Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thursday of the Third Week in Lent

Jeremiah 7:1-7 / Luke 4:38-44

We want and expect the most crucial aspects of life always to be available. We trust that, apart from cloudy days, the sun will shine and warm us. If we live in a modernized society, we imagine that light switches will work, that electrical outlets will power our tools, that water we use for drinking or washing will be clean and safe. So long as disaster has not taken hold of us, we do not worry whether food will be on the shelves at the supermarket, however much we may fret over the money in our accounts. In short, the basics of life, that without which will necessarily compromise human dignity, we rely on being and remaining present for our use, whether we attend to it or not.

In this we are, of course, deceived, and much of what is crucial to our lives is not, simply by its nature, always and easily to be had. This deception about our earthly and bodily needs is also likely to bleed over into spiritual presumption. We can think that God will always be with us in reliable and predictable ways, like water from the tap or light from a lamp. However, we have been warned through the prophet Jeremiah — Trust not in lying words, saying: The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, it is the temple of the Lord. The presence of the Lord with he people, he reminds us, depends greatly on Israel's response, that it order well its ways and its doings. As the Lord promises, if his people should treat their neighbors with justice and reject false worship, and only then, will God dwell with them in their land.

Jesus likewise must warn the people in Galilee. Hearing of his cure of Simon's mother-in-law, starting even at sunset, the people came in throngs seeking cures from the divers diseases which afflicted them and the devils that had invaded their lives. Having Jesus with them was a great boon, a sign that God was indeed in their midst, and they did not want to see that it should come to an end. How could it? How could God, who loved them so, allow Jesus to depart from them, and with him their access to his healing touch. And when it was day, going out He went into a desert place: and the multitudes sought Him, and came unto Him: and they stayed Him that He should not depart from them. To whom He said: To other cities also I must preach the kingdom of God: for therefore am I sent.

In all of this, we can of course be sure that none whom God wills to come to him, none of his elect chosen from before the foundation of the world, will be lost, and no good which God wills to come to us will fail to do so. It is not as though our waywardness can or will thwart the hidden and everlasting counsels of the Almighty. Nonetheless, neither must we organize our lives as though the consolations we have received from Jesus Christ, the healings or providentially and abundantly answered prayers, are themselves that for which he has come into our lives. God dwelled in his temple, and the Word was made flesh, not to meet our expectations, but rather to transform us to be one in him.

That he might do so through healing or deliverance from an affliction is certainly possible. That everyone who has been consoled will always have the same consolation on demand is, however, to be denied. Even more to be warned against is the presumption that, having received once the conversion of heart to receive the Gospel, having been made a temple of the Holy Spirit, we can proclaim of ourselves, regardless of our love of God and neighbor: The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, it is the temple of the Lord. God is here to save, to build up his kingdom, and that the kingdom will come we need have no fear or doubt. Can we trust, when our consolations cease, that as we remain true to him and his Gospel, our Lord Jesus Christ will abide with us from the beginning and for evermore?

May Thy heavenly mercy increase the number of Thy people who serve Thee, O Lord, we beseech Thee: and make them ever obedient to Thy commandments.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wednesday of the Third Week in Lent

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

We place a high value on creativity and originality. From our childhood, we are both encouraged to find, and within ourselves long to discover, what sets us apart from everyone else. It is not just that we want to excel or that we want to be better at everyone else in something. We might want that, but many are happy not to be the best, or even among the best, in what they value most. Rather, what is more important is that there should be something that comes from us, that is our individual and unique contribution to the world.

Where there is much that is good and true about this view, it can and has had unhappy consequences in the spiritual life. Specifically, from the desire to present and pass on to the world principally what comes uniquely from ourselves, there arises the temptation to augment, diminish, or otherwise alter the public revelation received from God, modified to match what we take to be our own private insights. This temptation is old, and coincides with God's public revelation of the Law on Sinai with the rebellion in setting up worship of the Golden Calf, and it continues to the present day with a dizzying array of sects and self-published contributions to how God ought to have made his will known.

For some, this temptation may take the form of a fear that the revelation, on its own, is unconvincing, or in need of supplementation to be rightly received. This appears to have been the fear of the Pharisees who worried that the disciples of Jesus transgress the tradition of the ancients since they wash not their hands when they eat bread. Jesus sees through their fear to locate as well their pride. Why do you transgress the commandment of God for your tradition? he asks them, noting their failure to uphold what is clear in the Law — Honor thy father and thy mother — while likewise failing to see that uncleanness comes not from food, but from the heart ... But to eat with unwashed hands doth not defile a man. For Jesus, the symptom is clear and culpable, whatever the origin: This people honoreth Me with their lips: but their heart is far from Me. And in vain do they worship Me, teaching doctrines and commandments of men.

Yet, others may depart from passing on the public revelation not for fear that the Law will be lost, but that they themselves will be erased, blotted out, outshone by the Word of God. Under the weight of the glory of God's Law, is there any hope that a mere creature of flesh and blood, formed of the dust of the earth, can stand? Even those who accept with earnest sincerity what was revealed in the voices, and the flames, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mount smoking on Sinai through Moses, what was confirmed by Jesus himself, might worry that universal and unambiguous obedience and docility to the whole of God's revelation will necessarily mean an unbearable sameness among God's people? Without my special spin, my unique insight, my unanticipated contribution, will there be anything left of me when I have received the Law and passed it on?

Our fears here are, however, altogether mistaken. It is error and rebellion, not obedience and docility, that is intolerably monotonous. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any heresy or human pretension to profound insight about God and the world that has not been repeated over and over across the generations with dull regularity. God's majestic revelation, on the other hand, is fruitful in surprising ways. The same Law, after all, gives us both Moses and David, both Esther and Daniel. As fulfilled in Christ, is produces both Peter and Paul, the irascibility of Jerome and the sweetness of Francis de Sales, the fierce publicity of Joan of Arc and the quiet seclusion of Thérèse de Lisieux. The majesty of the Law is not such that it blots out what is true in us, but that in the dizzying array of innumerable right responses to the Law, something of the unfathomable bounty of God might be shown. If its glory causes us to tremble, this is only to remind us that God is come to prove us, and that the dread of Him might be in us, and we should not sin.

Yet, because this revelation is a public gift, and not merely a matter of each person divining his own version or crafting his own proposal, we have the greatest of obligations to pass it on whole and entire, without addition or subtraction. We do so in our teaching, of course, and even more so in the kinds of lives we lead: lives of moral uprightness, to be sure, and lives marked by wisdom as well. Moreover, we especially hand on the Law in its fullness through our joy, the joy that comes from knowing a Lord who has come so close to us to reveal to us his Word — the Word revealed in fire and a dark cloud on Sinai, but more gloriously and profoundly in the Word we receive at the altar, the Word into whose likeness we are formed more and more by grace in the Spirit, the Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Grant, we beseech Thee, O almighty God: that we who seek the grace of Thy protection, may be freed from all evils and serve Thee with a quiet mind.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tuesday of the Third Week in Lent

4 Kings 4:1-7 / Matthew 18:15-22

What do we imagine to be at center stage? In theater, and by analogy in film or literature or the visual or plastic arts, there is no necessity that what is most prominent is what would be necessarily the most public. We are accustomed to hearing monologues or soliloquies that are meant to occur in the privacy of a character's own room, or even the privacy of his own heart. We are invited in literature into the intimate conversations of friendship, whether tender or tense, far from the prying eyes of the rest of the public in that literary world. Paintings can as frequently show us scenes of domestic joy and triumph as they can the pomp and display of manifestly public persons.

Do we imagine that such scenes, such images, give us a true or a false picture of the way things are? We might at first want to complain that these are false, that a neutral, third-party perspective would never notice them and would pay them no heed. Still, is there a view, that succeeds in being anyone viewing, from a neutral vantage point? Are not all visions perspectival, and this knowingly placing something in the foreground, other things at the periphery? Indeed, since we confess that the grounding of all reality is personal, the tripersonal being of the Holy Trinity, then ought we not to be suspicious of claims to see things from a public, neutral, impersonal view?

God means to correct our gaze, and he has turned us away from the public to the intimate not merely for our humility or to avoid showy displays of power, though these too may be among his reasons. However, at the heart of Jesus' continuous appeal to pray, consult, and reconcile in private, is an assertion of this fundamental truth, that reality is at its core personal, indeed interpersonal, and it is thus at the interpersonal level that God most lovingly casts his gaze. This is why Elisha directed the debtor widow at risk of losing her sons to experience the miraculous multiplication of oil not in public view — And go in, and shut thy door, when thou are within and thy sons: and pour out thereof  into all those vessels: and when they are full take them away. This is also why Jesus directs discipline and correction in the Church to occur normatively not in the open court of the assembly, but between the brethren in private conversation — If thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother. And if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may stand. However public the consequences of these actions may be — the widow paying off her creditor and living off the remaining oil, the brethren either reconciled or tragically the recalcitrant party dismissed from the assembly Church as the heathen and publican — the core, what is most crucial, is to happen where we speak and are spoken to, where we hear and are heard, where we see and are seen, at the most personal level.

Our Lord Jesus Christ wills the restoration not of impersonal collectives, but rather of persons gathered together into community, as one, interpersonal body joined to the person of the Head. Let us attend, then, not to our public selves nor waste our energy worrying so much about what it manifest, when the hard work we have to do, the working out by the Spirit of our salvation, is no more distant than our neighbor next door.

Defend us, O Lord, by Thy protection: and ever keep us from all wickedness.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Monday of the Third Week in Lent

4 Kings 5:1-15 / Luke 4:23-30

Among the objections hurled these days against revealed religion, and against Christianity in particular, two are especially prominent. The first is that the Christian faith, if true, should be available everywhere equally by everyone. Said differently, what worries these objectors is that the faith is too bound up in particulars, passed on in a specific set of texts and practices arising from the Bronze and Iron Ages through a determined means of transmission and reception, i.e. the Church. That only some people should have access to and be beneficiaries of what claims to be a universal vocation would, for the naysayers, count against the truth of the Christian faith.

The second objection is that the faith, if true, ought to be undeniably manifest. Like universal gravitation or the light of the sun, such objectors balk at the suggestion that God might work in indirect ways, and without the regularity of a testable law capable of independent and repeated confirmation in controlled experiment. If there were a God who wanted to be acknowledged by all peoples, the ease with which he can be denied counts for these objectors as a clear argument against the plausibility of Christian truth.

While these latter day unbelievers might flatter themselves that their concerns arise from a more advanced perspective due to the advent of the modern scientific method, these objections can be seen in those very Bronze Age texts the naysayers disdain. The Syrian general Naaman in particular exemplifies both of these objections. He is clearly offended by the particularity of Elisha's plan for healing him of leprosy. Why, he wonders, must he wash himself in the waters of the Jordan? Are not the Abana, and the Pharphar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel, that I may wash in them, and be made clean? Furthermore, although he does not voice the objection, he might well wonder why he must wash seven times, and not some other number, more or less. The very specificity of the place and mode of the cure, however simple and easily accomplished, offend the cultured despiser from Syria.

Nor is this Naaman's only objection. While some of his concern may stem from wounded pride, Naaman found it especially galling that the cure proffered by Elisha was announced indirectly, through a messenger, without any direct contact with the prophet himself. I thought he would have come out to me, and standing would have invoked the name of the Lord his God, and touched with his hand the place of the leprosy, and healed me. The great general worries, and is indeed made angry, that a healing from the God of Israel should be so hidden and unpretentious, so devoid of obvious marks of divinity, so possible to deny to be the work of the prophet, much less of God himself.

What offended this foreigner would, in a similar way, offend those who heard the preaching of Jesus. When Jesus was challenged to work wonders in his homeland — as great things as we have heard done in Capharnaum, do also here in Thine own country — he reminds them instead of what might seem potentially worrisome stories. He speaks of the feeding of the widow of Zarephath in Sidon by the prophet Elijah, while the widows of Israel went hungry, and of the cleansing of Naaman, a Syrian, of his leprosy, while the lepers of Israel remained afflicted and unclean. The crowd, perhaps understandably, grows angry and seeks not merely to drive him out of town, but to kill him by hurling him over the brow of the hill whereon their city was built; the people of Israel in the time of Elijah and Elisha were infamous in Biblical history for having forsaken the way of the Lord, and that Jesus should compare his old neighbors of such infidelity is rather too much to bear. Yet, one wonders also at the offense it suggests in the very particular and limited exercise of mercy Jesus reminds his hearers to be recorded of the Lord God. That God should choose not to heal his own people, that he should send his prophets only to save a few foreigners, and that this should lead not only them but his own people to affirm with Naaman that there is no other God in all the earth, but only in Israel, might also have stirred the wrath of a people expecting, even presuming upon a God who always comes to the aid of everyone in need.

We who live and walk by the light of Christ ought to take caution from the examples of Naaman and of the synagogue. We might slide all too easily in presuming that God's universal work of salvation in Jesus Christ frees us from seeking out those very particular means by which God has provided his Church with the healing grace that flows from the side of the Savior. We might balk at hearing the good news from a pastor too hastily educated or take counsel from a confessor not sufficiently nuanced in moral theology. We might look down our noses at the devotions, pilgrimages, and pious exercises approved with indulgences or recommended by private revelations to the simple: to children in Portugal or a religious sister in Poland. We do so at risk of missing out on the abundance of riches that God has poured out on his Church in Jesus Christ. Most of what the saints and blesseds, both recognized and known only to God alone, present us with means to holiness that are both altogether particular in form and perfectly simple in execution. Would we deprive ourselves of these means of sanctification for the same kinds of objections that risked keeping Naaman from being healed of his leprosy? Or, shall we heed the advice of Naaman's servants: Father, if the prophet had bid thee to do some great thing, surely thou shouldst have done it: how much rather what he now hath said to thee?

Let Thy mercy, O Lord, come to our aid: do Thou as protector remove us, and as our Savior preserve us, from threatening perils produced by our sins.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Third Sunday in Lent

Ephesians 5:1-9 / Luke 11:14-28

We can easily be led to believe that Lent, and with it the Christian dispensation, is fundamentally a moral affair. That is, we might imagine that the focus on penance, fasting, and abstinence, all the exhortations to a change of life, to a conversio morum, even all the incentives to prayer have, as their goal, the production of a more moral self. Of course, in many ways, this is true, and a supposed engagement with the Gospel that does not lead to a more profound mode of living, indeed one that does not transform the very principle by which we live, is only pretense. As St Paul reminds us, no fornicator, or unclean, or covetous person, which is a serving of idols, hath inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. His advice is likewise simple and direct: Walk then as children of the light: for the fruit of the light is in all goodness and justice and truth. So, it might well seem that the Gospel is at its root about morals that having accomplished moral uprightness, one has done all that the Gospel means to do.

However, we then turn to Christ's parabolic story of the man possessed with an unclean spirit, and we find something quite different at work. In the parable, the man has been freed from the dark spirit, whic is itself forced to walk through places without water, seeking rest: and not finding any. The man from whom the spirit had gone out finds himself living in uprightness, his soul swept and garnished. Nonetheless, his own virtue, clean, perfect, without fault, is altogether unable to resist or repel the forces arrayed against it. The unclean spirit, desirous to return to the place from which it had been cast out, returns not alone, but goeth and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and entering in they dwell there. This man, freed from evil, and set on the right path, living in uprightness and truth, now becomes even more a slave to darkness — And the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.

What many Christians ignore at their peril is that, while the Incarnation and the Paschal mystery, the whole work of the missions of the Son and the Spirit, had and have as their goal the salvation and deification of the elect, they also serve other ends, not the least of which is the decisive overthrowing of the dominion of the devil and his angels. As Jesus reminds his hearers, when a strong man armed, that is the devil, keepeth his court, that is the world, and especially those sons of Adam still bound by the corruption of sin, those things are at peace, which is to say safely in his power, which he possesseth. The only hope, the only safety, is Christ, the stronger than he who has come upon him and overcome him and will take away all his armor wherein he trusted, and will distribute his spoils.

This is why being with Christ is so crucial to our happiness, and why the establishment of the kingdom cannot be reduced to the moral and spiritual restoration of human persons. There are forces, not human but angelic, dark and powerful spirits, who even bent and condemned as they are surpass the might of even the most moral of men, and these same spirits are irrevocably committed by their own self-condemnation to the corruption and ruin of those whom God loves. It is in Christ, and in Christ alone, that we have the defense of the stronger man, the man who can keep us safe from those that would lead us into final impenitence, would induce us to tarnish the beauty of the image restored and glorified in us by the waters of baptism. Apart from him, no human moral effort however strong, no spiritual insight however clear, can maintain the good which we have attained and by which we seek to live. He that is not with Me is against Me: and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth.

Of course, this is also why we can live in hope and confidence, and not in craven fear of Satan and the fell powers of the nether world. Satan, and not only he, but all his hellish hosts, have by the power of the Cross been overcome. We have one stronger than he who died and lives forever, pleading at the right hand of the Father, and we are befriended by the Spirit, the Advocate whose very holiness casts away in holy disdain the petty and cruel words of the Accuser. For we were heretofore in darkness: but now in the light of the Lord. Let is then not look back. Let no man, nor demon of Hell, deceive us with vain words that tempt us to despair for our past failures, or lull us into false confidence in our present strength, the armor in which we trusted. Let us instead trust in Christ and in him alone, and abide among the blessed who hear the word of God, and keep it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saturday of the Second Week in Lent

Genesis 27:6-40 / Luke 15:11-32

We know what we love the most when we see that for which we are willing to do anything to acquire or achieve. We may do so in ways that inspire or in ways that repulse, with calm dignity or with wild abandon, through direct assertion or by cunning and craft. Should we ever let anything stand in our way, ever let forces outside of us or within our own hearts cause us to back down or hold off from pursuing our desire, then we can know for sure, whatever we tell ourselves, whatever stories we spin for others, that we do not really love what we claim to pursue so much we we might think.

It is in light of this basic truth of human desire that we ought to hear the two grand stories the Church puts before us today: Jacob's deception of Isaac to receive from him the blessing promised to his brother Esau, and the parable of the prodigal son. On first hearing, we might find ourselves drawn to sympathy for Esau who, after all, was cheated out of his father's blessing, undone by his father's blindness coupled with his brother Jacob's wiliness and his mother's shrewd dealing on behalf of her favorite. Likewise, the prodigal son, even though he devoured his substance with harlots and only returned home to avoid his self-caused hunger and destitution, we probably find more likable than the older brother. While the older brother may be better behaved — Behold, for so many years do I serve thee, and I have never transgressed thy commandment — he grieves when the household is rejoicing, thinking only of his lack of celebration, not of the good of his brother's return. Jacob we tend to find least attractive, with perhaps the exception of his mother Rebecca, for his deceit of his own father at his brother's expense.

I would suggest, however, that in seeing things this way, we have it all wrong. Of the sons in these stories, it is only Jacob who knows and values what he wants, who desires the blessing of his father so much that nothing will be allowed to get in his way. We ought to remember that Esau, despite his eventual tears which move Isaac to give him some remnant of a blessing, had earlier, and without hesitation, sold his birthright to Jacob for bread and a bowl of lentil stew. In other words, for all of his protests to the contrary, Esau shows no real desire to share in Isaac's blessings, and in his taking of foreign wives, even less desire to fulfill the promise made to his father through the promise made by God to Abraham and his descendants.

The sons in the Jesus' parable are no more worthy of emulation than Esau. Neither of them, the younger, prodigal son nor the elder, dutiful son, ever shows any real love for his father or joy to be in his presence. The younger son comes back for calculated reasons, and is willing to live as a hired hand, to relinquish his status as son for the sake of room and board. The elder son, while dutiful in every way, receives no joy from that duty nor from living with his father. On hearing the elder son complain about not having had even a goat to celebrate with his friends, one can detect some pain in the father's reply, Son, thou art always with me, and all I have is thine. Neither son understands the father's love, and neither seeks that love and the blessings that flow from it.

Now that we are well into our Lenten observance, how much do we still crave the things we have set aside, the time we have lost to prayer in place of our hobbies, the satisfaction we have lost to hunger and abstinence in place of our favorite foods? Have we clothed ourselves in penance as Jacob clothed himself in the garments of his brother, in the skins of goats, smelling of the smell of a plentiful field, only to draw back from getting our blessing? Or have we happily undertaken our penances, willingly set aside out pleasures, not to say to our heavenly Father with eyes downcast I am not worthy to be called your son, but on the contrary, with boldness that could easily be mistaken for brazen assertion, have we claimed our birthright as brother and sisters in Christ, sons by baptism of God Most High? Do we love our God enough, do we seek the blessing of the Holy Trinity, seek by the friendship of the Spirit to be so conformed to the Son that we are received by the Father, that we will allow no worldly concern, no fleeting pleasure, to stand in our way, and be willing to have nothing less than the best that God can shower upon us?

In Thine unceasing goodness, O Lord, we beseech Thee, keep safe Thy household: and, since their only hope is to lean on Thy heavenly grace, may the protection of heaven be their steady defense.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Isaiah 7:10-15 / Luke 1:26-38

"There are no stupid questions." This is a phrase, or at least its equivalent, often repeated by teachers addressing their students. What they hope to do in speaking this way is to remove fear or anxiety from their students, a fear of losing face in asking something foolish, something that reveals perhaps an innate stupidity, or a colossal lack of attention, or perhaps an embarrassing deficit in common sense. The teacher knows that quite often these fears are misguided or misplaced. Moreover, even when they are true, the question itself may be worth asking, the answer worth giving, for the edification not merely of the questioner, but also of all those who come to hear the question posed and the answer given. Furthermore, the failure to ask a question may itself evidence an intolerable sense of self-importance, perhaps even one masking as a desire not to disturb, not to bother the teacher inappropriately. Even so, when there are things one wants to know which may be rightly asked, all the more when they have been solicited, it is the silent student, the one without questions, not the one who asks, that one should worry about.

This is why Mary and Ahaz stand in such stark contrast. Mary, although in fear and awe of the angelic visitation in Nazareth, does not hesitate to seek to know more. In the face of Gabriel's quite incredible announcement — Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God: behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus — Mary does not hesitate to seek a deeper understanding — How shall this be done, because I know not man? Ahaz, on the other hand, knows his need in the face of the enemies of his people. He has come to his own conclusions about saving the kingdom and his reign, and is perhaps worried that he has gone astray, that he may be the cause of his people's plight. God knows his fear, and the hardness of his heart. God knows that he will resist knowing what must be known, will resist hearing how God will deliver his people, and so, through the prophet Isaiah, he opens the door wide to any request from Ahaz — Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God, either unto the depth of hell, or unto the height above. Ahaz, however, will not be consoled, and so feigning piety, he remains closed to divine illumination — I will not ask, and I will not tempt the Lord.

Today we celebrate the coming in the flesh of the Son of God, the Word, the Logos. We celebrate that awesome mystery by which the very pattern of all that is, the living and personal source and exemplar not only of things in their raw being, but in the details of their intelligibility, in the wonderful particularity, however delightful or terrifying, of all that the are, took our human nature to grow, as we do, in the womb of his mother, be born in weakness and dependence, be raised in obscurity, come to proclaim the Good News, only to be betrayed and abandoned by those he loved, suffer torment and die on the Cross, and on the third day, rise again from the dead unto glory and everlasting life. In other words, the very basis of all meaning, of all understanding, the source and end of everything that is, and thus the true answer to every question, came this day to be among us. He came, that is, to be available, to be the response, the answer to the questions we had not even thought yet to ask.

If the Word, the Logos, the Answer has come among us as one of us, that we might receive him and, in so doing, be made one with him, how could we refrain from asking? How could we, when the source of meaning has dwelt among us, draw back like Ahaz from questioning the Lord? We must instead be like his Blessed Mother. To receive within our hearts that Word she received in a surpassing and singular way into her womb means to be the kind of person who wants to grow in understanding, not the one who in feigned piety remains in an ignorance to conceal from ourselves our own shortcomings and pride. To receive the Word we must, like Mary, receive all he has to say in humble obedience — Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word — but that humility does not exclude, indeed it requires the questioning stance, the yearning for deeper understanding, that was also the hallmark of Mary at the Annunciation.

Today marks the coming of the Word in our flesh, a Word that has spoken from eternity and now has come among us in time. Let us not draw back from hearing that word by failing to ask and to seek, by failing to demand a deeper embrace in the midst of our questioning of him who is the answer to all we will ever want to know.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thursday of the Second Week in Lent

Jeremiah 17:5-10 / Luke 16:19-31

Is it a good thing or a bad thing never to change? The question does not admit to an easy answer. Some of our language suggests the absence of change to be a negative quality. We call something, or someone, static, inflexible, or unyielding, and we do not thereby intend a compliment. On the other hand, to say of someone that he is stable, or made a firm resolve, or an abiding promise, is precisely to speak well of him. After all, we do no one any favors in suggesting he is unstable or inconstant.

The prophet Jeremiah presents us with two visions of being unchanging, visions with quite disparate causes and disparate ends. On the one hand, he presents us with the stasis of calcification and death, the tamaric in the desert, an image of the man that trusteth in man and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. Such a man will not change, but only because there is no life in him, no dynamism, nothing to sustain himself nor to sustain any life around him — he shall dwell in dryness in the desert, in a salt land, and not inhabited. On the other hand, Jeremiah presents to us another plant, also unchanging, but nonetheless the very opposite of the first. This is the tree that is planted by the waters, that spreadeth out its roots towards moisture: and it shall not fear when the heat cometh. Like the tamaric, this tree is not subject to change, but whereas the first does not change because of the absence of life, this tree, being grounded in the very source of life, can abide ever the same, ever true to itself, regardless of the circumstances around it — And the leaf thereof shall be green, and in time of drought it shall not be solicitous, neither shall it cease at any time to bring forth fruit. Such is the man that trusteth in the Lord.

So attached are we to associate dynamism with change that we forget that what is truly dynamic is not that which keeps becoming something else, moved by the whims of the moment or the slightest suggestion from without. Rather, to be fully alive is to be fully oneself, able to be authentic, to produce the same fruits of righteousness at all times. In an important way, that which is fully alive is free from change, not in the manner of a fossil or skeleton, but because its powers are so active and the life sustaining it so pure, that nothing can incline it to be or become anything other than it is.

Of course, we are not there yet. We still experience the life we receive from God as one of change and growth, as well as one of about-faces, which is to say, a life of repentance. Even so, our changes, if they are healthy, will plant our roots more firmly, not less, will make us, day by day, conformed to Jesus Christ, whose light knows no darkness and who reigns for ever.

To Thy servants who call upon Thee hearken with unfailing kindness, O Lord, and while they glory in Thee, their Maker and Ruler, do Thou collect and restore all that was lost, and once restored, preserve it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wednesday of the Second Week in Lent

Esther 13:8-11, 15-17 / Matthew 20:17-28

And the ten, hearing it, were moved with indignation against the two brethren.

Family systems therapists have presented the idea of the symptom bearer or the identified patient. As a therapeutic method, family systems therapy puts its focus not on the individual, but rather on the network of the relationships within a family, on the "game" or interpersonal "rules" in play that, conscious or not, govern how the family behaves both severally and in common. However, when a family finds itself under stress, it often will select one or a few members and designate him or them as the cause of the stress. More often, the family will narrowly focus on the (real of imagined) problems of this symptom bearer or identified patient, even coming to the therapist as though seeking to solve "his" problems. In so doing, the family is able to mask, even from itself, the larger stresses and dysfunctions which it is experiencing as a whole. If only he or they would stop acting that way, the family tells itself, things would be better.

We see something of this pattern of behavior among the Twelve. Jesus has just taken these, his intimate friends aside and revealed to them plainly the Paschal Mystery, that the Son of Man shall be betrayed to the chief priests and the scribes, and they shall condemn Him to death, and shall deliver Him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and the third day He shall rise again. This surely ought to be of greatest importance to each of the Twelve. However, it is not so. Instead, they choose to be distracted by the request made by the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, that they should sit on the right and left of the Lord Jesus when he comes into his kingdom. In fact, they do not wonder or marvel at the request. They are rather moved with indignation against these two who, it is clear, may not fully understand what Jesus has just told them, but are admittedly willing to die for him. All the same, what holds the attention of the ten is not Jesus' presaging his betrayal, suffering, death, and rising to new life, but anger at their own brothers out of at best a misdirected sense of defending the Lord's honor, at worst of envy. What it serves to do, however, is to mask from their minds their own failure to understand what Jesus has just foretold, and how these events to come in Jerusalem mean more than any wrangling about one's place in the kingdom.

We can also be guilty of this dynamic in the Church. We can choose to focus on some one person or group: this sister, that priest, this lay movement, those bishops. We can focus on them as the problem, make them the symptom bearers, the identified patients, imagining that, if we could only fix them, then things would be fine, the Church without any other problems or worries. The error of this view is that, however right we are in assessing that others in the Church, or even ourselves, have been and continue to be the cause of disruptions, picking out anyone as a symptom bearer blinds is, distracts us from our need to grow in charity and understanding with all those who are reborn to new life in Christ.

This Lent, are we willing to forsake the temptation to select for ourselves the identified patients of the Church, neither designating others or ourselves as the symptom bearer? Are we ready as the family of faith to be served by Jesus Christ, who is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a redemption for many, and in his service to us, to love one another all the more?

O God, the Restorer and Lover of innocence, direct towards Thyself the hearts of Thy servants, and inflame them with the ardor of Thy spirit, that they may become both steadfast in faith and effectual in deed. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tuesday of the Second Week in Lent

3 Kings 17:8-16 / Matthew 23:1-12

What do we imagine the voice of God to sound like? Where do we expect to hear God directing us to do his will? While we might easily agree that we ought not always, or in our own lives necessarily ever, to hear that voice come out of a burning bush or a whirlwind, we are likely to imagine that it will come with some obvious, telltale signs of its origin. At the least, we ought to have, we suppose, some unassailable inner conviction that this word we hear is from God, and so we ought to hear it.

God, however, seems to have a different idea. When the prophet Elijah is sent to the widow of Zarephath, God says quite clearly to the Tishbite, Arise, and go ... for I have commanded a widow woman there to feed thee. However, on arrival, the widow knows nothing about Elijah, much less anything about God's command regarding him. It is Elijah who must say to her, Bring me also, I beseech thee, a morsel of bread in thy hand. In fact, he must repeat his request, and even over her quite understandable objection that she has just enough food left for one last meal with her son, after which they will surely die of hunger. It is, then, by the word of the prophet and his assurance that the Lord the God of Israel will miraculously replenish her food that this widow from the land of Sidon yields to the prophet's request. How is it that the Lord said he had commanded her?

Or, consider Jesus' admonition about the teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees. He admits their morally compromised position, so much so that he insists that his disciples not follow their example, for they say and do not. He accuses the scribes and Pharisees of imposing impossible burdens without lifting a helping hand, seeking rather praise from others than making any effort to assist those who follow their teaching to succeed in living out the Law. We might well think that such persons had rendered themselves unworthy of our attention, and we might rightly pay them no heed. Yet, this is not what Jesus says: All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do. How is it that such as these can be said to have sitten on the chair of Moses, to whom God spoke as though face to face?

The truth is that God speaks to us in a variety of ways, and his commands are at least as often accomplished through ordinary as through extraordinary means. To be sure, it was the prevenient grace of God that prepared the heart of the widow to hear his voice in the words of Elijah. Likewise, even if it did them no good spiritually, the Law taught scrupulously by the scribes and the Pharisees was the holy Law given through Moses on Sinai, and choosing to live by it meant choosing life. Even so, for the widow herself, for the disciples of Christ, as well as for us, one must be ready to hear the commands of God where we ought to expect them, however awkward and difficult the circumstances or unlikely or deficient the spokesman. We know that God has entrusted his Church with the grace to present his teachings authentically. To turn away from this is not to heed a higher conscience, not to seek God in a better way, but to fail to seek him while he may be found.

This is why Jesus warns us against the titles Rabbi and Father and Master. It is not that these may not be used in any way except of God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Rather, it is that, if used of anyone else, such a use us secondary, a borrowed title, that bears whatever authority it has only in service to him who bears such words by right. Jesus means us not to allow recourse to any other supposedly unassailable source of authentic teaching, whether because such a one is well educated, is dear to us, or is endowed with personal charisma and authenticity. We are not even to presume that our own best conclusions are without reproach, without need of correction. Rather, we must turn only to God, and to those ways that God, in his deeper wisdom, has decided to communicate his will to us.

Be appeased, O Lord, by our supplications, and heal the weaknesses of our souls: that having received the forgiveness of our sins, we may ever rejoice in Thy blessing.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Monday of the Second Week in Lent

Daniel 9:15-19 / John 8:21-29

They said therefore to Him: Who art Thou? Jesus said to them: The beginning, Who also speak unto you.

When a student first learns literary criticism, he is likely to make a common beginner's mistake in trying to find which character in the story represents the author himself, and thus whose words and actions disclose the mind of the author not only to the other characters, but even more so to the reader. While it is true that some novels or short stories work this way, it is also the case that such works of fiction are not normally numbered among the greatest of works. The best examples of fiction never intend to mirror altogether the approved words and deeds of the author in any one character, any one decision or monologue, any one event. One need only read the works of Flannery O'Connor to see that to be so. In her works, one is hard pressed to find even one character who comes remotely near what O'Connor herself would find a laudable expression of a human, much less a Christian, life well lived.

On the face of it, then, we might easily sympathize with the Jews in the Gospel who understood not that Jesus called God His Father. When Jesus spoke, his words to them were cryptic, hidden, obscure. They could make no easy human sense of them, finding for example in his declaration of his return to the Father and of their being bound below, to die in their sins, only perhaps an intimation of suicide. Yet, we might see some wisdom in their mistake. God is the author of all, the one writing the story. To speak to a man, then, is not to speak to the author. To presume that any one man, however virtuous, however holy, is the author, and his words and actions not merely approved by the author, but in truth his own words and deeds, seems a category error of the highest degree. God is God, and men are men. If we would hear God, we would do well to avoid the words of men.

Yet, what if God would speak to us, and speak to us in a way we would and could hear? What if the very principle of all our reasoning, all our speaking and doing, the very beginning should be the one who has decided to speak unto us? Asked differently, suppose someone wanted to know something about an author, and so read all he could of his books, as well as learned commentaries and biographies. He knows he does not know God directly, but rightly feels he has a good sense of who the author is and how he would behave. Now, suppose the author comes to town, and not just to anyone, but specifically to this devoted fan, so that the fan need not know him any more through his writings, but rather might come to know him. What would we say of this so-called devoted fan if he should refuse to meet the author, if he should reject the author because the author did not resemble what he imagined the author to be from a reading of his books? Indeed, what could we make of someone who, face to face with the author himself, preferred rather to continue to seek to converse with paper and ink, not with flesh and blood?

God has come among us. In the Incarnation, the Son of God assumed our human nature, and so the very author of all that is has come among us, and by the power of the Spirit, continues to abide with us even now. If we would live rightly, if we would hear what is true and good, if we would live and not die in our sins, then we must turn to him. We cannot afford to speak about or around him, to regard him as anything but the very source of life, of meaning, of wholeness and of truth. We must, daily, converse with him who is our life, our hope, and our lasting peace. To fail to relate personally and intimately with Jesus Christ is to fail to relate to anything else, to be lost in darkness. To embrace him, to seek out him who has already sought and found us, is to be in contact with the very ground, the very foundation, source, and destiny of all that is, all that ever has been, and all that ever will be.

Be attentive to our supplications, O almighty God, and graciously grant us the effect of Thy wonted mercy, to whom Thou givest confidence in Thy loving kindness. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Second Sunday in Lent

1 Thessalonians 4:1-7 / Matthew 17:1-9

It has become something of a tired cliché to assert that, in the political and cultural divides which plague the Christian West, there are those who assert the primacy of the social teaching of the Church at the expense of or while winking at the Church's teaching on personal, and especially sexual morality (generally called the "Left" or liberals or progressives), and there are those who assert the primacy of personal morality, including a special concern for sexual morality, at the expense of or while winking at the Church's social teaching (generally called the "Right" or conservatives or traditionalists). The schema is largely unhelpful, of course, and misleading since, for the most part, all parties to the conversation will tend to agree, more or less, with the teaching of the Church, namely, what those teachings are. While there are those who might contest this or that teaching, by and large none wants to reject either concern. Personal integrity expressed in chastity and love of neighbor expressed in economic justice are generally agreed upon to be foundational for upright, Christian lives.

It may surprise some to discover that there has been, from the earliest days of the Church, the need to call the faithful to both personal and social morality, and especially to specify those calls in relation to sexuality and economics. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, St Paul had to call them, on the one hand, to sexual purity — you should abstain from fornication, that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor, not in the passion of lust, like the Gentiles that know not God. It is clear here, clear beyond any doubt, that sins of the flesh, particularly sexual sins, are no minor matter, and that rightly ordered sexuality is a key part of the holiness to which we are called. On the other hand, St Paul moves from this claim immediately, as though the two are obviously related without need of clarification, to the question of social justice — and that no man overreach nor circumvent his brother in business. He reminds the Thessalonians that failing in either way, in how we relate to other persons with our bodies in sexual union and how we relate to other persons in our economic activity, is a central part of the life of holiness, of sanctification, and that the failure in either one leads to uncleanness and to divine vengeance.

However, St Paul is not interested here in producing a debate about speculative moral theology. Indeed, he is not even concerned about presenting a teaching as though it were not well known. Rather, he reminds the Thessalonians, and through them he reminds us, that we have already received the teaching we need to know how we ought to walk and to please God — For you know what precepts I have given to you by the Lord Jesus. What Paul gives instead of a catechesis is an exhortation, that even as we already know from him what we ought to do, so we need to go ahead and do it, that we may abound the more.

We see something of the same practical orientation even in the sublime even of Christ's Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Jesus, his face shining as the sun and his clothes having become white as snow, conversing with Moses and Elijah, two great prophets of old both known, the first by tradition the second by Scriptural testimony, to have been raised up into heaven, is not transfigured primary to give new knowledge, at least not in the sense of a new set of teachings. If the apostles Peter, James, and John, can certainly be said to have been elevated by the vision, to know and see in a way that had not known or seen before, the voice from the cloud is oriented not to a new teaching, but a putting into action of what they already in some way knew — This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased: hear ye Him.

We can, when faced with difficult times and difficult choices, retreat into inaction and protest that the questions are too hard to figure out. We can worry ourselves into paralysis, or even decline into what we know to be, at best, suboptimal ways of living, cloaking ourselves in a pretense that the Christian response to life is far from clear. However, in so doing, we deceive ourselves. Without denying for a moment that there are situations hard to understand or negotiate, the fact remains that, for most of us and most of the time, our problem is not a lack of knowledge or insight, but a lack of courage to do what we know must be done. And to this problem, we have a solution. While we may not be granted to glorious vision of Mount Tabor, we can, like the apostles, hear Jesus' own words — Arise, and fear not. Like them we will be able to arise, we will be able to banish our fear and embrace the life-giving path of sanctification both of our bedrooms and our boardrooms, our daytime labor and our nighttime pleasure, not by looking around for new answers, but rather by lifting up our eyes to gaze at no one, but only Jesus.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

St Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Confessor

Ecclesiasticus 45:1-6 / Matthew 1:18-21

At a first reading, the Church seems to have let its piety get the better of itself in ascribing to St Joseph the words of praise Ecclesiasticus offered of Moses. After all, while Joseph did, by the help of angels, escape with his wife and her Son from their enemies, it would be hard to claim that he was magnified by in their fear of him as was Moses against the enemies of Israel, both in Egypt and in the desert. Unlike Moses in whom God ceaselessly worked wonders, Joseph is not claimed, even in apocryphal and pious tales with his words to have made prodigies to cease. One would be hard put to name one king who even met Joseph, much less in whose sight he was glorified, and if he had been given any commandments, it was surely not in the sight of his people. To be fair, he was sanctified ... in his faith and meekness and chosen out of all flesh to be the spouse of the Mother of God, but he was never brought into a cloud nor did God give him commandment before His face, and a law of life and instruction. In short, in nearly every point, we find Joseph to be so unlike Moses and to call into question the wisdom of placing this part of Scripture before us.

However, such a reading misses the significance of St Joseph in the history of salvation. Like Moses, Joseph was the recipient of God's revelation made manifest, but this time not on tablets made of stone, carved by the finger of God, but in the person of his Son, born of a woman, clothed in our flesh. Like Moses he was the guardian of that divine revelation and of the ark in which it was kept, but not for him an ark of wood decorated with gold, but the Blessed Virgin, whom he took as his wife. Like Moses, Joseph was at first unwilling to bear the message God sent, not out of malice, but out of humility and justice, but like Moses was led by a vision, mediated by the angel of the Lord, to receive God's Word and lead it through the wilderness to the promised land.

Indeed, as great as Moses is, we know that while the Law was given through Moses, grace and peace came through Jesus Christ. Whatever virtues may have been necessary to accompany the guardian of the Law, much more profound, while at the same time much more humble virtues are needed to be the guardian of the Incarnate Word, at once his teacher and his disciple, conforming his son to himself as every father tried best, while also and more importantly being himself conformed to the Son. Indeed, like St John the Baptist, Joseph stands as the last of the line of the Old Covenant, doing the best the Old Covenant can offer in preparing and witnessing to the salvation promised by God in his Christ. John stood as the last in the line of prophecy, Joseph last among the patriarchs of old.

This is why we cannot underestimate the virtues of St Joseph, spouse of the Virgin Mother, guardian of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and patron of the universal Church. To be charged with the care and upbringing of the Son of God, to be his first earthly model of fatherhood, the experiential image of his Father in heaven, is a burden and a grace more profound than even the grace and inspiration to liberate the people of Israel, present them with the Law, intercede continually on their behalf, and guide them into the Land of Promise. If there is anything unfitting with our reading today, then, it is not that it says too much of St Joseph, but perhaps that it does not, because it cannot, say enough.

Te Joseph celebrent agmina cœlitum;
Te cuncti resonent Christiadum chori,
Qui clarus meritis, junctus es inclytæ,
Casto fœdere Virgini.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday of Ember Week in Lent

Ezechiel 18:20-28 / John 5:1-15

All his justices which he hath done shall not be remembered: in the prevarication by which he hath prevaricated, and in the sin which he hath committed, in them he shall die.

Some recent sad events have turned the press to the question of fairness in school disciplinary policies. Specifically, they have questioned the wisdom, the fairness, of "no tolerance" policies for certain infractions, especially those involving drugs (whether illegal or not) or any object that could be construed as a weapon, even when common sense would deny its designation as such. The policies themselves were revived and reinvigorated after the terrible violence in Columbine, Colorado, now over a decade ago, and few people disputed their wisdom them. Since such infractions might be the only visible signs the school would ever have to warn of a lethal outbreak of violence, for the sake of the safety of the school, its students and staff, there would be no tolerance for any infractions, and leniency, even when allowed, would be rare.

Unhappily, in recent years, the deployment of these very disciplinary measures have been held, at least by many, to have been crucial triggers for the suicides of some students. Having committed what were, by the book, offenses, these students admitted their fault and were willing to accept responsibility. However, they had also been model students otherwise, in one case even heroically so, being not only an excellent student and athlete, but also along with his father the caretaker of his mother, deeply debilitated by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease. Even so, even knowing that this child had performed well before, admitted his offense, itself not breaking the law, and showed clear signs of remorse, the school board elected to transfer him from his school and forbid his attendance at any school events. Deprived of the very environment that had promoted his happy growth mentally, emotionally, physically, and socially, the student declined, first in grades, then in social activity, and finally into despair, taking his own life.

God's warning through the prophet Ezechiel raise worries that God is no more just than was the school board, and we may well want to cry out with Israel: The way of the Lord is not right. God tells us through his prophet that the sinner, the unjust, need only repent, and he will be forgiven, nothing being remembered of his wickedness. We might, just barely, be willing to embrace such generosity and indulgence. It is the second part that strikes us as objectionable. The Lord tells us that the virtuous man, however long, however illustrious his virtues and his works of righteousness, will suffer punishment and death for falling into sin. Really? Are his good works of old meaningless? Do they not speak of a person, an otherwise good person, who just made a mistake? The bad person, the wicked, who caused so much harm, is for the sake of one act of penance restored, whereas the good person, who has been consistent in his goodness, for the sake of one falling away, has all of his goodness cast aside and ignored as irrelevant?

This reading, however, misses the central message of God's announcement of both hope and doom, hope for the penitent, doom for the presumptuous. The purpose of our moral life, of our spiritual life, is not to earn merits or demerits before the celestial accountant, where the slightest irregularity at the arbitrary moment of accounting will produce unending horror for those in the red, unexpected delight for those in the black. Rather, the purpose of our life here and now is to grow into the sort of people who would find eternity in the presence of God a source of comfort and hope now, and of intense longing for the future. This means that the litany of our deeds, whether black as night, red as scarlet, or white as snow, is really not the point. The sinner who repents, who knows in his tears and sorrow, the sweet hope of life with God, just is the kind of person who will love God, enjoy God's presence, and rejoice in the company of all others who rejoice in the presence of God. On the other hand, the man of good deeds for whom an act of righteousness is no bother, who would rather plead his past goodness than repent being the kind of person he has become, the kind of person for whom an offense against God is not a burden and sorrow — such a man could never enjoy life with God. He would bear Hell already in his heart, and so directs himself already where God will, should he remain unrepentant, consign him justly with his irrevocable judgment.

Now, however, is the time to turn about. Now is the time to redouble our efforts. Now is not the time to sing litanies of our past virtues nor to ask for leniency because of them. Rather, now is the time to convert, to weep, to mourn, as well as the time to hope and to love. It is in those tears, those tears of sweet penitence, that we will find our life transformed, and discover ourselves to be the sort of persons for whom our God and his ways are a delight. Because he considereth and turneth away himself from all his iniquities which he hath wrought, he shall surely live and not die, saith the Lord almighty.

Hear us, O merciful God, and show unto our minds the light of Thy grace.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Thursday of the First Week in Lent

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

Who answered her not a word.

In the face of divine silence, there seem to be three options. We might conclude that God does not care, does not see our plight, and turn away from him as we fear he has turned from us. Then again, we might conclude that, in his silence, God is directing us away from our requests as from something bad or unworthy, and return his silence with some of our own. Or, we might, in our anxiety, fill the silence with other noise, the noise of explanations or protestations, anything but enduring the absence of a reply.

However, we see something else in the reaction of the Canaanite woman. Her plea to Jesus is deep and real, and her motives surely honorable. Her daughter is grievously troubled by a devil, and perhaps the fame of Jesus already having made its way out of Israel to Tyre and Sidon, she seeks help where rumor has it help can be had, from the incomparable Jewish exorcist, Jesus of Nazareth. When she makes her request, Jesus answered her not a word.

Yet, before she can do anything, before his silence can have its effect on her, the disciples interrupt. They fill his silence and silence her pleading: Send her away, for she crieth after us. See how poorly they know and understand. It is not they whom she seeks, after whom she cries, but Jesus. As if to solidify their confusion, Jesus gives a cryptic reply — I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel. Here, note again the strangeness. Jesus does not yet speak to the woman, but to his disciples. Even so, while the words of his reply might be judged a confirmation of their attitude, it turns out to be nothing of the sort. Jesus allows the woman to cry out, and he does not send her away.

Only when the disciples get out of the way, does the woman have a chance to be heard again. See how she does not give up on her daughter, does not make of the silence a refusal, and thus fall back into silence herself. Instead, she speaks from the depths of her need: Lord, help me. Jesus now answers, and if his words sound hard — It is not good to take the bread of the children and to cast it to the dogs. — we see that they have quite a different effect. Into the silence, the woman could do but one of two things: echo the silence with silence of her own, or continue to throw her voice into the void.

Now, however, she has a response, and with the response an opportunity, the opportunity to acknowledge more fully who Jesus is, and what it means to turn to him for help. Yea, Lord; for the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters. She had come to him a pagan, unknowing and unbelieving, knowing only his fame as a healer and exorcist. In Jesus' silence, and even more in the excluding words of his reply, the Canaanite woman now can grow in faith. She can assert to Jesus, and all the more to herself, that he is no generic holy man or healer, no worker of spells like the heathen priests. Rather, to turn to Jesus means to turn to the God of Israel, who had promised to restore his people through his promised Christ, and through his Christ to draw all nations to himself. Forced by his silence and his rejection to turn away from false belief, the woman of Tyre and Sidon can embrace a wider love, can desire from him not merely the temporary liberation of her daughter from the grip of unclean spirits, but the more lasting freedom for her daughter and herself of trusting in the God of Israel, and in Jesus the Christ, the eternal Son of the Father.

As we continue our Lenten preparations for Easter, we are asked to turn more and more to prayer, and we may, indeed most likely will, encounter in our life of prayer, the silence of God. We might in the silence shake our fist in anger or frustration. We might in quiet resignation cease from our prayer, figuring God knows better than we how we ought to pray. We might even try to fill our own silence, or the silence of others, with our unhelpful chatter. Or, we might follow the path of the Canaanite woman, and, keeping firm in our purpose and our prayer, receive the silence of God, or even the hard words issuing from that silence, not as a command to be silent ourselves, but to grow into a deeper and more profound faith in Jesus Christ. We might, as did she, turn more definitively away from the false beliefs we hold, and in our humility and emptiness, hear with her those sweet words of our Savior: O woman, great is thy faith: be it done to thee as thou wilt.

Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, to all Christian people, that they may understand what they profess, and love the heavenly Gift which they frequent.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wednesday of Ember Week in Lent

Exodus 24:12-18 / 3 Kings 19:3-8 / Matthew 12:38-50

In today's Gospel, Jesus does not go out of his way to make himself and his teaching easily or happily received. In response to the request by the scribes and Pharisees for a sign, Jesus accuses them of belonging to an evil and adulterous generation. He assured them that the men of Nineveh, known in the past for their hardness of heart and cruelty, and the queen of the South, would arise in judgment and condemn them. He then tells of a man who, freed from an unclean spirit, seems to have gotten his life in order, his soul empty, swept, and garnished, only to fall victim to the first spirit and seven more besides — and the last state of that man is made worse than the first. Finally, upon hearing that his mother and brother are waiting for him, Jesus manifests no concern for their trouble, but asserts that those gathered around him, those attending to his word, who do the will of his Father are his brother, and sister, and mother.

It is at moments such as these, when the words of Jesus are hard to embrace, when we do not know what to make of them without effort, that discipleship seems hardest. Like Elijah at Beersheba, even fresh from his victory over the false prophets of Baal and Asherah, having witnessed the Lord's miraculous sending of fire from heaven, we can still discover the following of the Lord to be more than we can bear. We do not feel up to the task, and do not know if we can remain faithful to a God who asks what we know to be beyond our capacities to understand. And when he was there, and sat under a juniper tree, he requested for his soul that he might die, and said: It is enough for me, Lord, take away my soul: for I am no better than my fathers.

Of course, Elijah was in a certain way quite right; he was no better than his fathers. Moses, too, was altogether unworthy to proclaim liberty to Israel captive in Egypt, and even less worthy in himself to receive and deliver God's holy Law. Indeed, even the mother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, was worthy to be mother only insofar as she, like any disciple, did the will of the Father in heaven. Even so, Elijah was one of the greatest of prophets, acting with power and truth in a time of great darkness when the faith of Israel seemed all but lost, and Moses was the greatest of all prophets of the Old Covenant, more blessed even in his being barred from entering the Land of Promise for having conversed with the Lord as men do face to face. The Virgin, the humble Maid of Nazareth, is characterized by her prompt and happy conformity to God's will — Ecce ancilla Domini. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. — and through her the Sun of Righteousness came in our flesh.

For each of these — the Lawgiver, the Prophet, the Virgin Mother — the Lord enabled them to do what they could never sustain on their own by drawing them to himself: Moses being summoned into the cloud of God's glory for forty days and forty nights, to receive the Law; Elijah given bread from an angel and sustained thereby for forty days and forty nights to travel to Horeb, there to encounter the Lord in the still small voice; Mary overshadowed by the Spirit, and made Mother of the Most High, the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ. At no point was any of these able to say of God's grace that it was a permanent donation, made so much theirs that they had no more need to rely on God. Even the Virgin Immaculate always turned in Love to her Son and received him as Lord. They did not what they were able by any native effort, but acting with confidence to do the impossible through the strength of him in whom all things are possible.

Not only Lent, but our whole Christian life, calls us to do more, far more, than we have the strength or power to do, but which we must do nonetheless. This Ember Day reminds us, as we begin our forty day fast, that God can and will sustain us and draw us to glories we rightly know to be beyond us. He elevates us, lifts us up, draws us into the cloud of his glory, and feeding is with the supersubstantial bread of Christ's Body, gives us help and comfort along the way. We may fall, and we may stumble. Like Moses striking the rock we may even betray the trust we have been given. God, however, will not betray us, and in him we will have the grace to climb the heights of majesty.

As we begin our Lent, the Lord's words to Elijah apply as well to us before the Sacrament of the Altar: Arise, eat: for thou hast yet a great way to go.

We beseech Thee, O Lord, illumine our minds with the light of Thy brightness: that we may see what has to be done and have the strength to do it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

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

What is not to like about paved road, cement sidewalks, or concrete parking lots? There is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with them. Anyone who has ever been in a town or village without pavement, who has walked along muddy paths and even muddier streets, knows perfectly well what a boon it is when streets are paved. It is simply for the good, and our life could not be imagined without it.

This is why we may be puzzled that many today worry about the excess of pavement in modern cities. However, these critics have a point. When all of the earth is covered and sealed, the normal cycle of water, a cycle which brings life, is interrupted. What was meant as a convenience, a way to guard us from the dirt and grime of the world, has the unhappy result of diverting the life-giving water from the skies, the rain and the snow that come down from heaven, and return no more thither, but soak the earth and water it, and make it to spring, and give seed to the sower and bread to the eater. This rain and snow, which should rightly water the earth, we redirect, and unhappily where it does us and the earth very little good.

The money changers in the Temple were much like the pavement. They were instituted so that those who wished to make sacrifice, the very sacrifices commanded by God himself, could do so without using the image-laden, and hence idolatrous currency of Rome. Their service was meant to be a convenience, a way to seal the Temple off from the dirt and grime of heathendom, to ensure that the faithful would not bring with them the corrupting influence of the Gentiles. They also made available, but at a price, and only after profiting from the exchange, doves, the sacrifice specifically provided by the Lord for the poor who could afford nothing else. In so doing, like our modern pavement, these money changers had become a barrier. They needlessly sought to protect the holiness of God, who is the source of holiness, and in the end only managed to profit from the very people they were supposed to serve, placing an obstacle between the sons and daughters of Israel and the life-giving waters that the Lord had promised would flow from the side of his Temple.

It is for this reason that Jesus so angrily, and righteously so, cast out all of them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers and the chairs of them that sold doves. No supposed service of God is accepted by him, no ministry avoids the accusation of theft, which makes it harder, rather than easier, for the faithful, and especially for the poor, to receive the abundant graces of God's word. This is why we, especially those of us charged to minister the word of God to the faithful, need to take care. We can easily, out of desire to promote respect for God and his Church, drive away the very people most in need of the grace of redemption, the living water flowing from the side of Christ. While God's will is never thwarted, woe to him whose carelessness would, taken by itself, divert the saving word of God from its most fruitful course.

May our prayers ascend to Thee, O Lord: and do Thou drive away all wickedness from Thy Church.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Monday of the First Week in Lent

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

And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just into life everlasting.

There can be unhealthy and pathological reasons to avoid behavior which is nonetheless to be avoided. While a child, I was subjected to the bus safety film And Then It Happened, and I recall vividly my rather high level anxieties on the ride home at the end of the school day, as well as having more than a little difficulty falling asleep that night. The premise of the movie is fair enough. It tells the stories of two exemplary bus drivers, both of whose buses fall victim to accidents, in one of which the bus driver herself loses her life. The notion is that a series of misbehaving by various children on the bus, each of which seeming to the child to be of little consequence, nonetheless produce a dangerous, even deadly synergy, producing accidents, injury, and death.

Now, bus safety is a worthy goal, as is promoting responsible behavior while riding the bus. Even so, is the best means of producing such behavior the encouragement of anxiety and fear? Likewise, might not many children have had the reverse reaction and considered the presented consequences as too dramatic to be believable? Moreover, what can be said of this (in)famous bus safety film might well be said of other well-meaning, but unfortunate attempts to promote right action through fear, whether the subject is drug use, fornication, or poor dental hygiene.

For many who have no faith, as well as for many Christians today, the threat of eternal damnation seems precisely to belong in this sort. Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels, strikes the modern ear as at best exaggerated, at worst a grotesque parody and inversion of a loving God, who would surely direct our behavior by promoting the good, not by kindling fear of pain and disaster. Such a fear, the servile fear that does what it does out of fear of punishment, not for love of the good, these critics regard as unworthy. That these words come from our Lord Jesus Christ himself seem to do nothing to dull this criticism.

However, we do not that some things are dangerous, some this disastrous, ruinous of our good and our happiness. While we ought best to move from servile fear, we do so not by ceasing to fear altogether, but by embracing filial fear. Filial fear moves us to desire to do everything we can to behave in a way worthy of, and thus pleasing to, the one we love. It acts not to curry favor with a false face, nor become untrue to itself out of a pathological desire to please, but seeks to avoid whatever would grieve the one we love.

Even so, that filial fear is both healthy and holy, the fear which God reminds us is the beginning of wisdom, does not exclude the reality of the ruinous consequences of a life poorly lived. To fail to see the needs of those around us, to be unmoved by the plight of the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the prisoner, and to fail to see what such lack of love has to do with relating rightly to God, is already to have made oneself a horror. It is to become a mockery of God whose image, without being altogether lost, is all the worse for being borne by a hardened heart. That God consigns such as these to the fiery pits of Hell is only right, only just. That God warns us of the doom waiting for those who persist this way is not fear-mongering; it calls us back to truths that even the most loving son or daughter ought never to forget.

Loosen, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the bonds of our sins; and mercifully turn away from us whatsoever we deserve for them.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

First Sunday in Lent

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

"The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door ..."
Fredric Brown, "Knock," Thrilling Wonder Stories (1948)

Some people speak of a fear of being alone. Now, there is a kind of dread, a sense of emptiness, that comes from discovering, or at least feeling, that one is altogether alone. However, if one is not otherwise compromised, if one is not in any immediate danger, then fear is probably not what we feel when alone. After all, if we knew that in fact no one else were around, why would we be afraid to pass by abandoned buildings, or the open doors of dark cellars, or the deep woods on a moonless night? Surely what we fear is not being alone, but rather being not quite alone. It is not the dread that no one else is there is the darkness that alarms us, but rather the horror that someone, or something does lurk there, just out of sight.

Our Gospel today reminds us that we are not alone. On the one hand, this can, and right proportion should, be a reason for caution, if not for fear. The human journey to God is not simply the story of the individual human person and his Creator, nor even all human persons, and their relation to one another and to God. There are, unhappily for us, intelligences vastly superior to ours, untiring as they are not burdened by the limits of the flesh, bent altogether in their will to oppose God by seeking to undo all that he loves. There are, that is, the Devil and his angels, the same Devil who had the temerity to tempt the very Son of God.

Of course, the Gospel also reminds us that there are others who surround us, and who wish only our good. There are, to be sure, the ministering spirits, who served Jesus in the desert after his fast and his confrontation with the Accuser. More than that, there is the Holy Spirit, God himself, the Gift of God, by whose impulse the Son, the Word made flesh, went into the desert to be tempted by the Devil.

It would be too easy to imagine our return to God as a voyage undertaken alone. The Fallen One actually depends on this misapprehension as he intended it for Jesus. The Devil hoped to draw Jesus into believing that his own best hopes, for physical survival, for protection from harm, and for universal acclaim and the building of a kingdom, depended on his resources alone. He hoped that Jesus, even knowing that the Devil was a wicked spirit, would, by resolving a fear of needing to make his mark on the world on his own, also make common cause with the one who was his enemy, if only to soften the dull pain of loneliness.

Jesus knew, however, he was not, and never would be alone. He knew his Father, and knew the presence of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. In this, he meant to reassure us as well. He meant, in undergoing the blasphemous temptations of the Devil to show us with clarity that we are no more alone to face the challenges of the world than he. In receiving the assaults of the Evil One, he unmasks for us the bent and terrible powers that are, more than any human adversary, our true enemies, and in overcoming the temptations, he points the way for all of us who worry our own strength will not avail.

The fact is that our strength is not enough, but it need not be. We are not men sitting alone in a room, hearing a knock at the door. We are surrounded by an innumerable company of those who love us beyond our knowing, the ranks of angels who minister to Christ in ministering to his Body. We are, more than that, and infinitely so, never deprived of the company of our Lord, who shows the way, nor of the Spirit, who leads us there and sustains us along the path.

We need not fear the terror that knocks on our door. We are not alone.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:9-14 / Mark 6:47-56

He cometh to them walking upon the sea: and He would have passed by them.

Jesus' behavior on the way to Genesareth strikes us as more than a bit odd. He has only recently fed the multitude with the miraculous multiplication of bread, and now intends to cross the sea. However, while he sends his disciples ahead by boat, he remains behind. His disciples, however, have a rough time at it, for the wind was against them, and what might have been a calm and relaxing voyage by night has become hard labor. Here is where the puzzle comes along. Jesus sees the disciples and their trouble, and he himself begins to cross the sea. He might imagine that he does so to go to his disciples and comfort them. However, as Mark tells us, he seems to have set out to cross the sea ahead of them, to leave them in their troubles, for He would have passed by them save that they saw Him walking upon the sea. Of course, Jesus stops in his course, and without delay, immediately as the Gospel tells us, Jesus spoke to them, and said to them: Have a good heart, it is I, fear ye not. Indeed, he enters their boat, and in his presence the wind ceased. Even so, we might rightly wonder why this coming to their aid was an afterthought, and not the first thing on his mind.

The Gospel gives us some clues as to our confusion, which is itself a confusion shared by the disciples. On seeing Jesus walking upon the sea, the disciples are not heartened, nor even annoyed that Jesus should pass them by. Instead, they are alarmed — But they, seeing Him walking upon the sea, thought it was an apparition, and they cried out. For they all saw Him, and were troubled. Even after Jesus' words of comfort, even when he has calmed the winds and entered to boat to be clearly and undeniably with them, their response is not relief, or thanksgiving, or even a pained yearning to know why their Lord would have meant to pass them by. They simply remain in a more fundamental confusion, indeed even worse than before — And they were far more astonished within themselves. Why? According to Mark, the reason is the disciples failure to have grown in a richer embrace of who the Lord is and what he was about, despite what they had experienced in his presence. As the Gospel says, they understood not concerning the loaves: for their heart was blinded.

In other words, the disciples has seen and experienced the abundance of God, his generous care and concern for the hungry crowds. They had witnessed that, in the presence of the real need of the multitude, Jesus had compassion on them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd. They had heard the words he had spoken to teach, and when it had become evening, they had seen five thousand fed by his hand from five loaves and two fish. More than this, they had seen him heal the sick and case out unclean spirits, and they had heard his life-giving and salutary teaching. Yet, in spite of all of this, neither the memory of what he had done for them nor even his unmistakable presence in their midst was of any comfort to them.

We, too, can harden our hearts, and even while crying out to God for help when we row against the winds of the world, still find ourselves, astonished, amazed, confused, and even fearful not by God's absence, but by his presence to us. We do so because, as God teaches us through the prophet Isaiah, we have become too occupied with our own pursuits, our own measures for how God ought to act. We imagine we know what the world's troubles are, and what are our own, and we find God's response to them confusing at best.

Our solution, the solution God provides through the prophet, is simple, and the one for which we have entered into Lent. We are to set aside our projects, our pretensions to self-sufficiency. We are to open our hearts to the real needs of those around us, pouring out our souls to the hungry and satisfying the afflicted. We are to return to old patterns of prayer, good intentions for virtuous living, so that the places that have been desolate for ages shall be built in us. A Lent well observed, that is, will call us to a sabbath rest from our self-assertions, and restore to us the perspective from which God's acts are neither worrisome nor troubling. If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thine own will in my holy day, and call the sabbath delightful and he holy of the Lord glorious, and glorify Him, while thou dost not thine own ways, and thine own will is not found, to speak a word: then shalt thou be delighted in the Lord.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-9 / Matthew 5:43-48; 6:1-4

Lent is not a season in which we are accustomed to think of gift-giving. Christmas, yes, but Lent, not so much. It is Christmas that, in the words of Ebenezer Scrooge's nephew Fred in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, is the only time ... when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely. In Lent, we are accustomed to think perhaps first of what we do not do, and we pledge ourselves to forms of fasting, penance, and self-denial. We may also, in fact we must, attend to what we do, as many commit themselves more fervently to spiritual reading, to the daily attendance of Mass, or to works of service at a local soup kitchen. Some may even commit themselves to acts of giving, and particularly to acts of donation to charity. Even so, this latter giving is generally far from the buoyant spirit of generosity that so gladdens cold hearts at the celebration of the Lord's birth.

However, without wishing to take away at all the distinctive character of gift-giving at Christmas, there is no reason that the almsgiving that makes up the third of the three pillars of Lent, along with fasting and prayer, should be any less marked by good cheer. The giving of almsdeeds, after all, is not meant merely to be some form of penance, the giving away to others what we might too easily spend on our own pleasures. Nor are almsdeeds meant to be the restoration in justice of what if due to the poor. While we ought to engage Lent through self-denial, and while the restoration in justice of what is owed to the poor is a prerequisite of the kind of virtue that Lent is meant to restore in us, even so, alsmdeeds are precisely the giving of things freely, the spending on others in generosity what is, in justice, lawfully ours. It is, or it ought to be, marked not by grim mourning over our own worldiness or our compromises with the unjust distribution of goods. Rather, it should come from that same infectious warmth of spirit that gladdens us so well in cold December, even without the ribbons, bright colored paper, and tinsel.

This is why it is so important that we not sound a trumpet before us when we give alms, why we take care that our alms may be in secret. Our attitude should be that of Christmas giving, of the happiness that comes from seeing that our gifts have made those who receive them happy, that we provide, even in the giving of needful things, a hint at the superabundant joy that is life in the risen Christ. This is why the fast proclaimed in Isaiah, the loosening of bands, the undoing of bundles, setting free the broken and breaking asunder their burdens, is not one more chore, one more act of penance we must do to atone for our sins. This is why feeding the hungry, welcoming the needy and harborless, and clothing the naked break forth not into weeping or judgment, but in the breaking forth of the morning light and the speedy rise of our health. If our Lord's words through his prophet and in the Son sound hard, even accusatory on our ears as they command of us almsdeeds, if they sound like the cold, sepulchral warnings of Jacob Marley, this is only so that we might be as Scrooge transformed on Christmas Day, cheerfully spreading our bounty on those in need without a word to them of their benefactor's name.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

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

We have begun again the season of Lent, and if yesterday has pressed upon us most directly of the three pillars of Lent the pillar of fasting, then today the Church reminds us through the Scriptures more forcefully of the pillar of prayer. We hear two accounts of petitionary prayer, both related to freedom from illness. The first is the prayer of Hezechiah who had been warned by God through the prophet Isaiah that he will die. The second is the petition made by the centurion to Jesus on account of his servant who lieth at home sick of the palsy and ... grievously tormented. Both king and soldier make a positive assertion on behalf of their claim, the king protesting his fidelity to God and the uprightness of his acts, the centurion acknowledging Jesus' unquestioned authority: For I also am a man subject to authority, having under me soldiers, and I say to this: God, and he goeth, and to another: Come, and he cometh; and to my servant: Do this, and he doeth it. Moreover, while the one asserts his own virtues and the other divine authority, both join to their petition a confession of sin, the king with great weeping, the centurion with those words placed upon the lips of the Roman Catholic faithful before receiving the Lord in Holy Communion: Domine, non sum dignus ... Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof: but say only the word and my servant shall be healed.

Now, for unbelievers, and indeed for many believers as well, petitionary prayer is something of a puzzle. Why, they wonder, would God answer prayers? It would seem to make sense only in light of reasons which are themselves objectionable and rejected by the faithful. That is, we surely do not imagine that God needs to be informed of our necessities and of those things which afflict us. Likewise, whatever may have been the case of pagan belief, Christians do not imagine that God needs to be convinced by our petitions, as if he either does not understand what we need or else is not initially inclined to assist us apart from our persuasive words and actions.

All the same, we do not think that God treats us as playthings, requiring of us arbitrarily the performance of prayer which he might as easily answer as not, but which itself is altogether unrelated to his response. Similarly, we do not think that pray has no effect at all, no connection to God's response to our stated need. While some may regard it as more fitting to God to imagine that, as he already knows our need, we ought not think to ask him for anything, that God will do as he will, and we only ought to give thanks for his goodness in whatever form it takes, we know this is not so. Why? Precisely because the Scriptures teach us otherwise. In the case of Hezekiah, the Scriptures could not be clearer: Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father: I have heard thy prayer, and I have seen thy tears: behold I will add to thy days fifteen years: and I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of the Assyrians, and I will protect it, saith the Lord almighty. In a similar way, Jesus says to his followers: Amen I say to you, I have not found so great faith in Israel, and to the centurion: Go, and as thou hast believed, so be it done to thee. Indeed, the best prayer we know, received from the Lord Jesus himself, is itself a series of petitions, of things we ask God to bring about.

The fact is that God has decreed all things to come about through means also resulting from his decree. We are nourished by eating food, learn by thinking over what we have seen, heard, and experienced, are clothed by the work of our hands, and sustained in youth, illness, and age by the kindness and care of those around us, all of which have effect by their own power not in addition to, or instead of, but rather because of God bringing them about. Some things, however, God has chosen to bring about, whether through natural causes or through his supernatural effects, in response to our prayer.

Why should God withhold some goods unless we should pray? And why, if he governs the world in this way, can we not effect some of the goods we most desire whenever we ask? While it would be foolish to imagine to know the hidden counsels of God, we can at least see two crucial effect on us of God bringing us certain goods only through prayer. First of all, it reminds us that at the root of all reality are not raw, brute facts that are just givens, so much data, but rather the personal reality that is the Holy Trinity. To respond rightly to the world, then, means to recognize that more fundamental than the natural processes we see, observe, catalogue and analyze, are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit from whom all things have their being. To know the world, and to bring about in it real change for our good, means then to appreciate the personal relating that is at the heart of all that is.

Second, the necessity of prayer prompts us to be engaged in the world, in its needs, and especially in those things that afflict us. To know about poverty is one thing. To see the hungry poor at your doorstep is something else. To know that God asks us to be the means by which such as these, and any others who suffer, will have their needs met is both empowering and challenging. It is empowering in that it frees us from the sense that we, with our meager resources, can do nothing of real good in the world; through prayer, the poor is at least as well equipped, if not all the more so, than the rich. It is challenging because it means that we must get to know our neighbors better, so that we can all the better pray for their good. Knowing that God may intend our particular prayer to meet the pressing problems of those whom we see every day, whether from across the world in the news or sitting at our front gate, means that we must rise to the occasion, to seek by prayer to accomplish what in truth costs us so little, save a humble confession to God of our needs, and the needs of the world.

O God, Who by sin art offended and by penance appeased, mercifully regard the prayers of Thy suppliant people: and turn aside the scourges of Thine anger, which we deserve for our sins.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

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

My Oberon! what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamour'd of an ass.
There lies your love.
                               How came these things to pass?
O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now.

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer's Night Dream IV.i.76-79

In Shakespeare's play A Midsummer's Night Dream, the haughty and proud Titania, Queen of the Fairies, is humbled through the craft and plan of her husband, the Fairy King Oberon, and his loyal sprite, the mischievous Puck. Bewitched by a magical potion placed upon her eyes, Oberon curses Titania to fall in love with the first vile thing she sees upon waking. Puck, meanwhile, has taken the somewhat likable but largely blustering and incompetent ass of a man, Nick Bottom the Weaver, and having transformed his head to that of a literal ass, sets him where Titania will not fail to gaze upon him, and in her gazing, fall hopelessly in love. Despite the fact that Bottom, his personality altogether unchanged as a result of his new appearance, is now manifestly, in visage as much as in behavior, an ass, Titania receives him into her all too wanton embrace. What any and all could see, she, blinded because of her pride and now made sport of in her folly, found herself adoring rather than spurning. It is only when, restored to her true sight, that she is humbled, humiliated even by her amorous dalliance with an ass of a man, and returns to Oberon, her spouse, king, and lord.

While there are perhaps difficult moral and spiritual issues that confuse us, that perplex our best efforts to understand, in truth we all too often play the role of Titania. We may happily confess that we are "sinners" or "hardly virtuous," but these claims mask a more basic pride. We imagine that we are, basically and fundamentally, on the right track, and that apart from a minor embarrassment from an indiscretion here or there, we would have nothing (or little) to fear from having our lives and loves made known to the world. In truth, however, we resemble Titania fawning over what is vile, ordering her handmaids to festoon with garlands what is better shunned and sent away, inviting into our most intimate embrace what is unworthy of our dignity and contrary to our good. What is worse, we do this all not because the evil we embrace is subtle and crafty, but because in our arrogance we do not see what is plain to the world.

At the beginning of Lent, the Church calls upon us to be humbled, to receive upon our heads the ashes of repentance. We are asked to be marked out not as proud, capable, and virtuous, at worst the perpetrators of an occasional venial sin. Rather, we become public penitents, those who, in their humility, think less of their station and worth, less of how other might esteem their virtue, and more of those loathsome and vile things to which we have pledged our bodies and souls in love. We set aside today our crowns and scepters, even what we may wear by right of the royal and priestly baptism we have received. In their place, we chose to be laid low, to have our sight restored. If our ashes humiliate us, then this is not to be lamented. Rather, if we embrace the Lent they represent, we will find in them a freedom from false and foolish loves, and ourselves returned to our Spouse, our King, and our Lord, Jesus Christ.