Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day

Isaiah 52:6-10 / Hebrews 1:1-12 / John 1:1-14

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all in these days has spoken to us by His Son ...

Why do they gather at the manger, those shepherds of old? Curiosity, perhaps. A humble submission to the word of an angel? Most assuredly. Delight at the song of the heavenly hosts? Perhaps even that, too.

Why do they gather at the manger, those wise men from the East? Are they following their own holy books, seeking to find whole, pure, entire what they find there only in broken and partial ways, alloy of divine truth, the best of human hopes, and empty imaginings, both malevolent and benign? Undoubtedly. Might they also intuit that this star which guides them speaks a truth more than the stars in their cold, unchanging light can ever know, that perhaps the local, specific, even narrow revelation to the long-humbled people of Israel may hold a truth greater than the whole world could contain, now made even more miraculous by its coming in a little cave in Bethlehem? We may never know.

Why do they gather at the manger, those faithful at Church last evening, at midnight, at dawn, and during the day? Have they come with a long-stable and fervent faith, rejoicing in words they know too feeble to celebrate the Word made flesh? Quite certainly, for many this is so. To fulfill an old family custom, as much out of intertia and a worry that Christmas is not Christmas without a dollop of church on the side as of any remnants of lively faith? Because the beauty of the music, the majesty of the words, the poetry of the story itself, if not believed, is at least evocative of meaning, what truth ought to look, sound, even smell like, if only it were so? For these and countless other reasons.

Yet, come they do, and for that we ought not to shake our heads in dismay but instead rejoice in wonder. It should have been altogether easy for the people of promise to recognize his first coming, but He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not; He came to his own, and His own received Him not. He was received by many — the lowly and the powerful, shepherds and magi. He was worshiped by all, by the brute beasts and the awesome and terrifying bodiless hosts of heaven, and by the sons of earth as well, the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve whom he had come to save, whose kin he had become, whose lot he had chosen to share. It mattered little what brought them there. What mattered in the cave at Bethlehem was what would matter some thirty years later at another cave in which no one had been laid. What matters is that they saw and believed.

The world holds forth many reasons not to believe: pain, sorrow, a lack of confidence in prophecy or even that the prophets spoke of a future at all. Fine, then, we will speak another way. We will proclaim the Word made flesh with words old and new, and with no words at all. We will appeal to God's prophets to Israel, of course, but if these will not be heard, we will point to the providentially vatic words of those far from the faith. Si non suis vatibus, credat vel gentilibus; Sibyllinis versibus haec praedicta. "If not their own prophets, let them at least believe the Gentiles; in the sibylline verses these things were predicted." And if by the Sibyl, why not also in the Vedas or the stories passed on by elders and medicine men along the banks of the St Lawrence? Scruple not what brings them to the Christ child. Let them come, let them see and believe!


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Third Sunday of Advent

Philippians 4:4-7 / John 1:19-28

A young man receives a gift from his mother. It's not much, just a few dollars. It comes, however, with a request, "Do something nice for yourself! I don't want to see this going for groceries or paper towels!" She means well. More than that, she is altogether in the right. She has heard in her son's voice of late a tension, an anxiety, a worry that things are not going as they should and that perhaps what he had hoped and dreamed would be his life may never come to pass. She knows her token will not dispel his difficulties or troubles. Even so, she knows that there is more to the world than his anxieties, and in the middle of his dark season, she sends a rosy message of hope: Rejoice!

Will he be able to receive her message of joy? It all depends. If he knows, or at least trusts that his darkness will come to an end, that is does not have the final say, that in fact he will never escape his anxieties so long as he lives in them utterly, so long as he will not refuse to bend his knee to fear and instead, even when it seems folly to do so, sets aside the troubles of his heart and indulges in joy — then his mother's gracious gift may well be received in good cheer and to good effect. But if he cannot, or will not see that there is any end to his worry, if he has no grounds for hope, then even the most delightful good news from the most loving of persons does not have a chance to be planted, much less thrive and bloom in his heart.

Our holy Mother, the Church, has given us a good message today. She has donned the color of rose and has called us, with the words of her Apostle Paul to rejoice in the Lord always. Can we hear her message? Does it seem real to us? Can we set aside our worries and anxieties? In the end, do we really, truly believe that our Lord's coming is certain and sure, and that he will not delay? Can we, in the midst of the very real gloom that may cloud our lives and darken our hearts, step out for a moment, set aside the very real and pressing cares that strive so mightily to hold our attention, and instead choose to rejoice in the Lord?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Second Sunday of Advent

Romans 15:4-13 / Matthew 11:2-10

Paul presents us with a bit of a puzzle today. First he reminds us of the inspired character of Scripture, and moreover that the Scriptures are fundamentally directed not to some person in the past only, but to us also: Whatever things have been written have been written for our instruction. The puzzle is what comes next. From the fact of the inspiration of the Scriptures and their being addressed to all believers, Paul makes what looks to us like a bit of a logical jump: May then the God of patience and of comfort grant you to be of one mind toward one another. How did we get from the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures to ecclesial unity?

This is a puzzle for us especially who have been led to think of religious teaching, especially explicit doctrine with direct appeal to the revealed and inspired Word of God, to be divisive rather than unitive. The principle of etiquette is clear enough — at dinner parties, never speak of politics or religion. We worry that such talk will get tempers to flare, unkind things to be said, and little to no good will come of it. Unity, or at least unanimity, we suspect to require the absence of doctrine, of party, of loyalty. Hold what you will if you must. Indeed, the world is better for the variety of things held. But, whatever else you do, hold your tongue! Don't even suggest that you hold any view about which one could divide.

While this is a common enough worry, the readings today invite, require even, that we see things quite differently than this. To be sure, the worry of dinner party etiquette does get one thing quite right — a too narrow view of things, a too doctrinaire approach to life and to God's Word, will actually close our eyes to the crucial doctrine God means to give us. When the disciples of John came to Jesus, they needed to ask if he was the one, or whether they should look for another. Jesus invited them simply to recall what the Scriptures said and to judge based on what they had seen — Go and report to John what you have heard and seen: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers and cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise, the poor have the gospel preached to them. The answer to their question is the the very place where the question itself arises, namely from an attentive concern to the whole of what God has revealed about his Anointed.

Jesus then does the same for the crowd, but this time about John. If Jesus was the one who was sent, then who was this captivating figure John, a preacher so powerful one might easily have thought him to be the one the Father had sent. This is he of whom it is written, 'Behold, I send my messenger before Your face, who shall make ready Your way before You.' If you would know who John the Baptist was, know all the Scriptures.

Paul, of course, must do the same with the Church in Rome. Does Paul's mission to the Gentiles mean that God has abandoned his people, or that Paul preaches another God than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? No, for Christ Jesus has been a minister of the circumcision in order to show God's fidelity in confirming the promises made to our fathers. But does that mean that the Gentiles have a second place in God's heart? Not at all, for the Gentiles glorify God because of His mercy. Mercy and fidelity — both are from God, neither is known without the other. To see in the mercy to the Gentiles a rejection of Israel is to fail to hear God's Word. However, to speak of the faithfulness to Israel as though it alone mattered, or that it is independent of or anything other than the very work of Jesus Christ, that also is to fail to keep God's Word.

To be one, to be true to what God wants of us, and to find among ourselves true unity and oneness of mind means heeding the whole of the Scriptures. It means abandoning any strategy of reading that would leave out what is uncomfortable, whether the teaching seem too severe and restrictive or conversely whether the teaching appear too indulgent, too inclusive, too permissive. God is simple and one, and does not admit to parts. If we would have him, we cannot have him only partially. We must then receive, in all its richness, in all its fulness, ready to be surprised again and again by the riches it holds, the whole of the Bible and the whole of that Body to whom it is addressed. It is in our fidelity to the Word that we will have unity, that the God of hope will fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, November 30, 2009

St Andrew, Apostle

Romans 10:10-18 / Matthew 4:18-22

It is hard to say whether or not the 1956 movie Miracle in the Rain reinforces the typical vice of Hollywood narrative, which is to say, whether it paints a picture a little too bright, a little too neat, a little too saccharine. To be sure, it is sentimental, a tear-jerker even, and likely too direct in its storytelling for most contemporary audiences.

Yet, there is a darkness here. Our heroine Ruth, played by Catholic convert and later Third Order Dominican Jane Wyman, has much in her life we would do well to pity. Her father abandoned her mother, who herself attempted suicide in her grief, and over the years has, through her bitterness towards men and her fear of losing her daughter to anyone else but herself, raised Ruth to be timid, to live a kind life, but a life on the surface, not knowing the depths of love. Even the rainstorm which brings Ruth to meet the lovable soldier Art, and all the joys which enter both her and his life from their budding romance, are not enough to drive away the gloom. The happy joy of their love cannot move Ruth's father to acknowledge her when he spies her in a restaurant, nor her coworker to end her adulterous affair with her boss, nor even can it move the affairs of state when Art is called away to the War. When she finally hears, after three months of silence, that Art has died, Ruth's desperate turning to St Andrew and offering up prayers does not keep her from terrible sorrow in her soul, nor from delirium and illness in her body.

Yet, it is just in this sorrow, in this grief, that love, true love is found. Seeing Ruth's suffering, her mother is lifted out of her own selfish world to care for the daughter she has smothered for so long. Seeing Ruth's suffering, her coworker turns from her affair to live a better, more honest life. Even Ruth's father, if in a halting and feeble way, breaks through his fear and shame to return to his wife. And, it is in her delirium and illness, in the unanswered grief on the way to visit once again the image of St Andrew, in the middle of a rainstorm, that Ruth is graced with a visit from her beloved Art, who though undoubtedly dead, is also undoubtedly alive and present to her.

St Andrew is, above all the apostles, the apostle of the Cross. His legends tell us that it was his insistent preaching of the Cross that led the Romans to try to silence him, and finally to imprison him and sentence him to death. It was his love for the Cross that led Andrew to dissuade the mob from freeing him, from keeping him from joining his Lord through suffering with him on the Tree. It was words of love for the Cross that came from Andrew's lips when he saw the gibbet on which he would be slain, and it was love for the Cross of Christ that, according to the story, moved Andrew to request he be fixed to a Cross askew and not upright, with ropes not nails, that he would not pretend to be worthy to suffer exactly as had his Lord Jesus Christ.

Is it any wonder, then, that Ruth's prayers to St Andrew would find their answer, that Love would find its way into her own heart and the hearts of those around her, through the crucible of suffering? With Christ as the one who calls, as our way and our goal, could it have been otherwise for her? Could it be otherwise for us?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

First Sunday of Advent

Romans 13:11-14 / Luke 21:25-33

There is an odd time, well past midnight, but not nearly bright enough to see without the lights on. Shall we call the hour early, or is it very late? It depends, of course, on what we have been doing, what we are doing, what we hope to do. The night is far advanced; the day is near at hand. For the student, up all night finishing work he ought to have begun days, weeks, even months ago, the waning of the night, the coming of the dawn, is no source of comfort. He has slept not a wink, and can hope for no rest until well past the coming of morning; when all else has come alive, when the earth beckons with the promise and hope of a fresh new day full of possibility --- then it is he wants to close his eyes, refuse the light, and fall into the numbing comfort of sleep. For the carouser, the reveler, the passing of the night means seeking out another venture after the last call for drinks, for thrills, for worse. It means trying to keep the night alive, to find one more place that shields her from whatever pain she hopes to numb, exchanging the healing if all-too-revealing and honest light of the sun for the garish tones of neon seen through the gray hues of one too many cigarettes in a poorly ventilated room. For the mother in the hospital waiting room, her daughter taken to the hospital for what was supposed to be a routine check up, only to have spent the night in agony, splitting herself and her heart between the critical care units for her own child and her newly, prematurely born and dangerously fragile grandson, the passing of the night is hardly any more welcome. What news it brings, for good or ill, offers no hope that she can see.

There are many reasons we do not want to hear that the sun is rising, many places we find ourselves where the light of dawn is unwelcome. Yet, come it will, whether we want it to do so or not. To see in the faint but unmistakable lightening of the darkness in the east a sign of hope and cheer takes many things, but most of all what matters is how we have spent the night. Have we gone to bed at a sound hour, grateful for the day that has passed and wanting to face the challenges of a new day, even or perhaps especially ones we expect to be difficult, with freshness and energy? Have we been up all night in joyful expectation to see one we love, even if she is doing less than well, but still happy to be with her? Do we, in the end, let our nighttime endeavors dictate to us how we respond to the dawn, or do we choose how to spend our nights so that the brightness of the rising sun is welcome, long expected, a cause for delight?

Advent invites us to consider again how we are spending our nights, not the nights when the sun cannot be seen (although that may be as good a place to start as any!), but the nighttime of our lives. There is much that has been dark, is dark, and looks to be dark in our lives. We may well find our souls drawn to anxiety, or desperate distractions, or heartbreak and despair, and so curse the dawn or ignore it altogether. Or, we can choose to live in hope. We can choose to see in this darkness not the final word, but the last gasp of a passing rebellion, and live in confidence of a world of new possibilities, of new joys, of new realities far exceeding even the most extravagant of our nighttime dreaming.

It is now the hour for us to rise from sleep, because now our salvation is nearer than when we came to believe.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Trinity Sunday

Romans 11:33-36 / Matthew 28:18-20

A nationally-syndicated advice columnist received a letter from a distraught man about a birthday cake. It seems as though every year is mother would invite friends and family over for her son's birthday, and every year she would bake for him a chocolate cake. All of the invitees had come to expect and look forward to their piece of the hostess' now famous chocolate cake, a cake she made precisely to please her son. All of the invitees, that is, except for one — her son. The son, who had written the columnist his letter, loathes chocolate in general, and chocolate cake in particular. He hated it as a child, and he continues to hate it as an adult. He told his mother in his childhood, and had continued to tell her to the present day, of his dislike for chocolate cake, and has pleaded with her to make another cake. She, however, either cannot or will not hear his pleas, and so he passes every birthday presented with a gift odious to him.

While the columnist's advice here is beside the point (I believe it was to make his own cake to bring to the party, an unsatisfactory solution at best), the scenario highlights crucial truths about loving relationships, namely that there is no real love where there is no true knowledge, and that there is no real knowledge where there is no authentically loving response. The mother would certainly protest that she had made the cake out of love, but in the face of his clear revelation of his actual desires, what sort of love would refuse to take them into account? Indeed, even had he kept silent, the fact that she did not know what sort of cake would make him happy would itself be a barrier to actually pleasing her son, however sincere her attempt to do so.

The example is of course trivial, but it might help us recall why God has chosen to reveal to us the mystery of his triune life. While profession of the Trinity permeates the life of every one of the Catholic faithful, with signs of the cross in the name of the Three Persons, the doxologies repeated in every recitation of the rosary or the Psalms, the conclusions of the collects at Mass or blessings at meals, we could be tempted to wonder what difference the mystery of the Trinity makes in the life of faith. We wonder, that is, whether getting the Trinity "right" helps us to live a better life, to love neighbor, or even God with any greater intensity than a more confused or even unexamined acceptance of Father, Son and Spirit. We may also consider our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, and perhaps even our Latter-Day Saint, Sikh, or Unitarian neighbors, who all in their own way insist that they, too, worship the one, true God. Do they fail to worship God in truth because they deny the Trinitarian confession of faith revealed in Jesus Christ? If they do not worship the true God for this reason, whom do they worship? If the fruits of the Spirit seem more evident in them than in our Christian brothers and sisters who confess the Holy and Undivided Trinity, does Trinitarian faith make all that much difference?

The reason that God revealed himself as Trinity, the reason that this revelation is the most fundamental of the whole Christian faith to which all other mysteries — Incarnation, Redemption, Resurrection, Eucharist, the sending of the Spirit — lead and from which they flow, is that God wants us to know who he is. He wants us to know who he is so that we can love him and out of that love and knowledge to live not simply as he commands, but enlivened by and participating in that interpersonal love which is the very divine essence. Not to care who God actually is, to think our natural intimations or incomplete revelations of him sufficient, is no different than trying to please one's son and refusing to take into account who he actually is and what he actually desires, but on a scale more fundamental, more essential to our very lives. The fact is we do not love God, cannot love him, apart from knowing who he is. Neither do any of our claims to know him have the slightest weight if we, in our thoughts and actions, do what he hates.

The mystery of the Trinity, then, is an invitation to know God that we might love him. It is the beginning and end of all that it means to share in eternal life. It is the heart of the Gospel because it is the heart, source, and summit of all that was, is and ever shall be. Blessed be God the Father and the Only-begotten Son of God, and also the Holy Spirit; because he has shown His mercy toward us.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Coming soon to a theater near you!

Well, not a theater, but this site. My life took a rather heavy and occupied turn after Easter, and while I still have a full summer, I hope to get back on track posting more homilies for what I trust may be a modicum of edification.

Thank you for your patience in the meantime!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Sunday

1 Corinthians 5:7-8 / Mark 16:1-7

The trumpets blare, the bells have peeled from the heights of the church, and the music of the organ has shaken it to its foundations. We sing out with full voice, and repeat again and again as though we cannot say it often enough — Alleluia! Christ our Passover is sacrificed! Alleluia! This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad therein! Alleluia! Christos anesti, alithos anesti! Alleluia! Alleluia! Death and life, we proclaim, fought bitterly, and the Prince of life, who died, reigns glorified! Before and unbelieving world, we dare to speak the unspeakable, to believe the unbelievable. Death and Hell, Spite and Sin have done their worst, but the victory of Life and Love is complete and irrevocable. Death has forever lost its sting. From now on, it is Life who has the last word. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!

We say it, but can we really mean it? Do we dare to believe? Do we dare risk believing it is true?

When Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went out that cold morning, early on the first day of the week ... when the sun had just risen, their eyes red and bleary from the hour and excess of tears, what did they expect to see? Certainly not what their eyes beheld! The great stone, rolled away. The tomb, empty. And upon the stone at the entrance of that empty tomb, a figure at once glorious and terrifying, clothed in dazzling white, a figure not of this world nor among the sons of Adam.

What had drawn them to the tomb at the hour was love, of course, but also the cold hard logic of the world — the body needed to be anointed, lest his decay fill the tomb with the stench of death. In a way, it is easy for us to yield to the logic of the world as well. Christ indeed from death is risen we sing, and then we read of piracy on the high seas, or another murder in Iraq or only blocks away from where we live. In our prayer we proclaim that on this day the Only-begotten Son overcame death and opened for us the gates of everlasting life, but are we wise to leave our door unlocked at night? Can we walk down lonely streets whose old warehouses we only hope are unoccupied without a sense of relief to have left them far behind?

Even so, we ring the bells, we let the trumpets blast, we sing our joyful Alleluia! We have seen the empty tomb, we have seen the angelic witness, and we dare to believe the unbelievable. For we have worked at jobs whose wages never seem enough to meet our growing expenses, we have known the death of loved ones with whom we never spent enough time, we have broken faith with those who rely on our trust with envious gossip and a lying word.

But, day after day, week after week, year after year, we return. Perhaps only since yesterday, or perhaps after many years' absence, we return. After a long life of service, or newly washed with water and anointed with chrism, we return. We return to the empty tomb. We see, and believe.

For we have looked beyond the stony logic of the grave, beyond the deadly certainties of pain and loss, fear and sorrow, and without blinking, without denying their power, we have exchanged the cold hard cash of the wisdom of this world to plant the few seeds of our faith, and climbing the Vine which grows up from the deepest place of our lives, reaching far beyond our sight into the heavens, we have found that there are indeed castles among the clouds. We have been enchanted by the deeper magic from before the dawn of time and proclaim to the world without shame, without embarrassment, that death itself can work backwards and spring forth in new life.

Brothers and sisters, JESUS CHRIST IS RISEN! This is our faith. This is the Easter faith of the Church, and we are proud to profess it! It is amazing, it is outlandish, it is incredible, and it is altogether true! We are not called upon to work it out or to adapt it, to fret over how well we have prepared for it, where we may have tripped over it or lost our fervor for it. We have only to be glad and rejoice — for this is indeed the day the Lord has made!

Christ our Passover is sacrificed! Alleluia! Let us feast with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Christ is risen! He is truly risen! Alleluia!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Holy Saturday

Genesis 1:1-31; 2:1-2 / Exodus 14:24-31; 15:1 / Isaiah 4:2-6 / Isaiah 54:18; 55:1-11 / Colossians 3:1-4 / Matthew 28:1-7

We want to be able to go back again. We have seen the devastation wrought by our misdeeds, by our ill-placed words, by our callous indifference, by our numberless offenses and omissions. We long for a salvation that lets us start from the very beginning, to wash all things new. It is a great hope to begin again when things are fresh, when the burdens and cares, the aches and pains, of a lived lived poorly can be traded in for a repetition, a restoration of its pristine innocence. After all, who hearing God's litany at the beginning of all things, when the almighty said again and again Fiat, and saw that it was good, would not trade anything to walk again with that first man and first woman, God's very image and likeness, unsullied by years of misspent energy? Who would not gladly hand back the life he has led if he could begin again in that primal greening of the earth, breathe in the life-giving coolness of that first breeze, hear for the first time the happy chrips, bleatings, roars and howls of beasts who gleefully attend to us as their lords and masters, sharing with us the unbloodied food of plant and fruit?

But, God's way is not the way of erasing the past, the waters of Baptism are not the Fountain of Youth. We have in Christ's victory not a return to our first birth so as to live our life over again, but the promise, and indeed the fulfillment of a new birth, for we have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God.

This has ever been God's way with the world. When the primal goodness of Eden was poisoned by sin, God sent us not a new world, but a new covenant with Noah and his descendants. When the peaceful wanderings of the patriarchs in Canaan was traded for slavery in Egypt, God did not simply return his people, but placed them under the sweet yoke of the Law. When the judges proved distasteful to Israel, God raised up not new judges, but kings, for weal and for woe. In calling his people back from Babylon, God did not restore the glories of David and Solomon, but promised new hearts and new spirits. When the Word came to his own and his own received him not, he gave his chosen people, and all peoples of the world besides, a share in the very life of God.

This we must know, that each of us is placed upon this earth, indeed every created thing is called forth by the Almighty, to enrich the whole of creation with some good that it, and it alone, can give. When that good is lost, it is lost forever. Are there new goods yet to come? Undoubtedly. Are those new goods far surpassing even those that are lost? So we live in certain hope. Are there some who never have, and never will, taste joy after they have cast aside their good? Tragically, this also is true.

Even so, who would wish away Cain, if it meant never receiving the pleading of the blood of Abel? Who would desire there never was an idol, if it meant never rejoicing in the faith of Abraham? Would we have the sons of Israel stay their hand with their brother Joseph if that meant no victory over the God's of Egypt or deliverance by Moses at the Red Sea? If it meant never hearing the comforting prophecies of Isaiah, could we honestly wish away the infidelities of Israel and Judah? Indeed, would we trade that whole sad catalog of misery and wretchedness, of infidelity, cruelty, spite, and malice, of fear, jealousy, and despair which has sprung from Adam's seed if it meant never hearing the voice of the angel? Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, for He has risen even as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord was laid. And go quickly, tell his disciples that He has risen, and behold, He goes before you into Galilee; there you shall see Him.

As it is, there is no wishing away our past, no calling back the goods we have lost from the void where they are irrevocably lost. Still, when we consider the imponderable mystery of this night, dare we believe that even this loss will be for us who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, a source of indescribable and everlasting glory?

O certe necessarium Adae peccatum, quod Christi morte deletum est! O felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere redemptorem! O truly necessary sin of Adam, which the death of Christ has blotted out! O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

Hosea 6:1-6 / Exodus 12:1-11 / John 18:1-40; 19:1-42

In his Summa theologiae, Thomas Aquinas asks whether Jesus Christ suffered all sufferings in his Passion. The reason for the question is surely not hard to find. Those who suffer find a special kind of solace in knowing that the one who loves them really knows what they have endured. It is not that misery loves company, or that those who suffer envy or resent those blessed with good fortune, although this too can be true. No, even for the best and virtuous, there is something assuring about the confidence that the one who tells us that all will be well, that the suffering, pain, and loss are not the final word, that God is in the midst of it all as our Advocate and Friend — that such a comforter can be trusted because he too has suffered. So, knowing whether Jesus, the Word made flesh, knew suffering as I know suffering is a question whose answer makes all the difference in the world.

Now, good Dominican that he is, Thomas makes here an important distinction. Jesus Christ, he notes, did not, indeed could not have endured every suffering specifically. Some sufferings are incompatible, such as death by drowning and death by burning. So, if we demand a Savior who encountered every single thing that threatens to assault and assail, then we demand foolishly and in vain. But, says Thomas, Jesus did endure every kind of suffering.

Now, here is where the Angelic Doctor surprises us. We might imagine that Thomas would place the physical agony of Christ in the first place, but he does not. Nor does he place the suffering as a person first, although he has much to say here. No, the first account of suffering endured by the God-Man is social, the suffering from all kinds of men: from Jews and Gentiles, from men and women, from rulers, their servants and the mob, and (significantly) from friends and acquaintances — the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter. Of his personal suffering, Thomas gives a full list: the blasphemies assaulting his reputation, the mockeries and insults against his honor and glory, the taking of his sole possession in the taking of his clothing, in the sadness, weariness and fear of his soul, and in the scourging and wounds in his body. Yet, in addition to these, and at the head of the list, we find the suffering endured by Christ from having his friends abandon him. And, in enumerating the ways in which Christ suffered in his members and his senses — his head from the crown of thorns, his hands and feet from the nails, his face from blows and spittle, his whole body from lashes, his taste with vinegar and gall, his smell "by being fastened to a gibbet in a place reeking with the stench of corpses," his hearing by the cries of blasphemers and scorners — Thomas crowns the whole list with that noblest and most rational, and thus human, of senses, namely sight. And how did Christ suffer in his sight, according to Thomas? By beholding the tears of his mother and of the disciple whom he loved.

For Thomas, the worst of the Passion was not the agony of the body, although that was horrifying and enough to make even the elect give pause. It was not the assaults on one's person either, whether internally in the soul or externally in name and possessions, even though these were also cruel. No, the worst of the Passion was, according to Thomas, the assault of that communion of persons which we call friendship, that brutal tearing of the noble joining of hearts we call love. The one theme, the one lash that marks across his whole account is the suffering of Jesus Christ in the violation of what it means to be joined to another in love — in the betrayal, treason and abandonment by his most intimate friends, and in knowing and witnessing the agony suffered by those one loves above all others, aware that this suffering of theirs has come about by what he has freely chosen.

Our Lord and Savior died from friendship abused for a friendship surpassing all of our wildest hopes. He hung on the cross by the iron nails of love betrayed with a love so hot it could leave the whole world in ash if he would unleash the slightest spark. Or, in the word of the great English poet Mitlon: O unexampl'd love, / Love nowhere to be found less than Divine! / Hail Son of God, Saviour of Men, thy Name / Shall be the copious matter of my Song / Henceforth, and never shall my Harp thy praise / Forget, nor from thy Father's praise disjoin.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Maundy Thursday

1 Corinthians 11:20-32 / John 13:1-15

If I do not wash you, you shall have no part with me

We have all seen him, the little boy who struggles and strains against his mother's daring attempt to straighten out an unruly lock of hair on his head, to adjust a tie a little too askew, to wipe with a bit of spit and a handkerchief the spot of jelly stubbornly clinging to his face. He protests. He pouts. He squirms. He may even, if his temper is foul enough, or if the Evil One has inclined him to rebel against the fourth commandment even at his tender age, speak in ill and unkind ways to the woman who bore him. Like most mothers, she will know how to bear this unkindness with grace, but it is unkindness all the same.

Psychologically speaking, we can understand the child's behavior. In a way, it is not unlike the sullen, cold wars declared between teenaged daughters and their mothers or the testing of limits of fathers by their teenaged sons. It is the desire of a child to be his own person, to move from being simply an appendage of his family and of its dominant figures to being an agent in his own right, and actor, someone with thoughts, hopes and dreams of his own. It can be, when experienced without malice, an important part of the path to maturity, to a rich and full adult life. Indeed, on the other side of it all, it might yield a happier relationship between the parents and their now wiser, independent, and thus more authentically loving adult children.

Yet, quite often things do not turn out this way. The healthy manifestation of the self can be all to easily linked with a perverse, even unholy assertion of radical autonomy. We can come to resent any kindness done on our behalf. Even people otherwise generous themselves, willing to come to the aid of others, indeed sometimes especially those people whose lives are dedicated to meeting others' needs — doctors, priests, parents — find it more than a little difficult to receive the ministrations of others. Perhaps they have come to see their worth in the good they do for others, and the fact of receiving help worries them that they are no longer of value, no longer the self-sufficient source of largesse. Perhaps they convince themselves that they have no needs, no demands, no claims on the time and lives of others, that they can pass through life leaving it virtually untouched, unwounded by their wants and desires. Perhaps they just do not want to be infantilized.

Whatever the worry, to refuse to acknowledge to good we need and long for, to refuse to admit that we cannot attain it on our own, to refuse to receive it from the one hand willing to offer it — in short, to refuse to have the Lord wash our feet is to refuse communion with the Lord. To have a part with the Lord Jesus Christ means precisely to love him, to see him as the source of our joy and our life, and thus to take him not as we would have him be, but as he has graciously chosen to be for us. Jesus has come to be the our Lord and Master to be sure, but a Lord and Master who washes our feet. He has come to be our life, indeed, but our life under the appearances of bread broken and wine poured out, at the hands of men altogether unworthy of the task, but men who have been bathed in the sacramental grace of Order, even if they need some washing.

The priesthood and the Eucharist — these are the ways Jesus has chosen to minister his saving life to us. We can demand if we will that he do it another way, and then have no part with him. Or, we can swallow our pride, send the unruly child in our soul away, the child that wants things his way with no help from anyone, and embrace with love the simple, seemingly feeble, yet incomparably glorious gifts of the Lord's ministry to us.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Triduum & Easter Sunday Schedule (St Dominic Priory, St Louis, Missouri)

I don't imagine many of you few but proud readers are resident in the Gateway to the West. However, for those who are, or who wish to join my community in spirit, here are the times for prayer during the sacred Triduum and Easter Sunday at St Dominic Priory in St Louis, Missouri, beginning Thursday evening.

Maundy Thursday

7:30 pm Mass of the Lord's Supper
10:00 pm Compline

Good Friday

8:00 am Matins & Lauds
11:45 am Midday Prayer
3:00 pm Celebration of the Lord's Passion
9:00 pm Compline

Holy Saturday

8:00 am Matins & Lauds
11:45 am Midday Prayer
5:00 pm Vespers
[The friars celebrate the solemn Easter Vigil in local churches of St Louis.]

Easter Sunday

9:00 am Lauds & Mass
4:00 pm Vespers

Oremus pro invicem!

Monday in Holy Week

Isaiah 50:5-10 / John 12:1-9

It's a familiar scene: Jesus at Bethany in the company of his dearest friends, Lazarus, Martha and Mary. As usual, Martha is serving and Mary is attending to Jesus with undivided attention. Once again, Mary finds her devotion subject to a stinging rebuke, and one that, at least at first glance, wins over the reader's loyalties. In the days past, it was Martha's rebuke which made us pause, namely that Mary, in attending to Jesus, was leaving her with all the work that needed to be done. Perhaps we sympathize; perhaps we have known what it is to work so tirelessly for God and his people, only to see those who have not labored one bit worried we have not been as assiduous in prayer as we ought.

However, Martha did not escape Jesus' correction. What Martha had failed to see was who Jesus is and therefore where her own heart ought to have been. Was Martha wrong in doing the domestic chores? Certainly not. Yet, she was wrong in two crucial ways. First, she allowed her own busy life to distract herself from what she really wanted, which was to be with Jesus. Second, and more crucially, she was on the verge of the sin of envy. Rather than adjust her life so that she too might enjoy sitting at Jesus' feet, who after all fed the multitude with a few loaves and fish and so did not need Martha's ministry at all, she resented Mary and her happiness, and sought to drag her out of that blessed communion with God which she enjoyed.

Now, as the time of Christ's suffering and death draw near, the drama is sharper, and so is our confusion. This time, Mary does not simply listen. She anoints Jesus' feet with a whole pound of aromatic nard, a true fortune, enough if sold to supply nearly a year's wages for unskilled labor. To be sure, the evangelist assures us that Judas Iscariot's criticism did not come from any love for the poor: Now he said this, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and holding the purse, used to take what was put in it. Even so, while Judas might have had ulterior motives in his criticism, the criticism itself on another's lips — perhaps even our own? — sounds altogether fair. Is the momentary creature comfort of an upscale foot massage really in any kind of proportion to putting bread in the mouth of a poor man for a year?

Here again, we find ourselves in the same trap which threatened to ensnare Martha long before in the house in Bethany. We have failed to attend to who Jesus is. There is no proportion between him and any created good. There is no project, no system, no work of charity, no righting of wrongs, no act of love for any creature, even a created person, which can ever remotely be balanced against Jesus, who is love, joy, and the answer to all of our longings, and who is goodness itself, without whom all other created goods have no meaning, and in whom alone, even apart from anything ever made or that ever will be made, is goodness undiminished. For the poor, Jesus reminds us, you have always with you, but you do not always have Me.

Our solution in face of the Betrayer's challenge is the same as served Martha. If we indeed love the poor so desperately, how do we need to change ourselves so that, in serving them with all the resources we can bring to bear, we draw closer to God and in drawing closer to him, come also to love those who love him with exuberance and extravagance? Only that love of God is true which seeks not by its righteousness to condemn those whose holy folly has moved them to endow Christ and his Church with outlandish acts of self-giving and adornment, but rather seeks only to outdo them in equally lavish acts of charity to the least of Christ's brethren. It is when our love for the poor is enlivened by that same tender and ecstatic love which moved Mary to anoint Jesus with precious nard and wipe his feet with her own hair, with her own very self — it is then that we will stand not with Judas Iscariot but with the beloved sisters in Bethany. It is then that our works of justice will be indeed a sacrifice acceptable to the Lord, a fragrant offering of love to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Palm Sunday

Philippians 2:5-11 / Matthew 26:35-75; 27:1-60

How do we measure a thing’s worth? We might see what it is made of or mark the craftsmanship that went into its design. We may also take note of the condition it is in, how well kept or damaged it is. Many things, most perhaps, are nonetheless priced far more than any of these observable features would warrant. Rather, we know a thing’s value principally in the price a determined and committed buyer is willing to pay for it.

How, then, do we measure the worth of our brothers and sisters, our kith and kin of the human race? How do we know the worth of the unkempt woman, wrinkled beyond her years, begging for spare change at the street corner? How do we know the value of the confessed abuser of children sent away from our midst, out of the sight, minds, and perhaps even prayers of the faithful? How do we calculate the cost of a child who has taken up a pistol against the very people with whose children he had played only a year before?

Do we judge them by their productivity or by what they have made of their lives and their lives have made of them? Or, do we dare to assess their worth on the basis of what God was willing to set aside out of love for them? Christ Jesus, who though He was by nature God, did not consider being equal to God a thing to be clung to, but emptied Himself ... And appearing in the form of man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to death, even to death on a cross.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Galatians 4:22-31 / John 6:1-15

At the beginning of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, the wizard Gandalf meets up with his old friend, the hobbit Bilbo. The two had adventured together many years ago, and now Gandalf has returned for the celebration of his friend's "one hundred and eleventieth birthday". Now, even for a hobbit, eleventy-one is old by far, yet Bilbo seemed hardly to have aged a day since the wizard had first seen him so many years before.

The reason for this preternatural vigor, however, was far from wholesome. Indeed, it was nothing other than the One Ring, the tool and source of power of the Enemy of all the Free Peoples, indeed of all goodness, light and hope in Middle Earth. As coming from the Enemy, the Ring had no real power to offer life, no real power to create; it could only manipulate and coerce, and ultimately corrupt, whatever it touched. That is why Bilbo's longevity is not experienced by him as a boon, but rather more of a burden. The Ring had not given him any more life; it had merely taken the life properly given to him by his Creator and distributed it, attenuated it over a longer span of year. As Bilbo himself remarks to Gandalf, Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched , if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can't be right. (J.R.R. Tolkien, "A Long Expected Party," The Fellowship of the Ring)

How very different the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes at the sea of Galilee. Confronted with limited resources and the real hunger of the very great crowd that had been drawn to Jesus by his signs in the healing of the sick, the disciples were at a loss. Philip, ever practical, knows that a full year's wages would barely be enough to put food in every hungry mouth, and even then each one may receive little. Andrew likewise balks at the sufficiency of their actual resources, five barley loaves and two fishes. But what are these among so many?, he asks, and rightly so. What Philip and Andrew both know, indeed all of the disciples could see and know, is that their resources cannot meet the true and pressing needs of the people. To try to meet the needs of all with the little they had would leave all wanting, the crumbs distributed a mockery of their genuine hunger. To give only to a few, that would be to betray the very mission of their Lord and Christ.

Yet, from their want and need, out of their lack, Jesus produces abundance. From the empty cupboard of their own resources, Jesus calls forth a cornucopia, a horn of plenty, more than they could ever consume. In so doing, Jesus does far more than feed hungry mouths, although he does this indeed. In the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, Jesus reveals to us both the radical insufficiency of our own resources, our own fundamental incapacity to achieve what we most need and desire, and his own superabundance as the root and source of all we could ever want and unimaginably more besides.

What is true here in a material way is all the more true in the spiritual life. The Church, like the great crowd at the sea of Galilee, has deep desires, deep needs. It also has many tasks set to it by Christ. While God never assigns a task for which he does not give the graces necessary to accomplish it, nonetheless such grace always remains gift. It always remains something from God, and not from us. Even the Eucharist, the very life of the Church and of each Christian, of which the loaves and fishes were but a sign, comes not from the resources of the gathered community, but only through the word Christ by the power of his Spirit. The priesthood, by whom the Eucharist is offered, is likewise at one and the same time essential to the life of the Church and only ever received as gift from without. It is not through the calling forth of the assembled community, but by the conforming grace and character of Jesus Christ, that the Church has in her heart those sacred ministers by whose ministry she is sanctified and maintained in her life and mission.

This is why prayer and patience are so crucial to the life of the Church, especially in the face of the present needs of so many across the world. If we imagine that we have in ourselves what is needed to supply what the world needs, we will be sadly and tragically mistaken. Like the crowd, we will be trying to seize Jesus and make him serve what we think to be our best interests. Indeed, our attempt to rely on even the graces we have already received will leave us like Bilbo, like butter scraped over too much bread. Rather, it is only in our constant reliance on and waiting for the gracious mercy of God that we will ever have the resources to more than supply our desires. God is abundant; we stand in need. Is there any place else to go, than to him who supplies us with life beyond all measure, with graces past counting?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday, Third Week in Lent

Numbers 20:2-3, 6-13 / John 4:5-42

Shame is a powerful thing. It is shame that stays the hand of many a potential sinner. How many young men have kept their purity by refraining from visiting places of ill repute, in person or online, for the shame that would follow so base a pleasure? How many a mother has restrained her temper and her hand when confronted by a tired but unruly child at the market, the park, or the bus stop for the shame that would arise from a hard word or a cruel slap? How many bored shoppers or self-justifying employees have kept from stealing from the store or workplace, even the smallest and most trivial thing, for the shame of taking what is not theirs and they could easily afford? Shame is a powerful thing.

Nor does shame simply restrain us from evil. For those who have fallen, have yielded in intemperate passion or in cold calculation, in a slow and unchecked slide over many careless years or in a moment of dramatic rebellion, into sin, shame can call us back. Where our hearts are still stony, still slow to be moved, and the emotions which might stir us to contrition are far from stirring the dying embers of charity, it is often our sense of shame that calls us to repentance. To know what we have done, and to know who we are, to see the gap between the two and to want urgently once more to have our name, whether public or in our private estimation, match our deeds — there are times when this more than anything else can drive us to the confessional, and then to drink deeply of the cleansing waters flowing from the Rock of Christ in Holy Communion.

If that is so, if shame can bar from sin and return to grace those whom inner virtue cannot move, however well they try, then what explains the severity of punishment for Moses and Aaron at the waters of Meriba? Moses, that meekest of prophets, and Aaron, the faithful priest of God, in this one act find themselves barred from entering the Land of Promise. With years to go, and much to endure before they get there, these two holy men must labor for a prize they will never win for themselves. Like the faithless generation at the foot of Mt Sinai, these two will be left to die on the far side of the Jordan. And why? In the face of a murmuring people, a people who again and again refused to believe in the Lord God, who pined over and over for slavery when faced with the bracing challenge of freedom, Moses and Aaron had turned to the Lord. Seeking the people’s good, they implored the mercy of the Most High, and their prayers were not in vain. God, fully knowing the fickleness of his people, was all the same true to himself. In response to murmuring, God asked of Moses only a word, a word to a rock as hard as the hearts of his people. Yet, from that rock God would cause to flow a treasure, a fountain of living water. In the face of rebellion, of waywardness, God intended to respond with undeserved mercy and life in abundance. God would have his people know that his sanctity, his holiness, is never undone by our sinfulness and contending against him. Even before we have deserved it, God wills us to know he is merciful.

But this would not do for Moses. In place of a word, Moses struck the rock with violence, and not once but twice, in case his purpose was missed. In place of announcing God’s intentions of mercy and life as a testament to his holiness, Moses rebuked the people of Israel. What should have been a sign of undeserved forgiveness, a fountain of living water from a lifeless rock, Moses made into a chastisement, a mockery, and retort to the contending of Israel. Are we to bring water for you out of this rock? asked Moses, and he hoped they would hear the irony in his tone. God intended the people to know his sanctity through his mercy. Moses chose instead to cover God’s people in shame.

Shame, after all, is a blunt instrument, and some who are shamed turn forever from what is wholesome and good. Where some shame keeps from sin, others who are ashamed think themselves unworthy of anything good, and so embrace what is wicked as the only thing they deserve. Where some are turned by shame to repent, others are so shamed by their sins that to utter them before another, even if it means life, is a death they cannot endure. Shame has silenced the mouths of those whose bodies are broken in their own homes and those whose innocence has been stolen by others in whose care they were lovingly placed. Shame may be a powerful thing, but it can never be the final word. Where God’s mercy is to be proclaimed, where forgiveness has been declared, where God has already decided to pour out living water on those who thirst, the time for shame has passed. There is no room for shame to remain seated at the banquet table where mercy and grace have taken their rightful thrones.

This is why we, who have been washed by the living waters of Baptism, and who have drunk of that same spiritual rock in Holy Communion, are summoned not to shame the world, but to announce its forgiveness in Christ. We who have ourselves been the contentious Israelites, who have been the Samaritan woman at the well, who have known both what it is to have wandered and sinned again and again, and after searching everywhere else to find comfort, have ourselves heard those comforting words from Jesus, I who speak with you am He — we of all people must be a testament to the world of God’s holiness in our forbearance and kindness. It is in our welcome to the sinner, even the most hardened, and it is in our gracious listening to those in error, even those who worship Him whom they do not know, that God’s holiness will be known in his Church.

To be sure, where there is public and unrepentant sin, it is the duty of all the faithful and all people of good will to shame the sinner with hope of his repentance. But where God has forgiven, where the liberating words of the Gospel have been proclaimed, where the Lord has visited his people and chosen to dwell, to tabernacle with them, and to pour forth for them living water, then the time for shame is done. Then is the time for welcome and kindness. Then is the time to embrace the very one whose earlier sins and rebellion would have tempted even the elect to hard words and rejection. For in our gracious generosity, those who had before committed shameful deeds will come to know, first from us, and then for themselves, the very source of living water, our Lord Jesus Christ. Then they will be able to hold their heads high in our company and to say without shame, We will no longer believe because of what you have said, for we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is in truth the Savior of the world.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wednesday, Third Week in Lent

Exodus 20:12-24 / Matthew 15:1-20

We put on our Sunday best to go to Mass, or dress up in those special, rarely used, suits and dresses to visit our grandparents. We clear off our desk and turn off our e-mail before we make that important call to our employer, our doctor, our lawyer. We make sure to spend at least a quarter of an hour, maybe more, before and after we have received Communion. We do these and any number of other things surrounding the more important features of our life. We hedge them about, erect fences and gateways, buffers between our daily round of trivialities and these other moments.

It is not that we confuse the hedge with the field, of course. God is praised and worthy of praise whether we are dressed to the nines or robed in sackcloth. Our grandparents appreciate the visit, not the shine on our shoes. Crucial communications with the professionals who sustain our lives, physically and socially, do not require clean desks. The Lord Jesus Christ is as present and available to us in the Eucharist whether we have prepared from before the dawn or have barely made it past the threshold to hear the Sanctus bell ring.

So, why do we do it? Why do we add this distance between us and what we honor and desire? Surely we do so, at least in part, out of fear. When the people of Israel gathered at Sinai and the Lord delivered to them his Law, there was left no room for doubt that this Law was holy, that is was decreed from the depths of God's majestic power. Warned by God through Moses to keep away from touching the mountain, the people of Israel did God one better and took up a position much farther away. Even when comforted by Moses, that meekest of prophets, they remained at a distance. They knew, in the thunder and lightning, the trumpet blast and the mountain smoking, that God's commandments were not simply the manifest principles of moral action evident to the natural light of reason. They were these, of course; the sons of Jacob knew the wrongness of murder long before the Exodus. Now, however, they knew the depth of these dictates, that what was right and wrong was rooted in a profound, deep, personal, holy and majestic truth, in the very being of God almighty. It was with this awareness that the Israelites stepped back even farther. They wanted to be sure not to offend a God as holy as the Lord God.

So, too, did their sons step back, if figuratively, and take a position at a greater distance around all of the things of the Law. God decreed a rightful and religious attention to what was eaten, and to honor that majestic God on Sinai, no longer visible to instill fear, the Jewish people hedged their food with the washing of hands. God had decreed a unique and total dedication to him by those who served in his Temple, and so his people drew back a greater distance and removed all gifts to the sons of Levi from narrow, family interests and devoted them to the Lord's worship. In itself, none of this comes from malice. If from fear, then surely in part a holy fear. The Jewish people of old knew that the memory of God's majesty on Sinai might fade, but the need to honor the holiness of the Law remained constant. Indeed, apart from some special reminders, some indicators of holiness, it would be all too easy to treat the things of God with disrespect, as no better than the trivial matters of our lives.

We, of course, do the same. When we dress up for church, when we make our acts of preparation for Communion and for thanksgiving after Mass, when we do any of those many things to ready ourselves for the holy things of God, we do so out of fear. We fear because we know ourselves too well. We know that without these hedges, without these fences, we will stumble aimlessly and carelessly, and like the blind man guided by the blind, fall into a pit we might have avoided.

Even so, we run the same risk as those first to hear the word of God. We Christians are not immune from sharp looks or silent reproaches. We roll our eyes and shake our heads at the all-too-casually dressed churchgoer, the young man with the shirt emblazoned with a message or questionable taste or the young woman willing to reveal more than modesty might suggest. We grind our teeth and clench our rosaries over the commonplace banter in the pew before Mass or the raucous greetings and planning for brunch as the the priest has cleared the sanctuary. So worried are we about the cutting down of our hedges that we forget that what we really longed for was the field on the other side. So put out of sorts at our interrupted preparation, we forget that God will be as happy to receive us ill prepared and a little out of sorts as calmly disposed. Indeed, we will find his countenance altogether terrifying if we approach it with calm and reserve, only at the cost of charity towards our neighbor.

Ought we to fear the things of the Lord with the holy fear? Of course we must. Let us guard ourselves, though, lest by taking a safer position much farther away, we draw so far as to miss him and those whom he loves altogether.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Low in the grave he lay ...

For my few and loyal readers, fear not. I have not been taken from this world just yet. I have, however, been buried beneath a mountain of my own making, viz. midsemester is upon me and my many assignments for my students have come due. This means, of course, that I need to read and grade them. I'll be back to posting more of my preaching as soon as I am able!

Thank you for your patience.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Thursday, First Week in Lent

Ezechiel 18:1-9 / Matthew 15:21-28

As a rule, no one likes to be stereotyped. No one wants to be treated in accord with some aggregate picture, some broader sense of what people like oneself have done or do. We are our own persons. To be sure, we did not come from nowhere, did not spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. We admit that much of who we are, what we dislike and what we desire, what we know and of what we are ignorant, our temperament and our humor, is due far more to someone else than to ourselves. Even so, we insist at the least that we be lauded for our own accomplishments and suffer only for our own faults.

God, it would seem, holds rather the same view. He rejects, after all, the old Israelite proverb: The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the teeth of the children are set on edge. He will have his people know that the virtue of the father is no successful refuge for the wickedness of the son, and the infidelity of a generation past casts no shadow on the faithfulness of the one present. Behold all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so the soul of the son is mine; the soul that sins, the same shall die. And if a man be just and do judgment and justice ... he shall surely live.

This is why our Lord's response, indeed his initial refusal to respond, to the Canaanite woman seems so troubling. Granted, she was a Canaanite, and thus a pagan. Indeed, the cult of Tyre and Sidon, if the records of the Scriptures as well as the Romans who warred against their kin in Carthage are reliable, was a paganism of an especially hateful sort, imagining that Baal, their Lord, desired the burnt offerings of their children in exchange for success and prosperity, and they were all too willing to fulfill that desire. Granted, as our Lord says, his mission was to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Even so, what has this woman done to deserve the Lord's rejection? What reason do we have to believe that her plea is anything other than it presents itself to be, the desperate cry of a mother for the liberation of her child from one of the spiritual enemies of mankind, a servant of the Evil One? Why must she bear the burden of her own people's history of cruelty and seduction, of killing and then leading astray God's elect? Are not her deeds and her sins hers alone? Even if hers, what of her daughter?

Behind every one of the Lord's miracles, teaches the Angelic Doctor, is a two-fold goal: to confirm the truth of the Lord's teaching and to manifest his divinity. It would have been all too easy for the Canaanite woman to return to her old, false, and ultimately fatal conception of God had her appeal been heard from the first. For her, Jesus was a wonderworker, if nonetheless a Jewish wonderworker. However, for her to call him Lord may easily have elided into her native word Baal, and so have left her ultimately ignorant of the One upon whom she called for help. She might, that is, have been confirmed in a confidence not in the One, true God who had chosen the people of Israel above all other nations to be peculiarly his own, but in the baalim of Tyre and Sidon. What would one more spiritual power be among so many? The Canaanite woman needed to learn that it was not some generic divinity to whom she was making appeal, not one spiritual power which just happened to be both available and reliable, but the Lord God of Hosts who had given his holy Law and the Land with its Temple to his people Israel. She needed to move from the cure she sought for her daughter to that deeper source of life which alone would free her from all her troubles and the wiles of the Evil One. It was only in realizing the radical insufficiency of her native cult, worthy not of children but of dogs, that Christ's healing would do what it was most intended to do, direct her and her daughter to recognize the one true God and himself as the one whom he has sent into the world.

We Christians, of course, worship God in spirit and in truth. We need not fear worshipping false gods in the same manner as the Canaanite woman. Yet, we can all too easily make any number of demands of God without wondering how the fulfillment of such requests may possibly draw us not closer to, but further away from, our true end in Christ. We may protest, like the Canaanite woman, that our plea is just and good, and indeed in the end it may be. Still, the truth is that our hearts are often wandering, and it is only in the Holy One of Israel that we will ever receive what we truly desire. When our petitions seem to have fallen on deaf ears, this is perhaps a sobering reminder. If we had received the boon we seek, would we in fact have known God any better?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Monday, First Week in Lent

Ezechiel 34:11-16 / Matthew 25:31-46

We have all surely faced the dilemma. Someone stops us as we are walking along the street. We saw her, shabby and unkempt, and had silently hoped that perhaps this time we might walk by unnoticed, unmolested. But, there she is, right before us. She tells us an unbelievable story. That is, quite strictly, we cannot believe it. We cannot even make our minds settle on the fact that it might be so. She has asked us for money, and she has lied. Of this we are certain.

Now the mind starts to spin. On the one hand, we see her need. Whatever the falsehood of her story, however the details have been spun, and spun they have been, to ensnare our attention and our hearts, we know that she may well pass the day without enough to eat and quite possibly without shelter. We may even suspect that, in search of these, she will be willing to offer far more of herself than a tall tale. The need is there. We cannot alleviate it entirely, but we are not altogether deprived of means to help her, here and now.

Then our mind spins the other way. We know full well that our paltry assistance will not be the good this woman really and truly needs. To sustain her for another day in this fashion may well be to keep her trapped in a cycle of misery. We know of social agencies, services of the Church and the state which can supply aid, and better aid than we can. These are people who know what they are doing, who know how to help. These people would know how to parse out where her need is true and demands attention and where her need is fictive and requires a firm refusal. They would not be troubled, as we are, by the nagging thought that the money given would go not to feed the stomach and water a thirsty tongue, but perhaps to drink of a more potent but less helpful sort, or inhaled in smoke, or shot directly in the arm. They know these things as we do not.

Yet, what is chilling about the parable of the sheep and the goats in the Gospel is that neither the sheep invited to take possession of the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world nor the goats consigned to the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels actually seemed to know what they were doing. The blessed of the Son of Man, those who had supplied him the works of mercy in his body, in the lest of his brethren, had no idea that they were serving the King of Kings. Neither, it seems, did the goats quite know they had rejected him. Had they known, they protest, it was the Son of Man, surely they would have shown him mercy. How were they to see in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick or imprisoned the Lord of glory if no one had told him he was there?

Jesus recalls us today that we do not need any specialized expertise to respond to the needs of our brothers and sisters. We do not need to be social workers, psychologists, economists, and addiction counselors all wrapped up in one package to do the works of Christ. To serve the Son of Man, to love him truly, means at least to love those whom he loves. It means to be moved deeply by those who are lost, the broken and the weak. It means also to delight in those who prosper. More than that, to love the Son of Man is to love those he loves precisely as he would, seeking the lost, binding the broken, strengthening the weak, and preserving the fat and strong. This we know how to do. This requires not advanced studies in the social sciences nor complicated calculations of monetary value. It requires only the eyes of love.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-9 / Matthew 5:43 - 6:4

Loose the bands of wickedness, undo the bundles that oppress, let those that are broken go free, and break asunder every burden

We might be inclined in light of the words of the Lord through the prophet Isaiah to rethink our classic Lenten fasting. In the scheme of things, is holding back from meat on Fridays really proportionate to crying needs in our world, as pressing today as they were for the prophets of old: Deal your bread to the hungry, and bring the needy and the harborless into your house: when you shall see one naked, cover him and despise not your own flesh. Indeed, God seems decidedly displeased with a weekly observance of fasting, giving preference to the works of justice for the poor. Is this such a fast as I have chosen, he asks, for a man to afflict his soul for a day? Does this mean that the progressive critique is right, and that our weekly Friday abstinence from flesh and fowl might be better replaced with a few hours volunteering at the local soup kitchen?

Perhaps, however, we need to attend a little closer to the labor, often hard, back-breaking labor, which brings food to our table. The relative ease so many of us have in acquiring more than our daily bread may easily blind us to the many people, some willing and happy to serve, others with little else by way of choice, who bring the food to our table. There are the workers at the market, of course, who shelve and sell us the food, the drivers and engineers and even captains who haul the food distances great and small, across land, sea, and sky. Closer to the earth are the farmers, who plan, and toil, and wait, and rise early for a hard day, always dependent on those same forces which elude us as easily as our ancestors of old: the sun, the wind, the rain and snow. All of this labor goes into every bite we take, even if that bite is of an apple or a carrot, a potato or zucchini.

Consider, however, the deeper sacrifice made by our companions on the earth, fellow sharers in the covenant made by God after the Flood, on whom God causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall even as he does for the sons of Adam. I mean, of course, the beasts of the earth. From the dawn of human society, these creatures have labored for our good. They have given their wool and skins for our protection as well as our comfort and yielded their milk for our nourishment. They have placed their greater strength under our yokes to pull the plows that serve ultimately not their needs, but to serve their masters. Finally, for some of them, many of them, and in the present day, far more for every son or daughter of Noah than in any time past, they have spilled their blood and given their flesh for us to eat.

Has God delivered them into our hands? Indeed, he has, from the dawn of time. Has the covenant with Noah not also delivered them to us for food? Indeed it has, even if only because of the waywardness of the human heart and at the cost of seeing in the eyes of the beasts wariness, pain, and fear more than happiness and delight, which if irrational is no less deeply felt. We have it is true been given the beasts both to work to serve our needs, and even their very lives to serve us as we require. This is the end for which they were delivered into our hands, and we ought not to blush in asserting our dominion.

Yet, is not the quality of lordship judged at least as much in how it exercises restraint as in the extent that it makes it rights known? Do we not love a king all the more, admire his power and virtue, when he behaves with clemency than with assertions of privilege? Our tables are set with the sweat of our fellow men and the blood of gentle beasts, and such is the way of the world since the loss of Eden and the cleansing of the Flood. We have, in the passing of years become coarsened to the cries of both. If we would learn to be merciful, truly merciful, with that same bounty as our Father in heaven, who makes His sun to rise on the good and the evil, and sends rain on the just and the unjust, then we must learn through an application of that mercy to those who cannot in any way speak for themselves and who are altogether under our dominion and subject to our power.

If only once every week, can we not afford a clemency for the beasts, our sharers in the covenant, who have labored so much for our good? Can we not, in our fasting, declare a general amnesty for the beasts and birds of our farmlands? Dare we to hope that in drawing back from what we can rightly and without fear of retribution claim as our own, we might grow closer to that love by which God bids us to love even our enemies and those who hate us? Might we not dream that this small act of kindness to the beasts of the earth will be echoed from the vaults of heaven? Then shall you call, and the Lord shall hear; you shall cry, and He shall say: Here I am. For I the Lord your God am merciful.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 38:1-6 / Matthew 8:5-13

As a general practice, one should not judge the quality of another's confession. We may be our brother's keeper, but we are not his copy editor or speech writer for his most humble and abject moments before the Lord. Even so, one cannot help but find something off-putting about King Hezekiah's appeal to God when confronted in his illness by Isaiah the prophet. I beseech you, O Lord, he says, remember how I have walked before you in truth, and with a perfect heart, and have done what is good in your sight. Now, there may be many ways to return to God after we have gone astray, but asserting one's perfection is not typically one of them, nor protesting one's own goodness before the majesty of God. Yet, for all that, God heard Hezekiah's prayers, and not only was the king delivered from his illness, but the great city was also delivered, not from sickness but from the ravages of the Assyrians.

What this suggests is that we have mistaken what true repentence is. The error is actually not to hard to see. In presuming that Hezekiah ought to have spoken a litany of grave sins, we are thinking that the essence of returning to God is in self-accusation. But, surely that cannot be so. Our sins, however dark, are not themselves the source of illumination, and many a misguided penitent has made himself worse by fixing his mind on the wretchedness, imagined or real, of his sinful life. Sins must certainly be acknowledged, and not simply generically, but in their full specificity, without either exaggeration or diminution. Yet, we see not only the way that sin is wrong, but more crucially the way from sin back to God, not in the gloom of our infidelity, but in the radiant light of God's fidelity.

This is what makes sense of Hezekiah's prayer. This pious king knew of the promises the Lord God had made to his people Israel, and to the line of David, should they keep to his covenant. In asserting how he had observed God's holy Law, how he had zealously and vigorously preserved the true faith against the continuing temptation to lapse into an easy idolatry in imitation of his neighbors, Hezekiah is giving witness to God's faithful promise to protect the kings of Judah and the people they ruled. Note that, having asserted his own fidelity, Hezekiah wept with great weeping. In appealing to the righteousness of God in keeping his promises, Hezekiah knew the profound insufficiency of his own goodness. No amount of pleading his personal piety would be sufficient cause to hope that he and his kingdom might be saved. It is only in light of his faith that God might remain true where even the truest of men goes false, only in that light that he could make his appeal.

This same recognition that our restoration in God comes from God's faithfulness and not our own righteousness is the great faith which Jesus commended in the centurion. The centurion, after all, admitted his own unworthiness to have Jesus come under his roof, but not especially because he saw himself a wretched sinner. It was in his profession of Jesus as one who has supreme authority that the centurion made both his appeal and his confession of unworthiness.

As Lent begins, we would do ourselves a favor to remember that God is not impressed by our self-loathing. Lent is not a season for gloomy and morose recitations of our vice before the almighty. Rather, Lent prompts us once again to remember God's unwavering fidelity to his promises, and he has promised us nothing less than to feast with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. We have been invited, and God never revokes his promises. As we recall our own string of broken promises, it is good to remember at the start that he to whom we turn is not fickle or false. I have heard your prayer, says the Lord to each penitent soul, and I have seen your tears ... and I will deliver you.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-19 / Matthew 6:16-21

It is once again Ash Wednesday, and the Catholic faithful will again confront that perennial question: Do we wash the ashes from our face or leave them on for the day? In North America, where the custom prevails of applying the ashes to the forehead in a visible cross of lesser or greater magnitude, the question cannot be avoided. To wash, or not to wash.

Many of the faithful cannot avoid something of a twinge of guilt on hearing the words of the Word Incarnate in the Gospel today: But you, when you do fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father, who is in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. Could there by any command, any dictum of the Lord clearer than this? Those who disfigure their faces in order to appear to men as fasting are hypocrites who have received their reward, and the implication is that it is not a reward any would willingly seek. It sounds with the solid thunder of a syllogism, its logic as inescapable as any demonstrative proof. Those fasting ought not to appear to be so, the visible wearing of ashes does make one appear to be fasting, therefore those fasting ought not to be seen wearing ashes on their forehead. QED.

This would all be compelling if it were not for the overtly public character of repentance demanded by God through the prophet Joel: Blow the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather together the people, sanctify the Church, assemble the ancients, gather together the little ones and those who suck at the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth from his bed and the bride out of her chamber. Between the porch and the altar, the priests, the Lord's ministers, shall weep and shall say: Spare, O Lord, spare your people. This is no hidden fasting done in secret. This is no careful, private convocation, quickly erased by the judicious use of soap and towel, the discrete washing away of the signs of penitence as though nothing were different, everything just as normal. It is public, solemn, directed not only to the faithful within but to the whole world of unbelievers without: Why should they say among the nations: Where is their God?

There is of course a legitimate, indeed crucial, reason to worry about being too public in one's penitential disciplines. We engage the obsevances of Lent so that we might be converted, to restore ourselves to God, who has restored us to himself in Christ. To be concerned that others know of one's own fasting is fatally to miss the point. It means punishing the body and chastening the soul to be conformed to the world, and this is a failure on two counts. It is a failure spiritually since it is to Christ, and not the the fallen world, that we seek to be conformed. Yet, it is also a failure in worldly ways, since the sons of this age do not take kindly to those who refuse to revel in earthly delights. The publicly notorious penitent is an alien to God and the world alike, and has gained nothing for his trouble. He has received his reward.

All the same, there is another sort of worry, that we should try too hard to appear healthy and whole, self-controlled and self-sufficient, in no need of assistance, human or divine. The same logic which would confuse bleaching one's teeth with having them cleaned by the dentist, sweeping dirt under a rug instead of sweeping out the house, glib and clever answers in place of admissions of ignorance and the hard work of research, public shows of goodwill and solidarity rather than the honest if slow, painful, and difficult work of reconciliation — all of these can be just as deadly to the soul as a gross, public display a penitential viruosity. We gain nothing, and the world learns nothing, if confuse a desire to avoid vain glory with a different and all to common motive, the desire that no one should know our weakness, that no one should think we were in need of healing and conversion, that no one should doubt our own sufficient goodness and grace.

Only in a Church which can bravely and humbly show to the world its need for conversion and repentance can the healing grace of God serve as a sign to the world of the power of the Cross. Only in a frank display of our poverty and emptiness will the world learn of the abundance which flows from the Spirit to those reborn in the waters of life. This is why we wear our ashes in the presence of our coworkers, on the bus, in the market. We do not want a congratulation or reward. We do not seek anything for ourselves. Rather, we await the coming of Christ to save his people, and the glorious abundance his risen life will bring.

Behold I will send you corn and wine and oil, and you shall be filled with them: and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations, says the Lord almighty.