It's About What We Do. Lent Meditation 3
Updated: Mar 20, 2021
They quickly understood however that there was nothing to worry about: to accomplish the task they had been given, they only had to trust that which they had become thanks to this sustained acquaintance with Jesus
Next October it will be exactly 10 years since the death of Steve Jobs, one of the persons who has most impacted the life of people worldwide during the last 30 years. Virtually every aspect of our daily life depends on one or the other of the technological innovations introduced by the man whose motto was Stay hungry, stay foolish, and who kept alive his formidable drive for perfection until his last breath. In many ways, Steve Jobs’ legacy resembles more that of the founder of a religion than of a CEO, included the way in which he made sure that Apple would not only survive him, but keep alive his vision, one might almost say his spirit. Nobody can deny that he succeeded beyond everyone’s expectations, considering the extent to which the company’s capacity for innovation outlived him, and its exponential growth – to the point that three years ago it became the highest valued company in the world.
Reflecting on the secret of such a successful transition we could point to two key factors.
The first was Jobs’ ability to create not only products but a culture, or, as some people like to say, a philosophy, which includes an ethics and a management style, and making sure that every new executive was actually introduced to them. The second was the choice of his successor, Tim Cook, who had worked very closely with him, long enough to absorb his inspiration and style thoroughly. It does not matter that Tim Cook does not have Steve Jobs’ genius. There is a sense in which he has succeeded so well precisely because his main gifts are risk-averse loyalty and dependability – exactly what is needed to maintain a tradition, which comes from the Latin tradere, that is “hand over”.
The creation of sustainable traditions is one of humanity’s most enduring obsessions. For several years I run a project with a team of lecturers from the University of St Gallen, in Switzerland, on Leadership and The Rule of St Benedict. These professors could not hide their fascination for the extraordinary sustainability of the Benedictine tradition: the average life span for businesses is one generation – some family firms last one or two more generations, but usually none survives longer than a century. Most Benedictine monasteries, on the contrary, especially of nuns, have lasted for centuries. On two occasions I took part in the celebration of one thousand years of uninterrupted life of two female Benedictine communities, one in France and another in Italy. What is the secret of such longevity? And, even more interestingly, how to explain the even lengthier duration of Christianity? The answer, from a theological viewpoint, lies in the balance between tradition and innovation, the establishment of reliable patterns and the ability to remain reactive to the constant change of circumstances, preserving continuity without stifling salutary (and unavoidable) jolts of disruption.
One way of reflecting on the issue of stability, duration and regularity from a theological viewpoint is looking at the relation between the historical figure of Jesus and the life of the communities that claim to be the sign and the instrument of his presence and action in the world. We take this connection for granted and rarely pause to reflect on how extraordinary it is that Christianity should still exist today, two thousand years after its founder’s death. How has it achieved such a level of resilience, especially considering the relentless (and often largely successful) attempts to divert it from its core mission and identity, not only through external pressure but especially despite pervasive internal corruption? The answer can be found in a peculiar mixture between ministry and prophecy, institutions and charisms. This week we are focusing on the first aspect (ministry and institution) and next week we shall examine the second (prophecy and charisms).
In our previous talk on the nature of a community from a theological viewpoint we noticed how Jesus did not leave any written document whatsoever, neither to summarise his message nor to specify moral codes, behaviours and even less rules. He did not think that a written text was the most effective way of creating and sustaining a tradition which would make sure that following generations would preserve, understand and implement his vision. Than we noticed how the crucial request he made to his disciples just before being arrested and killed, what not to repeat a formula, but to perform an action: Do this in memory of me, that is: the way I want you to keep my memory alive among you will be the act of gathering together in my name, of becoming one body through thanksgiving and through feeding together on the one bread of my own body. And in our first meditation on the individual, we saw that Christian faith affirms and validates us not only as a community, but also individually, by letting us feeling embraced and loved by God and gives us the freedom to return this love to him under the form of worship and thanksgiving – which is at the core of what we do in Jesus’ memory, and which we call Eucharist, that is “Thanksgiving”, precisely for this reason.
So, let us call to mind Maurice Ravel’s Bolero for a moment, and remember the initial motive which is constantly repeated throughout the piece below the variations and amplifications of the melody. In music, it is called an ostinato(from the Italian word for ‘stubborn’).
Now, we can say that starting from the day before Jesus died to today, doing this in memory of Jesus, that is the Sunday Mass, has been the ostinato of everything else Christians have sung through their lives and their faith. And we saw how the Eucharist’s extraordinary community-building power lies in the centrality it grants to bodies, senses, affections, and imagination.
This ostinato of the Eucharist is the focal point of Christian tradition. All the other identifying aspects of the church converge in it, namely ordained ministry, preaching, and baptism. These are the elements that give a recognizable, stable, regular social and institutional structure to the Christian community.
As we know, the first thing Jesus did right at the beginning of his public ministry was to choose a number of disciples with no qualification, no institutional links to the Jewish religious establishment, no particular skills as communicators. They did not have to do anything other than stay with him, share his life, listen to his teaching, ask silly questions and try not to quarrel with each other too much. This sounds like a caricature but it is not. When the book of Acts specifies the qualities that the person who had to replace Judas should possess, they name only one: to have been part of the group of the disciples “during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (Acts 1.21f).
Of course during this time the disciples also heard Jesus’ teachings to the crowds, listened to him when he was explaining the Scriptures to them – so there was an element of learning in this relationship. But the aspect that mattered most was being close to him long enough to reach the kind of acquaintance that only comes with time, in a way not too dissimilar to what we saw in Steve Jobs’ care to hand over Apple to someone who had lived and worked with him over many years and therefore had become acquainted not only with his ideas, but especially with his style, priorities, and all the other aspects of a person’s vision that cannot be easily grasped through ideas or translated into codifiable behaviours. And if one has to believe what people have said about Steve Jobs’ propensity to lash out, this kind of sustained life-sharing must have included a great deal of confrontation.
Had I been one of the Apostles the day Jesus was about to ascend to heaven and told them to go and make disciples of all nations teaching them all he had taught them (Mt 28.28ff), I would have panicked: “But I have not taken any notes when you were teaching!! You should have warned us beforehand that you expected this from us - we would have started to write things down”! They quickly understood however that there was nothing to worry about: to accomplish the task they had been given, they only had to trust that which they had become thanks to this sustained acquaintance with Jesus. Indeed, Jesus himself had assured them that when the moment came to give witness to him, they should not worry about what to say, but trust the answer welling up from within (cf. Mt 10.19).
Jesus’ disciples, on their turn, did the same when their time came to leave this world: they chose some ‘servants’ (that is deacons), some elders (that is ‘priests’) and some overseers (that is ‘bishops’) following exactly the same principles: these had to be people who could be trusted because of what they had become through the breaking of the bread in remembrance of Jesus, through listening to stories about Jesus, and through experiencing forgiveness and loving care in the Christian community.
Theology, therefore, understands tradition, continuity, and regularity in a way which resembles to what happens in secular institutions, and could be summed up in the ostinato of leadership, culture and rituals. If anything of Jesus’ vision and genius has managed to trickle down to us, at least partly, we owe it to this ostinato.
Often, and rightly, we complain about the shortcomings of leadership, the rigidity of the culture and the repetitiveness of the rituals that sustain Christian tradition, and we shall see in our next talk that an element of disruption too is needed to preserve Christianity truly alive and flourishing.
Already on the basis of what we have seen so far however, we can ask ourselves how much of this inadequacy of Christian tradition results from our own lack of commitment. Again, Jesus instructions during the last supper were clear: it’s not about what we say, but about what we do, that is how present we are with our bodies, how much we invest in relationships within our community, how loyal and caring we are for each other. In one word, it is all about our own ostinato, that is the stubbornness of our own commitment, our own determination to be there, for God, for each other, and for the world.