Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Longest Day

In the 19th century, a Christian asked a famous Rabbi why Jews do not have a catechism, a written summary of their beliefs. The Rabbi answered, "The Calendar is our catechism." For a Jew, the rhythms and rhymes of the calendar formed a narrative which was meant to be lived. The catechism was not read as much as it was experienced as the year unfolded.
It's true for Catholics, too, as we live our own liturgical calendar (which is essentially the Jewish calendar transformed around the person and life of Jesus). 

There are so many treasures hidden in the calendar. Here's one I find particularly rich, especially if you're a sun lover. It's about the theological meaning of longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice, June 21.

Look at the calendar and you'll see that it is the Memorial of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga. Which may seem innocuous enough. 

But zoom out a bit--bear with me if you dare--and you'll see that June 24 is the Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. Spin the calendar like a globe and you'll see that perfectly opposite this on the calendar is the Nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ, December 25 (obviously Dec 24 being the Vigil). 

What does it mean? Saint John the Baptist is born just as the light begins to fail. Similar to many of the Old Testament prophets, his arrival both announces--and through that divine word--it also triggers the darkness, which is summed up by collapse of the cosmos. John the Baptist is "Elijah" whose entrance onto the scene initiates famine and strife...almost to the point of complete darkness. He--Elijah in the Old and John the Baptist in the new--brings the situation to point of trial, tribulation, desperation and darkness. 

The point is St. John the Baptist triggers--and his birthday on the calendar liturgically coincides with--the diminishment of the light and warmth, two things we need for life. Recall that John Himself said as much of himself: "I must decrease" (John 3:30). 

And so in our experience of our annual lived "catechism" we experience the diminishment of light at the coming of the greatest Prophet, John the Baptist, who announces and triggers the attack of darkness that the Lord Himself will overcome. Just as John the Baptist and Jesus worked in a kind of tandem of inverse complementarity, so the two halves of the calendar: From June 24 onward, the light and warmth of the sun gradually, if imperceptibly, diminishes...right up until Dec 24, when in the that dark and cold of Christmas Eve, Christ is born....of whom John says, "He must increase" (John 3:30).

Just to make the point clearer, St. John the Baptist will liturgically diminish into his own darkness on August 29, when we celebrate his beheading. The light will continue to fade until, as I said, the birth of the Light on Christmas, and gradually His work of restoring the cosmos will gradually unfold. In Holy Week, His struggle with darkness and death with its climactic moment when He dies, rises, ascends and sends the heavenly fire of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (all this happening usually in March or April).

So: since Jesus' gift of the Holy Spirit is able to recreate and perfect all of creation, the light and warmth continues to expand until June 21st...the longest day of the year. What John the Baptist announces and inaugurates--the coming of God's judgment on this world--Jesus brings about (in the Cross) and overcomes (in the Resurrection, etc). All this is indirectly and quietly packed into the liturgical experience of June 21, and the surrounding bright days. 

In Arizona where I live, June 21st is long. The sun stays in the sky seemingly for ever. It always makes me think of that mysterious vision that St. John has in the Book of Revelation of when Heaven and Earth definitively come together, and God's creation is perfected. He says, "The night will be no more. They will need no light from lamps of the sun, for the Lord God will be their light." June 21st is meant to be an experience, a delightful and earthly reminder, of this theological truth of the future. (I can't imagine how must more "eternal" the day feels in Alaska or other more Northerly places on June 21st). Shout out to you Michiganders. 

So that's what June 21 means on the Catholic liturgical calendar. It symbolizes the day when the Light of Christ has expanded to fill every dark nook and cranny of creation and when the "night" of sadness and death will be no more. 

It teaches us not to fear when God allows the light to diminish (who is the Elijah and John the Baptist in your life? Who in your life "triggers" your humility and helps your ego and plans to diminish? Follow them!). 

It teaches us that when we let God (however humbly and imperceptibly) into our lives in the silent and dark of Dec 24...He will, if we permit Him, make us to resemble, little by little, the glory of June 21.

So I give you June 21st: the longest--and probably a rather unnoticed but nonetheless awesome--day of that Catholic catechism we call the calendar.  

Friday, June 20, 2014

Seeing the price of her freedom

For all those who desire deeper interior freedom...or wish to understand the deepest causes of real freedom...consider these words on St. Mary Magdalene from the great and late Fr. Hans Urs Von Balthasar. It's meaty and dense, but give it a shot. I'm on my third read of it today. Good stuff. I'd love to know what gems you find in it. Let me know!

from Magdalen
 by Hans Urs Von Balthasar

"At the Cross she learns how much it cost him to deliver her from seven demons.  Even before that she was certainly filled with nothing but gratitude and had placed all she had at the disposal of Jesus and his followers.  Freed from a sevenfold servile bondage, she had entered a freedom unknown to her like one who steps out of a gloomy dungeon into the open air.  Everything within her was drawn toward her liberator, to whom she owed a completely new existence exceeding all her hopes.  For these reasons what she experiences at Golgotha cannot be put into words.  Her liberator cruelly nailed up in a tortured death agony and she, the one he set free, unable to do anything at all to free him.  Moreover, she knows, unbearably, that her freedom to love him is purchased by this torment.  She cannot return to her prison and thereby set him free; she must simply endure having her freedom paid for with this breathtakingly high price.  She realizes that her offer of love can do nothing now to brighten the dark night of his abandonment by God.  She cannot offer her suffering as a balm for his.  His is alone, on the other side of a broken bridge.

She cannot make herself useful in any way.  She hears the death rattle, sees the blood run from his open side, but it is the men who take the corpse down after Joseph of Arimathea finally returns from seeing Pilate and buying the linen.  They may have laid his body on his Mother's lap, but certainly not on Mary Magdalen's.  She is an observer and remains one while the corpse is prepared for and finally placed in the tomb, which is then sealed.  "Mary Magdalen and the other Mary stayed there, sitting down across from the tomb" (Mt 27:56).  Behind the stone that cut off her line of vision lay what had once been her life.  For the entire following day the stone of the Sabbath weighed heavily upon her existence and robbed her of all action.  "On the Sabbath they rested according to the law" (Lk. 23:56)
Then comes the report of a Resurrection morning that cannot be entirely reconstructed with certainty: carrying their spices, the women find the open tomb; Magdalen runs to the disciples to give them the news (before or after the angels' proclamation in Mk 16:5-7?) and then finds her solitary way back to the grave for the great scene reported in Jn. 20:11-18.  Neither the gaping emptiness nor the conversation with the two angels who sit at the head and at the feet of a missing corpse, not even her words to the supposed gardener, can drive the opaque darkness of Good Friday away from the woman's soul.  Only with the name: "Mary" does the whole light of the Resurrection flood into her.  And therewith the heavy rock that separated her from her Master under the Cross is pushed aside: "Mary - Master" is a pure merging of love.  Yet in the same moment a new curtain of separation falls: "Don't hold on to me."

The woman must hold.  The man holds not: he takes hold and lets go; he goes his own way, does his own deeds.  But in his taking hold he forces the woman to hold, and she will hold the child in a completely different way than he.  And, if the man holds her not, she has a deep desire to hold God, to present herself to him as a "bride" whom he cannot leave behind.  The same applies if Mary is personam Ecclesiae gerends, that is, playing the role of the Church, as the Church Fathers say: the Church must also grant freedom to her Bridegroom ("If it is my will, what does that matter to you?" Jn 21:22-23).  For that is the only way she receives the freedom of Easter.  As she lets go, she can receive Jesus' message for his brethren; had she clung tight in spirit, she would never have been able to carry it out.  The Lord granted the woman - both as the Church and as the individual - freedom to say nothing of her experience with him and rather simply to pass on his message.  "Mary Magdalen went thither and announced to the disciples: I have seen The Lord, and that is what he told me" (Jn. 20:18).

The men - who dismiss the women's message as "empty talk" and receive a scolding from Jesus for having done so - take over the proclamation of the Resurrection, with Peter as their head.  The message of the women disappears behind them (in Jewish law women were not legitimate witnesses).  But this message dare not be forgotten, for it is the message of that Church who was present at the end of the Crucifixion and the first to be granted a glimpse of the Resurrection.