Blog Template Theology of the Body: Indulgences on the Road II: Wishing on the Body of Christ

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Indulgences on the Road II: Wishing on the Body of Christ

The cathedral of Nostra Senora de la Soledad in western Mexico (see below) has a rather garish feature in one of its side chapels. As you can see in my photos, the parishioners there have a special devotion to the crucified body of Jesus, which is depicted and contained in a solid crystal coffin. I watched several families stop at the coffin to pray earnestly. At the conclusion of their prayers, these faithful people did something even more disconcerting: they dropped pesos into the coffin, and thus you see a pile of hard-earned Mexican money resting atop the image of the pre-Resurrection body of our Lord. The latent Prot in me protested: "great," I thought; "you get down to the strongholds of Catholicism in the modern world, and here Jesus has become a wishing well."

But there is more to be said, particularly since the charity which makes sound doctrine efficacious demands a careful hearing of the practices in the lives of the humble people who pray in this way. Think about it: they are placing their money, the locus of trust in the modern world, on the body of Jesus. This action is not about proving their worth or their merit. It's not even about doing the sort of works of righteousness about which one might boast. It's a simple act of faith directed to the body of Jesus, in and by which body God Himself merited our salvation for us while we were still ignorant sinners.

In a way, the practice of casting one's means on to the body of Jesus is the Lutheran dogma of salvation. We ought not to recoil when we see this kind of idea put into practice in a concrete situation, since to do so is to give in to the ancient heresy of Gnostic detachment from real situatedness.

I thought in particular about the way in which Eberhard Jungel, a contemporary expositor of Lutheran thought, describes the divine economy of human salvation. Jungel proposes, with Luther, that we are saved from outside of ourselves, when we deposit our prayer that the merits of the body of Jesus be applied to us. Jungel puts it this way:

"There is nothing about them or in them – not even justifying grace poured into them – which can make sinners righteous. In the reality of the state of the justified there are no concessions to be made. They are righteous purely and simply because they are pronounced righteous. And they are only pronounced righteous because God’s righteousness, which is extraneous to them, is attributed, imputed to them. So in the strictest sense, God’s righteousness comes to them from outside, it is outward. Sinners are righteous externally to themselves: extrinsece Iustificantur semper. Sinners are righteous externally to themselves in the same sense that the Word is an external One, coming from the outside into our innermost being and responding and relating to what has happened outside us (extra nos) in Christ." (Eberhard Jungel, Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith. 206)

... on this Lutheran account, it's as though all the saving righteousnes of Jesus were stored up for us in a beautiful crystal box... and you put your faith in, so that you can extract a blessing.