Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tuesday, First Week of Lent

Isaiah 55:6-11 / Matthew 21:10-17

" ... so shall my word be, which shall go forth from my mouth. It shall not return to me void, but it shall do whatsoever I please and shall prosper in the things for which I sent it," says the Lord almighty.

There are words imagined from heaven which leave their hearers unchanged. At the end of the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien Klaatu delivers the people of the Earth a chilling message. The other peoples of space have witnessed the rise of the human race, and have taken note, with alarm, not only of the development of terrible weaponry, but also of their capacity for aggression and destruction. The alien races will not interfere in the affairs of Earth, he says, but should the human race try to export its conflicts and destruction to the stars, then the Earth itself will be destroyed for the safety of the other peoples in the universe. That said, Klaatu returns to his flying saucer and returns to the heavens. Whether the peoples of the Earth will now set aside their conflicts and join the other races of the heavens in peace or fall victim to their self-defensive retribution, the viewer cannot say for sure. Given the unhappy treatment of Klaatu during his stay on Earth, there is not much reason to hope.

We must not imagine that God speaks to us as another Klaatu. We do grave injustice to the power of God and the saving effect of his word is we see it simply as a cross between an aspirational command and a veiled threat. God's word come down from heaven does not leave it hearer unchanged, unaffected. The very command for the sinner to turn to God is already preceded by a softening of the heart so that the command can be heard. The exhortation to change one's thoughts is made good by an illumination of the mind that makes what otherwise seemed impossible appear now altogether, if wondrously, within reach. God does not utter his word in vain, does not demand and command, warn and threaten, where he has not already enabled the hearer to respond in freedom and power to do what he is bidden.

This is our Lenten hope, our hope that we can be free from what burdens us and from our many turnings aside from our pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem. God is near. He is as close as ever to make good our response to his saving appeals. Let us, then, return to the Lord, and he will have mercy on us, and to our God, for he is bountiful to forgive.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

First Sunday in Lent

2 Corinthians 6:1-10 / Matthew 4:1-11

Hunger, it has been said, is the greatest threat to health and life. More children die from starvation, directly or indirectly, some three out of every five deaths, than from any other cause. Said differently, by recent estimates, one child dies every five seconds, over six million every year, die as a result of starvation. Including adults, the figure is more sobering. Every second, someone in the world dies from lack of food, or complications arising from starvation, over thirty-six million each year. As true as it is that not by bread alone does man live, the absence of bread is surely an affliction. If we remain deaf to the cries of the hungry, if we draw back from aid to the poor nations of the world for what the world regards as "religious scruples" about contraception, abortion or sterilization, of the freedom of Christians to proclaim the Gospel without fear of reprisal, would it still be truly said that we give offense to no one or that our ministry may not be blamed?

The temptations of our Lord in the wilderness, while endured for our sake, are nonetheless not uniquely Christ's. We, in our pilgrimage on earth, in our own wanderings in the desert, face them as surely as the Israelites faced them and failed in their wanderings. We have before us, perhaps in our own cities, even in our own lives, but assuredly in the world as a whole, mouths that need to be fed while we have no evident, righteous means of feeding them. We, too, face the Adversary's offer, to make common cause with the world and its values, to compromise our single-hearted loyalty to God alone and to his good pleasure, demanding of us acquiescence or silence absent a prodigious display of divine power to convict the world and demonstrate the truth of our confession. The need is great, and the world seems equipped to offer us all the resources we need in abundance to heal the many, real outrages inflicted upon the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

We know we must refuse, but do we know why? We do ourselves no great favor by thinking that the Christian hope is simply that we must do good whatever may come, even to the point of permitting real and irreparable harm to fall upon our fellow men. No, Christ's victory over Satan came not from a Stoic allegiance to what is right and a steely dispassionate soul in face of the troubles of the world. Rather, his victory came because he was already full, full of a joy and bliss of which every partial, earthly joy, including every bite of food, is merely a foretaste. The vision of God, which Christ enjoyed and to which we are called, is not, in short, merely additive to the other goods we require or crave. It is not an invitation to a wonderful vacation which, however lovely, still leaves the rent and the utilities bills unpaid. It is the glorious and sovereign good which we have been seeking our whole lives, the possession of which stills all our yearning and fills the very least portion of our selves with an overflowing bliss and satiety. So wonderful is that life in the Triune God already inaugurated in us in Baptism, that even now, it remains unassailable even in the presence of great ills, of body-breaking and soul-stilling evils that assault us. In Paul's words, to be a Christian is to be as dying, and behold, we live, as chastised but not killed, as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, as poor yet enriching many, as having nothing yet possessing all things.

Keeping our eyes on the inexhaustible bounty we already possess in Christ, a bounty which is not lost even in the worst our bodies and souls can endure, what allure can the tawdry trinkets of the devil have over us?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

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

What do you call your parents? Not when introducing them to others, mind you, but when speaking to them face to face, talking on the phone, or writing a letter? If you are an English-speaker, there is a range of possibilities: Mother, Mom, Mommy, Mum, Father, Dad, Daddy, Pop or Pops. Odds are, however, that there are two options you do not take. Most people will not refer to their parents by their given, Christian name. In the same way, I know of no one who calls their parents Mr. N or Mrs. N.

Why not? If parents are related to us intimately, and we show the growth of intimacy in a relationship generally by familiarity, through the use of a given name rather than a title, would it not make more sense to address Tom or Connie than Mr. or Mrs. Thomas Wood? Or, if respect is due our elders, wouldn't the full title be preferred to the possibly functional, relational category, that is Mr. Wood over Dad or Father?

Our native intuitions, however, are correct here. We must never be so familiar with our parents that we forget who they are for us, that we owe them, in justice as much as in love, a level of respect granted to no one else in our life, the kind of foundational piety we owe only to our greatest benefactors — parents, nation, God. To be intimate with such as these is laudable, and with parents and God essential, but always an intimacy girt round with piety. To do otherwise is to fail to know, fail to honor, fail to love. While our respect should never hold those we love at bay, neither should it dull our real and necessary awareness of their goodness and the honor it demands of us.

In our Gospel, the centurion approaches Jesus, begs him the grace of healing for his servant, but bids him not to enter his house. Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum. This pagan, who is in crucial ways misguided about what it means to be divine, nonetheless knows that true divinity can be approached, must be approached. At the same time, he knows that one cannot be too familiar, too chummy with God. Entreating God's healing power is not like inviting a stranger for a beer at the corner bar. To know oneself and to know God means to recognize that there is a proper stance, a proper sense of respect, a matter of justice the centurion would know as Roman pietas, the pagan echo of Christian piety.

Chances are, we have fallen short one way or the other, been too familiar with God or held ourselves too far back. Neither will do, and both are destructive in the long run. This Lent, we can allow our every act of communion to be a healing of this breach of piety. Every time we are at Mass, we can hear from the lips of the priest, and perhaps of our own, but certainly in the lips of our heart, the protestation of the centurion: Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum. Having made our proper expression of piety, having honored the Lord who is worthier of better temples than we have made of our lives, we can then let him enter in. Then we will discover that in that hour our souls have been healed.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

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

Grant us, O Lord, to begin the exercises of our Christian warfare with holy fastings, that we who are to fight against the powers of darkness may be strengthened by the power of self-restraint: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

When first learning the game of chess, one tends to lose through two equally bad, but opposite strategies. On the one hand, the player might be too timid. He might be so worried about losing one of his pieces that he arranges them with the hopes that not one will be taken by his opponent. Of course, this is a losing gambit. There is no way to render one's piece immune to capture in chess. Moreover, too defensive a strategy will ironically give the opponent, the aggressor, an advantage. Since he cannot be prevented from taking your pieces, but because he is not threatened by any of them, he can bide his time and prepare for a final and irresistible assault on the king.

On the other hand, the player might be too aggressive. Enamored of he graceful sweep of the bishop, the nimble jump of the knight, the forceful assertion of the rook, or the terrible power of the queen, he places them in play early and often. Any chance to take a piece he will, only to find that the very pieces that had impressed him before can fall as easily to a pawn as any other. Too late he remembers that all of power of these pieces must be arranged to protect his own king as well. His unrestrained playing will leave his opponent too many occasions to take what was most precious, the very goal of the game.

As we begin our Lent, our holy Mother, the Church, reminds us that as in chess, so in the spiritual life, we can afford neither to be pacific towards our true enemies nor wanton and prodigal in using our strength. By taking upon our foreheads the ashes of the Ninevites, we enroll in the militia christiana, the Christian warfare. Our task is to fight and to gain ground, not to stay in place in the vain hope of protecting ourselves from loss. The decisive battle won by the cross of Jesus Christ does not preclude our making advances into hostile territory still occupied by enemy forces, those proud, greedy, lecherous, wrathful, gluttonous, envious and slothful parts of our souls.

By the same token, our Christian warfare is a long campaign meant to last a lifetime. Even over the course of the year, we do not strive collectively to make major advances save in these holy times of penitence. Nor do we do so all at once. We prepare ourselves in Septuagesimatide, and now we begin in earnest, but with slow, deliberate speed. We pace ourselves, and are strengthened by the power of self restraint.

Today we have made our opening. Perhaps a classic move, unsurprising but effective nonetheless. Perhaps we have committed to a less common but equally winning strategy. Or perhaps we have botched the opening a bit. Whatever the opening, we have a way to go, and the end game is far from sight. Without forgetting for a moment the task, the goal which draws us to the strife, we ought now to focus on the play at hand.

Look mercifully, O Lord, upon all who bow themselves before your majesty that such as have been refreshed by your divine gift may evermore be nourished by your heavenly aid.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Quinquagesima Sunday

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 / Luke 18:31-43

For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect has come, that which is imperfect will be done away with.

From the nineteenth century, there developed a widespread notion, still widely held by the public at large if generally rejected by professional historians, of historical progress. On this view, apart from occasional missteps or slides into barbarism and decay, the history of the human race can be seen as a march forward, as a taking one step in front of the other, bit by bit, a true progression. What was new and improved, according to the myth of progress, was always better, and so any demonstration that something had changed in any sense for the better was in and of itself a demonstration of progress as such.

This view was powerfully critiqued by the philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood. In his posthumously published but highly important book The Idea of History, Collingwood asserts, contra his peers, that historical progress is in fact rather rare, much rarer than people suppose. He asks his readers to imagine a fishing village. Now, suppose some industrious chap discovers a way to catch twice or five times as many fish as could be caught with the old method. Is this progress? Not necessarily. You see, much of the life of the village, how people spend their time, how they make use of their resources of food, what they do for leisure, and the like, were all bound up in the time it took to catch fish. If the new method is implemented and the fisherman work as they had before, they will catch more fish, perhaps even deplete the stock of fish, but in any even things will not be as they were before. Or, should they not desire to increase the food supply, they would then work half or a fifth the traditional time, but then what to do with the time that remains? Collingwood does not ask us to dislike the change; what he asserts is that for all the good of catching more fish, other goods, certain goods of economy and social organization, would be changed and perhaps lost. What seemed a clear case of progress turns out to be merely change, alteration. To be true progress, one would need a change which provided a good one did not have before without any loss of the goods already present.

This is why Paul's assertion that the perfect does away with the imperfect rings false, and even more than that, is less than comforting. We have, after all, been fooled so often in life by so-called improvements in our way of life, in our work or leisure, in our patterns of worship or our arrangements of social welfare. We have been fooled because what we thought was the perfect doing away with the imperfect ended up making our life more complicated, perhaps more sophisticated, but in the end not so much better as merely different, and much of what we value we found to be lost, even irrevocably so.

One imagines that it is something like this anxiety which clouded the understanding of Jesus' disciples. Jesus, who has been so successful in his ministry of preaching and healing, of liberating his people from the oppression of demons and the undue burden of human imaginings obscuring the Law, now tells of his being delivered over to the heathen, of his being mocked and spat upon, of being scourged and put to death. The promise of his rising, of his consummation of all things that have been written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man, does not seem to provide any comfort or clarity. What they hear and envision in the turning to Jerusalem is a change, an alteration, the real loss, perhaps irrevocably, of the goods they have known in Galilee.

But this is not the perfection Paul has in mind. Paul does not speak of perfection in the sense of the next, or even the final, best thing. He does not have in mind something or someone who supplants, supersedes, replaces and discards the goods we have known. The perfection Paul has in mind is that which perfects what it encounters, that which completes and consummates, the one who draws to fulness from the echoes, pledges and foretastes already present in what has been. The perfection of which Paul speaks, the perfection accomplished by charity, by the merciful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, is a perfection in which all is crowned and nothing is lost, save that false security that the partial and imperfect was the whole and the best.

Our life in God will have plenty of change and more alteration than we might prefer. Some of it may be the passing from difference to difference. Some may really and truly entail loss, but only of what was never meant to be ours nor conduce in the long run to our final flourishing. Our confidence, our hope in the Gospel, is that nothing that completes us, nothing that fulfills us, nothing that perfects us, will ever be lost to us in the love of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sexagesima Sunday

2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9 / Luke 8:4-15

I imagine that there is a time in the life of every child, at least every boy in the United States of America, at which he wishes he had super powers. Reared on the comic books, movies, and games directed his way, he delights in the thought that at some time, maybe soon, maybe right around the corner, he will discover that he has abilities far beyond those of mortal men. He will learn that his anxieties, his awkwardness, his seeming powerlessness in the face of those who would abuse him, comes only from the fact that he is different from his peers, and that through unseen and unappreciated excellence. If only one day, one day soon, he could finally fly through the air, see through walls, move objects with his mind, lift trucks with his bear hands, and repel buffets and blows as a steel wall repels the onslaught of a rubber ball — then he will be able to set things right, then his suffering, his being done to by the less than tender mercy of others, will be put to an end.

St Paul in his own way appears to harbor just such a vision of himself. Acknowledging the longsuffering endurance of the Christians of Corinth, he rhetorically thumbs his nose at those who would puff themselves up at his or his flock's expense. He is, he reminds them, just as qualified as those who were undermining the preaching of the apostles. He, too, is a Hebrew, a son of Abraham. They may be ministers of Christ, but he is far more than they are. He has suffered more for the Gospel, endured more at the hands of the enemies of the Good News, fell victim to the winds and storms of the sea in its service, and still be more fruitful in his apostolate than any other. More than that, he has a secret. If not a super power, he nonetheless has heard secret words that man may not repeat. He may not fly through the sky, but he has been caught up to the third heaven.

Yet, for all of that, Paul chooses to glory in his infirmities. It is not for his chosen lineage, nor his ministry, nor his suffering for that ministry in patience, nor even his hearing the secret counsels of heaven, that Paul will glory, but rather for the thorn for the flesh, a messenger of Satan, that was given to him. It is as though Superman rejoiced in kryptonite, Green Lantern in the color yellow. He glories in what makes his task harder, what may even prevent him from accomplishing what he hopes to accomplish in the service of Jesus Christ. This, his infirmity is his glory, because, as the Lord told him: My grace is sufficient for you, for strength is made perfect in weakness.

Do we trust our infirmities? When we cannot keep our attention on our work at hand, and so struggle to accomplish what we have set out to do, do we thank God? When our resources seem stretched beyond our needs, and it is then that we find the pressing call to spend — for the baby unexpected and newly conceived, for the new priory to house the brethren, for food and shelter for an island nation broken by the fragile fault lines of the world — do we rejoice there in God's bounty? Perhaps not, but Paul has directed us precisely to do so. As tempting as our childhood dreams of super powers, of the native or infused capacity to do what needs to be done, God has other things in mind. He wants to accomplish his will not through our ease, but through our difficulty, not in light of our abundance, but in light of our paucity. He wants the world to see in him what was the source of all of its plenty to begin with, in him the very root of the wealth and power it had foolishly imagined to be its own.

This week, the Church has turned us to make as our prayer an appeal to turn away from the desire to accomplish by native or donated powers what we ought to seek rather to come from God and his saints, to our joy and their glory. Today, let us make that prayer our own:

O God, you see that we do not trust in anything that we do of ourselves; mercifully grant that by the protection of the Doctor of the Gentiles we may be defended against all adversities.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Presentation of the Lord

Malachi 3:1-4 / Luke 2:22-32

No one from the English-speaking world with anything of an ear for music can hear the lessons for today's Mass and fail to hear them set in his own native tongue. Can one attend to the words of the prophet Malachi and not hear the melodies of George Frederick Handel in one's head? If less known among the Catholic faithful, will those musically sensitive not have a favorite setting of Simeon's canticle, the Nunc dimittis, from that most melodious of Gospels which brings us so many of the Church's songs — the Ave Maria, the Gloria in excelsis, the Benedictus, and the Magnificat?