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.