Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sexagesima Sunday

2 Corinthians 11:19-33; 12:1-9 / Luke 8:4-15

And I know such a man, whether in the body or out of the body, I know not, God knoweth: that he was caught up unto paradise, and heard secret words which it is not granted to man to utter.

Arcana verba. Arcane words. We have more experience with arcane words, with words hidden from out hearing. In a world of passwords, to be aware that entrée into any number of places we might enjoy, of which we might make use, but which, for want of the secret words, the arcana verba, we cannot, is for us a burden and a sorrow. We convince ourselves that we are Ali Baba, and that the words spoken in secret by others hide a treasure, a treasure of which we could make good use if only we knew to say Open sesame! 

On the other hand, perhaps we find ourselves in a different tale. We may imagine that we are like the sorcerer's apprentice and that, while the words, the hidden truths, that others have kept from us will have real effect on our mouths, nonetheless perhaps we were not yet ready for them. We might, that is, think that we just need the right ancillary information, the right kind of training, at which point the arcana verba will be for us not merely effective, as they were for the poor apprentice, but for our good as well.

It seems to me that Paul, in letting us know that he had heard arcana verba, the secret words of Paradise, was neither taunting us that he had a privileged entrée to treasures in which we might share but which he chose to keep to himself, nor holding back from words of which we could make real and effective use, but which might escape our power, just yet, of keeping under control. Rather, I wonder if we might turn, rather than to the One Thousand and One Nights or Goethe's Der Zauberlehring for our instruction, but instead to Dante Alighieri's Commedia.

In the Paradiso, when Dante ascends to the sphere of Saturn, he finds the glorious music of the heavenly choruses, which has accompanied him in his ascent, becoming only more beautiful in each greater sphere,  reduced to silence, and the beatific smile of his beloved guide Beatrice disappear from her face. Dante grows anxious, and worries that he had somehow displeased Beatrice and heaven. Beatrice, patient and generous as ever, puts the heavenly pilgrim's heart at ease:

Già eran li occhi miei rifissi al volto
de la mia donna, e l'animo con essi,
e da ogne altro intento s'era tolto.

E quella non ridea; ma "S'io ridessi,"
mi cominciò, "tu ti faresti quale
fu Semelè quando di cener fessi:

ché la bellezza mia, che per le scale
de l'etterno palazzo più s'accende,
com' hai veduto, quanto più si sale,

se non si temperasse, tanto splende,
che 'l tuo mortal podere, al suo fulgore,
sarebbe fronda che trono scoscende."

My eyes were already fixed on my Lady’s face once more, and my mind with them, free of every other intent, and she did not smile, but said: "Were I to smile, you would be like Semele, turned to ashes, since my beauty which burns more brightly, as you have seen, on the steps of the eternal palace, the higher we climb, if it were not moderated, glows so much, that your human powers, at its lightning flash, would be like the leaves the thunder shatters."

Beatrice withholds her smile, and the saints in the sphere of Saturn withhold their song, not because they wish to keep something precious from Dante, nor because they are worried with the danger he might caused, unused to the truth they would reveal but rather because they love him. What they know, as he does not yet see, is that their love is too intense, too pure, too true for one still as enmeshed in the world as he, still too compromised by lesser and enfeebling loves. What Beatrice and the saints long to share, the song they shiver with anticipation at the inclusion of his voice, the smile they ache to see him reciprocate, is the very thing that, given his present state, given his worldliness, they must, not out of worry for themselves, but rather out of concern for him, keep silent, allow to remain arcana verba. What they know, even as he does not, is that his heart is as yet to hardened, too small, too feeble, to speak words that not only make sense only to such as the saints, but will do grave injury to those of lesser love.

We already have a hint of that truth on earth. Have you never wanted to tell someone else you loved them, only to know that, in their bitterness and darkness, such knowledge would be for them a sharp blow and an offense, rather than good news? Have you not known those who, by constitution or acquired disposition, can only and invariably find the cloud for every silver lining? For these, and indeed we must add for us, might there not be secret words of heaven, words that God and his saints long to share, but which we, as we are, loving as we do, could not hear, at whose sounds our very soul sarebbe fronda che trono scoscende?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

St Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr/Wednesday of the 7th Week in Ordinary Time (I)

Sirach 4:11-19 / Mark 9:38-40

"Inclusivity" has become more than a buzzword or a cliché of political rhetoric. For many, it is regarded as the foundation of civic virtue, moral virtue, and, for some, even of Christian virtue. These latter find warrant for their view in Jesus' attitude towards the "uncommissioned" exorcist. Jesus seems to regard him as one of his own — Whoever is not against us is for us — and displays a fantastic disregard for his "irregular" status. He is doing good, and doing so in Jesus' name; that seems to be enough.

In the face of what some take to be this radically inclusive view of Jesus' ministry, it might be peculiar, even suspect, to celebrate St Polycarp, best known not for inclusivity, but for his radical exclusion of anything but the Christian Gospel. At first glance, it is the attitude of Roman pagansim, and not of the saintly bishop, that appears the more humane. So long as one would hold to his own culture and its traditions and rites, and so long as one would honor with admittedly quite unobtrusive observances the divinity which blesses the empire, one was free in the Roman world to embrace any and all, or even no, cult whatsoever. One was in fact encouraged to embrace variety, without needing to show any concern for whether one cult was right or wrong, better or worse, true or false.

However, it is precisely here that we see the wholesomeness of the Christian exclusion, witnessed by Polycarp's martyrdom by fire and sword. To submit to the cult of the emperor and the mandatory inclusivism of Rome that accompanied it, one must abandon any commitment to the truth and the pursuit of wisdom that rightly characterizes a human life well lived. Only an unwavering embrace of truth once found is truly inclusive, because only such an excluding embrace is the common goal of every human person, each of whom is fundamentally oriented to the truth, a truth made definitively known in the Incarnate Word, in Wisdom, our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the real meaning of Jesus' saying. In accepting the exorcist he was not disregarding questions of right or wrong, true or false. Rather, to say that whoever is not against Christ is for him is to exclude any vague and uncommitted middle ground, to insist that there is no third path to human flourishing, only a decision for the Lord or against him. It is only in our exclusive, faithful love of Wisdom that we can breathe deeply the life we are called to live, the life poured out upon us the Jesus Christ.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time (I)

Sirach 1:1-10 / Mark 9:14-29

The quest for wisdom, something which many of us, especially those of us serious about our faith, pursue, seems in light of the Scriptures to be doomed from the start. Sirach reminds us that God alone is wise, which rather puts the whole quest into question. After all, we are not God, we cannot hope to number the sand of the shore or the stars in the sky. Indeed, the rather dim prospects for our achieving wisdom appear to be confirmed by the Gospel's record of Jesus' coming down from the mountain. Here we see the disciples, those who have been living with, been taught by, and been commissioned by Wisdom Incarnate himself to proclaim the Good News, unable to free the poor boy from the mute spirit, and altogether at a loss to understand why. Here we see the scribes, who ought surely to have some share of wisdom from their dutiful and regular study of God's holy Law, nonetheless finding in the disciples' failure a reason to confirm their own stubborn rejection of the Christ. Even the father of the unfortunate boy, while confirming a kind of faith, exhibits in his request — If you can ... — a deeper failure, a deeper confusion about who Jesus is and what it means to seek out his help. Not even the crowd seems to understand anything more than that wherever Jesus and the scribes meet up, there will be something worth seeing.

However, there is another path to wisdom apart from human achievement. Wisdom can come to us not as an accomplishment, but as a gift, a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is out of love that the Holy Spirit endows us with gifts, those special graces by which we are made supple instruments, responsive to the most subtle and slightest of influences from the Comforter. Through the gift of wisdom, we are given a share in the divine perspective of things, the chance, if we follow the Spirit's lead, to see things as God sees them because we have been enflamed by that same Spirit to love as God loves.

As this wisdom comes to us as a gift, it is ours not by nature or by right, but only to the extent that we remain personally related to the Holy Spirit. Said differently and simply, it is only by prayer that we can be wise. Only by being accustomed to the movements of the Spirit's presence within us, only by recognizing without confusion the voice of the Spirit who speaks to us in prayer and indeed prays on our behalf, can we be led to the wisdom we seek.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Septuagesima Sunday

1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 10:1-5 / Matthew 20:1-16

How much does the life of grace resemble the choices we make on our own initiative? How much will the Kingdom cleave to the kind of life we have lived in this vale of tears? If we follow what St Paul says to the Corinthians, we might assume that the life to come will have been echoed in important and significant ways in the life of the world to come. After all, he reminds us that the quality of our efforts here, that our striving for mastery here and now will bear fruit in the winning of an imperishable crown. Paul warns the Corinthians that the signs of grace, even there efficacious signs, were no less present in faith to the Jews who were led out of Egypt through the cloud and the see into the promised land, but nonetheless with most of them God was not well pleased. It is not enough to be happy to have run the race. Run, the Apostle tells us, that you may obtain.

On the other hand, the Gospel would suggest to us that the logic of the Kingdom is altogether unlike the logic of this world. Those workers in Jesus' parable who had borne the burden of the day and the heats seem, in the logic of the world, to be right in their complaining. That those who have worked but one hour should receive the same reward as those who have been faithful in times good and bad, who have been faithful even in spite of the malice and resistance of those who, at the last hour, chose to labor in the householder's vineyard, is clearly against every expectation the world has of justice and right.

In the Collect of the day, the Church places before our eyes this very tension: Graciously hear, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the prayers of Thy people, that we, who are justly afflicted for our sins, may for the glory of Thy name be mercifully delivered. Our labors, our suffering, our trials, come to us at least in large part for our deserts, and yet the logic of what we deserve is subsumed under the more compelling logic of the glory of God's name. Our struggles in winning the race are well deserved, and we have no one else to blame for our handicaps in making it first to the finish line. At the same time, we ought not to be surprised, when we get there, to find among our company the lazy grasshoppers and the overconfident hares mercifully delivered to share the selfsame joys that we, the plodding and careful ants and tortoises, have painstakingly come to by unfailing effort.

Our Lord responds to this tension for us not by the articulation of a grand principle, but by speaking directly and personally to each of us who finds himself offended. After all, it was not to all of them that murmured that the householder had something to say. Some of them, receiving their reward, we must assume went away bitter and unanswered. However, in his mercy, the householder spoke to one of them. Where he was in his rights to leave unexplained his behavior, the householder still chose to show mercy to one of the murmurers, to reveal to him alone what he allowed to remain unexplained to the others. Friend, he says, drawing to him in love who did not yet rejoice in the householder's bounty. Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst thou not agree with me for a penny? Take what is thine and go thy way: O will also give to this last even as to thee. Or, is it not lawful for me to do what I will? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?

In our lives we have already seen, and will continue to see what strikes us as an unfair distributions of God's favor. We will be tempted to murmur, to wonder what the point of our abstaining, our striving for mastery has been when even those who labored least share our same reward. In the face of this, let us not lose heart. What is at stake for us is not anyone else's reward, nor is it some leap in the dark for a reward unknown. We run, we struggle, we pursue the Christian life, not as a shot in the dark, not as a leap into the abyss, not as at an uncertainty. Rather, we run with all our strength to him who love would burst our very hearts were it not that he enlarged and strengthened them to bear his beauty. When we have come to him, for whom we pine and long and yearn in our every one of life's cravings, what room will there be in our hearts for bitterness at the others who share our company? When we rest in Christ's loving embrace, what thought will we have for how we have lived our lives during the race. Christ is all, and in possessing him, in being possessed by him, we will have more than we could ever ask.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time (I)

Genesis 8:6-13, 20-22 / Mark 8:22-26

Restoring sight is a lot more complicated than it might seem. Of course, we expect that technically speaking, removing cataracts or repairing retina requires skill, expertise, advances in technology, and the like. Even so, we might imagine that all we need do is remove the obstacle to sight, repair the damaged part of the eyes, and sight will follow quite naturally.

It turns out, however, that things are not so simple. Apparently, when deprived of clear visual information, the brain, especially an immature brain, will "rewire" its part normally devoted to processing visual data to do something else. The result is that, even when the eyes are restored to full functioning, shapes would still appear blurry and indistinct. Even tasks at which the human mind is especially adept, such as picking out human faces, breaks down as a result of early or prolonged blindness, and it takes time for the brain to relearn how to understand what the eyes, in themselves, clearly see.

In noting this, I am not suggesting that this is necessarily what happened with Jesus' healing of the blind man. True enough, the process is eerily like what modern science knows: first the eyes are freed from impediments, then the mind relearns how to see. Still, Jesus could surely have done in one moment and without effort what he chose to accomplish in two different steps.

Even so, this stepwise healing is an important reminder to us of how God often responds to our restoration. God, it seems, is not merely concerned with the removal of obstacles and defects from our lives. Merely to be freed from the blindness arising from sin and suffering is not yet to see the world as we ought. For this we need a new training of our souls, to relearn, or to learn for the first time, how to see rightly by means of the light of faith. May we, who yearn like the blind man to be freed from the ills that afflict us, also like him receive in patient waiting the fullness of faith that God bestows to us over the whole course of our lives.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

St Dominic Priory Building Project

Since 1981, the friars in formation of the Province of Saint Albert the Great (USA) have been housed in Jesuit Hall in Saint Louis, Missouri. What was meant to be a temporary measure, and what has indeed been a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the generous hospitality of the Society of Jesus, has nonetheless drawn on beyond its original intentions. In short, we have finally decided to acquire a building of our own.

What we have aplenty are enthusiastic men in studies, from both the Province of Saint Albert the Great and the Province of Saint Martin de Porres, and two provinces ready and willing to make the move. We have a lovely, old building waiting for our renovation and expansion and a very fine plan for the new construction. What we need is your assistance!

Above all, we need your prayers that we may be faithful to the Rule and the Constitutions, that we may grow in holiness in accord with the charism of Our Holy Father Dominic, and that we may fulfill our mission in preaching the Gospel and the salvation of souls.

What we also need is your financial assistance. In these tight times especially, it is important to make wise investments of lasting value, and I can think of nothing better than assisting in the establishment of a house conducive to the formation of preachers of the Gospel for generations to come.

For more information about the building project, go here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ss Cyril and Methodius, Co-Patrons of Europe

Acts 13:46-49 / Luke 10:1-9

We can learn a lot about someone, indeed we can learn a lot about ourselves, from the way we pack for travel. Some of us travel with our bags numerous and full. Within our luggage can be found whole pharmacies and wardrobe changes to make the costume departments of the best theaters envious. On the other hand, some of us travel with scarcely anything at all, giving just a hint of our limitless capacity to work marvels to rival the multiplication of loaves and fishes.

Even so, whether we pack plentifully or lightly, we demonstrate that we are committed to the fantasy of autonomy. We imagine, if only to ourselves, that we have the resources to meet any and all contingencies. We might think those resources to be our external bounty, or we might be convinced those resources are internal, matters of character and creativity. All the same, we share the confidence that, even far from home, we will be in charge of what will happen.

How very different is our Lord's command to the seventy. Not once, but twice, the Lord Jesus insists that his disciples, whom he sends out in twos, to eat whatever is put before them. This command, simple as it seems, represents a direct assault on our fantasy of autonomy. Whether they like it or not, the disciples of Jesus will not be in charge of how they are perceived in the food they eat — simple or extravagant, crude or elegant. No pretense of being refined or "just plain folks" will be possible when it is someone else who will be setting the table. Rather, the disciples will need to rely not on their strategies of self-presentation, but on the Gospel and God, whose heralds they are.

This is the loss of autonomy that sustained St Cyril. It was just this willingness not to rely on the resources he might have asserted that permitted him to learn Arabic, Hebrew, and even Aramaic, to defend the Trinity against the Muslims, proclaim Christ among the Jewish Khazars, teach philosophy, and give that all up to bring the Scriptures and his preaching to the people of Great Moravia (after, of course, working with his brother Methodius on inventing a new alphabet!), only to need to petition the pope to support their work even while Rome and Constantinople were on unfriendly terms at best.

This loss of autonomy that sustained Saint Cyril and Methodius is the same loss of autonomy that will sustain us. In the end, it is not our exterior resources for mission, nor our interior intellectual and spiritual disciples, but only the grace of Christ at work in us that will bring the healing our Lord promised to the nations.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

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

How important is it that Christians proclaim the Gospel by their words? An odd question, perhaps, but one that touches upon the perception of many of the Catholic faithful throughout the world. Whatever it was in the past, many, maybe even most, Catholics today tend to associate direct, verbal proclamation of the Gospel to those who do not believe with Christians of a more Evangelical or Pentecostalist persuasion. However much we insist on our right, indeed our obligation, to live out the Catholic faith in full, public view, we are generally more inclined to imagine that it will be more the manner of our living, or the intrinsic beauty of our worship, our moral witness, or even of the faith as experienced in charity, that will draw others to Christ.

There is, to be sure, much in the Scriptures to support this view of things. Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, is delighted precisely because his proclamation of the Gospel to them hath not been ... in word only, but in power also, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much fullness. This is so, he asserts, because the Thessalonians knew of Paul and his fellow missionaries what manner of men we have been among you for your sakes. That is, it was how Paul was among the Thessalonians, not merely his word, that effected such a transformation, and this transformation is seen not so much in the Thessalonians' verbal assertion of faith in Christ as in their manner of living. Indeed, Paul is so convinced in the indisputable evidence of their rebirth in Christ by the power of the Spirit that he sees no need to tell anyone else about his work in Thessalonica — For they themselves relate to us what manner of entering in we had unto you; and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven (Whom He raised up from the dead).

Christ, too, seems to have avoided a direct proclamation of the things hidden from the foundation of the world. In public, to the crowds, Jesus refrained from any direct publication of the truth — All these things Jesus spoke in parables to the multitudes: and without parables He did not speak to them. If Paul saw the best evidence of the faith to be the lived experience rather than the spoken word, and if Christ himself saw fit to confine a clear proclamation of the mysteries to his intimate friends and not to the crowds, does this mean that we are confirmed in our bias against public, verbal proclamation of the faith?

As tempting as such a view might be to reconfirm our own timidity, we are engaging in a dangerous reading of the Scriptures should we draw such a conclusion. After all, the men of Thessalonica did not intuit the Gospel of Christ merely from Paul's lifestyle or behavior. They did not know the saving power of the risen Lord, the glory of the Cross, simply by witnessing the wholesome power of Paul's character. While it is true that his Gospel to them was not in word only, it nonetheless was in word, and indispensably so.

Likewise, while Jesus may have spoken in parables to the crowds during his earthly ministry, when he had risen from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit upon his apostles, he commanded them to proclaim what he had taught them to every creature. Granted, the kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed or like a leaven in three measures of meal: small, unnoticed, unassuming, but with great potential and transformative power. However, these parables of the kingdom are not programs or models for living out the life of the Church. Rather, they are what God does within us in Christ by the power of the Spirit. That is, it is God who plants the seed in his field and he who puts the small bit of leaven in the measures of flour. We, the Church, are meant to be the seed all grown up into a tree, greater than all herbs ... so that the birds of the air come and dwell in the branches thereof.

While God's work within us is invisible to all outward appearance, its effect on us is supposed to be manifest to all, clear and evident and unmistakable. This means also that we are to be explicit where God's work in us is more subtle. We are to proclaim the Gospel in every aspect of our selves, and this means explicitly in our verbal and public proclamation of Jesus Christ to an unbelieving world. This is our task and our goal. This is the prayer of the Church today for us, and for all believer: Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that thinking everything over in our minds, we may accomplish, both in words and works, that which is pleasing in Thy sight.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Our Lady of Lourdes/Friday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time (I)

Genesis 3:1-8 / Mark 7:31-37

In C.S. Lewis' The Pilgrim's Regress, there is a scene in which our protagonist, John, has been placed in prison, guarded by a giant. However, the giant's power is not limited, nor even especially found, in his imposing size, but rather in the power of his eyes. Wherever the giant casts his gaze, whatever he looks upon is rendered transparent, its innards laid bare for all to see. For John, to see himself and his fellow prisoner thus exposed is horrifying and demoralizing. It is too much to imagine that we are "truly" the hideous working of our inner organs, more "truly" the diseases we do not see, and not the world of surfaces we are accustomed to know.

John is only set free when Reason comes to his rescue. She reminds him that what the giant with his X-ray eyes shows is not a natural appearance, but an unnatural one. It does not so much lay bare what is truly the case as present before the eyes things in a way and manner that the eye, and thus the mind, was not meant to understand and see them. In this way, she contends, we fail to see what is true by the giant's prying gaze.

We often find our faith falling under criticisms, generally from those who believe, sometimes from our fellow believers, and occasionally even from ourselves, which wonder why God would not make himself and the truth about him more obvious, more accessible. Why, if God heals the deaf and mute in Galilee, does he not restore severed limbs at a word? Why, even in light of the voluminous documentation of healings at Lourdes through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, does God not go the one extra step and bring it about that no one would ever leave that holy place without an irrefutable case of a supernaturally-produced, physical cure?

One of the tragedies of the Fall, of the wounding of our human nature arising from sin, is that we no longer see things rightly. It is not that what we see is untrue in every respect. Eve, after all, saw that the forbidden tree tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom, and in this she was not mistaken. However, to see these features of the tree without seeing them in light of God's unmistakable warning of doom — it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.’ — is in truth to fail to see them as they are. Eve's transgression, which would become Adam's by his collusion, and through him would touch all of us, his sons and daughters, has ever since places all of our eyes out of focus, has made our perspective too narrow, too close, too constricted, to see things as they were meant to be seen, to see things such that they disclose the whole truth of themselves, and not a partial fact that, taken alone, distorts its wholesome unity.

So used are we to this false vision that God's drawing close to us, or rather his drawing us closer to him, looks at first glance at a failure on God's part to disclose. If our vision is to be made right, if we are to hear and speak as we ought about him, about ourselves, and about the world around us, we must allow him to take us off by himself away from the crowd, away from our accustomed, prying, falsifying gaze. He will come to us as he sent the Virgin to Bernadette, not openly asserting her identity as we might have liked, but in her, what we might regard as overly modest, even coy delay in announcing herself — Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou — succeeding more dramatically in making his work known to the world.

God is making himself known to us. His voice is clear and unmistakable. It is we who need his help to see again, we who need to relearn how to listen and how to speak.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Eleventh Sunday before Pascha (Zacchaeus Sunday)

[In the Byzantine calendar, today is Zacchaeus Sunday, whose readings for the Divine Liturgy form the basis of my consideration below.]

1 Timothy 4:9-15 / Luke 19:1-10

 Our Gospel today begins as something of a comedy. Zacchaeus is, under one description, a big man. He is chief of the publicans, and as a result, he is very rich, a man worthy of deference and consideration, if not respect. On the other hand, Zacchaeus is a small man. Said simply, he is short, so short that he cannot see over the heads of his fellows, so short that he cannot even elbow his way through the crowd to see Jesus. Yet, this man, who might well be presumed to care about what others think and say about him, a man of wealth and power, but who doubtless had to fight off scorn even from his youth because of his stature and now endures the scorn from his less than savory occupation, does something remarkable. So desirous is he to see Jesus as he passed along the way that he threw all considerations of public dignity aside and, like a child on holiday or an unruly youth, he climbs a tree to get a better look. If ever he thought of preserving his public dignity, he has abandoned such a project now, this short, rich man in full view among the branches of the sycamore tree.

Yet, if we focus on what is comedic here, we risk passing over something deep and life-giving, a sign of the saving power of Christ at work even in anticipation of his saving work on the Cross and from the empty Tomb. We recall another moment of God's passing, this time not in the last of age of the world, but at the dawn of the human family, when God walked in the Garden in the cool of the day. We recall another man who had reason to consider his dignity, this time because he was the first man, Adam, the father of all men. Yet, while Zacchaeus the sinner dangled from the sycamore branch for all to see, Adam the sinner sought to hide himself. At the Lord's invitation, Zacchaeus made haste, came down, and received him joyfully, while at the Lord's questioning, Adam hid himself in shame for his nakedness. Even hearing the accusation of his fellows that he was a sinner, Zacchaeus responds to the Lord's presence with uncommon gratitude: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. When the Lord questions Adam about his transgression, the father of our race responds with an ingratitude all to common among his sons, accusing his wife and reminding the Lord of his responsibility in her making: The woman, whom you gave me to be my companion, gave me of the tree, and I did eat. Where Zacchaeus' repentance and gratitude are blessed — This day is salvation come to this house — Adam's tragic fall is the subject of his curse, and with him, all of us his sons — For dust you are, and unto dust you will return.

There is a rightful concern of our dignity before our fellows, especially when we have a role of authority and are expected to model good behavior to those in our care. This is, after all, part of Paul's admonition to Timothy: Be an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Yet, prior to this advice, Paul reminds Timothy not to concern himself about others' estimation of his dignity and worthiness, those who would despise his youth. Rather, his task is to proclaim the Gospel, to exhort, to preach, whatever others might say. Like Zacchaeus, in the light of the presence of the Word of God made flesh, Timothy is to be willing even to appear childish, so long as he does not neglect the gift of the grace in Jesus Christ. To draw back, to modify our temper our zeal of coming to see Jesus for the sake of earthly dignity, no matter how good such a thing may be in our lives as social creatures, is to forsake our rebirth into Christ and be tempted to put back on the old man, our father Adam.

God is calling each of us, as he called to Adam, and as he called to Zacchaeus. He is calling us to make haste, to come down from the pedestals of our own self-regards, so that he might dwell in the house of our souls. When he calls, let us not hide ourselves, but openly let us confess our sins, respond in generosity to those whom God calls us to love, and enter the banquet he has prepared.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

St Blase, Bishop and Martyr

2 Corinthians 1:3-7 / Matthew 16:24-27

On 11 November 1918, John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces sent to fight alongside the Allies in the Great War, ordered a military assault on the German forces. Although the Germans had signed the Armistice early that morning, and even though it was set to take effect at 11 a.m. that very day, Peshing sent men into combat as late as half past ten. As a result of this offensive, some thirty-five hundred American soldiers lost their lives.

In the year 316, Blase, a man so famous for his powers to cure that even the wild animals came to him for healing and who had been made bishop of Sebaste in Armenia, had his flesh torn by iron combs and his head removed by a sword for the crime of practicing the Christian faith. This was, however, three years after the Edict of Milan had ensured that throughout the Roman Empire, under Constantine in the West and under Licinius in the East, the Christian faith was granted full legal freedom and the restitution of whatever it had lost under the cruel persecution of Diocletian. It was also only eight years before Constantine would become sole emperor of Rome, ensuring that the persecution of Christians in the Roman world would come definitively to an end.

In both cases, the loss of American lives on Armistice Day and the loss of the saint's life under the "Peace of the Church" effected by the Edict of Milan, we have a sense that there is something worse than the loss of life. It is not that the lives of the soldiers who died on 11 November 1918 were more precious than the over fifty thousand combat deaths in the months of combat that preceded. It is not that the holiness of Blase's witness to Christ is greater than the glorious martyrs who died under Diocletian, or Decius, or any number of persecutions before or since. What strikes us, though, is that these deaths seem especially unnecessary. They seem an affront because by all rights there ought not to have been any killings at all. Had Pershing stayed his had, had Licinius and his governors followed the Edict to which Licinius had committed himself, then the brave men who died on 11 November would have returned home as veterans of the Great War, and Blase would have been recalled perhaps as a holy confessor.

However, what the American soldiers revealed unwittingly, and what St Blase manifested in knowing obedience and love, is that no death comes at a right time. Likewise, no martyrdom, no witness of Christ even to death, is more fitting because it occurs in a time of general persecution as opposed to taking place when all else seems to be going well. The conditions for our discipleship to Christ — If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me — are not more true in times of crisis than in times of peace and calm. Our losing of our life for the sake of Christ does not have any less meaning, is no less glorious, if it seems, on human terms, that it "need not have happened."

Our call to martyrdom is universal, as universal as the call to holiness. We ought, every one of us, those who face daily persecution from the enemies of the Gospel and those who live in quiet and comfort in lands more congenial to the Christian faith, are equally called to lose our lives that we might find them in Jesus Christ. If we find the death of a martyr "untimely" because his persecutors ignored that the time of persecution was past, might it be not there there is a tragedy in the martyr's death, but rather an unwillingness to die on our part? Do we, who live at ease in the Christian, or sometimes post-Christian, world, have the courage and love to die for the sake of the Gospel?