St. Bernard Gets It

I think you’ll see why they call Bernard of Clairvaux “Doctor Mellifluus.”

This the prudent Virgin understood when to the prevenient grace of a gratuitous promise she joined the merit of her own prayer, saying: “Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

Be it done unto me concerning the Divine Word according to Thy word. May the Word which was in the beginning with God be made flesh of my flesh according to Thy word. May He, I entreat, be made to me, not a spoken word, to pass unheeded, but a word conceived—that is, clothed in flesh—which may remain. May He be to me not only audible to my ears, but visible to my eyes, felt by my hands, borne in my arms. Let Him be to me not a mute and written word traced with dumb signs on lifeless parchments, but an Incarnate, living Word vividly impressed in human form in my chaste womb by the operation of the Holy Ghost.

Be it done unto me as it has never hitherto been done to mortal, and never shall be done to any after my time. “God diversely and in many ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets”1—to some in the hearing of the ears, while to others the word of the Lord was made known in signs and figures. Now in this solemn hour I pray that in my own being it may be done unto me according to Thy word.

Be it done unto me—not preached to me in the feeble strains of human eloquence, not shown forth to me in the figures of earthly rhetoric, not painted in the poetic dreams of a fervid imagination, but breathed upon me in silence, in person Incarnate, in a human form veritably reposing within me. In His own nature the Word needed not change, was incapable of change. Yet now graciously in me “may it be done according to thy word.” Be it done universally for all mankind, but most especially for me—” Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

Saint Bernard, Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent & Christmas: Including the Famous Treatise on the Incarnation Called “Missus Est” (London; Manchester; Glasgow; New York; Cincinnati; Chicago: R. & T. Washbourne; Benziger Bros., 1909), 71–72.

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Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus

Death on a Friday Afternoon

The subtitle of John Richard Neuhaus’ Death on a Friday Afternoon is Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross. Being a Protestant myself, I could not tell you what those last words are off the top of my head, but I can tell you that they are the seven final sayings (not single words, but sayings) of Jesus delivered from the cross, that they are drawn from across all four Gospels, and that they have been a vital devotional tool among Roman Catholics for hundreds of years. (I can also link to them.)

To structure the book, Neuhaus devotes one chapter apiece to each of the sayings, interpreting each around a single point. The result is truly a prophetic book. I call it prophetic intentionally, using a word that is overused and misused, because in this book the Jesus of the Scriptures, of human history, of the Great Tradition, of the Godhead, is proclaimed as the Jesus who speaks to our world today. These are the kind of words that Hebrews 4 describes as “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow…able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” We may not want to hear them, because we might get cut.

One very distinct message across the chapters which I did not expect to find here: Neuhaus believes that when we look deeply at Christ crucified, we will find in his suffering and death the hope of salvation for all. Here, Neuhaus’ understanding follows very closely on Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? in arguing that love of neighbor and faith in a God who is love mean that Christians are on entirely solid theological and Biblical footing when we hope that Christ’s work will result in an empty Hell. This hope of universal salvation through Christ is raised repeatedly and strongly throughout the book.

Honestly, while Neuhaus’ legacy as a pastor and spiritual writer is forever (or maybe just for folks my age and older?) tangled in his political legacy, Neuhaus joined the Catholic Church in order to come under the authority of Christian orthodoxy, and his embrace of the hope for universal salvation through Christ is helpful to those sorting through that knotty-in-this-moment issue. That is to say, despite “conservatives” decrying Rob Bell’s 2011 Love Wins, which nudged us to imagine the eternal outcomes of the unfathomable love of God (my 3-part review of that book here), there were no peeps when Neuhaus, “conservative” champion, published his own popular audience book in 2000, writing forcefully,

Christians must hope that Hell is empty, that the mercy of God reaches also those who willed damnation for themselves, that God draws them back, despite themselves, into the heart of love. Balthasar writes, “Here lies hope for the person who, refusing all love, damns himself. Will not the person who wishes to be totally alone find beside him in Sheol the Someone who is lonelier still, the Son forsaken by the Father, who will prevent him from experiencing his self-chosen hell to the end?”

It is a question, but it is an inescapable question, that drives to the hope at the heart of the horror. If, as St. Paul says, Christ who knew no sin was made sin for us, can there be any sin he did not bear there on the cross? If the answer is no, as I believe it must be, then even the utterly forsaken one are not bereft of the company of the utterly forsaken one, the Son of God, and therefore not bereft of hope. Thus even the will to damnation is damned and thereby defeated by the One for whom and in whom damnation is not allowed the last word.

It is a powerful argument, because it makes those of us still unsure how to think of Hell within the love of God ask of ourselves, “Does the power of the cross fall short at some point?” It also make powerfully clear that from St. Paul to Jesus’ own words to other writers of the New Testament to theological giants including Aquinas and von Balthasar, there is some solid footing to hope.

Death on a Friday Afternoon, finally, is the kind of book that makes it harder for me to preach after reading, because I find my own words flogging the afflicted and leaving no one comforted in comparison. I recommend the book unreservedly, although it certainly (as you can see from the quoted portion) is heavy reading for many audiences.

I Gave Up Manuscript Preaching for Lent

On Monday mornings, I review my sermon video from the day before. (The churches I serve are 40 and 20 in regular weekly attendance, and I use the Zoom Q2HD in the first service, which is at the larger church. This is not some high-budget televised or even live-streamed thing, so don’t use the excuse that your preaching assignment is too small to be worth recording and reviewing. Regarding expense, the Zoom plus memory card was sub-$200, and I use a free video editor, a free audio editor, a free podcasting service which iTunes picks up and lists for free, and then post the audio on a free Facebook page, so even the smallest church can be sold on this investment in good preaching.)

My notes range from: “good emotions in announcements” to “energy ebbs at…” to “the sermon is too long because…” to “shave your face before next week.” For almost the entire time that I have been doing this (July of last year), I have been annoying myself with lack of eye contact, and months ago I realized that using a manuscript was keeping me from actually learning how to preach.

Transitioning off of manuscripts is a cold turkey process. Knowing that, I kept putting it off until some utopian week when I would have extra time to prepare and then make the jump. (N.B.: Those weeks don’t exist, and somewhere in my heart of hearts, I’ve known that the whole time.)

Finally, I picked up Preaching on Your Feet: Connecting God and the Audience in the Preachable Moment by Fred Lybrand because it was really cheap on Kindle one day. It’s not a great book, but it is a great kick in the pants. And so I decided to give up manuscript preaching for Lent.

The thought of this scared me so much that I started a few weeks early, and I did it not just without manuscript but without notes at all. I hated the results the first week, and it was hard to believe it would improve, but I was committed. Consider how in Mario Kart everyone who is good uses the Manual Mode, but if you start out on Automatic, you will experience a dip in your abilities when you make the switch to Manual. I definitely experienced a dip going from manuscript to no notes. But…no one in my churches noticed (or if they did, it wasn’t any worse than any other dips I’ve had for other reasons).

This week, however, I think I may have preached better than I have ever preached in these two churches. Yes, I went long. (Quick! Can I modify Communion without messing up something important? No. Quick! Which verses of the closing hymn should we cut? The middle ones, for no good reason.) I also was so much more present to the congregation, and I can see it on the video. It was so encouraging, even as I already know enough about preaching that it is never going to be just up-and-up-and-up.

It’s Monday again. Better start sermonizing.

If you’re going to die, do it like God did.

Yesterday morning I had the privilege of looking a bunch of people in the eye one-by-one and smudging up their foreheads a bit as I called them by name and told them, “I just want to remind you: you are going to die. Soon.”

Okay, no, I didn’t say that. I said it the proper, church-y way: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But, because I had mentioned in my homily how much preaching an Ash Wednesday service reminds me of preaching a funeral, and that that is exactly what the words and the ashes mean, I did have one of my parishioners smile back at me and reply, “Yup. Sooner rather than later.”

Laughing at death in a church. I think that’s exactly where we should laugh at death, because, no, it doesn’t seem right to laugh at death at a funeral. There is, after all, a time to grieve. But we do laugh and rejoice in the face of death, not because death has no power, but because it has no ultimate power (Life:Death::Lightning:Lightning Bug). There is a certain amount that Christians really do need to “Eat, drink, and be merry” in the face of death’s nearness.

It’s a combination of preaching week after week for all but four Sundays since last July plus spending some time lately with the Apostolic Fathers and now Justin Martyr that makes me see just how deeply strange is this thing we call Christian life. All the stories are strange, but old stories from any source are always strange. No, the strangest part of this Christian life is not those old stories but how we say they are not old–they are new and they are our story.

The things Christians do and call faithful worship evidence their truth in the reality that if we are not pointing to and participating in the Truth, then we are an ornate, expensive, time-wasting, needlessly painful circus act. Early Christians knew this as they gathered together and shared the Lord’s Supper, still repeating “This is my body. This is my blood.” They claimed his Body and Blood were true food and drink, fully aware that they were being accused of cannibalism. They sang songs and found joy and peace and hope in their loser God-Man (which is what again?), fully aware they were being called godless for rejecting all their culture’s gods in favor of this one god who was weak enough and dumb enough to get killed.

But for those early Christians, and for twenty-one Copts this week, and for each one of us who worships Jesus Christ, we believe that the God Who Has Died is the only god who can meet us even in death, the only god who has any right at all to tell us about Life.

Dead Jesus

Lecturing vs. Preaching

The Lecture on the Mount.

Yesterday, I visited one of my parishioners and her husband at their home. It was my first time having a conversation with her apart from brief Sunday morning pleasantries, and so I had a lot to learn. For my particular context, place matters a lot. If you weren’t born here, but have only lived here for 50-60 years, then you aren’t from here. So there are those facts of place and the facts of family–kids, grandkids, siblings, parents–including how close they are geographically and emotionally. But I noticed I have to push myself to make that more difficult turn, to guide the conversation toward current life experiences, if the visit is to make it to the level of excellence.

Today, I sat down to watch and listen to my sermon from Sunday. In the course of watching several weeks of sermons, I have noticed that an unhelpful direction my sermons can take is toward the lecture. The problem stems from my approach, which has been (1) to present the information of Scripture in an accessible way through storytelling and through elucidating historical, cultural, religious, anthropological, political, psychological, and other details and then (2) to make the application to the lives of my parishioners today. What I’ve come to realize is that most of my congregation isn’t as interested as I am in Part 1 (nor do they tend to find it as helpful), and that the way that I pursue it can easily make someone exhausted before they get to a more nutritive Part 2, so they aren’t able to receive that either.

I noticed this two-part design at about the same time that I simply Googled, “What is the difference between a lecture and a sermon?” One helpful distinction: a lecture is giving information to an audience, while a sermon is focused on transformation. The second distinction builds from there: in a sermon, all the information should be in service of the application, rather than simply tacking application on to the information (my tendency). What I am attempting to do now is to live this out to the extreme: a sermon doesn’t just need an application piece; a sermon is an application.

This approach to preaching requires that any information that isn’t directed to the application is left on the editing room floor. By information, I mean all that stuff that is interesting to me and could be helpful in a different context, but which is neither interesting nor helpful in this particular context. A different context could be an academic course, or a Bible study, a presentation to other pastors, a blog post, or simply the next time I preach on the same text to the same congregation.

This application-centered approach sounds a lot like topical preaching, but (for me right now) it isn’t. The topic is (I pray) whatever Jesus wanted to say or do in the Gospel lesson assigned to the particular Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary (or whatever is going on in whichever other assigned text). So maybe it’s not that it’s not topical preaching at all, but that it’s good topical preaching. Or maybe it’s good exegetical preaching. Or just good preaching. I’d be happy with that.

Preaching Small

One of the problem areas I have begun to notice when critiquing my own preaching is my tendency to add theologically dense passages, a practice which I am convinced is never helpful and ever-tempting. From just this past week, part of my conclusion:

This is the work that Christ has done. By the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon the Virgin Mary, at his birth God the Son was united not just with humanity, but with the entire creation. In his death, Jesus showed he would die for love of a dying creation. In his resurrection, he showed he will resurrect and redeem all of creation, completing that task when he returns in glory, but beginning that task in us now.

On a given Sunday morning, I have been working hard for twenty-plus minutes to help a whole congregation to gel as one and to focus in on something important the Lord is saying to us, and then right at the climax, I shout, “Look over there!”

Why do I do it?

First, I am inexperienced. I’ll make sure to put that out there. Second, I like theology. Third, I like words.

Something more important is happening, though: I have failed to recognize that the sermon as we generally define it—that period of exegeting Scripture, comforting and challenging a congregation—is only one part of the proclamation of the Gospel which happens in Christian worship. The sermon is only one piece of the Sunday liturgy, which is only one day in a liturgical year, which is only one year in the life of a Christian, which is only one life in the communion of saints.

I am small, and that is a good thing. Those twinned truths are the beginning of worship, and as such they need to form my sermon each week. My sermon is small, and that is a good thing. I don’t need to say or do everything. I need to do one part. I need to say one thing. And I need to let everyone and everything else perform their parts.

Very practically on a Sunday morning, our prayers are part of the proclamation, and so is our singing, our offering, our gathered prayer, and so is the Creed, and so is our confession and absolution, and so is our gathering at the Table. The challenge is this: can I let those things bear the load of the proclamation, so that my small part we call “sermon” can be comfortable just being its small but important self?

Revisiting Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

Passion of the christ poster

Like most other US Christians, in 2004 I saw The Passion of the Christ in the theater. I was dismissive of it, saw its depiction of Christ’s suffering as purely physical, was bored by the storytelling, troubled by the portrayal of Satan by a female actor, and I know I called its violence pornographic. In the ten years since, I’ve avoided several screenings organized by churches during Lent.

Then, a week ago, on Good Friday, I streamed it on Netflix. And I thought it was great.

The Passion of the Christ is a very strange film, because it is one in which you have to know the story beforehand in order to understand what is happening. I cannot think of a another case where I would praise a film adaptation of a book that worked that way. Imagine, for instance, a film adaptation of Macbeth, but only Acts Four and Five are covered, with a few references to past scenes thrown in, which you assume are meaningful to the people who know the story, but which are meaningless to you as the viewer.

Rotten Tomatoes (recording a 49% from All Critics and 80% from Audience) summarizes the critical response: “The graphic details of Jesus’ torture make the movie tough to sit through and obscure whatever message it is trying to convey.” That’s right: the graphic details make a story which is difficult to follow and unclear in its purpose even more difficult to follow and even less clear in its purpose.

Passion scourge

While that represents the mainstream of critical responses, another strong trend of criticism (mainly among Christians who mostly liked the movie) lamented that while the movie was supposedly dedicated to showing every gruesome detail with historical accuracy, it failed at some points. The nails went in Jesus’ hands, some said, when everybody knows they would have actually gone into his wrists, or he would have fallen off the cross from his own weight against weak flesh. My own part in this stream was that I wondered aloud (even as I knew) why Gibson wouldn’t depict a naked Jesus on the cross.

I returned to the 2004 film ten years later prompted by a conversation with my wife in which she said she found the movie meaningful, and in tearing down the movie I found myself tearing down her (and millions of other people). Why is it that 80% of the people who saw The Passion disagreed with me and most established critics? (While a decent question, honestly, I know it’s not for the reason I came to my own change of view.)

My own reason is that (I think) I’ve come to see The Passion of the Christ for what it is rather than what I thought it was or should be. Film critics expected and therefore saw a film that could be judged by the genre conventions of narrative filmmaking and of film adaptations of preexisting works and of other film adaptations of the life of Jesus. Evangelical Christians saw a Passion that brought Hollywood money to bear on telling the most important part of the Most Important Story. Liberal (this is before “progressive” was the preferred term) Christians saw a Passion marred by a right-wing fringe Catholic filmmaker’s bloody misunderstanding of what atonement is and who the God of Jesus is.

Mel-Gibson-and-Jim-Caviez-007

In reality, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a big-budget film continuation of and representation of a hundreds of years’ old tradition of Roman Catholic devotional art focused on the suffering and death of Jesus. This is why so many of the scenes are composed like classical paintings and why parts of the narrative make no sense without a knowledge of the Stations of the Cross and the various extra-Biblical traditions of how the Passion happened. It’s also why Jesus is not shown naked and why the nails go through the palms of his hands rather than through his wrists. The biggest clue, however, to Gibson’s real intention, however, was right in front of our noses the whole time: the movie’s title.

The Passion of the Christ as a phrase is a theological interpretation of the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth from inside particular theological, devotional, and artistic traditions. “Christ” makes particular claims about who Jesus is, and “Passion” is a much different term than “Death” or “Crucifixion” or even the basic English translation, “Suffering.”

Finally, this doesn’t mean that we cannot judge the Catholic devotional interpretative traditions or the film itself on any merits or against any standards we choose. It is just to say that when we do, we should recognize we are no longer judging the work by its own intentions or on its own terms.

The Crucifixion with St Bridget in Adoration