Deep and Wide

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jeremiah 1:4-10 OR Isaiah 58:9-14 OR Isaiah 66:18-21
Hebrews 12:18-29 OR Hebrews 12:5-13
Luke 13:10-17 OR Luke 13:22-30

It’s a difficult week for ecumenical commentary on the lectionaries, a rare Ordinary Time Sunday when none of the Revised Common Lectionary and Catholic Lectionary passages match. Books and even chapters nearly align, but as the carnival barker says after the darts are tossed, “Close, son, but no cigar.” But this is the hand we’re dealt this week.

I’m suspicious of harmonizing texts. From Tatian’s Diatesseron to shepherds rubbing shoulders with magi in crèche scenes, well-intentioned acts of smoothing over create more problems than they solve. Even so, I’m enough of an intertextualist to identify a theme emerging from our varied readings this Sunday, one I believe as orthodox as a reader of scripture can get. When readers, in their own time and place, engage scripture with the heart and mind of the Church, we sense a double expansion of meaning and application. In short, we’re on to something when we find ourselves implicated in texts that grow wider and deeper at the same time. This Sunday’s texts offer examples of how to do this.

Jeremiah gets a terrible wake up call, learning that he, a mere boy, is appointed prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah soon learns that his least receptive audience is precisely the people who think they understand Torah just fine, thank you.) In the RCL readings, Isaiah and Luke’s Jesus lecture the guardians of tradition toward a broader and deeper understanding of Sabbath observance. (The gospels leave an attentive reader wondering what Jesus did on all those days between Sabbaths.) The author of Hebrews offers discipline as the source of strength and healing and assures us that the visible world conceals an unshakable kingdom. In the Catholic lectionary, Luke’s Jesus sidesteps the question of how many will be saved, responding first with a stern plea to enter the narrow gate, then speaking of people from all directions streaming into the kingdom. Each text offers a time-conditioned way to receive tradition without succumbing to petrified traditionalism.

I could stop here in my foolish attempt to cram all these texts into one box, but this double movement calls to mind language of the Second Vatican Council that may be helpful to those of us living in our still-divided ecclesial traditions fifty years on. (My apologies to true scholars of that event. I write what follows as, at best, a sophomoric layman.)

Pope John XXIII is often credited with introducing the term aggiornamento (“updating,” literally “to-day-ing”) as a primary theme of the Council. His intent, if I understand it, was to widen the understanding of Church teaching to more fully address the concerns and issues of the times. A few interpreters of the Council contrast aggiornamento with ressourcement, a return to the spirit and insight of early Church sources, as if the two terms named rival – if not necessarily opposing – camps, the way some now see ecclesial polarities defined by secular terms liberal and conservative. Thus, the Council debates are reduced to perceiving the tradition as a river best understood either at its mouth or its source, not by considering its entire length.

I think this crabbed view gets both the Council and John XXII wrong. The Amazon encompasses fresh water trickling from Andean glaciers at its source, the many bends and tributaries downstream, and vast muddy channels at its mouth. Our churches, both local and universal, draw on a tradition that, whenever it gets things at least close to right, updates its understanding by deeply engaging its sources: scripture, the conversations of the early church, the witness of the many who precede us. The visible world is shaken by events time and again, changing the circumstances in which we live, but there is a kingdom given to us that, we’re told, can’t be shaken. The challenge is to see that kingdom rightly and well in novel settings.

Another word – now rarely heard – that made the rounds in the Second Vatican Council was approfondimento (“deepening”), a term that complements both aggiornamento and ressourcement. Unchecked, an agenda of updating embraces novelties that are, in fact, cultural accommodations of varying gospel fidelity. A cramped reading of sources ossifies ecclesial understanding, as if, for example, Augustine or the Didache explicitly addresses ethical issues raised by novel twenty-first century circumstances. When brought together, aggiornamento and ressourcement call us to broaden and deepen our reading at the same time. This is a harmonization our church communities can and should embrace.

By design, I’ve carefully avoided specifying social, technological, and ethical matters our churches engage today. A few centuries on, historians of the Church will better identify what we did well and where we failed as well as which of our hot button issues were truly important and which were passing side shows. If anything, this double movement of widening and deepening our understanding calls us to deep humility, each painfully accrued insight revealing just how far we remain from the fullness of the kingdom.

God’s ways are still not our ways. Maximos the Confessor, the seventh century monk and theologian, wrote that each new movement toward God more clearly reveals the yawning immensity still separating us. We wrestle with these texts in our own time, our own communities, and our own circumstances, increasingly aware how little one individual can grasp. We are called, then, beyond our individual selves, to converse with one another and that cloud of witnesses that precedes us, all of us slow pilgrims on the kingdom road.

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