Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday of the Forefathers

Colossians 3:4-11 / Luke 14:16-24

Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.

There has been of late on the blogosphere a recent revival of the question of the population of Hell. While the question about the number of those in Hell, at least in general, whether it will be great or small, more or less than the elect, is an ancient one, the latest back and forth seems to have been prompted by the publication this fall of professor of systematic theology Ralph Martin's Will Many Be Saved?: What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization, as well as by the recent response to this work by the priest, blogger, and rector of Mundelein Seminary, Robert Barron. The dispute has its interest, it must be granted. Moreover, Martin might well be right, namely, that too great a confidence in the likely salvation of all, or at least most, may have dulled the more traditional evangelizing fervor of the Catholic Church. Likewise, Barron and others might be quite right that evangelical fervor does not require the fear of hellfire, and that, even if Martin were correct and Hell were heavily populated, the motives for bringing people to the faith ought to be animated far more by the positive love of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us than the negative aversion from what we dread.

Be that as it may, in the parable today we hear from Jesus, it is not the population of Hell, but rather the population of Heaven that is at stake. Even without those originally invited to the banquet, and even after the servants of the master have gone into the streets and lanes of the city and brought in the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind, the servants report to the master that still there is room. On hearing this, the master commands that they go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, but not that none might be excluded. Indeed, the master is quite clear that exclusion is real, a terrible consequence of seeking other goods rather than his bounty: For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper. However, the master's concern is not the logic of exclusion, nor even the logic of inclusion, if by that logic we are concerned with some feature of those included to account for their presence at the banquet. No, the master's central objective is the good of the banquet itself, that his house may be filled.

We can, all too readily, forget that the main point of everything, of all that is, and has been, and will be, is that God might be glorified in his works. This is not a case of divine megalomania. When we desire other people and other things to glorify us, we do so at their expense, by seeing these other things as having meaning only in ourselves. With God, things are different. To serve God, to glorify him, to praise and thank him through all that we are is, at one and the same time, to live out what is most fulfilling of ourselves and to exist to glorify God. In these end, these are convertible, one with the other; even if the glory of God should have priority, as it must, it never comes first at the expense of who we are. It is only our rebellion, our seeking out goods independent of him, as though there could be any such thing, that we undo ourselves, that we transform ourselves from the recipient of God's love and bounty to the object of his wrath, and so, by our turning away, transform ourselves into the very thing we meant to avoid. That is, in turning from God to other goods as a means of self-assertion, we find, in our exclusion from the banquet, that we have become precisely what we fear, namely, that we manifest God's glory not because of, but in spite of what we desire.

This, surely, is why we want to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. There is no doubt that God will be glorified in his works. It can be no other way. There need be no doubt of the efficacy of our salvation in Jesus Christ. He has been at work from our first forefathers, Adam and Eve, and worked throughout all of history, including all those, from Adam through the Virgin, who were born before his most gracious coming. That God will be praised in his works, indeed has been praised beyond anything the world might give on its own, is more than amply shown in the forefathers. Yet, even now, even in the age of grace, God continues to glorify himself, he continues to send us out as his servants and messengers, going to the least likely places because in his house there is still room, and it is his will that his house be full.

Rather than debate the population of Hell, might we not be better suited to making ourselves more equipped to invite others to the banquet? Might we not rather seek to live out the new life we have in Jesus Christ with such joy and delight that others whom we meet will not hesitate to respond heartily and happily when they receive the invitation to dine with us?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Our Lady of Guadalupe/Wednesday of 29th Week after Pentecost

2 Timothy 4:9-22 / Mark 8:30-34

At the close of Paul's second letter to Timothy, we read what might well strike us as odd in a work inspired by the Holy Spirit and destined, by that inspiration is not directly by Paul, to instruct the whole of the Church of God, both in Paul's day and for the years to come until Jesus returns in glory. What is odd is how very specific and personal the letter becomes. Paul lists by name those who have abandoned him — Demas, Crescens, and Titus — those he wants with him — Luke, Timothy himself, and Mark who is to bring them both — those he sent elsewhere — in this case, Tychicus — as well as those who opposed him — Alexander the coppersmith. We hear lovely but altogether practical details, such as Paul's request for the cloak he left in Troas with Carpus, as well as his books and parchments. We also hear a litany of names at the close of the letter, the women and men he greets — Prisca, Aquila, the household of Onesiphorus — and even of poor Trophimus' being sick. Yet, in the midst of these very personal relations, relations which, on their face, seem to have nothing to do with the Church as a whole, or really with anyone but Paul and his immediate circle, Paul reminds us of the presence in all he has done and is doing of Jesus Christ: But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear.

We might likewise wonder at the Church proposing to us as a motive for thanksgiving the apparitions of Mary, as the Church does today for her appearance before Juan Diego in Guadalupe. Without doubting the truth of the apparition and the impact it made on his life, why, we may well ask, should the discourse in Nahuatl between a simple man in colonial Mexico and the Blessed Mother mean anything for the rest of us? Even if we grant that, for the peoples of Mexico, this gracious appearing serves to draw them and their story into the great narrative of God's redemption through Jesus Christ, why should this matter to those of us who are not Mexican, or at least those who do not live in the Americas?

What we learn both from the close of Paul's second letter to Timothy and from the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe is that the encounter with Jesus Christ is always particular. The Gospel, of course, if everlasting, but this does not make it timeless, if by "timeless" we mean addressed to all people indiscriminately in ways so general that nothing of the daily details of the world show through. Rather, the Gospel ought to be said to be deeply and irrevocably timely. It is the timeliness of the Gospel, that it was proclaimed out of and to the very particular hopes of God's people Israel, that it come to the Gentiles through the very particular acts and relationships of such as Paul, and that it continues to come to us, not impersonally or generically, but always as having been received by someone somewhere, always bearing the stamp of where it has been.

Jesus Christ does not mean to bypass the world, and each of us dwelling upon it, so that he might be known. Quite the contrary, the individual peculiarities of each of us is rather the whole point, that God might bring to eternal life not a generic and universalized humanity, but Paul and Luke, Prisca and Aquila, Juan Diego, you, and me. It is in that hope, a hope that the particular and quotidian details of our life do not fall outside of God's care, but that they are at the heart of his redeeming work in the sending of the Son and of his Holy Spirit that we can walk in hope, the hope of that glorious coming we recall as having happened in Bethlehem, we look forward in his glorious return, and we proclaim without reserve in the individual and irrepeatable wonder of each of our lives in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

28th Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 6: 10-17 / Luke 17:12-19

And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed.

In the film version of The Wizard of Oz, near the end of the story, Dorothy believes that she has been stranded forever in the wonderful, but nonetheless alien, land of Oz. The wizard has taken off in his hot-air balloon, and as he is no real wizard, but only a huckster, he can no more will his balloon to return to her than she can fly up to the balloon. It is at this moment that Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, arrives on the scene and reveals something quite startling to Dorothy:

Dorothy: Oh, will you help me? Can you help me?
Glinda: You don't need to be helped any longer. You've always had the power to go back to Kansas.
Dorothy: I have?
Scarecrow: Then why didn't you tell her before?
Glinda: She wouldn't have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.
Scarecrow: What have you learned, Dorothy?
Dorothy: Well, I—I think that it, that it wasn't enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em — and it's that — if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?
Glinda: That's all it is!
Scarecrow: But that's so easy! I should've thought of it for you -
Tin Man: I should have felt it in my heart -
Glinda: No, she had to find it out for herself. Now those magic slippers will take you home in two seconds!


It's not that Glinda here promotes some sort of Pelagian nonsense, as though Dorothy is able achieve her heart's desire by her own effort. After all, it is the magic of the ruby slippers that makes this mode of travel possible in the first place. Rather, what Glinda, who gifted these slippers to Dorothy near the beginning of the film, has known all along is that, apart from an effective knowledge of the power that she has, a power which depends heavily on rightly understanding her situation as well as her heart, then no gift, however precious and potentially life-transforming, can do her any lasting good.

In the Gospel today, we hear of Jesus' healing of the ten lepers. What sets this story in many ways apart from other miracles of Jesus is that the healing of the ten occurs entirely apart from any explicit eliciting of faith. That is, the ten ask for mercy, and Jesus sends them to the priests, whose task it was according to the Law to declare a man clean or unclean. Even so, all of them, we are told, are cleansed by Christ's power along the way and, we may well imagine, the nine who continued on their way were to rejoice when the priest gave them a clean bill of health.

Yet, only to the one who returned, the one who saw that he was healed, does Jesus say, Your faith has made you well. All of them, in other words, have been made well in one sense; all of them have received the gift of physical deliverance from leprosy. However, only this solitary man, indeed only this foreigner in an alien place, a Samaritan, can in fact be declared by Jesus to have been made well. He alone, of the ten, has learned what must be learned by the gift he has received, and only he can profit from that knowing, being taken back to the place he most desires — not Samaria, but to the bosom of Abraham, to be in the presence of God through the help of the Savior, Jesus Christ.

We have, all of us who have received the grace of baptism in Jesus Christ and been brought to a new and everlasting life in the Holy Spirit have received a far greater gift than a pair of magic slippers. We who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and called out of darkness into light, have professed a faith far richer, far deeper than the faith proclaimed by the Samaritan who was healed from his leprosy. Yet, do we we know it? Do we know of this gift we have received? Has it made, and does it make a difference?

This time of preparation for Christmas, this solemn fast of awaiting that the Church imposes on her faithful, does for us in profound ways what Glinda did for Dorothy in simple ways. If we are honest, we will confess that, even though the gift is ours, we really do not yet understand it. Our heart is not yet settled on Jesus Christ, and we do not see his gracious coming, in times past, today into our hearts, and on the Last Day, as we ought, namely, as the fulfilling of our heart's desire. This year, let us make our waiting for his Advent be a way to discover once again what Jesus Christ has done for us and continues to do for us. Let us stop on our way going about our daily tasks, and seeing what has been done for us, proclaim aloud to all who would hear that Jesus Christ is Lord, that he has made us whole, and we have no greater joy than to fall down before him and give thanks.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Conception of the Theotokos by St Anna

Galatians 4:22-31 / Luke 8:16-21

For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him.

Do we delight in the prosperity of others? Are we pained to discover that someone else possesses a gift or a talent that we would very much like to have, but do not? When we find out that whatever we most value about ourselves is likewise in someone else, and that they have it more perfectly than we do, is this for us a cause for joy, or is it a motive for malice?

When we consider the special gifts with which the Mother of God was endowed, from the very moment of her conception, it might be understandable, perhaps even pardonable, if the our gifts, the little that we seem to have, has been taken away, and that to the great deal she had from the start, a great deal more has been given. Where we might delight in a kind of innocence, the Virgin Mother of the Lord enjoys an innocence that stretches back to the moment she was first conceived in her mother Anna's womb. Where we might find a generous streak in ourselves, the Virgin displayed herself radically open to the grace of God and his invitation to bear the eternal Word in her womb. Where we may rejoice in the suffering we have received because of our love for Jesus Christ, she knew the keenness of a sword unlike any other that pierced her heart at the foot of the Cross. Where we may have a firm and certain hope in our resurrection to glory through the promises of the Risen Savior, she enjoys even now the fulness of her whole self, body and soul, united and glorified, in the presence of the all-holy Trinity.

It is certainly to be accepted that no other creature that was, is, or ever shall be, apart from the humanity of Jesus Christ, has occupied, occupies, or will ever occupy as glorious a place in God's Kingdom than the Theotokos, the Godbearer, the Mother of the Word Incarnate. Yet, that we cannot equal her in glory, in splendor, in majesty, nor for that matter in hearing the word of God and doing it, the gifts poured upon the Virgin ought not to be for us a cause either for despair or for tepidness in our faith. While it is always wrong to be grieved by the gifts of another, as this ought rightly to be a motive for our joy and thanksgiving, we can rightly be grieved that, upon reflection, we discover that we do not share in those gifts, that we are not as alive in the grace of Jesus Christ as we might be.

This is what the Immaculate Conception of the Theotokos ought to be for us. It should be an image both of our gratitude for what God has done to and for his Blessed Mother, and it should be a gentle goad for our own spiritual lives. It should stir us to ever more radical availability to the life of the Gospel, ever more prompt and generous returns for the good that God has given to us already. It is in this tireless and happily willing response to the grace of Jesus Christ already within us that will prove on the Last Day to be the measure more that will be bestowed on what we have. If we have little, if the Immaculate Conception of the Theotokos reminds us how little we have, let us then make good the time before us. Let us strive to return to the Lord a measure of love that we have received, and in that trying, find ourselves graced beyond our deepest longings.

Friday, December 7, 2012

St Ambrose of Milan

2 Timothy 1:1-2, 8-18 / Luke 21:37-22:8

Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.

It is not always easy to hold fast to the words we have heard from the pulpit, from our catechists, from our own reading of the Scriptures. It is not simply that we live in a secular age, one more overtly welcoming of public critiques of the Christian faith, although that surely has something to do with it. Nor can it be that the Scriptures themselves are not available. With our modern technology, it can be fair to say that Holy Writ has never before been as accessible to the faithful and unbeliever alike.

No, in the end the challenge posed to us by the Scriptures is making sense of it all. To be sure, sometimes the opacity of the Scriptures is rather exaggerated, and this exaggeration has undue force, especially over those who have not acquainted themselves directly with the Bible. Indeed, any plain reading of the Bible will, for the most part, provide a fairly coherent account of God's plan of salvation, how he has dealt with the human race and his people Israel, and how in these latter days he sent his Son into the world, and through his Son has given us a share in his eternal life through the power of the Spirit. This is not nothing, and all of this can be had by any curious reader.

All the same, there are some passages in Scripture which strike even the reasonably educated reader as obscure, or even perverse. It can be hard to see what others have to do with anything. Why, we may wonder, would God's inspired text include precise details, for every generation to the end of time, for the construction of the Tabernacle, when the time of Tabernacle passed centuries ago, many centuries already before the coming of Christ? Why, on the one hand, present direct narratives or easy-to-understand proverbs on the one hand, and then obscure details of ancient Israelite life, difficult prophecies, and even more difficult apocalyptic visions?

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Ambrose of Milan, and, among the many great gifts which he provided the Latin-speaking Christians of the Empire, and through him all of Roman Christianity, perhaps the most enduring has been his bringing to the West of the riches in the Greek world for the interpretation of Scripture. The Scriptures, after all, although addressed to the whole people of faith for all time, are not, and are not meant to be, read as any other set of texts. They are not merely the best attempts of ancient peoples to record and put into words their experience of the Lord God. They are, without failing to be texts written by men, more fundamentally written by the Holy Spirit, and so as divine texts, we ought not to expect that they will speak to us with the same rules and limits of any other text we encounter.

What Ambrose taught the West, and what we have to learn from him, is that God did not simply give us a set of holy texts and leave us on our own. He left us a means of reading them, and a Church to watch over and guide that reading, so that, from age to age and from the rising of the sun to its setting, the truth God meant to communicate to the world might be faithfully passed on his the Scriptures.

As we approach the celebration of the Lord's birth, of the nativity of Jesus Christ, we would do well to come to know him better, to know him through those texts that not only speak about him, but through which he speaks to us. Let us pray that, by the intercession of St. Ambrose, we might find in Holy Writ not puzzles to confound and confuse, but a sure and certain witness to the saving will of our God, a God who has freed us from sin and death in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

St Nicholas the Wonderworker

Hebrews 13:17-21 / Luke 6:17-23

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled.

Many miracles are associated with St Nicholas, so many, in fact, that he is given the title thaumaturgos, "wonderworker". Among the many stories told of Nicholas, quite a few, perhaps even most, attend to the holiness of the saint precisely as expressed in his fierce concern for and defense of the poor. In one story, Nicholas restored to life, and bodily integrity, three boys (or, in some versions, three clerks) who had been slaughtered and pickled (or baked as meat pies) by an unscrupulous butcher (or innkeeper). The villain of the story, we are led to understand, while no less wicked for the fact, was brought to this terrible act because of the severity of the famine which, in making meat unavailable, threatened his own livelihood, threatened to number him among the many who were poor and hungry.

Hunger and famine are also key to the story which tells of the ship filled with grain destined for the emperor in Constantinople. While docked at the port of St Nicholas' city, the holy man demanded that grain be taken from the ship to feed his people who were oppressed by a terrible famine. The captain and his sailors were understandably resistant; the emperor, after all, would require a full accounting for the grain, which had been measured and weighed upon departure, and so, while not unsympathetic to the people's plight, intended to give nothing of their store. When they acquiesced to the pleadings of Nicholas, they then left for Constantinople, only to discover that what had been taken for Nicholas' flock, enough to feed them for two years, had been miraculously restored to the ship as well.

The most famous story of St Nicholas involves no miracle at all, but is likewise bound up with the desperate decisions we make in the face of hunger and want. A father, desperately poor and unable to provide dowries for his three daughters, is tempted to turn them out to the streets, to make a sale of their virtue and innocence for the sake of another day's worth of food. The young bishop, hearing of their plight, secretly deposited gold coins in their home, in some versions into stockings which had been hung up to dry, and so saved the daughters from the terrible fate of sexual slavery and the father the moral corruption of having delivered them over to it.

When Jesus tells us that the poor and hungry are blessed, that theirs is the kingdom and that they will be filled, I do not expect him to mean that the kinds of miraculous, or at least providential, interventions of the kind made by St Nicholas are to be the lot of every believer. To be sure, we can and should rightly turn to God to aid us in our plight, and we should be rightly grateful when he comes to our aid, as Nicholas was sent to the sailors whose ship was tosser about at sea. However, what Jesus reminds us is that we must all of us turn away from the temptation to respond to need and want only from our own resources. While we must, of course, give our best to meet our own needs and the needs of those most in want, especially those closest to us, Jesus' beatitudes in Luke's Gospel, and likewise also the woes which follow, serve as a warning. They warn us of the horrible consequences, to others, but to ourselves even more, or the terrible consequences we must inevitably make, most often at the expense of the weakest in our midst, when we think that our own resources, alone or collectively, are all he have to meet the needs of the world.

Jesus Christ alone answers our need. Jesus Christ alone is the source of blessing, of happiness, of healing power, of kingdom and being filled, of laughter and rejoicing and leaping for joy. It is only by giving of ourselves from the inexhaustible riches that flow from the power of Jesus Christ, only by opening our own hearts to the extravagant generosity of the Word made Flesh, whose first coming we celebrate, whose truth Nicholas so fiercely defended, and whose return we await with deepest longing — only then can meet the needs of our own poverty, and the poverty of the world.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

St Sabbas the Sanctified

Galatians 5:22-6:2 / Matthew 11:27-30

And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

On the face of it, Paul's claim to the Galatians that those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passion and desires seems to be ill put. Surely, we think, Paul meant to say that those who are in Christ's should or ought to crucify the flesh. After all, the whole history of Christian asceticism seems to be founded on the very notion that a true commitment to Christ requires a death to self and the desires and distractions of the flesh and the world. It is only to the extent that our souls do not find themselves moved by our otherwise vehement desires that, in this vale of tears, we can find real and true joys in the spiritual gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit. Is this not, after all, what inspired such heroically ascetical holy men like St Sabbas to abandon his life in the world at a tender age and commit, not simply to a common life, but the eremetical one, living out a life of holiness in a cave, with only himself, his Lord and God, and what remained within him of his worldly self to overcome, to keep him company? Is this not the deep truth that stirs us to want, each according to our own gifts, to follow Sabbas' path?

Yet, I do not think we can attribute to Paul a failure of mood and tense in his letter to the Galatians. Paul said, and meant, and we too should say and mean, that in Christ we have crucified the flesh. Why? Because our being brought to Christ is not, at root, a moral project. It is not the result of our ethical programs of self-perfection and constant improvement. To be sure, the reality of the life in Christ does have moral implications: If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. All the same, what Paul wants to remind the Galatians is that the goodness they experience in Jesus Christ, the new moral status and moral powers they have acquired through their baptism, are first, foremost, and always gifts. The new life we enjoy is Christ is the fruit of the Spirit, which is to say the full flourishing of the generous love and life-giving Spirit who has come, in grace and freedom, to dwell within us. Of course, like all gifts, the gift of grace can be ignored or undervalued. All the same, the reality we have come to know in Christ is a reality already given to us, and the victory over our passions and wicked desires has already been won for us by Christ on the Cross. By being joined to him in the Spirit, that victory becomes ours.

This is why Paul's message to the Galatians is such good news. The days of preparation for Christmas kept both in the Christian East (St Phillip's Fast) and West (Advent) are all too often broken in intention and in practice. We can, especially in the face either of a secularized world or, in what amounts to the same, a commodified and commercialized one, too easily abandon, even in these first days, our early and exuberant commitment that this year, we would make our Christmas preparation as spiritually fruitful as possible. We would manifest far more love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, self-control than in years past. Yet, too easily and far too soon, our plans reveal how difficult this can be.

Nonetheless, as Paul reminds us, these are gifts, not accomplishments, fruits of the Spirit, not of our ethical programs. Our path into a deeper life in the Gospel is found, finally, not in heroic acts of asceticism, however much these may flow from a life of grace, but from an ever deeper commitment in love to our Lord and God Jesus Christ and friendship with the Holy Spirit. It is in knowing and loving God, and in knowing and loving him, both knowing and desiring to live according to his promptings, that we will find ourselves once again made whole as we celebrate the glorious coming in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Eternal Father.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Great Martyr Barbara

1 Timothy 5:11-21 / Luke 21:12-19

You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But not a hair of your head shall be lost.

In the Arab Christian world, the feast of St. Barbara, Eid il-Burbara, looks, to all appearances, like Halloween in North America. Children and adults dress in masks and costumes, the children going house to house for treats, the adults watching horror films, and even the carving of jack-o'-lanterns. As odd as this celebration may seem, associating the great martyr of the early Church with witches, goblins, ghosts, and ghouls, there is at least some element in the rather rich legend of Barbara to motivate this spooky and fanciful masquerade. In her legend, Barbara, fleeing from her father, who sought to have her put to death because of her Christian faith, made use, along with her retinue, of a series of disguises. Always changing the disguises, her father and other pursuers could not make out who she was, and even when they did, they could not guarantee the next day that she would look the same.

Yet, as in so many stories of the early martyrs, these many escapes, rooted both in her divinely-graced cleverness as well as direct miraculous intervention, eventually come to naught. Barbara is captured and exposed to day after day of terrible torment. Even if her wounds are healed every day and the darkness of her cell bathed in heavenly light, even if the torches meant to burn her come to be extinguished inexplicably when brought near her flesh, Barbara eventually meets her doom. Not just any doom, but beheading by a sword wielded by her own father.

Why, we may well wonder, does God play this pattern out in the lives of those he loves? Why hold out one wonderful escape after another, why cloak us from the machinations of the wicked with impenetrable disguises, why blunt the sharpness of our foes' weapons, why cool the heat of their terrible torches, if only to withdraw his protecting hand and submit us, in the end, to terrible and painful death?

In preparing his own disciples to face just this quandary, Jesus is quite clear: It will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony.

Everything we do, every occasion in our lives, everything enjoyed and everything suffered, each defeat as much as each victory, is meant to be another occasion, another opportunity to proclaim Jesus Christ, and him Crucified. We have no other goods, no other goals, however splendid and noble, that will satisfy the cravings of our hearts, apart from the joy of knowing Jesus Christ, of being made to be like him, and so enjoy with him the love of the Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit. So also, there is no evil whatever so great that it can overcome the joy of knowing Jesus Christ as we are known by him, to see him as he is.

This is why the life of the Gospel, the life of a martyr, a witness for Jesus Christ, is as compatible with carnival and masquerade as it is with cruel torment. What the joyous and fanciful celebration of Barbara in the Arab world reminds us is that these people, these brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, who have suffered so much for so long for their faith in this ancient cradle of the Church, know better than we that the victory is already ours. Like Barbara, they know that real suffering, real betrayal by one's blood brothers and sisters, is no reason not to play a game of hide-and-go-seek, not a time to make one's accusers a source of fun before submitting to their cruelties. They know this because they know Jesus Christ, and they know that to give testimony of his saving grace and merciful coming in the flesh for our redemption, is always and ever a reason for joy, a share even here and now in the unassailable joy of Jesus Christ, the joy of the life of God himself.

Monday, December 3, 2012

St. Zephaniah, Prophet

1 Timothy 5:1-10 / Luke 20:27-44

But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

Paul's words to Timothy are stark and chilling. We might well expect, of course, that one who does not provide for his own has failed in significant ways to live an upright live. Indeed, we may even suppose that there might be so significant a failure to provide for one's own, to abandon one's parents in their old age or one's children in their infancy and youth, that such an abandonment would constitute a final and irrevocable turning away from the Lord. That such a moral failure is possible we do well to consider, especially those who prey upon the young and the elderly placed under their care.

However, it may well seem odd to suggest that such a fault constitutes a denial of the faith. A denial of basic moral uprightness, to be sure, but why a denial of the faith? The question ought to be pressing enough for any Christian, but surely all the more in the Year of Faith which the Holy Father has dedicated to our growing ever deeper into this foundation of our lives in Jesus Christ.

It may do well to recall here, as St. Paul does for Timothy, that there is a kind of order to our life of charity, a ranked set of responsibilities to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. That we owe respect to all of our elders as to our own parents, Paul explains, is a given, as we owe kindness to those younger than ourselves as to our own brothers and sisters. Yet, even in the life of charity there are priorities, and we owe a special concern not to those who have their own relatives to care for them, but to our own flesh and blood and to those who have no kin to see to their needs in their old age.

Jesus likewise, in his confrontation with the Sadducees, reminds them that the requirement in the Law for brothers to attend to their deceased brother's widow is not directed to the next life, but to this one. It says nothing about the world to come, where those who are counted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage. Rather, this requirement of the Law looks to the needs, here and now, of women left without anyone to care for them, without husband or children to see to their support, and calls precisely upon their deceased husband's kin, those who are closest to her in this life, to see to their needs.

Zephaniah, too, in taking part in Josiah's reform of Judah and the calling of the people of God to right worship and fidelity to the Law, while noting that God's terrible judgment will come upon all people, reserves his prophetic warning for Jerusalem and Judah. It is not that the other peoples of the world have not sinned. Rather, it is that Zephaniah, as a prophet of Judah, as a special obligation to warn his own people away from false belief and the luxurious lifestyle that followed upon it.

What is true in each of these cases is that our kin, whether blood relatives, relations by marriage, or fellow citizens, are not related to us by some random or accidental event. Even if we did not choose to be so related to them, even if we came about to be connected through the choices of another, they have been placed in our lives for our sake by the Lord himself. Said simply, our families were made for us, and we for them. We were introduced into their lives so that God's love for them might not be communicated only by the general and universal good of the world, but even more so through the personal presence of those with whom we have much in common: by ties of blood, by ties of family, by ties of a common way of life and a shared, common good.

To deny those who are close to us their due, then, is to deny the creative and provident care of God himself. This is why failing to care for those entrusted to us is an assault not merely on human dignity, but on the faith. For a Christian, who claims to trust in God's Providence through Jesus Christ to abandon those whom the same Lord has given them as the proper objects of his love, is to make a mockery of the faith he claims to profess. May we, who continue our path to rejoice again in the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to celebrate his becoming kin to us by taking upon himself our human nature, show our true gratitude in the patient and generous concerns of those whom God has made part of our family.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

27th Sunday after Pentecost

[I will be using the Byzantine lectionary for a while — perhaps even for the whole year — on this blog.]

Ephesians 6:10-17 / Luke 18:18-27

If I in Thy likeness, O Lord, may awake, / And shine a pure image of Thee,
Then I shall be satisfied when I can break / These fetters of flesh and be free;
I know this stained tablet must first be washed white, / To let Thy bright features be drawn.
I know I must suffer the darkness of night / To welcome the coming of dawn.

Then I shall be satisfied, when I can cast / The shadows of nature all by,
When this cold, dreary world from my vision is pass'd / To let this soul open her eye;
I gladly shall feel the blest morn drawing near, / When time's dreary fancy shall fade,
If then in Thy likeness I may but appear, / and rise with Thy beauty arrayed.

To see Thee in glory, O Lord, as Thou art, / From this mortal and perishing clay
The spirit immortal in peace would depart, / And joyous mount up her bright way.
When on Thine own image in me Thou hast smiled, / Within Thy blest mansions, and when
The arms of my Father encircle his child, / Oh, I shall be satisfied then.

If some of the sentiments in George Clair Wells' hymn might require some bit of theological refinement, not the least the implicit suggestion that salvation consists principally in being delivered from the body, the overall vision it promotes is surely a wholesome one. This life, as we experience it, is in the end unsatisfying. For all of the beauties of nature as God's creation, it is nonetheless marked by shadows. Our flesh, however marvelous the work of God's hands, is nonetheless mortal and perishing, and from its conflict with the better intentions of our minds and hearts, our soul would surely and in peace depart from it. Even the most splendid things here and now, God's creations though they be, are in the end and inevitably passing, time's dreary fancies which cannot but fade.

More than that, the crown of our nature, and the crown of God's visible creations, that is, the human person made in the image and likeness of God, does not, and indeed cannot, here and now, successfully image God, does not permit God's bright features to be drawn upon it. In part, of course, this is due to sin, and it is our failure to restore as we can, through the power of God's grace, through the saving power of Jesus Christ in the sacraments to wash our tablets white, that accounts in large part our inability to appear in God's likeness.

Even so, sin is not the whole of it. The fact is, we were never meant only for this cold, dreary world marred as it has been by sin, nor even for the world untouched by the darkness of night before the primordial calamity that drove man from the Garden. We we ever meant to share in God's inner life, to let the soul open her eye and look upon the splendor of God, to see him as he is, and so to be irrevocably and gloriously transformed. It is to share the likeness of the Son, that the arms of the Father might encircle us as they encircle the eternal Word by the bond that is the Holy Spirit — this is the joy for which we were made from the beginning, and it is in this joy, and this joy alone, that we shall be satisfied.

When the ruler comes to Jesus in the Gospel to ask what must be done to inherit eternal life, Jesus knows his heart all to well. It is not that the ruler has been wicked. When he insists that he has kept the commandments from his youth, Jesus does not correct him, and so we, too, have no reason to doubt the truth of what he says. If his tablet must first be washed white, it is not that it has been stained by some sin of disobedience against God's holy Law. However, the ruler suspects that he may have something left to do, here and now, on this earth, such that, having done it, he can finally be satisfied, at rest, confident that he will inherit eternal life.

What Jesus knows, what the ruler finds it so hard to hear that he goes away sad, what we find it so difficult to hear, is that there is always something more. In this life, there is always one thing we still lack. It is not, to be sure, simply that many of us still own things, or even many things as the ruler did. Rather, what we lack, is the sequela Christi, the following of Christ. Yet, are we who have been baptized not followers of Christ? Have we not been following him our whole lives? Perhaps we have, but there is the catch. We are, each one of us, called to follow Jesus Christ for the whole of our lives, and nothing, not even the following of Christ, will satisfy us. Indeed, it was never meant to do so.

The deeper truth to which Jesus called the ruler, the deeper truth to which he calls each one of us, is that, here and now, we must be satisfied with not being satisfied. We must not expect any act, any virtue, any pattern or state in life, any insight of the intellect or stirring of the heart, or anything else for that matter to quiet our insistent question — What more must I do to inherit eternal life? The answer to this question is always and ever the same: Come, follow Me. That following of Christ is, as it must be, ceaseless until the day we are brought through the power of the Holy Spirit and the grace of Jesus Christ to the presence of the Father. Then, and only then, will we be satisfied.

Friday, November 30, 2012

St Andrew, Apostle

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

There is something at once impressive and off-putting in Matthew's account of the calling of St. Andrew. As Matthew relates, Andrew, with his brother Simon Peter, were in the midst of their work, casting their nets into the sea, when they received the summons: Come ye after Me, and I will make you to be fishers of men. Andrew's response was absolute and unhesitating: and they immediately leaving their nets followed him. We hear the same of James and his brother John, the sons of Zebedee, who on hearing Jesus' call, left their nets and father, right there in the boat where they had been working, and followed Him.

This response is impressive because, unlike so much of what we do, whether in our mundane, daily tasks or in response to our life in Jesus Christ, we fumble and fail, we stumble, stall, and delay. We wait for more information and then, when the information is at hand, wonder if the whole thing is worth pursuing in the first place, only, all to often, to find the opportunity has passed us by. To see a man like Andrew give his life so fully and utterly, to show such a right understanding of value that he could, without delay, leave his very livelihood, even while in the very midst of his working, to follow Christ displays a kind of faith and desire we can only dream to possess.

Yet, we might also find this account off-putting. We are worried that this response is just a bit too impulsive, too lacking in the kind of reasonable weighing of goods that marks the rightly prudent man. If the life in faith calls for this kind of immediate response, seemingly without even pausing to consider the truth or value of the call, then we are faced with two equally unhappy alternatives. Either Andrew and the others acted entirely without any god grounds for doing so, in which case the life of faith is certainly irrational and quite likely immoral, or they did have grounds for doing so, in which case they seem to have access to a kind of knowing the rest of us do not. In this latter case, one wonders what kind of obligation we would have to imitate them if their following of Christ demanded an infusion of certitude that is denied the rest of us.

However, we ought to remember that Matthew's is not the only, nor by means the complete account of Andrew's call. When we attend to the witness of John's Gospel, then a fuller picture emerges. There we discover that Andrew had been moved by the preaching of John the Baptist and become one of his disciples. It was in light of what John said of Jesus that Andrew left John to go to the Lord, and to see, by the light of faith, that he was the Messiah. It was then that Andrew, the Protoklete, the "first-called," invited Peter to meet Jesus, to see the man he had come to know as the Messiah, that he too might become one of his disciples. It is only then, when they have become disciples, and yet nonetheless remain engaged in their work as fishermen, that Jesus approaches them along the see and calls them to follow him. That is, above and beyond their discipleship, Jesus has called them to something more, something deeper, something more profound.

Andrew, in other words, does not leave his nets on a whim, or as a stab in the dark. Andrew has been led to Christ step by step. If we still must posit in him the gift of faith from God, it is nonetheless a gift which has worked on him in accord with and by means of his knowledge and insight, rather than by setting them aside in favor or unreasoned impulse. What marks Andrew at every step of the way, then, is not some readiness to ignore his intellect and act blindly, but rather never to settle with the good he has so far received from God. What Andrew has modeled for us is a life ever open to a new and deeper encounter with and following of Jesus Christ: first to heed the friend of the Bridegroom, then to see Jesus as Messiah, then to call others to see the same, and finally, at Jesus' explicit prompting rather than his own, to leave all things to follow him.

We can, all too readily, be initially generous to God's call, initially generous to the new life promised us in the Gospel and then imagine that there will be no more need for radical generosity, no more need for a significant conversion in our life apart from the life-long conversion from sin. In Andrew, we are reminded that God does not desire us to be comfortable in the Gospel. We are to find our rest in no one other than Jesus Christ, and that means that no commitment to a life in Christ, however holy and noble, can we hold as final and absolute should Jesus summon us to an even deeper life with him. We may not all be asked to leave aside our nets, and many of us may remain working on the seashore. Even so, are we ready? Are we ready to heed the call when it comes, and with joy and not regret, to leave all things to follow Jesus our Lord?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thursday of the Last Week of the Year (II)

Revelation 18:1-2, 21-23; 19:1-3, 9a / Luke 21:20-28

Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb. Beati qui ad cenam Agni vocati sunt.

These are the words the Roman Missal uses to invite the faithful to receive Communion at the Mass, but they find their origin not in the Last Supper in the upper room, but in the eschatological vision of the Book of Revelation. There they serve as an invitation of the blessed who have survived the trials and tribulations of the end times and are called to partake in the wedding feast of Christ the Bridegroom, the Lamb once slain. At the same time, this wedding feast is also a victory banquet, a celebration over the fall of Babylon, the Great Harlot, and in this victory, the final victory of Christ over the enemies of his Church.

In this eschatological context, the be among the blessed invited to the supper of the Lamb is to have decisively taken sides. More precisely, it means to have held on to the truth, the faithful witness of the Lamb, even in the face of violent persecution, as well as in the face of the seductive potion of Babylon, the seductive call to compromise our witness to Christ for the sake of a share in her wealth, power, and influence. By placing these words into the mouth of the priest inviting the faithful to Communion, the Church means that we too must decisively take a side. The Church means for us to expose ourselves, and to do so willingly, to armies and calamity, to have our blood shed by the Great Harlot. All the while, we are meant to live not by keeping our heads down, not by hoping to pass by unnoticed and so bypass the trials and upheavals that must come. Rather, Jesus Christ exhorts us, in the face of the global, even cosmic, upheavals we must face, to stand erect and with our heads raised, proudly identifying ourselves on the side of the Lamb, and so also willingly opposed to even the best the world, the Harlot, and the Beast have to offer.

Every act of sacramental communion, then, is a public act of taking sides. However personal Communion is and indeed must be to be fruitful, it is never a hidden or private act, but always, by its nature, a public assertion of fidelity to the Lamb and a refusal to serve those who would oppose him and his Kingdom. In receiving Jesus Christ in holy Communion, we thus choose to expose our lives, our very selves, to the dark powers that continue to plague and molest our world, and will continue to do so to the end. Yet, we do so not in fear, but in hope and confidence. Brothers and sisters, we can stand up straight with heads held high because the end is not in doubt. The victory has already been won. We have only now to share, even now, even in pledge and anticipation of what will surely come: the glories of the eternal banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tuesday of the Last Week of the Year (II)

Revelation 14:14-19 / Luke 21:5-11

One of the great works of American fiction is John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The novel tells the story of the Joad family and their journey out of poverty-stricken Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl and the Depression, seeking a home and work in what is held out to them and the bounty promised by a life in California. Their journey is anything but uplifting, and on arrival in California, while they find great abundance of food there, they also discover that, in the midst of this plenty, people still go hungry and die of malnutrition, not because, as in Oklahoma, there was no food to be had, but rather because the large-scale farms cynically destroyed the excess and abundant produce, while also undercutting the small-scale farmers, guaranteeing that all profits went to them alone, even at the cost of countless lives.

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates — died of malnutrition — because the food must rot, must be forced to rot. The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listed to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is a failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

Steinbeck has used here the image from Revelation of the grapes of wrath, those ripe grapes harvested by the angel with his sickle and thrown into the great wine press of God's fury. Steinbeck's secular deployment of this image helps to remind us of an important truth, namely that God's harvest at the end of time is not simple about peace and bounty and plenty. It is also a story about righteous anger, of a virtuous wrath in the face of abuse, of a holy fury which kindles within us a deep desire to defend and vindicate human dignity.

If we would be part of God's fruitful harvest, it is not enough that we be the rich grain. We must also be the grapes of wrath, grapes filled with indignation against the assaults made daily on human dignity, grapes ready to be crushed out in the winepress of our suffering and tribulation for the sake of righteousness, if only then to release the choice vintage of justice and rightful vengeance against those who would abuse the poor, the weak, and the hungry.

Brothers and sisters, do we let ourselves be moved, or moved enough, moved even to anger, by the suffering of the poor? Are we ripe with virtuous fury, an anger that comes not from hatred of our fellow sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, but an anger that is rooted in a respect for the dignity of every human person, a yearning to see the flourishing on this earth which is meant to be enjoyed by all? Dare we let our confession of Christ's glorious return to judge the living and the dead be for us the fire that kindles our own burning desire to uphold that dignity, and so become a worthy and bountiful harvest for the day of the coming of Jesus Christ?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Last Sunday after Pentecost

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

The wholesome and salutary proclamation of the Second Coming of Jesus, of the end of the world, its judgment, and the passing away of what has been, is not an easy task. It can be all too easy for some to worry excessively about Jesus' coming, to be so concerned about meeting him rightly disposed that, in their worry, they neglect to do those very ordinary, everyday things which are among the more important ways of being prepared to receive Christ's coming well. Others, seeing what seems his long delay, may confess the truth in his coming, but all the same fail to be moved by the truth of it, acting as though this truth cannot possibly come to pass for them, not in their own lifetime. Some may fixate on determining the coming of the Lord through exotic and obscure readings of the Scriptures, while others may insist that the whole doctrine itself was propounded not to tell of something actual, but rather to move us to live differently here and now in light of something that will not, in fact, ever come to pass.

The Church, however, in fidelity to her Lord, must confess not only that Christ's coming is true and, in terms of the divine plan, soon, but also that, on the one hand, we will not know the time or the hour, and, on the other hand, that his return will be so manifest to all that we ought, here and now, to refuse anyone who tries to tell us of his coming, since we will not need to be convinced of a coming foretold to be altogether manifest: For as lightning cometh out of the east, and appeareth even into the west, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. 

What we must recall is that Christ's return to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire, is going to be the result of a free act on God's part. Like everything else in the plan of salvation, like all else in God's work in the world, but especially like every other aspect of the mystery of the Word made flesh, the end of the world will come out of the hidden counsels of God. It is a decision, a decision God will make, out of love and wisdom and justice, to be sure, and out of mercy as well, but a decision all the same. This means that the end of the world cannot be derived from any consultation of the world as it is. That is, knowing the constitution of matter and its decay will not tell us when God will bring it all to stop, and neither will counting letters in the Law or mapping the prophecies of Daniel onto current events. The only way we could know precisely when the world will end would be if Jesus had revealed it, and that is one thing we know most certainly that he did not do.

This means, then, that God does not want us to know, which in turn means that knowing the end of the world does not and would not help us to love and serve him in this world, nor to love him perfectly in the next. At the same time, knowing that God will bring this world to an end, a truth which was an important element in Christ's teaching, must certainly, by that very fact, be important for us to know. We need to attend to the fact that the story of the world is God's, not ours. We need to be reminded that the real significance of things, the real way to judge a life as well-lived or wasted, cannot in the end be derived from even the most faithful and faith-filled analysis done in light of this world alone. It is how our lives here and now direct us to the world that will come, how they form us to live when heaven and earth, all of our certainties and commitments in this life, have passed away, and God's words alone abide — this is what matters.

It is to stir up in us just this perspective that Jesus Christ has made known to us that he will, one day, one day soon, bring the heaven and the earth to an end. May we, then, seek more earnestly this fruit of the divine work, that we may receive more abundantly healing gifts from God's tender mercy.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

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

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

Jesus, the evangelist Matthew tells us, spoke in parables in fulfillment of the words spoken by the Prophet: I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden from the foundation of the world. On the face of it, this seems an odd pair of claims. After all, what distinguishes parables is, among other things, that they do not tell what they want to tell directly. By their nature, they are an oblique sort of discourse, speaking about one thing by telling a story seemingly about another. So, while Jesus' parables may utter things hidden from the foundation of the world, it would seem as though, in uttering them, they remain just as hidden as before.

Yet, this puzzle does not seem uniquely linked to the issue of Jesus' parabolic speech. After all, while Jesus does, on occasion, teach things directly and openly, for the most part we learn what the Incarnate Word of God has to say in episodic ways, through the narratives of his life, works, and sayings recorded by the evangelists and as expounded by the apostles in their letters. Jesus did not bequeath his Church as theological treatise, organized and categorized as we might hope. It is not that Jesus is never clear and direct. Rather, the fulness of the Gospel only comes to us precisely in the same oblique and slant way as the parables he tells in response to his questioners.

Of course, in our puzzlement, we presume, and presume without justification, that we are ready and able to receive the full truth of God directly. What if it were the case, rather, that our eyes, so long accustomed to the dim and the dark, would be dazzled by the clear light of God's teaching? Suppose that, even as God has decreed the sun to rise gradually upon the earth, and so allow his creatures to adjust their eyes to the dawning of the day, so also God has decreed that, from the darkness of our errors, and even from the dim light of our natural reason, the light of full truth has come to us slowly, that our eyes might adjust. It is the same sunlight that makes the rosy dawn as much as the bright sky at noon, and so likewise it is not as though we await a new and fuller revelation to supplant the coming of the Word of God in flesh. Rather, he came to us, and comes to us, so that we might learn to see and hear him, so that our eyes will one day be made ready to behold him, face to face.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Lucy of Narnia, O.P.

2 Corinthians 10:17-11:2 / Matthew 25:1-13

In the Chronicles of Narnia, while there are many characters dear to the heart of Aslan, the Great Lion and Redeemer of Narnia, Son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea, but perhaps none is dearer than Lucy Pevensie. It was she who, first among the Pevensie children, entered into Narnia through the Wardrobe; she saw, and believed. It was she who held to the truth of that experience even when not even she was able to reenter Narnia, even when tormented by her brother Edmund, who entered Narnia on Lucy's second trip there but then betrayed her and claimed to have made it all up as a game, and even when her oldest siblings, Peter and Susan, at first only indulged her claims, but then insisted that she behave and cease speaking of it. After their initial adventures into Narnia, and their living there as Kings and Queens, when the four would return again in Narnia's future, it was Lucy, and Lucy alone, who was able to see Aslan at first, and although she initially refrained from going to him because of her siblings' insistence that she did not see what she claimed to have seen, it was she who eventually would meet up with Aslan, and so restore the faith of all of the children that he had indeed returned.

Despite the marvelous coincidence of names, today's feast is not a remembrance of the fictional character invented by C.S. Lewis, but rather of a flesh and blood Dominican tertiary, Lucia Brocadelli, who was born in the town of Narnia, now called Narni, in the hills of Umbria, nearly in the geographic center of the Italian peninsula. Like Lewis' fictional character, Lucy, in her tender youth, saw our Lord when others did not, and pledged herself to him, even when those about her, wishing her the best they knew, sought instead to have her married. Although she tried for a time to yield to her uncle's wishes and did marry, her husband, at least for a time, indulged her desire to maintain her vow of chastity for the sake of Christ, as well as her many acts of asceticism and generosity to the poor. He even indulged her claims to have frequent discourse with the saints who, unseen by him, she claimed to be seen clearly by herself. When her finally could not accept that she kept the company of a beautiful man, who was none other than Jesus Christ, her husband had her locked up for an entire Lent, and when she fled at Easter and became a Dominican tertiary, her husband had the convent of the Dominican friar who had received her burned to the ground.

Both Lucy Pevensie and Lucy Brocadelli remind us of important truths of the Christian life. For both of them, the capacity to see and receive the Lord came, at least in part, from their innocence, their purity of heart, their willingness to receive gladly the world as it is, in all of its wonder and mystery. At the same time, both of them saw the Lord, and Lucia even received the stigmata, only by way of a gift. Innocent as they were, they also knew that their innocence, and the vision of the Lord which came as a result, was not an accomplishment, but a grace, not a reason for boasting in themselves, but rather for boasting in the Lord. Finally, even though both acquiesced for a time to balance the desires of their families with the visitations of the Lord, they came to see that only by placing the Lord first, only by pursuing the Lord Jesus without regard for others' misunderstanding, or even cruelty, would be able to set things right.

In the end, Lucy's siblings came to see Aslan, and even her brother Edmund came to be, through his forgiveness, wiser for the experience. Lucia, likewise, came to be highly valued, if even fought over, not for her hand in marriage, but for her presence and insight, and in time her husband Pietro would also enter into a life of religion, becoming in time a Franciscan friar. We do not, any of us, know the fate of those dear to us. Like the wise virgins with their lamps, the grace we have received from God we cannot portion out to others. It is a gift of God to us, and if it is to do our fellows any good, then it can only be by way of example, by living out our encounter with Jesus Christ so authentically that others will become imitators of us, and so, we hope, in good time seek the oil to trim their lamps, and so greet with rejoicing rather than regret, the coming of the Bridegroom.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

St Albert the Great, O.P., Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Wisdom 7:7-14 / Matthew 5:13-19

Albert, known to us as "Great", gained this appellation not from a mature reflection of generations, but during his own lifetime. He was also called, not merely by posterity, but by his own contemporaries, the Doctor universalis, the "universal teacher." There was, indeed, hardly a subject known to Medieval Christendom upon which Albert did not write. As we might expect from a Medieval doctor, he was learned in philosophy and theology, upon which he wrote numerous works, as well as those on the Scriptures, the mystical life, the Blessed Virgin, the liturgy and sacraments, and much else besides. However, in addition to this, Albert was fascinated by the world which God made, and his writings also include works on what we would now call chemistry, botany, climatology, physiology, and geology. He wrote a work on the training of falcons and studied the Roman ruins in his city of Cologne. He was even interested in the practical implications of his study, providing, for example, advice on the breeding of cattle and the improvement of crops.

The Scriptures tell us that those who acquire wisdom will come to have friendship with God. Such an assurance seems fine for Albert the Great, who knew something, and often a great deal, about nearly everything. His friendship with God was, we might think, all but assured. Yet, what about the rest of us? What of those of us who have trouble mastering even one subject? What is the fate of those who cannot, like Albert, fill nearly forty giant-sized volumes with powerful studies on every topic imaginable, and instead find trouble producing even a single paper?

The answer is not to be found in expecting some overnight infusion of knowledge by the grace of God. When we are told in the Book of Wisdom, I wished, and understanding was given me: and I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came upon me, it would be reckless, even vain presumption, to imagine that præternatural gifts of knowledge are the rightful hope of all of the faithful. Rather, our way of sharing in the infinite treasure of wisdom is not in mystical infusion, but in humility. It is in seeking from others what is lacking in ourselves that we can come to know more than our own native powers would ever achieve. Wisdom, the fulness of wisdom promised by God, begins in an honest assessment of ourselves, neither falsely boasting of what we do not possess, nor failing to acknowledge and make use of gifts that we have received.

Brothers and sisters, none of us has been left without some gift to give, without some store of wisdom uniquely entrusted to us, some understanding to contribute to the whole. However limited we may fear we are singly, together our storehouse is overflowing. It is, then, not the path of keenness of intellect, however welcome and praiseworthy a gift, that we can open wide the treasury of wisdom, but in love, humility, and Christian fellowship. Can we, knowing how much we have to gain and how little we have to lose, accept the grace of Christ Jesus to be humble, and so, with St Albert, learn wisdom, a wisdom which, as this great saint reminds us, he learned more by prayer and devotion, than by study?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

1 Kings 17:10-16 / Hebrews 9:24-28 / Mark 12:38-44

We all know the tale of Jack and the Beanstock. Young Jack and his mother are desperately poor, with nothing to their name but a cow. Driven by need, Jack’s mother asks him to sell the cow — it would leave them with nothing else, and no hope in the future, but it’s the best she can do to let them live on for just a little longer. Jack, however, heeds the words of a stranger, and rather than getting a few coins for the cow, exchanges her for a few supposedly magic beans. His mother, not to our surprise, is not remotely happy by the exchange!

Now, we know that in the story, Jack’s deal turns out to be a good one — one which, in the end, enriches him and his mother beyond their wildest dreams with the treasure of a giant who lives beyond the clouds. Even so, we sympathize with Jack’s mother and see her frustration. To give up the last hope for a meal, for a few more days of living, on the unbelievable promises of a stranger is surely beyond foolish. What would we say, after all, about a mother who is generous with her paycheck to her needy coworkers and the homeless people she meets outside the office, only to leave her own children hungry, without heat, water, light or home? How would we judge a son who took a chance to help out his friend’s business dreams, a risky and highly unreliable investment, and gave him his parents’ entire life savings, all they could ever expect to live on the rest of their years?

However, it is just this sort of recklessness which the Scriptures seem to counsel today. They seem to say that with the widow of Zarephath and the widow in the Temple, we need to give and give even to the last bit we can call our own, even to our own detriment and of those who depend on us. What is more, what we think is reasonable — to make sure our basic needs are covered and then, only then, from what remains as surplus, to be generous to others — this perfectly reasonable-sounding policy seems precisely the attitude to fall under our Lord’s critique. Those who are generous out of their surplus Jesus at least appears to associate with those whose very way of life eats up the houses of widows while they congratulate themselves for their piety and generosity!

Our mistake in hearing the Scriptures this way is in thinking of ourselves in the place of the widow, that is as though we were living in scarcity, with only limited means that must be carefully rationed and portioned out. It is certainly easy to see why we think that about ourselves, even without looking at prospects for employment and money-raising in these present days. However, as Christians, we are not victims of scarcity but rather are unimaginably rich! Ours is a share in the inexhausable riches of Christ, our High Priest who has entered on our behalf into the heavenly Temple not made by human hands. There, by his one sacrifice of himself once offered on the Cross and brought to the Holy of Holies in his Ascension, we have no merely finite store of glory. Christ our High Priest has once and for all bestowed on his people, and continues to bestow, an unlimited bounty of mercy, of forgiveness, as a promissory note of the riches he will liberally spread about in his glorious return.

Without prejudice to the real, reasonable, even virtuous and holy limits we place materially on our generosity — there are only so many hours in a day, so many pennies in our checking account, after all — without in any we rejecting those important decisions, we who are one in Christ the High Priest can afford to be lavish in our generosity to others. Like the widow of Zarephath before the prophet Elijah — the pagan co-religionist of the wicked queen Jezebel before the exiled spokesman of the true God — we can afford to act out of trust in a bounty for which we have little evidence now but are no less certain will make good our most exuberant acts of kindness.

After all, we have a share in that promised bounty even now. We share in the bounty of our High Priest when we are objects of gossip and choose to bear with it patiently. We share in his bounty when we know embarrassing truths about those who have wronged us and yet remain silent out of respect for the good name which is theirs by right. We enjoy the bounty of our High Priest when we find ourselves tempted by images on our computer or the very palpable presence of that someone (even a stranger met but minutes before) who drives us wild, and yet we lavishly afford to forgo our own pleasure-seeking, freeing the other, anonymous or well known, from becoming the source to satisfy our lusts. Moreover, truth be told, most of us can even share in Christ’s bounty through being far more generous in dollars and cents, happily giving to charity that money so quickly spent on coffee, pizza or the latest app for our iPhone that will so quickly be forgotten.

Brothers and sisters, Christian generosity is not a stab in the dark hoping for a possible return in the distant future. It is not wishful thinking in the face of real scarcity in the present. It is no fool’s exchange of the cow of our real need for a handful of beans. Beyond the clouds, we who are made alive in the blood of Christ will find more than a hungry giant, a bag of gold, and the goose that lays the golden eggs. We have in that true heaven above the clouds nothing less than Jesus Christ who keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry and sets the captives free. The Lord loves us in our need and has richly blessed us in his mercy, so we need never fear. In the life of Christian charity, the jar of our generosity will never go empty and the jug of the oil of forgiveness in Christ Jesus will never run dry.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Philippians 3:17-21; 4:1-3 / Matthew 9:18-26

Lord, my daughter is even now dead; but come lay Thy hand upon her, and she shall live.

Do we dare to hope for what we have no reasonable expectation may come about? When our reason tells us that an undesired outcome is all but certain, is it right or proper to set our reasoned objections aside and pray, with real expectations, of a divine deliverance? Ought we not, when faced ourselves with an unpleasant truth, or even more when those we love must face unhappy and heartbreaking facts, rather prevent the holding out for a divine rescue, for some deus ex machina of ancient Greek theater, and instead promote the acceptance of the real state of affairs, however terrible it might be?

In our piety, we may be happy to assert that nothing is impossible for God, and that we ought always to wait in hope. Even so, we know those times in which holding on to a preferred outcome, rather than the unhappy truth of facts, is unhealthy, both psychologically and spiritually. The dying patient who insists on every possible procedure on the grounds that it might work, and when these are exhausted spends all her energy on seeking healing from God, refusing any talk or counsel to prepare her for death, is but one example. Men who have lost their jobs and have no reasonable expectation to regain any like means of restoring their families to the style of life they had known before, students whose challenges at home have prevented success at school and so whose prospects for attending prestigious universities are essentially non-existent, mothers trapped in war-torn lands where the conflict has been, and shows every reason to be, intractable, trying to provide a safe haven for their children. While despair, in the moral sense of refusing to hold out that God can give to us those difficult goods for which we most deeply long, is indeed a sin, and it would surely be sinful to counsel despair, can we really, in good conscience, allow those we love to cling to hoped for goods that right reason tells us simply will not come about?

Yet, as reasonable as all of this is, we are confronted by the witness of the Gospel, of the saving power of Jesus Christ. We come face to face with the petition of the ruler of the synagogue: Lord, my daughter is even now dead; but come lay Thy hand upon her, and she shall live. We hear the desperate hope of the woman who was troubled with an issue of blood twelve years: If I shall touch only his garment, I shall be healed. On the other hand, those who speak of reasonable limits, who would limit what we might ask of Jesus Christ, laughed Him to scorn. How do we act, then? Do we disregard what reason tells us must come to pass, and so risk a foolhardy and naive hope of deliverance from every ill? Or, do we dissuade others and ourselves from such a hope in the saving power of Jesus Christ, so much as even to mock it, so as to keep us from painful disappointment?

The truth can be found, at least in part, in Jesus' words upon coming to the house of the ruler: Give place; for the girl is not dead, but sleepeth. The first thing we need to notice here is that neither the ruler nor the minstrels and multitude who laughed at Jesus understood the situation rightly. None of them understood that, insofar as Jesus had already intended to bring her to life, she could not rightly be called dead, but only sleeping. So also we must admit that, when confronted with ills for which we can find no reason and no solution, there may well exist goods in the mind of God, in the saving will of our Lord Jesus Christ, that exceed and undo our best descriptions of what we take to be the facts.

From this deep truth comes and even deeper truth, expressed by Jesus as a command: Give place. It is certainly true that we cannot will as good what we can only see as evil. We cannot adopt as an object for our own longing the ills that we suffer if we cannot see any way that such ills might direct us to the goods for which we long. All the same, we can give place. We can yield our wills to that of God. We can, without pretending to know the good God wills to accomplish in our lives, nonetheless quiet our wills and our longing, giving place to what God will bring about.

This is the attitude upon which true hope is grounded. We must always act on the basis of what we know to be best, and so it is folly, indeed sin, to pretend as though what is unreasonable to expect we should nonetheless pretend to be just around the corner. All the same, we must be ever ready to give place to the deeper and more profound wisdom found in the mercy of God, a mercy so wide and so deep that it would swallow the most incisive and keenest insights of our reason, were it not God's will to elevate our reason to share in his own. This is why, at one and the same time, we must act on the basis of the best that we can see and, without undoing that act in any way, be open to, and indeed pray for, a deliverance and visitation beyond any reasonable expectation.

Amen I say to you, whatsoever you ask when you pray, believe that you shall receive and it shall be done to you.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ

Colossians 1:12-20 / John 18:33-37

Jesus answered: My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would certainly strive that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from hence.

In the mines of Bolivia, one may be shocked to find devotions, gifts, and offerings made to El Tío, "Uncle," an image bearing a terrible resemblance to classic Christian images of the Devil. While an image of the Cross may be found at the entrance to the mine, within the mine's darkness, past the point where the light of the sun can be seen, there will be a terrible idol of a horned figure, his mouth filled with terrible teeth, ready to receive the offerings of cigarettes, coca leaves, and alcohol, his hands open for gifts of the same, his erect member a sign that his cravings are both universal an insatiable. Once every year, he is honored not with the intoxicants the miners use to both remain awake and to drive away the body- and soul-breaking work, but with the blood of llamas, which blood he is left to consume in private, while the miners feast on the cooked meat of the llamas above.

Derived from pre-Columbian beliefs, El Tío is said to possess the wealth that lies under the hills and mountains, but also to possess an unending and terrible appetite. Appease him, and he might just let you return to the surface, perhaps even laden with the riches of the world below. Fail to give him due honor, and he may withhold the precious metals on which the livelihood of those on the surface depends. Even worse, his cravings may turn away from coca and the blood of llamas to the lives of men.

As devout as these Catholic miners may be, in the folklore of the highlands of Bolivia, the kingdom of God extends only where the heavens can be seen. While God may reign over all that dwell upon the earth, the dark and dangerous world beneath the surface belongs to El Tío. Once within the mines, there is none other who will answer your prayers than this terrible spirit, no appeal to God and his saints that will be heard. El Tío may have no place in Church, but Jesus Christ has no place in the deep and life-consuming darkness beneath the mountains.

We may react in many ways to the Bolovians' practice of honoring a god whom, by their Christian faith, they no is due neither honor nor even belief. Whether we see this as a people's best symbolic way of negotiating the life of the mines, without which their communities would have nothing, but which consumes even the lives of their children for very little in return, or whether we worry that this shows how much more work the Church must do in catechesis and in action on behalf of the poor, we likely imagine that we are not guilty of making the same error. That is, we probably congratulate ourselves in knowing that there is nowhere, whether in heaven, on the earth, or for that matter under the earth, where Jesus Christ is not the universal and sovereign King.

Yet, if this were so, if Christians across the world really believed in the universal sovereignty of Jesus Christ and acted in light of that confession, might we not rightly imagine a world far differently ordered than it is today. Indeed, thinking even only of the miners of Bolivia, would a world that understood Christ's kingship have had such cravings for silver, tin, and lead, that those boom towns that grew up around the mines would have consumed so many lives, and continue to do so even today? Do not far too many of us who bend our worldly knees at the name of Jesus resemble far more than we might like to imagine the image of the insatiable Tío, terrible and terrifying in our unsated and unsatiable hungers and desires? Do we not demand so much to be made cheap and plentifully available to us that others throughout the world must feed our hungers if they would eat at all, yet barely manage to thrive on what little we give them?

This is the challenge we who bear the name of Christian must face. As Jesus reminded Pilate, so he reminds us: My kingdom is not from hence. In saying so, he does not mean to imply, as the Bolivian miners imagine, that there is a limit to the extent of his kingdom. Rather, he means that the demonic and unending cravings of the world, so aptly imaged in the figure of El Tío, share nothing with the abundance of life poured our in the redemption of sins we have in Christ's blood, in the reconciliation and fellowship we share in his sovereign rule. El Tío divides and consumes; Jesus Christ united and gives abundance of life. Whose image do we bear? In whose service do we pledge our lives?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary

Proverbs 8:22-35 / Luke 1:26-38

What could be a more obvious sign of our Catholic faith and devotion than the praying of the Rosary? What devotion in that Roman Catholic Church can compare to the Rosary that binds in one men, women and children from across the world, from every language and people, from the most powerful and learned to the humblest and simplest among us?

Yet, what is it we think we are doing when we pray the Rosary? Why do we assert with such confidence that this devotion should be so privileged above others, should be so filled with assurances of drawing us closer to the heart of divine charity, to the union with the Holy Trinity which is the goal and vocation of every human life?

On the face of it, the Rosary seems not to be about us at all. After all, our meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary, the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries, does not direct us to consider what God has done is our own lives. Instead, when we pray the Rosary, we are asked to dwell upon the mysteries of the life of Jesus Christ, or rather, to dwell upon Our Blessed Mother’s experience of these mysteries. That is, the Rosary directs our minds to the story of her vocation, her share in the life of Christ, her joys, her sorrows, and her glories and she is led from the glorious message of the angel which we heard in the Gospel to her even more glorious coronation as Queen of Heaven, where she is raised in honor over every created person, greater in honor than the cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the seraphim.

It is, of course, a good and noble thing to share in the joys, the sorrows and the glories of those whom we love. We do not truly need to excuse our devotion. The Virgin Mary is our Mother, the Mother of God and the Mother of the Church. She is loved by God more than any other person he created, and because her has loved her so much, we should surely do the same.

Nevertheless, why should the meditation on the mysteries of someone else, however glorious and however loved, be the source of such powerful blessing for all the faithful? Why should our sharing in the joys, the sorrows, and the glories of someone else bring us any closer of our vocation, to our life in Jesus Christ?

The answer is found in the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, alone among all the saints and among all of the members of the Body of Christ, whether men or angels, can be called totally relational. Mary, and Mary alone among God’s creatures, relates in the most intimate way with the Most Holy Trinity as made in the divine image, with the Incarnate Word as one whom he redeemed, with the Church striving here on earth, with the Church awaiting glory in Purgatory, and with the Church in heaven as a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ, with the whole of the human race as one of the daughters of Adam and Eve, and with the whole of the cosmos itself as our fellow creature. She can relate in so many ways and so intimately because of her unique role and because of her unique gifts in the history of salvation.

It is certainly true that everyone whom God has called has a unique role in God’s providence. The witness of Saint Paul, for example, as a teacher of the faith will forever play a role for every Christian. The four evangelists will give witness to the life, teaching, and saving work of Jesus Christ in a way no one else will ever be able to imitate. However, it belongs to Mary, and to Mary alone, to be present to Almighty God in the fullness of her person, body and soul. She alone has been called to share even now the full glory of the Resurrection which even the greatest saints must await until the end of the world. Moreover, because she is fully present to God, she is therefore fully present to each one of us, and in the fulness of her presence to us, she both shares with us the fulness of her whole life with God, which life we celebrate in the mysteries of the Rosary, and brings us to partake in the blessings which those mysteries have blessed her and continue to bless her.

And so, with this confidence we are able to pray the Rosary. We can trust in the mysteries of the Rosary because these mysteries are nothing other than the life of the Virgin Mary in Christ Jesus, a life which was set up from eternity and of old before the earth was made because it has been configured to the life of Christ, a life in which we too can find life and salvation from the Lord. Let us pray, brothers and sisters, and hearken to the mysteries of the Rosary. Blessed are those that keep the ways of the Virgin, that is, the ways of discipleship in Christ Jesus, and find in them their most profound hope, eternal life with the Most Holy Trinity.