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Friday, June 26, 2020

The Hungry and the Thirsty

"Christ of the Breadlines" by Fritz Eichenberg (1952) for The Catholic Worker Newspaper
*Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the beatitudes of Jesus.

~Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied~

One of the interesting things about this beatitude is the metaphor Jesus uses to describe those who seek righteousness. He says they hunger and thirst for it. It is not random. In the Old Testament, eating and drinking were common metaphors for the righteous person’s experience of God. Isaiah the Prophet preached: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; he who has no money, come, buy and eat.” There is a bread which truly satisfies, Isaiah insisted. “Hearken diligently to [the Lord], and eat what is good, delight yourselves in fatness” (Is 55:1-2). 

Jesus is picking up this same theme in Jewish preaching. In John’s gospel, he tells a Samaritan woman pulling water up from a well: “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give will never thirst” (Jn 4:13-14). Two chapters later ― and most dramatically of all ― Jesus tells the crowds “not to labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life” (Jn 6:27). Jesus reminds them that “your fathers ate manna in the desert, and died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die” (Jn 6:49-50). Jesus finally told those crowds, “I am the living bread. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (Jn 6:51). 

There are just two realities Jesus explicitly identified himself with here on earth. “This is my body,” he said at the Last Supper, breaking bread and blessing it. “This is my blood,” he said with a chalice. “Take. Eat…. Drink of it” (Mt 26:26-28). Jesus placed himself inside the Jewish Passover ritual: The bread is me. The wine is me. That is the first time. The Eucharist. The Bread of Life. “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (Jn 6:55).

The second time occurred just one chapter earlier. As he was sitting upon the Mount of Olives, the disciples asked Jesus about the end of the world and what a good judgment would look like. Jesus said this: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink” (Mt 25:35). A bit of confusion makes sense. For future generations of Christians, Jesus would not be physically roaming the earth. “When did we see thee hungry and feed thee?” they would ask (Mt 25:37). The response is the second time Jesus identifies himself with something on the earth. “Truly I say to you, as you did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). [1]

In this, then, we can see Jesus’ preoccupation with another kind of “hungering and thirsting.” Normally, when we hear Jesus say “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” we think he’s talking about those who have a strong desire to be good and live well. He is. But not only must we hunger and thirst to be virtuous ― to be prayerful, to forgive wrongs done to us, etc. But there are also those “least of these” who literally “hunger and thirst.” There are those who hunger and thirst in the streets. Those who literally have no food, no homes, no families. Blessed are those too, then, who hunger and thirst to see righteousness done for the “least of these.”

Catholics typically think that Jesus has met the world’s spiritual hunger and thirst by becoming what appears to be bread, by becoming the Bread of Life. “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (Jn 6:35). We always remember the first time Jesus identified himself with some earthly reality. We always remember the Eucharist. We never remember the second time. We never remember that, when we feed the “least of these” Jesus says we “do it to [him].” We never remember the poor.

Taken together, both of Jesus’ presences ― in the Eucharist and in the poor ― open up the true heart of this beatitude. The Christian hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Better yet, the Christian hungers and thirsts for the Righteous One. The Christian finds him in the Eucharist. The Christian finds him in the poor, hungering and thirsting alongside them. In both of these breads, the Christian is satisfied. 

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~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Endnote:

[1] See the commentary on Matthew by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. 3 (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2012), 839-840.

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Meek, Inheritors of the Earth


*Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the beatitudes of Jesus.

~Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth~

The interesting thing about this beatitude is the promise Jesus makes to those who are meek. We know, for the most part, what it means to be meek. The meek person lives by a logic of gentleness. The meek person, no matter how serious the situation may be, never throws away their loving-kindness. [1] But Jesus says that the meek shall inherit the earth. What exactly does that mean? What are we saying when we say that the “people of the beatitudes” are the people who will become inheritors of the land?

Certainly Jesus’ promise has something to do with heaven. The meek, the gentle, are the kind of people who are inheritors of the “New Jerusalem.” But the Christian tradition has also insisted that, in this beatitude, Jesus is also talking about this world. There is a sense in which the meek are the true inheritors of this earth. What do we mean?

Let’s start by thinking of the opposite of meekness. I tend to think of the rise and fall of empires, of the coming and going of nations and dominions. There is, in the onward march of an invading army, the human attempt to possess the earth, to broaden the inheritance. This image of human strength ― to raise one’s flag over the earth ― stamps it with disharmony. In ancient times, most defeated populations were enslaved. Genghis Khan used to say that life’s greatest pleasure was in “vanquishing your enemies and robbing them of their wealth." When Caesar’s chariots pressed onward, he crushed and mangled the earth and its people. There was nothing gentle or meek about Caesar and his legions. 

Throughout history “Caesar” has always tried to dominate the land, to insist the land is really his dominion. But Caesars come and Caesars go. And that is precisely the point. The true inheritors of the earth ― the true possessors of that land ― are not the imperialists who’ve pillaged for it. In time, the empires have all fallen away. “The ones who remain,” Joseph Ratzinger once said, “are the simple, the humble, who cultivate the land and continue sowing and harvesting in the midst of sorrows and joys.” [2] The land does not belong to Caesar. The land does not belong to any person of power, no matter how much they say so. The land belongs to God. And that land is the inheritance, Jesus says, of the poor in spirit and of the meek. It is the inheritance of those who, at this moment, have been disinherited. Indeed, the story of a land is the story of its people ― the generations who’ve lived and worked upon it ― not the story of its conquerors and rulers.

It is no different today. I used to tell my students that, in spite of what might appear to be the case on the news, the real drama is not occurring out on the center stage of the world. The real drama is not occurring on your social media feeds. The real drama is happening in your heart. The world, right now, is going through an extraordinary time. It matters, of course, how world leaders react. You need to care about all that. But the highest drama of all is not how the Caesars will respond. The real question is this: how are you going to respond? To this virus? To this cultural moment’s questions about race? Are you becoming wiser? More just? More meek? Are we going to become people who truly see those around us who are hurting? Not just the ones on TV, five-hundred miles away, but are we going to see the people who are actually in our lives ― the ones we call friends and family ― and endure some harshness each day? Do you yet see that there are real people in your life in pain? Are these tumultuous days an invitation to see your poor-in-spirit a little better? An invitation to cultivate the small patch of your inheritance of earth? An invitation to be meek?

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~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Endnotes:
[1] See the reflections on "Holy Meekness" in Dietrich von Hildebrand's Transformation in Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2001), 407.
[2] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007), 83.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Those Who Mourn

*Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the beatitudes of Jesus.

~Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted~

We normally associate mourning with death: those who mourn, mourn their dead. We also associate Jesus’ beatitude ― “blessed are those who mourn” ― with death. “Blessed are those who mourn their dead. They shall be comforted. They shall experience the consolation of God. They shall see their loved ones again.” Something like that. This is not wrong. Jesus is, in part, talking about this kind of mourning. But he’s also talking about something much more fundamental. 

“Those who mourn” are not just those who have lost someone. In this case, those who mourn are those who look out at the world and grieve. Blessed are those who grieve for the world. “Woe to those who rest easy in Zion… who are not grieved over the ruin [of their brethren]” (Amos 6:1, 6). It is not a pleasant thing to say, but this world is a ruin ― not just today, in the midst of extraordinary turmoil, but all days. 

We live in a world scarred up by wounds and by pain. The scriptures call it a “valley of tears” (Ps 84:6). Everyday, we move among people who endure extraordinary suffering. Most of them hide it. But when our eyes pierce the fa├žade and see all this, Jesus calls it a blessing.

“Those who mourn” are those who see that the world is not as it should be and weep for it. They see and mourn for those this world has discarded ― the elderly, the aborted, the racially oppressed, the immigrant. “Those who mourn” are blessed precisely because they know this is not the inheritance God left for humanity, and that things will someday not be this way.

On the other hand, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus reformulates this beatitude from the other direction. “Woe to you that laugh now,” he says. “You shall mourn and weep” (Lk 6:25). What startling and harsh words! Nobody has them hanging above their mantle. The point is this: you don’t want to be totally at home in this world. This is a world that runs by the logic of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Deut 19:21). The cup of suffering runneth over here. If somehow you rest easy in this world, perfectly content as all manner of agonies and injustices stream by, then woe to you. Blessing comes, rather, in mourning and in lifting the burden from those this world has discarded.

One day, no one “shall hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain” (Is 11:9). One day, God will “wipe away every tear” (Rev 21:4). But that day has not yet come. And so Jesus says that the blessed ones are the ones who mourn, the ones who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” But this is not the whole of the story. 

Jesus closes these very beatitudes by insisting his disciples also “rejoice and be glad” (Mt 5:12). It might be the case that the world has not yet been consummated, that there are one-thousand agonies at each moment. But, for the Christian, after Jesus has walked with us ― after God himself has mourned with us ― the whole story has been rewritten. Christians believe that, on account of Jesus, this heartbroken world “shall be comforted.” Even now, Jesus has left the aroma of redemption upon all things, especially upon our suffering, our mourning, and our weeping. [1] And so, for the Christian, there are so many more reasons for joy then there are for sadness. There is so much pain in the world, so much injustice. But the last word has been Jesus’ word. And so even if the Christian is never quite at home in this world, joy is nevertheless the decisive theme and rhythm of her life. [2] “Rejoice always!” Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians (Phil 4:4). “Rejoice always!”

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~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Endnotes:
[1] See Luis Martinez, The Sanctifier (Boston: Pauline, 2003), 313-314.
[2] See Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2001), 464.

Friday, June 5, 2020

On Returning to the Eucharist

*Note: In the state of Vermont, public Masses resumed this week. We'll continue our reflections on the beatitudes next week.*

So the quarantine has been difficult psychologically. A friend of mine has been measuring her days in cries. 500 of her colleagues were laid off. “Today was a 4-cry day...” I feel it too. All of the psychological tools you normally keep sharp ― the ones that help you cope with simple stressors ― went blunt in my toolbag. Quicker to speak, slower to listen; quicker to be anxious; quicker to misread someone’s intentions. I’ve been comparing my soul to a storm. The slightest thing can speed up the winds: the guy texting at the green light, a frustrating article. 

On Monday I was able to receive the Eucharist for the first time in about two months. I returned to my seat and closed my eyes. Amidst the storm, I’d been yearning for this moment. “Peace! Be still!” Jesus rebuked the storm when the apostles woke him in the boat (Mk 4:39). Surely he would do the same for my own soul.

As I sat there, though, and looked inward, I really didn’t feel any different. I had a headache. I was hungry. I was unsettled, too, about how receiving the Eucharist had been awkward. I couldn’t get the mask to untie. My glasses got knocked around. I hoped nobody had seen.

“Stop!” I thought to myself. Jesus says that, when we pray, we should “go to our inner room and shut the door” (Mt 6:6). I need to shut the door on these distractions. “You are communing with God.” I said to myself. “What do you feel?” 

“I feel … nothing.” 

“That cannot be. You have not received the Eucharist in months. Look again…. What do you feel?”

“Nothin’. I feel ... nothing.”

And by then Father was into the Closing Prayer.

The rest of the day didn’t go much better. The headache never really went away. I thought that maybe Our Lady would appear to me after lunch. (Something spectacular was going to happen, right?) She didn’t. It was all very disappointing.

When I was driving home, though, I remembered something that a Carmelite nun once taught me. [1] I remembered that I had the whole thing 100% backwards.

What is it that I want out of Christianity? Is it certain feelings? To have my heart blazing with pleasure? Do I want to see a miracle? 

Or do I want God

More often than not, in Christianity, we want pleasurable feelings, or remarkable moments of prayer, or a rich “spiritual life.” We want to notice something when we talk to God. Very rarely do we want God himself. For the first time in months, in the Eucharist, I had God ― in so far as one can have him ― and I was looking for something else, I was clenching for feelings in the pew. 

That’s 100% backwards. Indeed, when we experience rich spiritual feelings, that’s fine and good. They’re a gift and a help, a caress from the Creator. But, in those cases, we should be yearning for God. We desire the Caressor, not his caresses.

There is a story about Saint Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Doctor of the Church who’d written volumes and volumes of theology. They say that, while kneeling before a crucifix, Jesus once spoke to Saint Thomas. “You’ve written well of me,” Jesus said. “What would you receive for your labor?” Without much hesitation: “Non nisi te, Domine,” Thomas replied. “Non nisi te.” “Nothing but you, Lord. Nothing but you.” Thomas had it 100% rightward. 

This question extends to the whole of life. What is it that we want from this life? What, truly, do we want? To finally feel good about it all? To have such-and-such thing from our past somehow get fixed? Or do we want God? Because — feel it or not — we worship the God who allows us to unite with him. And starting again this week, that is precisely what is offered us in the Eucharist.

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~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Endnote:

[1] Ruth Burrows, To Believe in Jesus (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2010), 27-29.