Saturday, March 31, 2012

Saturday in Passion Week

Jeremiah 18:18-23 / John 12:10-36

From reading current commentators on the Gospel, one might well imagine that Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem was a carefully staged set piece, a deliberate symbolic provocation, calling unambiguously upon the imagery of the prophet Zechariah: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion, shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem: BEHOLD THY KING will come to thee, the just and saviour: he is poor, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass. On this view, not only did Jesus know exactly what he was doing in fulfilling the prophecy which, by his Spirit, he had inspired Zechariah to speak centuries before, but he knew that the chief priests and the multitudes in Jerusalem, as well as his own disciples, would have recognized the connection. That is, he would have been making an unambiguous claim, at once his own proclamation that he is the Messiah and promised King who, as prophesied, would be among the poor and even poor himself, and, at the same time, a knowing and unavoidably provocative gesture to force the chief priests into action against him, thus fulfilling the death he knew he had to die. In this interpretation, no one was in doubt, everyone in the know, with each and all playing his part precisely according to script.

The Gospel itself tells quite a different story. According to the Gospel, at least the disciples themselves did not make this connection between Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and the prophecy of Zechariah until after Jesus had risen from the dead: These things His disciples did not know at first: but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to Him. In other words, while we can assert without hesitation that the Evangelist wanted us, the readers, to make this connection even as the disciples themselves, in the clarifying light of the risen Lord, saw how this entry into Jerusalem had been foretold so long before, we make a mistake, and potentially a dangerous one, in presuming that the works of the Lord will always be quite so apparent to us. Said differently, as hard as it might be to imagine that the multitude crying Hosanna to a man entering Jerusalem from the east on an ass did not have the prophet Zechariah in mind, or that the chief priests did not either, we ought to take the Gospel seriously here; they did not know, even as they were fulfilling what God had told them would happen.

Why does this matter? Have not all of the things prophesied by the Scriptures been fulfilled in Christ? Do we even need to wonder whether the events unfolding before us have already been given their right interpretation in the prophets? Indeed, is not that kind of prophecy hunting just the spiritual disorder that leads, if not to actual heresy, then often a failure to read the Scriptures aright?

While it is true we ought not to shoehorn contemporary events into the pattern of the prophets' words, it is also true that we must be humble about our knowledge about God's providential ordering of events, not merely in the past, but more especially of our present. Even though we see things now by the light of the empty Tomb, and so by the light of Jesus Christ risen from the dead, this is no guarantee that God's reasons and intentions, the proposal of his will, even when spoken of in his revelation, will be any more immediately clear to us now than the prophecy of his entry into Jerusalem was clear to Jesus' disciples, the multitudes, or the chief priests. What we must do, what we do whereby we will be judged and held accountable, is not the clarity of our insight into divine providence, but whether, here and now, we act in accord with the sincere promptings of the Holy Spirit, whatever the personal cost, or whether, to maintain what we imagine to be necessary for our happiness, we invent devices and think up thoughts, plot and scheme against those who stand in our way.

Whether we know God's inner counsels is never up to us or our efforts. Whether we act out of charity in accord with the truth placed before us is.

Amen, amen, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, itself remaineth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world keepeth it unto life eternal.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Friday in Passion Week

Jeremiah 17:13-18 / John 11:47-54

At that time the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council against Jesus ...

It would be easy to see this phrase as just so much introduction, to pass it by until we get to the meat of what the Gospel is trying to say. However, this would be to bypass a rather important, and chilling, fact, namely that the desire to take counsel from one another to oppose Jesus was sufficient to unite those who would otherwise be bitterly opposed to one another. While we recall that Jesus was opposed by both Pharisees and by the priests and Sadducees, we might forget that these two groups we quite hostile to one another. They differed on matters theological, jurisprudential, cultural, and political. Each saw the others' vision as a falsification of the Torah and of the religion received from God through Moses on Sinai. All things being equal, one might never expect the chief priests and the Pharisees to agree on anything.

This is what makes the episode so chilling. As bitterly as they were opposed to one another, they were more troubled that Jesus, this same Jesus by whom the sons and daughters of Israel had been cured of their illness and freed from unclean spirits, this same Jesus whose words of wisdom had confounded their best efforts to refute. While they could net yet admit it at first, after hearing the deadly if prophetic counsel of Caiphas — it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not —  these once enemies, now co-conspirators were united not in charity and love, but in the desire for murder: From that day therefore they devised to put him to death.

While unity between enemies is the goal of the Gospel, breaking down the walls of hostility that divide us, we must be aware of this perverse kind of unity, a unity not of hearts and minds, but of wicked purpose, masked as seeking common cause for the good. We must, of course, seek to find common cause, even with those who oppose us on other grounds, for the sake of the good. Yet, there comes a time when our very desire to join forces with those who oppose us stems not from the work of the Spirit in our hearts, but from a disordered and culpable desire to do what is wrong and oppose what is right.

Are we, then, willing not to achieve our goals if gaining them comes at the cost of betraying what is right? Does our vision of the common good stand to close to what God demands that we can sacrifice innocent lives to succeed and coming to a mutual understanding with our enemies? Or, can we stand our ground, confident with the prophet Jeremiah that we will not be left without hope, we will not be confounded, however many and however strong those who oppose us may be?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Thursday in Passion Week

Daniel 3:25, 34-45 / Luke 7:36-50

In his homily on Jesus and the sinful woman at the house of Simon the Pharisee, Pope St. Gregory the Great asks whether it is better to say that Jesus received the woman or that he drew her to him. Asked differently, is Jesus the goal, the object of her search, or is her searching the fruit of Jesus' having already worked on her from within?

On the face of it, the effort looks to be altogether on the side of the woman. She was not, so far as we can tell from the Gospel, invited by Simon to join him for the meal he was sharing with Jesus. Without any special invitation or prompting, she took the alabaster box of ointment she had brought with her, opened it, and anointed Jesus' feet, having washed them with her tears and dried them with her hair. When Jesus speaks about her to Simon, it is she who is praised for her love: Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much. Again, when he sends her on her way, the source of her forgiveness seems to have come from her: Thy faith hath saved thee: go in peace.

Yet, things are not all as they seem. In the parable Jesus shares with Simon about the creditor and his two debtors, one of whom was forgiven a great amount, the other not nearly as much, Simon rightly concludes that love for the creditor is the result of the creditor's forgiveness. Which therefore of the two loveth him most? Simon answering, said: He, I suppose, to whom he forgave more. Likewise, when speaking of the woman who has been forgiven many sins, Jesus also adds a coda: But to whom less is forgiven, he loveth less. In other words, Jesus reminds his Pharisee host that love is not the precondition of forgiveness, as though the more loveable one is, the more he can and will be forgiven. Rather, the reverse is true. It is the degree of forgiveness which produces and increases love.

This is why both Simon, and we, ought to be stung in our consciences. If we are not accustomed to perform spontaneous acts of extravagant love like the woman with her alabaster jar of ointment, then the suggestion is that we are still in our sins. It is not simply a question of how scarlet or black our sins may have been. Who we may have been up to this point, how and where and with whom we may have betrayed the Good News is simply not the point. The only question is how open we have been to receive the ceaseless and abundant stream of mercy pouring from the side of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Drink deeply, pour out tears with abandon, pay no heed to the sneers of those who come to know how far we have fallen, and we quickly discover our own inner floodgates of charity thrown wide open, and the love of which we feared we were not capable will have become to us like a second nature.

As Holy Week approaches, and with it the Church's remembrance of the wonderful, saving work of Jesus Christ, there is no need to fret over how well we may have kept our Lent. Let us turn, one and all, to our great creditor who has already, in Jesus Christ, forgiven us all of our debts. Let us receive that forgiveness, and in that bountiful pardon, produce a rich harvest of love for God, and for this world and its inhabitants, whom he loved enough to bring to life everlasting.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wednesday in Passion Week

Leviticus 19:1, 2, 11-19 / John 10:22-38

Respect not the person of the poor ...

How is one to restore right order after having lived for years, generations, even time immemorial within a system that unjustly shuts some of its members out from the goods meant to be enjoyed by all? This is a question which has animated modern thinkers especially, if not uniquely, and a thought which runs from Marx through the national, racial, and gender liberationist movements of the twentieth century, is that inequity cannot be set right merely by making a decision to treat everyone fairly, to give to each the same treatment without respecting class, national origin, race, or gender. But why not? Why not simply treat all with equal respect and give all equal opportunities?

According to liberationist criticism, the very equality we think we are upholding turns out to be itself infected and twisted to bias against the oppressed and in favor of those in power. On this view, the supposedly "neutral" stance turns out to be, even against the sincere good wishes of the empowered, to be yet another tool of oppression. Indeed, it can be even worse in its own way from direct oppression since, masked by words and intentions of fairness, to blinds both the oppressor and the oppressed to the deeper reasons that inequality remains and shows no signs of going away. It turns out that real equality, real fairness, will be experienced by all, and especially by those privileged by the social order, as decidedly unfair, a preferential treatment of the oppressed without regard to what the privileged insist to be their common, shared, equal claims to fair treatment.

To the extent that this view has some claim to be right, the words of the Lord in Leviticus come as something of a surprise. Trained as we are to see the Lord God as decidedly on the side of the poor and downtrodden, not a neutral arbiter but a partisan on behalf of Israel, and of Israel's poor, we find this in the midst of his Law: Respect not the person of the poor. To be sure, this is followed by the balancing claim, nor honor the countenance of the mighty. Even so, we wonder of the first half is not mistaken. Did God perhaps mean to say Respect the person of the poor, and somehow by divine forgetfulness or scribal error, the phrase became negated? Ought we not to take the side of the poor, to show him preference precisely because he is poor, rather than, against all obvious indications, treat him just as we would any other man?

The truth which God communicates here, I believe, rests in the very real worry that, in identifying ourselves with the cause of the poor, in fighting against others on their behalf, we have a real risk of imagining that we are not among the oppressors. That is, contrary to the liberationist view, it is precisely in our self-righteous advocacy and partisanship on behalf of the poor that we are most likely to obscure from our vision our own complicity in their oppression. Treat the poor man fairly and impartially, and we might discover, much to our discomfort, that a fair and impartial judgment ought to fall on our own heads. Treat him as though he falls under our special care, and any hope of seeing that it is not some villainous "other," but rather our own unrighteousness that has betrayed and abused him.

This is why it belongs to God, and God alone, to be, in the manner of a paradox, impartially partial and unequally equitable on behalf of the poor. Only God is free from the web of injustice in which we snare our neighbor, and only his judgment of another's wickedness stands without reflexive blame. It remains for us to stand up for the right, not of this man or another man, but for the right wherever it should fall. It remains for us to defend our neighbor's blood when it is shed, even when we have the bloody knife in our own hand. It remains for us to serve the poor precisely in our impartiality, and in that fairness, to expose not only our own wickedness against him, but also our own claim on God's mercy.

Seek not revenge, nor be mindful of the injury of thy fellow countryman. Thou shalt love thy friend as thyself.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tuesday in Passion Week

Daniel 14:27-42 / John 7:1-13

There is no shame in having been misunderstood. There is no crime in being ignored and unnoticed. We cannot control whether or not another chooses to attend to our words in the sense we mean, and we cannot in the end compel anyone to take interest in what we do. Yet, to think that others ought to heed our words, to insist that following our pattern of life is not simply helpful or laudable, but indeed the only way to escape death and inherit eternal life, and nonetheless to remain private and hidden, is surely indefensible. If we think others should know what it is we are doing and what we are about, should it not be our business to make our message known and to do whatever we can to see to it that others take notice?

This is the position taken by Jesus' brethren at the coming of the Feast of Tabernacles. Pass from hence and go into Judea, they said, that Thy disciples also may see Thy works which Thou dost. For there is no man that doth any thing in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly: if Thou do these things, manifest Thyself to the world. On the face of it, their logic is sound. Jesus has followers in Judea, but these have not seen the wonders he has done in Galilee. Why not let the Judean residents, and especially those in the holy city, Jerusalem, also have a share in witnessing the great works that he has wrought?

The foundation of Jesus' refusal is not, however, a counter theory about the psychology and sociology of getting to be known. Jesus provides not universally true rationale that would justify his actions. On the contrary, Jesus insists that his actions, his timing, his choice of being secretive or manifest, does not follow the logic of this world at all. His hours are not those produced by the spinning of the earth, but rather by the decrees of his Father from before the dawn of time. My time is not yet come, he says.

Yet, he says more than this: ... but your time is always ready. What Jesus tells his brethren, and tells us insofar as we agree with them, is that the mission of the Son, the saving work of God in the flesh, is not subject to the principles and presuppositions of our ordinary life, much less of a life marked by pettiness, gossip, abandonment of the poor, rivalry, divisions, and any other lack of charity: The world cannot hate you: but Me it hateth, because I give testimony of it, that the works thereof are evil. Jesus coming to us, and our coming to him, is not, nor was it ever meant to be, one of a number of solutions to our human problems. It is not even the best one. It is, rather, a drawing us into a whole new time, a whole new world, not merely a new way of living but an entirely new source of life itself. Jesus Christ aims for nothing less than our being taken up into the life of God, and nothing of or from the world, not its best and brightest, nor much less its most perverse, can ever prepare itself or indicate when that transformation should occur. To be taken up into God is precisely what can only come at God's initiative, at his time and his hour.

This is why our life in Christ is never meant to be a preparation for some big moment, a getting ready for some event. To see it this way is to fail to attend to God here and now, in each and every moment. To prepare for some coming hour would mean to reserve for ourselves, and not for Jesus Christ, this present time of preparation. Jesus, however, will have none of it, and will come into our lives on his own terms, indeed being already present secretly long before we note his presence. Our task to not to prepare, but to receive, not to query or anticipate, but rather to welcome our Lord Jesus Christ in joy.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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

We expect that, on hearing a major announcement, our lives will be noticeably changed. We do not think that significant events will result merely in an inward shift in attitude. We think and reasonably assume that others, too, we see how the news, good or ill, has impacted us all.

How very different the case of the Annunciation. To be sure, after the message given by the angel Gabriel, nothing was ever the same again for the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Indeed, nothing was ever same for the whole world. Even so, after his announcement, the angel departed, and we are left to imagine that the Virgin had to return to her same, ordinary life, the world turning and turning as it always had, and seemingly always would. For all of its grandeur, the Annunciation did not separate Mary from the routine of her life.

For the Christian faithful, the life of the Virgin is meant to be a kind of pattern, we a kind of echo of the mysteries she experienced. As God transfigured her by his grace, so we are to be transformed by the grace poured out upon us, at all times, but especially in this holy season of Lent. As the Virgin was profoundly changed by the message from an angel, we likewise should not remain unchanged by God's offer to us of grace in Jesus Christ. If we remain open to Jesus Christ entering within our souls, even as Mary opened her whole self to be the Godbearer, then nothing in our lives need ever be the same again.

Yet, as was the Blessed Virgin, so we too are sent back to the same world. Grace does not snatch us out of our familiar routines, nor take us to a special place free of our daily burdens, trials, and disappointments. Rather, full of grace, we are sent to be a source of transformation for a world not yet wholly transfigured by the coming in the flesh of the Son of God. This is the task of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and this is also our task — Lord, be it done to us according to thy word.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Passion Sunday

Hebrews 9:11-15 / John 8:46-59

There has been much talk of late about the unfair treatment, indeed the outright abuse, of the Christian faithful. In the West, this has tended to be expressed in one of two ways, either by the compelling of the Church to provide public and material support to things which are contrary to the Gospel, and which it serves no demonstrable public good to do so, or by the shaming and even public prosecution in a court of law of the upholding of principles and practices which were, only a generation ago, part of the common vision of the whole of Western society. In other parts of the world, the abuse of Christians is more overt and more violent, whether the attacks on Christians in Iraq to rid that land of those ancient Christian communities, the assaults on the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the trumped up charges of blasphemy against the Christians in Pakistan, the paranoid accusations and lethal reprisals against Christians thought guilty of manipulative proselytism in India, or the brutal murder of Christians in northern Nigeria. Whether the gentler form encountered in the West or the more violent reactions in the global South, Christians are likely to protest that the response of non-Christians to the Gospel here is unjust and unwarranted. The claim is that Christianity is falsely seen as the source of offense, and that if one truly understood what the Church was about, these anxieties would be seen as the paranoid, violent fantasies that they are.

While this is certainly true, and while Christians ought to do what they can to resist the tendency of others to receive the Church as an offense, the fact remains that, at its heart, the Gospel will produce resistance, violent resistance, from those who have not been brought to new life in Jesus Christ by the Spirit. In John's Gospel, Jesus challenges the multitudes of the Jews to bring forth any authentic and justifiable reason to take offense at him and convict him of sin. Again and again they merely assert that his own words, and precisely his claims that God is his Father, and that whoever rejects his words does so because he is not of God, prove that he is both a heretic and a demoniac. Their annoyance and frustration becomes more and more threatening as Jesus asserts himself and his words to be the souce of life and freedom from death, and his own very person the joy which all of God's faithful, even the great patriarch Abraham, have longed to see. Finally, when Jesus gives his most unambiguous assertion of the Gospel message, when he declares that before Abraham was made, I am, and in doing so identifies himself as the very Lord God who revealed his holy Name to Moses, the crowd can contain itself no longer. They took up stones therefore to cast at Him.

It is well worth recalling that the Gospel can and will necessarily be an offense, an offense that leads to outright and hostility and even violence, for those who take its message seriously but whose hearts remain hardened. The identity of Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, is not merely one of a series of dogmatic assertions which one can hold or not with varying degrees of acceptance. To see what this revelation means, to understand what it entails, requires either embracing Jesus as Lord and Savior and cleaving to his very words as the source of life itself, or seeking to eliminate his presence as not merely another lunatic, but as a true offense to rational and wholesome living. To live in a world where someone is taken seriously to be the very author of the world itself is either to rejoice in the glorious Good News of the Incarnation or to be its most bitter enemy. Take the presence of the Church seriously, and there is no possibility, in the long run, for peace.

This is why, without ceasing our efforts to make sure that Christians do not suffer for misreadings of what they are about, from pretended worries about how disruptive the creed is to the common good, the Church must, if it is faithful to its mission and its Head, expect to find itself resisted, and quite forcefully, from the world. If our Lent has opened our eyes, then we have seen not that this violence can be avoided, but that it cannot stand in the way of our true happiness. This is the joy, the Good News, of the inevitability of martyrdom. We, who are marked with the sign of the Cross, will certainly taste death, and some, even many of us will do so at the hands of those who hate us. Even so, we need not fear, for if we must die from hatred, we will die with the word of Jesus Christ in our minds, on our lips, and in our heart. If any man keep My word, he shall not taste death for ever.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Saturday of the Fourth Week in Lent/Commemoration of St. Gabriel, Archangel

Isaiah 49:8-15 / John 8:12-20

It may perhaps be no exaggeration to suggest that, as John the Baptist among men born of woman, there is no angel in the heavens called into being by God greater than the archangel Gabriel. While among prophets there were many perhaps of nobler soul, or who worked great signs and wonders, or whose prophetic message led God's chosen people, and continues to move his Church, for countless generations, nonetheless it fell to John and John alone to point with unambiguous clarity to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, the Lamb of God, the Word made flesh. So, too, we might imagine that other angels might perhaps be greater in power, keener in intuitive perception of truth, or the instrument by whom more spectacular wonders were announced. Yet, it is through Gabriel, and Gabriel alone, that the most powerful, most central, most awe-inspiring Gospel that has ever been entrusted to a created person has been given, to announce to the Virgin Mary the conception in her womb of the very Son of God.

How disquieting it is, then, on this day when we recall the clarity by which Gabriel told of the heavenly origin of Jesus Christ and the happy reception of this child in her womb by the Godbearer, that we hear that terrible accusation made by Jesus to the multitude of Jews who questioned him — Neither Me do you know, nor My Father: if you did know Me, perhaps you would know My Father also. — along with that terrifying hypothetical posed by the prophet Isaiah — Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? With such a promising beginning, affirming manifestly both the maternal love for her child and the indisputable annunciation of Jesus Christ as the Son of the Father, how can we have fallen so far as to be left in doubt, still troubled that perhaps those things which we want to trust and on which we must rely, might in fact betray us?

As God spoke through his prophet Isaiah, and as we learn in the example of Gabriel, the task of the messenger is first and foremost not to be the guarantor of the truth of what he proclaims, but rather to be faithful to his task. It is our duty to say to them that are bound: Come forth: and to them that are in darkness: Show yourselves. This is our Gospel, and this is our Good News, that in the coming of Jesus Christ, in his death on the Cross and his Resurrection from the dead, we have been brought to share in a new life with God. We announce, we bear witness, but in the end there is no other testimony save the testimony by the Father of his Son, and by the Son of his Father, that can assure us that in Jesus Christ, and in him alone, can we find life and have it abundantly. Not even the proclamation by Gabriel himself assured the meek and joyful reception of his Gospel by the Virgin. It was, rather, the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father through his Son, that enlarged her heart that she might hear the angel's words with gladness.

This is thus a counsel not of sloth, not of doing nothing because God will do all, but rather a counsel to confident witness. We can proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ without fear precisely because we know that we have not been tasked to do so without effect. God has promised that by our preaching the nations will receive his Gospel and be brought out of darkness and into light. That is the source of our confidence, and that alone can sustain us in delivering, as Gabriel did, the Good News of the Incarnation of the Word. We need not fear, because God has promised, and he will never forget us.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday of the Fourth Week in Lent

3 Kings 17:17-24 / John 11:1-45

It has been said that Jesus, in knowing with certainty that he would rise from the dead, indeed knowing that he was God, the eternal Son of the Father, could not really sympathize with our sorrow in the face of death. It is granted that he may have experienced physical pain and the associated griefs that accompany such assaults on the body, but the complaint is that, having the divine view of things, not experiencing as we do uncertainty and doubt, he cannot really know what it is for us to have lost someone we love. Like grieving Martha, we know that we shall rise again on the Last Day, but somehow that does not dull the ache in our heart hear and now. Without bitterness, we feel the need to remind the Lord Jesus Christ as Martha did: Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. We are, indeed, stunned by what sounds to us as, even if true, nonetheless shocking words from his lips: Lazarus is dead: and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there.

Yet, then comes that moment that the Lord arrived at the tomb, the Lord who knew of Lazarus' death even before the messengers had arrived, who knew without doubt or confusion what it was that he was going to do, that Lazarus would rise again from the dead in his presence, who is the Resurrection and the Life. And Jesus wept. Nor is that all, for these tears are unambiguous, even to those gathered about: Behold how He loved him.

We make a terrible error in seeking to know Jesus, and indeed in seeking better to know ourselves, when we imagine that knowledge of a glorious truth must, of itself, drive away all sadness. We see in this story of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus that perfect and certain knowledge of Lazarus' being raised from the dead does nothing to take away what is true, and dark, and terrible here and now, that a man Jesus loved had died. That the tomb is to be overcome, and indeed has already been overcome, in Jesus Christ, does not make the thing itself, does not make death and decay, any less an affront. Our passions, when rightly ordered, prompt us to the right response to the world, and so in the face of the death of one's beloved, only one who had no humanity at all would fail to feel sorrow.

This is why we, too, must avoid the error of a false kind of Stoic reserve in the face of sorrow and pain. The Gospel is not a counsel of being immune to the pains and sufferings of this world. It is not a critique of the attachments we make to persons here and now, attachments which we, every one of them, be broken by the power of the grace, and so eventually the source of sorrow. We are meant to feel sorrow in the face of loss, even as we are meant to feel anger in the face of cruelty and injustice, and happiness in the face of a laughing infant, a young couple in love, or a faithful widow. This passionate response is altogether human, and it is the way God has designed for us to make sense of the world.

More than that, for us the passions have been transformed, and we with them, so that in our sorrows, we can share in the tears of God himself, in our anger, we can be taken up in the consuming zeal of Jesus cleansing the Temple, and in our delight, we can embrace the happy reunion of the risen Lord with his disciples on Easter Day. However wayward our passions may be, we see in the raising of Lazarus, and in the tears of the Word Incarnate, a lifting up of these blessed prompts to see the world correctly. May the Lord Jesus Christ, who will one day wipe away every tear, let us nonetheless weep freely here and now, and in that weeping, share with him the glorious, passionate joy of the life that knows no end.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Thursday of the Fourth Week in Lent

4 Kings 4:25-38 / Luke 7:11-16

Theologians have a tendency, and they are right in doing so, of directing us away from confining our consideration of God to his relationship with ourselves as individuals. They insist that God is always concerned with us not merely as discrete units, autonomous persons, but rather precisely insofar as we are related to others. This insight is, to be sure, justified not only by the scriptural witness in general, but by the very nature of God, who is himself three Persons in his divine unity. All the same, we can emphasize the communal character of a life in God in such a way that it appears to be competitive with the fulfilling of our private and personal hopes, dreams, and our desires. What a cold world the life of glory would be if it did not speak not only to the grief of the human race, but also and quite directly to my grief, my pain, my sorrow.

We see just this concern on God's part in the story of the widow of Naim. If we attempted to highlight the communal character of the story, we might note that the woman is designated as a widow, and so without a husband to meet her needs and attend to her well-being. Likewise, the man whose body is being brought out for burial is her only son. We might, then, want to make the story one about the woman's alienation from a network of care, from a supportive and sustaining community, and the miracle worked by Jesus Christ in the raising of her son from the dead as a restoration of the bonds of community that give her, and each of us, life.

We might do so, if it were not that the Gospel itself works against such a reading. In the widow, we meet not a woman who has been cut off from society and its support through the death of her husband and her only son, but rather a woman with an extensive bond of an active, interpersonal, sustaining society: and a great multitude of the city was with her. Her problem is not that she will be abandoned by a wicked social structure that does not attend to her needs. She is, rather, clearly loved by not a few of her fellow citizens.

Even so, her grief, her personal grief at the loss of her only son, a grief which Jesus surely could not help but associate with the inevitable but no less heart-breaking grief he knew would pierce his own mother's heart, is the object of Jesus' concern: Whom when the Lord had seen, being moved with mercy towards her, He said to her: Weep not. What the Gospel puts before us is not social action on behalf of the defenseless, but the heartache of heart of the Incarnate Lord in the face a woman who has lost her only son. It is her private grief, her personal pain, her own and special longing that is the source of his miraculous restoration of the young man to life.

In the light of this story, we ought to take heart. Jesus Christ does indeed care about our concerns and our losses. He wants to draw us to a new and glorious life imperishable, of course, but that does not exclude meeting us in our sorrow here and now, in this vale of tears. Let us take confidence in his mercy and not fail to seek his healing and comforting response to our ills and our sorrow. A great prophet is risen amongst us, and God hath visited His people.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wednesday of the Fourth Week in Lent

Ezechiel 36:23-28 / Isaiah 1:16-19 / John 9:1-38

For whose benefit have we received saving faith in Jesus? Whose good is brought about by our being delivered from our sins and brought to a new and glorious life in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit?

On the face of it, the answer would seem obvious. It is surely for our sake that God has done this things in and for us. We, after all, are the principal recipients of the transforming power of the grace of Jesus Christ as prophesied by Ezechiel: our being cleansed from the uncleanness of idolatry and wickedness, the replacing of our stony hearts with hearts of flesh, the very presence of God's Spirit in our midst, our walking in his commandments and keeping his judgments, our dwelling in the heavenly land of promise, and above all being able to claim God as our own, even as he claims us as his very own people. The goods, likewise, foretold by Isaiah are ours. It is we who are called upon to cease our evil and learn to do well, for which conversion even our crimson sins shall be white as wool and we shall eat the good things of the land.

Yet, in another sense, God tells us that it is not our good, but that of those who witness the transformation in our lives which is God's motive. For Ezechiel, all of the restoration of the people of Israel is to happen not as a private affair, but precisely in such a way that it might be seen by the Gentiles, that they might know that God is Lord. What seems at first a restoration of Israel to its own land, a private affair between God and his people, is according to the Lord God at least as much for the sake of those nations among whom the Jewish people have been scattered as for the people of Israel themselves. As we see this prophecy fulfilled in Jesus Christ and his Church, should we imagine this in any different in our case?

But, it does not end there. As God reveals through Ezechiel, and as he speaks clearly in the words of the Incarnate Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, it is in the end neither our good, nor the good of those who witness God's work in us, but rather the good of God's holy name which is at stake, that God might be praised. In the words spoken by the Lord through Ezechiel: I will sanctify My great name, which was profaned among the Gentiles, which you have profaned in the midst of them: that the Gentiles may know that I am the Lord, when I shall by sanctified in you before their eyes. What Jesus says to his disciples is not fundamentally any different: Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents; but that the works of God should be manifest in him.

What does this mean? Does it suggest that God does not care for our private good, that he subordinates our good to the good of the world as a whole, and instrumentalizes both for the sake of glorifying his own name? Better to see this differently. What Ezechiel and Isaiah through prophecy and shadow, and Jesus Christ in grace and truth reveal in that God wills to be glorified precisely in our being made whole. What the Scriptures tell us is that my neighbor really and truly benefits from my being brought to new life in Jesus, and that my new life in Jesus is of no avail to him or to me if I do not seek to live out the life of charity and justice which God has poured out upon us through his Spirit. We learn from this that God seeks his glory not apart from our good, but rather by means of it, and he seeks to bring everyone to him, not independently of one another, but that in drawing near to him, we are drawn more closely to one another.

In the mystery of Jesus Christ, my good is yours, and in our coming to faith and wholeness of life, God has chosen to reveal and proclaim his glory to the world, the glory of the only-begotten Son.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tuesday of the Fourth Week in Lent

Exodus 32:7-14 / John 7:14-31

There is a standard trope in contemporary theology and spirituality which asserts that the image of God as wrathful, as there being such a thing as divine anger, is the result not so much of revelation as an incomplete emotional and spiritual development on the part of the believer. On this view, God is never, indeed can never be angry. He is always love, always joy. To see God as angry and our task to be appeasing that anger is, on this view, an infantile, and ultimately destructive view of the Lord.

What, then, shall we make of the account of Moses' pleading with God to spare his people Israel for the sin of making the golden calf, worshiping it, and offering it sacrifice, even though it was the Lord who brought them out of the land of Egypt? Seeing the rebellion in his people, the Lord God says: I see that this people is stiff-necked: let Me alone, that My wrath may be kindled against them. To defend his people, Moses pleads, not making an appeal to mercy or love, but to the honor of God's own name which, should he destroy Israel, would come into disgrace among the nations. It was, as the story goes, in this way that the Lord was appeased from doing the evil which He had spoken against His people.

It is not helpful, I think, to suggest that Exodus merely records a primitive state in the religious and spiritual development of the people of Israel, as though we should merely mark this part of the story as an interesting historical relic, yet conclude that it has nothing noteworthy to reveal about who God is. On the contrary, it tells us something crucial about how God relates to us. When God threatens to destroy Israel, he offers Moses a promise: and I will make of thee a great nation. In other words, the Lord suggests to Moses that he could begin again, forming descendents of Abraham not from the many sons and daughters of Israel, but through the last remnant of Moses himself. The suggestion, that is, is that Moses consider as a response to sin in the world merely starting over, abandoning those who have strayed and finding new people to serve the Lord.

In Moses' refusal of this offer, and in the Lord's pleasure with Moses' response, we can see that the Lord, however deeply angry with Israel, is even more concerned what responsibility we take for the sins of others. Do we, in the face of those Christians who give the faith a bad name, who rebel against the authoritative teaching of the Church, who abuse the lives of the innocents placed in her care, whose silence in the face of dehumanizing rhetoric or law scandalizes the faithful and empowers the wicked — do we in these cases want God to sweep the floor clean and start again? Or, like Moses, are we willing to embrace the whole of God's people, compromised though they may be by sins, even sins scarlet with blood or black as night? Are we convinced that the answer to rebellion against God is not our siding with God against the rebels, as though this would be pleasing to him, but in holding fast to God's honor by taking responsibility for the waywardness of his people? Will we have the courage to be identified with, and share the lot with, those who have brought shame to the name of the Gospel, and in taking on that shame, reveal to them and to ourselves, that the burning wrath we had seen before is nothing other than the blazing charity which set fire to the world from the Cross of Jesus Christ?

Monday, March 19, 2012

St Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Confessor

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

There are those who will only believe what they can receive by their own senses, who only credit as causes and truths in this world what natural reason allows. For them, appeal to the supernatural, for taking action not in light of the certainty of the noontime sun, but the hazy obscurity of our nighttime dreams, is not even a noble aspiration. Better to live justly by what we can demonstrate to one another than be slave to fairy tales and dangerous fancies.

There are others for whom the world beyond this one constantly beckons. Behind every tea leaf in the cup there lies a hidden message, in every word there is an unintended but profound secret, and in the twilight of our imagination, there are the deepest and grandest truths to be known. For them, to follow the dictates of reason rather than the murky promptings of intuition and the heart is to abandon what is holiest and most divine in human life. Better to have been made a fool now and again by mistaking a toad for a prince than to miss forever the entrance to the inexpressible delights of the world beyond.

In Joseph, in whose care God placed not only the Blessed Virgin Mary, but also his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in the fragility of his infancy, childhood, and youth, the Church has a model who refuses both of these visions. With the rationalists and against empty and even deadly superstition, Joseph was ever a just man. Where the best of human reason presented to him what seemed the infidelity of the Virgin Mary, Joseph neither denied what he thought must be the case nor succumbed to unrighteous fury. Rather, not willing publicly to expose her, he was minded to put her away privately.

Yet, against those same rationalists, Joseph did not consider his own reason and his own righteousness to be the final measure and arbiter of human flourishing. As attentive as he was to his conclusions drawn in waking hours, Joseph also attended to the clear voice of the Angel of the Lord who appeared to him in his sleep. For Joseph, right reason did not exclude an openness to God's promptings anywhere in his life, even if they came by angelic messenger in a dream.

It is for this reason that the faithful can be content neither with the false sufficiency of reason nor with the seductive haze of supernaturalism. Like Joseph's, our service to Jesus Christ must ever and always begin with the best that our mind and our heart can know by appealing to the native light of reason this same Jesus Christ has planted in our hearts, and by a clear attentiveness to his public revelation in the Scriptures and their authoritative interpretation in the ministers of the Church. At the same time, like Joseph, we must always remain open to the gracious surprises our Lord has prepared for us, never demanding how and when they may come to our minds or our hearts. To serve Jesus Christ is to be both a clear, daytime thinker marked by uprightness of heart and to be a docile, nighttime dreamer marked by a generous receptivity of spirit. This was the glory of Joseph, and under his watchful protection, may this also be what crowns each of made alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Galatians 4:22-31 / John 6:1-15

Saint Paul presents us today with a very subtle and, if not read carefully, worrisome claim. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul sets before us Abraham and his two sons, not here both named, but he has in mind Ishmael, the elder who was born of the slave girl Hagar, and Isaac, the younger, born of Abraham's wife Sarah as a result of God's promise. Paul warns us that these things are said by an allegory. That is, Paul is not claiming that the stories in Genesis of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael are not historically true. Rather, he wants us to see that while he seems to be speaking of these figures in the past, he is actually aiming to speak about something else, that is allegorein, to speak otherwise.

Why does Paul give this warning? It turns out that the reading he provides yields some surprising tension with the Scriptures themselves. His first claim, that Ishmael is born of a slave woman and so of the flesh, Isaac of a free woman and so of the spirit would quite easily have been received by a surface and facile reading of Genesis, one which held up the people of God's promise over the pretenses of their Gentile neighbors. Then, however, things get tricky. Paul associates the son of Hagar, the son of a slave, with the giving of the Law on Sinai, with the very gracious act by which God established the sons of Isaac as a priestly people, a holy nation. Moreover, Sinai itself, and then by transference Jerusalem, are shifted to Arabia, to the land of Ishmael's exile and the place of the nations who do not know God. In contrast, the Church, and here one must have in mind the gathering of the Gentiles into Christ as well as the Jews, turns out to be Jerusalem, and these sons of darkness who grew up in pagan cult, turn out to be the sons of the free woman, the children of promise.

Now, on a facile reading, Paul has simply taken the Jewish disdain for the Gentile people and inverted it, claiming that God does not favor the Jews, but favors instead his (Gentile) Church. Yet, that reading is dangerously mistaken. The question here is not whether God loves the people of promise, nor is it whether the Law is good an righteous. The issue Paul is putting before us is rather the question of human presumption and divine initiative.

In the case of Abraham and Sarah, God had promised them descendants countless as the stars. However, anxious and not trusting fully in God, they sought together to force God's hand by producing a child on their own initiative, through Abraham's begetting Ishmael by Hagar. Ishmael himself is not without God's promises, being destined to father a great nation himself and being, with his mother, watched over in the wilderness when Abraham and Sarah cruelly cast them out with a glib assertion that God had promised to make of him a great nation and so he need not fear sending them to their death in the desert. Even so, he is not the child of God's promise to Abraham. This promise is fulfilled in Isaac, conceived by God's omnipotence, despite the unbelieving laughter of Sarah or the weakness of Abraham, who himself must confront that weakness and trust in God when asked to destroy in sacrifice that very answer to his prayed by slaying his own son.

What Paul wants us to see is that the formation of God's holy people, the gathering of the elect, has always been and will always be the result not of our own plans and initiative, but the result of God's work in us, God's fidelity to his own promises. Our attempts to force his hand, to produce the effect which God reserves to himself, will inevitably end in sadness, in a pale imitation of the promise, even as the Ishmaelites would never be, and could never be, the people God had chosen as his own. So, for Paul, the spiritual danger of the Jewish people facing the newborn Church was in living as though they were themselves the masters and arbiters of their own election by God. In cleaving to the Law as a way to distinguish themselves from the Gentiles, and so act as though God could not ever choose them as well, they had ironically made themselves to be like Ishmael, the product of an attempt to bypass and take control of God's promise.

The worry for us in Christ, then, ought to be clear. We can and should rejoice in the marvelous redemption won for us in the blood of Christ, and in him we need not expect any further revelation. Even so, we can be just as guilty of attempting to force God's hand, of determining on our initiative where, when, how, and to whom God's grace of election will come. The mercy extended to us in Jesus Christ is meant always to disturb any such security, that we might find our foundation in no one but him, in no other promise but his, and in no other way to fulfill that promise save by his gracious work. This is the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free, and it is the freedom which our Lenten way opens to all who are called from the slavery of self-assertion to the liberty of receiving our truest selves from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Saturday of the Third Week in Lent

Daniel 13:1-9, 15-17, 19-30, 33-62 / John 8:1-11

Why is it so hard for many simply to condemn the iniquity of the abuse of women? Why is it that, when some highlight how it is that women are the subject of their husbands', or their partners', or even their clients' abuse and cruelty, the Church, not merely in her ministers but even more so in the laity, is so awkward in denouncing the fact as a grace injustice and a moral evil? It is as though we want to decry how the abuse of women is horrendous and yet we feel compelled to add, "Of course it is, but yet ..." That is, we feel inclined to assert that not only are women the victim of spousal abuse, or that "while it is true that the abuse of women is an unspeakable crime, yet we ought not to conclude ..." and then add some addendum we fear will be forgotten or overlooked if we should, without hesitation, condemn the abuse of women tout court.

In the Gospel, Jesus does not determine the moral "worthiness" of the woman caught in adultery before defending her from the wrath of the crowd. Indeed, as we hear from her accusers, she is indeed guilty of adultery. All the same, Jesus' challenge remains: He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. This challenge is not premised at all upon parsing out the moral state of the woman, who, as we learn, is in fact guilty of the crime of which she has been accused. Rather, altogether apart from the question of her guilt, Jesus puts before her accusers, those who would make her die the terrible death of stoning, the altogether righteous but impossible standard, namely, that to lay a hand upon her, to do this woman a single bit of harm, calls for absolute purity on the part of the executioner of judgment. The prophet Daniel, while convinced rightly of the innocence of Susanna, is less bothered of proving her innocence as he is of ferreting out the judges' guilt. Their fault is found not in defending the honor of Susanna, but in showing that the judges are themselves false, themselves deserving of death.

In the Church, we must name the cruelty and violence we face, the daily violence faced by women, Christian women, women married sacramentally in holy Mother Church. The problem is so clear, so unavoidable, that one wonders why we do not hear more about it. Why is it that women feel themselves better served by turning to lesbian activists in state-sponsored crisis clinics than they do from their own pastors, much less their sisters in the faith? Why is it that the Church must explain and defend her stance on behalf of women, rather than having the same be so obvious as to be in no need of explanation or defense?

The woman caught in adultery received, without her even asking it, the unconditional pardon from the Lord: Hath no man condemned thee, woman? No man, Lord. Neither will I condemn thee. Are we prepared to defend women as fiercely, as courageously, and as generously? Are we prepared, without any question as to moral guilt, to stand up on behalf of those women who have been abused by the men to whom they have, wisely or not, entrusted their lives, and to drive away those who would condemn them for their sins? Can we yet speak with Jesus, and finally understand his words, having made them our own: Neither will I condemn thee?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday of the Third Week in Lent

Numbers 20:1-3, 6-13 / John 4:5-42

For many of us, being rightly understood is a bit of a challenge. We can find ourselves drawn into arguments, often quite fierce and bitter ones, trying to make sure that the other party truly sees what we see and how we see it. Again and again our interlocutor's responses suggest that she does not indeed get what we mean, and so we press on, and harder, our frustration mounting as she continues holding her own view. We are convinced that, should she truly see things as we see them, she would abandon her error and happily embrace the truth we have come to know.

When faced with this kind of misunderstanding, we are likely to do one of two things. We might grow angry, our arguments fiercer, and the concern for the person sitting across from us becoming all the less, the victory of our truth being our sole concern. Or, we are tempted to regard either the person with whom we are speaking or the truth we want to share as of no account. Not wanting to live with our failure to bring about mutual appreciation of the truth we have seen and known, we resolve our frustration in a false way, pretending we do not care one way or the other.

In Jesus' meeting of the Samaritan woman at the well, we see quite a different model. It is certainly the case that the woman remains for quite some time in shades of error, grasping bits of truth about Jesus, but often mixed with other commitments to her people's traditions or the shame of her own problematic past and present with men. Yet, throughout it all, Jesus does not become frustrated or alarmed. He is not worried at her misunderstanding in the slightest. At the same time, Jesus is clearly committed to drawing this woman from error to truth, from unbelief to faith, from adoring what she does not know to adoring the Lord known by the Jews, and from that to the deeper goal, that she might adore the Father in spirit and in truth.

What we often forget as we present the Gospel to others is that it is Christ himself who is the best teacher, Christ himself who can lead others skillfully and patiently through their misapprehensions to his glorious truth. This is not to say that we, whether ordained ministers of the Good News of Jesus Christ or simply one of the baptized living out his vocation, do not have a role in proclaiming the Gospel, in making Jesus Christ known to our neighbor. Even so, it is not our skillful words of persuasion which will, in the end, remove the resistance of unbelief. It is, rather, the experience of Jesus Christ himself by the power of the Spirit that is the best, and indeed only, path to receive the new life of the Gospel. We can communicate to others what brought us to receive the truth of Jesus Christ, even as the woman did to her fellow Samaritans: He told me all things whatsoever I have done. Yet, in the end, it was not her testimony that brought the Samaritans to saving faith any more than it will be our convincing words.

Our hope, our joy, is that our words should direct others to attend to Christ, not that we could succeed in producing the gift of faith itself. May we long and rejoice to hear, as the Samaritan woman heard, that our arguments are no longer necessary, and that those who once did not believe can turn to us and say, We now believe, not for thy saying: for we ourselves have heard Him, and know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thursday of the Third Week in Lent

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

There are those today who are disheartened by those brothers and sisters in the Catholic faith who have departed from the sacramental life of the Church and her worship, and may even have begun to drift away from the faith itself. For them, the point is clear. If one asserts that Jesus Christ is Lord, if one claims to hold to the Catholic faith, then no amount of disappointment in the behavior of her members or tepidness in her pastors can justify walking away. If Jesus Christ is Lord, the argument goes, then he is in his Church.

Others are disheartened by the Church herself, seeing either with sadness or with cynicism the failure of the Christian people to uphold in a clear and unambiguous way the dignity of all human persons. For them, the support of professed Catholics for the destruction of unborn life, for unreasoned refusal to attend to the scientific study of global climate change, for the removal of those public means of feeding the poor and caring for the abused, especially of children, for initiating and sustaining armed conflict between nations, and much more unsays whatever these same Christians assert in the proclamation of the Gospel. If Jesus Christ is Lord, so the argument goes, then he could not possibly be present in the Church.

To all of these, the Church puts before us the words of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was faced with a difficult work as a prophet, namely, to call the people of Judah back to fidelity and trust in God, to affirm them that God was with them and would defend them, while at the same time warning them against vain presumption, against presuming that the Lord is necessarily in his Temple, and thus one need not worry about the righteousness which the Lord demands in his Law, the righteousness which was the proper and necessary foundation for the Lord's choosing to dwell with his people. To abandon God because his people had strayed from their ways would be foolish, but so, too, would it be folly to presume that God would remain in his Temple even when his people had failed to uphold justice in settling disputed between neighbors, had oppressed the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow, had shed innocent blood, and had departed from the worship of the true God.

To leave the Church, to follow strange gods is, as Jeremiah warns us, only to our own hurt. Yet, to remain within the Church is to affirm social justice, to uphold right relationship with our neighbor, to show special concern, justice, and support for the weak, defenseless, and disadvantaged, to defend and protect the innocent and all those who are targets of violence and hatred for whatever reason or cause. There is no right worship, no giving proper adoration to the Lord Jesus Christ where there is no active, positive, material defense and promotion of the good of our neighbor, and most especially the good of the poor. God may not leave his Temple, of course, as it is nothing other than his own Body of which he is the Head. We, however, may well cut ourselves off from that same body through our hardness of heart to our brothers and sisters, even while all the while speaking pious words.

The Lord is the hope of his people, and his wills his Church to be the effective sign of that love and that justice for all the world to see. This is the goal of our Lenten fasting, our Lenten prayer, and our Lenten almsgiving, to be more and more like our Lord, of whom the Psalmist said: The eyes of all hope in Thee, O Lord; and Thou givest them meat in due season. Thou openest Thy hand, and fillest every living creature with blessing.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wednesday of the Third Week in Lent

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

What kind of a motivator is fear? We tend to think it is not a very good one. Surely, we think, we ought to avoid what is to be avoided not out of anxiety, much less out of abject terror, but rather out of understanding. Fear, we think, is unhelpful precisely in being an enemy to understanding, opposed to the collective, contemplative stance that allows us to appreciate everything for what it is.

So, we at first glance think that Moses has it right when the people of Israel shy away from Sinai when they saw the voices, and the flames, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mount smoking. Seeing them being terrified and struck with fear, Moses says what Jesus would later say to his disciples, and what everyone says at one time or another to his beloved: Fear not. Yet, this is just when things take an unusual twist. Having just told them not to fear, Moses tells the people that God has come to try them, to prove them. And for what end? That the dread of Him might be in you, and you should not sin.

Now, what kind of prophet tells us not to fear precisely in order that we might have dread? What logic is there in that?

The answer lies in a distinction drawn in classic moral theology between servile fear and filial fear. Servile fear is a fear derived from the anticipated punishment or injury which will arise from offending another. It is rooted, that is, not in a concern for the other or for the wrongness that has caused the offense, but only in one's own integrity, and the threat that punishment will bring. In itself, servile fear in contrary to love.

In contrast, filial fear is the fear that arises from the injury another suffers because one's own acts have offended him. That is, in filial fear, one recognizes his own moral weakness, and is concerned that his own failings and failures will cause harm to another, especially to those whom he most loves. Filial fear, then, is not self-oriented like servile fear, but instead it arises from is is compatible with love. Indeed, the more one loves, the more one experiences filial fear, which leads not to paralysis, but to a renewed effort to moral goodness, to live a life worthy of the respect of the object of one's love.

This is why, on the one hand, the people of Israel needed to cease their fear, i.e. servile fear of destruction at the hand of God, and instead be filled with dread, in this case filial fear, which would lead them not to want to offend God by their sins. Jesus likewise critiques the scribes and Pharisees  in the Gospel not for their wanting to uphold the Law, nor even precisely for their living out the Law in light of human customs which they have girt about it. Rather, what concerns Jesus is that these customs have deadened them to a holy sense of dread of offending God through a failure to live righteously, as seen in their ways of avoiding the command to honor father and mother. Instead, Jesus sees in these customs a kind of servile fear, an anxiety about violating taboo, and not the wholesome fear that comes from a deeper love of God and of those whom God loves.

Jesus Christ, then, came both to remove our fear and to fill us with fear. Do we, in the times we have stumbled from our Lenten resolutions, find ourselves overcome with anxiety about how God treat us at the judgment, or have we embraced rather a better fear, the fear that our stumbling has revealed in us a tepid affection for our merciful Savior? If the latter, can we rekindle that fear not be trying to be more afraid, but rather by seeking all the more to love?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tuesday of the Third Week in Lent

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

And if he will not hear the church: let him be to thee as the heathen and publican.

There is a dangerous trope much in circulation these days. It asserts, rightly enough, that the Church is not simply the hierarchy. As Bl. John Henry Newman said, when asked about the role of the laity in the Church, "The Church would look rather silly without them!" So far, so good. Yet, the trope does not delay here. Typically the refrain is to say that the Church is not the hierarchy, but the people, by which is usually meant the laity and the (lower) clergy in sympathy with them. That is, the premise is that the Church is fundamentally divided, that the "real" weight of the Church is found in the people, and that the speaker claims to know what those people really want. More than that, this move is generally made to assert freedom from something clearly, even definitively, taught by the Church, as though to say that the Church, being the "people" rather than the hierarchy, our duty to uphold to Church turns out, perversely, to require rejection of the authoritative teaching of her ministers. Taking their cue from Matthew's Gospel, they claim that it is the bishops who will not hear the church, and so it is the bishops who are to be shunned and ignored, treated as the heathen and publican.

To be sure, the hierarchy has no guarantee of impeccability. The grace of office does not always extend to social graces, intellectual acuity, or, sadly, even basic human relating. Taken as individuals, while the teaching of a given bishop is to be received with docility, there is no guarantee even here that he will, simply by himself, rightly pass on the apostolic faith, much less that he will always rightly discern the proper application of that teaching to controverted questions of the day. In these matters, should what the bishop say or do trouble us, we are enjoined by Christ himself to rebuke him, and if he will not hear us in private, then before a few members of the Church, and if not even then, we have recourse only the the public word of the Church herself.

Yet, to presume that the court of public opinion, the sort of thing discovered by demographic studies and opinion polls, is the best barometer of the mens Ecclesiæ, the mind of the Church, is to exchange theology for sociology. The Church has no voice, no authentic voice properly her own, that is not a speaking of the faith of Christ, delivered once for all to the saints, sustained by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is always and only the voice of the one Body with Christ as the Head, and thus is it the voice not of percentages and shifting attitudes, but the voice of a structured and priestly people. That is, the voice of the Church is to be heard precisely where Christ willed it to be heard, which is to say, as articulated by the apostles and their successors as legitimate and authentic transmitters of the faith revealed in Christ.

This is why we cannot try to take refuge in pollsters numbers when what is to us certain and approved by God falls under the clear and unmistakable censure of the Church as voiced by her bishops in union across the world. To do so would be to mistake what Jesus wants us to hear about the authority of the Church. That authority is not the "authority of the people" any more than the body is merely he hierarchy without the laity. Rather, the authority of the Church is Christ's own authority as God and as risen Lord of all. It is his voice, as sustained by the Spirit in the faithful witness of the Scriptures and its authentic teaching by the clergy, along with its being lived out by the baptized in communion with one another. When we find our lives and our loves rebuked by the clear words of the Gospel as proclaimed by the Church's ministers, do we have the humility to receive it, and receiving it, be gained back once again as brothers and sisters in Christ?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Monday of the Third Week in Lent

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

Why hast thou rent thy garments? Let him come to me, and let him know that there is a prophet in Israel.

When Naaman the Syrian, the general of the king of Syria and a man not to be trifled with, came to the king of Israel to seek healing for his leprosy, the king was none too pleased. Indeed, more to the point, he was frightened and thrown into a panic. For the king of Israel, his arrival could only be read as a challenge, a set-up to provide the pretence for war. Am I God, the king asks, to be able to kill and give life, that this man hath sent to me to heal a man of his leprosy? Mark, and see how he seeketh occasions against me.

Now, the king of Israel knew perfectly well the stories told of the mighty works which God performed at the time of the patriarchs, of Moses, and of the judges. He even knew of the more recent mighty deeds that had been accomplished by the prophet Elijah. Yet, despite knowing all of this, the king could not imagine that right then and there, right in his very midst, God would do anything wonderful. He interprets Naaman's request on a purely earthly level because, whatever he may tell himself he believes, in actual fact he lives and thinks as though his only hope is in this world. That the absence of regular wonders accomplished by God might not be a sign of divine incapacity, but of the freedom of the Lord to choose when, where, and how to act in the world, whether by sustaining the ordinary course of things or by dramatic restoration of what has been lost, never occurred to him.

We confess great and wonderful things, not only the mighty deeds God did of old for the patriarchs, judges, kings, and prophets, but even more so what God has accomplished in the Incarnation of his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. We proclaim to the world his power over unclean spirits, his healing touch which could give sight to the blind and make the dead to be alive again, his profound insight into the human heart and making known what we imagine remains forever hidden. We know all of his, or at least we profess to do so. Even so, when presented with a challenge, whether posed by an unbeliever or by our fellow believers, like the king of Israel we tend to balk. Whatever we may tell ourselves about what we believe, we are sorely tempted to act and think as though our only hope is in our own power.

While it is not acceptable to demand of Jesus Christ signs at our bidding, to satisfy our doubts or he doubts of an unbelieving world, if is our task and glory as believers to bear witness to the world and to ourselves of the mighty deeds God is working here and now. That God works in simple ways, in ways not open to consumption by the global news outlets, does not make his activity any less worthy of our confidence. Unlike Naaman, we need not turn our noses up to the simple but powerful means we have been given in Jesus Christ: the sacraments, intercessory prayer, mercy and the forgiveness of sins. These can and do work wonders, even proper miracles

The world is afflicted no less than Naaman was, and in Jesus Christ we have something greater by far than the prophet Elisha. Do we have the confidence to trust in him, and to draw any who are seeking an answer to their needs the only source that will satisfy?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Third Sunday in Lent

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

In The Two Towers, the second novel in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the hobbits Merry and Pippin, having fled from the orcs that had captured them, escape into ancient Fangorn Forest, and there encounter Treebeard the Ent, one of a race of tree-men awakened ages ago by the elves and given the power of speech. Merry and Pippin see the goodness in Treebeard's heart and hope to convince him, and through him his fellow Ents, to join in their struggle against the rising darkness that threatens to corrupt and destroy all that is good in Middle Earth. To the hobbits, the question is clear. While at an earlier time they might have seen such affairs as well beyond the concerns of simply people like themselves, they now know that there is no third position, no neutral stance in the struggle they face. One is either on the side of the Free Peoples or is aiding and abetting their fall. One is either on the side of the Dark Lord, or struggling to resist him.

Treebeard the Ent is less convinced. He regards wars as the affair of Men, Elves, and Wizards. Yet, why does he see things this way? Why does he not at least sympathize with those who are fighting for the right? As Treebeard tells the hobbits sagely and not without regret: I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me. For the Ent, as often for us, most, if not all, struggles that come before us do not admit to an easy resolution between the party in the right and the party in the wrong. We have our own dreams, our own personal projects, our own way of envisioning what is right and just, and rarely does any side in a conflict embody most, or even much, of what we hold dear. We find it hard to commit ourselves wholly to a project that undermines and compromises our integrity as the price for advancing the cause of other things we hold dear.

So, the words of Jesus Christ may well strike us as difficult to hear: He that is not with Me is against Me: and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth. Can anything so complicated as the living out of human life be reduced to so simple an equation? Do we not rather hold that there is greater wisdom is marking out nuance, in seeing not black or white, not this or that, but rather many shades of gray, many truths and many paths, a harmony across diversity rather than a binary and irrevocable separation of the right and the wrong?

There is a deep truth to Treebeard's lament that nobody is altogether on our side, but there is a deeper way in which Treebeard, and we, are mistaken. There is in fact one who is altogether on our side, namely our Lord and God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. More than that, it is God, and God alone, who is altogether on our side. The irony and tragedy of sin is not merely that we become enemies of our neighbor and enemies of God, but that, in becoming enemies of God, who is the very source of our being and our integrity, the very good we seek in every choosing, the truth we perceive in every thought, we become enemies of ourselves. Sadly, then, we ourselves must be counted among those who are not on our own side.

It is precisely because we are not, so long as we are broken by sin, entirely on our own side that we will necessarily be scattered unless we side with Jesus Christ. It is only through Jesus Christ, who alone is altogether for us in a way that not even we are for ourselves, that we can have restored to us the very selves we thought we meant to defend and protect. Our loves, our desires, our personal projects, our imagined self-authenticity: none of these are or can be true except insofar as they are the real truth about ourselves, namely, that about us which Jesus Christ aims to bring to fruition. Apart from Jesus, we are necessarily and unavoidably, a kingdom divided against itself. With him, we need not fear that within us that still lives in rebellion, for we can take confidence in the stronger man, Jesus Christ, who will despoil our own rebellious self, and bring us, at once both captive and set free, into his own divine and glorious life.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Saturday of the Second Week in Lent

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

In the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, the heroine receives a series of blessings from the fairy godmothers who have been invited to her christening. However, a wicked fairy, angry at not having been invited and in no mood for charity, comes to the christening and, in place of a blessing, curses the infant, fating her to die upon her coming of age when she pierces her hand with a spindle. The one good fairy remaining, who had not yet given her blessing, despite the parents' entreaties, cannot simply undo what has been said. Beauty is doomed to a terrible fate by means of a spindle when she comes of age. However, her word has power as well, and she is able to clarify just what sort of death the infant will die, namely, the "death" of a century of sleep, to be broken by the kiss of a prince.

The story of Isaac's blessing of Jacob and Esau strikes us, at first reading, as belonging more to the realm of fairy tales than of inspired Scripture. The force of the story is rooted in the expectation that the patriarch Isaac has but one blessing to give, a blessing he means to give to his elder son Esau but which, through the cunning of his wife Rebecca, it his her son, Jacob, who fools Isaac and receives the coveted words from his father's mouth: God give thee of the dew of heaven and of the fatness of the earth, abundance of corn and wine. And let peoples serve thee and tribes worship thee: be thou lord of thy brethren, and let thy mother's children bow down before thee. Cursed be he that curseth thee, and let him that blesseth thee be filled with blessings. When Esau returns and both he and Isaac discover the trick that has been played upon both of them, none of Esau's entreaties can undo the word of the patriarch. What he has said must, like the words of the wicked fairy, come to pass: Thy brother came deceitfully, and got thy blessing. Even after a tearful appeal by Esau, the most Isaac can provide is a lesser blessing that still remains: In the fat of the earth and in the dew of heaven above shall thy blessing be. Nothing can altogether unsay what has been said.

This resemblance between the two stories is not, I think, a reason to reject the latter because it echoes the wisdom contained in the former. What the story of Esau and Jacob reminds us is that God does not do anything twice. When God offers us a new beginning, and most especially when he calls us to a new possibility of life in the Lord Jesus Christ, he does not do so simply by annulling what has happened. When God has offered us life in one way, and we have chosen to pass it by, the fact that we have an inexhaustible store of mercy, grace, and blessing in Jesus Christ does not means that the same terms, the same mercies, the same blessings and grace will come again our way. This is not because Jesus Christ is somehow petulant or stingy with the life and love he offers us. Rather, it is precisely because he takes our choices, and all of the events of the world he has made, including even the interventions of those agents of wickedness in our lives, the wicked fairies that plot our undoing, into account and grants them their due.

All the same, what the fairy tale recalls in a remote way and the story of Isaac's sons recalls in a shadowy and prophetic way, is nonetheless still true in the blood of Jesus Christ, namely, that there is always another blessing awaiting us. The blood of Jesus Christ is, for us, a reminder of the unending source of blessings, ever living and ever new, flowing from the side of the Savior. That we will need to face the consequences of our own and others' refusals of grace is part of living in a world broken by sin, but that the love of Jesus Christ always offers for us another way, a deeper and more profound way, to be conformed to his divine life, is just as certain. If we have been struck with a curse to die, by the power of the Cross, this need not be the end of us. In the merciful blessings of our God, even death itself has become for us the way to be awoken to new life by our Bridegroom and prince, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Friday of the Second Week in Lent

Genesis 37:6-22 / Matthew 21:33-46

And Ruben hearing this, endeavored to deliver him out of their hands, and said: Do not take away his life, nor shed his blood ...

Reuben, the eldest of the sons of Israel, presents us with something of a puzzle in the story cycle about Joseph. On the one hand, Reuben appears to collude with the rest of his brothers in plotting to be rid of their younger brother and Israel's favorite, as well as in deceiving their father Israel in claiming that Joseph was slain by beasts, rather than sold in slavery to Ishmaelites. On the other and, Reuben, we are told, did not truly wish any harm to come to Joseph, convincing his brothers to cast Joseph into a well rather than kill him outright. He said this, we are told, being desirous to deliver him out of their hands, and to restore him to his father. Even so, when the Ishmaelites come, Reuben does not prevent Joseph's being sold into slavery, and he does not confess to his father the wrong they have done to their brothers. This turns out in fact to fulfill divine providence, to save not only Egypt from famine, but Israel as well, and so set up the circumstances for the Exodus, the giving of the Law, and the forging of Israel as a people to occupy and possess the Land of Promise. Yet, Reuben knew none of this.

It is of course true that all of God's plans will come to pass, that nothing happens save that God in some sense will it to be. All the same, this does not permit us to sit by idly while wickedness occurs before our eyes. Even if we may be less wicked, less culpable than those who demand innocent blood, our best intentions cannot erase our silence when standing up for the weak and defenseless actually costs us something. For Reuben to have defended Joseph would have been a risk, a risk that he, too, would face the murderous envy of this brothers. It may indeed have been right to seek to save his brother in a way leading to minimal risk to his own person. However, when it became clear that the choice was his brother's enslavement and possible permanent exile from his home and Reuben's own facing up to his brothers to defends Joseph, Reuben chose to abandon his brother to an unknown, and to the best of his reckoning, terrible fate.

In those countries where there is little daily risk in professing the Christian faith, we can easily find ourselves in the place of Reuben. For the sake of clever strategy, we might defend the innocent and helpless in ways that require a minimal cost from ourselves, and that may well be right. Even so, are we ready to confess our faith in Christ when there may well be a terrible price to pay? Do we compromise with those of murderous intent, who seek the blood of the child in the womb or the criminal on death row, to maintain our place at their table? Or, knowing the fate of Joseph, do we throw ourselves upon the providence of God, and rather than just presuming all will be well while we play it safe, endeavor instead to speak the truth boldly even when our life seems forfeit, confidence in the knowledge that, through our Lord Jesus Christ, there is no wickedness on earth that has not already been overcome by the glorious and life-giving power of the Cross?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Thursday of the Second Week in Lent

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

There are two ways for one's name to last through the ages. The one way is to have done something notable for the good of others. In an obvious way this fate falls to the name of men and women of political prominence whose rule was decisive, long, or both. In this light, we have come to remember not merely the names, say, of Queens Elizabeth and Victoria, but have even names who eras, styles, and attitudes after them. Others have made such a profound gift to culture in their artistry or in the profundity of their thought that people across the world cannot fail to have heard of them: Homer, Plato, Confucius, Dante, Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart, and others as well. On the other hand, some names are recalled not because of their positive contributions, but in light of their villainy, its extent, its depth, or in some terrible cases, for both of these. So, we cannot mention Jezebel, Brutus, Judas Isacriot, Caligula, Gilles de Rais, Adolf Hitler, without summoning up notions of what is dark and perverse in the human heart, however far removed we may be from their actual wickedness.

Jesus' account to the Pharisees of Lazarus and the rich man upsets these expectations we have of the memory of names. While often called a parable, this story is remarkable in actually naming one of the figures, Lazarus. While parables are, by their nature, not about anyone in particular, and thus potentially about anyone in the audience, this story recalls and preserves for ever the name of a man so ignored in his own life on earth that no one did give him even the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table, and moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. Overlooked and insignificant in worldly terms, the whole Christian world now knows this man's name, Lazarus, and will remember is for all eternity.

The rich man, a man of substance and certain influence, a man who might well have been respected by his peers and contemporaries, is left forever without a name. Even as other features find themselves inverted — his comfort and Lazarus' misery exchanged for his torment in the flame and Lazarus' dwelling in the bosom of Abraham — so in the fate of their names as well. Lazarus, the unknown beggar, is now known across the world and for all time, the rich man will be, like rejected kings of the ancient world or like disgraced officials in Stalin's Soviet Union, struck out from the historical record, never again to have their name spoken, their images and names removed from all public monuments.

To be sure, in the past this rich man was graces with the name Dives, taking the word used in the Latin Bible for "rich man" (dives) and, in a kind of desire for symmetry with Lazarus, the named beggar, giving this character also a name by which to be remembered. While there might be some kindness in sympathizing with the rich man, humanizing him by giving him a name, the desire to do so betrays two mistakes about his fate. The first is that, for those who have turned decisively from goodness and charity, who by the hardness of their heart simply fail to see the misery of those about them and the clear and unambiguous teaching of Moses and the prophets, the abolition of their name is a kind of mercy. Whoever this man was, his name is at least preserved from becoming a sign of wickedness for us.

More than that, in naming the rich man Dives, we distance ourselves from his sin, and do so at our own risk. To the extent that we can think this is simply a story about a very particular man named Dives, a man who has died and already been judged, we need not see quite so immediately what the story has to do with us. Indeed, we might be prone to think that the only audience needing to hear this story was the original one, namely, the Pharisees to whom Jesus presented his account. On the other hand, when we remove the comforting name, can be be altogether sure that those nameless beggars whom we have bypassed in our own lives have not been named Lazarus? Can we be quite certain that we are not, even now, but moments away from the torment of the flame, when we have not merely Moses and the prophets, but Jesus Christ himself? Can we, who have just precisely the witness of Jesus Christ, one who has risen again from the dead, afford to think that the story of Lazarus is about anyone other than ourselves?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

St Thomas Aquinas, Confessor and Doctor of the Church

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

In the dialogue Theætetus, Plato has the figure of Socrates relate to his interlocutor Theætetus a story about Thales, who may well have been the first philosopher. Socrates tells that Thales, so intent on looking at the sky, tumbled into a well. This led to the mockery of a servant girl, who noted that he was so intent on the things of heaven that he did not know what was going on around his own two feet. Socrates agrees, in some sense, with this portrayal of the philosopher, who in his search for wisdom is nonetheless unable to make his bed and cook a meal. Yet, for Socrates, what marks the philosopher off from other men is the fact that he, as opposed to the rest, is concerned with what is in fact productive of human happiness: contemplation of wisdom, the very life of the gods. While the rest of the world goes about busily from this to that, the philosopher's life is one of holy leisure, free by his pursuit either to move from topic to topic as seems right or to return again and again to the same question, even as people immersed in the world are tied to the clock, forced to move on to what the schedule of earthly affairs demands of them, and so never able to rise above what ultimately proves to be the misery of a life bound to the world. In this way, even Socrates' accusers who are calling him to trial for the corruption of youth are far less happy than Socrates, who will die by their judgment.

Quite a different vision of the pursuit of wisdom is found placed by the Scriptures into the mouth of Solomon, and by the Church on this feast into the mouth of Thomas Aquinas. Solomon states that he asked for wisdom, preferred her to all kingdoms and riches, beyond all earthly goods, and received not only wisdom, but all good things together with her, and innumerable riches through her hands. While he rejoiced in them all, at first he did not see, but would later come to realize, that these other riches were not gratuitous extras, rewards for having sought wisdom above all. Rather, they came precisely because he had wisdom, precisely because those who are wise become the friends of God. The Solomonic wise man, unlike the Greek philosopher, does not find himself silly before a foolish world, the butt of servants' jokes. Instead, his wisdom, not in spite of being directed to heaven, but because of it, gives him a better and truer estimation of how to live here and now, how to make best use of the riches of this world.

While some stories of the Angelic Doctor might suggest in Thomas a kind of Thalian simplicity and silliness, Thomas Aquinas is surely more Solomonic in his wisdom. Indeed, such was his view of the gift of wisdom that it provided not only for our speculative goals, but for our practical ones as well. Wisdom, for Thomas, is seeing things in light of the highest causes, indeed in light of the highest cause, God himself. More precisely, Thomas asserts that to be truly wise, to have not only the natural habit of wisdom but the gift of the Holy Spirit bearing the same name, is the result of love. It is from the love we receive from God, and in turn our kindled love for him, that we come to see him, ourselves, and the world, not in partial, broken, finite, and thus untrue ways, but the way God himself sees, and thus as they truly are. This is because, through love, we come to see things as our lover sees them, to want what our lover wants, to reject what our lover rejects. Thomas, who devoted his life to study, and had only the highest of praise for cultivating the life of the mind, nonetheless valued even more highly the intuitive and all the more probing wisdom of those who are holy, of those who even without formal study all the same know things aright, those who have become friends of God.

Our Lent can feel as though it has made us like Thales, pursuing what is right to the mockery of a misunderstanding and deluded world. Yet, our feast today assures us that the wisdom our Lenten practice affords us is of a Solomonic sort. Lenten fasts and observance do not direct us to the heavens at the expense of negotiating the things of the world. Rather, as Thomas reminds us, they are to kindle in us love, and openness to the love poured out on us by Jesus Christ through the sending of his Spirit into our hearts to dwell with us as Friend and Advocate. Love is our motive force in Lent, and Love is our guide. It is Love that will see us through to the end, and in that divine Love, we will know all things, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, not out of our own craft, but through having been made like to the very mind and heart of God.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Tuesday of the Second Week in Lent

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

One of the most difficult aspects of repentance is holding to two important truths at once. The one is having and unfailingly honest and unsanitized account of one's own sins. The other is to have an equally robust confidence in divine pardon. Generally, we end up finding our way to the first without taking full account of the second, and we do so to our own spiritual peril. Some people, for example, become so aware of their own sins without appreciating God's mercy that, despite continuing to serve others generously among their neighbors or within their community, they are withering away inside, confident only of their own failures. They become convinced that if anyone knew what they knew about themselves, then they could never lift up their heads again.

Others, however, find themselves unable to bear the weight of awareness of their own sins, and so they project their own grave disappointment in themselves on others. They might start out by lashing out at the Church's teaching that point out their sins, but they slide all too easily into pointing out the moral failures of the Church's own leaders and teachers, hoping thereby to avoid paying attention to their own crimson faults.

Jesus, however, counsels us otherwise: The scribes and Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do; but according to their works do ye not; for they say and do not. Jesus is fully aware of the ways that those who teach us the Gospel and who proclaim it from pulpits in churches across the world have failed, and failed to their own peril, to live up to the Gospel they preach. All the same, this is not and cannot be an excuse for us to avoid attending to the truth of their proclamation. To fail to heed what the authentic teachers of the Gospel proclaim is to plug up one's ears against having and honest, true, and illusionless understanding of oneself. It is also, and this is the graver harm, to fail to hear the proclamation of divine pardon which these same ministers are authorized to announce to every creature.

Taking moral criticism from men with feet of clay can be a bitter pill to swallow if we insist on holding to unrealistic and deceptive stories about our own virtue. What Jesus Christ recalls for us is the royal road to hearing the Gospel worthily and well: the way of humility. It is in humility that we can receive a right sense of who we are and how we have lived our lives. It is humility that empowers us to hear God's voice in the broken and sadly sometimes shrill voice of his disciples. It is humility that will soften our hearts, and in that softening let us believe in the full depth of God's pardon, a pardon not of a false and paper-thin replica of our sins, but even of the worst of our betrayals.

He that is the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Monday of the Second Week in Lent

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

And they understood not that He called God His Father.

A not uncommon critique launched by those who disbelieve against the Christian confession that Jesus Christ is God, the Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages is what they take to be the manifest absence of a clear admission on Jesus' part of this core part of our creed. A typical example is found in John's Gospel. They therefore said to Him: Who are Thou? Jesus said to them: I am the beginning, Who also speak unto you. Now, unbelievers in a generous mood might admit that a believer could, after some unpacking of this claim, and already inclined to see in Jesus Christ, regard this as an admission of his full divinity. Even so, they wonder whether any neutral reader would be remotely inclined to hear his claim this way. Furthermore, since the cost of failing to believe is, by Christ's own admission, quite high — Therefore I said to you that you shall die in your sins: for if you believe not that I am He, you shall die in your sin. — those not of the faith complain that Jesus really ought to have been more direct in his answers, that at least the guilty could not, with some justice, assert that they did not realize that this was what he was saying.

Even so, it is far from clear what kind of admission the unbeliever wants. In the face of the Christian confession of Christ's Sonship, Islam of old and of today quite often retorts that Jesus cannot be a son unless God had a wife, and the idea of God producing offspring sexually is ridiculous. Latter-Day Saints, of course, make just the reverse claim, and take Jesus' admission to be God's Son to mean just that, namely that he is the natural offspring by God the Father from a heavenly Mother. Presented with the claim that he was from all eternity, his own contemporaries quipped that he was not even fifty years old. The pagan world, and the Medieval Jewish world, sneered at the notion that the infinite and holy One should be implicated in the finite and carnal life of the world. It is hard to believe, then, that the problem is a lack of clarity on Jesus' part.

Yet, on this score, we who enjoy the gift of faith cannot afford to be proud. We, who know and believe that Jesus in the Son of God, the beginning, have no excuse not to live as he has told us. However hard his commands may seem to us, however difficult to receive what he says of God his Father or of the life to come and how we can be made fit for the kingdom here and now, we are bound by our own creed to attend to his every word. Many things I have to speak to you and to judge of you ... and the things I have heard from Him, these same I speak in the world. It is all to easy to dodge around our difficulties in living out the Christian life by claiming a faulty transmission: by the evangelists themselves, by the Church, by our catechists, and the like. Either we accept that Jesus is the Son of the Father, and that he rightly and effectively spoke his words not just in a remote way as the beginning, but right here in the world, and that the truth of these words was affirmed in his being lifted up on the Cross, or like the rest in unbelief, we are of this world and will die in our sins.

This is, all the same, Good News. If we are alive in Christ, then we are conformed to him, and if conformed to him, then it is in our suffering for the sake of the Gospel our being lifted up, that we will see that truth he came to reveal about his Father. It also means that, being made like to him, we are also not left alone, and that in the presence of God himself, we too may be confident to do always the things that please Him. In the light of this comfort, we may also say with the Psalmist: Be tHou my Helper and my Deliverer: O Lord, make no delay. Let mine enemies be confounded and ashamed, that seek my soul.