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DARK SYMBOLSTOP ∧

Vol 47 No 1 March 2017

 

Moby Dick was a huge whale, hunted across the globe by the obsessive Captain Ahab who sought to avenge the loss of his leg to the whale on a previous whaling expedition.  His ill-fated quest is the subject of the sprawling mid-19th century novel by Herman Melville.  Moby Dick was white.

 

In Chapter 42, the narrator reflects on the Whiteness of the Whale, on the rather vague nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in comprehensible form.  It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.

 

There follows a passage extolling the refined beauty of whiteness – in marble sculptures and pearls, the innocence of brides and the benignity of age.  White is used in liturgical vesture for solemn celebration and the alb derives its name from the Latin word for white.  In the Vision of St John, the redeemed are clothed in white robes and they stand before the great white throne.  Yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet and honourable and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.  This elusive quality it is which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds.

 

This is how symbols work, for symbols are multivalent, even ambivalent.  We speak of water as a sign of life and growth, and yet we know that water is for drowning in.  That is why our liturgical books recommend baptismal immersion, to reveal the reality of dying and rising with Christ.  The security of the womb is wrenched open when the waters break and the newborn is brutally thrust into a new existence.

 

We express the joy of Easter resurrection with a bonfire and carry the flames into the darkened church.  Yet every Australian knows the destructive power of bushfire, a terrible association made raw by our safe electric heat and light.  Open fires are a rare experience in urban life and hold an edge of terror.

 

What then of the dark side of whiteness?  It rears its head already in Melville’s catalogue of the beauties of whiteness.  This pre-eminence in [whiteness] applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe.  A century and a half later, the issue here is clear, but it is not blunt.  It presents itself rather subtly.  Whiteness theory treats whiteness as a social construct; it is normalised, taken for granted and is therefore invisible.  (The history of whites in Australia is just plain Australian history.)

 

How then do we articulate a baptismal theology of whiteness?  Baptism is an act of ritual cleansing and purification.  By this washing, we are admitted to the community of those who are saved by Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The anointing with chrism which follows the washing is a welcome into Christ’s holy people and then immediately the newly baptised is clothed in white:  You have clothed yourself in Christ; see in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity.

 

The lectionary for the catechumenate includes the words of Psalm 51:

O wash me more and more from my guilt

            and cleanse me from my sin…

            O purify me, then I shall be clean;

            O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.

 

Does the elusive menace of the white whale lurk in our baptismal symbolism of washing and purity?  Given the invisible and normative presumption of whiteness in Australia, can we any longer innocently associate baptismal purity with whiteness?  Is there an unspoken assumption that the Christian community, washed in baptism and beloved by God, is ‘normally’ white?

 

St Paul writes strongly to the Church at Galatia:

Every one of you that has been baptised has been clothed in Christ.  There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor free, there can be neither male nor female – for you are all one in Christ Jesus (3:27-28; see also Col 3:11).

 

As a person descends into the font to be washed clean, is not whiteness the dirt to be washed away?  As a person descends into the font to die to the old self and put on Christ, is it not the taken-for-granted privilege of whiteness which must die?  What do we mean when we say that the white garment is the outward sign of our Christian dignity when baptism means the setting aside of whiteness rather than the embrace of whiteness?

 

It is ultimately a question of how those baptised into Christ exist without compromise in an imperfect world.  Baptism ought mark a certain disjunction with the society in which we live, an affirmation not of the status quo but of a solidarity with the oppressed and disadvantaged.  How does the Christian become a sign of the kingdom of God?

 

+++

 

These reflections have been prompted by a very challenging article in Worship (July 2016) by Andrew Wymer and Chris Baker: “Drowning in Dirty Water: A Baptismal Theology of Whiteness”.  Against the background of several black deaths in custody, the authors put some very challenging questions.  One sentence from their conclusion reads: White people who have not examined how we have been complicit and benefitted from the oppressive forces of whiteness, white privilege and white supremacy enter the Red Sea of baptism primarily as the oppressor, and if the baptismal process does not address these expressions of racism, we will re-emerge from the baptismal waters with more in common with the Egyptian soldiers than with the Hebrew slaves… an aspect of the miracle of baptism is that the baptismal waters have the power to change us.

 

TOM ELICH

Editor

WRONG-FOOTED RULESTOP ∧

Vol 46 No 4 December 2016

 

The people of our time stand uneasily before the mystery of death.  They want to remember and venerate the person they love who has died.  They can tell stories and eulogise.  But what else can they do?

 

Christian funeral rites can support the bereaved; the faith enshrined in the liturgy can articulate for them the mysterious shape of life after death.  As the dead person leaves our arms – arms that may have nursed them in age or illness – we commend him or her into the arms of God’s love and mercy.  God, who cares for us in life, receives us and holds us in death.

 

The resurrection of Jesus is one of the fundamental planks of Christian belief.  Because of this, we know that Christ is alive and present in the Church, in word and sacrament.  Our baptism makes it personal.  Each person is thus joined to the Body of Christ and follows Christ in life and in death.  Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning.  As the liturgy says, Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.

 

The Rite of Committal of a person’s earthly remains affirms that the place which claims our mortal bodies becomes a sign of hope that also promises resurrection.  The way we treat a body in death affirms the dignity of the human person, and that is why care of the dead is listed among the corporal works of mercy.

 

Christian faith in the doctrine of the communion of saints further affirms a profound solidarity between the living and dead.  The spiritual union between Christian people and those who have passed through the veil of death offers the bereaved comfort for themselves and an opportunity to assist the deceased through prayer.  We intercede for one another in this life and beyond this life.  The liturgy encourages this in the twin feasts of All Saints and All Souls.

 

Reflections such as this are theologically sound and pastorally helpful in accompanying the bereaved and in strengthening the faithful as they confront death.

 

All these things are outlined in an Instruction To Rise with Christ issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 15 August 2016.  Notwithstanding this inspiring teaching, the Congregation has managed to produce a statement which will offend many for, half way through this short document, its tone changes.  The bee in their bonnet is the issue of burial versus cremation and the ‘correct’ way to treat the ashes after cremation.

 

We cannot condone erroneous ideas about death, the Instruction states, considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the ‘prison’ of the body.  This is the prelude to the treatment of cremation.  Of course the Instruction acknowledges that the Church has no doctrinal objections to cremation, but claims that burial shows a greater esteem towards the deceased.  It envisages cremation may be chosen for sanitary, economic or social considerations.   Cold language!  It wounds Catholics who have chosen cremation for themselves or their loved one.

 

The Congregation states that ashes must be laid to rest in a sacred place.  This is defined as a cemetery or an area set aside for this purpose and dedicated by Church authority.  This will ensure that the dead are not excluded from the prayers of the Christian community and will prevent them from being forgotten after a generation.  On the one hand, we have here a beautiful rationale for parishes to establish a columbarium in or near their church.  This laudable practice is increasing and is an excellent way to express the communion of saints and our interdependence in prayer.  It captures the spirit of the churchyard of old.  On the other hand, it does not represent the reality of many of our large urban cemeteries and the endless walls of niches at our public crematoriums.  These are frequently vast, soulless and anonymous places which hardly recognise the dignity of the children of God.

 

The Instruction then forbids the conservation of ashes in a domestic situation and the practice of dividing them among family members.  Next, it forbids the scattering of a person’s ashes in the air, on land or at sea, citing the appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism.  The presumption of bad faith in these practices is offensive to those who have carried them out with the greatest love and respect for the deceased.

 

The Congregation would have done well to concentrate on the principles of Christian hope and honouring the dead, without descending to the practicalities of burial and cremation.  These are shaped by local tradition and culturally determined.  Alternative practice need not compromise in any way the principles which Christian burial is said to safeguard.

 

In addition the Instruction shows an alarming lack of historical perspective.  In the Middle Ages most ordinary folk were interred in mass graves.  The bodies of royalty were frequently dismembered so that their head, heart and body could be interred in different places.  The bodies of the saints were likewise split apart, for to multiply the locations of the saint’s remains was to multiply the devotion.

 

Andrew Hamilton SJ, always a wise and balanced commentator, writes in Eureka Street (1 November 2016):  Certainly, cremation is open to possibilities that the Instruction does not envisage.  Sprinkling the ashes over the sea or a place significant to the dead person, for example, can be consistent with an informed Christian sensibility.  It need not be pantheistic.  In the lives of many Catholics, Paradise places are deeply significant.  These are places where they have experienced a deep sense of God’s presence or calling and which, when remembered, lead them easily into prayer.  In wishing to have their ashes sprinkled there they may express thanksgiving for the gift of God’s creation and also their hope for the transformation, not only of their own bodily existence, but also that of the natural world in the final resurrection.  While loaded with personal significance, this gesture need not simply express an individual whim, still less withdraw the dead person from their community and its memory.  The significance of the person and of the place where the ashes are scattered will be held in the stories and memories of those present at their funerals.  And the place associated with them may trigger memory in the same way as would a graveyard.

 

This final remark presumes that the dispersal of the ashes is an integral part of the Order of Christian Funerals.  Sometimes, when there is to be a cremation, the funeral liturgy in the church is followed by a Rite of Committal at the hearse or at the crematorium.  When the ashes are ready, they are given to the family and, unless there is a parish columbarium, the Church has no further involvement.  This is a mistake.

We ought to forget about the intermediate step of the crematorium and celebrate the Rite of Committal at a time prearranged with the family for the disposition of the ashes – at a gravesite, in a columbarium or wherever.  This rite, adapted to the circumstances, will honour the faith of the bereaved, offer respect for the deceased person and help to create a sacred place of memorial by the very act of placing or dispersing the ashes in the context of the liturgy.

 

TOM ELICH

Editor

NAILING IT OR NAILING IT DOWNTOP ∧

Vol 46 No 3 September 2016

 

After two years’ consultation and vigorous discussion in the two Synods on family life, I think Pope Francis nailed it in his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia – nailed it especially in chapter eight where he talks about accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness. He shows how a pastoral response of mercy accompanies people in irregular situations, seeing what is good and heroic there, and discerning a way forward which may not necessarily correspond to the ideal. The variety of circumstances in which people find themselves cannot be pigeonholed or made to fit rigid classifications.

 

If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is  understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognise that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases’, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same (AL 298).

 

Pope Francis points out that it is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be  disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail (AL 304).

 

There have been fierce critics of this logic of pastoral mercy. Recently a theological critique of Amoris Laetitia was sent to every member of the College of Cardinals by 45 scholars who lamented the fact that its vague and ambiguous statements have caused grief and confusion to many Catholics and constitute a grave danger to Catholic faith and morals. The signatories ask the pope to nail down nineteen propositions which they consider heretical or erroneous. They argue that the lack of precision contradicts Church teachings or justifies abandoning them. Black-and-white clarity is the most important value in Church discourse.

 

The same kind of personality is operative in the liturgy. There are some who would see every detail of the liturgy nailed down in a rubric or an authorised interpretation of a rubric. Is this allowed? is a common question. The answer, according to the rubricist, needs to be carefully conjugated from liturgical and legislative documents or, where these do not exist, from ancient textbooks such as Fortescue and O’Connell’s Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described. This has been a disappointing development in recent decades.

 

The Second Vatican Council sidelined this approach with a more pastoral and theological direction, urging liturgists and worshipping communities to understand the dynamic purpose of the rite, its structure and movement, so that the liturgy can become an eloquent expression of spiritual realities. This new approach has been widely ridiculed on conservative blogsites under the banner of The Spirit of Vatican II which is said to justify any kind of nonsense. But that is not the case.

 

In the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, for example, the first statement made about the Introductory Rites is that their purpose is to ensure that the faithful, who come together as one, establish communion and dispose themselves properly to listen to the Word of God and to celebrate the Eucharist worthily (GIRM 46). Whatever else is said about the elements which make up these introductory rites or in the rubrics given in the Order of Mass, they are subordinate to this purpose. When the Entrance Chant is first mentioned we read: Its purpose is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers (GIRM 47). This is how a decision is made about what to sing at this moment in the liturgy. The question is no longer Is this allowed and by what rule? but rather Will this accomplish its purpose?

 

 Such an approach requires people who prepare the liturgy to be better educated in liturgy and to have gifts of discernment. What kind of assembly is this? What resources do we have? How can we celebrate well? How can we achieve the purpose of the rite? This is much more than rubrical choreography. We can copy here for the liturgy what Pope Francis wrote about human relationships: It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail.

 

The rubrics of the Roman Missal must be read and implemented differently in a Roman Basilica, an Australian suburban parish church, or a tiny country church with a handful of participants. One size does not fit all.

 

Then, if we take a step back and realise that the liturgy is not primarily something that we do, but rather our immersion into the profound mystery of what God is doing in our midst, we again realise how superficial is a focus on precise rubrics which specify our movements and gestures. Do we imagine that we can, in this way, nail down the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection in a few prescriptive actions? I am genuinely shocked that people sometimes approach the priest after Mass, apparently unaware of the inexhaustible mystery of salvation experienced in the liturgical assembly, and can only whine, You didn’t stand on the step or You didn’t genuflect or You changed this word…

 

Perhaps the most ambiguous and open moments in the liturgy are the periods of silence. That is why they are so important in the liturgy. Silence may be prayer or recollection; it may be meditation; it may be anguish and lament; it may be joyful praise and thanksgiving. Among the most powerful images coming from Pope Francis’ visit to Poland for World Youth Day were those in which he sat silently in the death camp at Auschwitz. It is an immersion in an unspeakable mystery, ultimately beyond any words or rubric or ‘clarification’. It shows us how we should participate in the action of the liturgy.

TOM ELICH

Editor

A MILLION MADONNASTOP ∧

Vol 46 No 2 June 2016

 

Recently I saw for the first time the statue of Our Lady of Sheshan. It is located at the National Shrine, the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians, in Shanghai, China. I discovered that it is a very special image for Chinese communities around the world. Commissioned in 2000, it shows the Virgin Mary holding the seated figure of the child Jesus aloft, high over her head. The child has outstretched arms as though embracing the world from the cross. I was deeply impressed.

 

With a million madonnas to choose from, how does a parish prepare an artist’s brief for the Mary shrine in their church? Of course, one could choose one of the standard images – Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima, Mother of Perpetual Succour and so on. Sometimes one of these titles has a particular connection with the church or the community that worships there. But it is generally an uninspired choice to ask an artist to copy or even reinterpret one of these stereotyped images in modern style.

 

The first consideration for any church art (and especially devotional art) is that it is not primarily an expression of the artist’s creativity or individuality. Rather artistic talent is placed at the service of the church community and its faith. This issue needs to be tackled with some subtlety. Suitable art for churches is the result neither of a survey in the pews nor of straightjacketing the artist. It comes from dialogue and a relationship of mutual respect, from collaboration and a common understanding between artist and parish.

 

Theologically, devotion to the Virgin Mary always points to Christ. While honouring the Mother of God, [Marian] devotions cause her Son to be rightly known, loved and glorified, and all his commands observed (LG 66). Mary cooperates in the work of salvation by her fiat which gives the world its Saviour, Jesus the Christ. This right order is important for a parish shrine and has led some to advocate that Mary only be portrayed with the Christ child. This might be a sound generalisation but it admits of many exceptions. I think of the Mary Shrine commissioned for the Cathedral of St Stephen in the late 1980s. It represented Mary, Woman of Faith: it is the Virgin of the Annunciation and powerfully affirms the mystery of the incarnation and our recognition of human life from the first moment of conception.

 

This principle of showing Mary and Christ together however is itself not enough. The Virgin and Christ child have often been seen as a type of mother-and-child imagery. Here the tender and loving relationship between mother and infant takes centre stage. The figures look at each another and interact with each other in a way that can easily become sentimental. Many madonnas of the Italian Baroque are charming but theologically weak. This is Jesus showing us his mother.

 

The devotional shrine draws in those who come to pray and venerate the image. Through the image, Mary helps the faithful establish a new relationship with Christ. Mary, as the Vatican Council affirmed, is Mother of the Church, that is, just as she is mother of Christ so is she mother of the disciples who form the Body of Christ. The best Marian imagery for ecclesial devotion therefore has Mary presenting Christ to the people of God.

 

Romanesque madonnas often show a very formal Virgin – the Seat of Wisdom – with Christ on her lap facing the viewer. The famous Madonna del Parto by 16th century sculptor Jacopo Sansovino, found in the church of Sant’ Agostino in Rome, has the child holding a dove but standing on the Virgin’s lap, writhing and ready to leap forward. Or in Jacob Epstein’s 1953 madonna and child in London’s Cavendish Square the Christ child prefigures the entire mystery of Redemption accomplished on the cross. Then the triumphant Lady of Sheshan! This is Mary showing us her Son.

 

 

TOM ELICH

Editor

WASHING FEETTOP ∧

Vol 46 No 1 March 2016

 

Do you understand what I have done to you? Do we understand what we do in the ritual action of the washing of the feet?

 

The stickler mistakes the Mandatum for a rubric. The men who have been chosen are led… to seats prepared in a suitable place. Then the priest… pours water over each one’s feet and then dries them. The little word viri/men has been something of a battle ground for the sticklers. But Cardinal Bergolio in Buenos Aires, Pope Francis in Rome, and countless bishops and parishes around the world have understood the Mandatum. It is the commandment that we love one another as Christ has loved us: If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what +I have done to you.

 

On Maundy Thursday – Thursday of the Mandatum – we are not re-enacting the Gospel we have just heard. It is not theatrical playacting, but a ritual act of loving service. We may place ritual and theatre on a performance continuum.

This understanding of the kind of performance we are undertaking liberates us from the thinking that says: the priest represents Christ and (twelve) men, the apostles. What we say about the washing of the feet informs the entire celebration of the Easter Triduum. We need to go beyond the theatrical imagination that sees us at the Last Supper on Thursday evening, standing by the cross as Christ dies on Good Friday, waiting by the tomb on Holy Saturday and exulting at the resurrection on Easter day. For at Holy Thursday Eucharist, we already participate in Jesus’ Passover from the cross to glory; on Good Friday, we are gathered for liturgy because we are the living Body of the risen Christ. At each of the ritual moments, we celebrate the entire Paschal Mystery from a particular perspective.

 

The ritual washing of feet is a participation in Jesus’ life of loving service, a self-sacrificing love that leads directly to the cross and God’s vindication. It is the giving of himself for the salvation of the world. It is not an act directed at a chosen few. When I am lifted up, I shall draw all people to myself, says the Lord.

 

Washing feet has always had a special place in the liturgy of the Church of Milan. It is part of the baptismal rite. Ambrose, in his fourth-century mystagogical homilies, makes it clear that this is no mere mimetic or social gesture. There are those who try to excuse themselves by saying that it should not be performed as a mystery, not as part of the baptismal rite, not for regeneration, but that this washing of the feet should be done as a host would do it for his guests. However humility is one thing, sanctification another. You must know that this washing is a mystery and sanctification. ‘If I do not wash your feet, you shall have no part with me’.

 

For John’s Gospel too this action of Christ at Supper has a profound significance. The other gospels have Jesus take bread and wine and say: ‘This is my body given for you’; ‘This is the cup of my blood poured out for you’; ‘Do this in memory of me’. These ritual actions and words establish a profound link with his cross and resurrection in which we participate when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. John instead has the washing of the feet. It too establishes a profound link with the self-sacrifice of the cross and invites our participation in the Paschal Mystery. Jesus says, ‘You must wash each other’s feet: I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.’

 

We see then how the ritual fits into the Mass of the Lord’s Supper of Holy Thursday. There is a special mention that, as the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar, gifts for the poor may also be presented. Our participation in Christ, who came not to be served but to serve, suggests that we might wash the feet of the poor and marginalised, the young and the old, the sick and the healthy, women and men.

 

Further the liturgy asks the priest in his homily to shed light on the principal mysteries that are commemorated in this Mass, namely, the institution of the Holy Eucharist and of the priestly Order, and the commandment of the Lord concerning fraternal charity. Each of these of course is intimately linked with the cross. A focus on the Last Supper as some sort of institution of the priesthood and ordination would tend to emphasise the need to have men for the washing of the feet. Indeed those who are unhappy with washing the feet of women fear it might be an effort towards women’s ordination. However the traditional theology of the institution by Christ of the seven sacraments is vexed, especially if we try to locate a particular moment when each sacrament was established. Instead, I would suggest, washing women’s feet represents a rebalancing of the ‘principal mysteries’ commemorated on Holy Thursday. It gives a priority to the Mandatum of mutual charity which embraces all human beings, especially those who are poor or in need.

 

Some of the sticklers are already blogging that the rite is optional and they would rather leave it out. The Sri Lankan bishops are pushing it as a counter-cultural sign in a country where men and women normally refrain from physical contact in public. For most of us, the new rubric for the washing of the feet will not make much difference because it simply affirms the pastoral instinct operative for decades. But it is a great opportunity for us to think again and to understand what it is that Christ has done for us.

 

TOM ELICH

Editor