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Posted by on Nov 17, 2013

“Life, the Universe and Everything”: The Ultimate Question and Jesus the Christ

“Life, the Universe and Everything”: The Ultimate Question and Jesus the Christ

Christ the King - From Annunciation Melkite Catholic Cathedral

Christ the King

What is the most fundamental question in my life? For what personal “ultimate concern” does the statement “Jesus is the Christ” provide the answer? Is this concern peculiar to me or can it be generalized to others? Do we ask this question about Christ differently today than people have asked it in the past because of any elements of our present situation?

These questions, asked as part of a class in Christology, bring to mind a novel by Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In one part of the story, Adams tells of an ancient people who decide to create a computer that will give them the answer to the question of “life, the universe and everything.” The computer, known as Deep Thought, takes millions of years to ponder the question, finally coming up with the answer: forty-two.  When challenged by descendants of the people who had commissioned the work to explain why the answer was simply a number, Deep Thought explains that the problem is that perhaps they don’t really know what the question is.

“Jesus is the Christ”

In order to identify an ultimate concern for which this statement would be the best answer, the first question that must be addressed is what is meant by “the Christ.” As in Deep Thought’s response, to a very real degree, the meaning of “the Christ” depends on what concern is being addressed.  Literally and historically, the term “Christ” refers to the one who is anointed with oil: a ruler, an athlete, or a messiah/savior.  The anointing sets the individual aside for a special role.  Yet today, in industrialized societies, this meaning is generally not understood. “Christ” is all too often used as if it were the surname of Jesus rather than the title that explains who he is for us. The simple notion that the Christ will come and restore an earthly monarchy or re-establish a people in a powerful and independent homeland is not particularly relevant to most of us today. The notion that the Christ will come at the end of time to punish sinners and reward the good offers only slight consolation to those who are suffering from today’s injustice. While this vision may seem to fit with the story of the Last Judgment – Jesus was very clear in teaching that the criterion for admittance to the presence of the Father was having cared for the least of his brothers and sisters – the implication remains that something more than simply waiting for the end of time and space is at stake here. Even the notion of “savior from our sins” does not move many contemporary hearts – hearts that demand to know how a god who is supposed to be a loving parent could demand the bloody sacrifice of an innocent victim to make up for the sins of others.

“Where have you been, Lord?”

The question of ultimate concern in my life that is answered by the question, “Jesus is the Christ,” is this one: “Where have you been, Lord?” Coming from a Catholic family, nurtured in faith in the traditions of that family, and having experienced the presence of God in my life from a very early age, I still found myself asking God that question with great sadness and not a little anger one night following the loss of a long-desired pregnancy.

The response came immediately. My mind was flooded with images of the care-givers who had been so kind to me as they told me of the baby’s death; the woman at the local family planning clinic who made the appointment for me to have a D&C; the nurses and doctors at Kaiser who ended up performing the D&C when I began bleeding a few days before my clinic appointment; the nurse who reassured me that losing this child did not mean we would never have another because she too had miscarried but later had a successful pregnancy; my mother who sent flowers (she rarely ever does that); the babysitter who stayed with us and helped take down the Christmas tree that first awful day when I knew I was carrying a dead child; the friends who remained after our son’s birthday party so we wouldn’t be alone with our pain; another  child’s teacher (a young widow) who dropped by one afternoon to share a cup of tea and be with me; the husband who held my hand through it all and matter-of-factly cleaned up the blood that splashed on the floor when I stood up to dress to go home from the hospital; the friends who had cared for our children after school; and so many others who had cried with me and supported me in that first week. I understood then where the Lord had been. He had been with me in all of those people – his Body here and now. It was not any easier to have lost that child, but I knew I was not alone. And perhaps more importantly, I knew that God cries with us in such moments and wants nothing more than to hold us close, as a parent holds and comforts an injured child.

How does this relate to Jesus as the Christ?

Through the incarnation, God became truly one of us. As a result of the incarnation, Jesus is the most human of all human beings who have ever lived or will ever live. Jesus’ life is the most authentically human life ever lived. Because God entered totally into human existence and experience through the life of Jesus, our human experiences have become part of God’s being in a very real way. God did not demand that we suffer or that Jesus suffer in order to bring us back to the unity of love overflowing from which all of creation sprang in the first instant of creation. Suffering can bring us to the point of noticing that we do not really control much in our lives and that we need to be part of a greater reality, but in and of itself, suffering is not what God wants for us. Sometimes suffering comes as a result of our own choices, but often it comes because of forces outside our control. Sometimes suffering even comes because we choose to remain authentic to who we are and what we are called to bring to the world. In the case of Jesus and many other good men and women through the ages, that choice resulted in death – a death that was/is the entry into eternity and a different degree of life. Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, is the Christ, the one “anointed” or called and set aside by God to open our eyes to this wondrous reality of a God who is Love and who cannot be anything other than Love. In this, he is our savior from the more common notion of a deity that is angry, vengeful, rejoicing in the misfortune of its subjects, and eager to punish them severely. His coming, and the sharing of his experience, is truly good news for the world. He is the one through whom Love enters directly into our lives, including the times of pain and suffering. He is the one who reaches out through each of us to ease the pain and suffering of others. He is the one who turns tears into dancing as healing comes to battered hearts at his touch.

Does our present situation change how we ask this ultimate question?

To the extent that we are more aware of the suffering of people around us and around the world, we may find ourselves asking this ultimate question more frequently than did people of past ages or people in non-industrialized communities. Why do children get killed at school by a person who should never have had access to guns? Why do people get blown up by suicide bombers? Why do humans so quickly resort to wars, both with physical weapons and with words and actions in our homes and workplaces? Why do bad things happen to good people? Shouldn’t becoming a Christian mean that everything should be fine and dandy from here on out? How can good Christian people lose their homes and savings and livelihoods as a result of bad decisions by investment bankers or real estate speculators?

Our access to news and information on a 24/7 basis is a blessing and a curse. We hear far too much of the suffering humans inflict on each other, whether directly or indirectly. We also hear too much about the suffering that results from natural disasters. The simple formula that promises happiness once they have died to those who suffer (“Life is hard and then you die”) rings hollow. We become numb to the suffering of those in other lands or those whose experience of life and faith even in our own nation is different than ours. We still cry out in sadness, anger, fear: Where have you been, Lord? How can a loving God let such things happen?

Into this reality, Jesus continues to come as the Christ, the anointed one. Jesus is the one who understands the pain of human life from the inside. Through the incarnation, through Jesus’ life, God too understands the pain of human life, as well as the joys and wonders of it. In Jesus, God reaches out and touches each of us and all of creation in a new, deeply intimate way. The everlasting, ever-living, all-powerful One can touch and raise up the created ones to share in the divine life of Love, to become fully human. The light of Love shines in the darkness, a darkness that cannot overcome it. So for this age and the ages to come, “Jesus is the Christ” still answers the ultimate question(s) of human existence.

 Image from Annunciation Melkite Catholic Cathedral

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Posted by on Dec 17, 2012

“Life, the Universe and Everything”: The Ultimate Question and Jesus the Christ

Rejoicing When our Hearts are Breaking


During the third week of Advent, we are called to rejoice because the Lord’s coming is imminent. The very name of the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete, comes from the first word of the Entrance Antiphon for the day’s Mass, “Rejoice.” The prayer continues, quoting St. Paul, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice” (Phil 4:4). That little word, “always,” is not to be ignored.

Sometimes terrible things happen in our world. This past week we’ve seen the killing of many innocent children and adults at a school in the United States. In other parts of the world civil wars are raging, religious persecution is taking the lives of people as they gather for worship, girls and women are beaten or shot for daring to seek an education, and more mundanely, people die as a result of accidents, miscarriages, illness, or old age — holiday season or not! We find ourselves asking how a loving God can do that to us. How can God take the lives of innocent people? Where is God when we are hurting?

“Rejoice … Always”

Yet St. Paul is there to remind us with that little word, “always,” that there’s much more going on than we might actually see or recognize. Perhaps we’re not even noticing that it isn’t God who’s doing these terrible things to us. In our pain, with our hearts breaking, we don’t always see God present in the ones who step forward to help, in the ones who risk and sometimes give their own lives to protect the lives of others, in the ones who must help individuals and families pick up the pieces of their lives and continue onward despite the great hole left in their hearts. Yet that is exactly where God is. God is there with each grieving person, present in the friends and family who gather to be with those who have suffered a loss. God is there in the doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers who care for the sick or injured. God is there in those who send flowers because they can’t come in person. God is there. God is here. God is present in the silence of hearts that cannot speak because the pain is too great. God is present — crying with them and holding them close.

So we struggle to trust in God and find ways to give thanks through our tears for God’s presence. We try to rejoice that God notices each life born, each life lived, and each life that reaches its point of transition to new birth into eternity. We sing through our tears at funerals. We gather in family and religious communities to remember those who have passed on and to support and encourage each other in faith. We rejoice for the gift of life, however short, that each person has brought to our world. And we remember another one who died too young, taken in His prime, subjected to terrible torture, and publicly executed on trumped up charges. One whose birth we soon will celebrate. One who was raised up and will never die again — the Firstborn of the dead. And because we remember, we can begin to rejoice even when our hearts are breaking.

May peace and joy return to each of our hearts as we remember God’s great love. May we recognize God present in each other and work to help bring about the changes necessary to reduce the numbers of new people who will have to experience tragic deaths of loved ones and somehow find their way to seeing and rejoicing in God present, Emmanuel, among the ashes of their dreams and hopes.

Photo (Three Candles) by Alice Birkin – public domain

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Posted by on Dec 22, 2011

Fidelius and Diabolus: Tim Tebow, Jesus, and Saturday Night Live

Christians have only themselves and their sub-media-culture to blame when it comes to a cavalier approach to Jesus. Not that we should behave violently to a light portrayal. But when Christians started replacing the Air-Jordan logo with Air-Jesus, they are asking for massive satire. I actually think SNL’s portrayal was fun and generous..where Jesus shows patience with a highly zealous Tebow. No one…especially Jesus, was ridiculed. The point of the sketch is how American culture wastes prayers, attention and ‘God’s intervention’ on matters as trivial as a football game.

Matt Mewhorter

Saturday Night Live’s parody of the stellar NFL quarterback Tim Tebow and Christ has drawn criticism and condemnation in many quarters. Our friends Fidelius and Diabolus talk it out.

Diabolus: Did you catch Saturday Night Live with Tebow and Jesus?

Fidelius: I didn’t need to see it. It was a travesty. Pat Robertson blasted it.The atheists are just picking on him because he is a missionary and is very open about his faith.

Diabolus: Maybe you aren’t giving the Devil his due. The Jesus portrayed on SNL was very limited, very human.

Fidelius: How can you say that? Jesus is always with us. He hears our prayers.

Diabolus: Okay, but what happens when things don’t work out? What do you say when you fail or bad things happen to you?

Fidelius: Tebow is having a great season. He gives the praise to God and doesn’t keep it for himself. He openly witnesses to his faith in Jesus, his Lord and Savior.

Diabolus: Maybe that was the point of the parody. In our love and our enthusiasm we can simplify and distort a very complex relationship – our relationship with the Risen Christ.

Fidelius: You sound like a secular humanist or relativist playing down the reality of God in our lives.

Diabolus: Do you remember Fr. O’Flaherty’s old joke about praying to win the lottery? The one he used to tell from the pulpit.

Fidelius: You mean the one about the guy who kept begging God to win the lottery until an exasperated Voice from heaven told him that it might help if the guy bought a lottery ticket?

Diabolus: In the SNL parody, Jesus tells Tebow and his team mates to study the play book and to work harder on the first part of the game. He sounded more like a therapist than a puppet master. That’s the problem with God. He allows too much freedom.

Fidelius: So you are trying to say that there is no Providence. We just muddle through as best we can without any Divine help?

Diabolus: No. If one team wins the other must lose. Is the losing team less pleasing to God?

Fidelius: That’s what it says in many places of the Old Testament.

Diabolus: The Bible is not talking about major league sports. It is talking about submitting to God and what happens when we don’t order our lives properly. Things go better if you are right with God but that is not what happened to Jesus or to the millions killed in the holocaust.

Fidelius: So you are calling Tebow and the rest of us religious simpletons?

Diabolus: No, just humans caught up in enthusiasm in your faith. What happens when things don’t work out? Where is God then?

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Posted by on Apr 26, 2011

“Life, the Universe and Everything”: The Ultimate Question and Jesus the Christ

Violence and Atonement: A Necessary Link?

Fireweed by Joseph N. Hall

The relationship between violence and atonement is closely woven in scripture and theology but it seems inimical to me. As a life long Catholic, anthropologist, and amateur theologian, I grew up with the notion of the Mass as the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary. Things changed after Vatican II to a focus on the Paschal mystery. Despite all of the language we have about the Father requiring satisfaction, it does seem contrary to Jesus’ own teaching about the fact that human fathers, “evil as you are,” would not give your son a stone when he asks for bread. (Matt 7:11)

Clearly, there is patriarchal and tribal language in the concept of satisfaction. This is still prevalent, as seen in a recent gang rape case in Pakistan. A young woman was brutally gang raped by men of another sub-tribe because her 13 year old brother had apparently flirted with a young girl of the other group. To settle the conflict and avoid greater reprisals, the elders of the young woman’s group offered her as a settlement.

This is not only revolting to our current sensibilities, but it challenges the notion of sacrifice in the tribal sense. My own existentialist take on redemption has to do with authenticity. God took upon Himself our human condition and brought mercy, healing, and peace. For this he was publicly tortured to death.

My own post-modern sense is that the Father is not so much offended by our sin as appalled by it, as an act of vandalism or destruction of works of great beauty conceived in boundless love. The freedom that is required for the reciprocation of love can also be used to reject it. I personally cannot conceive of an infinite God who is somehow diminished or “offended.” To continue to anthropomorphize the Father as a post-modern, post-Freudian human father leads us to a Father, Son, and Spirit caught up in the continuing ongoing creation of bonum diffusivum sibi – good diffusive of itself. The Incarnation and Christ event are the result of an unlimited and unconditional love.

Clearly, this post-modern language flies in the face of Old Testament pastoral society and the cult of Temple sacrifice in the New Testament. Early Christians had to find a way to explain the Christ event in their own cultural and historical context. However, there is no denying that a post-modern Father is less monstrous to the secular humanist ethics and sensibilities that derive from the Christian tradition of the West.

As terrible as the death of Jesus was, it was completely overshadowed by the fact that no evil can come between us and the Love of God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:39)

The great peril of a tribal metaphor is not its irrelevance nor its systemic violence, but rather the chasm it creates between God and us that continues to be the original and fundamental blasphemy alienating us from God and ourselves. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer at the Mass of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday begins in astonishment “Father, you love us still and sent us the Christ.” Yes, what amazement there is, that in spite of our rejection, God never stopped loving us.

The demand for violence attributed to the Father elevates evil to the level of the divine. The unrelenting intrusion of the divine in the human train wreck, of necessity, requires God to confront violence; which he does with non-violence – even to death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8)

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Posted by on Mar 14, 2009

“Life, the Universe and Everything”: The Ultimate Question and Jesus the Christ

A Weekend With the Holy Trinity


There are all kinds of stories of growing up Catholic but very few that focus on that core of the culture that is the Sign of the Cross. “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” This Trinitarian invocation begins and ends almost every event, every ritual, every meal – whether it is a blessing pronounced by the Pope or the gesture we learn from our parents before we can talk.

For all of Catholicism’s lengthy tradition, its mantras and catchphrases, Trinity Sunday is the only Sunday that fails to attempt in words what is incomprehensible. The priest who has a sermon for each Sunday looks into his bag or online list of stock themes, works hard on the presentation, and raises the white flag of surrender as he steps into the pulpit. The standard disclaimer is “We really cannot understand the Trinity. It is a matter of faith.” After confusing those who are awake in the congregation with St. Patrick’s shamrock “three in one” or various other analogies, he repeats the opening disclaimer and makes a hasty retreat to the Nicene Creed, where we sleepwalk our way through beautiful Trinitarian poetry that we ignore out of repetition. “…Light from light, True God from True God, Begotten not made, One in Being with the Father…”

For those of us who graduated from Catholic schools and had a good review of the Trinitarian controversies of the first three centuries and the further travails of this teaching in Church history, the sense of incomprehensibility grows.

William Paul Young’s allegory, The Shack, presents a weekend encounter with the Holy Trinity by a deeply wounded and grieving father. It is a mystical healing encounter that shows us that our concept of God has more to do with us than with the Divine. As a work of fiction it is easier for us to comprehend than the abstractions of theology. The contemporary setting and the issue of why the innocent are slaughtered make this central Mystery more accessible to us than the writings of the mystics who lived in different times and cultures.

I encourage you to read the book. Once you do, that automatic gesture – the Sign of the Cross will be the gift that it is – an entry point to the very life of God.

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Posted by on Apr 6, 2008

“Life, the Universe and Everything”: The Ultimate Question and Jesus the Christ

The Encounter at Emmaus


I have been struck by the stories this Resurrection Season because for the first time, they strike me not as eye witness accounts of the Risen Christ, but as the challenge of faith for the disciples and us. The disciples on the way to Emmaus are leaving Jerusalem – returning home, perhaps, – grief stricken, but more importantly, disillusioned. The teacher has failed. The forces of evil have destroyed a very good and wonderful young man.

One way to see this story is to take it as another proof of the Risen Christ as encountered by his disciples. The story does convey this message. However, the story also tells us that we find the Risen Christ when He opens our minds to see the scriptures and when our hearts are opened at the Breaking of the Bread. Look for Him in the scriptures and invite Him in to dinner and your hospitality will be more than repaid.

There is just a glimpse – a flash of recognition and he disappears from our midst. The presence of the Risen Christ is a momentary and ongoing discovery. It is the result of searching, wandering, questing in grief and disillusionment and being open to the challenge of the Stranger.

All of us have moments, years, decades, in which everything we knew and had hoped for is swept away. The disciples had no clue of what was to become of their beloved teacher, but his torture and death threw them into utter grief and confusion. Yet their confusion only increased when they heard that other disciples had found the empty tomb and seen the angels. They were re-grouping, leaving town, trying to get some distance. A Stranger notices their grief and inquires. They listen and reflect on the scriptures and Break Bread.

This is the Christian life – the quest and the encounter in the village of Emmaus – continuing through all generations.

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Posted by on Jul 29, 2007

“Life, the Universe and Everything”: The Ultimate Question and Jesus the Christ

“Utterly Humbled by The Mystery” – The Spiritual Theology of Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Richard Rohr OFM
Fr. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest who was ordained in 1970. He is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico and is an internationally recognized retreat master and spiritual director.
Fr. Rohr’s spirituality is summarized in his December 18, 2006 essay for the National Public Radio feature, This I Believe entitled: Utterly Humbled by The Mystery. His profound views have a tremendous application to everyday life.

Letting Go… Letting God

In a November 2005 address to medical students at Yale University, Fr. Rohr’s talk Sadness describes pain and suffering, The Way of Tears, as the way our consciousness can be transformed and bring us to “liminal space … the point at which we realize we can’t fix it and therefore the ego has to give up control.” Paradoxically, his approach to human sadness is more like an inoculation. Life is full of happy and pleasant things, “a way of light”. As we know there are many sad and difficult things, “a way of darkness.” Fr. Rohr says that St. Francis embraced pain so that it could not become an enemy; that it could not surprise him. In Fr. Rohr’s view this embrace is shown in St. Francis’ love of poverty, the poor, and the disenfranchised.

Clarity – A Comfortable Untruth

Far from being a love or desire for pain, this embrace is a way to transcend it. He actually distances himself from the focus on pain of those who have “given a marveled fascination to suffering.”The way of light, according to Fr. Rohr, has come to dominate the last 300 years since the Enlightenment. Christians have wanted clarity, closure, solutions – a comfortable untruth which can teach us very little and leave us untransformed.

What Kind of God Has to be Bought Off?

Fr. Rohr traces our problem with suffering back to the 13th century at the University of Paris. There was a controversy between the Dominican and Franciscan approaches to the meaning of Jesus and our salvation. “Is Jesus Necessary?” According to Fr. Rohr, the Dominican position held that “Jesus had to offer this sacrifice, pay this atonement.” Fr. Rohr wonders about what kind of God “has to be bought off to love us?” This is the standard view of atonement which we see in Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ.

Into the Lovability and Generosity of God

According to Fr. Rohr, the Franciscan view was advanced by John Duns Scotus (John Duns the Scot) — that there was nothing to be fixed. Christ was among us and died and rose again not to atone for us but to be the image of the invisible God as described in St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians. From this point of view, Jesus “brought us into the lovability and generosity of God.” Fr. Rohr speculates that the Cross is the “deepest icon because humanity needed an image that God was on our side, that God was given to us, that God was for us and not against, and benevolently involved with the universe: That is, of course, supposed to be the transformative meaning of this image of the crucified Jesus.”

Where Life Is

Fr. Rohr decries the view that “engineers” Jesus into solving a problem. It leaves us with what Fr. Rohr calls a “terrible atonement” theology” that we have been “stuck with” for 700 to 800 years. “Jesus came to identify with the pain of the world and enter into it with that cosmic sympathy and to invite us into that identification with sadness. We are invited, like Francis, to proactively move right into it and say this is were life is at; this is where you understand, not at the top of things but at the bottom of things.”

For More on Fr. Rohr

There is much more to explore in the spiritual theology of Fr. Rohr, which we will try to do in later posts to this blog. Take a moment though and review the links and spend a little time at Fr. Rohr’s sites Male Spirituality and the Center for Action and Contemplation

Additional materials from Fr. Rohr are available at:Credence Communications and American Catholic

Pace e Bene

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