March/April 2018

Two sides of a koan

Anthony Towey

The Christian juxtaposition of Lent and Eastertide might appear at a first glance to be a somewhat contrary contemplation. Lent begins with the dust and ashes of our earthiness and mortality while the Easter exsultet calls upon angels and heavenly hosts in heralding Christ the Morning Star, the quintessence eternal. Caught between misery and ecstasy, grave and zenith, it is small wonder that in the name of religious equanimity, some Christian denominations have eschewed a sense of liturgical season in favour of more predictable patterns of piety.

I was reminded of Catholic seasonal extremism during a recent visit to Malta, as the island prepared for Carnival as a precursor to Lent which in turn is perhaps too simply regarded as a curtain raiser for Easter. On the outward flight, one elderly passenger regaled us with tales of Carnival from her younger days. Now, although she still 'wouldn't miss it for the world', more recently 'they just give me a chair in the square so I can watch it all.' It was lovely to hear her enthusiasm, but it did strike an odd chord. After all, Catholicism is not a spectator sport - we are in the game not in the stands. 

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The 'Our Father' as a pastoral change

Ronald D. Witherup PSS

This article examines Pope Francis' recent comments on the translation of the Lord's Prayer from a biblical and theological point of view, with attention to pastoral ramifications. Ronald D. Witherup PSS is Superior General of the Society of the Priests of St Sulpice. 

our fatherPope Francis obviously does not hesitate to go where 'angels fear to tread'. Recently he waded into a debate about the translation of the Our Father in English, stating clearly that he thought the translation of the first part of the sixth petition  -  'lead us not into temptation'  -  should be changed. The reason: it misleads people into thinking God toys with humanity by frivolously 'tempting' them. ,Unsurprisingly, this led to astounding headlines like, 'Pope Seeks to Change the Lord's Prayer'! 

What is going on here, and what is at stake? 

Biblical background
To understand the root of the problem, we need to explore the biblical concept of temptation, which appears in both Old and New Testaments. Already in the Bible, the vocabulary of temptation is complex. The Hebrew verb nissah and the Greek verb peiraz? -  can mean both 'tempt' and 'test'. The difference is that tempt/temptation implies a kind of inducement to do evil, whereas test/testing means to be put under pressure to prove one's faithfulness or endurance. The predominant (English) New Revised Standard Version of the Bible rightly tends to use 'test' and its cognates to translate the biblical concept, although 'tempt' and its cognates are used in various New Testament contexts. 

Does the translation make a difference? Yes, because, for the most part, the Bible does not conceive of God tempting human beings in the way we normally interpret the word, as if he tries to seduce us to do evil. The Letter of James, for instance, explicitly says:

No one, when tempted, should say, 'I am being tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin...1.

So, the Pope's instincts about God not tempting us are correct. But the picture is a bit more complicated.

Does God tempt?
Let's take a quick look at some examples from the Bible of stories that deal with 'temptation'. Four narratives from the Old Testament stand out.

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'Christ lives in me!': Honouring the Martyrs during the Easter season

Silas Henderson SDS

martyrsDevotion to the martyr-saints during Eastertide can add to, rather than detract from, the joy of Easter. Silas Henderson SDS is a member of the US Province of the Society of the Divine Saviour (Salvatorians).

In October 1979, the nation of El Salvador entered into a civil war that not only allowed oppressive military dictators to seize control of the country, but it also led to the systematic murder and oppression of tens of thousands of Salvadorans, particularly poor farmers.

Among those who lost their lives defending the rights of the poor and the Church were the archbishop of San Salvador, Blessed Oscar Romero (d. March 24, 1980), and four American missionaries: Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clark and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan (d. December 2, 1980). On 16 November 1989, a group of six Jesuits, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, were shot to death in their shared home because of their support of the poor. The total number of those murdered, raped, and tortured is known only to God.

In the year after Archbishop Romero's murder, the Jesuits of El Salvador began a bi-weekly publication known as Letter to the Churches, recounting the experiences of those who suffered at the hands of the military junta and its guerilla soldiers.

In one issue, Letter to the Churches published the testimony of Ismael, a lay catechist, who spoke of living with the poor in a war zone and of his journey with the people as they fled into the mountains seeking safety. There, hiding beneath the branches of trees, with stars providing their only light (because they were afraid to light candles), the people would retell and reflect on the stories of the Gospel.

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Fire and light - the chasm between theory and practice at the Easter Vigil

Thomas O'Loughlin

The Easter Vigil poses many practical difficulties for celebration. However, are we by-passing the deeper problems it poses to believers today, and missing its greatest opportunities as an expression of our faith? Thomas O'Loughlin is a Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.

fire and lightNowhere in the entire liturgy is the chasm between theory and practice so gaping as at the Easter Vigil. Anyone reading books about the Easter Vigil meets nothing but superlatives: this is the centre of the whole year, mother of vigils, the greatest moment of joy, night truly blessed, and on and on. The same writers then quote beautiful early sources: a homily from Sardis, another from Ambrose, and some nuggets from Origen  -  for ancient Christian footnotes it cannot be beaten! On the ground it is very different. After sixty years of a public night-time vigil (the Easter Vigil was reformed before the reforms of Vatican II), it has in many places become just another Saturday evening Mass with 'bits' added. In most communities it has failed to capture the imagination of the majority, and seems just an elaborate set of jobs to be 'got through because it is Easter.' Quite apart from the fact that 'an Easter break' is now a fixed part of the holiday plans of many people, it is often a time of relatively empty pews. If we think of attendance as a measure of significance, then the Vigil is a thorough failure: at no other time is felt worth so out of kilter with that formal 'authorized' explanation.

There is a further irony. Recent decades have seen a massive level of experimentation in liturgy to find the dramatic, that which arrests the senses, and that which engages people's bodies and feelings as well as their minds. I have seen this desire to engage the senses used to justify every form of ritual from dance-based liturgy to a revival of the pre-1970 High Mass. Yet, the Vigil is one of the few moments in the formal liturgy that is full of drama  -  a great bonfire is mandated, the strange activity of passing 'light from light', an eerie candle-lit procession into a darkened building, and the events linked to a baptism (either actual or virtual)  -  and the drama is built into the very rubrics! Yet, this drama is very often skipped, frequently minimized, and almost never properly exploited.

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Tolkien, Newman and The Dream of Gerontius

Geoffrey G. Attard

Cardinal Newman had a profound influence on the life and work of the author J.R.R. Tolkien, writes Geoffrey G. Attard, a priest of the Diocese of Gozo.

tolkeinJohn Henry Newman is one of the most towering figures of the twentieth century. His life spanned from 1801 to 1890 and it therefore coincided with most of the Victorian era, considering the fact that Queen Victoria sat on the throne from 1837 until her death in January 1901. Newman was a writer, an eminent theologian, a brilliant mind as well as an apologist of the Catholic faith, keeping in mind that he began his life as an Anglican, even becoming an Anglican priest before eventually converting to Catholicism after a long and arduous inner spiritual journey that cost him his health as well as the loss of many friends. Today, historians take it as a fact that hundreds, if not thousands of Anglicans, embraced the Catholic faith after having read some of his works.

Among those who were definitely influenced by Blessed Cardinal Newman's theological writings, one can mention English author John Ronald Raoul Tolkien, known among one and all for his famous Lord of the Rings, which also inspired the world of cinematography and is now considered as one of the most widely read books in the English speaking world; there are even those who argue that it is the third most popular work in literature, after the Bible and Shakespeare. Tolkien was no Catholic convert; it was his mother Mabel, née Suffield who converted to the faith, alienating most of her family, the members of which never spoke to her again. The late nineteenth century was definitely not the best time for an Anglican in England to embrace Catholicism; this was considered as treason and there are many stories testifying the hostility shown to newly converted Catholics who left the Anglican Communion never to be accepted again as full members of English society due to their switching of faiths. One has to keep in mind this historical milieu in order to understand Tolkien and his background. American actor and writer Stephen Colbert said in an interview that 'Upon their return to her hometown of Birmingham (from South Africa), Mabel decided to become a Roman Catholic, a move that was met with enormous opposition on the part of her family, who essentially disowned her and left her in destitution'.1

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