Lent (Day 24) — “A Study in Joy: Thessalonians 1”

This will be my last posting on James Martin’s book.  It’s time I returned my copy to the Kansas City Public Library,and I don’t want to be greedy and hold on to the book past my time.  This is another instance where he does a brief explique of a passage from the Bible.  Here, he discusses the first chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians, the oldest book in the New Testament (c. 50 AD).  In this passage, and he notes that this letter is often not addressed by most Catholics (Corinthians and some of the other letters get a lot more coverage), he discusses Paul’s injunction to the Thessalonians that they should “rejoice always.”  

This is worth noting in that it tends to contradict the usual image of Paul as a “thou shalt not” guy, a gloomy gus of a saint, a wet blanket.  And it is also worth noting as it seems a strange injunction — how can we “rejoice always” as there is injustice in the world, which should get us angry and demanding change?  And how can we “rejoice always,” as there is death and loss in the world which makes us sad, and rightly so.  Even Jesus wept over the dead Lazarus — sorrow is part of life.  Martin suggests a reading based on his experience of African and African-American spirituality.  There is a confidence in African-American churches of the goodness of God, and of the joy and wonder of life, even when life is hard (as it often is).  Behind the troubles of the world, there is a greater presence and a greater truth, and that speaks of comfort and justice and joy.  And Martin suggests that such is Paul’s intent in telling the Thessalonians to “rejoice always.”  

I recall reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in college, and the professor that year (he taught it every year in the spring) was looking at Chaucer as a Catholic poet.  And I recall that he noted that the community of believers presented in the pilgrimage includes the unsavory and loutish Miller and the venal and corrupt Pardoner.  And yet, all, the best (the Knight and the Pardoner) and the worst (the Miller and the Pardoner) were all part of the community.  And that sense of community was seen as a promise of God’s.  And there was great comfort in that extremely big tent picture of humanity.  That also could be a “Rejoice always” moment.  For all are going to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St. Thomas, the “blissful holy martyr that did help them when they were sick.”  Even if they are going for mercenary reasons (the Pardoner is trying to drum up business for pardons, while the Wife of Bath is looking at nabbing another husband), they are still on life’s journey to some glorious end, and the grace of God is there for all, whether they acknowledge it or not.  Why not “rejoice always?”

I do have to call attention to another passage from Thessalonians, chapter 1 — it is the line “Test everything.  Hold fast to what is good.”  It is these words that William Ellery Channing used in his Baltimore sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” a speech that is often cited as one in which Unitarians define themselves.  And Channing’s point, in that sermon, is that much of the tradition of Jesus as “true God from true God” is not biblically derived, but comes from a later tradition, and that the Unitarian position — seeing Jesus as human (divinely inspired, but human) is the only logical position.  Some would see Channing’s statements as heresy, and some as mistaken, at least.  And some would condemn that statement, but I have to say that I love Channing’s sermon, and I love the joy he clearly takes in human potential to study and probe and discover, in some fashion, truth.  I love that it frees Jesus from the message, that the message of salvation should not be dependent on the idea of Jesus as God, but has value on its own, independent of that unproven claim (and a claim not clearly made in the New Testament by Jesus).  For Jesus as man is more like the saints I love so much, for the saints are companions, exemplars of bravery I can look to.  Some would see Channing’s claim as arrogant (it pits human reason against divine revelation), but I do not see it, or Channing himself, as arrogant.  I find him an humble man, and one who would opt for a much bigger Christian tent.  And Channing was friends with Bishop Cheverus (the first Catholic bishop of Boston) and Bishop Fenwick, his successor, and founder of Holy Cross, my alma mater.  And in that friendship, I take great joy.  I hate religious squabbling.  It seems very unproductive.  That men of different faiths, or at different points on the Christian spectrum, could come together as friends trumps all theological discussion, for the point of religion is not division, nor hatred, it seems to me, but community.   

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