The Pentecost Essay – Introduction

This essay is dedicated to the Bishops of Novaliches (Roman Catholic) and the Central Philippines (Episcopal/Anglican), and all Christians who are working for change everywhere.

I will be posting the rest of this essay toward the end of this week.

But first, here is the first passage of the two on which I will be writing this year’s essay. Both are by Jean Jacques von Allmen, and is from his Worship: Its Theory and Practice (London: Lutterworth, 1966), and can be more conveniently found in Simon Chan’s Liturgical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), at pp. 42 and 43.

Every time the Church assembles to celebrate the cult [i.e. the Eucharist], to “proclaim the death of Christ” (1 Cor 11:26), it proclaims also the end of the world and the failure of the world. It contradicts the world’s claim to provide men with a valid justification for their existence, it renounces the world: it affirms, since it is made up of the baptized, that it is only on the other side of death to the world that life can assume its meaning… Christian worship is the strongest denial that can be hurled in face of the world’s claim to provide men with an effective and sufficient justification of their life. There is no more emphatic protest against the pride and despair of the world than that implied in Christian worship.

Recently, I have been sporadically attending a seminar where the work being taken up is a remarkable view of the contemporary world. Empire, written by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, discusses the postmodern condition as one where the old modern paradigms of production, of the state, and of labor are upturned. This is done from a kind of Marxism, tempered by the failures of its reinterpretation in the 20th century by the likes of Lenin and Stalin and Mao.

Their argument is that far from seeing the end of oppression, the transition from a modern imperialist, state-based world to a postmodern Empire, built on global capitalism, is marked by a more insiduous kind of oppression. The irony is that it is the creativity of the multitude (the new proletariat, far more inclusive than the past) that fuels this, and yet, this near-universal creativity is exploited by the forces that control Empire. It is through corruption, the inability of the multitude to enjoy the fruits of their creativity because of their exploitation, that Empire works to oppress.

Their work, surprisingly, cites with approval two significant heroes of the Christian faith—Augustine and Francis of Assisi. Augustine’s Civitas dei is a model for the post-Empire alternative world, and Francis is their idea of how one should resist the forces of global capital that work to produce even our own lives as subjects. I would say that they are on the right track.

This essay is a reflection upon the ultimate political response of the Christian. It is here where the Second Vatican Council’s idea that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life is taken to its logical extreme. One need not go to the streets to protest oppression, but one’s acts of protest must begin from a life lived in the act of Christian worship. And one’s act of celebrating the Eucharist is a protest against the forces of the world.

I was inspired to make this the theme of this year’s essay by an incident that occurred this afternoon as we were winding down the seminar. One of my colleagues came breathtakingly late, much to the amusement of everyone, including the professor. Later I found out he had come from a recollection, and I presumed that it ended, as most of these do, with the Eucharist. It dawned on me that there was another way out of Empire.

And this was the passage from Allmen that came to mind:

The Christian cult [Eucharist] is a basically political action: it reminds the state of the limited and provisional nature of its power, and when the state claims for itself an absolute trust and obedience, the Christian cult proclaims against this pretension to claim a kingdom, a power, and a glory which belong of right to God alone. That is why, in gathering together for Christian worship, men compromise themselves politically.[Emphasis mine.]

Replace the word “state” with “Empire” and you have a feel of the insight I gained this rainy afternoon. It made me realize that perhaps the way to imagine an alternative to Empire was easier, yet more costly. To be conscious that the Eucharist is an inherently political act was for me a scandal when I first heard this from Fr. Joseph Frary, one of my mentors, in the past. But it is a crucial scandal, not just for me, but for Christians everywhere who take the act of worship for granted and do not realize its full power.

More on this next time.

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