Tuesday, November 30, 2010

St Andrew, Apostle

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

When was the last time you introduced someone to Jesus Christ?

In much of the world today, one would be hard pressed to consider mission or evangelization constitutive of Catholic Christianity. They are there of course; no one is willing to deny that. The global presence of the Catholic faith reminds all, believers and non-believers alike, that their sound hath gone into all the earth, and their words unto the end of the whole world. But to speak of a missionary, of bringing the name and news of the Cross of Jesus Christ to those who have never heard it before, to those who may think they know Jesus but have never been given the chance to hear him preached fully and well — these are not the images that come to mind when thinking about Catholicism. The Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, and in somewhat more subtle but no less insistent ways, evangelical Christians — all of these are well known for their missionary zeal, their willingness to endure shame, ridicule and rejection, for the sake of the name of the Lord. Roman Catholic, not so much.

I suppose one might be able to provide a whole array of explanations — sociological, historical, cultural — to account for this, but this would be to evade the issue rather than to confront it. St Paul is clear. Salvation is available to all people in Jesus Christ, not in race or lineage, not in scientific acumen or philosophical sophistication, for the Lord is rich unto all that call upon him and whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. However, as the Apostle reminds us, faith, then, cometh by hearing, and if by hearing, then from the lips of a preacher, and if from a preacher, then from one who has authorized his preaching and sent him forth. The authority to send we have in abundance, from the successors of the apostles, the apostles themselves in their Scriptural witness, and of course, at root, in God himself, through the sending of the Spirit of the Son into the members of the Son's body, that body prepared by the Father who sent his Son into the world for our salvation. Preachers may be fewer than we might like, but for those of us in the Christian and post-Christian West, not altogether difficult to find. But bringing people to hear? How often to we manage to do that?

The coming to faith, of course, is at root a work of God in us. That St Andrew, along with his brother Simon Peter, immediately left their nets at the appeal of Jesus, Come ye after me, cannot be explained as the result merely of a dispassionate and abstract process of testing hypotheses and yielding universally obtainable conclusions. Nor, on the other hand, was it an irrational leap into darkness, the crass and unreasoning acceptance as true of something for which one had no reasonable motive whatsoever. Andrew believed, Simon Peter believed, the sons of Zebedee believed, and we the faithful believed by hearing, but we could hear only by the word of Christ. To be able to hear in the proclamation of the Gospel not Iron Age fairy tales but the saving work of God required not simply the voice of a preacher, but the word of Christ already in the heart. As St Paul soberly reminds us, all do not obey the Gospel.

Even so, we cannot let the fact of the prevenience of Christ's word be an excuse to allow the coming to faith in others, or the growth of faith in ourselves, just to "happen" without anything else. While it may be true that no one whom God wills to come to him will fail to come to him, this will happen neither apart from nor regardless of what we do, but rather through and in the free works of his creatures. If our neighbors who do not believe have not heard the Gospel, have not heard a preacher who can speak past their now too frequently conditioned responses to privatize, relativize, or reject the faith, how much of this is because we have not taken to effort to invite them?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

First Sunday of Advent

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

There are many ways to divide the human race, but at least one of them is to distinguish what it takes to wake us up from sleep. For some of us, the divide between sleep and wakefulness is a nearly impenetrable barrier, and it calls for great and dramatic effort to leave the world of dreams. For such persons, being a wake is radically discontinuous with slumber, and only something in itself terrible and unavoidable — an intensely loud alarm clock, or the most vigorous shaking of a shoulder — can assist in the passage from the one to the other.

For the rest of us, wakefulness comes best when experienced as continuous with having been asleep. It is not that we cannot be awakened by a fierce alarm; rather, it is that we find such experiences jarring, and our subsequent morning, perhaps even much of the day, suffers because of it. No, such persons prefer something gentle, non-intrusive, and may even awake, regularly, without fail, but not needing any outside assistance.

This natural truth is no less true of our supernatural need to be awake to Jesus Christ's return, his coming in a cloud with great power and majesty. For some, only the most discontinuous events in life, disasters on a human, or even a global scale — signs in the sun and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves: men withering away for fear and expectation of what shall come upon the whole world —only these kinds of events will succeed at turning our minds away from our daily patterns to prepare in hope for Christ's happy, terrible return. For others, it is the gentler indications, the natural progression of the soul infused with grace from light to light, glory to glory, that almost passes unnoticed, the shoots of the fig tree by which we know that summer is nigh.

Whether we need something discontinuous and jarring or continuous and gentle, the crucial point is that we know we need to wake up. Whether light sleepers or heavy sleepers, whatever the accuracy or our internal clock, we all know that a late night of carousing, of dulling our minds, our ears, our bodies with stimulants far beyond their natural power to adjust, to remain in a facsimile of wakefulness far beyond the time our bodies have begged us to get some rest — this is sure to put into serious doubt whether we will succeed in waking up in time to make any use of the day at all. And as this is true for earthly life, again it remains all the more so for our spiritual waking to prepare for the world to come. Let us therefore walk honestly, as in the day, Paul reminds us, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy. We can so dull our spiritual ears, so exhaust our souls, that neither the clarion call of disaster nor the small but no less clear signs in the spiritual life will succeed in rousing our attention. We can, that is, be so bound up in either serving our pleasures or in conflict with those who oppose us, that we neglect to get out of our spiritual beds and do the real and difficult, even if joyful and hopeful work to prepare for the coming of the Savior.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Day of Prayer and Fasting for the Christians of Iraq

Please join the Order of Preachers in a day of prayer and fasting for the needs of the Christians of Iraq who continue to suffer brutally for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For more perspective on the recent massacre of Christians, watch the following: http://www.ankawa.org/vshare/view/2068/our-lady/

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Last Sunday after Pentecost

Colossians 1:9-14 / Matthew 24:13-25

Apocalyptic scenarios are popular material for novels and movies. The specific scenario is perhaps unimportant: zombie infestation, alien invasion, global nuclear exchange, emergent lethal viruses ... Whatever the cause, the scenario is more or less the same. In the face of some catastrophe, life as we know it, with all of its props and cues, all of its buttresses that direct our actions and (we hope) support and maintain our better instincts, has vanished from the face of the earth. Survival may just be possible, but in the end, life as we know it will end. In such a world, how would one live? When every option seems to end in the same place, a lonely and unobserved death, what choices will we make? We we continue to observe conventional pleasantries, rise to new heights of heroic virtue, or descend to unforeseen levels of depravity? We we abandon all we know to be right to protect the little remaining that we hold dear, or do we, even in the face of a grim and inevitable death, hold ourselves to a higher, holier, hopeful standard?

Such are the questions of the standard, contemporary apocalyptic genre, and there may be much to gain in this sort of mental exercise. However, in the Gospel, Jesus presents what at first glance appears to be this same scenario, but on closer observation turns out to be something quite different. He speaks of a time of great tribulation, so severe that, on its own terms and without being called short by divine mercy for the elect, no flesh should be saved from the horror. He speaks of a terrestrial, indeed a cosmic upheaval, when the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven shall be moved. What seemed the immovable and inflexible laws of nature binding the universe together will unravel.

All the same, he also speaks of an upheaval during which there will seem to be meaningful alternatives for survival. Jesus may counsel flight to the mountains or remaining on the rooftop, but staying in the towns and going down for one's coat will apparently seem attractive possibilities. More crucially, it will be a time when, in the place of the Temple, which is to say in place of the clear, unambiguous, abiding sign of God's covenant and presence in and to the world, there will be the abomination of desolation. What looked secure in the spiritual world will be taken away, apparently never to return. In light of this absence of what seemed secure and lasting, voices will suggest that the Christ may still be found, but not where we were thinking him to be. They will ask us to broaden our horizons, to look past the narrow limits of our received faith, of the Scriptures and Tradition, and find Christ waiting for us in the desert or in the closets, that is, either outside the received faith or else within our own imaginings without reference to what we have received from others. What is more, Christ warns us that, in those days when the sure, stable, traditional signs of the faith have gone missing, these temptations to find Christ elsewhere will be such as to deceive (if possible) even the elect.

We may find it easy to imagine a world so broken, a world in which most of our choices have been taken away from us, and in that world to do what is right, even heroically so. But what do we do in a broken world that seems to go on and on, but in which the signs of Christ's presence are more and more replaced by abominations of desolation, when false Christs are more and more abundant?

Tempting as it may be to grit our teeth and prepare for fierce battle, our God has given us different marching orders. After all, he has already won the fight and through his transforming grace given to us at baptism and strengthened in the Eucharist hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us int the kingdom of the Son of His love. Our duty, then, is to live in accord with that new world of which we are already a part. We are to be filled with knowledge of God, to walk in a way worthy of him, being fruitful in good works and suffering with joy the injuries we receive. This is why we do not have to face the apocalyptic scenario with either despair or with grim determination. We have been freed through the blood of Christ from those unhappy options and delivered already to the safety of the world to come.

Be gracious, O Lord, to our humble entreaties: receive the offerings and prayers of Thy people, and turn to Thyself the hearts of us all; and thus freed from earthly covetings, may we be caught by heavenly desires.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

25th Sunday after Pentecost (resumed 6th Sunday after Epiphany)

1 Thessalonians 1:2-10 / Matthew 13:31-35

In his spiritual autobiography Nearer my God, William F. Buckley, Jr., noted that most historically Protestant preparatory schools in New England now tend to treat the word Christianity the way the Victorians treated the word syphilis, although, he noted, Victorians seemed more likely to catch syphilis than modern students at said prep schools were likely to catch Christianity. Many Christians take offense at the more secularized elements of our society treating the Christian faith as though it were some sort of infection which any reasonable society would make the effort to quarantine and isolate, if not eliminate, so as to protect the general public. "The Christian faith," they want to say, "is not an infectious disease. You don't just 'catch' it."

However, to the extent that Christians do live in accord with the new life in Christ given to them in baptism, and by the power of the Spirit, the faith should be infectious. This is, after all, precisely what St Paul commended of the people of Thessalonica. On Paul's view, the Thessalonians had come to embrace the Gospel by having come to know what manner of men Paul and his companions had been among them for their sakes. Moreover, the people of Macedonia and Achaia, and indeed in every place, had come to believe in the Gospel, not so much by Paul's preaching, but by the infectious influence of the Thessalonians' pattern of life, even as the Thessalonians had caught the Gospel, so to speak, from the infectious influence of Paul's pattern of living.

We should, of course, not find this at all surprising. Our Lord himself had assured us that the kingdom of heaven, even from the smallest beginning, is capable of transforming, by even the most minimal contact, all with which it is associated. The kingdom of heaven is like to leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, until the whole was leavened. Until the whole was leavened. Note that Jesus did not insist that there should be a sufficiently large proportion of leaven to transform the whole. On the other hand, he did not assert that a small remnant, remaining ever small and without influence on the whole, was all that he desired. Rather, the smallest bit of leaven, while remaining active and true to itself, is sufficient to transform everything else, so that all might be leavened.

In short, the Christian faith is supposed to be contagious, and to the extent that the forces of secularism fear that contact with us might lead to the spread of the faith, their fear is altogether justified. The faith, rightly and unapologetically lived, is likely to make those who encounter it come to believe. To the extent that our neighbors continue to disbelieve, we might well want to ask ourselves why they have not 'caught' the faith. We might choose to lay the blame at their feet, and perhaps we would be right. Then again, we might wonder whether or to what extent we have become followers of the Lord, receiving his word with joy of the Holy Ghost. Might the lingering, if not growing, presence of unbelief be less a cause to shake our fist at a hostile world than to reassess our own public commitment to the pattern of life we have received in Jesus Christ?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

24th Sunday after Pentecost (resumed 5th Sunday after Epiphany)

Colossians 3:12-17 / Matthew 13:24-30

"Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? Whence then hath it cockle?"

 A professor I know (whose name I intend to leave charitably to the side) asserted that there was no basis on which elements of culture could be excluded from the celebration of the liturgy. On her view, any attempt, historical or present, to refuse the inclusion of any cultural idiom or any indigenous understanding of God and the divine was cultural imperialism of the worst sort. Such a move, she argued, would undo what she took to be the Spirit-led and divinely sanctioned call for a full inculturation of the Gospel.

One student in the class, less than certain that the professor actually meant what she had said in such absolute terms, posed the following question: "If true inculturation of worship demands the acceptance of all indigenous norms of conceptualizing the divine, then would a proper inculturation of the Gospel of the Aztecs have allowed for bloody, human sacrifice as part of the Mass?" The student was certain the professor would deny the suggestion, and in so doing clarify her position. Strangely, and inexplicably, she did not, and found herself unable to state, without ambiguity, that human sacrifice has no part in Christian worship.

On another occasion, the same professor asserted that she held no theological position as absolutely ruled out by the Gospel, and declared a willingness to allow any position a place at the theological table. Again, someone who heard this claim spoke up and asked, certain he had mistook her position, whether she would seriously entertain celebrating a National Socialist themed Eucharist. Once again, strangely, and inexplicably, the professor refused in principle to say, without ambiguity, that Nazism and the Gospel were incompatible.

Sadly, this professor is not alone. I have no doubt that she, and the many like her, regards human sacrifice and Hitlerite ideology as abhorrent. I have no fear that she actually would live out the position she is twisting her mind and her words to defend. Moreover, I suspect it is an unhappy reading of the parable of the wheat and the tares that fuels her confusion, and the confusion of many in our world. On a certain reading of the parable, the key problem faced by the servants of the goodman of the house was ignorance. Quite simply, because they did not, and indeed could not, tell the difference between wheat and cockle, they were to leave all judgment to the harvest time. Understood this way, only at the eschatological horizon is any distinction between truth and falsehood possible, and thus even what seems obviously needing to be rooted out, the servants' request Wilt thou that we go and gather it up?, is found to be misguided, and indeed dangerous.

As with most unhappy readings of scripture, there is much that is true in this perspective. It is certainly the case that, prior to harvest time, wheat and cockles look amazingly alike. Only a keen eye could tell one from the other, and even then with inevitable error. Indeed, the parable depends precisely on this fact. Also, it is certainly true that real harm has historically been done in trying to determine with rather too coarse a grain what and who is, and what and who is not in accord with the Gospel. The goodman's appeal for patience — No, lest perhaps, gathering up the cockle, you root up the wheat also together with it — and tolerance — Suffer both to grow until the harvest — have perhaps been less well heeded in the past and present than would be desired.

However, what the professor's view, and we might well say the all-too-prevalent permissive view of many Christians today, fails to note is that the parable is not uniquely, or even principally about our inability to distinguish wheat from cockles, right from wrong, orthodoxy from heresy. On the contrary, the parable depends as much on the fact that we can and do know the difference! After all, the servants are aware, as is the goodman, even well before the harvest, that not everything in the field is wheat, that an enemy came and oversowed cockle among the wheat. Moreover, the goodman does not criticize the servants' zeal to separate the wheat from the tares. Indeed, he shares the same desire. What is more, he will depend on their ability to know one from the other, to value the one and reject the other, at the time of harvest. Gather up first the cockle and bind it into bundles to burn, but the wheat gather ye into my barn.

So what to do in the meantime? Do we allow the false teachers and false living masquerading as the Catholic faith go unopposed, rooted and sown among the faithful? On the other hand, must we not stay our hand for fear that we root out what in our zeal we took to be cockles, only to find that, unlike our gentle Lord, we have broken the bruised reed, torn up the fragile shaft of wheat?

While there is no simple answer, it is helpful to recall that the servants, the reapers of the parable are not the faithful men and women of the Church, but the angels. Theirs is the task of staying their hand, theirs the glorious burden of enacting God's judgment on that awful and tremendous Day. Our task, our obligation in the present, is to be wheat. That is, we serve the Lord not as reapers, sifting wheat from tares, storing the one in the barn and burning the other with unquenchable fire, but rather as being worthy of the harvest, being bountiful in charity, which is the bond of perfection. Our duty is to be thankful, lettinh the word of Christ dwell in us abundantly, in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual canticles, singing in grace in your hearts to God.

This is our happy task, our blessed burden, to grow daily more abundant in the graces sown in our hearts by the love of Jesus Christ, in great things and in small. All whatsoever you do in word or work, do all in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God and the Father by Jesus Christ our Lord.