John Breck: ‘By His Passion He Might Purify the Water’

theophanyToday I was researching the creation care teachings that will likely undergird Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical on climate change. I found this epiphany reflection by Orthodox Father John Breck.

The deep wisdom in the Eastern church reminds us of the distinctives that Christians bring to our relationship with God’s creation. We do not recognize the earth as a god in herself. We do not believe that the earth is more holy or more perfect than humans. We do believe that both earth and human communities are “fallen” or “in the far country” (as Meiser Eckhart puts it). Our human call to fidelity with creation is so much more than that of caretaker or steward or even pastor or priest. We are family (creaturely together) striving to find our way home.–Rose

Here’s an excerpt from Breck’s reflection on theophany (when God becomes visible) and water:

“… There is another aspect of Theophany that also needs to be stressed, today perhaps more than ever before. This is a motif that appears very clearly in icons of the feast but goes unmentioned in the Gospels. Its earliest formulation seems to be that of St Ignatius of Antioch, who died as a martyr in Rome between 110 and 117 AD. In his letter to the Ephesians (ch. 18), Ignatius makes a statement notoriously difficult to translate: “Our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to the plan (oikonomian) of God from the seed of David [cf. Rom 1:3] and [by] the Holy Spirit; he was born and was baptized so that by the passion (tô pathei) he might purify the water.”

Without going into the difficulties presented by the language of this verse, we can note its basic theme. It is the same as depicted in icons and liturgical hymns of the Theophany feast. Christ descends into the waters of the Jordan not only to submit himself to the hands of John and to lay the foundation for the sacramental act of baptism. He also goes down into the Jordan in order to purify or sanctify those waters, and in so doing he symbolically (really, through this sign-act) sanctifies all of creation.

Theophany celebrates the baptismal renewal of God’s people, members of the Body of Christ. But it also provides the perspective we are to assume with regard to the entire created world. Stated otherwise, it provides the foundation for a genuinely Christian “ecology.”

Elizabeth Theokritoff has written a book entitled, Living in God’s Creation, with the subtitle “The Ecological Vision of Orthodox Christianity.” The author points out that our relation to the created world is less that of “steward” than it is of priest. We are called not only to preserve and care for the created order. Our vocation relative to the world we live in, both natural and human, is to make of it an offering to God, with the ongoing supplication that he bless, restore and make fruitful this planet over which he has granted us dominion. That dominion implies responsibility and respect toward all living things. But it means, too, that we recognize the “fallenness” of creation and its need for restoration, even redemption (Rom 8:18-23). …”–Father John Breck, Sanctify the Waters (Epiphany 2015)

Ched Myers: What Prophetic Tradition Will You Apprentice To?

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“Wade in the Water.” Postcard of a river baptism in New Bern, N.C., around 1900.

“Mark’s prologue portrays the world of Roman-occupied Palestine in political, social, economic and religious crisis. Historically we know that in this context, tensions stemming from imperial forces of domination and “globalization” gave rise to prophets who called their people to radical change. John took his cue from the wilderness tradition, and Jesus from John. If we are to be followers of that Jesus, we must also make choices in the conflicted terrain of our world about what prophetic traditions we apprentice to and what social movements of liberation we help build as individuals and as church. However controversial or consequential such choices may be, such is what it means to be a disciple of the Great Disciple of God’s Kingdom.”–Ched Myers

Pope Francis: Let Them Breastfeed

Francis baptismsOn the festivity of the Baptism of the Lord, Pope Francis celebrated Mass in the Sistine Chapel. During the celebration, he baptised 32 babies: 18 girls and 14 boys. One of the children, Giulia, was the daughter of a couple married by civil rites only, who asked the Pope during an audience if he would baptise their child.

“These children are a link in a chain,” said Francis. “You, as parents, have a son or a daughter to baptise, but a some years from now they too will have a child to baptise, then a grandchild… And this is the chain of faith! What does this mean? I want to say only this: you are those who will transmit the faith, you are the transmitters. You have the duty of transmitting faith to these children. It is the most beautiful inheritance you can offer them: faith! Only this. Today, take this thought home with you. We must be transmitters of faith. Think of these, think always about how you can transmit faith to your children.”

During his homily Pope Francis joked about the noise and the crying of the babies. “Today the choir is singing, but the most beautiful choir is that of children, who make noise… Some will cry, perhaps because they are uncomfortable or because they are hungry: if they are hungry, mothers, go ahead and feed them, because they are the center of today’s celebration.”

“Francis said in December that women should feel comfortable about breast feeding during his ceremonies,” reported The Telegraph, “a trend which could alarm conservatives in the Vatican. Breast feeding in public is rare in Italy and almost unheard of during Catholic church services.”

First Thursday in Advent

Near San Salvador, 2011.

“Trust in the LORD forever! For the LORD is an eternal Rock. He humbles those in high places, and the lofty city he brings down; He tumbles it to the ground, levels it with the dust. It is trampled underfoot by the needy, by the footsteps of the poor.”–Isaiah 26:1-6

“Our baptismal vocation to holiness is intensified by God’s creative life hidden within us this Advent, while at the same time more and more things are demanding our time and energy. More shopping. More travel. More planning. Pressure builds, and it is increasingly difficult to find quiet time for our Advent-life. As we brush elbows with more and more people who are more and more anxious for the season, we hear again our call to simplicity. The great mystery of this Advent is that our personal holiness touches the lives of all those with whom we come into contact. When we are made holy as individuals, it is the whole world the reaps the reward. Being faithful to our baptismal vocation is an honest gift of self that we can share with our family and friends this Advent. Be faithful to God who has called you by name. Other blessings will follow.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

Catholic Ohio: Sacraments in the Rust Belt

blessed-sacrament2I went to a fantastic Holy Saturday vigil mass at Blessed Sacrament in Warren, Ohio, last week. The architecture of the church is stunning with an glass silo-type spire.

There were 6 or 7 people baptized in the full-immersion font and probably a half dozen more who were confirmed into the church that night. It’s a parish alive with grace, patience, beauty, and (!) teenagers! This is a Catholic community thriving in the spirit of Vatican II.

Unfortunately, many Catholic churches in Ohio are not faring so well, according to a recent CNN story.

Along the Rust Belt and in cities dotting the Northeast and Upper Midwest, Catholic communities are mourning the loss of parishes. It’s a five-year trend of sweeping church closures that most recently hit Cleveland, Ohio. …

What drove the decision to close parishes in Cleveland were population shifts to outlying areas, financial strains that have 42 percent of parishes “operating in the red” and priest shortages, diocese spokesman Robert Tayek explained. The bishop, he said, is trying to find “an equitable solution.”

But the announcement has raised many questions. Among them: What happens to the struggling neighborhoods that have come to rely on outreach and programs offered by some of these inner-city parishes?

“Too many bishops are treating parishes as if they were Starbucks franchises,” said Sister Christine Schenk, a Cleveland-area nun who’s been fighting for nearly two decades to institute change in the church through her organization FutureChurch. “It’s about more than money. It’s about mission to the people,” she said.

Christian Disestablishmentarianism

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As we move toward Easter, I find it helpful to recall the cosmic anarchy that the resurrection represents. Jesus was blowing apart all systems of domination that deform the basic dignity of the human being — including the threat of death.

When Christians are threatened with death, they understand it as being “threatened with resurrection,” as poet Julia Esquivel put it.

Here’s an excerpt from U.K.-based Jonathan Bartley’s commentary on Easter and Anarchy from Ekklesia:

Easter means freedom rather than control. At least that was the way that it started out.

Some early Christians seem to have celebrated it twice. There was the Passover that took on new meaning for the new Jewish sect following Jesus’ celebration of it with his friends just before his crucifixion. There was also Pascha a commemoration more in tune with the Easter we celebrate today.

But it was anarchic in the political sense too. The Passover called to mind the subversion by the Children of Israel, who defied Pharaoh’s authority and went their own way. Down the centuries Christians have developed various theological motifs to explain what they believe happened when Jesus died. But for the early Christians, the emphasis seems to have been squarely on the Resurrection. This was the moment of liberation at which God demonstrated victory over all evil and oppression – including the empire that put Jesus to death. It was the proof that even the greatest of powers could be overcome.

Easter was also the time when baptisms would happen – that Christians too were ‘raised with Christ’. It was the clearest symbol that the allegiance of early Christians did not lie with the state. This was the point at which a new citizenship of God’s Kingdom was embraced, one which challenged all other forms of citizenship, and most notably that of Rome. It committed them to a set of values and behaviours, and a way of living which was often at odds with the social and political norms of the Empire. Christians called it ‘the Way.’

But in the Fourth century, this presented a problem for the emperor Constantine who was intent on marrying Christianity with the power that had often been its persecutor. The death of Christ was a bit embarrassing. And it wasn’t just that the emperor was running the empire which had put the founder of the faith to death. The way of Christ – loving enemies, forgiving and turning the other check – was particularly ill suited to the business of Government. Baptism threatened allegiance to a state that needed to wage war, imprison and torture.

Bartley, Ekklesia co-director,  is author of Faith and Politics After Christendom: The church as a movement for anarchy (Paternoster, 2006) and The Subversive Manifesto: Lifting the lid on God’s political agenda (BRF, 2005). Read the whole piece here.

How would you write your baptismal vows if you knew they threatened allegiance to the State?