Broken Vessels

Perhaps it’s not by chance that brokenness is on my mind—after all, we are drawing close to the season of Lent.  Yet it is the topic of Theological Shark Week that prods me to think about our human limitations.  To describe “why I am (still) Catholic” implies faithful and critical evaluation of what it means to be Catholic, or at least of how Catholicism has been lived out within history and in our present moment.

What should we do when the brokenness of Catholics, as individuals and as a communion, inveighs against our Catholic identity?  The final portion of the creed might serve as an ecclesial examination of conscience:

One:  What divisions do we profit from or promote?  With whom do we refuse to be in solidarity?  When do we deny forgiveness or ignore opportunities for reconciliation?  How do we violate the call to care for all creation?

Holy:  How do we reject intimate union with God and others?  With what hypocrisies do we live?  Where do we lack the gospel’s integrity and authenticity?  When are we deaf to the call to conversion and beatitude?

Catholic:  What areas of our lives are kept “safe” from the call of faith?  Which people seem too far away or too different to claim our care and resources?  How do we prize uniform individualism over diverse unity?

Apostolic:  How do we respond to the gospel with fear rather than faith?  When do we reject Christ’s mission, or categorize it narrowly to suit ourselves rather than to promote God’s reign?   How do we practice Christ’s mission—through love or by power and domination?

Individually and together “all have fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  When our communal incarnation of the Body of Christ is obscured by sin my Catholic identity seems both false and foolish and I am tempted towards a cynical despair.

If brokenness only meant “sinfulness” I might find it impossible to claim Catholicism and to acknowledge its claim upon me.  I think that there is another way to imagine brokenness, however, one that does not deny the power of sin and evil, but that also perceives within brokenness the seeds of resurrection.

To understand brokenness in this way I turn to the image of the crucifixion.  Why does the crucifix hang in Catholic parishes, homes, and institutions?  Why is the crucifixion Catholicism’s predominant image rather than the empty tomb or resurrected Christ?  History and theology provide various ways of answering these questions.  To me the prominence of the crucifix is linked in part to a Catholic interpretation of brokenness as both the consequence of sin and as the means of realizing God’s love.

In writing this I am not excusing sin-induced suffering, offering some optimistic notion that “everything turns out OK in the end,” or indicating that pain is an essential ingredient in a redemptive magic potion.  Rather, I believe God does not ignore the brokenness caused by sin; God chooses to work within and through a finite and fragile creation.  God does not “get around” our brokenness, but rather chooses to be mediated through it.

With our humanity, Jesus took on brokenness:  “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2: 6-7).  In the resurrection that brokenness is not erased, but transformed:  in the breaking of the bread and the abiding wounds of his body the disciples recognize Jesus as the authentic messiah (Luke 24:  28- 40).

In the midst of personal and communal brokenness the psalmist mourns “I have become like a broken vessel” (Psalm 31: 12).  The same psalm also conveys hope, echoed in Jesus’ last words from the cross:  “You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.  Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God” (Psalm 31: 3-5; cf. Luke 23:46).   Despite powerful reasons to despair, our Christian hope is that brokenness—mine, yours, and ours—is neither presently nor ultimately an obstacle to redemption, but is rather the location from which we call out to God, committing our spirits once again to God’s Spirit who brings about our communion, holiness, catholicity, and mission.

One of the (many) reasons why I am (still) Catholic is our ecclesial embrace of Christ crucified.  Through it I find our identities revealed as broken vessels of redemption.

[The broken vessel pictured above was found in Wajahat Ali’s reflection on perfection and forgiveness in Ramadan.]

11 responses to “Broken Vessels

  1. Thank you for this post, Amanda. I might try to use the examination of consciousness during Lent, and the passage from Luke 28 that you mention has become one of my favorites from that Gospel. Being a person who loves good food and loves to offer that kind of hospitality to others, especially when we’re in my home, I find it absolutely incarnational that that the risen Christ asks for something to eat when he appears to his friends.

    • Jen, I completely agree–there’s something about the intersection of hospitality and the incarnation that reveals the intersection of the divine and the ordinary in such a wonderful way. I hadn’t thought of it before, but what you said prompts me to think about the “heavenly banquet” as God’s “ordinary” hospitality to us.

  2. Thanks for your post Amanda. In my course we recently wrapped up a section on the Church, and we spent some time looking at how the four notes mean different things in various models (we used Dulles, and I think my students agreed with the first four letters of his name).

    I really appreciate how you use the four notes as, like you say, an examination of conscience. These four ideas are institutionalized in the Creed, they are markers of our corporate identity, but identity always carries the risk of exclusion or violence towards those we do not identify with. Reflecting on how these markers of our identity might turn us away from our call to identify with the marginalized (Mt 25) is powerful.

    • Steve, I think you saw the connection more deeply than I did! I saw the four marks as pointing out what we should do and be, but I hadn’t fully thought about how the marks themselves can be used to craft an identity that turns us away from the marginalized. Thanks for sharing that insight–and helping to make my own understanding more complete!

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  5. Thank you for these thoughtful reflections.

    For several years, I had the great joy and privilege of serving as songleader and psalmist for my parish’s a capella Good Friday liturgy. Chanting that line, from Psalm 31, was always one of the most intense moments of the liturgy for me:

    I am like a dish | that is broken.

    Your reflection reminds me: that voiced desolation immediately encounters the faithful, trusting response of Jesus, as the assembly sings in response: Father, I put my life in your hands. I need to hold those together more often.

    I do like your examination of conscience with the four marks, too. In my current parish, I always fall out of step at this line of the creed, because I say them slowly and thoughtfully:what does it mean to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic? how do we do that? how do we understand that?

    • Your experience of the power of song leads me to think that there should be a song setting for an ecclesial examination of conscience. Is there one already in existence? I do think that music can penetrate our consciousness in a way that words alone sometimes cannot, thus helping us enter a thoughtful engagement with the four marks of the church.

      I struggle with rushing past the marks (your example is a good one for me to follow), and think we could do more with helping each other to understand their meaning and call in our common life. Perhaps we need to find a way to think about the four marks both theologically and spiritually?

      • Your experience of the power of song leads me to think that there should be a song setting for an ecclesial examination of conscience. Is there one already in existence?

        Oh, *my* what a good idea! Not only for an ecclesial, but also for an individual examen. Thank you. I have no idea but I’ll start looking around. This would be so effective in a communal celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation.

        I linger over the marks in the creed partly because I’m so intrigued that the church is called out as an object of faith, right along with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I do think that calls for a spiritual response, a response of faith.

        Your collective reflections on the “Theological Shark Week” theme articulate that quality of response, so I thank you all.

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