God brings an end to division

“I will take the children of Israel from among the nations
to which they have come,
and gather them from all sides to bring them back to their land.
I will make them one nation upon the land,
in the mountains of Israel,
and there shall be one prince for them all.
Never again shall they be two nations,
and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms.”

Ezekiel 37: 21-22

With the news yesterday (both the Pope’s apology and the news about Bishop Gijsen) opinions pop up. Everyone has something to say about what it all means, and how other people are wrong about it. It gets depressing sometimes.

The Word of God often offers inspiration, a new view on things, but also comfort. So today, as I looked for some of that comfort on the readings of today. The first two verses of the first reading, from the Book of Ezekiel, are a potent reminder that in God no division can last. God brings His people back to their own land, to Himself. He unites them again.

If only we would hear Him.

Afternoon reflection: Life over death

Would I take pleasure in the death of the wicked — declares the Lord Yahweh — and not prefer to see him renounce his wickedness and live?

Ezekiel 18:23

In the middle of the day, we are reminded that God is not a vengeful God who wants the death of those who do not listen to Him. No, God, in the end, is pro-life. He wants us to live, more so, He wants us to achieve full life in Him.

But, as always, we have a thing to say about that too. We must make the conscious decision to achieve that full life. God makes it possible for us to know about that life and where it may be found. He never forces it upon us, so we have to take the steps towards it, which we can through the grace of the Holy Spirit which we have received.

Evening reflection: Good and evil

‘If the wicked, however, renounces all the sins he has committed, respects my laws and is law-abiding and upright, he will most certainly live; he will not die. None of the crimes he committed will be remembered against him from then on; he will most certainly live because of his upright actions. Would I take pleasure in the death of the wicked — declares the Lord Yahweh — and not prefer to see him renounce his wickedness and live?
‘But if the upright abandons uprightness and does wrong by copying all the loathsome practices of the wicked, is he to live? All his upright actions will be forgotten from then on; for the infidelity of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, he will most certainly die.
‘Now, you say, “What the Lord does is unjust.” Now listen, House of Israel: is what I do unjust? Is it not what you do that is unjust? When the upright abandons uprightness and does wrong and dies, he dies because of the wrong which he himself has done. Similarly, when the wicked abandons wickedness to become law-abiding and upright, he saves his own life. Having chosen to renounce all his previous crimes, he will most certainly live: he will not die.’

In the text from Ezekiel (18:21-28), God today speaks to us about doing good and evil. He recognises two different scenarios: a wicked man denouncing all evil he has done, and a good man turning towards the wicked. This text tells us that God looks more to changing behaviour than to the mere acts of a person. While something like, say, murder is undoubtedly evil, God does not say that the murderer is forever lost: no, a change in his behaviour towards the good, in whatever form, will be redemptive. What form this change takes is a question with many answers, which is not covered by this text.

In the same way, no one is eternally good. We all run the risk of doing evil things, consciously or subconsciously. God seems to take a change from good to evil much more seriously than the opposite. A good person may be expected to be aware of the reasons for his good deeds, especially when he does them out of his faith (and in the Old Testament, this may be expected to be a matter of fact). Now that we know God and have expressed our faith at our confirmation and every day anew in prayer and Mass, we have no excuse not to follow His lead. If we decide to go off the path, so to speak, God will judge us accordingly. We break a promise we made. And taking someone up on that is not unjust after all.

Bootcamp 2011: The (Good) Shepherd

I am back from two days (and a bit) at the latest edition of the Credimus Bootcamp, an undeservedly shortened edition this time. Next year is the fifth edition, and this potentially week-long camp of Catholic catechesis, culture and enjoyment will hopefully have a record number of attendants then. I will certainly be there again.

This year’s speakers were a diverse bunch, even though the general theme was that of the shepherd: the Good Shepherd that is Jesus Christ, but also our every day shepherds, the bishops, the shepherd of the world Church, the pope and some of his predecessors, and the shepherd’s duty of taking care of his sheep.

Fr. Bunschoten during his lecture

There was Deacon John van Grinsven speaking about his work with the homeless and addicted; Brother Ignatius Maria of the Community of St. John, who led a Bible study on the imagery of the shepherd in the Gospel of John (and also the OT books of Ezekiel and Zechariah); Fr. Floris Bunschoten who introduced us to the bishops’ task of sanctifying their flock; and Fr. David van Dijk, our host, who took us through the popes from Blessed Pius IX to our current Holy Father. Quite a variety of topics, which were supplemented by unscheduled conversations with visiting clergy and communal dinners, prayer and Mass (in both forms of the Latin rite).

Mass in the ordinary form of the Latin rite, celebrated ad orientem

Personally, I enjoyed the two days in the parish of St. Mary Magdalene, Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, as a welcome immersion in Catholic life. The rhythm of prayer, the sharing of knowledge and ideas, the enjoyment of the company of fellow faithful all made for a bootcamp that really deserves more attention, attendance and publicity. Next year is the fifth edition, so let’s hope and pray that it may turn out to be the best edition yet!

The mythical blasphemy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Tomorrow evening the student parish here is hosting a movie night, and the movie that will be shown is Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the story of the man who just happened to have been born in the stable next door to the one used by Mary and Joseph, and who continuously gets mistaken for the Messiah. “There’s no Messiah in here. There’s a mess alright, but no Messiah. Now go away!”, his mother shouts to the masses gathered outside his house.

It seems that in certain Christian circles this movie is at the heart of a controversy. It is blasphemous, many say. But is it really? Does the movie make fun of the person of Jesus Christ, His message or the faith of His followers? I don’t believe so.

Jesus makes a single appearance in the movie. He is shown in the distance during the Sermon on the Mount, in a scene where all the attention is on a group of people who have difficulty hearing Him because they’re all the way in the back. All we hear from Jesus are the words that are in the Gospel: the Beatitudes. True, the people in the back mangle them (“Hear that? Blessed are the Greek.” “The Greek?” “Well, apparently, he’s going to inherit the earth.” “Did anyone catch his name?”), but that’s not blasphemous, of course. In fact, in a source I have mislaid at the moment, I read that the makers of the movie tried to write a comedy about Christ, but then realised that there really isn’t anything to poke fun at in His words. Thus the character of Brian was born.

Brian’s life roughly parallels the life of Christ. He too was born in a manger, we only get to meet his mother, Mandy (there’s not even a foster father), the Romans don’t like him and he plays an important part in the Jewish resistance against Roman rule (many scholars in the 20th century also depicted Jesus as a resistance leader). So are the things that happen to Brian blasphemous? Not really. Brian’s adventures are mostly the result of stupidity of the people around him, who mindlessly follow him because he looks like the Messiah (“Only the true Messiah denies his divinity.” “What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right, I am the Messiah!” “He is! He is the Messiah!”), or of his own clumsiness. Life of Brian is, in the first place, the story of a man who tries to live a normal life.

There are also other (post-)Biblical themes in the movie, chiefly the presence of doom prophets. Brian pretends to be one for a while (and fails miserably) to escape the pursuing Romans, and he also makes a desert father break his 18-year vow of silence. Granted, the prophets are depicted as raving loonies, but be fair: how would a prophet like Amos or Ezekiel be looked upon by the general populace in their days? It doesn’t make them any less important or wise.

In my opinion, what Life of Brian pokes fun at is mindless faith. The brainless following of anyone who may seem to promise something better. The crowd that follows Brian around is a great example of that. They positively worship the shoe and the gourd he looses in the chase, one of them claims he is the Messiah, because “I should know, I’ve followed a few!”, and they are taken advantage of by both the Romans and the resistance. And Brian is stuck in the middle, with all his clumsiness and desperation.

Ultimately, the only possible blasphemy is in details. The Jewish faith, for example, is treated no more reverently than any other religious or social construct. Look at the stoning scene, for example. The crucifixion of Brian and others, at the end of the movie, contrast heavily with the sacrifice of Christ in the cross, but He is not the butt of the joke: the Romans and the resistance are. So Brian, in that scene, is redeemed a bit: he prevails over the people who used him. It is these brainless fools, together with the equally mindless masses who followed Brian (and abandoned him when things became difficult), who are made fun of.

And that is not at odds with a healthy Christian faith. On the contrary, faith and reason are both part of a developed human life. Faith without thought is just unmotivated action. The brainless running after anyone who has something to offer, even if they don’t. And that is worthy of pointing out.

Life of Brian will be shown on Tuesday 28 September in the parish house of the cathedral of St. Joseph, starting at 8 pm.