Monday, August 15, 2011

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab / 1 Corinthians 15:20-27 / Luke 1:39-56

There is a special joy in receiving a gift that is neither asked for nor expected. Not a gift, in other words, that we thought we wanted, but rather something delightful, something that satisfies a longing we did not even know we had. Such a gift reveals to us something about ourselves, about what leads to our happiness, what it is we truly desire. It also tells us at least as much, if not more, about how well and how deeply we are both known and loved by the gift-giver.

The whole life of the Blessed Virgin Mary was marked precisely by this kind of joy. Her conception was not merely the answer to the longing of an infertile couple even as God had so blessed the barren Matriarchs and Patriarchs of old. It was, beyond that expectation and longing, an immaculate conception, free from the stain of original sin, the daughter so conceived from that very first moment full of grace, greater in honor than the Cherubim and glorious incomparably more than the Seraphim. She was not merely looked upon in her lowliness and called blessed by her peers, but by all generations, recognized by her kinswoman as worthy of all praise because she was to be the mother not merely of a good son, nor only of a Savior as promised to Abraham and to his children forever, but the Mother of God incarnate, even while gifted with retaining her virginity. At the close of her earthly life, she was not merely united to her Son in heaven with the saints, but came to share from the time of her passing from this world in the bodily resurrection of glory which her Son enjoys, the fruit of the victory of Jesus Christ and for which we all await until the Judgment on the Last Day, she possessed already by divine gift.

This joy of an unlooked for gift is the mark not only of the life of the Virgin, although even this would be a grace and a gift, that one whom we love and who loves us so dearly should be so endowed by the Lord. Even so, receiving unexpected and glorious gifts from God is the mark of every authentic Christian life. We can, of course, live in confidence and hope that we will share in the resurrection on the Last Day, the promise we know through Jesus Christ the firstfruits, and through its first unfolding in the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary body and soul into heaven. God, however, never repeats his gifts. Every work of his grace is like a new work of art, and so for each and every one of us, there is some unlooked for, some unexpected gift in store for us.

This is why the mystery of the Assumption is more than a part of the story of the Virgin Mother of the Lord. It is, rather, both the foreshadowing and the pattern of the joyful surprises that await us in the life of grace. God is a gift-giver with wonderful and heart-breakingly glorious gifts in store for us. Are we ready, as was Elizabeth at the visitation of the Virgin Mother, whose Assumption we celebrate today, to receive God's holy surprises with an eager heart and grateful joy?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Isaiah 56:1, 6-7 / Romans 11:13-15, 29-32 / Matthew 15:21-28

Why are we Christian? Why do we have faith in Jesus Christ? Why have we been born again in baptism and made heirs with him to life everlasting?

Faced with these questions, even a few moments of reflection will force us to reject the easy answers that come to mind. We might, for example, imagine that we have faith in the Lord Jesus because of some personal virtue of ours, because we have the right kind of insight or did the right kind of research among various religious options or because we are simply holy enough souls that the truth of the Gospel came to us as easily as breathing. However, we know ourselves too well to think any of these might be the case.

We might, on the other hand, chalk it all up to circumstances of birth, upbringing, or culture. However, we know many people who shared the same circumstances, perhaps even our own brothers and sisters, who have departed from fellowship with Jesus Christ and his Church, and may never have truly believed in the first place. We also know too many people from families, places, and circumstances which, on the face of it, should make them the least likely of believers, and yet there they are, joining us at the font and the altar. Indeed, some of these may be so fervent as to even make us jealous of their faith, longing to share with the Lord what they have come to know of his love.

The only real answer, the only true response to the question of our faith, is that it comes from the free and sovereign choice of God's love, and from his love alone.

Now, even while this answer is true, we are not likely at first to be all to comfortable with it. The divine election of some, and apparently not others, to share in saving faith rings at first hearing a rather sour note in our ears. It shocks us as do the words of Jesus to the Canaanite woman in the Gospel: It is not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs. We see ourselves as fair and even-handed, or at the very least we strive to be, and we expect God to be even more so. That we, who seem so little to deserve special treatment, special choosing by God, should be the object of election by grace sits awkwardly on our minds.

The truth, however, is that only on the basis of God's free choice in love can we ground any hope not only for ourselves, not only for his chosen people Israel, but indeed for all the peoples of the world. So long as we imagine that coming to God's mercy is inevitable, we risk falling into the error of indifference, thinking that the world could just as easily get along without the Gospel as with it. In so thinking, we will stop longing for that joy God has prepared for us beyond all our imagining.

This was the truth Jesus wanted to give to the Canaanite woman. He did not want to make a quick and easy response to her petition, quietly and efficiently delivering her daughter from the demon and then sending her on her way unchanged, untransformed, as his disciples had urged. Rather Jesus wanted to awaken her faith, to draw her by his gift of faith more deeply into the mystery of himself, so that the would long not for the best goods her mind could imagine, but enlightened by faith, to crave the tiniest scrap from Jesus' table, only to discover in her faith an invitation to the everlasting banquet of the Kingdom.

Brothers and sisters, we who are in the Church, the Body of Christ, we who have been delivered from disobedience and sin by the mercy of God poured out in Christ Jesus, know how incredible, how surprising is our presence here, how easily we might have taken another path were it not that we too shared from the scraps that fell from our Master's table. If Jesus has done so with us, then surely we need not imagine that there is anyone in any circumstance too distant for his mercy to reach, to fallen in disobedience that he cannot be brought back into freedom. We ought to live than not in sorrow, anxiety, or despair about those who have not yet received the Gospel or who, having received it, have walked away. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, we can know with confidence and with hope, will unfailingly draw into our company countless persons whose journey to faith would astound us, were our own journeys not equally amazing.

This is why, without any danger of pride or indifference, we ought gladly to receive the news of our election by grace and love. If we have been chosen and called, then all the more ought we to open wide the doors of our hearts to those who seem to us far removed from the Gospel. We have been made God's house and his temple, and he has said of us through his prophet Isaiah, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Can we, who have been called from disobedience to life from the dead lost hope in God's mercy? Can we ever fail to embrace beyond the boundaries of race and nation to draw into our company the hearts of all who live?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a / Romans 9:1-5 / Matthew 14:22-33

We often find ourselves confused when we see and otherwise familiar face in a very different and unaccustomed setting. A child, for example, can be easily startled to see her teacher at the movie theater or her priest buying groceries. For her, teachers ought to be only in schools, priests only at church. Adults, too, can fall prey to the same phenomenon. We can see the face of the same janitor from work day after day, the same barista who serves us our morning coffee, but put those same faces in the park, or at the beach, or in a city far from home, and we find ourselves struggling to remember where and how we know them, even to recall their names.

What is true of our human relationships can also be true of the spiritual life. In our Gospel today, we hear of Jesus Christ walking across the storm-tossed sea. His disciples, who have been with him daily for quite some time in his ministry in Galilee, and had just experienced his miraculous feeding of the five thousand, nonetheless cannot recognize him. In this strange and unaccustomed place at this dark and unaccustomed hour, the disciples do not expect Jesus to be there, so they cannot believe that it is he. Even Peter can only act out of caution and doubt — "Lord, if it is you ..." — and not even the Lord's generous invitation to come to him is enough to keep him from sinking.

How very different the experience of the prophet Elijah on Horeb. Elijah, even more than the disciples on the stormy sea, was experiencing dark and terrible days. While he had seen God send fire from heaven, still he feared that he was the last faithful prophet in Israel, and he believed his life would meet a painful and terrible end at the hands of the wicked queen, Jezebel. Likewise, Horeb, although the accustomed place for God's appearing, had nonetheless in the past only witnessed revelations in cloud, fire, and thunder, full of majesty and awe. Yet, despite all this, despite his own fears and God's unlikely presence in a tiny whispering sound, a still, small voice, Elijah recognizes God all the same, hiding his face to honor the Lord's passing by.

What did Elijah know that Peter and the disciples did not? How can we learn to see as Elijah saw and recognize God where we are not accustomed to find him, greeting him with honor and joy rather than with a lack of faith?

The fact is that what works in recognizing familiar faces in human life works also in recognizing God's presence. When we are not merely around someone daily, but rather when we come to know the rich depth of their lives, coming to know them as persons with their own loves and fears, hobbies and deep commitments, then we find it no real surprise when they turn up in our lives outside the normal routine. So also is it with God. The more we allow ourselves to know the fulness of the divine mystery as he has revealed to us through Jesus Christ, the more we grow in what God has spoken in the Scriptures as taught faithfully by Tradition and the pastors of the Church, the less we will will be surprised to find God in unaccustomed places and persons. We will know to look for God not only in church, but also at work or school, in prisons and in soup kitchens. We will learn to seek him not only in our priests, our family, and the friendly faces in the pews, but also in the homeless, in migrants and refugees, in those broken in body and mind, in convicted felons and in those who work the streets.

Brothers and sisters, God is always present to us, and through the Scriptures, through the sacraments, and through the life of the Church, he enriches us with an abundance of ways to know him better. Are we ready today, as we receive our Lord at the altar, to open our eyes just a little more, and be ready to find him in the still, small voices, the tiny whispering sounds where we did not expect him to be?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Transfiguration of the Lord

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 / 2 Peter 1:16-19 / Matthew 17:1-9

It is hard to trust promises of beauty, power, and glory. Some such promises are obviously not to be believed. We know that we will not look like models merely because we wear the same underwear or use the same shampoo. We know we will not become instantly successful by driving the right sort of car or applying the right sort of makeup. Other promises, however, take a keener eye to find wanting. We see and hear advertisements, featuring real, ordinary people, who witness and attest incredible things: that they lost a great deal of weight while using a certain dietary supplement, that they shaped their body into a sleek and muscled form through a particular fitness program, that they achieved financial success in but a few months through a simple business strategy. Now, all of these stories may well be true, at least in the lives of these persons giving testimony, but nearly always there is a disclaimer which we need to be on the lookout to find, which says, "Results not typical; actual results may vary."

So, we may be timid and reluctant to trust in the promise offered us in the Transfiguration of the Lord. The promise itself is enticing, that God offers us not only a disembodied life with him in heaven, nor only to rise again in our mortal bodies, but that like Christ on Mt Tabor we will shine like the sun, full of radiance and majestic glory, and enjoy with Christ dominion, glory, and kingship, along with a beauty the world cannot now begin to conceive. This promise also comes with its own testimonies: the eyewitness of St Peter who, with James and John, witnessed the majesty of Christ transfigured, as well as the very voice of the Father coming from the cloud, proclaiming, "This is my beloved Son."

Yet, we have been disappointed by other promises, and we have learned to set our expectations low. How, then, do we sharpen our vision? How do we learn to see that, for this promise, there is no disheartening disclaimer?

In his letter, Peter teaches us the one way to hold true to the bright promise. We must, he reminds us, drink in the Scriptures daily, what he calls "the prophetic message that is altogether reliable." So long as we hear only the dark, gloomy, and confused voices of the world, our eyes will never catch a glimpse of the light of Mt Tabor. Only when we read the Bible attentively, faithfully, frequently, and with and open heart, will we train our vision to see not as the world sees, but to see as God sees. Only in the Scriptures will we see the truth of our neighbor and of ourselves, that for God there are no ordinary and insignificant people with ordinary and insignificant futures. In the glory of Jesus Christ transfigured, we are called to share in the beauty, power, and glory of Tabor, shining more than ten thousand suns.

This is the truth and beauty God offers us in his sacred Scriptures, a lamp shining in a dark place. Let us recommit ourselves to study his sacred Word in the darkness of our world, until day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Dedication of St Mary Major/Friday of 18th Week (I)

Deuteronomy 4:32-40 / Matthew 16:24-28

Some things in life seem a bit over-dedicated. I have seen, for example, an advertisement for a device designed for the sole purpose of heating up hot dogs while, at the same time, steaming the hot dog buns. For all I know, it may work marvelously. Even so, how often does one really want to eat hot dogs with steamed buns? Such a device, however well it works for its dedicated purpose, is surely frivolous, a waste of time, of space, and of money. Other kinds of overdedication are more serious in their consequences: the father so dedicated to earning a living to support his family that he cannot name a single one of his children's friends, the woman so dedicated to serving others at her own expense that her body is worn out and her soul is without joy.

Even so, other things is life can be decidedly under-dedicated. Witness, for example, the barren and soulless multipurpose spaces, indistinguishable from oversized broom closet, that masquerade as "interfaith chapels" in airports around the world. Or, consider the hours, even days, wasted aimlessly and without purpose lying around on the sofa or drifting about the internet. As frivolous or perilous overdedication can be, the lack of dedication seems decidedly worse, a squandering of human potential, joy, and flourishing.

The problem, then, is not dedication itself, the being set apart for some singular and special purpose. The problem is whether we are dedicated to the right end, the right purpose. After all, it is because the church whose dedication we celebrate today, St Mary Major in Rome, is set apart for the worship of Almighty God and in honor of the Blessed Virgin, and for those purposes alone, that it can serve countless pilgrims every day: as a place of beauty to honor God, as a source of consolation through the work of confessors absolving the faithful of their sins, as a place to give thanksgiving for the intercession of the Mother of God, Mary most holy.

Likewise, it was because the people of Israel were dedicated to God, and to God alone, and pledged to fix that dedication in their hearts and in their lives, that their faith served not only them, but became a light and beacon to all the peoples of the world. More than that, it is the all-consuming joy of being dedicated to Jesus Christ, and not only to his life, but to his suffering and death as well, that we can look with joy rather than fear or anxiety for the Son of Man to come with his angels in his Father's glory.

Brothers and sisters, we have in the end three choices. We can choose to refuse to dedicate our lives, and so waste away, missing out on the beauty and joy of the gifts God sends. We can dedicate ourselves to lesser things, and so be either frivolous or used up, but in the end no more joyous or alive than those who are dedicated to nothing at all. Or, we can rededicate ourselves to Jesus Christ, who in our baptism has already dedicated us to himself. In that dedication, we will find life and joy, death only to what kills the spirit, and a rising to love everlasting in the Kingdom that will never end.