together.

Then when the man, with his concubine and his servant, got up to leave, his father-in-law, the woman’s father, said, “Now look, it’s almost evening. Spend the night here; the day is nearly over. Stay and enjoy yourself. Early tomorrow morning you can get up and be on your way home.” 10 But, unwilling to stay another night, the man left and went toward Jebus (that is, Jerusalem), with his two saddled donkeys and his concubine. [The inconstancy of the Levite, triggered by a desire for food and drink, for rest, and for pleasing his concubine’s father, ends in imprudent haste. Such closeness with the world will lead to bad decision-making, it seems, where the darkness will come quickly, bringing trouble with it.]

11 When they were near Jebus and the day was almost gone, the servant said to his master, “Come, let’s stop at this city of the Jebusites and spend the night.”

12 His master replied, “No. We won’t go into any city whose people are not Israelites. We will go on to Gibeah.” 13 He added, “Come, let’s try to reach Gibeah or Ramah and spend the night in one of those places.” [Jebus – Jerusalem – was at that point not yet a Jewish city. The Levite’s insistence on staying among the children of Israel signals a kind of piety, but also a false sense of security. “As long as we are with God’s chosen people, we will be alright.”] 14 So they went on, and the sun set as they neared Gibeah in Benjamin.15 There they stopped to spend the night. They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them in for the night. [Recall how the angels visiting Lot were also going to stay in the square. Nobody is on the lookout anymore.]

16 That evening an old man from the hill country of Ephraim, who was living in Gibeah (the inhabitants of the place were Benjamites), came in from his work in the fields. 17 When he looked and saw the traveller in the city square, the old man asked, “Where are you going? Where did you come from?” [The perfect set of questions for the Church these days, especially the hierarchy.]

18 He answered, “We are on our way from Bethlehem in Judah to a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim where I live. I have been to Bethlehem in Judah and now I am going to the house of the Lord. No one has taken me in for the night. 19 We have both straw and fodder for our donkeys and bread and wine for ourselves your servants—me, the woman and the young man with us. We don’t need anything.” [Notice the strangeness of the Levite’s answer… Is he going to Ephraim’s hill country, or to the tabernacle at Shiloh? He apparently complains that nobody has provided hospitality, but then says he doesn’t need anything. As we have seen already, he is a confused man.]

20 “You are welcome at my house,” the old man said. “Let me supply whatever you need. Only don’t spend the night in the square.” 21 So he took him into his house and fed his donkeys. After they had washed their feet, they had something to eat and drink. [Quite the partier this Levite is.]

22 While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.” [Like the men of Sodom, they are opportunists, but they are also homosexuals. The two dispositions are not caused by each other, but evidently, they exacerbate each other.]

23 The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing. 24 Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But as for this man, don’t do such an outrageous thing.” [This is almost exactly the same as the episode in Sodom. But now watch the turn…]

25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine [the one who had motivated the whole journey he is on, whom he went to retrieve 4 months after her unfaithfulness!] and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. [The men are so full of lust that they are placated by this woman being put in their midst. The Levite’s willingness to do this, however, does not seem to be quite the same as the owner of the house. We do not hear a complaint from the Levite – perhaps he is just a coward. He is half-hearted and uncertain, as we have seen throughout the whole story, except when it comes to protecting himself. Even though he would have been overcome by the mob, he at least could have made his concerns known. After all, the sacred caste has a special duty to speak out against evil! Why is it not the Levite who is exhorting and castigating the mob?] 26 At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

27 When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. [How many victims of abuse are captured by this image? Longing for safety and acceptance, only to have become so weakened that they can merely lay at the threshold.] 28 He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” [See the pastoral skills of the Levite at work.] But there was no answer. [Now comes the turning point…] Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home. [The realization that his half-beloved has been killed seems to move him to mercy. About a thousand years later, Christ will tell a story in which a Levite fails to pick up a man only half-dead for fear of being made unclean. Only now does the Levite begin to be “serious” about loving, and in a way it is too late… But what he lacks in timeliness, he arguably makes up for in grotesque theatricality.]

29 When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. 30 Everyone who saw it was saying to one another, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Just imagine! We must do something! So speak up!” [And this is what we have seen happen. The effects of abuse have been sent around the Earth, in all its graphic nature. The nations are horrified and enraged, and rightly so. In our day, it is arguably worse, as it was not a group of Levites who abused the woman but other men. How much more intense might the reaction of Israel have been if such a thing had happened in the shadow of the tabernacle at Shiloh…]

(20) 1Then all Israel from Dan to Beersheba and from the land of Gilead came together as one and assembled before the Lord in Mizpah. The leaders of all the people of the tribes of Israel took their places in the assembly of God’s people, four hundred thousand men armed with swords. (The Benjamites heard that the Israelites had gone up to Mizpah.) Then the Israelites said, “Tell us how this awful thing happened.”

So the Levite, the husband of the murdered woman, said, “I and my concubine came to Gibeah in Benjamin to spend the night. During the night the men of Gibeah came after me and surrounded the house, intending to kill me. They raped my concubine, and she died. I took my concubine, cut her into pieces and sent one piece to each region of Israel’s inheritance, because they committed this lewd and outrageous act in Israel. Now, all you Israelites, speak up and tell me what you have decided to do.”

All the men rose up together as one, saying, “None of us will go home. No, not one of us will return to his house. But now this is what we’ll do to Gibeah: We’ll go up against it in the order decided by casting lots.

12 The tribes of Israel sent messengers throughout the tribe of Benjamin, saying, “What about this awful crime that was committed among you? 13 Now turn those wicked men of Gibeah over to us so that we may put them to death and purge the evil from Israel.” [Again, like we’ve seen in the two other passages we’ve looked at before, the penalty which is seen as appropriate is extreme – but so too has the evil been extreme.]

But the Benjamites would not listen to their fellow Israelites. [One might be inclined to say that they don’t want to go down the rabbit hole on this.] 14 From their towns they came together at Gibeah to fight against the Israelites. 15 At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred able young men from those living in Gibeah. 16 Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred select troops who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. [We see now two groups – the Benjamites, who don’t seem to think that retribution for a crime is all that important when it concerns men of their own kin, and the men of Gibeah themselves, the one who actually perpetrated the crime. They are now defended by many armed men, including highly skilled warriors – who shoot from the “sinister” hand.]

17 Israel, apart from Benjamin, mustered four hundred thousand swordsmen, all of them fit for battle. [They have far more men, but Benjamin is more greatly invested in victory… Their own existence seems to be on the line.]

18 The Israelites went up to Bethel and inquired of God. They said, “Who of us is to go up first to fight against the Benjamites?”

The Lord replied, “Judah shall go first.”

…(the Benjamites kill 22,000, then 18,000 in a series of battles commanded by the Lord – they pray and fast and weep and ask again if they should go up)…

The Lord responded, “Go, for tomorrow I will give them into your hands.” [God has desired the fighting to occur even though He knew Benjamin would cut down so many good men. But now, God will fight on the side of the good guys.]

29 Then Israel set an ambush around Gibeah. 30 They went up against the Benjamites on the third day and took up positions against Gibeah as they had done before. 31 The Benjamites came out to meet them and were drawn away from the city. They began to inflict casualties on the Israelites as before, so that about thirty men fell in the open field and on the roads—the one leading to Bethel and the other to Gibeah. 32 While the Benjamites were saying, “We are defeating them as before,” the Israelites were saying, “Let’s retreat and draw them away from the city to the roads.” [Benjamin is lulled into a false sense of security by their apparent dominance, then this arrogance is capitalized on by the other tribes. What exactly such a strategy would look like today, I do not know.]

33 All the men of Israel moved from their places and took up positions at Baal Tamar, and the Israelite ambush charged out of its place on the west of Gibeah. 34 Then ten thousand of Israel’s able young men made a frontal attack on Gibeah. The fighting was so heavy that the Benjamites did not realize how near disaster was. 35 The Lord defeated Benjamin before Israel, and on that day the Israelites struck down 25,100 Benjamites, all armed with swords. 36 Then the Benjamites saw that they were beaten. [Ultimately, the victory belongs to God. And it will come unexpectedly and swiftly.]

The Israelites go on to destroy all the cities and towns of Benjamin, although a small remnant of Benjamin escapes alive, not only because no tribe can be entirely snuffed out among Israel, but also as a reminder that evil can never truly be entirely rooted out in this life. The Levite’s lack of good sense is what occasioned all of this, however. While he is not the perpetrator of the abuse himself, he could have taken many steps to avoid such a catastrophe. There are many lessons here for clerical culture – the importance of clear boundaries and categories in relationships, dedication to frequent and right worship, a clear sense of purpose and personal identity, appropriate distance from worldly pleasures, careful decision-making, and courage to speak out against evil – even, sometimes, in the face of the mob.

Next time, we’ll look at some of the personal psychology involved in abuse… Be sure to subscribe to be notified!

Scripture and the Crisis – Part 2

Eamonn Clark

See Part 1. Let’s take a look at a different aspect of the crisis – the “cover-up.” We turn to the Book of Joshua, just after the destruction of Jericho, the city of sin. The spoils were supposed to be dedicated to the Lord and put in His treasury in the camp… or else.

JOSHUA 7

But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel. [Achan wanted some gold for himself. What belonged to God, and to the whole camp collectively insofar as they offered it together, was held back for personal gain. While Achan’s remote intentions are unclear, surely he sought to advance himself politically and socially.]

Now Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth Aven to the east of Bethel, and told them, “Go up and spy out the region.” So the men went up and spied out Ai.

When they returned to Joshua, they said, “Not all the army will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary the whole army, for only a few people live there.” [After the victory at Jericho, the archetypal city of sin, the Hebrews are feeling very good about their position over Canaan. They have grown presumptuous and inattentive to their own sinfulness.] So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water. [How strange that with our comparatively few clergy we used to be effective at converting the world, but now things are different. Something has happened… And often, the people who don’t worry about the numbers, or who have no real plan to reverse their trend in ordination numbers, are part of the problem, as we have been seeing.]

Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. And Joshua said, “Alas, Sovereign Lord, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! Pardon your servant, Lord. What can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?” [Joshua realizes the harm that has been done to their reputation… The defeat at Ai will become an incentive for attack from the whole land.]

10 The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? 11 Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. 12 That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. [So, what is sacred that has been hidden? It is the priest’s life itself… It belongs to God, and to the Church. It does not get to be treated as his own, it cannot be hidden away – it must only be “hidden” with the Lord, like all sacred things, but then its flaws are in view for all to see. Just like the spoils of Jericho, every priest is taken from among sinful men and made sacred to the Lord. And if some priest is not a good “offering,” he must either be reformed or discarded.]

13 “Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: There are devoted things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them. [Israel is to be reminded through this consecration that they are not a normal people, they are God’s own inheritance. This gives them insight into how egregious this crime is, and why they have failed to conquer Ai – and will continue to fail until the situation is remedied.]

14 “‘In the morning, present yourselves tribe by tribe. The tribe the Lord chooses shall come forward clan by clan; the clan the Lord chooses shall come forward family by family; and the family the Lord chooses shall come forward man by man. 15 Whoever is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of the Lord and has done an outrageous thing in Israel!’” [The investigation begins. It is thorough, and the stakes are made clear from the beginning – the one who is guilty will pay with his blood. Nothing less will suffice as punishment.]

16 Early the next morning Joshua had Israel come forward by tribes, and Judah was chosen. 17 The clans of Judah came forward, and the Zerahites were chosen. He had the clan of the Zerahites come forward by families, and Zimri was chosen. 18 Joshua had his family come forward man by man, and Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was chosen.

19 Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and honor him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me.” [The little piety that is in Achan’s heart is taken advantage of by Joshua to profit the whole camp, and ultimately, Achan’s own soul.]

20 Achan replied, “It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: 21 When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.” [One must wonder what would have happened had Achan continued trying to hide the spoils. Surely, it would have turned out even worse for him and for all Israel than it is about to.]

24 Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. 25 Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.”

Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. [Achan finds himself in a fate similar to that of Sodom and Gomorrah – utter destruction, along with the destruction of his incidentals, in this case his possessions and his children. Nothing of the wickedness of Achan must be allowed to continue on, lest something so terrible be repeated. Furthermore, an example must be made. Despite it seeming like Achan’s children are wronged here, perhaps they, too, were complicit in the cover-up. There are other ways to explain their demise, but this is certainly a possibility. Why did the children not turn over their father to Joshua, or at least return the stolen goods? Surely, they knew about the crime…] 26 Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. [A memorial to deter future wrongdoers.] Then the Lord turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor ever since.

The things which belong to the public honor of God, such as the integrity of priestly life, cannot stay hidden away. Some might accuse me of “magical thinking,” but it seems confirmed by experience that priests leading double lives usually do not make many converts, do not devote long hours to the confessional, and do not deliver that kind of preaching which moves to greater faith, hope, and charity. They might indeed attract much curiosity and intrigue, they might make the parish a lot of money, they might be great social activists, but the real spiritual battles are not being fought by them. Such a man is forced to stay away from what is truly holy by the weight of his own conscience… Either his sin must go, or the Lord must go.

Scripture and the Crisis – Part 1

Eamonn Clark

In several posts, I have tried to provide some context to the present crisis of morals in the Church. As always, the linchpin is Holy Thursday and Good Friday – we are always doing better than that – but here I wish to give sexual crimes and cover-ups a deeper treatment through looking at a few examples in Scripture. I will present an abbreviation of the text and my own gloss.

The first story, familiar to most, is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot’s escape.

GENESIS 19

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”

“No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.”

But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. [Lot is a quiet force for good in Sodom. He sits at the gates on the lookout. He knows what is around him, and he has a real concern to keep his guests safe from harm. He offers his own house so that they will be under his own watch, and then he gently suggests that they should get out of the city quickly afterward – he even uses unleavened bread to feed them, as will also be used later in the Exodus as a symbol of hasty departure.] Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” [These men are opportunists, but they are also homosexuals. They do not want Lot’s virgin daughters, they want his male guests. This group has grown large enough to protect themselves, as they come from all parts of the city. Although they arrive at night, they are open about what they want. We can infer that they have been at this for some time – they have corrupted the young and incorporated them into the group, likely as a lower caste. Twice we hear about the bifurcation between the ages within the group.]

Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” [Lot knows that he cannot stop the men from sinning. Knowing the lesser evil, he proposes it to them. He can’t do anything else – it is beyond his power. Despite being “in the know,” his responsibility is limited. Undoubtedly, his opinion on this group is already well-known throughout the city.]

“Get out of our way,” they replied. “This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door. [We see the manipulative and coercive tactics of the group… Command, ridicule, threats, and finally violence.]

10 But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. 11 Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door.

12 The two men said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here—sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, 13 because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.” [God does tolerate great evil, but only up to a point. Evidently, the existence of such a group has become intolerable, and death is their penalty.]

14 So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were pledged to marry his daughters. He said, “Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city!” But his sons-in-law thought he was joking. [Lot finds that his whistle-blowing lacks effect. His sons-in-law surely know of the evil in the city, but they don’t believe it is bad enough to warrant divine intervention. Could there really be that much of it? And is it really that wicked to begin with? Etc.]

15 With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished.” [The way to protect oneself from being destroyed in Sodom is to run away from it. It is not Lot’s responsibility or prerogative to reform or rehabilitate the group, it is to distance himself from it.]

16 When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them. [Incredibly, Lot is somewhat attached to the city. It is familiar to him and is pained by the thought of putting it behind him. The purification, although he knows it is necessary, is a fearsome thing.] 17 As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!”

23 By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land. [With the rising of the sun comes a plain view of Sodom and Gomorrah. God wants what comes next to be seen.] 24 Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens. 25 Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land. 26 But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. [Curious schadenfreude, or misplaced mercy and regret? Either way, it was not virtuous. One of the few who was supposed to be saved destroyed herself by failing to keep her sights set in the right direction.]

30 Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave.31 One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to give us children—as is the custom all over the earth. 32 Let’s get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father.”

36 So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. 37 The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. 38 The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today. [The end of the story leaves our hero in disgrace. Lot thought that since he had escaped the evil men of Sodom, he was safe. He was not – he carried evil with him. He failed to stay vigilant, as if he believed the destruction of Sodom destroyed all the evil in the world. His own fall into perversion, while unintentional, leads him to become the father of two wicked races who would later persecute the sons of Israel, trying to keep them from reaching the Promised Land.]

The wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, not spared even after Abraham’s pleading, called for a proportionate punishment, which in this case meant the absolute destruction of the cities. (There is archaeological evidence of the historical truth of this account, by the way.) God “gets it.” Coincidentally – or not – August 30th saw the 450th anniversary of an Apostolic Constitution by Pope St. Pius V which legislated degradation and then death for clerics who participated in the perversion of Sodom. Such curious times we are living in. But as Lot’s ultimate downfall shows us, no one should presume to be above depravity, even those who fight against it.

Next, we will look at a story about a cover-up… and how it goes awry.

True Myth Part 3: Noah’s Ark, Utnapishtim’s Ark

Eamonn Clark

So here’s a shocking fact for your Monday afternoon… The story of Noah and the Flood is reiterated in ancient cultures across the entire planet. China, the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, North and South America, Oceania… In all these places we find a story about a pre-historical global flood, typically brought on by divine power in response to some problem or frustration, a hero who wins survival (almost always with a boat in which he protects some other living creatures), and ensuing re-population, usually after a prayer of thanksgiving. Some even have their own version of the mysterious “Nephilim” and the “sons of God” who fathered them, mentioned immediately before the story of Noah – and not just in the Ancient Near East. What does that tell us?

Possibly a lot, especially given a defining characteristic of the Jewish version… Unlike the other heroes, who are saved because of their strength or cleverness, Noah is saved because of his righteousness.

Beyond this, the order of the world after the Jewish Flood is quite different, including a clear provision for violence in both sustenance and punishment; there is a covenant; and in the end of the story we find the very roots of the rivalry between the Jews (the descendants of Shem… “semites”) and the Canaanites (the descendants of Ham). Quite significant.

The words “Noah’s Ark” often brings one of two visceral reactions: open mockery or full-blown fundamentalist zeal. I suggest that neither are warranted. Without an attempt to unpack every intimation of salvation history and every echo of other Flood narratives, here are some quick thoughts for consideration.

The story of Noah is much subtler than people usually give it credit for. Like many Biblical texts, it has a chiastic structure (ex. A, B, C, B’, A’), where each part of the story is “undone” or “reflected” in reverse order later on, with the apex being the moment that God “remembers” Noah. Also, the Ark is not an “equal opportunity” vessel: one pair of each of the unclean animals, seven pairs of the clean animals. Of course, all life is contained in the Ark – nothing outside survives the Flood. The point is to purify the Earth… although some “impure” things are kept alive intentionally, thus pointing towards some later, more complete purification.

Perhaps this helps explain why violence is explicitly sanctioned by God after the Flood – both to kill animals for food, and to kill men as punishment (“Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed…” – Gen. 9:6). The antedeluvian order is not simply reiterated, lest it go awry once more. Since God commits Himself to refraining from destroying the whole Earth again as in the Flood, the race of men evidently need the right to govern themselves more severely, and to “cleanse” their concupiscence by eating flesh. (It is not entirely clear that eating meat was forbidden before the Flood, but it is at least explicitly allowed after.)

Unlike Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Noah does not win immortality; in fact, he dies shortly afterward. And lifespans get shorter in general. (Bossuet notes this in his wonderful book The Continuity of Religion – a wetter, cooler climate would lead to shorter lives, goes his explanation.) So what was the Flood for? It leads to an arguably more violent world order with shorter lifespans, and the ritual impurity aboard the ark was outmatched by the spiritual impurity of Ham, who shames his father Noah and becomes the patriarch of the wicked race of Canaanites whom will be purged by the descendants of Shem. Could it be pointing at a spiritual order yet to come, where lives are yet longer, and there is no bloodshed, in crime or punishment, and no need to purge anyone from the Earth? It seems that the story expresses this longing, which cuts through all cultures… The Flood doesn’t present itself as a permanent solution.

While we should expect similar stories across cultures about eternal things, the similarities between Flood myths are striking. Could there have really been some prehistoric event, perhaps in North East Africa or the Fertile Crescent which was carried by early human migration across the planet? It’s certainly possible.

Supposing this, what would that mean for the Jewish account of the story? Are the Jews simply “sprinkling some God on it” for the sake of some theological agenda? Whether that is true or not, it remains that the text itself is inspired – apparently, this is the version of the story which God prefers, and its lessons are the ones to be learned. This would be true regardless of its literal historical status. The text is revelatory and so can tell us His own private thoughts and actions – such as a covenant or moral prescriptions. Whether the historical figures of an ancient flood did precisely what Noah did is not exactly the point either way. Reducing Scripture to mere “brute fact” history cheapens it in a way. God’s inspiration of “epic history” – however “literally” historical – makes him like a supernatural version of Herodotus. He gives us the interpretation of important historical events which is most conducive to salvation.

And that perspective is what has to inform any Christian study of comparative religion… God knows well the context in which He has taught and appeared and uses it to His advantage. A universal Flood myth, healed and spiritualized by the Jewish account, is a great example.

Egyptian PR, Church PR

Eamonn Clark

There is a well-known principle of studying history known as the “criterion of embarrassment.” We see it vindicated in our own day in America every time some self-righteous SJW campaigns to demolish a statue of a Confederate general or what have you, and they call it “progress.” The Romans called it “damnatio memoriae” – the destruction of a person’s memory. It often involved scraping out their names from stone epitaphs… not far off from the methods of the SJW’s. And we see similar things done throughout the world in every age in an attempt to cover up the bad things to make the culture look better than it really is.

The Egyptians did it too. Those of us engaged in apologetic work will sometimes hear the claim that there are “no records” of the Jews having been in Egypt or having left it, therefore, etc. (Never mind the fact that Egypt is like an iceberg – we’ve only discovered the tip.) There are at least two problems with this, corresponding to each part of the claim.

First off, what rich society wants to dedicate precious resources to memorialize their slaves? Even the amateur historian knows, for instance, that even though it appears that we have loads of knowledge about Heian Japan, this knowledge almost exclusively concerns the “1%” of the population – the imperial families, those closely related to them, their hobbies and personal endeavors, and a bit about the military class. We know next to nothing about the lives of the average farmer or merchant, despite knowing all about the aristocratic Fujiwara clan. And that’s how we should expect it.

In the second place, military defeats were embarrassing events for the pharaoh, signaling divine disapproval and encouraging enemy attacks. If I recall correctly, there is not a single known ancient Egyptian record of their nation suffering a military loss. So why should we expect a record of their abject humiliation by their slave-class? That would be extraordinary.

The Jews, on the other hand, are extraordinary indeed. They bucked this dominant trend of self-chronicling. Instead of highlighting their victories to the total eclipse of their failures, the most cursory glance at the Torah – let alone the Prophets – reveals a people obsessed with detailing their own corruption and failure, set in contradistinction to the fidelity and glory of their God.

This is remarkable. It is not how human beings operate. This is “Jewish PR.”

In “Church PR,” there are several things to keep in mind:

  1. The potential public scandal of a revelation
  2. The reputation of the individual perpetrator(s)
  3. The risk of a later revelation
  4. The good of the victim(s)

It seems that in general there has been extremely poor evaluation of the last two items over the past few decades. I should not have to defend that position these days.

Protecting the public good name of the Church is certainly laudable. And it is surely unwise to be too quick to publish names and unnecessarily destroy reputations and cause furor, especially over mere accusations or the mildest perceptions of impropriety. But we should have no “criterion of embarrassment” in Church PR.

Christ did not instruct the Apostles to cover up the actions of Judas, and the Jews were quick to recall how terrible many of their ancestors were. The animating principle there was not a thought about “what people will think,” but rather, “what God will do.” For the faithful have always known that His power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. 12: 9) In a crisis, a little panic and ineptitude from leaders is understandable, but those who try to make the institutional Church look “stronger” than it really is may as well throw the sleeping Jesus off the boat like dead weight and try to save themselves from sinking in the storm. (Mt. 8: 23-27)

The right order of priorities in any kind of impropriety on the part of Church officials seems to be the reverse of what I have written above… The good of the victim must be the fundamental value, and this should only increase in importance given due consideration of the possibility of later revelation, a situation which almost invariably makes things worse. Then the good name of the perpetrator must be considered in accord with right reason. Finally, almost as an afterthought, one might see if there is a way to minimize the public nature of the affair for the good of the Church’s popular image, without affront to any other values. If that’s not possible, then it’s on God to make it work long-term, just like with ancient Israel.

We are only partially responsible for how people see the Church. God gives sufficient grace to everyone, after all. When we are put in a position where we have the immediate power and authority to help individuals who have been harmed by the institutional Church, then we are entirely responsible for attending to their legitimate grievances, whatever the broader consequences. Let the world know that Judas did something bad. Tell them that he was a bad priest. Better now than later, because in the meantime there will be a festering cover-up implicating more and more people, and crimes which could have been prevented by absence or deterrence will go unstopped.

That’s what happens when the Church uses Egyptian PR… the mighty are cast down from their thrones. (Lk. 1: 52)

 

Main image: “The Weighing of the Heart” from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (even the ancient Egyptians believed in final justice)

Being Critical of the Historical-Critical

Eamonn Clark

I am watching some lectures on Scripture which were put out by Yale’s divinity school – it is quite an interesting experience. After many years of formation in what might be called “catechetical Scripture studies,” from CCD, to a Catholic university, to seminary, to a Roman pontifical university, encountering at length the material presented at an Ivy League school is like being thrown into a tornado.

It’s not that the material is altogether new or revolutionary – although some of it is certainly quite new and interesting to me, even edifying – it is the attitude which undergirds it which strikes me as bizarre. I have known a long time that this approach is out there, especially in higher education, but it’s my first time really having meaningful exposure to it.

Without making accusations of the professors I am watching, (and I have not even come close to finishing the courses,) a few characteristics leap out at me of this way of teaching and studying Scripture. Each follows the other.

  1. It is dogmatic. The conclusions tend to guide the argument – the texts can’t be harmonized, the stories can’t be historical, the authors must be pseudonymous, etc., etc. It seems the grand conclusion which is protected by these kinds of conclusions is that God can’t really be entering into creation. Further, there is a dense wall of “scholarship” which protects these conclusions, and because this scholarship is the newest and most popular, it must be the best. It seems rather off-limits to use “traditional” sources in a serious way. In one word, it is Modernist, or at least has strong Modernist tendencies.
  2. It reverses the mysterious character of the Judeo-Christian story. By taking away the traditional positions on questions of historicity, authorship, dating, etc., a veil of mist is put over the text – “What does it mean? Who wrote it? When? Why? Where did they get their material from?” These questions occupy the student, while the mystery of the Living God presented by the text is basically ignored.
  3. It is purely didactic. There is not a further purpose to understanding the history of the Scriptures. They are merely items of curiosity – a bit like how Herod enjoyed John the Baptist, who is easily seen as the representative of the entire prophetic tradition… Interesting? Yes. Convicting enough to cause a personal conversion? No, not here. And when the call comes to sacrifice its integrity for the pleasure of the world, of the academy, or of one’s own personal life, there will perhaps be reluctance, but there will be obedience. The quest for the “historical Jesus” is no grander than the work of any historian; it is just more dangerous to discover and hold fast to the truth. Since historical-critical exegetes are, by and large, not in it for a real encounter with the God of Abraham, the danger isn’t really worth it. Not all that long ago, probably even at Yale, to enter a program of theological studies required faith. That is to say, if the school were Methodist, one had to be a Methodist in order to study theology there. Anyone else, so the thinking went, was wasting their time.

So why continue watching? Well, I enjoy knowing what the “others” are up to, so that when I meet them I know where they’re coming from. Second, there certainly are plenty of real insights presented. Third, it is better than watching cat videos.

We need to use the historical-critical method in the right way – as an aid to what might be called the “spiritual method.” For example, to know that there were other Flood narratives in the Ancient Near East (and well beyond, even into the Americas, might I add,) is probably helpful to understand the composition of the text of Genesis, but knowing the differences helps us to know something – really to know something – about how our God is different. In this case, one major difference is that Noah is saved because of his virtue rather than his cleverness or strength…

In the past few months, I have become especially interested in the world of myth and how it relates to salvation history. Therefore, I have decided to start a series on the topic, called “True Myth,” that title of Christ shared with C. S. Lewis by Tolkien. Stay tuned for more, and be sure to subscribe.

7 Reasons Why We Needed the Ascension

Eamonn Clark

Bertrand Russell, perhaps the most famously atheist man of the 20th century, was asked on his deathbed what he would say to God if he met Him when he died. Russell said, “Sir, why did you take such pains to hide yourself?” Among the many objections to the Christian Faith, and to revealed religion in general, is this: that God does not make Himself evident enough. It is an understandable difficulty – if God is so good and wants people to know Him, why does He not make Himself more openly available? Clearly, the Ascension invites this question, especially when combined with the limited appearances of the risen Christ… He appeared to the Apostles, some other close disciples, and a nondescript large group in Jerusalem. Why not to as many as possible? The Romans? The Greeks? The Native Americans? (Thus the attractiveness of the Mormon doctrine that Jesus visited the Americas.)

We can start to answer this question with another question: should Jesus have jumped off the parapet of the Temple, as the Devil had suggested? Assuredly not, simply because He did not. While Jesus responds by rejecting the proposition because it would “test” God, we ought to be struck by the fact that it was not part of God’s design that the Christ would do such open miracles as flying around for all to see. Instead, the miracles of Jesus are, for the most part, quite obscure and hidden. There is chaos in the multiplication of the loaves, there is darkness and rain in the storm when He walks on the sea, the healings and resuscitations are done “inside” the body, etc. That’s why a depiction of Jesus like this might seem a little bit “off”:

When Jesus does fly, it is in front of a small group of hand-picked men, it is not to prove His power, and it is only done for a moment before He disappears into the clouds. Why did He not do a flyover of all of Israel, or even beyond?

Most of all – why did He not just stick around? Surely, the sight of a 2,000-year-old Jesus would be a definitive sign of His power for any sane person. He could continue His public ministry, and we could have a world leader with a perfect vision of human flourishing. It would have been easier especially for the Jews, who were basically expecting this kind of “worldly” Messiah anyway.

Let’s start with Christ’s own explanation for His departure: so that the Holy Spirit can be sent. Why is the sending of the Spirit contingent on Christ’s departure? One answer that comes to mind is that it would have been confusing to have such a dynamic… Why the need for the Spirit when Christ is physically here among us? If He remained, it would have been tempting to ignore the action of the Holy Spirit which moves us towards the spiritual union with Christ, that union which is called charity… People would have insisted on seeing Christ “in person,” since He would not be omnipresent the way He is now thanks to the sending of the Spirit Who teaches us to pray, as Paul says.

This leads us to the second reason for the Ascension, which is given by St. John of the Cross – the disciples’ relationship with Jesus was too sense-based and needed to be spiritualized. “Stop holding on to me,” as He told the Magdalene, “for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” (John 20:17) The relationship with the risen Christ is going to be of a different kind: one in the Spirit. Prayer and the Sacraments make much less sense if the physical Christ remains among us – they would seem like cheap imitations of a physical encounter or a direct word to or from Christ in the flesh. The Eucharist would be especially confusing… How is it that Christ is here and is consumed, but also physically over there, where He can be directly seen? His continued physical presence would prove to be a great obstacle to the appreciation of this mystical union.

Third, the popular hope of a worldly Messiah is destroyed by the Ascension. No doubt, after the Resurrection, the Apostles were still wondering when they would start a war with Rome and bring peace to the land of Israel. Jesus had been demonstrating during His public life that this was not the plan, but the misguided hope yet lingered. For the idea of a worldly Messiah to go away, the Messiah had to go away. Christ shows us Who He is and what He is really about when He goes back to Heaven – the King of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Another reason presents itself immediately, which Sheen offered, namely, that in order for a man to become truly great he must die. Only after the completion of one’s life can people make a judgment about how well that life was lived. As Qoheleth says, “There is no embalming like a good name left behind; man’s true birthday is the day of his death.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2) Of course, Christ does not die at the Ascension, but His public life “dies,” which suffices. Nobody is waiting for Him to make a mistake, like the Pharisees used to do.

Fifth, in the Ascension, Christ transfers responsibility onto the Apostles, and by extension, onto the whole Church, for the task of making disciples. He does this in word and in deed: in word by commanding the Apostles to preach and to baptize (the “Great Commission”), and in deed by removing His bodily presence so that nobody could defer responsibility to Christ directly in these matters. With this enormous duty comes an enormous privilege and joy: to participate in the life of God insofar as He governs, teaches, and sanctifies His people.

Next, given that Christ is “one step removed” from the normal exterior functioning of the Church, it takes a purer kind of assent to enter into the Church’s life. One must have a more resolute determination to trust in God if God is using secondary causes to do His work. In other words, the added difficulty of Christian faith presented by Christ’s physical absence – especially given the circumstances of the Resurrection appearances – redounds to our merit for believing. The low-bar is set higher, as it were, giving those who make the “leap” the winners of a greater prize than what it might have been otherwise, and those who don’t will be the recipients of milder punishments. (Why the bar is set specifically there and not at another height seems unanswerable except by an appeal to God’s wisdom.)

Finally, Christ’s Ascension points us towards our own final destiny – dwelling in the presence of the Godhead – and makes us hope for it. Unless He returns very soon, we too will die, rise, and hopefully appear before a Friend rather than a Judge, and then be brought into Heaven. Where Christ physically went, He brought our human nature with Him in His own, and so this is also a sign of our present status as ones who also currently dwell with God, albeit in a dimmer way. Furthermore, the thought of Christ’s return is particularly important in helping us to acknowledge that we are waiting for His help – resurrection and judgment are not mere promises of a King on Earth, they are promises of a Savior Who resides in the very place to which we aspire, where He is preparing a place for us with Him.

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below! Happy Ascension Thursday Sunday.

 

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