Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Bitter Root of the Problem

The plant wormwood.

A few days ago I talked about Fr. Longenecker's reflections on Radical Christianity.

The word radical, as I pointed out there, means "of the root", or addressing things at the most fundamental level, the level of origins, the place from which all things spring forth.

We see this in Scripture in the Book of Acts.  When Simon Magus tries to buy from Peter and John the seemingly magical power of the laying on of hands, Peter sternly rebukes him.

Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!  You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God.  Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.  For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” (Acts 8:20-23)

Note the phrases your heart is not right before God and having such a thought in your heart.  The Greek word for the latter, ἐπίνοια (epinoia), deals with "intent": epi - upon  is combined with nous - mind / soul / heart: in other words epi-noia = "builds upon the heart", or as Strong's says, epinoia means "what is on the mind and where this leads to".  Peter, therefore, is addressing the root of the problem.

He is, in effect, saying to Simon, "Your intention is wrong.  There is a root in you from which your actions spring, a bitter root that makes you full of the gall of bitterness and captive to sin.  Uproot this at once."

This allusion to a root of bitterness is found also in Deuteronomy.

Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison. (Deut. 29:18)

... and echoed in Hebrews.

See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Heb. 12:15)

The problem, you see, is not just what we do, but who we are.

Christ changes us at the deepest level, the level of our being, at our root.  And this is, quite literally, radical!


But we resist this change, for we are all more like Simon the Magician than Peter the Apostle.

Simon Magus is a big shot.  Through a combination of magic tricks, demonic powers and weird but seductive philosophy, he becomes a kind of god in the eyes of his audiences.  In Samaria, and even more so when he hits the road later in his career, he's Big Man on Campus in a really Big Way.  He's a hit.  He's a star.  And as we actors know, that kind of fame and the adoration it brings is very seductive, very tempting - we all secretly really want that!   And yet the Magic Man has a conversion - of sorts.  He goes so far as to be baptized, and he seems enthralled at this Christian thing and at the men who are proclaiming it.  He follows them about and laps it all up.

But he does not allow God's grace to change him at the root.  When the Holy Spirit comes to people by means of Peter's and John's prayers and the laying on of their hands, Simon says, "I want to get me some of that!  Hell, I'm willing to pay for it!"  At root, his heart is still set on power.  He lusts after status, adoration and the material things of this world.

His baptism, then, is not allowed to take root.  

Interestingly, here in Acts and elsewhere, we see that the Apostles recognize a kind of incomplete baptism that is not Trinitarian and that does not convey the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This is, in a way, the beginning of the distinction between Baptism and Confirmation in the Western Church.  Indeed, it implicitly recognizes the threefold nature of conversion, which Joseph Pearce points out is evident in the Angelus prayer.

1. The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary - This is the is the gratuitous gift of God, who takes the initiative to change us; He creates in us a longing for Him and He appears to fulfill that longing and to complete our creation.
2. Be it done unto me according to thy word - Mary (who stands for all believers) accepts this gift and submits to the mortification or little death it brings her (compare Baptism, which is a participation in the death of Christ - Rom. 6:4): she allows the New Root to be planted in her: she allows herself to be grafted onto the vine of Christ (see John 15:5, and in a different sense Rom. 11:16-21), and thereby ... 
3. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.   Her role as the New Eve (mother of all living) is sealed, and Almighty God deigns to bears fruit (indeed, becoming flesh incarnate) through His humble mediatrix.  

And as in Mary, so in all of us.   1.) God freely offers, 2.) we submit by dying to self and living to Him, and 3.) He then is present in us and through us.

But how do we pull off that tricky little middle part?  How do we indeed mortify our sinfulness, so that "having been buried with Him in baptism," we can also be "raised with Him through faith"?  (Col. 2:12)

That's what Lent - and the entire Christian journey - is about.

Uprooting the root of bitterness (and thereby its bitter fruit), and letting the living root of Christ infuse us with new sap that will bear good fruit.

If a root is holy, the branches will be holy too. (Rom. 11:16)
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  (John 15:5

Let us, this Lent, cooperate with the Gardener in the work of uprooting the source of bitterness and gall in all of us.

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