The (Hidden) Missionary Power of Good Friday

Brad Bursa

Good Friday has always been an odd day for me, and the hungriest to be sure (not only for food, but for life and light as well).  I’m fairly certain it is odd because the majority of the world doesn’t even know it is happening – it is just another day.

But for the Christian, the self-aware Christian, the Christian possessed by Christ, Good Friday becomes the day when the call to participate in Christ’s mysterious mission of salvation cannot be ignored.  And, this participation is perhaps the greatest service that the Christian can offer the world – which I realize is contrary to those who often measure holiness by visible charitable works, service outings, and some sort of Pelagian “pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and save the world” mentality.

What the Church, because of Christ, in Christ, and through Christ, ultimately offers the world is salvation, and Good Friday highlights this missionary call and all of its power unlike any other day of the year.

And the world doesn’t even know it’s happening.

To quote extensively from Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood:

The last and highest mission of the Christian in relation to nonbelievers is to suffer for them in their place as the Master did.  At the end of his life, only a few days before his Passion, Christ described his life’s mission in these words: ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his love as a ransom for many’ (Mk. 10:45). These words express not only the basic law of Christ’s own life, but the basic law of all Christian discipleship.  The disciples of Christ will always be ‘few’ as the Lord said, and as such stand before the mass, the ‘many,’ as Jesus, the one, stands before the many (that is, the whole of mankind).”  (83)

This is the basic law of discipleship – to suffer as the Master suffered and to give love and life for others.  To participate in His suffering by uniting ours with His.  And no day of the liturgical year brings this law to the fore as Good Friday does.

But notice Ratzinger’s words that echo the sentiments of Jesus (and all of salvation history, really) – the disciples will always be few, a remnant.  Many people in the world want to go and make a difference, and however noble this may be and is, few are willing to suffer.  This is the call of the Christian – to love as he loved.  Yet most of us are content with calling ourselves Christian without the cross.

“The disciples of Jesus are few, but as Jesus himself was one ‘for the many,’ so it will always be their mission to be not against but ‘for the many.’  When all other ways fail, there will always remain the royal way of vicarious suffering by the side of the Lord. It is in her defeat that the Church constantly achieves her highest victory and stands nearest to Christ.  It is when she is called to suffer for others that she achieves her highest mission: the exchange of fate with the wayward brother and thus his secret restoration to full sonship and full brotherhood.  Seen in this way, the relationship between the ‘few’ and the ‘many’ reveals the true measure of the Church’s catholicity.” (84)

The Kingdom of Christ, then, is built in plain sight, yet remains “unseen” by the many, and quite honestly, the way of vicarious suffering doesn’t match the rather worldly way of building up the kingdom that has pervaded much Catholic thought over the last several decades.

“In external numbers, it will never be fully ‘catholic’ (that is, all-embracing), but will always remain a small flock – smaller even than statistics suggest, statistics with lie when they call many ‘brothers’ who are in fact merely pseudadelphoi, Christians by name only.  In her suffering and love, however, she will always stand for the ‘many,’ for all. In her love and her suffering she surmounts all frontiers and is truly ‘catholic.’  (84)

“For Jews demands signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:22-23).

Only united with Christ on the cross does the Christian call take on light and achieve its mission.  Good Friday reminds us of this fact.

Magi, Mary, and Consecration

Brad Bursa

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I’ve always been captivated by the story of the Magi. I think it is because they are such mysterious figures who set out on a path of longing - they have a desire for the infinite and the courage to follow it. Needless to say, I spend a fair amount of time each year meditating on this story.

In prayer on Sunday, it occurred to me, that apart from the Father’s entrusting of the Son to Mary, the account of the Magi contains very early intimations of Marian consecration. Here’s the line that sparked this:

“On entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (Mt. 2:11)

Regardless of Jesus’ exact age at the time of the Magi’s arrival, he was likely still quite young. Traditionally and in iconography, we imagine that Joseph is on the scene, or at least nearby. What we know from Matthew’s account is that Mary was definitely there with her baby. Suddenly, mysterious men from the East arrive, speaking in a different tongue, prostrating themselves, and offering gifts. What would most any mother do in a situation like this? What would most babies do who have enough awareness around strangers? Well, seeking security, the baby/child/toddler searches out and clings to the source of security: mom. And mom, happy to receive the strangers and the gifts, holds them and allows the baby to open it, or at least to behold it. If these normal dynamics hold true in Jesus’ infancy, then it seems quite possible to believe that the Magi offered their gifts to Our Lord through Mary, His mother. The Magi travel all this way to adore Jesus as He is presented to them by Mary, and to offer Him gifts through Mary.

This account hints at what Marian Consecration is all about - offering the gift of our very selves to Jesus through Mary.

Each year, the Office for Youth Evangelization and Discipleship embarks on a 33-day preparation process according to the method of St. Louis de Montfort, and each member consecrates him/herself (or renews his/her consecration) to Jesus through Mary on the Solemnity of the Annunciation. This year, due to the Annunciation falling on Palm Sunday, that solemnity has been moved to April 9 - meaning preparation for the consecration begins on Mar. 7, 2018.

We would like to invite anyone and everyone, especially youth/campus ministers, spiritual liaisons, and coaches, to join us in the preparation and consecration this year. So, mark your calendars for Mar. 7 and stay tuned for more details about this powerful devotion.

Epiphany and Evangelization

Brad Bursa

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The story of the Magi, which we celebrate liturgically today in the Epiphany, contains striking insights pertaining to culture and evangelization.

The first point to be made here is to note the number of cultures present within this story – the story contains no less than four cultures:

  1. Jesus/Mary (presumably Joseph, but he is not named here) – The primordial Christian community, and the first Christian culture.

  2. Magi from the East – Precisely who these mysterious figures from the East were has been the source of much scholarly debate. There are four possibilities: members of the Persian priestly caste, possessors of supernatural knowledge and ability, magicians, and deceivers or seducers.[1] They may have been practitioners of astrology. More theologically-speaking, Benedict XVI notes that they “represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence ‘philosophy’ in the original sense of the word…They represent the journeying of humanity toward Christ…They represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason toward him.”[2]

  3. Herod – Benedict XVI notes, regarding Herod, that he “was king by favor of Rome. He was an Idumaean, not a son of David.” He was an appallingly cruel “caricature of the kingship that had been promised to David.”[3]

  4. Chief priests/Scribes – Traditional Jews of the Old Covenant.

That the story contains a peculiar number of cultures is one thing, how each reacts to the Lord Jesus (i.e. to that proposal of the Gospel incarnate) is another. Herod offers a resounding “no” out of fear that this “newborn king” will, in some way, outmatch him or overtake his power. His insecurity of his own provenance is unmasked by the true heir to the throne of David, and Herod’s heart is not open to the possibility of a God-made-man who will shepherd Israel. The chief priests and scribes of the people know something of this “newborn king,” that something would happen in Bethlehem. Yet, even with this knowledge, and even in the midst of the Magi who had traveled from afar to see this thing that happened in Bethlehem, the chief priests and scribes are not moved – they are content to remain untouched and unaffected by the potential Mystery. Finally, in the Magi the religious sense of man responds to the presence of a star, a sign of God’s presence on earth, and is moved with longing for adoration. The Magi are encountered by Jesus Christ, an encounter shrouded in humility on all sides, and are changed.

Apart from the obvious invitation for an examination of conscience, a final point comes clear. The Magi are warned in a dream to avoid Herod, and so they return to their country by another way. This, perhaps, is one of the most remarkable actions in the whole narrative: the Magi return home. They do not remain in Bethlehem; they do not pitch tents. They go back into their culture, but they go back changed, and because they have been renewed in Christ, they become capable of being sources of renewal through their witness within their own culture – inasmuch as the culture stands in need of renewal in Jesus Christ. The renewal of a culture only happens in and through the person who has actually been renewed by Christ - the one who has “had an epiphany” through God’s revelation in Christ Jesus.

 

[1] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 92-93.

[2] Ibid., 95-97.

[3] Ibid., 31-32.

 

Manifest Hiddenness

Brad Bursa

nativity.jpg!Large.jpg

The sign of the new covenant is hiddenness. 

We are reminded of this in a striking way as we behold the manger scene. The God who created the cosmos, and recreated through the powerful flood, the God who created a nation and then saved Isreal with pillar of cloud and fire, the God who made the earth shake at Sinai and who established a dynasty in David, this God took flesh completely unawares in an untown town, in the womb of an unknown girl, in a humble house, with nobody else around. Then, upon the time for His birth, this God, in the hidden sign, would be born in a cave outside of Bethlehem (which means 'house of bread') because there was no room in the village. He would be laid in a manger (from which we get the word 'to eat'), a feeding trough for animals. His first visitors where the humble shepherds from the nearby fields - the shepherds who were humble enough to receive the sign. 

The sign of the new covenant is hiddenness. 

The sign remains the same today. On this great Solemnity, the Eucharist stands in striking relief, this great and hidden sign, this bread of life on which we feed, we who are invited to humble ourselves to receive this great gift from the humble God. Today, may the Eucharist draw us deeper and deeper into this humble and hidden mystery of the God born man, that men might participate in the Divine. 

The sign of the new covenant is manifest in hiddenness. May we be granted the grace to believe in the sign and to receive Him in humility.

It's Always Advent

Brad Bursa

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I once read a rather harrowing statement:

“What really torments us today, what bothers us...is the inefficacy of Christianity: after two thousand years of Christian history, we can see nothing that might be a new reality in the world; rather, we find it sunk in the same old horrors, the same despair, and the same hopes as ever. And in our own lives, too, we inevitably experience time and again how Christian reality is powerless against all the other forces that influence us and make demands on us.” - J. Ratzinger

I’d say that for the most part, we don’t pay much heed to thoughts or questions like this one, but in the season of Advent, something of it might wiggle its way into our consciousness.

What are we anticipating at Christmas? What are we celebrating, actually?

At the forefront of most of our minds is the historical coming of Christ around about 4AD, born of a virgin in a cave near Bethlehem, and all of the other nostalgic memories that come with this. Ratzinger’s observation hangs as a dark cloud over this historical fact of His coming. The “Savior of the World” has come, but what, concretely and in terms of salvation, has come in His wake?

Advent also causes us to consider Christ’s second coming - a time to prepare for judgment. This fact might come equipped with its own sense of foreboding. In fact, our lack of hope in God tends to cause us to take matters in our own hands, to pursue creating our own heaven on earth that we have made with our own hands and fashioned according to our own ideals. These attempts to control the future are accompanied by equal amounts of fear (of the whole thing falling apart) and disappointment (because the ideal is never actually attainable). Much of the wreckage we find in history, those “same old horrors,” is the result of many such attempts.

Perhaps here, considering the past and the future comings of Christ, we are forced to confront our disappointment, on the one hand, and our fear, on the other. So, what are we left with?

The fact that, because God completely respects our freedom, it is always Advent.

“We shall begin to realize that the borderline between ‘before Christ’ and ‘after Christ’ does not run through historical time, in an outward sense, and cannot be drawn on any map [i.e. these people are “saved” and those in that country are not]; it runs through our own hearts. Insofar as we are living on a basis of selfishness, of egoism, then even today we are ‘before Christ.’ But in this time of Advent, let us ask the Lord to grant that we may live less and less ‘before Christ,’ and certainly not ‘after Christ,’ but truly with Christ and in Christ.” -J. Ratzinger

In short, we are left with a profound realization that we, right now and very personally, need Christ to come and to be present to us with the same impact that his presence had on the simple shepherds and the Magi, and with the look of the merciful Father who wants us with Him more than we often want it ourselves. We are left with an opportunity to utter a prayer that God would come to me now and that he would dwell in me and break through my own boundary lines.

What's the Story Behind the Advent Hymn of the Day?

Brad Bursa

Like many people, my favorite Christmas cartoon is probably A Charlie Brown Christmas. Not only do I appreciate the dry humor and Charlie's generally pessimistic attitude, I think we all have to appreciate Schultz's attempt to get underneath the consumerism and materialism that has come to mark the season in many ways. Charlie's famous question, 'Is there anyone who know what Christmas is all about?' followed by Linus' monologue is basically an iconic American moment each Christmas season. 

Just as Charlie's question and Linus' response cut through the commercialism, I think similar consideration could be given to the music we ingest this time of year. The Christmas jingles pick up even before Thanksgiving in some cases and flood our ears for over a month. All of this speeds the season into a frenzy driven by marketers and sentiment. But for what, ultimately? Why is it that nearly every year I am attentive during the first Sunday of Advent and then wake up and Christmas is over? It's like a blur, and our project of posting an ADVENT hymn each day is just one attempt to slow us down and really consider just how badly we need the Lord to break into our lives afresh. 

As we wait to celebrate His manifestation on the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord, may these words become our anthem: 'Come, Lord Jesus...show us your face once again, and make us new.'

To You, I Lift Up My Soul, O My God

Brad Bursa

Waterloo Bridge, Dawn, 1901 by Claude Monet

Waterloo Bridge, Dawn, 1901 by Claude Monet

“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,” the prophet Isaiah exclaims in the first reading on this First Sunday of Advent. Lord, that you would rip yourself away from your heaven, that you would tear yourself from the lumenocity of the eternal, and descend into the muck of our mortality…

Today's Psalm is just as bold in its entreaty: “Rouse your power, and come to save us” (Ps. 80:3). Here, one senses the same urgency the apostles must have had on the stormy sea, as Jesus lay there, asleep in their midst, and their barque battered by wind and waves seemed doomed in the dark night. How often do we share in this sentiment: Wake up, Lord!

Yet the prophet Isaiah reminds us of something that is very close to our experience. He says, “We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you.” As much as we want the Lord to rouse His power and come, we, in our pride-laden sin that withers us and carries us along, that weighs down our faces, are often at least halfway grateful that He doesn't rend the heavens and come down. In his 1923 study on the philosophy of religion, Rudolf Otto points out that the mysterium tremendum (tremendous mystery) of the divine presence has always both attracted man and woman, and made them tremble in fear. But sometimes I wonder if the hesitation or even repulsion toward God we experience today is not something entirely other than the understandable humility Otto was getting at. In today's workaday world of the self-made man, in this culture that seems to even reject the idea of God (at least in its day-in and day-out operations), we often don't really want God to come, to influence our plans and projects, to cause us to relinquish control. Isaiah highlights this tension: we want God and His power, and at the same time, we don't. We like our own power and its mirage. Taking one more step, we can simply say that we are afraid to be loved by God. Like Adam and Eve, we are afraid of what He might see when He encounters us in our present state.

This season of Advent, with its customary sense of urgency, challenges us to let go - now! - of that prideful repulsion that amounts, in the end, to a sort of apathy. May we rouse  ourselves to call upon him once again, our voices united with the Church, who with her first words in the new liturgical year, as she cries out: “To you, I lift up my soul, O my God” (Ps. 25:1). And may we not waste any time in doing so.

“The days of Advent are like a quiet knocking at the door of our smothered souls, inviting us to undertake the risk of stepping forward toward God’s mysterious presence, which alone can make us free.” -Ratzinger