05 Nov 2023 – 31st Sunday, (A)

05 Nov 2023 – 31st Sunday, (A)

Today’s Scripture calls us to examine our conscience about the sincerity of our words and of our lives. We should rid ourselves of all hypocrisy and respect the truth about ourselves, in God’s sight. Bishops and others in a leadership role, have special need to be self-critical, for the potential to be Pharisaic resides in all of us

(1) Malachi (1:14–2:2, 8-10

Israel’s unworthy priests are blamed; for not listening to God they mislead the people

I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations. And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse on you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.

But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction. Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?

Responsorial: Psalm 130

R./: In you, Lord, I have found my peace.

O Lord, my heart is not proud
nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great
nor marvels beyond me. (R./)

Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace.
A weaned child on its mother’s breast,
even so is my soul. (R./)

O Israel, hope in the Lord
both now and for ever. (R./)

(2) 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9, 13

Paul recalls the love and care he has shown to the Thessalonians

We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.

Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12

Jesus attacks the scribes and Pharisees for their false forms of piety

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.

“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus and the Pharisees

It is important that the homily should not distort the teaching of Christ by giving undue emphasis to some personal viewpoint of the preacher, one which does not receive similar emphasis in the Gospels. But in choosing to illustrate the dangers of Pharisaism the preacher is on solid ground; for the Gospels have many conflicts between Christ and the Pharisees and he denounces their approach. What follows are called the “Woes” against the Pharisees. It is a pity that this section has not been selected for any Sunday throughout the three year cycle, for it helps to give a picture of the dangers, not only of Pharisaism in the time of Christ, but of the perils of the false practice of religion in all ages, including our own.

Pharisaism can be seen from several angles. It is the belief that one can save oneself through the observance of law, through the performance of works of piety, fasting, prayer and almsgiving with an eye on the praise of men. The Pharisees tended to put stress on little things (“Tithe of mint, dill and cummin’) while neglecting the much more important matters of faith, justice and mercy. They were noted for their zeal in making converts who in due time became twice as bad as their converters. The outcome was that the Pharisees tended to be hypocrites, a title which Jesus bestowed on them with great liberality.

The “Woes” in Matthew against the Pharisees end with Christ denouncing them for violence, especially against the prophets whose blood they shed and whose tombs they later adorned. “You are the sons of those who murdered the prophets! Very well then, finish off the work that your fathers began.” Mat. 23:32. The finishing off of the work was the death of Christ for which the Pharisees were largely responsible. The works of piety, the strict observance of law was a defence mechanism at work within the Pharisees. They suffered from a sense of guilt which they refused to acknowledge, as the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican informs us. However, if guilt is not acknowledged within oneself, it seeks a victim outside oneself. We can say that Christ was the victim on whom the Pharisees projected their own unacknowledged sense of guilt. No wonder that the repentant sinner of the Parable who cried out, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” is exalted by Christ above the Pharisee who thanked God he was not asinner.

Today’s Gospel is an invitation to all, especially the more pious and those who tend to be judgmental of others, to examine behind our good works. Are they an escape from a sense of guilt? If so, the remedy is not the rejection of piety and good works, but a search for a precious gift of God, the willingness to face up to ourselves by acknowledging our personal and national guilt.

Beware of animated aimlessness

Today’s second reading issues a challenge to all Christians–especially the preacher! We are supposed to live up to what we say we are, followers of Christ. We are, in a single word, called to live by love, love in its deepest and Christian sense.

This word “Love” is much bandied about but less frequently understood and practiced. Jesus gave the supreme example of its real meaning in his life, death and resurrection. But he did not die and rise in order to prevent or excuse us from sharing personally in his selfless experience. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to be Christians with Him, we must in our turn undergo death and resurrection. We must practise what we preach! We must mean what we say and do what we mean.

In the play A Man for All Seasons (by Robert Bolt) there is a scene in which Margaret, the daughter of Thomas More, pleads with her father to desist from his opposition to the dissolute Henry VIII and swear to the Act of Succession. So lie will save his life and be released from jail. But More is unwilling to do something he doesn’t believe in. He says: “If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good and greed would make us saintly.. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit us far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and we have to choose to be human at all.. why then perhaps we must stand fast a little–even at the risk of being heroes.” Margaret, emotionally, still begs him to compromise: “Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?” And her father replies in words that should be written in gold: “Well.. finally.. it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”

This is the love that Christ spoke about and practised. In the end we shall be judged on that alone. Our often ragged efforts to bring direction and meaning to the “animated aimlessness” of our lives will–if touched by the love of God and expressed through genuine service of our fellow human beings–have an eternal value.

Clerical dress and behaviour

For Liam Swords, clerical dress was always rather a non-issue. For a large part of his life as a priest, he worked in France where the clergy wear civilian clothes. Prior to that he worked in the secular world of publishing and television, where it was customary for priests to dress like other employees. Wearing the collar there would be frowned on as an attempt to pull rank. Besides, being an historian, he was always aware of the wide range of clerical attire down through the centuries, from the powdered wigs and frilly cuffs of the ancient régime clerics in France to the peasant garb of penal priests in Ireland. And so he wrote, “for me our finest hour was those times of persecution when priests were disguised as others, rather than those decadent times like our own when, it would seem, others are often disguised as priests.”

That there are solid arguments in favour of a distinctive clerical dress goes without saying. Perhaps the strongest is that the priest in the parish should be easily recognisable by those who seek his help. The notion that clerical dress has sign-value is more questionable. The problem is, a sign of what? If I lived the gospel as fully as Mother Teresa or Abbé Pierre, I would feel no embarrassment wearing a habit or a collar. But a sign works both ways. When taking a stroll in Rome I saw three young friars in their robes and sandals just ahead of me on the pavement. They stopped at a cash-dispenser, fished out their credit cards from the deep folds of their habits and withdrew some money. Most ordinary people nowadays do the same; and so do I. But in this case the clash of symbols deeply disturbed me. Rome is full of down-and-outs who sleep in doorways or on the pavements. What kind of sign would a sight like that be to them? What would that beggar-man, St Francis, have thought?

The strongest argument of all is today’s gospel where Christ castigates the scribes and Pharisees who did “not practise what they preach.” “Everything they do is done to attract attention,” he said, “like wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassles, like wanting to take the place of honour at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues, being greeted obsequiously in the market squares and having people call them Rabbi.” He could well have been describing the world where I first started life as a priest. The collar was much a symbol of power and privilege then and provoked a good deal of anticlericalism. I remember my sister, the mother of a few young children, returning home from the butcher’s, furious. She had to queue for ages. A priest joined the end of the queue and when the butcher spotted the clerical collar, he called him up to serve him immediately. It didn’t pacify my sister when I told her that the priest was probably embarrassed by this special treatment and did not refuse because he did not wish to hurt the butcher’s feelings. “He doesn’t have a dinner to cook and children to mind and feed like me,” she retorted.

Coincidentally, that is exactly how St Paul describes his priestly work among the Thessalonians: “Like a mother feeding and looking after her own children.” Whatever clothes we priests wear–and lam still of two minds about it–we must follow the teaching of Christ: “The greatest among you must be your servant.” Otherwise, we will earn the curse Malachi threatened on the priests who strayed from the right way and become “contemptible and vile in the eyes of the whole people.” Some might say we have reached that point already. The Psalmist aimed at the right spirit when he said,

0 Lord, my heart is not proud nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me.



  1. Thara Benedicta says:

    Key Message:
    Teaching by living!!

    In my younger days, I had a habit of daydreaming. Especially if there was some function around, I used to daydream that I would be at the top of the world during that function. But alas, I would be at the bottom of the world for that function. I observed a repetitive pattern, that whenever I used to exalt myself in my thoughts, I would be humbled. So taking this lesson seriously, I tried not to think proud thoughts about myself, then the days would be glad and cheerful. These experiences made me often recall the words of our Lord Jesus, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” All of us would have experienced these life lessons from “Our Rabbi Jesus”. Even without the voice of words, our Rabbi still teaches us with the voice of life.

    In today’s Gospel reading, our Lord Jesus Christ explains how the scribes and the Pharisees were not living the teachings of God. There was no relation between what they taught and how they lived. On the contrary, the Apostle Paul testifies about his own example of Christian living in the second reading – “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. You remember our labor and toil; we worked night and day. “Amidst all his struggles, he experienced inner peace and joy. Little Thérèse of the Child Jesus also testifies, “Amidst all my struggles, the inner peace and joy never left me”. A righteous living results in an inner peace that will never leave us.

    Our Lord Jesus worked night and day. All day He preached, and He prayed at night or in the early hours of the dawn. He is a hard-working God. He taught us hard work by earning His living as a carpenter. When He was young, He learned a skill, He used His skill to take care of His mother. He lived what He preached. He was bold, courageous, and humble. He washed the feet of His disciples. He was hanging on the cross like an abandoned thief without proper clothing. None of these tasks are expected from someone who is a God. In no other religion, is there a suffering God. Our Lord Jesus Christ humbled Himself to hang on the cross for our sake. Is there anything for us to be proud of apart from our Jesus hanging on the cross?

    Humbleness is not thinking low of oneself, it is not thinking oneself high above others. The great Apostle Paul was gifted with thorns so that he would not consider himself high because of the revelations that were bestowed on him. He did not commit any sin to get these thorns, but it was given to him to keep him in a humble state of mind. If we are better than others, it is not because of us, it is because of the extra blessings we have received. So we need to be extra cautious if we are more gifted than others, because the feeling of pride may set in. If we allow ourselves to become proud, then God will humble us.
    When Mother Teresa was told that she had done great wonders, she calmly replied, “God can make anyone do it. The only reason behind this wonder is our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    Mother Teresa attributed that nothing of her but everything is because of our Lord Jesus. Today’s Gospel reading was realised in Mother Teresa’s life – “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

    Our Lord Jesus calls all of us to live the Gospel so that we can be the living examples of the preaching of our Lord Jesus. He says “You are the light of the world”. If our lives do not shine in front of others then how else can the rest of the world see the true God?


    God’s great character is compassion. The world has heard about God’s compassion but it has not experienced God’s compassion. We should be the vessel of God’s compassion. One testimony – “I was losing my patience often. Simple things were sufficient enough to upset me. When things are not maintained cleanly, or if something is not done perfectly, it used to frustrate me. One day I was thinking about God’s compassion, the compassion overflowing from His loving heart. God’s compassion was sufficient enough to forgive and forget all my sins. Then I realised that I could also show compassion to my friends and forgive their faults. As a result, I became more patient and people experienced a warm feeling of compassion when they were with me”.


    Living happily during trials is a great example of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot afford to have sad, demotivated, and hopeless faces. David ran to the battlefield to fight against the giant Goliath shouting, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel”. We should never sink on any issue. We should also courageously rise and say to the problem, “The hand of my God is not too short to save me”. God will always give us the strength to do what we need to do. But He wants us to believe it (“Without faith, it is impossible to please God” – Hebrews 11:6). So if we lose faith when things are not going well, then we are not believing in our God.

    In Mark 4, 35-41, our Lord Jesus told the Apostles, “Let us go across to the other side.” When our Lord was saying this, He knew there was going to be a storm when they would be in the middle. During their journey, He peacefully slept in the boat but the Apostles woke Him when they grew afraid of the storm. Our Lord woke up, calmed the storm, and rebuked them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

    Our Lord Jesus only slept for a little time and the storm broke out. He can sleep in our boat also for a little time. The storm will come for some time. But it is our response to the situation that our Lord Jesus likes to see. Like little Thérèse not waking up our Jesus asleep in our boat shows a huge measure of our faith. Worrying and waking up Jesus immediately shows a lack of faith. Since our Lord Jesus has promised to take us to the other shore, our survival in the storm also will be His job. Even if many storms come, it should not be a concern for us.

    Trusting in God during our trials is the most important example our world needs to see in us.

    Running our race till we achieve God’s plan for us:

    St. Paul believed and said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. He changed a majority of the world and is still changing the world now through his books. There is a lot to be done. God is expecting His anointed to be the game changers in this world. From hopeless to hopeful; from evil ways to good ways; from war to peace. All we need is to spend time with God and enjoy His Holy presence. The closer we are to our God, the greater our impact in this world. Our Lord Jesus Christ has promised, “Ask what you want in my name. It will be given unto you”. Let us all ask for God’s Holy Spirit. Let us ask for the wars to stop and for peace and joy to abide in this world.

    Let us be the Christians that the world requires!!

  2. Sean O’Conaill says:

    So why did Jesus tell his disciples to call no one on earth their ‘Father’? And how come that the pieties of our faith led eventually to us doing exactly that?

    In how many Irish parishes have there yet been – between ordained clergy and people – that honest conversation about clericalism that Pope Francis’ made many complaints about that should have made possible?

    Jesus was clearly inviting his followers into an adult equality that was not subservient, but was humble nevertheless – i.e. at the service of others and never overbearing. That the pyramidal social structure of Christendom affected the church also, tempting clergy into a paternalistic role, is surely incontestable, and now another ‘stumbling block’.

    I know clergy with whom I could have this conversation, and others with whom broaching such matters would be fraught with the possibility of antagonism. This is where we are with Christendom, and with synodality.

    ‘Conversations in the Spirit’ anyone?

    1. Paddy Ferry says:

      An excellent point. Sean. This never dawned on me until I read Garry Wills “ Why Priests”.
      That passage in Matthew’s gospel also advises against enlarging their tassels and lengthening their tefillin — or perhaps vice versa .
      Not much attention paid to that piece of advice either.
      If you haven’t already read “Why Priests”, Seán, I would highly recommend it.

    2. Paddy Ferry says:

      An excellent point. Sean.
      This never dawned on me until I read Garry Wills “Why Priests”
      That passage in Matthew’s gospel also advises against enlarging their tassels and lengthening their tefillin — or perhaps vice versa .
      Not much attention paid to that piece of advice either.
      If you haven’t already read “Why Priests”, Sean, I would highly recommend it.

      1. Sean O'Conaill says:

        I have done that, Paddy, and respect Garry Wills – but his use of Rene Girard’s ‘Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World’ (to undermine the argument that the crucifixion was a sacrifice) in ‘Why Priests?’ was a huge mistake.

        Wills seemed totally oblivious that Rene completely changed his mind on this following an encounter with Raymund Schwager, Swiss theologian – after completing ‘Things Hidden’ – and came to see Jesus as completing an evolution in the meaning of sacrifice that begins with the story of Abraham and Isaac.

        Initially in Girard’s view a ritualisation of scapegoating, with the priest spilling the blood of a victim who is essentially innocent, sacrifice becomes, with Jesus, the non-violent offering of oneself: the opposite of the killing of another. Rene was thereafter a Mass-going Catholic who did not ask that question ‘Why Priests?’

        We have been here before – but somehow no one seems in the least interested in discussing what is meant by ‘holy’ as distinct from ‘unholy’ sacrifice, even though the distinction is stark and critically important.

        This has to do with radical bafflement and incoherence over the atonement issue, due to St Anselm’s ‘satisfactionism’ at the zenith of the clerical church’s medieval status (the 1090s CE) – and consequent huge reluctance on the part of most clergy to ‘go there’. This too is part of our Christendom ‘hangover’.

        There is a clear and obvious difference between a God intent on rewarding those who sacrifice their lives, without violence, for others, and a God in need of the killing of someone. In which of these two very different Gods are we expected to believe when we ‘hear Mass’? Anselm’s ‘satisfactionism’ blurs that distinction – very much part of the ‘phobia’ toward theology that Joe O’Leary offered way back in 2014 as an explanation for the reluctance of Irish clergy to pitch into such questions.


  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    I chatted once with René Girard, just when that book (Des choses cachées) came out in 1978 and suggested to him maladroitly what Raymond Schwager put to him more persuasively later. Let me broadcast here a review of a book on Atonement from the Japan Mission Journal:

    Catherine Cornille, ed. Atonement and Comparative Theology: The Cross in Dialogue with Other Religions. New York: Fordham University Press, 2021.

    This book brings a wholesome enlargement of perspective on discussion of the Atonement, engaging with Islam, Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, Judaism, and African religions. The questions the Atonement raises seem to drop into this dialogue as if from outer space: ‘Why did Jesus have to die? What is the evil that is conquered by his death? How does his death and resurrection effect the salvation of all?’ (Cornille, 1). The answers even within Christian tradition imply different conceptions of ‘God, evil, salvation, human agency, and the relative importance of the divine and human natures in Christ’ (1). Formal theological objections to certain versions of the Atonement today also imply a variety of presuppositions: ‘The penal substitution theories of atonement have been generally rejected in contemporary theology as based on an outdated feudal understanding of retribution. Feminist and other liberation theologians have taken theories of vicarious suffering to task for their tendency to glorify suffering and surrogacy’ (1).

    The first four essays address the question ‘Why Atonement?’ Islam, as Daniel Madigan, SJ, relates, gives no saving role to the Cross, and indeed denies the need of salvation altogether. ‘Falāḥ, or the positive achievement in space and time of the divine will, is the Islamic counterpart of Christian “deliverance” and “redemption”’ (Isma’il Raji al-Furuki, quoted, 12). Al-Faruki urges that Christian ‘peccatism’ and ‘saviorism’ undercut human autonomy and dignity (as God’s khalīfa or vice-gerent on earth). Fr Madigan pleads for a more sympathetic interpretation of the Christian discourse of sin and Original Sin, and draws heavily on Karl Rahner to provide this. But could a Muslim be expected to know Rahner’s rather counter-intuitive claim that ‘original sin in the Christian sense in no way implies that the original, personal act of freedom of the first person or persons is transmitted to us as our moral quality’ (quoted, 20). Surely that is what St Augustine claimed and what Catholic parents, quite recently, used to think when having their children baptized. It looks as if Islam corrected Augustine long before modern Jesuits got around to it: ‘no soul will bear another’s burden’ (Q 17:15, quoted, 21). Yet ‘the Qur’ãn unmistakably depicts the origins of human history as marked by disobedience to God’ (23), and teaches that ‘the driving, the urging of the soul or self (nafs) toward evil’ (24).

    Even so, since the Merciful one forgives freely and immediately, why is atonement, especially at the cost of an innocent life, required? Fr Madigan responds with standard critiques of Anselm, and of ‘understandings of sola fide and sola gratia that lead to what has been called “grace-ism”’ (33), thanking Muslims for identifying weak points in Christian theology. I was unable to see how this alleged grace-ism differs from the teaching of St Paul and Martin Luther, or indeed from the immediate forgiveness Islam celebrates. Bonhoeffer’s unwise and nauseatingly repeated phrase ‘cheap grace’ is invoked to prove that ‘Christians do have a case to answer when it comes to taking seriously the moral task of the believer and the relationship of ethical action to salvation’ (34). But the case is mostly represented by what Fr Madigan agrees are caricatures, and his recourse to a synergism of ethics and grace as the basis of salvation is quite vulnerable to the powerful critique from the Augustinian tradition, which he himself caricatures as involving ‘facile notions’ of original sin and ‘salvation as a fait accompli that absolves humanity from any further ethical struggle’ (34-5). Interreligious dialogue should present the deepest theology on both sides; shadow-boxing between caricatures is counter-productive, as Fr Madigan himself insists. It would have been better to proceed in that key from the start.

    Thierry-Marie Courau, OP, turns to Buddhist accounts of craving (tṛṣṇā), which leads us to build ‘a fantasy world based on our longing for and grasping of seductive objects’ (49). These objects are fetishized or reified as existing in and of themselves rather than in their interdependency with subjective factors in the web of dependent origination. The trio of craving, grasping (upādāna), existence (bhava) within the twelvefold chain of dependent origination ‘are engines (actualizers) for creating new existences (actualized), which all are duhkha’ (51). Taking pity on those enchained in this cycle, the bodhisattvas ‘show that there is nothing to grasp or obtain, that the thirst to “take, keep, or reject” must dry up in order to stop chasing after what does not exist’ (52).

    Shining this Buddhist lamp on Genesis 2-3 ‘we see more clearly in Genesis that which has always been there.’ Misperception of the forbidden fruit as ‘an object in and of itself’ aroused ‘the craving to appropriate it.’ As a result of this mental confusion and illusion, ‘the human is self-reduced: He was the receiver-of-the-whole-garden; he is now only a prehensile eye and hand, a grasper-after-objects, implicating the second individual in the same confusion’ (53). Christ’s non-grasping at equality with God (cf. Phil 2:5-9) reverses Adam’s confusion and greed, and ‘reveals the non-existence-in-itself of evil, the illusory existence that evil can possess for a time’ (55). If one replaces the ‘garden’ with our threatened planet in this meditation, the shared wisdom of the Buddhist and Christian sources emerges luminously.

    Klaus von Stosch looks to a Qu’rān verse: ‘Christ, the son of Mary, was no more than a messenger…. His mother was a woman of truth. They had both to eat their (daily) food’ (Q 5:75, quoted, 71). This is directed at mainstream ‘Byzantine theologians who claimed that Jesus did not need to eat’ (72). ‘In the logic of this theory of atonement, it is very important that Jesus Christ shares our human condition in all its ambiguity and that he also shares our libertarian free will’ (74). I am not sure what this adds to the best Patristic Christology or why it is necessary to learn it from Islam.

    Bede Benjamin Bidlack seeks light in Daoism on the meaning and practice of penance. He takes up Elizabeth Johnson’s suggestion that ‘Jesus’s passion and death were never for the sake of satisfaction’ but rather enact ‘divine accompaniment with a suffering world’ (79). This scarcely matches Jesus’s self-description as ‘a ransom (lutron) for many’ (Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28), or his identification as a means by which sins are forgiven in Rom 3:25 (hilastērion), Heb 2:17 (hilaskesthai); 1 Jn 2:2 (hilasmos). Daoism can ‘fill the void left by Johnson’s accompaniment interpretation of the cross’ (79). In syncretistic ‘Numinous Treasure Daoism’ ‘universal salvation is the notion that ritual behavior can relieve the suffering of other beings, and bodhisattvas are agents devoted to this end,’ with salvation meaning ‘to ferry across illusions, changes, and the distresses of this world and the next’ (83). In one ritual, ‘the so-called penitents… are taking upon themselves the suffering of those in hell’ (87) in a communal intercession. ‘Atonement means bringing the cosmos, oneself, and the society into harmony with the Dao’ (92). This chimes with an integral Christian notion of penance as what ‘leads to atonement, which is a reconciliation, a healing, a re-conformity with the divine will’ (97).

    The second batch of essays examines interreligious perspectives on the Cross. Indian resistance to the doctrine of the atonement would previously have been dismissed as just ‘the heathen in his blindness.’ But as revisited by Francis X. Clooney, SJ, it turns out that the critiques of Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1833) and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) chime with current intra-Christian objections. A Hindu convert to Catholicism, Brahmobandhab Upadhyay (1861-1907), argued that Hindu reformers were ‘infatuated with the notion of self-salvation and self-divinization’ (110) and noted that ‘other religions too, and particularly in India, knew the fact and value of vicarious suffering’ (111). The Hindu world was unpersuaded, an impasse that shows us ‘the limits of moral exemplarity (Christ’s selflessness) and even loving intervention (his suffering all for the sake of humans), if such are perceived also as rebukes’ to their traditions (111). Clooney seeks another route, in ‘the aesthetic, contemplative power of gazing upon the crucified’ (105).

    The Mughal emperor Jahangir (1569-1627) was impressed by Jesuit adoration of the suffering Christ. Vedānta Deśika (1267-1369) offered a traditional Indian basis for this in his account of how Vishnu ‘experienced suffering, grief, and fear during his divine descents’ (116). According to Vīrarāghavācārya (1897-1983), the divine sufferings of Rāma are ‘as real as the most effective performances on stage,’ and affected pious audiences for centuries ‘as God most compellingly demonstrates his commitment to his people’ (117). Hindu spiritual leaders such as Keshab Chunder Sen (1838-1884)—who cried: ‘Jesus, thou art atonement incarnate’ (118)—and Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) reached an affective locus where ‘Hindu and Christian insights can begin to cohere in contemplation of the holy person who suffers’ (118).

    Michelle Voss Roberts complains about (mostly African American) students who sing hymns on the Blood of Christ: ‘I know the students are aware of how the logic of “blood shed for me” can reinforce unhealthy ideals of sacrifice and suffering for women and racialized persons’ (130). It ‘feels like a rebuke, a rude gesture, directed at faculty like me’ (131). But for many Christians it is deeply liberating to sing, ‘Me immundum, munda tua sanguine’ (Aquinas); ‘Blood of my Savior, bathe me in Thy tide’ (Ignatius Loyola/Frederick Faber), ‘Just as I am, without one plea/ Save that Thy Blood was shed for me’ (Charlotte Elliott), or Archbishop Welby’s favorite: ‘And can it be that I should gain/ An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?’ (Charles Wesley). Should these be canceled? Should we balk at the New Testament glorification of the Blood (Mk 14: 23; Mt 26:27-8; Lk 22:20; Jn 6:53-56; 19:34-7; Acts 20:28; Rom 3:25; 5:9; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:12-26; 10:19; 1 Pt 1:19; 1 Jn 1:7; Rev 1;5; 5:9; 7:14; 12:11)?

    When she turns to contemplating a Bhāgavata Purāṇa maṇḍala of the eight phases of love however, Roberts embraces visceral Indian imagery, such as a hymn involving ‘a “rosary of hands and heads,” entrails, and a blood-stained elephant hide’ (137). She favors Julian of Norwich, whose visions are at the bloodier end of the spectrum of representations of the Passion: ‘the bleeding head of Christ… the flowing blood of Christ,’ though they present atonement ‘not as punishment for sin, but as union with God in love’ (140). The caricature of atonement as God’s cruel punishment for sin has too much purchase in current theology; in standard Christian piety it signifies precisely the loving union enabled by forgiveness of sin.

    In the last quartet of essays, on ‘rethinking redemption,’ Marianne Moyaert, in dialogue with Jews, notes that ‘since the Shoah, the idea that suffering may somehow be redemptive has come under tremendous pressure’ (190). But might one not say that the Shoah puts every article of faith under tremendous pressure? Joshua Ralston engages in dialogue with Muslims who ‘have challenged the historicity of Jesus’s death, rejected its salvific meaning, mocked its metaphysical implications, and questioned the propriety of its ubiquitous presence in churches, liturgy, and ritual’ (214). Again, such a critique seems too all-enveloping to be illuminating on the precise topic of atonement. A reply to it would involve revival of the anti-docetic polemic of early theologians such as Tertullian, reinforced by modern scriptural scholarship.

    Leo D. Lefebure reads ‘atonement’ as ‘being at one’ and sees notions of atoning sacrifice as secondary. Like other contributors he talks of the biblical doctrine as if it were merely an interpreted choice: ‘Often Christian theologians have interpreted the death of Jesus on the cross as an atoning sacrifice that was in some way necessary for salvation’ (240). He quotes D. T. Suzuki’s Mysticism Christian and Buddhist (London: Unwin, 1988): ‘The crucified Christ is a terrible sight and I cannot help associating it with the sadistic impulse of a physically affected brain’; ‘What is needed in Buddhism is enlightenment, neither crucifixion nor resurrection’ (240). This is matched with some feminist theologians who ‘accuse traditional theologies of atonement of holding up child abuse as an ideal’ (242). Surely we have had enough hand-wringing over such sweeping critiques?

    Shinran radicalized the Buddhist teaching of the Three Poisons: ‘we are full of ignorance and blind passion. Our desires are countless, and anger, wrath, jealousy, and envy are overwhelming, arising without pause’ (quoted, 243). Our egocentric calculative thinking (hakarai) poisons even religious acts. Lefebure asks: ‘To what degree do Christian actions and reflections in relation to atonement move within the orbit of what Shinran calls hakarai?’ (244). St Anselm corrected cruder calculations about the atonement in terms of buying off the devil but introduced a subtler hakarai by his focus on the debt we owe to divine honor. ‘Only humans owe the debt, but only God can pay it; thus a God-human is necessary’ (245).

    Shinran preached a turn-around by which one abandons calculation and the very idea of a substantial ego to entrust oneself totally to the compassion of Amida Buddha. Such a dynamic of love and grace is also the very heart of the Atonement as understood by Paul and John, and modern critics of the doctrine generally give it insufficient attention. Shinran’s own tradition fell into the deviations of hakarai in its ‘turmoil over religious acts’ at the end of the 18th century. ‘One prominent leader, Chido (1736-1805), was arrested, carried to trial in a cage, condemned as a heterodox’ (251). These feuds demand to be overcome in ‘mature, integrated practice’ in which ‘both the teleological dichotomy between this world and the Pure Land and the interpersonal dichotomy between self and Amida Buddha are “in some sense overcome, though not eliminated”’ (251, citing Dennis Hirota). Shinran teaches: ‘Other Power is the Buddha’s power that has become one’s own as shinjin. It is the power of the heart and mind of the person in whom self-power falls away and disappears as oneness with the Buddha’s mind is realized’ (251-2).

    Christian union with Christ may be ontologically different from the kind of fusion this suggests, but it lies in a similar realm of mystical insight. Devotion to the cross of Christ massively stresses the believer’s trusting identification with Christ, or Christ’s gracious identification with the believer. Criticism of the atonement that misses this fundamental tone of mystical identification is misguided. Buddhism challenges Christians to retrieve and deepen their traditions in the key of enlightenment, in a way that goes deeper into the power of Christ’s adoption of the role of sacrificial Lamb rather than distorting or diluting it.

    S. Mark Heim discusses ‘generous Buddhist readings of the cross and their emphasis on a dimension of nondual realization in it’ (259). He resists a common Buddhist perception that ‘Jesus’s life and, above all, his death, plainly lacks the marks of the highest levels of spiritual attainment,’ because of ‘Christ’s disjunctive relationship with God’ (260). Heim believes that ‘we can be instructed by Buddhist teaching to formulate the realization dimension in the cross,’ with special reference to ‘the three Christian “registers” of non-duality: apophaticism, immanence, and communion’ (263). The first of these he associates with emptiness and no-self, the second with buddha nature. The cross is ‘emptiness embodied’ (263), and is seen less as a historical event than as ‘a meditative achievement’ (261). It symbolizes something perennially true, and is critiqued in terms of its adequacy to that function.

    ‘Suffer with Jesus Christ’ is a mantra for dealing with physical pain; in taking the focus away from self it generates many of the effects of Buddhist meditation. Heim links the more positive teaching of an immanence of buddha nature in all sentient beings with the Eastern Orthodox language of divinization, and with ‘a mode of God’s presence in and to the world’ with which one can commune ‘as a form of “bare awareness,” which is always available underneath the business of communicative consciousness’ (268). This is ‘an at-one-ment, a human identification with a divine presence that is always the case’ (270). When Heim turns to the third aspect of ‘Christian nonduality,’ namely ‘communion,’ he says, ‘Jesus’s death is about change in what Buddhism regards as a world of convention and projection, but what Christians regard as part and parcel of the kingdom of God’ (274). Jesus is unique ‘in his eschatological role as creating saving communion among humans and with God…. This is not an ontological condition, but a relational achievement’ (276).

    Perhaps the lesson of all these interreligious encounters is that Christian theologians need first to sort out what they mean by Atonement before a firm platform of dialogue can be constructed.

  4. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #5 “Perhaps the lesson of all these interreligious encounters is that Christian theologians need first to sort out what they mean by Atonement before a firm platform of dialogue can be constructed.”

    Amen to that, Joe.

    Richard Rohr’s emphasis is always on the difference between the notion that Jesus came to change God’s mind about us humans (substitutionary fundamentalism) and the far more uplifting idea that Jesus’s mission and achievement was to change our mind about God. For Richard the latter is the emphasis of Franciscan theology (Bonaventure especially) which did not (according to Richard) buy into St Anselm’s emphasis on the ‘satisfaction’ of the Father’s ‘honour’ and ‘justice’.

    Synodality still struggles to put a persuasive upbeat spin on ‘mission’ – a word that occurs 110 times in the Synod Synthesis Report. Who can read Acts, Paul or e.g. Ignatius of Antioch without realising that for the early Christians the ‘Jesus News’ had changed the mood, and the historical expectation, of the earliest believers. This was the reason that the understanding of the ‘ransom’ paid by Jesus was that it had been paid not TO God the Father but TO Satan (seen as the source of all oppression) BY the father THROUGH Jesus. God the Father was seen as the source of this gift of Jesus, and of his Resurrection, and this father ‘will likewise raise us also who believe in Him through Jesus Christ’, in the words of Ignatius.

    Notice that emphasis on believing in the goodness of the Father ‘through’ Jesus’, the same emphasis we find in Paul’s insistence on God being known as loving and faithful ‘in’ Jesus Christ. (Romans 8:38,39

    How exactly did it come about that Anselm’s emphasis is very different a millennium later: on the need to somehow ‘justify’ the crucifixion rather than to celebrate the resurrection? Surely the fact that the role of the church was now to support an existing monarchical and aristocratic social order, not to predict a better world ahead, was all important?

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    Bruce Robinette of Boston College writes: “Recalling again that while we are not afforded a direct, quasi-objective portrayal of Jesus _being raised_ from the dead in the New Testament, we can nevertheless point to the startling signs and situated effects of an ‘event’ that radically overflowed the perceptual, affective, and cognitive horizons of its witnesses. Without some degree of followability, without some meaningful plot points, such an event could not be properly shared or communicated. It could have no incidence, and thus nothing really to give. Sheer incomprehension would be its fate. What we must say, rather, is that the quality of excess of the Easter event was (and is) followable, but only through the _conversion_ of its recipients; only through the elicitation of an inexhaustibly new way of imaging and desiring on the part of those formed by it.

    “We can begin to sense the liberating strangeness of this ‘event,’ and why resurrection language is indispensable in naming it, by first considering the empty tomb narratives. In Mark, upon visiting the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome are besieged by a shocking absence. Expecting to carry out the tender yet sorrowful act of ritually preparing a body for the future resurrection, the women are overwhelmed with panic well beyond the original grief of Jesus’ death. This was a loss upon loss, actually, for even the consolation of proper burial was now denied them. But as they ventured further into the tomb, their gaze was arrested by the sight of ‘a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe’ (Mk 16:5). The angelic figure says to them: ‘He has been raised; he is not here.’ (16:6).

    This twofold expression signals an absence that coincides with a qualitatively new presence. Without anything to grasp, not even a corpse signifying death, the women at the tomb were at once deprived and galvanized by expectancy. ‘But go and tell his disciples and Peter; there you will see him, as he told you. So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ (v. 8).

    “Much scholarly discussion has convulsed around the starkness of this ending. Did the Marcan author really intend to end his gospel this way? Did the Marcan author really intend to end his gospel this way? Does the women’s silence suggest that they failed in their task? Did the author know of an appearance tradition associated with Galilee but not include it? Whatever the value of questions like these, it is far more telling to ‘read off’ the text and allow the unexpectedness to declare itself.

    As Francis Watson astutely observes, we should read these narratives as meaningful ‘precisely _in_ their fragmentariness, and not _in spite of_ it.’ Even more, we should consider their extant form as ‘included within the sphere of the event itself, so that the generation of an appropriate testimony to itself would be integral to the event.’ The terror and amazement, the deferral of representation, the summons to behold, the crisscrossing of expectation, the passage from grief to bewilderment, the call to community, the hesitancy and speechlessness: together these features participate in, without in any way exhausting, the ‘event’ they manifest.” (Theological Fringes of Phenomenology, ed. Joseph Rivera and J. S. O’Leary, Routledge, 1983, pp. 92-3).

  6. Sean O'Conaill says:

    That on the credibility of the Resurrection is excellent, Joe.

    Cannot one add also that the transformation of those who bore witness to the Resurrection – and therefore the ‘takeoff’ of the early church – cannot convincingly be explained in terms of e.g. ‘vivid loving memory’ of Jesus, followed by a pact, however sincere, to ‘memorialize’ him by loving fictions such as the Emmaus story and the detailed account of the resolution of Thomas’s doubt?

    This, or something like it, emerges from the ‘Jesus seminar’ school of biblical scholars, the ‘respectful doubters’ – but I have never been able to see this as anything other than the weakest possible explanation for the transformation of the obviously and convincingly terrified disciples in Gethsemane into the ‘actors’ of Acts.

    If something unexpected and radically transformative had not indeed happened TO the apostles, how could they have been so changed simply by some kind of agreement to allege that it had – in the full light-of-day knowledge that it had not?

    Finally, those disbelieving Jesus seminar folk always end up patronising Jesus for trusting in a heavenly Father to the point of accepting such an excruciating death. None of them has convinced me that they have come remotely close to grasping and explaining the moral achievement of those teachings and that death. The Gospels are always far more convincing to me than those who use form criticism to present an ‘historical’ Jesus who must have been essentially delusional and naive.

    As L.T. Johnson puts it, the most convincing historical sources for an encounter with that historical Jesus are the Gospels themselves, not the writings of those searching essentially for someone else, and always for someone deliberately diminished a priori by the agreed wisdom that all talk of divinity must simply be ‘myth’.

  7. Paddy Ferry says:

    Sean and Joe, thank you both for such learned contributions to this discussion. Joe@6, I was especially interested and impressed with what was an inter-faith critique of sacrifice and atonement. I read it all.
    I wonder how many members of our ACP did the same.

    My recent, though limited, research has eased my long held confusion as to why Jesus had to die such a horrible death to appease his Father for the sins of our ancient — probably mythical — ancestors that we too, somehow, were being held responsible for. Faith surely should have some element of reasonable, common sense as well.

    I was reassured to read @6, Joe:

    ‘The penal substitution theories of atonement have been generally rejected in contemporary theology as based on an outdated feudal understanding of retribution.”

    I wonder would Cardinal Ratzinger when he was Prefect of the CDF be content to hear that?

    Sean, I am sure when reading Garry Wills’ “Why Priests” you were impressed with his critique of Hebrews. Jesus never claimed to be a priest, neither did the gospel writers or St. Paul. (If I am mistaken in any of this, please correct me). We have only one writer, the mysterious, unknown author of Hebrews to thank for the idea of Jesus’ priesthood when he constructed a new lineage of priesthood based on the so-called high priest, Melchizedek and his chance meeting with Abraham who was on his way home from sorting out his nephew, Lot’s enemies.

    Now, eminent scholars such as Prof. Fred Horton, author of “The Melchizedek Tradition” can explain to us that those three verses in chap. 14 of Genesis, where this chance meeting takes place, are probably an implant — or intrusion, I think is how Prof. Horton describes it — as nothing before or after those verses bear any relevance to them. In fact, scholars now maintain that all of chap. 14 may well be an intrusion as none of it has any evidence of the primary sources of Genesis.

    Sean, I’m afraid Rene Girard just does not do it for me either.

    You both refer to gospel evidence and the letters of St.Paul, especially you, Joe, in your excellent pieces above. I now also wonder how reliable are these. I have just finished reading John Henry Newman’s essay on “The Development of Doctrine”, not an easy read! He certainly believed — in 1845, at least — in the idea of scriptural inerrancy as he often refers to The Divine Author. I was struck by that and that he was still of the opinion that the Letter to the Hebrews was written by St. Paul. But even our church has jettisoned the doctrine of biblical inerrancy now, thanks due to the intervention, I think I am correct in saying, of the late, great Franz, Cardinal Koenig at the 3rd session of Vatican II. He was, of course, also the man who nominated Wojtyla at the 2nd conclave in 1978 but I still think he was great.

    There is also mention in your pieces of God and the Father. I now think before we delve into the nature of Jesus’ mission on earth we should ask ourselves what is our actual understanding of the nature of the Father/God we claim to believe in.

    Only recently, in the last few years, did I realise that I should ask myself that question. In pursuit of an understanding I read Fr. Diarmuid Ó Murchú’s excellent book, “Incarnation. A New Evolutionary Threshold”. What a great book! This is another book that I would wholeheartedly recommend.
    I keep bragging to my Scottish friends what great scholar priests we still have in Ireland.

    I am now thinking of Tony again. I have told this story many times on this site and I will now once again.

    I had my 10 minutes face to face with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin some years ago when he was over in Edinburgh for a conference on Towards a Common Vision of Priesthood. We got on great. His mother was from Donegal. Then I said to him that surely he, as a senior archbishop or the Irish bishops as a whole, could bring to an end the scandal of Tony Flannery’s mistreatment. Well, of course, he wasn’t up for it.

    There is so much to digest in what you both contributed above. Thank you both again.

    One part of me thinks what a shame there are not many of us who want to engage in these discussions. However, Sean, another part of me can understand why priests would not want “to pitch into” debates on this kind of topic. I wouldn’t blame them for remaining silent.
    Good night and God bless — whoever he, she or it may be.

  8. Paddy Ferry says:

    I had intended to say in my comment above re my 10 minutes face to face with Archbishop Martin— mention of Garry Wills brought it back to me — that what Tony had said about the origins of priesthood was very mild in comparison to what Garry Wills has had to say and that I was not aware of anyone challenging Prof. Wills. Archbishop Martin agreed with me on that.
    I don’t know why I omitted that in my comment above. I thought that was significant.

  9. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #10 Girard does not ‘do it’ for Paddy Ferry.

    If I was clear on what ‘it’ is for you, Paddy, I would be less puzzled, given that whereas the major questions here are theological (‘priests’, ‘the Father’) Girard was not a theologian – and, as a philosopher and anthropologist, is far from easy reading – so there are lots of things he does not do for me either.

    I referred to him earlier only because Garry Wills chose to deploy Girard’s ‘Things Hidden’ as an argument against ‘priests’ without apparently being aware of Girard’s change of mind on the ‘sacrificial’ nature of Jesus acceptance of crucifixion.

    However, that change of mind also raises questions about the emphasis in Catholicism on the primacy of the sacramental priesthood, as opposed to the ordinary priesthood of active service of those in need of care – what I call the mistaken elevation of the symbolic above the real. The fundamental role of the priest was etymologically that of a bridge between the human and the divine, and Jesus’ strong emphasis in Matthew 5 on bodily service of the needy as the essential requirement for salvation raises serious questions about characterizing the ordained priest as the person who, by virtue of his sacramental and liturgical role, can best ‘model’ Jesus for the rest of us.

    It is that mistake surely that explains the relative eclipse of the social justice side of Jesus as the great bridge between heaven and earth? I blame history rather than Hebrews for elevating what we call that ‘cultic’ priesthood above the priesthood of service and self–giving, what is called the ‘common priesthood’ of all of the baptised.

    But if we did not have the word ‘priest’ we would need some other word to connote the idea of Christian service to model Jesus’ loving service of others, so why make such a fuss about that word ‘priest’? Isn’t that equivalent to making war on the word ‘bridge’? The Melchizedek argument is for me neither here nor there – I cannot understand the obsession with it.

    We need above all to model Jesus’s active concern for justice, and we need a word for that bridging role. In that sense, yes, we do need priests. We are less in need of ordained men who cannot in fact model for us the very different ‘calling’ that our own lay contexts require – so it’s not necessarily disastrous that they are becoming scarce.

    On that other issue of ‘the Father’ there is too much to say for this commenting space. For now I’ll make do with Girard’s contention that all violence arises out of mimetic desire, so the warning against that in the ninth and tenth commandments – and repetitive biblical solidarity with victims of scapegoating violence – reveals the source of all violence to lie in ourselves. Who in the end is the source of this revelation? For Ignatius of Antioch it was the Father of Jesus who had raised him, and who would also raise all who believed in him. So the Father is he in whom Jesus believed. There is no greater source of knowledge of him – and if Jesus had not had that firm belief this ACP website would not exist.

  10. Paddy Ferry says:

    Seán@12, thank you for your considered response, as always. I will look forward to continuing this conversation sometime next week. Despite having recently retired life continues to be quite busy.
    Best wishes,

  11. Paddy Ferry says:

    Seán, the “it” that Rene Girard doesn’t do for me is to satisfactorily address my long held unease with the teaching/belief that Jesus had to die such a horrible death, to appease his, apparently, vengeful Father, to save us for our sins, sins that we somehow inherited through the generations from our ancient, probably mythological, ancestors, Adam and Eve. I must admit that I only know of Girard from what you and Joe have shared with us over the years.

    Joe has also shared with us above that:

    “The penal substitution theories of atonement have been generally rejected in contemporary theology as based on an outdated feudal understanding of retribution.”

    That may well be but has contemporary Christian/Catholic teaching also rejected such theories? I think I still hear mention at Sunday morning Mass of Jesus having to die to save us.

    While I have always felt unease and confusion with this belief I never really stirred myself to have a proper look at or study the teaching.

    Why did I not? I am not sure. It may well be because it is so basic to our faith. I know very learned people, university lecturer/professor and professional types who are practising Catholics but who would avoid any discussion on things like transubstantiation and even papal infallibility. Reject any of it and can you still call yourself a Catholic?

    So, when I came across the late, great Joseph Fitzmyer SJ, scripture scholar extraordinaire, in his writing on Romans, say that “Paul never said that Christ was sacrificed for our sake. That notion enters the later theological tradition …..etc.” – I have shared this on many occasions on this site – I became more confident in acknowledging my own difficulty with this teaching and belief.

    Seán, I do think that Hebrews is fundamental to what you refer to as our ‘cultic’ priesthood. History may have caused its elevation and evolution over the ages but Hebrews and Melchizedek certainly sowed the seed. And, I don’t need to repeat what I said above about Melchizedek and those few verses in chapter 14 of Genesis and, in fact, now, all of chapter 14 of Genesis.

    I am also puzzled, Seán, as to why you dismiss the Jesus Seminar so easily. It began with over 200 scripture scholars, I believe, and eventually there were 74, and 14 of them were very well known and respected scholars, including the late Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. These are the only two I know anything about as I have read their books, The First Christmas, The Last Seven Days and The First Paul. I have found them to be absolutely fascinating. I have just started to read again The First Christmas as part of my Advent/Christmas reflection. Well, any excuse to read them again as they are wonderful books. Are those their only books, I wonder?

    I didn’t realise, for example, that there is little convergence with Matthew’s account of the Nativity and Luke’s, the only two Gospels that tell the story of Jesus’ birth. The Christmas story that we are familiar with is an amalgamation of the two. And, a consensus of mainstream biblical scholarship sees the stories as coming relatively late in the development of early Christianity.

    I wouldn’t be sharing this stuff with my mother if she was still with us!

    Perhaps the most amazing thing I have learned from these books is the parallelism between Roman Imperialist theology and Jewish/Christian theology. Why has this never been explained to us? I presume it is part of priestly, seminary formation.

    I have mentioned before that John Crossan was born in Nenagh two years before my mother-in-law, Agnes. Agnes is now 87 so John must be 89. Agnes had never heard of him.

    I read somewhere that he is regarded as the greatest living expert on Jesus.

    I was aware of Luke Timothy Johnston taking issue with the Seminar but have other major scholars had reason to challenge them? This is a genuine question as I don’t know a great deal about the Jesus Seminar.

    And, Seán, finally, you mention God and the Father a lot in your comments above.

    I do really think that the ultimate question that we have to address is our understanding of the reality of the Father God we claim to believe in.

    We have to deal with that, I think, before we can move onto anything else.

    I have tried to answer that question myself, thanks to Tony Flannery and Diarmuid Ó Murchú.

    It has been really enlightening reading you and Joe discuss this and other weighty topics. Thank you both for that.

    I feel a bit of an impostor engaging with you both given your much greater knowledge of these matters that I will ever have.

    I am still not sure I understand:
    ‘Girard’s contention that all violence arises out of mimetic desire.’

  12. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #14 “Seán, the “it” that Rene Girard doesn’t do for me is to satisfactorily address my long held unease with the teaching/belief that Jesus had to die such a horrible death, to appease his, apparently, vengeful Father, to save us for our sins, sins that we somehow inherited through the generations from our ancient, probably mythological, ancestors, Adam and Eve.”

    Girard, although not a theologian, definitely did not accept the theology you summarise here, Paddy, and would have been made aware by e.g. Raymund Schwager that other great medieval theologians such as Duns Scotus and St Bonaventure never accepted it either. It is a total tragedy that our clergy were mostly never given a thorough grounding in that medieval debate – and in the Patristic Fathers also.

    I have already quoted from one of those fathers the following – from St Ignatius of Antioch c. 108 CE – in one of the letters written on his way to execution by wild beasts, most likely in the recently built Colosseum in Rome – it’s well worth quoting again.

    “Stop your ears therefore when anyone speaks to you that stands apart from Jesus Christ, from David’s scion and Mary’s Son, who was really born and ate and drank, really persecuted by Pontius Pilate, really crucified and died while heaven and earth and the underworld looked on; who also really rose from the dead, since His Father raised Him up, His Father, who will likewise raise us also who believe in Him through Jesus Christ, apart from whom we have no real life.”

    Notice there especially the attribution to God the Father of the ‘raising’ of Jesus, AND the confidence of Bishop Ignatius that he too would therefore also be raised.

    In short, for the early Christians, the crucifixion and resurrection COMBINED had overthrown their fear of the judgement of Rome. They did not see the crucifixion as a SEPARATE event in need of a SEPARATE theological explanation. Those two events together had ‘redeemed’ them, relativising the judgement of the empire, and assuring them that they too could not be annihilated by it.

    As Jesus could not have been raised from death if he had not suffered death, it followed also that Jesus had accepted crucifixion to fall in with the Trinity’s intent to assure all who believed in Jesus that their lives also were safe from the utmost punishment and indignity that Rome could inflict.

    So redemption initially was NOT understood as arising from the appeasing of the Father by Jesus, but as the Father’s intent and purpose FOR ALL BELIEVERS from the beginning. Out of that conviction Paul’s belief in a New Creation also arose.

    And that Patristic ‘take’ is fully compatible with the Franciscan theology of Bonaventure, etc. that Richard Rohr so ably defends in his daily reflections.

    For Anselm in the 1090s the situation was completely different, because he was embedded in a social hierarchy that was supposedly divinely approved of – that ‘honour pyramid’ that had God the Father at its summit. And so we get what is best described as the imperial theology of God the Father needing satisfaction for sin, a theology that necessarily implies a kind of celestial narcissism.

    For me, the problem with the Jesus seminar is not that they use form criticism and biblical scholarship to pursue the historical Jesus but that they do so from the a priori position that the Resurrection did not happen – that it is ‘mythical’, i.e. a pious fiction. There are other perfectly competent scripture scholars – e.g. Luke Timothy Johnson – who reject that approach and defend the Creed, as do I.

    For me, the greatest disaster of all is never to have come as close to personal disaster as e.g. Ignatius came in being arrested for annoying the Roman Gods. My disasters were very different, but one of them was the experience of being literally arrested, by a cohort of police, in my home, for a vile crime of which I was totally innocent. It was a case of mistaken identity, soon realised – but the shock was intense and stayed with me, as did the memory of feeling sure that I was being accompanied through it.

    Only then did I come fully to understand the Creed, as a story of the subversion of the judgement of an empire for my sake also, in case I might ever fear the misjudgments of others. That is the gift that belief in the Resurrection can give to everyone – my reason for directly challenging the theology you reject in another piece here.


    That’s the best I can do right now: I need to rise fairly early tomorrow.

    Except to say that full belief in the Creed also relativises relativism and the secularising consensus that, with the death of Christendom, Christianity must also die. We should pray for that full sharing in the foundational conviction of the church.

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