Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fourth Sunday of the Year (B)

[The following was preached, in Italian, for the Convent of St. Dominic and St. Sixtus in Rome.]

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 / 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 / Mark 1:21-28

In the story of Cinderella, when the prince goes out to seek the young girl to whose foot belongs that slipper, so small and delicate, the slipper she had lost at the ball, Cinderella's stepsisters and her stepmother are faced with a problem. Because their feet are simply too big, the stepsisters could not possibly succeed in fitting them into the slipper. So, at the advice of their mother, the stepsisters cut up their feet with a knife, the one cutting off her toes and the other her heel. Yet, even though they manage to fit their foot into the slipper after carving it up, they do so only with pain and injury to themselves, and all the same the prince discovers their fraud by the blood that bleeds from the slipper. In the end, their attempt to seem to be the princess they were not brings them to ruin.

In the Scriptures, we hear of a similar fraud and of a similar ruin, like that of Cinderella's stepsisters. The presumptuous prophets of whom Moses speaks are as unable to dress themselves with the name of prophet as the stepsisters were unable to fit their feet into the glass slipper, and like the destiny of those wicked women, the false prophets will be doomed to die. Through the falsehood of their prophesying, these prophets have cut off their own life and removed from the people of God their access to saving truth.

The case of the scribes in the Gospel is not much more encouraging. Even if they are not as wicked as the false prophets, there is nonetheless an immense gulf between the witness of the scribes and the witness of the Word made flesh. What they say and teach might be true in a material sense, but their lack of the authority to speak in the name of God is as clear as the blood bleeding from the feet of Cinderella's stepsisters. Both the false prophets and the scribes seem to tell the same thing. They seem to proclaim the same truth. They seem to follow a life approved and blessed by God. However, the pain in their own lives because of their hypocrisy, and the damage they cause to others because of their falsehood or their pride, reveal that this seeming has no real substance at all.

All of us here have been consecrated to a common life that ought to manifest the truth and the authority of the Gospel to ourselves, to one another, and to the whole world. There is no doubt that we, too, could present a convincing appearance of the inner truth of our consecration. Nonetheless, could we affirm with confidence that we do not suffer any pain, that we have not tried to cut off our lives, our hopes, so that we might fit into our common life? Is there in fact no blood as evidence of an inner lack, of the injuries we have inflicted to succeed in wearing the obligations that we made in our profession of vows? Do we truly proclaim the saving truth of the Gospel with authority? Can we speak, with integrity, the words that the Lord Jesus Christ was put into our mouths?

We have no need to be like the false prophets or like the scribes. We need not cut off that which gives us life and hope. In Jesus Christ, we have the capacity to be conformed to the life of our Savior, transformed into the image of the incarnate Word. Without losing anything of value, anything that helps us to come to that goal to which we have consecrated our very lives, we can make ourselves small enough to fit into the slipper of our common life through the grace of Jesus, and we will discover that we have been enlarged in faith, in hope, in love, and in the intimate life of the Triune God, who is the only source of our life together here in this convent, and forever in the life to come.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Vox clamantis: Why Social Justice?

The Preaching Friars (the student brothers of the Central and Southern provinces of the U.S.A.) have released a second introductory video in their preaching series on the social teaching of the Church. I am proud of their work (and delighted to see some lovely shots from my beloved St. Louis, Missouri!).

Give it a look:

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Romans 12:16-21 / Matthew 8:1-13

We are rightly suspicious of those who perform conspicuous acts of charity. It's not that we think doing good to other people is a bad thing. In fact, some goods, like endowing a major housing project or caring for countless orphans, are so public by their nature that being conspicuous is perhaps an unavoidable consequence. Even so, we have more than our own discomfort to contend with here. After all, the Lord Jesus Christ himself warned us against doing good that it may be seen.

Given all of this, why should St Paul give us the counsel that we ought to be providing good things, not only in the sight of God, but also in the sight of all men? Ought we not rather to seek to provide good things only in the sight of God? Moreover, if our good might need to be done in the sight of men, why would Paul go the extra step in telling us to provide good things in the sight of all men?

We ought to note here that Paul is not speaking about doing public and conspicuous acts of goodness merely for the attention they bring. Indeed, Paul is not interested in promoting any kind of attention-seeking behavior. Rather, Paul reminds us here that human good, human flourishing depends on far more than receiving good things. Literature, anecdotes, and I imagine even systematic evidence tells us that spoiled children, those who get every good they might imagine, are not better off as persons than those who have little in this world. What everyone needs without qualification is real, tender, loving human contact. The good that I receive may meet a deeply-felt need, but to receive not just something, but also at the hands of someone makes all the difference in the world.

This is so because human persons are made to be in communion with one another, to flourish precisely because the goods in their life come at the hands of others, and the good that they do is delivered to others by their own hands. Parents know this, placing the objectively inferior pieces of art made by their children in places of prominence in the home, not simply out of sentiment, but because it came from the hands of someone, and precisely someone to whom they were united in love. It is likewise what the leper healed by Jesus knew and desired. He knew already that if Jesus wanted, he could make him clean. Yet, even more than that, he wanted to receive that healing at Jesus own hands, to be touched by him, and so made whole. Jesus likewise directed the man not merely to rejoice in his healing, but again to reinforce the bonds of human love and commitment, to show himself to the priest and offer the gift which Moses commanded. That is, his restoration was not meant to deliver him from his ties in this world, but to bind him again to them in wholeness and freedom.

We, too, have been made whole in Christ through baptism, and we, too, receive the best goods we desire at the ministering hands of other men. When we dispense to others in need the goods we have been given to share, will anyone but God know about it? Will our charity be so hidden as to erase all of its human character, or will we risk the contact with those, even our enemies, whom we are called to serve?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Vox clamantis in deserto

No, I have not forgotten that Advent is over. Rather, I want to direct my readers to a video preaching and teaching project by the student brothers of the provinces of St. Albert the Great and St. Martin de Porres at the studentate in St. Louis, Missouri. To commemorate the 500th anniversary of Antonio de Montesinos' preaching on behalf of the indigenous peoples in Hispaniola, the student brothers are creating a series of videos to speak about key principles of Catholic social teaching:
  • the dignity of the human person
  • the dignity of human work
  • the preferential option for the poor
  • care for creation
  • the principle of subsidiarity
  • the principle of solidarity
  • the common good
I look forward to watching these myself and will link them here in my blog.

Here is the introductory video:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

St Anthony of Egypt, Abbot/Tuesday of 2nd Week (II)

1 Samuel 16:1-13 / Mark 2:23-28

We are told by St Athanasius that St Anthony's life was marked by quite severe fasting, so much so that he regretting the weakness of ever needing food to pass his lips. If we knew nothing other than this, we might well assume that Anthony's body was gaunt and broken, leathered by his days in the Egyptian desert. As Athanasius presents his hero Anthony as a model of Christian life, we might well also be led to believe that the life of the Gospel, however noble and life-giving in the world to come, must necessarily be opposed to all human flourishing here and now.

Yet, in Athanasius' Life of Anthony, we find these expectations overturned. Where we imagined an emaciated ascetic, Athanasius assures us that Anthony, not so much despite of but rather because of his ascetical life consecrated to the Lord Jesus Christ, looked like a man in his prime, healthy and fit, even more so than those who are immersed in the things of this world.

We see a similar double reversal of expectation in Samuel's search for the man chosen by God to be anointed king over Israel. He first believes God's choice to the Eliab because of his "lofty stature." That is, Samuel expected God's choice for king to look clearly and evidently kingly, a man of unmistakable physical presence. God, however, reminded Samuel that he judges not appearances, but the heart. So, we might expect that Samuel would think that God's elect must look decidedly un-kingly, that he must have no outward signs like those expected of a king. Yet, when David, God's chosen, arrives on the scene, it turns out that the man with a heart beloved of God is also marked outwardly in a clear and desirable way. He was, the Scriptures tell us, ruddy, a youth handsome to behold, and making a splendid appearance.

The Scriptures remind us today that while we do not, apart from God, know what produces real and lasting human happiness, all the same a life with God, a life lived truly and authentically, does produce real flourishing and real joy. By being set right with God, we are also, against our expectations, set right with the world as God intended it, and so our joy and flourishing in the Gospel ought to be visible to the whole world, even if the world cannot understand the origin and source of that life in us.

Is this the joy we have come to know in Jesus Christ? Are we ready this day to recommit ourselves all the more, as St Anthony did, to the radical life of the Gospel and so, even against our expectations, to make a splendid appearance before the world?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Feast of the Holy Family

Colossians 3:12-17 / Luke 2:42-52

To be human is, among other things, to be familial. Being part of a family is not something that comes to us by accident or happenstance. It is not something that arises merely by our personal preferences. To be sure, that we find ourselves related to these or those persons can be, if a result of birth, beyond our choosing, something that "happens" to us. Likewise, if we find ourselves related through marriage, then those relations, those family bonds, do arise from our choosing. However, the fact that we come from and form families is simply part of being human. It is something bound up in our very nature, and no one can be said to be fully or successfully human who is not, in this particular way, in a family. Indeed, if we find ourselves deprived of the ordinary, natural bonds of family, then we will, as a drive of nature itself, seek to form something to imitate or replace it.

Family life is more than being in a society, although a society can be for us a kind of family. Families are, by their nature, bonds at once outside of our choosing and the result of our willing. They embody what is deeply physical about human persons, the acts begetting and being begotten, of bearing and being born, as well as those quite natural and physical patterns of attraction and care we share with other social and familial animals. At the same time, human families are deeply spiritual in nature, and arise from our capacity to chose, to pursue our hopes and dreams, to set aside our preferences for the good of those we have chosen to love or whose life itself has arisen from that love.

Even when families are at their worst, when these bonds, both of the body and of the mind, produce in us not joy and flourishing but rather pain, sorrow, shame, or regret, we cannot simply be quit of them. So deep is being in a family knit into our nature that, whatever we might want to be the case otherwise, our families will remain our own, their delights and successes in some sense ours, and their pains and failures as well, just as our glories and pathos belong to them. As the book of Proverbs reminds is, the father of the just rejoiceth greatly, let thy father and thy mother be joyful, and let her rejoice that bore thee.

It is no surprise, then, that the eternal Word, Son of the eternal Father, begotten before the ages, should, in choosing to take to himself our human nature, by that very choice also elect to take to himself a human family. Since being human means being familial, and since human flourishing cannot be had apart from the family, the Word made flesh, too, bound himself in obedience not only to the will of his heavenly Father, but also to Mary, his mother, and Joseph, her spouse. Yet, in so doing, he also brought to himself the shame of his family, the lineage not only of glory, such as David's fidelity or Solomon's wisdom, but also of shame, such as David's orchestrating the death of Uriah or Solomon's moral decline in his later life. Indeed, all of the family of Adam and Eve, the whole of goodness, and moreso the whole of wickedness and rebellion, which marked the human family, became, in the Incarnation, the family history of God himself. More than that, his taking on even the darkest corners of his family was not so much shame for him as delight for them, for just as their shame became his, so too his glory and victory became rightly and truly theirs.

This, then, is our task as Christians, not only to produce and promote Christian families, although that is surely to be done, but more than that to be, for our families, a source of joy, hope, and love. Whatever the brokenness, whatever the disappointment that our families may be to us and to themselves, indeed however we too may have disappointed them, we are empowered, by grace, to draw them up to the victory of Christ even as we are drawn up by his grace. This is the deep truth of the Holy Family, the truth that is no less effective for a single Christian in a family of unbelievers as in a Christian family of great faith.

In Nazareth's home all virtues grew
And grace produced its fairest flowers,
O may such grace and virtue sweet
Shine forth in every home of ours.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Epiphany of Our Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6 / Matthew 2:1-12

When he is King they will clothe him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.

So we read in the poem by the journalist and poet Bruce Blunt, set so poignantly to music by his collaborator, the composer Peter Warlock. In the best traditions of English carols, this stanza captures the bittersweet beauty of the mystery of Christmas, that from the very start, not only in the lethal jealousy of Herod, but also in the precious gifts offered by the Magi, the life of the Word made flesh is marked by the Passion and Cross. This is, perhaps, the telltale sign of a truly Christian celebration of the manifestation of the Word, spoken by the Father before the ages, but made visible and manifest to us in the Epiphany of the Incarnation — the manifestation to the shepherds and Magi, the manifestation to in the waters of the river Jordan, the manifestation in the miracle at the wedding feast. To mark and celebrate this holy season without raging Herod, and with him the suffering and death of the Lord, is to trade the glorious and hope-filled light of the season for tinsel and glitter.

That temptation, however, to seek solace in this season by grasping for a moment more of pleasure in the world at whatever cost, thinking only that, in the end, darkness shall cover the earth, and a mist the people, is an ever-present temptation. For all of the beauty of Blunt's lyrics and Warlock's stirring melody, for as much as they captured in song the right tension between lullaby and lament embedded in the narrative of the coming of the Magi to the infant Word, the truth is that this carol was submitted as part of a contest held by the Daily Telegraph, submitted precisely so that the pair, in financial trouble, might enjoy in Warlock's own words and "immortal carouse," a night of heavy drinking on Christmas Eve. The words and music ought to have given these artists solace, comfort in the hope and light shining amidst the gloom — the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee ... Then shalt thou see and abound, and thy heart shall wonder and be enlarged. Sadly, they did not. Warlock, a musical genius, was also a libertine and drunkard, a tortured soul who died young, perhaps by his own hand.

The Epiphany, the celebration of the manifestation of the Word made flesh to the nations, ought especially to remind us of our need to proclaim hope to a world that does not see much cause for rejoicing. Closing as it does the Twelve Days of Christmas, this feast might easily slide into one last chance to grasp for the fleeting pleasures of the Christmas holidays before a return to the grim and hard truths of the world. Where so many today, in once more prosperous nations and even more so in the poorer countries, suffer from the failure of the market and the State to provide earthly hopes for a secure living, for food and dignified work, for health and education, we must not be so quick to judge their turning a deaf ear to the joyful proclamation of the Epiphany. Indeed, ought not our attention, the attention of our preaching, be turned against those latter-day Herods who accumulate to themselves more and more of the goods of the world, who produce an earthly security for themselves at the price of the livelihood of countless others, whose prosperity comes at the cost of the lives of the poor? Ought not the presence of the Verbum infans, the paradox of the silent Word in Bethlehem, remind us that the final victory of God's light over earthly darkness will be of no good to us unless, like the Magi, we prove to be at one and the same time humble pilgrims seeking the Lord and wise, even crafty, men of the world, seeking by God's wisdom to reject and oppose the deadly schemes of the mighty? Should we not, like the Magi, be willing to sacrifice what is costliest and put ourselves at risk for the sake of the voiceless with and in whom God has chosen to dwell?

The good news of the Epiphany, then, can be something of a difficult message to proclaim. It embraces at once the joy of the Magi in following the star to the Lord of all and the murderous envy of Herod the King. Epiphany announces the coming of the light, the rising of the glory of the Lord, without denying the darkness and gloom that cover the earth. Even so, truth and final victory stand with the former, and not with the latter. We know with confidence that even our failed efforts to speak for the poor, the powerless, the voiceless, are efforts on the side of the Lord. We know that to lay all of our treasure and capital, material and political, at the feet of Jesus Christ and of the poor in whom we serve him, is not to suffer loss, but to enjoy, even now, a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

This is why the celebration of the Epiphany is not a false solace, a backward-looking festivity grasping at the all-too-quickly receding memory of Christmas. It is a foretaste of the light and joy of Christ's victory on the Cross, a recognition that, in the face of the darkness of earthly power, the Gospel is richer and wiser by far. This is why we can rightly pause with the Magi in Bethlehem, and tarry if but one more day at the manger under the star, and seeing the star, rejoice with great joy.

Here he has peace and a short while for dreaming,
Close-huddled oxen to keep him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.