At the university which boasts the motto Veritas, there were some interesting developments recently. On May 9th, it was announced that the NY-based Satanic Temple, under the auspices of the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, would be holding a “Black Mass” on the university campus for the purpose of “exploring other cultures.” The club which proposed to sponsor this event is student-led, and once the news of its happening was made public, the university and its administration were quick to separate themselves from this debacle. They were equally as rapid, however, in their defense of the organization’s right to exercise freedom of expression. The Harvard Extension School, for example, issued the following statement on May 9th.
Students at the Harvard Extension School, like students at colleges across the nation, organize and operate a number of independent student organizations, representing a wide range of student interests. The Harvard Extension School does not endorse the views or activities of any independent student organization. But we do support the rights of our students and faculty to speak and assemble freely. (The entire statement can be found here.)
Similarly, President Drew Faust – insert Goethean pun here – issued the following statement on May 12th.
The reenactment of a ‘black mass’ planned by a student group affiliated with the Harvard Extension School challenges us to reconcile the dedication to free expression at the heart of a university with our commitment to foster a community based on civility and mutual understanding. (The entire statement can be found here.)
Much to her credit, President Faust refers to this proposed gathering as unequivocally “abhorrent,” “disrespectful and inflammatory.” She also stated that she planned on attending a Eucharistic Holy Hour at nearby St. Paul’s Parish as a sign of “respect for the Catholic faith”, which she did, in fact, do. That the very nature of a “Black Mass” is to parody the Catholic Mass, and is therefore highly offensive to Catholics, was stated, inter alias, by the pastor of St. Paul’s Parish, Fr. Michael Drea: “There is no way to misunderstand a Satanic act that degrades the Catholic liturgy. There is no misunderstanding; it is just a fact.”
After much protestation, including statements from Cardinal Seán O’Malley and a Eucharistic procession from MIT to St. Paul’s Parish, the event was canceled and reportedly moved to an undisclosed private location off-campus.
It is an easy task to note the duplicity of a university at once condemning an act and yet providing a space for its occurrence. Though it was later refuted by Robert Neugeboren, the dean of students and alumni affairs at Harvard Extension School, a spokesperson for the Satanic Temple initially stated that the organization had obtained a consecrated host for the event.
While reflecting upon these sad events as they unfolded, I could not help but recall the great Kenotic Hymn contained in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even unto death on a cross. (Phil 2:6-8)
This hymn, which NT scholars agree pre-dates the composition of the epistle, affirms that Christ’s essence (μορφῇ) is with the Father. But rather than selfishly cling to his divine existence, the Son emptied himself (ἐκένωσεν) in order to adopt a human nature. The Son submitted to the will of the Father completely and entirely; accepting this unnatural condensation “even unto death on a cross.”
While it may be the reflective reaction of the Christian to be repulsed by the recent events at Harvard, – and rightly so! – let us remember that this is yet another instance of Christ submitting himself to the human condition. Surely we need to be witnesses against the offensive and sacrilegious nature of such events, as many members of the local Church in Boston recently were. But it should also deepen our own humility. It should remind us that Christ has made himself vulnerable to the world every day and everywhere since the moment of his conception. He has held nothing back from his embrace of the human person. In short, the recent events at Harvard are simply another instance of Jesus’ kenosis. And if we are to be his disciples, we too need to make ourselves vulnerable to those whom we love and serve. “No servant is greater than his master” (Jn 15:20).
Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.