Getting hyped for Synod June 26, 2007Posted by Ninja Michael in General.
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Next month in Halifax clergy and laity from the Anglican Catholic Church of Canada will gather for their national synod, a triennial event, and the first synod the diocese has held in Atlantic Canada. The hosting of the synod, coupled with the Halifax parish moving into their wonderfully refinished new-to-them church, makes for an exciting time in the life of that congregation, and their rector, the recently minted Suffragan Bishop Craig Botterill. The parish will also host an ordination the Sunday before synod starts – a new priest for Cape Breton Island.
It’s also an exciting time for the Ninjas, who will be taking the opportunity to do a little road trip through the East the week before the synod, and for me personally, who was chosen by lot (or by one of the bishops, perhaps) to be the organist. An exciting challenge. Also, the chance to meet new people, hear great sermons, and observe lively debate and discussion.
Ahh… that last one, the awful cry of church politics. After spending the last several days following (and praying for) the Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod in Winnipeg, I am especially grateful for the atmosphere that our diocesan synods are known for. We won’t be debating whether issues of human sexuality are “core doctrine” of the church or not, or whether to change the definition of marriage (or whether to have “blessing” services for couples we would not marry ourselves… whatever side of that debate our readers may be on, you must find that proposal to be far too clever), or whether we support a complete ban on tobacco, for that matter (yes, that was among the motions put forward).
For those in the ACC, please do not take this as triumphalism on my part. We are not without our politics, of course, but what we are anticipating most of all is gathering for worship and fellowship, united in communion with God and each other through the Eucharist. We will be gathering to celebrate the life of our diocese (even party a little bit, perhaps), which admittedly is far from perfect – we do have many things to discuss; I’m just grateful that the essentials of the Christian faith are not among the things we will be discussing. I’m also grateful for our leaders – we have amazing bishops – and look forward to their leadership as they walk with our clergy and laity through these proceedings.
We do have many ways we need to grow and develop and deepen our Christian faith, and this synod may give us the opportunity to reflect on some of those things – and more importantly, to “fall to prayer”. Personally, I have been spending time in prayer beforehand – praying that I play well, of course, but more importantly, praying for a genuine outpouring of the grace of God on our gathering, that the Holy Spirit would fill our hearts with His Love, and that we would be prepared to reach out to our communities, nation, and world with the Gospel of Christ. Knowing the little I do about my church, I believe we have a great deal to look forward to.
There are a million things to do before we leave. Finalize travel arrangements, pack, last minute prep for music… Less than a week until we’re on the road. I’m really getting hyped.
The Trinity, Sexuality, and Holy Communion June 14, 2007Posted by Ninja Michael in Philosophy, Theology.
This following is a paper written while I was an undergraduate at Canadian Mennonite University, entitled Sex, the Eucharist, and Truth Telling. It was written for a senior seminar, an integrative studies course meant to allow students to relate their various major areas of study to a common topic, in this case the nature of truth and lies. Students presented their papers (as works in progress) to the class, and received a formal response from another student, with discussion following. The topic for this paper caused a bit of a stir – I will admit that the title “Sex and the Eucharist” was partially meant to make people notice, although it certainly was not meant in any impius way (which seemed to be understood). Rather, it was meant to communicate in a nutshell that gender, sexual relationships, the nature of God, and the sacrament of Holy Communion are closely linked. This is an area of my thought that is still developing, and I hope to do additional work, revising and expanding what I have written earlier.
It is possible to move into a great many directions from this starting point, commenting on everything from family life, to the nature of Christian ministry and ordination. There is certainly a great deal of ecumenical dialogue to be had on these subjects; writing as an Anglican Catholic in a Mennonite context provided an interesting background for something like this, and I was pleased with the discussion that ensued. To a great extent, this paper was meant to stimulate thought and dialogue more than to give a complete picture of my own beliefs, which I would be happy to expand on for those who are interested. For now, what is presented below is almost exactly what I submitted to Professor Paul Dyck last April. Comments and suggestions are welcome.
Background and Synopsis
In writing a paper such as this, seeking as it does to integrate various aspects of a student’s university experience, it might be helpful to start with something foundational to the student’s educational approach. In addition, it would be helpful if the paper could address a topic or topics applicable to the student’s own life experience. For me personally, my life experience during university has been largely taken up with reflections on some of the big questions of life’s meaning, especially those having to do with the nature of God, spirituality, love and sexuality. As a young man, a great deal of time has been spent considering what it means to be masculine, how masculinity and femininity relate, and how, in turn, this relates to my faith. As a theological student aspiring to the Christian priesthood, one of my primary concerns has been to ponder the meaning of worship, and how the Church can best express its love and faith within the context of corporate worship, i.e. within the Church’s liturgy. Over time, my studies have led me to believe that these two questions are deeply interconnected, that worship is – at its core – a sexual relationship, and that the sexual union is intended to be an act of worship.
Within the context of this course, dealing as it has with the question of what it means to tell the truth, sexuality and worship have seemed to overlap even more. To put it as concisely as possible, my belief is that both the sexual act and the act of worship known as the Holy Eucharist are pre-eminent means of truth telling, in that each of them is a profound witness to the nature of God, and the relationship between Christ and his Church. Moreover, these actions are deeply intertwined with each other, to the extent that it is impossible to truly and completely participate in one of these experiences without opening oneself up to the other.
The Relationship Between Truth and Love
In examining the nature of truth (or of untruth) within a Christian context, it is necessary either to begin with God, or to end up with God eventually, since God is not only the source of truth but Christ, God incarnate, is described as “the Truth” (John 14:6). God has also been described as “love”, even as a relationship of three persons in love. When God is understood as Trinity, it may be concluded that God’s existence as love is fundamental to the divine nature, and that this love is the fundamental truth of all existence, in a deeply real way.
Love is not only the truth; it is also essential to truth telling. In his book Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner writes that “to preach the Gospel is not just to tell the truth but to tell the truth in love” (Buechner 8). This is so not only because one who wishes to communicate truth must have some thought for those receiving the communication; it is a need rooted in the very identity of the Gospel, and of Truth itself. Buechner himself suggests that truth telling is more than a matter of words, and might not be possible with words at all. Rather, he suggests finding truth in silence, being confronted with reality itself. He discusses truth in terms of existence, as something standing in front of us, like Jesus before Pilate, and experienced rather than rationalized. Although Buechner will examine truth telling through various literary genres, such as Shakespearian tragedy or poetry, “What Jesus lets his silence say is that truth is what words can’t tell but only tell about, what images can only point to” (Buechner 17). Truth is not a matter of logic alone, but of beauty and loveliness. Indeed, as we shall see, truth as “Word” can never be communicated apart from truth as “Love”. In Jesus Truth and Love are one, and when Christ stands in silence to tell the truth, it is love that is offered. The Incarnation of Christ, in that it is a perfect revelation of the love of God, is the consummate act of telling the truth. The standard set for us in the Incarnation is the first and foremost reason why it is impossible to tell the truth without love.
Truth Telling as an Act of Love
The Incarnation, God’s own truth telling is, first and foremost, an action – and relationship – of love. Therefore our truth telling is most truthful when it takes the form of acts of love, particularly actions joined to the love and truth telling of God revealed in Jesus Christ. If love is tied up with the very essence of truth, then there are implications for everything from romance to politics, theology to editorial cartooning. In his recent encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI begins with a simple thesis, “God is Love”, and uses it as point of departure for a discussion on everything from erotic love to the role of charitable institutions. Both are in some form (however flawed they might be) rooted in the grace and love of God. When they reveal the love of God as it truly is, they speak truly, and are true. To the extent that they are flawed, they can be said to lie about the love of God. This can be true, at some level, of many things. But is it possible that certain types of actions, or certain elements of reality, are particularly suited to expressing the love of God, perhaps even being avenues by which other parts of life can be restored, healed, and truth-filled? Do we have opportunities for truth telling (loving) that express in an especially clear way the love of God within the Trinity, and the love of Christ for the Church? Many actions can be truthful, but certain ones are recognized within Christian tradition as particularly expressive of truth, and being signs of a deep spiritual reality; thus, it might be said that for the Christian, telling the truth is a sacramental undertaking.
Two things that stand out as means of truth telling for the Christian are the sexual union expressed in marriage, and the celebration of the Eucharist. These two are intrinsically related, in that they both involve a coming together designed to be life giving, and both are representative of Divine Love, revealed in different ways. Each of these sacraments is “true” in the highest sense of the term, and that to really undertake one or both of these actions is to engage in an act of truth telling in a deep way.
Sexual Union as an Act of Truth Telling
Having sex (by which I mean lovemaking, not being male or female, which is what the phrase literally means) is an opportunity for truth telling in that it is meant to reveal both the love among the members of the Holy Trinity, and also the relationship of Christ to the Church. Why is sexual love particularly expressive of the truth or love of God? Certainly there are other types of love. Friendship, charity, and agape all come to mind. Perhaps erotic love could be included here, but what makes it unique? Although it has been said previously that sexual union is expressive of the love between the members of the Trinity, why is sexual union more expressive of this love than something else?
The answer is that “God is a sexual being, the most sexual of all beings”. So argues philosopher Peter Kreeft:
The love relationship between the Father and the Son within the Trinity, the relationship from which the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds, is a sexual relationship. It is like the human sexual relationship from which a child proceeds in time; or rather, that relationship is like the divine one. Sexuality is “the image of God” according to Scripture (see Genesis 1:27), and for B to be an image of A, A must in some way have all the qualities imaged by B. God therefore is a sexual being” (“Sex in Heaven”).
According to this view of the Trinity, our sexuality is rooted in something universal, even cosmic, rooted in the very character of God; this automatically makes our sexuality, however it is expressed, a carrier of deep meaning.
From this concept of God as sexual, we can move to see sexuality as “the image of God” that Kreeft claims it to be. This is one explanation for the creation of humankind as male and female, that the human image of God is incomplete unless two become one. Yet why is gender necessary, especially since both the Father and the Son are described as masculine? It is important to keep in mind that the sexuality of God works on several different levels. The relationship of the Godhead to humanity is a heterosexual relationship, where God and humankind are likened to opposite genders. The love between the Father and the Son is also heterosexual, in that the Father and the Son are innately dissimilar, although equal in power and glory. Intrinsic to their Godhead is their relationship; the Father has a unique identity that is dependent on the Son’s unique identity. The same is true for humanity. Pope Benedict XVI writes:
[M]an is somehow incomplete, driven by nature to seek in another the part that can make him whole… only in communion with the opposite sex can he become ‘complete’. The biblical account thus concludes with a prophecy about Adam: ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh’ (Gen 2:24) (Deus Caritas Est § 11).
In Western Christian theology (specifically medieval Roman Catholicism), the Holy Spirit has sometimes been described as the love between the Father and the Son. The Spirit “eternally proceeds” from the Father and the Son, because the Father and the Son have loved each other from all eternity. Their love is so deep, and so perfect and complete that it is actually expressed as another person, equal in power and glory to the Father and Son. In a union between a man and woman, they are not only bound together figuratively as “one flesh”, but this union is capable of being expressed quite literally as a flesh and blood human being, a baby. For a husband and wife to have sex is to proclaim not only this love within the Trinity, but also the love between Christ (the Bridegroom) and the Church (the Bride), a love that is covenanted, permanent, with the potential to be life giving. It is to tell the truth, in language far stronger than that of words, of the passionate excitement of God’s own existence, and of the love that flows from God into Creation.
Celebration of the Eucharist as an Act of Truth Telling
The Eucharist is also an act of truth telling. Within Catholic theology, when the priest blesses the bread and wine of the Eucharist, their “substance” is transformed into that of the glorified Christ, present in his body, soul, and divinity. The bread and wine retain the physical features and attributes of bread and wine, but that is not what they are in their essence. Therefore it is possible for the priest to hold up the bread and say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and for the congregation to be confronted with the truth of Christ in the same way that Pilate was when he asked Jesus what truth was. For Jesus, who was himself the Truth, it was impossible to engage in a higher form of truth telling than to do what he already was doing, which was being physically present in front of Pilate.
To celebrate the Eucharist allows the Church to participate in Jesus own act of truth telling – his incarnation, by manifesting his presence which was first and foremost a presence of love. This action is symbolic in no small number of ways:
The ancient world had dimly perceived that man’s real food–what truly nourishes him as man–is ultimately the Logos, eternal wisdom: this same Logos now truly becomes food for us–as love. The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving. The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable: it had meant standing in God’s presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus’ self-gift, sharing in his body and blood (Deus Caritas Est § 13).
This is why the Eucharist, especially if understood as a manifestation of the incarnate life of Jesus, is perhaps the highest form of truth telling available to the Christian believer.
The potential for truth telling is not limited to churches that believe that the bread and wine are literally the body and blood of Christ, for every Christian tradition agrees that the Lord’s Supper is a memorial of the death and resurrection of Christ. This ritual proclamation of Christ’s sacrifice and victory has great potential to communicate a truth that cannot be put into words; it is a type of poetry and beauty, a reality even more undiluted than Buechner’s image of the TV news with the sound off. Still, it seems to me that if, in some way, Christ is understood to become present through the celebration of the Supper and the reception of the bread and wine, the Eucharist is free to be an even more powerful occasion for truth telling, in that the congregation is not simply presented with the truth of Christ, but with Christ who is truth. The more emphasis given to the presence of Christ, the more poignant this truth telling seems to become. When the communion is understood as a partaking of the body and blood of Christ in some real and objective sense (this does not necessarily mean transubstantiation) the parallels with sexual intercourse become most obvious. The Church is meant to become “one flesh” with Christ as “partakers of the Divine Nature”. Through this sharing in the body and blood of Christ we participate in the very life of the Trinity, as we are filled with the Holy Spirit, who is the love between the Father and the Son.
The Relationship Between Sexuality and the Eucharist
For the Bride of Christ to truly receive the Body of Christ within the Eucharist is to declare, and to receive, the substance of what that Bride is, as the two become one (as the Church is also revealed – perhaps more clearly than at any other time – to be also the Body of Christ.) Something true happens, and is proclaimed (see Schmemann 25). Described in this way, the Eucharist is certainly very much like the marital act, as in both cases, there is a deep union being forged between two opposing forces – in one case male and female, and in another case, divine and human. In both cases, the union is spoken of in terms of “one flesh”.
Marriage and the Eucharist are both ways in which a basic human drive (sexuality or hunger) are redeemed and transformed in Christ. Because the need for food and the passion of sexuality are so fundamental to our life, to experience and live out these as expressions of the love of God is to testify to the truth of God at a foundational level of human existence. God allows our sexual drive to be used to worship, and God allows us to receive his love through physical nourishment.
For Catholics, the priest is essentially a stand in for Jesus himself, and this is very important to keep in mind, since it provides a perspective on why some Roman Catholic theologians (among others) place such high importance on the gender of the priest. Within this understanding of the priesthood, if the Eucharist is to be a sexual act, it follows that there is a great deal of symbolism behind the celebration of the Lord’s Supper by a male (where the Church he serves is understood as female). This perspective is not particularly helpful for churches that do not understand the priesthood in this way, but is offered here as an example of how far it is possible to symbolize the sexual aspect of the Eucharist.
Sex, the Eucharist, and Lying
As sex and the Eucharist are both places where we can tell the truth, the possibility of untruth, of lying, is also raised. Therefore, both of these actions have a deep risk associated with them. In addition to the risk that there will be a discrepancy between the experience of the couple, or the church, and the truth that the experience was meant to contain, there is the danger of a complacency where that truth is not really sought for in the first place. Certainly to celebrate the unity of the Church in the Lord’s Supper is to, lie if one does not strive for this unity to be expressed in the day-to-day life of the Church. If one settles for a sexual life that does not tell the truth about the mystery that sexuality is part of, one is not merely “sinning” or doing something “dirty”; one might be said to be “lying”.
Our complacency with sexuality, for example, may come about for what are seemingly the best of motives, a settling for another truth that seems best at the time, what “ought” to be said (see Buechner 6), rather than what in our heart of hearts we most desperately desire to say (perhaps without realizing it). In our world today, when discussions about sexuality are usually cast in the language of rights and freedoms, theology is an unwelcome intrusion. However, for the Christian, the sexual act is not only designed as the creation of a good and loving God, but is designed to communicate the most profound of theological truths. Thus, a discussion of sexuality within the Church without reference to theology is to attempt to separate something from its essence, and the Church already risks lying about what the true nature of sexuality is. A great deal is at stake; the desire to tell the truth can be extremely costly. The decision to set something else higher than the truth can be catastrophic.
Some Specific Concerns
For any particular truth, there are many ways to be just slightly untrue. And, sometimes there are heated disputes about whether one is actually wrong or not. In setting up a basic argument – that the relationship between humanity and God is a sexual one, witnessed to in the sacraments of Holy Communion and Marriage (among other things) – there are multiple implications raised, not all of which can be dealt with here, even basically. The most important thing, perhaps, is to realize that this reality – this truth – does have consequences, if it is actually to be told in human lives.
Something that comes to mind immediately is the current debate in the Church over how to address the issue of homosexual relationships. It is not my purpose here to begin a lengthy discussion on the ethics of homosexuality, or of the numerous pastoral issues involved. What has already been attempted within this paper is to give a brief account of the meaning of gender within a cosmic understanding of sexuality, to see gender as fundamental to the image of God the Holy Trinity, and the relationship between Christ and the Church. As was mentioned earlier, the relationship that exists within the Godhead is a heterosexual one, even a fruitful and procreative one. Since this relationship is the truth behind human sexuality, there is a grave potential for our sexual relationships to fall desperately short of the mark of honest truth telling. This is why any question dealing with sexuality and gender has such serious implications; this is true of many other things, not just homosexuality. But in outlining beliefs about the nature of sexual truth, it is not intended to judge other persons’ experiences, as if they were devoid of God’s truth. It has been said that within a homosexual relationship, there is also a seeking for the “other”. It is also true that within many heterosexual relationships, the relationship is damaged severely, and does not function as it ought to – as an exchange of equality in diversity. The only response that may be given here is that the basic urge behind all sexual relationships – whether heterosexual or homosexual – is a drive for completion in the other. All sexuality, whether it intends to or not, witnesses to this basic heterosexual reality; Holy Matrimony witnesses to it more completely than any other sexual arrangement possible on earth. Our goal as truth tellers should be to conform to this truth as closely as possible, keeping in mind that all participate in one way or another in a love relationship with God, and that all are sinners (and thus are all liars).
The concept of sexuality as an expression of truth or falsehood also has serious implications for married couples. Within the Roman Catholic Church, a great deal of discussion has occurred in the last few decades over the issue of contraception (most other religious bodies began permitting the use of contraception early in the 20th century, although its acceptance has not been universal even among Protestants). For the Catholic Church, marriage is an expression of the love between the Father and the Son, manifested in the person of the Holy Spirit. Love, by definition, is meant to be life giving. Therefore, if a couple arranges for their love to not have that life giving potential, could that arrangement possibly be considered a lie about the true theological nature of love and sexuality? Just as a kiss is never “just a kiss”, so sex is never “just sex”; it exists within a framework of truth telling As an example of Catholic thought on this subject, allow me to quote from Hogan and LeVoir’s book, Covenant of Love, which examines Pope John Paul II’s teaching on sexuality:
In an act of love, husband and wife should give themselves to each other and should be open to the transmission of life. The denial of either good, conjugal love or procreation constitutes a falsification of the act. With conjugal love or procreation denied, the act no longer reflects God’s fruitful love. Most would grant that a husband seeking only children from his wife without any thought of her welfare is using her. Such a man denies the value of conjugal love. However, the husband who denies the possibility of procreation also is using his wife. (The wife, of course, would be using her husband if she denies either conjugal love or the procreation of children.) For God, life and love are not separated and thus, for us, as images of God, life and love should not be separated, i.e., conjugal love and life should always be united (Hogan and LeVoir 55).
This does not mean that a couple that cannot have children is participating less fully in an act of sexual truth telling, since opening themselves up to God’s creative love may well prove fruitful in other ways. On the other hand, to refuse to admit the creative element of love is a type of negation. It is not my intention to continue this argument one way or another here, but merely to give it as an example of where this line of thought (connecting marriage with truth telling) can take us. There is a large number of ethical questions involved which must be examined, including to what extent couples that desire children may space their births, and whether couples must continue bearing children indefinitely. Many have taken the above view as a basic principle, while allowing exceptions in particular cases. Still, it is an example of what is at stake when one examines sexual relations from the perspective of truth telling or lying, and stands as a challenge that must be answered.
A Poetic Conclusion
Near the beginning of this essay, the difficulty of describing truth in language was discussed; this was a starting point for an examination of love as truth telling. Perhaps when examining topics of a sexual or sacramental nature, as has been attempted here, prose fails even more quickly than in other cases. Buechner mentions several times in his book that we are likely to come closest to capturing truth verbally when using the language of poetry (Buechner 44). If one is to claim a sexual relationship with the Divine – complete with a physical consummation – how could it be adequately described in any other language? Therefore, as a concluding illustration, please allow me to quote from John Donne (Holy Sonnets XIV):
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me
Within this poem, Donne uses several images of a romantic nature to describe his relationship to God, such as those of betrothal. He also writes that he would never be “chaste”, unless God “ravish” him. At the beginning of this essay, part of my thesis was that it is impossible to fully participate either in sex or the Eucharist without opening oneself up to both. Here I would add that it is impossible for us to experience sexuality as intended by our Creator unless we experience a sexual relationship with God. The pre-eminent means prepared for this is physical, in Jesus’ giving of his flesh and blood to his bride. Unless the bride receives his flesh, she cannot be chaste, and her sexuality cannot be the expression of truth that it is meant to be. And for the bride to receive the body of Christ without realizing the intense love and communion given therein is also to fail in her mission to tell the truth. Her worship is the beloved’s adoration of her lover, and her knowledge of his flesh. It is an exchange of life where our “sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body… our souls washed by his most precious blood… that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us” (Book of Common Prayer 84).
This physical and spiritual intimacy, glimpsed within the nuptial union, and within the Holy Eucharist, is our truth. Since sexuality is found first of all in God, it is a fundamental part of our existence, even if we do not actually participate in a marital union. Indeed, those who are celibate may find it possible to devote themselves to their union with Christ in ways that a married person may find difficult. We have a union with Christ that is expressed even in physical form. For those who do not have genital sexual relations, the sexuality of God remains a model to strive for earnestly. When both marriage and the Eucharist have passed away, our life as the Bride of Christ will continue, engulfed in a love beyond all reason.
Benedict XVI. Deus Caritas Est. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/
Buechner, Frederick. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. New York: HarperCollins, 1977.
John Donne. “Batter My Heart” http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/
Hogan, Richard M. and John M. LeVoir. Covenant of Love: Pope John Paul II on Sexuality, Marriage, and Family in the Modern World. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1986.
Kreeft, Peter. “Is There Sex in Heaven?” http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/sex-in-heaven.htm
Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004.
The Book of Common Prayer. Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1962.