Editorial: Advent offers chance to rediscover tradition, free from ideologues
Through the mists of two millennia the large patterns become the scholars’ certainties. Jesus as “the centerpiece binding together Israel and the church” is clear in our time as one contemplates the infant narratives.
Celebration, NCR’s sister publication, will publish a new reflection each day during Advent. Learn more here
The image is Fr. Raymond Brown’s in his magnificent An Introduction to the New Testament. Clear, too, are the “bridges,” as Brown puts it, constructed by the Evangelist Luke, one tying the figures representing Israel in the narrative to the infant and the corresponding bridge, which “the Jesus of the Gospels comes across … to instruct the Twelve and prepare them for the coming Spirit.”
In such certainties — our connections to ancient traditions as well as to the fathomless future — lies our solace and comfort. In a year and on the heels of several decades that we in the Catholic community have just experienced, however, such certainty, which maintains in the long view, is all but overwhelmed in the circumstance of the moment.
Leave the standard images of the crib to our children. Adults in the Catholic community this year might ponder the crib as a memorial to all the innocents in our era and within our church, whose souls have been shattered by the violence of sexual abuse, whose families have been forever shaken and altered by the revelations of cover-up. The clarity of the long view has been clouded for us. We stand, wayfarers, wondering which next steps to take and how to avoid further danger.
A steadying hand
Three recently published essays by Jewish writers might provide a steadying hand as many of us reel under the weight of betrayal and scandal, and wonder just what it means, in this moment in the 21st century, to be Catholic.
It is fascinating that, while not romanticizing the church or its historic and present sins, members of a community so long despised by Catholics also see in us wonderfully redemptive and redeeming characteristics. Menachem Wecker’s appreciation of the beauty of our art and architecture and the transcendent qualities of our symbols and rituals draws close to our understanding of the Incarnation and the importance of our sacramental life.
Julia Lieblich, in a complex story of deep personal connection as well as pain, described the powerful allure of our personal pieties and the comfort found through the unshakeable faith her “family” had in Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Rabbi James Rudin has met up close the principal actors who have dominated the stage in the contemporary Catholic drama. He has known, too, many of the layers that are sometimes hidden in the weave of the larger community. And he comes away with profound admiration for women religious and for the church’s long social justice tradition. He pleads that the church not lose its commitment to that tradition.
Claiming no scientific weight to this limited “survey” — a request to outsiders profoundly invested in their own tradition to give their informed impressions of ours — it is fascinating nonetheless to discover what about us they consider appealing.
The beauty of our art and traditions; the power of our devotions; the strength of our ministries and, especially, of the women who convey the heart of the Gospel into all corners of the world.
What they see and appreciate had nothing to do with what some in the Catholic community spend so much time and energy fighting about — an obsession with abortion, contraception, the divorced and remarried and resistance to accepting LGBT Catholics as fully functioning, without qualification, members.
One suspects that their view of us is not uncommon, that our “identity” as a community of the people of God has little to do with hierarchy-fueled fights that feed a base that enjoys the conflict.
Our Catholic identity
Too many of us have tacitly conceded that our identity is, indeed, wrapped up in that tick list of “hot button” issues that generates so much of what passes in the wider culture as the Catholic conversation.
We have been wittingly or otherwise persuaded that such a list, which trivializes weighty issues, constitutes a comprehensive definition of “orthodox” Catholicism. “Orthodox” has about it a ring of ancient authenticity. But the orthodoxy of the current era is anything but ancient. It is a construct of rigorists, largely developed in a U.S. context, that narrows the richness of Catholic tradition to the equivalent of conservative political talking points. Those points, providing the bona fides of “orthodoxy,” relieve the adherents of responsibility for the remainder — nay, the major portion — of authentic Catholic teaching. The bulk of the teaching is given refuge and partitioned off as a matter of “prudential judgment.”
It is faux orthodoxy and has little to nothing to do with authentic tradition. It is grounded in a need for certainty that becomes its own obstacle to faith. We are far more than a punch list of political talking points.
This season of expectation, of wonder at the possibility of God with and among us, is a perfect time to sink into that authentic tradition and to contemplate where we’ve gone off track. How did we get to this point of aberration where the clergy culture itself has become the church’s greatest scandal, and our identity as a people of God could be so crimped and co-opted by religious ideologues?
Those two aberrant strains originate from the same stock. “[O]f all the doctrines of the church Christology is the one most used to suppress and exclude women,” writes theologian Sr. Elizabeth Johnson in She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. “At its root, the difficulty lies in the fact that Christology in its story, symbol and doctrine has been assimilated to the patriarchal worldview, with the result that its liberating dynamic has been twisted into justification for domination.”
That’s a sophisticated way of saying that our God, our religious practices, our doctrines have all been imagined and constructed over centuries by celibate men in a secretive culture shaped “according to the model of the patriarchal household and then to the model of the empire.”
The infrastructure of the empire, in our case, is crumbling. The sense of security and certainty we once may have felt in that form of hierarchy and the all-male images of God is as vaporous as the eternal rule of a first-century Herod.
If only we were able to crawl through the millennial mist and into the scene, and cough on the dust of travel, and wonder how to comfort the aches and insecurity of a first-century pregnancy. If we had to deal with the doubts and fears of a father who, we are told, is tugged between the skeptical glances of his culture and his dreamed instructions from on high, perhaps we could find an alternative comfort and security for our own time. It is in the confusion and uncertainty and paradoxes of that event, long before the community understood the Christ in that Jesus moment, that we might take our comfort today.
This Advent message from the Editors of the National Catholic Recorder in the USA seems applicable not only to the situation of Roman Catholics in the USA but also to all Christian communities that are concerned with basing their ‘tradition’ on ancient paternalistic mores that are no longer valid.
In the pilgrim journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, before the birth of Jesus, we are invited by the writers of this article to consider how the basic understandings of both pilgrims had been challenged and altered by the events that were overtaking them. If Joseph and Mary had stuck to the cultural expectations of their day, there may never have been a ‘Holy Family’ into which Jesus could have been brought into the world at his incarnation.
It took just two people – ordinary human beings like ourselves – to say ‘YES’ to God concerning the epic change that was to come into their lives as a direct result of their openness to change; in order for God’s plan of salvation to be brought into being. The traditional means of procreation had been suspended by God in order for Mary to give birth to the expected Messiah – so that God’s perfect divinity could be intermixed with our common humanity in the womb of Mary, in the only way it could have been brought about – by the sovereign action of the intervention of the Holy Spirit of God.
When we realise that the normal human procreation had already been suspended, in order to bring about the sovereign will of God; we might better and more perfectly come to understand that our human traditions are not God’s last word (“My ways are not your ways, nor my thoughts your thoughts”).
When God’s Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, the world was changed forever and a new tradition was brought into play, one which would become constantly open to the will and purpose of God, whose Spirit would bring continuing renewal and refreshment into the lives and experience of the different social and cultural streams as would become necessary with the passage of time.
Pope John XXIII, when he convoked the meetings of the Vatican II on 11 October 1962, spoke of the need for ‘Semper Reformanda’ – an openness to constant reform of the Church in response to the call of the Holy Spirit’s continuing activity in Creation. This Council was to bring about changes in the Roman Catholic Church – primarily on those parts of the Church’s Tradition that need to be restructured in the light of new understanding of the culture of patriarchalism, usury, slavery, and other aspects of human life that had been part and parcel of a tradition and usage no longer considered to be either necessary or desirable.
The Editors of BCR have recognised the fact that the Church is often the last authority to let go of outdated and unjust quasi-traditions that have become obsolete and no longer helpful or even just. Arguments about the place of women and LGBT+ people, for instance, are still consuming too much time and energy that could better be spent by the Church in education to both cultural and social changes going on in the world that the Church is meant to serve.
We, in the Anglican Communion, have not been immune to problems of adapting to our new situation in the modern world – with factions arising that reject the modern understanding of what is needed to deal with the rising dissatisfaction with outdated traditions. The Church needs to adapt to the changes in attitudes towards women – and the discovery of gender and sexuality differences that have affected the lives of human beings suffering the effects of sexism and homophobia over centuries of prejudice and misunderstanding. This has led to a breakdown of trust between the ‘Sola Scriptura’ provinces of the GAFCON/FOCA movement, which insists on an unchanging attitude to social mores; and those provinces open to a more eirenic inclusion of the development of theological discipline to accommodate the reality of modern life. Schism on these grounds of ‘tradition’ has been brought about because of a lack of willingness to change.
Perhaps we need to re-echo the ancient prayer of the Church this Advent-tide, as we look forward to the celebration of the Nativity of Christ, who brought change and newness of life to ALL creation:
Maranatha! Even so; Come Lord Jesus!
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand