The Rapture and the Eucharist
First Sunday of Advent
A friend called me the other day, really upset about the election. He’s not a Christian and he’s really afraid that there’s some sort of Christian conspiracy to take over the country. And what that means to him is black and white thinking, some people seen as good and some as bad, some people taken and some people left.
But I assured him that everything is OK. For one thing, in my experience organized religion isn’t all that organized. For another thing, Christianity is about mercy and love, not hell, fire, and brimstone. Christians are people who laugh, not smirk.
This is true even in the reading from Matthew today, which seems so scary and harsh at first. But it’s scary and harsh only if you read it literally and only if you read it out of context, which is exactly what Catholics and other mainstream Christians do not do. We know that this is just Matthew’s particular style, this wailing-and-gnashing and sheep-and-goat language, and that he’s using it to scare the hell out of the Jewish Christians in his community who are starting to change their minds and leaving. He doesn’t want them to. He wants everybody to stay, and in that sense there is no rapture, no gathering up of the good guys. Everyone is a good guy, Matthew believes, at least potentially, and the end of the world is, whatever else it is, a personal thing, something that happens to each of us when we give up our selfishness and enter into the freedom and kindness of God.
As Catholics we know, too, as other mainstream Christians know, that only God can do the judging when the time for judging comes. It’s not up to us. It’s never up to us.
As Catholics we know, as other mainstream Christians know, that the Bible can’t be read on its own, that it doesn’t explain itself. It’s the inspired word of God but it’s not an inspired instruction manual. It’s literature, full of different kinds of writing gathered from different times and places, redacted or edited together, and though this redaction is brilliant, it requires us to develop a theology, a framework for reading, guided by the Holy Spirit as it works through tradition.
St. Augustine, for example, came up with a good rule for reading. Look, he says. Some parts of scripture are unclear. Some are clear. Let’s read the unclear parts in light of the clear parts. And the clearest parts of all have to do with love, Augustine says. The clearest parts of all, crystal clear, are like the passage earlier in Matthew when Jesus is asked about the most important commandment. What’s most important? And Jesus answers in the right way and the way we should, too: to love our God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves--to love God and neighbor, the two pillars of Jewish faith, too (22:34-40). That’s not hard to understand, just hard to do. And structurally it’s located right at the center of Matthew’s gospel, and of the others. It’s featured by the writers. We’re supposed to see the rest of the Gospel in relation to this.
So here’s the rule Augustine comes up with: any interpretation of the Bible that is contrary to love is false and in error.
In other words, there are two sources of revelation for us as Catholics, scripture and tradition. And sometimes we need tradition to help us understand scripture. And the heart of tradition is the faith that God’s mercy has no limit. Apply this rule to the scary passage from Matthew and what do you get? Be not afraid.
Or, don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. We can pull a passage out of, say, Leviticus, and decide, say, that it’s OK to stone adulterers. But even if that’s right, which of course it isn’t, but even if that’s right, is it the most important thing and the thing we should spend all our time on and the thing we should think about first, that we begin every discussion with? Catholic theology says no. All mainstream Christian theology says no. We all choose things out of the Bible. We all take this passage rather than that and make it the basis of some claim. But why? Are we choosing the right passage? On what basis? By whose authority?
Take a look sometime at the index to the Catechism. Under “Satan” there is one citation. One. Under “Jesus” there are four hundred and thirty six.
And in some ways the best method for interpreting scripture is the liturgy itself. People like to say that Catholics never read the Bible, but that’s not true. We read the Bible every time we go to mass. That’s what the mass is, among other things, a form of interpretation. In the mass what we do is take the readings for that Sunday and frame them. We frame them, for example, with the opening and closing prayers, as in the opening prayer for today, the introit: “All powerful God, increase our strength of will for doing good that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming and call us to his side in the kingdom of heaven.” Beautiful. Nothing here about people being left behind or people needing to be afraid, and that’s right and that’s good and that’s a reading of the Gospel of Matthew. It’s our key to understanding what Matthew is trying to say today. Or here’s the closing prayer that Father Angel will pray with us in a few minutes: “Father, may our communion teach us to love heaven. May its promise and hope guide our way on earth”. Hmm. Not, “Father may our communion teach us who’s right and who’s wrong. May its promise and hope guide us in kicking out the people we don’t like. May some people get left behind, but not me.”
My worried friend, the one who called the other day, should stop listening to the talk shows and reading the letters to the editor. He should come to mass. He should see how we act, the movement and flow of it, all of us coming together and kneeling together and standing together and singing together. It’s not a debate in here. When we come up for communion we don’t first get asked who we voted for or what we think about the usual list of issues. No. “The Body of Christ,” we are told--this astonishing claim! This miracle! This incredible gift!--and we say, “amen, amen, thanks be to God,” and then we are silent. We go back to our pews and do what we should do more often, which is stop talking and start praying. We put our faith not in our words or in words at all but in the silent, overflowing mercy of God.
The Pope has declared this the year of the eucharist, and here on the first Sunday of Advent, as we begin our preparation for the Christ child, let us give thanks for the eucharist. Let us give thanks for the child who is already born, already in our midst. Let us give thanks for this profoundly nonviolent and creative and inclusive act, this sacrifice of the mass, this giving away of God and of ourselves, and how it pulls us all together and pulls us deeper and deeper into the love that is always making and unmaking the universe. It takes us all up, or should. Let us give thanks for the transformation of the bread and the wine, for the word that we eat, and let us ask that we be transformed, too, into Christ, into not just the word but the Word made Flesh, the Word made Love, the Word made Mercy, here and now, in our darkness.