From Tragedy to Glory

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent

Deacon Doug McManaman

This gospel reading, the raising of Lazarus, is so important, because it reveals Christ’s power over death. Only God has the power to open the grave, as we read in the first reading from Ezekiel: “Thus says the Lord God:  O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them” (Ez 37, 12). Jesus opens the grave of Lazarus and has him rise from it. In other words, Jesus is God. He is divine. And this miracle announces what is to come, namely, Jesus’ own resurrection. Lazarus, although he rises from the dead, will also die again, so this is not a complete victory over death. That will take place on Easter Sunday, when Jesus rises from the dead, never to die again. And that is the good news of the gospel: the resurrection. Death has been defeated. 

This is such an important point to grasp. There is so much suffering in this world, so many people whose lives are beset by a tragedy of one sort or another. And tragedy, which has many different origins, is always connected in some way with death. At the root of tragedy is often human error, or incompetence, or worse, human sinfulness and malice. Sometimes the root of tragedy is not human error or sin at all, but the course of nature. Nature’s disasters, however, often lead to human loss and death, and so they are designated as tragedies–without human loss, we would not refer to such events as tragedies. 

But tragedies rooted in human error are more difficult to deal with, and these are tragedies which often are in turn rooted in human sin, such as laziness or overconfidence or arrogance–think of the sinking of the Titanic. But then there are tragedies that are simply rooted in malice, such as the senseless murder of a loved one, a life cut short. Parents can suffer such loss, the loss of a child for example. Such tragedies leave wounds that stay with them throughout their lives, and their lives are practically defined from that point onwards by that very tragedy. 

But here is the point. The word gospel means ‘good news’, and the good news has gravitas. It is weighty and has real consequence. Christ’s death destroyed death. The good news is that Christ has power over death; he conquered death. If we really believe this, then it is the case that whatever tragedy has befallen us, it need not define our very existence. It no longer has the power to crush and deprive us of light and hope. We can allow it to crush our lives and redefine our entire existence, shrouding our lives in darkness, if we so choose. But because Jesus rose from the dead, and because he raised Lazarus, not to mention a twelve-year-old girl and the son of the widow, it need not do so. Death does not have the final word over our lives. Resurrection does. 

All those whom we have loved and who have died, some even in the most tragic circumstances, we will see and touch them again. The resurrection was for us. The Second Person of the Trinity joined a human nature to himself, uniting himself to every human person, as it were; he died and rose in our humanity, joined to his divinity. If we live our lives in him and die in him, he will raise us up as well: “For if we have been united with Him in a death like his, we shall also be united with him in his resurrection” (Rom 6, 5).

And that is why those who have suffered a terrible tragedy as a result of the sinfulness and malice of another person are able, in time, to forgive that person, because they know, through faith, that tragedy is relative. That is what Christ’s death and resurrection has accomplished: he has reduced tragedy from the absolute to the relative. The crucifix, once a symbol of horror, has become a symbol of power, victory, and glory. Death is no longer absolute and final. And so despair is no longer absolute and final, but relative and temporary. 

Those who have no faith in the resurrection of Christ, who do not live out of that faith, will be unable to rise above the tragedy that besets them, and so they are hardened and imprisoned in unforgiveness. But the power of the risen life of Christ is revealed in those who choose to believe in him and in the one who sent him, and they will not allow tragedy to imprison them in the darkness of perpetual resentment and unforgiveness. These are the people who know the risen Christ, whose lives have been illuminated by the hope of resurrection, by the good news of Christ’s victory over tragedy, sin, and death. 

Indigenous Religion and the Sacrifice of the Mass

Deacon D. McManaman

It is always inspiring to teach a World Religions course. What becomes obvious to anyone studying the religions of the world is, first and foremost, that man is naturally a religious animal; he has always aspired to seek a relationship with his origin, the very source of his being, either God, or the gods, or both. Particularly fascinating are the myriads of creation myths of the indigenous peoples around the world, from Australia to Africa, to North America and the Amazon basin. For the indigenous, life itself is religion, that is, life is ritual. The more one becomes familiar with these myths, the more one understands the essence of ritual, that the day-to-day activities of the indigenous peoples are really an emulation of the gods of these myths. Everything they do, i.e., hunting, cooking, giving birth, basket weaving, etc., it is all sacred to the degree that it imitates the acts of the gods or ancestors whose deeds are recounted in myths and legends. 

The indigenous believe that the great sky god created lesser deities, who in turn created the earth, mountains, rock formations, trees, rivers, and man, and the basic pattern of his daily life. All this took place in what the indigenous refer to as the creation period (or the dreaming), a period of time that is sacred, for it is a time that measures the very work of the gods. This sacred time is of an entirely different dimension than ordinary time. To get a better understanding of this notion of sacred time, consider C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, specifically The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When the children pass through the wardrobe, they enter a different world, the world of Narnia, and many years in Narnia amount to about a minute or two of earth time. Similarly, for the indigenous, there is earth time, which is profane time (our time), and there is sacred time in which the gods dwell, and the two are not parallel. Ritual is precisely the way that the indigenous bring sacred time into contact with profane time. In performing ritual, such as an elaborate initiation ritual—which may require an entire season to complete—, they imitate the ancestors or lesser deities, and in doing so, sacred time is made contemporary with profane time. The two different realms are in contact, all as a result of ritual. In other words, the acts of the gods are made present, in the here and now, through the ritual acts of the indigenous, and it is by virtue of this contact that they are renewed, strengthened, and made holy. 

There is one feature of their myths and legends, however, that I have always found particularly striking, and this feature is found all over the world, in the myths of the Australian, African, South and North American tribes. In their myths, there is very often an account of a murdered god. It is an unjust murder of an innocent deity or ancestor, and from the body of this murdered deity will come vegetation of all kinds, i.e., beans, melons, corn, tobacco, or a certain tree from whose wood are made flutes that produce enchanting sounds, like the archetypal flute that was played by the murdered god in sacred time. To create such a flute out of the wood of this particular tree is a ritual that makes present the murdered deity. And to harvest the crops in the fall is a ritual act that includes sacrificial offerings to the deity and festivities, since it is from his sacrificed body that the fruits of the earth come to us year after year. Even the headhunting and cannibalism of certain tribes can only be understood in light of the tribes’ myths, for these acts are always offerings to the murdered god, a re-enactment of the myth carried out for the sake of the blessings that will inevitably follow upon such ritual. 

What is it in the human subconscious that can account for this universal theme found in the creation myths and legends of tribes separated by oceans and thousands of miles? The Church may have an answer for that, and the clues are in the first reading from the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ: 

Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine. He was a priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram with these words: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

How do we explain this reading in which the ancient king of Salem and priest of God the Most High, Melchizedek, brings bread and wine to Abraham, with a blessing? Melchizedek, a pre-Israelite, prefigures the priesthood that Christ established, and of course Melchizedek knew nothing about this foreshadowing or prefiguring, nor did Abraham. And well after Abraham, at the time of the Exodus, the Passover feast was established. The Seder plate prefigures the Eucharist as well. Here the original Passover lamb is sacrificed, and it is the blood that marks the doorposts of the Israelites that is their deliverance. 

To share in the Seder meal is to be part of that Exodus; for the Jews, to share a meal is to enter into communion with all who are at table, because all share in the one food, which is a source of life. When they celebrate the Passover, they believe that what is past is made present, in the here and now, and so each time the Passover is celebrated throughout the centuries, Moses is present in their midst; Jews who celebrate Passover believe they leave Egypt with all of Israel at the time of the Exodus. 

In the gospel reading for that same Solemnity (Corpus Christi), the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish also prefigures the coming reality of the Eucharist. We see this prefiguring of the Eucharist not only in the New Testament, and not only in the history of Israel, which includes a small account of the pagan king Melchizedek, but it goes back further, as far back as the indigenous peoples of the world. God leaves clues throughout history, in every continent and in every people, clues about where He will be found. In the Person of Christ, myth becomes reality. All that the indigenous dreamt of, believed in and articulated is affirmed by God and is brought to reality. We (Catholics) worship a murdered God, a crucified God, and from his body come the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands, the bread of life and the cup of salvation. To partake of this thanksgiving sacrifice is to enter into him, to live in him. And just as the indigenous regard ritual as the way of making sacred time contemporary with ordinary time, a way of making it touch profane time, thereby renewing it, so too has this come to reality in the Eucharist, because to be present at an ordinary Mass is to be just as present at the foot of the cross as Mary and John were two thousand years ago. The sacrifice of Good Friday, which took place 2000 years ago, is made contemporary, that is, re-presented in the here and now. It is not this or that priest who is offering the sacrifice, it is Christ who is the priest who offers the sacrifice, and Christ is the victim, the murdered God, who is being offered. The individual priest is only acting in the Person of Christ (in persona Christi).

And Catholics believe that Christ is the new Passover lamb, whose blood frees us from the slavery of sin and death, and of whose flesh we partake, making us one with that sacrificial offering. And so to eat of this Eucharistic meal is to become one not only with every member of Christ’s mystical body, past and present, but it is to become intimately one with all the faithful of Israel, as well as the indigenous peoples who knew something of this sacrifice, however obscure that understanding might have been. 

One year as I was explaining to some students that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Christ, not merely a symbol of his body and blood, a girl raised her hand and said: “It can’t be. That would make us cannibals”. And of course, she had no idea the religious significance of ancient tribal cannibalism. She saw primitive man with the condescending eyes of the western world, that is, as backward and unintelligent. But it is not that we cannot be like them; rather, when we understand the significance of indigenous myth and the rituals that enact them, we begin to see that we can be like them, we are like them, and indeed they are like us. They yearned to participate in the life of the gods, that is, they yearned for the sacred to repeatedly touch their ordinary existence and make it holy and complete, as we do now. They yearned for the deification of the earth, the deification of creation. God answers man’s deepest longings and aspirations in the mystery of the Incarnation, and ultimately in the Eucharist. God reveals His mercy and humility in joining a human nature and entering into human suffering, and dying on a cross. Like every child, God loves to play hide and seek, and like a good player He hides Himself in unexpected places, under a humble disguise of one form or another. He continues to hide in our midst under the ordinary and humble appearance of a wafer of bread. After consecration, it is no longer bread, although it looks like bread, tastes and feels like bread; it is the substance of his murdered and resurrected body. The sacred has joined itself to the profane, matter is made holy, the food which is creation itself has become the Bread of Life, the bread of angels. Had we in the west paid more attention to the deeper significance of indigenous myth and allowed indigenous knowledge to open our eyes to what has always been present but hidden in our own theology, we would have become more fully cognizant of the deeper brotherhood that unites us all.  

The Necessity of Battle

Deacon D. McManaman

As I reflect back upon the more than thirty years I spent as a teacher, I realize that out of all the school principals I had worked with over those years, only two were brave and relatively exemplary Catholic leaders. One was a man, a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, the other a strong and bright Trinidadian woman. In between these two were a number of men whose leadership style emboldened the enemies of the school, i.e., drug dealing thugs, who, as a result of the timidity they witnessed, eventually gained a level of control over the fearful students of the schools.

I will never forget the day this Trinidadian principal came on the PA and instructed everyone in the school to put down their pens and to listen up very carefully. Her message was specifically addressed to the drug dealers in the school who had begun to provide free marajuana to some of the younger grade nine students, as a way of increasing their clientele. She was incensed at the news that this was happening. With great indignation in her voice, and after instructing everyone to stop what they were doing and listen, she said: “All you drug dealers out there, know this: your days are numbered at this school. I’m coming after you, and I’m your worst nightmare.” She went on for another minute or two chastising them, reiterating her foretelling. All I could think of were all the male principals I worked with in previous years and how they would react if they were to hear such an announcement; without question, every single one of them would have insisted that this woman had lost her mind, that she was a fool for initiating a battle she could not win.

But before her announcement was over, the “kingpin” of the school had been nabbed, for during it, he was out of class wandering the halls and at one point began to jump up and down crying out: “Catch me if you can! Catch me if you can!” At that very moment, a vice principal turned the corner and witnessed it all: “You’re caught”, he said.  He was sent home and expelled the next day. By the end of June, every drug dealer was caught and expelled. At the end of the year, I overheard a vice principal saying to a colleague: “We don’t know how it happened, but we always found ourselves at the right place at the right time”. 

I had to shake my head at this man’s dull witted remark; for it was obvious to anyone with faith how it happened. This woman loved the students enough to enter a frightening battle for them; she had the faith, the trust, and the intensity of love to take the first step in that battle, and when that happens, the Lord takes the next step and battles on our side: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (Ja 4, 8); for “the Lord is a warrior, Lord is his name” (Ex 15, 3). When a person in a leadership position steps out in faith to do what in fact he or she has an obligation to do, to protect the vulnerable and engage in the battle that life in Christ fundamentally is, the Lord joins us: “But during the watch just before dawn, the Lord looked down from a column of fiery cloud upon the Egyptian army and threw it into a panic; and he so clogged their chariot wheels that they could drive only with difficulty. With that the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from Israel, because the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” (Ex 14, 24-25). 

I remember the year my best friend, a priest of a nearby diocese, was assigned to a new parish. On his first day, a group of women introduced themselves to him, referring to themselves as “the bitches of St. Basil’s”, assuring him that “we’re here to give you a run for your money”. These were women who saw themselves as catalysts of true progress; needless to say they did not like the straightforward, back to the basics preaching of my friend. They opposed him at every turn. But my friend too was a “warrior” who loved the congregation enough to actually preach with substance and grit. I recall the Sunday he actually called the ladies out, publicly, loudly and clearly telling them: “If you don’t like it (i.e., the principles and fundamental teachings of the Church), get out!” A few days later, my friend received a call from the bishop, who insisted: “You can’t be telling them to get out”. My friend simply replied, “Well, I have been telling them to get out, and the more I do, the more people come, and the collections are steadily increasing”. In time, my friend even moved the tabernacle to the center of the Church, and just as he began to call the congregation’s attention to the change on the sanctuary, a thundering applause erupted. The ladies never returned after that, and the collections continued to increase. 

What is it that accounts for the increase in Church attendance, not to mention collections? Although determining the causes and factors that explain a phenomenon like this is more complex than intuition would suggest, who can doubt that a significant factor is courageous leadership and a challenging kerygma, as opposed to the innocuous and insipid preaching they were subject to for years, a style of leadership that typically does not appeal to men?

There are many anomalies in our lives, but struggle is not one of them; on the contrary, a life without struggle would be truly anomalous. I recall one principal I worked with who typically identified a good day with a smooth day; conversely, a bad day was one beset by frustrations, conflicts, and difficulties–in short, a struggle. Most people make that identification, but a smooth day is not necessarily a good day, and a day full of frustrations, confrontations, and difficulties might very well be the best and most fruitful day of the week. Many of our leaders today typically identify good days with smooth days, and doing so causes them to regard setbacks, conflicts, uncomfortable confrontations and challenges as anomalies. When this occurs among clergy, Catholic leaders will employ strategies designed to avoid battle altogether. The result is that the Lion of Judah is slowly tamed, and preaching becomes mind numbingly innocuous. However, one cannot win a battle that one refuses to fight, and a lion tamed is not the Lion of Judah (Christ), but an imposter. Moses directed Joshua, both of whom prefigure Christ, to go to battle:

At Rephidim, Amalek came and waged war against Israel. Moses, therefore, said to Joshua, “Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.”

So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur. As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight. Moses’ hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady till sunset. And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. (Ex 17, 1-16)

Moses with raised hands prefigures the crucified, the sign under which we are always victorious. But the decision of a “king” to siesta while his army is at war makes himself vulnerable to a serious fall, as we see in king David:  

At the turn of the year, the time when kings go to war, David sent out Joab along with his officers and all Israel, and they laid waste the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. David himself remained in Jerusalem. One evening David rose from his bed and strolled about on the roof of the king’s house. From the roof he saw a woman bathing; she was very beautiful… (2 Sam 11, 1-2)

The Christian is not called to a life of peace, rest, and tranquility: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man ‘against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household’” (Mt 10, 34-36. See also Eph 6, 10-12; 2 Cor 10, 3-5). Peace and tranquility are only moments of reprieve in a long war; they are gifts from God, and although we would like that state of affairs to endure perpetually, as did Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, the Lord assures us we don’t know what we are talking about and directs us to come down from that mountain to continue the struggle. 

The decision to face conflict for the sake of the gospel is rooted in a love of God that extends to our neighbor; on the other hand, the decision to avoid all conflict is a decision to avoid battle. Immediately following these verses, Christ points out that “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”. In other words, whoever loves his own peace of mind more than the division and conflict that life in the Person of Christ inevitably brings about is not worthy of Christ, for such a love amounts to a refusal to fight under the sign of the cross: “…and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10, 38). The follower of Christ has to be willing to lose his life in battle if he is to find life: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10, 39). 

The effeminate, which includes both males and females, are characterized by an unbecoming delicacy or overrefinement. They tend to confuse an argument with a quarrel. If these people are teachers, they often discourage debate; disagreement with his/her point of view is often taken as a personal affront. The more “manly” among us, which includes strong women as well as real men, tend to enjoy a good debate. Such people appreciate the fact that the other was willing to act as an obstacle. In this light, cancel culture is fundamentally a phenomenon rooted in the increased feminization of western culture. However, the fear of being canceled is also fundamentally effeminate. It is particularly ironic to uncover this fear in the Church, for Christ was canceled; the very redemption of humanity was the result of a “cancellation”, and we are called to share in that cancellation (Jn 15, 18; Mt 10, 17-19). Catholic leaders who find themselves in the midst of a war must indeed fight with prudence and strategy, for one has to be able to discern what battles are worth our attention and which ones waste time and energy–a prudence not always exemplified in conservative Catholics; for there’s a fine line between audacity and strong leadership, but there is a difference between a prudence that has as its end the avoidance of battle and a prudence that has victory as its end. Avoiding battle for the sake of peace does not achieve peace in the end, because peace must be “made” (Mt 5, 9), and “making” is an activity, not a passivity. Those who fear being canceled to the point of rendering the kerygma of the Church palatable to the enemies of the Church essentially love their own livelihood over the spiritual and moral integrity of the vulnerable. Such fear is unbecoming of a Christian, let alone a pastor or bishop, for each one of us is called to be a peacemaker, and the harmony that peace is (pax) can only be achieved by engaging in a difficult battle that upsets those who love evil and despise everything the Church loves.