Thursday, December 12, 2013


"Perhaps the anthropological role of the Christian church in human history might be simplified as follows: To undermine the structures of sacred violence by making it impossible to forget how Jesus died and to show the world how to live without such structures by making it impossible to forget how Jesus lived.” In both life and death, Jesus was opposed by the most respected institutions in the world. Not surprisingly, therefore, the prospects of institutionalizing either the Sermon on the Mount or the revelation of the Cross are not great. "The Church," wrote Karl Barth, "sets fire to a charge that blows up every sacred edifice which men ever erected or can erect in its vicinity." In every instance, the institution in closest proximity to the gospel's explosive charge is the institution we call church. As Andrew McKenna put it, "The breakdown of institutional Christianity is the legacy of the crucifixion narrative, which is one with the Hebrew Bible's denunciation of overtly sacrificial institutions, indeed, of all forms of victimization." Fortunately, however, the breakdown of institutional Christianity is not the only legacy of the crucifixion narrative. Peter's Aramaic name should serve as a perpetual reminder of the lingering lure of sacrificial thinking in Christian history, but it should not obscure the fact that the name means "rock" and that, especially in a world as radically destabilized as the one in which we live, we should not casually dispense with the few forms of stability that survive. The church, like Peter, is both a stumbling block and a cornerstone. It is the latter only when it is consciously contrite for being,and having been, the former. The inherent contradiction with which institutional Christianity is always faced was perhaps best summed up by T.S. Eliot in his poem Ash Wednesday, where he wrote:

The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The gilded hearse drawn by jewelled unicorns is Eliot's Dantesque image for the ridiculous pageant of Christian pomp that has sometimes been the only access people living under the weight of history have had to the unread vision of the gospel revelation. Lampooning the pomposities and hypocrisy of the gaudy pageant has its place, but in light of the present urgencies such things hardly deserve top priority. The real challenge is to redeem the time and to do so by redeeming the unread vision in the higher dream. Jesus, we're told, was born in a squalid little barn. The institutions that bear the Christian revelation through history are as seemingly inadequate to the task they've been given as was the feeding trough in which the newborn Christ was laid. The fact that we are less offended by the smelly manger than by the "jewelled unicorns" and "gilded hearse" is proof that the latter haven't prevented the spirit of the gospel from having its effect on us after all."

--Gil Bailie, from Violence Unveiled, pp. 274-275


  1. I don't know. I think we have to give some credit to the jeweled unicorns. The first time I remember becoming aware of Jesus' divinity was in the dark of the Easter vigil, circa 1980, as father processed up the aisle, bathed in incense, candles giving the only light. I realized then that my religion dealt not just with ethical exhortations, but with God, a mysterious being who existed far beyond our understanding. It was that sure knowledge of Jesus' divinity that would make me take seriously Jesus' humanity - otherwise he was just some nice middle eastern fellow from 2000 years ago with some interesting ideas. I continue to need that reminder - God help me - even today, and being present a few times a week for the "sacred violence" of the mass makes it possible for me to endure the mundane violence of everyday existence. I know Jesus' death on the cross, presented at every mass, subsumes and gives ultimate meaning to all my suffering. It empowers me to love in the same way, to live the beatitudes. Maybe I am weak that I need that, but I pray those dear jeweled unicorns never run away. I need them. I'm in that hearse and they're pulling me toward the Lord.

    1. Oh absolutely, Erik, that Catholicism is sacramental; that the ritual, the candles, the incense are essential goes without saying. We need to be touched...I didn't at all interpret the passage as you did; as being anti-ritual and anti-Church. On the contrary, Bailie is saying it's easy for an outsider to criticize the pomp and stop there but you can't argue with the fact that the Church is one of the few, if only, institutions that has endured for 2000 years. I read it as acknowledging that as Msgr. Romano Guardini said, "The Church is the Cross upon which Christ was crucified," i.e. that the Church itself is an ongoing paradox, stumbling block, scandal. At the same time, of course, "To whom else should we go, Lord?"...

      Bailie is talking about pomp that has been DE-sacramentalized, that has divorced itself from the Cross, that has become a symbol of the prosperity, power, prestige, and success of "the world" rather than a celebration of the very very different, seemingly very tiny, very silent, very non-cataclysmic triumph of a God who consented to come into the world as an already-in-exile baby. The pomp, the beauty, the liturgy, the most sublime cathedrals in the world are sublime precisely because they consecrate our POVERTY, our weakness, our child-like love, that squalid, utterly holy, barn in which Christ was born to God...

      My piece this week in Magnificat on Our Lady of Guadalupe is all about the importance of the tinsel as an emblem of our spontaneous outpouring of love to God...

      Anyway, you might want to read Bailie's book. He has insights about the anthropology of violence and the staggering (and largely passed over) significance of the Crucifixion that ring true with my own experience...which is how I test things...

      Thanks so much and Merry Christmas, everyone!

    2. Thanks for the clarification Heather. That makes a lot of sense. It definitely gives me a lot to think about.

  2. Erik, thanks for that, it is terrific....

  3. Yes, Erik, that is beautifully said. I, too, find the rituals, the "pomp" essential.

    At the same time, I'm not sure that Gil Bailie has it right with this: "The gilded hearse drawn by jewelled unicorns is Eliot's Dantesque image for the ridiculous pageant of Christian pomp that has sometimes been the only access people living under the weight of history have had to the unread vision of the gospel revelation."

    Since so much of Eliot is allegorical allusion, I always thought the Virgin Mary was tied to that "jewelled unicorns," since legend has it that only a virgin can tame a unicorn. And that the "gilded hearse" is death, overcome by Christ.

  4. HEATHER! Guess what?! Fr Anthony read part of your meditation about St Lucy today at Mass on EWTN. :D Just thought I'd let you know just in case you missed it. :D

    1. Cool, Brenda, thanks! No, don't watch ETWN and did not know...Long live St. Lucy...

  5. Oops, I forgot to sign my post above. I'm an airhead half of the time.

  6. I just now listened to the "Mary Had a Baby" performance you posted. It's exquisite. I'd never heard of either the song or the Moses Hogan Chorale before -- where have I been?

    Thank you so much for introducing me to both.


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