Sunday, 13 December 2020

Taking the knee?

 I have a memory of a remark made by Pope Francis early in his pontificate. It was to the effect that popular piety represented the inculturation of the Gospel. I found it an interesting observation at the time, as it suggested an understanding of inculturation that reflected an experience of the ordinary faithful rather than a "project" to be promoted in the Church. What it also suggested was a valuing of those events such as processions and popular festivals, not just as public celebrations of a particular culture, but as lived expressions of the Catholic faith that lies behind them. Pope Francis' remark suggested that we should value such expressions of culture as also being expressions of Christian faith. 

However, a difficulty arises when the form of the cultural expression becomes distanced from a lived experience of Christian faith. Perhaps the most clear example of this is the secular celebration of Christmas in  the developed nations, where the assertion that Christmas is "all about the family getting together" rather overtakes the religious concept of it as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. (As an aside, I often wonder how I would have coped if I had been brought up in Ireland, where large Sunday Mass attendances I have seen during holiday visits have always seemed to suggest a deep faith on the part of the people that was not reflected in the celebrating clergy, leaving me wondering just how much was culture and how much was faith.)

So it is always helpful to remind ourselves of the faith-filled meaning of those gestures that can all too readily become just a habit, a product of a culture. Just as I ask myself exactly what each of those football players feel they are marking when the "take the knee" at the start of their match (and I suspect it is varied), I also ask myself what each of us feels we are marking as we genuflect towards the tabernacle as we enter and leave a Catholic Church. One of the tell tale signs of a culture only weakly informed by faith is the genuflection directed towards the front of the Church when the tabernacle is in a side chapel!

When he offered a catechesis on adoration as part of his homily at the closing Mass of the World Youth Day in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI did not intend it to be an explanation of the genuflection that we direct towards the tabernacle. Hearing it live, though, it immediately struck me as providing exactly that - an understanding of genuflection as an act of adoration, an act of both going down (submission) and loving embrace.

The Body and Blood of Christ are given to us so that we ourselves will be transformed in our turn. We are to become the Body of Christ, his own Flesh and Blood.

We all eat the one bread, and this means that we ourselves become one. In this way, adoration, as we said earlier, becomes union. God no longer simply stands before us as the One who is totally Other. He is within us, and we are in him. His dynamic enters into us and then seeks to spread outwards to others until it fills the world, so that his love can truly become the dominant measure of the world.

I like to illustrate this new step urged upon us by the Last Supper by drawing out the different nuances of the word "adoration" in Greek and in Latin. The Greek word is proskynesis. It refers to the gesture of submission, the recognition of God as our true measure, supplying the norm that we choose to follow. It means that freedom is not simply about enjoying life in total autonomy, but rather about living by the measure of truth and goodness, so that we ourselves can become true and good. This gesture is necessary even if initially our yearning for freedom makes us inclined to resist it.

We can only fully accept it when we take the second step that the Last Supper proposes to us. The Latin word for adoration is ad-oratio - mouth to mouth contact, a kiss, an embrace, and hence, ultimately love. Submission becomes union, because he to whom we submit is Love. In this way submission acquires a meaning, because it does not impose anything on us from the outside, but liberates us deep within.

I was, of course, also struck as a physicist by Pope Benedict's use of an analogy of nuclear fission earlier in the homily, when talking about the transformation achieved in the Eucharistic celebration:

By making the bread into his Body and the wine into his Blood, he anticipates his death, he accepts it in his heart, and he transforms it into an action of love. What on the outside is simply brutal violence - the Crucifixion - from within becomes an act of total self-giving love. This is the substantial transformation which was accomplished at the Last Supper and was destined to set in motion a series of transformations leading ultimately to the transformation of the world when God will be all in all (cf. I Cor 15: 28).

In their hearts, people always and everywhere have somehow expected a change, a transformation of the world. Here now is the central act of transformation that alone can truly renew the world:  violence is transformed into love, and death into life.

Since this act transmutes death into love, death as such is already conquered from within, the Resurrection is already present in it. Death is, so to speak, mortally wounded, so that it can no longer have the last word.

To use an image well known to us today, this is like inducing nuclear fission in the very heart of being - the victory of love over hatred, the victory of love over death. Only this intimate explosion of good conquering evil can then trigger off the series of transformations that little by little will change the world.

Pope Benedict's explanation of adoration can help us to achieve exactly that inculturation of the Gospel in an act of piety - genuflection towards Jesus present in the Eucharist  - foreseen by Pope Francis 

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