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.