Friday, May 24, 2013

Pope Francis a Universalist??? [Updated]

[Update: The comments I have received on this piece state that the words that make Pope Francis sound like a universalist were taken out context in the various media in which they have been quoted.  I certainly hope that is true.  And articles such as this one have quoted Vatican spokesmen and have attempted to put the matter in perspective.  This article, too, attempts to put the matter in a theological context.  But having read the Pope's full remarks in several publications, I still have to say the language is, at best, far more ambiguous than one might wish.  Given the controversy this has caused in several quarters, I would very much like to see some clarification from Pope Francis himself.]

I was cautiously optimistic at the election of Pope Francis though somewhat concerned that he had not been vetted well enough theologically.  (Yes, I know, he was a cardinal archbishop; but there have been plenty of others from among those ranks who have gone off the rails.  And, when it comes to being a theologian, Pope Francis is certainly no Joseph Ratzinger or Karol Wojtyła.)  So, for me, the jury has remained out.

Now Vatican Radio quotes Pope Francis' as saying that everyone is called to "do good" because all are redeemed in Christ:
"The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics.  Everyone!  ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
Read it all on the Vatican Radio website.

It is worth wondering whether or not Pope Francis will soon be charged with universalism, joining the ranks of Katharine Jefferts Schori and Rob Bell.   One thing for sure is that it seems a liberal Episcopalian, a lapsed Evangelical, and now the Pope (!) all appear to be saying the same thing.

P.S.  I am praying we get some theological clarification of these remarks from the Pope soon.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Syrian Church Leaders call for day of prayer, May 11

From here:  

Syrian church leaders have called for a day of prayer for their country and its people on Saturday, 11th May. Primarily, they are calling for prayer for peace to be restored to their country, enabling all Syrians to live in harmony within their own country.

As violent conflict continues, there are no precise figures for the number of those killed (most estimates state 70,000 or more), injured, internally displaced within Syria or who have fled to neighboring countries and beyond. It is generally reckoned that over one million have left and at least another million have been internally displaced, all from amongst a population of approximately 23 million. Atrocities have been committed by many parties.

During 2012 there was a subtle shift in how Syrian church leaders typically interpreted events. Claims of the deliberate targeting of Christians for religious reasons increased as the year progressed. Initially, most were careful to stress that there was little religious targeting. However, church leaders are increasingly fearful of the growing extremist elements within the opposition movement (e.g. Jabhat an-Nusra), and fearful that a Sunni take-over of power in Syria would lead to greater restrictions on Christians. Some fear that the Iraq scenario (involving increased levels of sectarian attack and corresponding flight of Christians) could be replicated in Syria. Church leaders have called on Christians not to leave, acknowledging that significant emigration had already occurred.

Fears within Christian communities have increased following the kidnapping of two priests (Michel Kayyal of the Armenian Catholic church and Mahar Mahfouz of the Greek Orthodox church) on 9th February and the subsequent 22nd April kidnapping of two bishops, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church [a member of the SAT-7 International Council, see SAT-7 News Release 30th April,] and Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Syrian Christians request that we join with them in prayer, asking that:

  1. Violent conflict will end, and reconciliation processes will begin
  2. Those bereaved and traumatized will know the healing touch of Jesus
  3. Those displaced will know the provision and protection of the Father; and those supporting them will know the wisdom and enabling of the Spirit
  4. Those from all communities who have been kidnapped, including the two bishops and two priests kidnapped, will be released unharmed soon
  5. Unity amongst Christian communities will be strengthened and that Christians will know the Lord's equipping as they respond to the overwhelming needs around them
  6. All those choosing to use violent methods will know the Spirit's conviction of sin and respond to the Father's offer of forgiveness and new life in the Son.

Source: Middle East Concern, 9th May 2013,

We need to keep Syria in our prayers, not only on May 11, but continually.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

He ascended into heaven...

This coming Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord, and parishes around the world have a vital decision to make:  Do we extinguish the Paschal Candle on Ascension Day or on Pentecost?

This question may sound like a liturgist's version of the game, Trivial Pursuit, but there is an important biblical and theological lesson to be learned.

The traditional view is that the Paschal Candle is extinguished on Ascension Day.  This view is described in the Catholic Encyclopedia:
From Holy Saturday until Ascension Day the paschal candle is left with its candlestick in the sanctuary, standing upon the Gospel side of the altar, and it is lighted during high Mass and solemn Vespers on Sundays. It is extinguished after the Gospel on Ascension Day and is then removed.
 One parish described their practice this way:  
Our acolytes have been trained to stand by the Candle, wand in hand, as the Gospel lesson (Luke 24:44-53) is read.  Just after these words: "Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven" the Candle is extinguished as the reader pauses.  Then the final sentence of the Gospel is read:  "And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God."
But in parishes that follow more recent liturgical innovations, it has become the custom to leave the Paschal Candle lighted until Pentecost Sunday.  The change was prescribed in the rubrics for Novus Ordo, the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969, after the Second Vatican Council.  The change was subsequently adopted in other liturgical churches such as Anglicans and Lutherans that had liturgical renewal movements during the 1970's.  Traditional Anglicans, among others, have opposed this change.

The Physical Reality of the Incarnation 

The theological trend that has coincided with these liturgical revisions has been to spiritualize Christ at the expense of his humanity.  The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, which takes place on January 1, marks the day when Jesus, in accordance with Jewish tradition, would have been presented for ritual circumcision.  

Making a Feast of the day when Jesus was circumcised serves to underscore the physical humanity of Jesus as well as the Incarnation:  "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).  The circumcision of Jesus has traditionally been seen as the first time the blood of Christ was shed, and thus the beginning of the process of the redemption of humanity, as well as a demonstration that Christ was fully human, and also of his obedience to Biblical law.

However, more recent liturgical practice has been to make January 1 the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.  In the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church (USA) since 1979, January 1, is now called as the "Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ."

In the Church of England, the calendar of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer stipulates a festival "The Name of Jesus" to be observed on August 7.  But, in the more recent Common Worship, the primary festival of the name of Jesus is on January 1, taking the place of the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ.  Many Eastern Churches as well as Lutheran Churches also celebrate the Festival of the Holy Name of Jesus on January 1.

While it is all very well to celebrate a feast for the Holy Name of Jesus, the effect of replacing the Feast of the Circumcision is to replace the commemoration of an act that demonstrates Jesus' physical humanity with something that is much more easily spiritualized.  (Although I have also long suspected that the impetus for the change came from clergy who were tired of having to explain to children what "circumcision" means.)

The tendency is strong in contemporary theology to shift our focus from the reality of God in the flesh to a "Cosmic Christ" or a spiritualized Jesus who can be shaped to fit whatever we want him to be.  (Just Google the term "Cosmic Christ," and you'll see the sort of thing I mean.)  [See also 1 John 4:1-3.]

The Physical Reality of the Resurrection


The tendency is seen much more clearly when we come to the events of Jesus' Resurrection and Ascension.  The trend in contemporary theology has been to regard Jesus' Resurrection only a spiritual and not a bodily one.  This necessarily has ramifications for what we believe about the Ascension.  

If Jesus' Resurrection is merely a spiritual symbol that he goes on living forever, then the Ascension of his body into heaven has no historical reality.  In that view, how much more appropriate is it, then, to leave the Paschal Candle lit until Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit comes to be the presence of Christ continuing to live in us?

Don't get me wrong:  I know of good, otherwise orthodox parishes that wait until Pentecost Sunday to extinguish the Paschal Candle.  But think about the symbolism for a minute:  How does extinguishing the Candle symbolize the coming of the Holy Spirit?  One doesn’t have to be a scholar in liturgics to know it better symbolizes the departure of our Lord.

The flame of the Paschal candle symbolizes the resurrected Christ as light of the world.  His physical presence in the midst of his people demonstrates his victory over death and the grave.  That physical presence—that resurrected body of Jesus—ascends to heaven 40 days later.  We miss the physical reality of the Resurrection if we take too lightly the testimony of the Scriptures and the Creeds that "he ascended into heaven."

The Aloneness of the Disciples

Another things we can miss if we overlook the reality of Jesus' bodily Ascension is that the disciples were left alone.  

In John 21, when Jesus appears to the disciples, what were they doing?  They were fishing.  But it wasn't fishing for recreation or to catch a few fish for a meal.  They had been out all night in a boat with a net.  This is commercial fishing.  In Jesus' absence, the disciples had returned to their old occupations.  

So in the account from Luke's Gospel, when Jesus prepares to ascend to heaven, he gives them some final instructions:
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.  But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:45-49).
 So when the Book of Acts begins, Luke picks up where he left off at the close of his Gospel, with the events of Jesus' Ascension:
He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:3-5).
He continued,
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes,  and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:8-11).
Jesus tells them to stay in the city and not to depart from Jerusalem.  Why is he so explicit about this?  He is telling them not to go back to their old occupations (as they surely would have if they had returned to Galilee) but to await the power that would make them into apostles—that would make them into the Church.   There was no need for fishermen in Jerusalem—no bodies of water, no boats, no nets, no fish.  Staying in Jerusalem together meant looking forward to their new occupation, not returning to their old one.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was going to make them into what he had said when he first called them:  "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19, Mark 1:17).

But they had to wait; they had to trust; they had to obey.  And, in the meantime, they were alone.

It is important for us not to miss the fact that Jesus left the disciples alone.  He had not forsaken them, but he had gone away for a season.  There are times when, though Jesus has promised that he will never leave us or forsake us, we do not experience him as closely as at other times.  In those times, we must do what the disciples did:    
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away.  And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James.  All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers (Acts 1:12-14).
 When times of aloneness come to us, we must be obedient; we must remain together, wait on the Lord, and pray.

The time between Jesus' Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit to indwell believers and form the Church was ten days.  The time when Jesus left the disciples and their need to remain obedient and await the fulfillment of Jesus' promise is important to remember.  We signify his absence as he ascends to heaven by extinguishing the Paschal Candle.  And, though the light be temporarily gone from us, we faithfully wait.

Monday, May 06, 2013

'Paris Syndrome' strikes Japanese

When I first read about this, I had to check the date on the news story to make sure it wasn't April 1.  But, no, it appears that "Paris Syndrome" is a documented phenomenon, an illness that is related to variety of other illnesses (such as Jerusalem Syndrome and Stendhal Syndrome) that can affect travelers who arrive at a destination and who, when their destination turns out not to be what they expect, can experience a disorientation so severe that it can cause psychological disturbance.  I found it to be an interesting (though strange) phenomenon, and I am wondering about the implications for missionaries who may experience culture shock

From a BBC report:

A dozen or so Japanese tourists a year have to be repatriated from the French capital, after falling prey to what's become known as "Paris syndrome". 
That is what some polite Japanese tourists suffer when they discover that Parisians can be rude or the city does not meet their expectations.

The experience can apparently be too stressful for some and they suffer a psychiatric breakdown.

Around a million Japanese travel to France every year.

Many of the visitors come with a deeply romantic vision of Paris - the cobbled streets, as seen in the film Amelie, the beauty of French women or the high culture and art at the Louvre.

The reality can come as a shock.

An encounter with a rude taxi driver, or a Parisian waiter who shouts at customers who cannot speak fluent French, might be laughed off by those from other Western cultures.

But for the Japanese - used to a more polite and helpful society in which voices are rarely raised in anger - the experience of their dream city turning into a nightmare can simply be too much.

This year alone, the Japanese embassy in Paris has had to repatriate four people with a doctor or nurse on board the plane to help them get over the shock.

They were suffering from "Paris syndrome".

It was a Japanese psychiatrist working in France, Professor Hiroaki Ota, who first identified the syndrome some 20 years ago.

On average, up to 12 Japanese tourists a year fall victim to it, mainly women in their 30s with high expectations of what may be their first trip abroad.

The Japanese embassy has a 24-hour hotline for those suffering from severe culture shock, and can help find hospital treatment for anyone in need.

However, the only permanent cure is to go back to Japan - never to return to Paris.