Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wednesday of Ember Week in Lent

Exodus 24:12-18 / 3 Kings 19:3-8 / Matthew 12:38-50

Some people look forward to Lent. There is something about the season — perhaps the Lenten music, perhaps the new intensity of prayer, perhaps its coincidence with the end of winter and the beginning of spring — that draws such persons out of the dark days of winter that are now in the past and into a renewed relationship with God and with neighbor. More than it does in any other season, the Gospel makes sense for these folks, appearing before their minds and hearts with a clarity it does not have in the rest of the year. For them, these forty days and forty nights are like those of Moses upon Sinai, who for this blessed length of days was in the very presence of the Lord his God, receiving his holy Law, the clearest expression of God's will and love for his creation outside of the Incarnation of the Word.

Others are not so enthusiastic about Lent. To be sure, they admit that Lent does them good, and they know that, once it is all over, they will be better for it. They also find themselves supported throughout the journey from Ash Wednesday to the Easter Vigil by a strength not their own, and for this they are grateful. All the same, Lent is for them a struggle and hard work, something which, were it not for the special graces of Lenten observance, they could never mange to sustain. They are like Elijah under the juniper. Disheartened by his own weakness, Elijah is roused from his sleep, as well as his desire to be done with everything, not merely once, but twice by and angel sent by God. On his second waking, the angel says to Elijah what sounds to many like the essence of Lent: Arise, eat: for thou hast yet a great way to go.

I do not suppose that either of these attitudes is more correct. Much of it may have as much to do with bodily temperament as anything else. What does unite them, however, is the need to be on guard that the graces we receive from Lent, whether as pleasant respite or difficult labor, should become fixed features of our lives. That is, we do ourselves no good to become better selves for this span of days leading up to Easter, only to abandon the new self we have received by grace just as quickly. Unless we embrace not merely the joy or the struggle, but rather more the new man into which Christ is making us, we will become like the man from whom an unclean spirit is driven out, which spirit goeth, and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in in dwell there: and the last state of that man is made worse than the first.

To be truly kin to Christ, to be his brother, and sister, and mother through doing the will of his heavenly Father is the whole point of this season. Whether we become that sort of person more readily by our Lenten fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, or whether these are for us a difficult task, it is being kin to Jesus that must be at the heart of our desire. Lent may be our happiest or most trying time, but either way it opens for us the occasion to make more present to ourselves the happy burden of our baptism and our new life in Christ.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tuesday of the First Week in Lent

Isaiah 55:6-11 / Matthew 21:10-17

There are some people who put off exercise until they feel fit, healthy, and well. They worry that exercise while they are unfit will be too painful and that they will turn away from exercise altogether. They are, of course, foolish and self-deceived, since, having become unfit, the only way to fitness is through the disruptive discomfort of exercise until, having regained fitness, it once again becomes a joy.

There are other people who put off having children until their life is fully in order. They imagine that it would be irresponsible to have children when their finances were not absolutely secure and all their desires for freedom in their 20s and 30s fulfilled. They, too, are foolish and self-deceived, since having children just is, by its nature, disruptive of well-planned and choreographed adult activity. It is only through the disruption of raising infants and small children that one can achieve the kind of calm and fulfillment one sought in the first place by becoming a parent.

In the Gospel, Jesus is likewise disruptive in the Temple. He does not cajole. He does not engage in active listening. He does not occupy the stance of wonder in open dialogue so that he might learn from the moneychangers and sellers of doves. Rather, he casts them out, tossing tables and chairs as he does so, and calls after them with stinging words: It is written: My house shall be called a house of prayer: but you have made it a den of thieves.

Yet, it is then, not merely after the disruption, but more precisely because of the disruption, that the Temple becomes not merely free from thievery, but open to healing. No longer ringing with the cries of the merchants and the ringing of coins, it becomes filled with the joyous song of children: Hosanna to the Son of David! The Temple becomes again what it should be, a place of prayer, of healing, and of spontaneous joy at the presence of the Lord.

We might expect, or at least hope, that our transformation from lives unfit for everlasting joy to lives conformed to the Son of David will be a journey without disruption. We know, of course, that this hope will be in vain, this expectation proved unjustified. It will be not merely after, but precisely because the Lord Jesus Christ turns over the tables and chairs of our waywardness and chastises our old self that our hearts can become what they should be, a place of prayer, healing, and spontaneous joy at the presence of the Lord.

We may find ourselves, like the chief priests and the scribes moved with indignation at the disruptions Jesus brings into our lives, but this we must resist. The Lord will cleanse his Temple, and he alone will be its Lord, and before his presence belong only hearts of contemplation, hearts of charity and justice, and hearts of spiritual delight. If he cannot find this on the Temple mount, he can go as easily to Bethany. When he overturns the tables of our sinful habits, will he find welcome?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Vox Clamantis: The Dignity of the Human Person

There are new videos available from the student brothers of the Dominican provinces of St. Albert the Great (Central U.S.A.) and St. Martin de Porres (Southern U.S.A.) on their website, Preaching Friars. The continue their exploration of the social teaching of the Church, this time, on the theme of the dignity of the human person.

Monday of the First Week in Lent

Ezechiel 34:11-16 / Matthew 25:31-46

Faced as we are with an economy still wavering since the global economic crisis of the end of the last decade, we are surrounded by shrill voices with diametrically opposed views on the best way to respond to the human plight caused by poverty and unemployment. Among these voices, many on each side of the gulf insist that their vision of a way out is sustained, even mandated, by the Scriptures themselves. For some, the vision of Ezechiel is clear. It is God and he alone who will shepherd his sheep, who will bring them out from among the peoples, to feed them on the mountains and beside the rivers. The Lord God, and none other, will feed them on green grass, will cause them to lie down and seek what is lost, will bind what it broken and strengthen what is weak. It is the pretense of earthly power to have jurisdiction over all aspects of life, the overreaching claim to be competent in every sphere, that God will punish: that which was fat and strong I will preserve; and I will feed them in judgment, saith the Lord almighty.

Some insist that the heart of the Gospel is the feeding of the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, taking in the stranger and covering the naked, visiting the ill and imprisoned, and that the State is better equipped for this than any other body. After all, they note, the sheep on the right of the Son of man in his glory did not know in the parable that they did the good they did for his sake, and it is not as individuals that they were gathered before him, but as nations, and they are interrogated not in the singular, but in the plural. In short, the Gospel demands not that all see the connection between the Good News and collective action on behalf of the poor and abandoned, but we all will be judged for how we in our common effort, as nations and not merely as persons, responded to those in need.

Perhaps the former have it right, and perhaps the latter. For those of us who are empowered to choose our leaders, we of course cannot leave the question unanswered. We must petition our government to put into place those policies most in keeping with goodness and righteousness. All the same, in the midst of the rancor, might we take a moment's breath and ask ourselves when the last time was that we, each one of us, did as the Son of man will ask of us on the Last Day? That is, before we point fingers either at those we worry will submit all to the fat and strong hands of an overweening State or at those we accuse of selectively reading the Gospels for their own benefit at the expense of the poor, are we willing to face the poor themselves, to dig into our pockets or our closets, to take time out of our schedule to see to the needs not of the hungry and thirst, the naked and stranger, the ill or imprisoned in general, vague ways, but this hungry child abused by her father, that thirsty woman addicted to drugs, this ill-clothed man who has lost his family and his job, that undocumented boy who has been kidnapped and sold into slavery for the sex trade, this girl who contracted HIV in her mother's womb, or that teenager imprisoned for what his local gang would tell him was his best hope for a future?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

First Sunday in Lent

2 Corinthians 6:1-10 / Matthew 4:1-11

We want, or surely we should want, the power or influence to make a difference in the world. Not to want to do so, to know how people suffer, and suffer needlessly of hunger, of violence, and of ignorance, largely, or perhaps even entirely, because those who are charged with their care do nothing about it, or worse even promote it, and yet on our part to be content simply with knowing this to be the case, is certainly a reprehensible attitude. Such a passing by of the cries for justice from our brothers and sisters, remaining unmoved to seek the power to do anything, looks on the face of it like the paradigm case of having received the grace of God in vain.

Yet, in the Gospel, Jesus seems to do just that. The devil three times offers Jesus the power to make a real difference — to feed the hungry from mere stones, to dazzle the people so clearly that they could not help but heed his words, and finally to have authority over all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. Each time, Jesus turns the offer aside, the third time rebuking the Accuser and sending him on his way.

We might protest that the comparison is unfair. After all, we know, as the devil who is without supernatural faith does not and cannot, that Jesus is not merely Son of God by title only, the Holy One by way of metaphor, but indeed the only-begotten Son, God himself. As such, no one eats anything whether to feed a craving or to ward off death by starvation save by the mighty intervention of Jesus, no one is moved by anything whether simple or sublime from doubt to faith save by Jesus' first having moved his soul from within, and no official has any power whatsoever whether over the licensing of pets or over global health policies apart from it having been given to them from above by him from whom all power and authority flows. So, we might assert, the temptations of the devil were ultimately easy for Jesus to turn aside. He was being offered nothing he did not already possess, and that more eminently and superabundantly than anything the Evil One might have proffered and at what would be, if it were even theoretically possible for God to sin against himself, a risible and despicable price, submission to the devil and rejection of the Father.

However, what the Gospel reminds us here is that we are not in any different situation. In Christ, in whom we have been made members by our baptism, we share the very same power to overcome the world, if not in our own persons then in our Head. We are moved by the same Spirit, by whose loving presence in our souls and sanctification in our lives, nothing the Tempter might offer could even compare, would we but be attentive to the promptings of heaven. Our weakness in the face of worldly ills is, then, while certainly real in one sense, ultimately not the final word nor the most lasting truth. When we find we have exhausted every effort to address the sufferings of the world, when we have made good use of every heavenly grace and blessing, and we see people who still suffer from hunger, from violence, and from ignorance of the Good News, we can be assured that no deal with wickedness, to compromise to "get things done" will ever be for our own good, nor of those we mean to serve. The deal remains the same as it was in the desert, to exchange what we already have in eminent superabundance for what is risible and despicable.

We are not alone, and we do no struggle alone. In the desert of our weakness in the face of the world we, too, are ministered to, but not merely by angels. We are loved by God himself, and called by his power to a new and everlasting life to taste even here and now. The Psalmist's words spoken prophetically of the Messiah, then, are no less true of us: The Lord will overshadow thee with His shoulders, and under His wings thou shalt trust: His truth shall compass thee with a shield.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

St Matthias, Apostle

Acts 1:15-26 / Matthew 11:25-30

We can learn a good deal about grace from Matthias and Joseph Justus Barsabbas. Both men were privileged to be among those few of whom the Apostles could claim to have "companied with us, all the time that the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day whereon He was taken up from us" such that they too could be "made a witness with us of His Resurrection." These were no latecomers, those who had only recently come to receive Jesus. Rather, Matthias and Justus were privileged by Jesus call to hear him from the very beginning of his preaching ministry all the way through his death and resurrection from the dead, and even to his ascension into heaven. Even if not among they Twelve, they had every other qualification, save for being chosen.

Yet, it is just in this question, the question of how one might be chosen to be one of the key witnesses to the Resurrection in whom the authority of Christ came to rest in the Church, that is, to make up what was missing in the Eleven through the terrible whole made by Judas' betrayal and despair, that places before us the logic of grace. We might, on learning that the Eleven cast lots to determine who should replace the Betrayer, imagine that grace is simply random, simply the result of unpredictable forces outside of our ability to discern or command. Indeed, even as we would not be likely to toss a coin to make crucial decisions, we wonder at the wisdom of the Eleven is choosing a man for so high an office through so impersonal and seemingly disconnected a method.

However, this would be to misread their actions. In casting lots between Matthias and Justus, the Eleven reveal that they understand such an office, namely an office of grace, not to come upon anyone through human effort. Having exhausted the best of what they knew to be the human determinations available to them, namely that the man must have experienced the whole of Jesus' active ministry, they understood that the grace of being an Apostle is arbitrary in the proper sense. That is, it comes from the arbitrium, the free decision and good pleasure, of God himself. While this does mean on the one hand that there is no intrinsic merit, no reason that can be derived on the part of Matthias or Justus that could account for the former being chosen and the latter not, even as there is nothing as such in the little ones that merited their receiving what was revealed by the Son in preference to the wise and prudent, it does not mean on the other hand that there is no reason whatsoever. The reason, as Jesus tells us in the Gospel is his good pleasure: neither doth anyone know the Father, but the Son, and him to whom it shall please the Son to reveal Him.

This, then, is a cause not for anxiety, but for security and rejoicing. Why? Because the hidden counsels of the Son are those that lie in the depths of his very being, in the very essence of what it is to be God, and so while forever hidden from us in inaccessible light, they are all the same the free decisions of Love, the ground of Love, the origin and end, font and goal of every created loving. In the logic of love, we do not ask why. We do not, lest we transform the gifts of love into a mercantile exchange, ask our Lover why he loves us. To answer that his love depends merely on this or that feature of ourselves is, even in human loving, to falsify the lover's choice. As much as we "fall" in love, love is something not so much that happens to us as something that we choose, something that, in the face of our feelings and dispositions, we decide from what is within to make real or to pass it by. For God, as there is nothing in us that was not already the product of his own loving choice, of the arbitium of his love, everything, from our natural constitution to our supernatural graces, comes from the glorious freedom of divine election, the majestic splendor of Love.

This is what Justus knew as well as Matthias, what the one passed over knew as well as the one chosen. Justus knew this because he, too, had spent those many days from the banks of the Jordan past the desolation of Golgotha to the unparalleled joy of Galilee. It is in the grace of knowing Jesus and knowing his love that we can rejoice in thanksgiving for the graces we do receive and, at the same time, never even once resent not receiving the graces given to others. When we know Jesus Christ and his love, we need nothing more, for we already have more than any human heart could ever desire.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-9 / Matthew 5:43-48; 6:1-4

A question often used by preachers and catechists is this: If you were put on trial to be convicted of being a Christian, what kind of evidence would the prosecution have? Said more simply, could anyone who did not know you intimately be able to know that you have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and become a member of his Body, a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit?

As a catechetical device, the aim is simple. Should anyone be eager to protest such things as a baptismal certificate or frequent attendance at church or a Bible or crucifix featured prominently at home, the catechist quickly asks whether such things are what Christianity is all about. That is, as important as our ritual and devotional observances are, does our whole way of life, does our response especially to those most in need, reveal the kind of person in whom the God who hears the cries of the poor has chosen to dwell? The aim, then, is to prepare us better to hear the challenge of the prophet Isaiah: Is this such a fast as I have chosen, for a man to afflict his soul for a day? is this it, to wind his head about like a circle, and to spread sackcloth and ashes? wilt thou call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this rather the fast that I have chosen? loose the bands of wickedness, undo the bundles that oppress, let them that are broken go free, and break asunder every burden. Deal thy bread to the hungry, and bring the needy and the harborless into thy house: when thou shalt see one naked, cover him, and despise not thine own flesh. Or, in the simpler but even more challenging words of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ: Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you; and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you: that you may be the children of your Father Who is in heaven, Who maketh His sun to rise upon the good and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.

This, however, is where things take an odd turn for our prosecutor. While Isaiah insists that our justice for the poor and oppressed, for the marginalized and despised, will cause our light to break forth as the morning, Jesus is quite clear that we do not do our justice before men, to be seen by them. All this sacrificial goodness, the fasting that comes from real, actual, tangible justice for the hungry, the poor, the downtrodden, the imprisoned, and all of the divinely patterned goodness in the love of enemies, the generosity to be shown in as great a quantity for the enemy and oppressor as for the friend and ally, is supposed to be kept simple, discrete, in secret. On this reading, we might end up being unjustly acquitted, found not guilty of the Christian faith, not because we had not made it actual in our lives, but because we kept our goodness all too well hidden.

If that were the case, would we mind? That is, suppose that our fasting from wickedness and our justice on behalf of the poor, and our goodness and prayer for the wicked, had a real, noticeable impact, that the lives of the poor were meaningfully made more in keeping with human dignity and our enemies, if not any better for our efforts, at least more manifestly wicked for their hardness of heart, while at the same time no one could trace it to us. Would that not be a life worth living? If everyone else got the fanfare and we were overlooked by the whole world, yet knew that we had become more conformed to Christ, more deeply impressed in our soul by the love of the Holy Spirit, would that not be an unfair exchange, not for us, but for those who settled for the world's acclaim?

Odds are, no one will know what you will do this Lent. None will be able to tell your struggles against vice, the time or money spent at the local soup kitchen or volunteering at the local legal clinic. No one will be able to recite the depth of your prayer for your enemies, recited quietly on the commute to work. No one, that is, except the one who really matters, the one who loved you from before the foundation of the world in in whom you live, and move, and have being.

... and thy Father, Who seeth in secret, will repay thee.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 38:1-6 / Matthew 8:5-13

Take order with thy house, for thou shalt die, and not live.

Bearing in mind that we are going to die one day has never been easy. Even in societies surrounded by death, say in Somalia where the terrible famine in the Horn of Africa continues, where some quarter of a million still suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and where it is estimated that, by the end of the famine, tens of thousands will have died for lack of food, it remains hard for any individual person to admit that he will die until death is finally upon him, and not always even then. It is all the more difficult to do so in societies, such as the affluent West, where death is constantly denied. Those who are dying we imagine do not want to hear about it, and those we cannot pretend are not tending towards the grave we place in clinical seclusion, far from any place they might upset our illusion of Olympian perpetual youth and vitality. Even among Christians, for whom the theme of memento mori was once common, certainly among Catholics and even, for a time, among Protestants, one is hard pressed to hear or read any counsel of being prepared for a good death.

Isaiah's words to Hezekiah thus strike us as perhaps a tad hard. In the midst of his illness, Hezekiah hears not soothing words from God's prophet, but merely an unsentimental assessment of his status: Take order with thy house, for thou shalt die, and not live. Yet, confronted with this news, Hezekiah takes no offense. Indeed, even having recited his virtues, his having walked before God in truth, and with a perfect heart, Hezekiah is led to tears. Likewise the centurion in the Gospel, desirous that the man in his care should receive the healing power of Jesus Christ, does not want to trouble him and have him enter under his roof. They know the gulf between their virtue and the righteousness God demands. More than that, they know what they have left undone for themselves and for the people entrusted to their care.

At the beginning of Lent, the Church puts before us these stark but true words spoken by the prophet to the king not as a matter of historical curiosity, but because they might just as well be said to each of us. Even for those who find themselves in possession of youth, strength, and seemingly unassailable health, it remains true that each of us will die. Whatever our plans for virtuous living, death will come to us and we will fall short of our brightest hopes and dreams.

Yet, we are not to despair. Rather, our marching orders are the same as those given to Hezekiah. That is, we need to take order with our houses. Knowing our limits, knowing our frailty, knowing that even the most glorious goodness we have to offer is never enough to meet the holiness to which God calls us, we might well pause as we begin our Lent as wonder how well ordered our house is, our private life as well as our relationship with those whom we love and those who depend on us. Granted that only God's grace will draw us from the best of human love to a share in his divine life, can we nonetheless say that we are making the best use of our time? Are we, in both our work and in our leisure, in our prayer and in our service, becoming the sort of people who will enjoy for eternity the company of a holy and righteous God?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-19 / Matthew 6:16-21

... and Thy Father Who seeth in secret, will repay thee.

Seeing and being seen. Concealing and being concealed. Much energy in human life can be understood in this simple dynamic of the visible and the invisible, the seen and the unseen, the manifest and the occult, what is in the open and what is in secret. Normally, we imagine that these two poles represent two worlds discrete from one another, that to occupy the first means, necessarily not to occupy the latter. What we put out in the open, whether its our best physical features or the decorations in the public spaces of our homes, we imagine and expect will be seen. What we strategically conceal, whether the less than sightly parts of our bodies or the incriminating records of our browsing of the internet, we trust will, by that concealment, be known only by ourselves and seen by none save those to whom we choose to reveal it.

That we regard this divide as crucial to our well-being is seen best in the unhappy reactions we have in finding our attempts to separate the two have been thwarted. To discover that no one noticed the lovely planting in our front yard or the new haircut for which we spent both good time and money is to be seriously disappointed. To learn that one's private journal has been read by a stranger, that one's bedroom window has been the means of someone uninvited to gaze on our sleeping form, is not merely an annoyance, but a cause for alarm.

Yet, today the Lord God has revealed just this kind of a breakdown between the seen and the unseen, between what is secret and what is out in the open. Through the prophet Joel, he demands a solemn and public declaration of the fast through the blowing of trumpets and the gathering of the whole people of God. Yet, in doing so, he is asking all of the people, not only through the public laments of the priests, but also through the fasting and prayer of each and all, to make manifest what they might have preferred to keep a secret, namely, that the people of God have betrayed the Law they were called upon to keep and witness so that the nations might praise the name of the Lord.

For his part, Jesus Christ bars his disciples from public displays of penance. Just in case a follower of Christ thought he might garner a little sympathy and earn some honor and respect from his fellows by being known for his heroic fasting to cleanse himself from sin, Jesus insists that he keep it to himself. Jesus demands that this disciples ought to do nothing to elicit sympathy from other, much less respect and awe, for what ought to be a way to be free from a sinful and false vision of one's self. We fast, after all, to repent our sins and be more faithful to the Gospel, and we know that this is God's work in us and not our merit. So, Jesus asks us, what moral or spiritual good is there in trumpeting that fact to others if our goal is that we might look better as a result?

In the end, as Jesus reminds us, God our Father is, at one and the same time, a hidden God, a God who is in secret and who is known only by the Son and those whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Yet, while secret in his ineffable glory, the Father is intimately present to all, and seeth in secret. Everything is manifest to him, and nothing is hidden. The careful dance we do to negotiate with ourselves just what to reveal and what to conceal turns out to be ultimately empty, whatever transitory meaning it may have in the world. We are seen, and there is nothing of ours that is ultimately secret, only God himself, whose deepest inner life remains always clothed in unapproachable light.

So, as we begin again our observance of Lent, God calls us to remember that we are seen, that what really counts and really matters will not go unnoticed. He reminds us that our every little victory is known by him, our every mitigating factor that bars our way to Christian love, our every best hope and best effort. We need not fear that God will not see our trials and difficulties as we turn away from our petty loves on our journey back to him. We need not try to convince anyone else by public show. Indeed, we need not even try to convince ourselves through extravagant private penances. What we are asked to do in this season, rather, is to learn through our penance, our prayer, our fasting, and our almsgiving, how it is that God sees us. We are to discover by our Lenten practices what it is God sees when he looks upon us in secret. Much of it may be unsightly, some of it even disheartening. Yet, what he sees most and best is a son or daughter born again to new lift by the waters of baptism and made by the Spirit of his Love to conform to the image of his beloved Son. This is the deep and secret truth that God wants nothing to conceal from us.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tuesday of the 7th Week (II) / Shrove Tuesday

James 4:1-10 / Mark 9:30-37

Had I but wings like a dove, I would fly away and be at rest. Far away I would flee; I would lodge in the wilderness. I would wait for him who saves me from the violent storm and the tempest.

Imagining that one had exceptional powers can be innocent enough. There is little harm in thinking that one can talk to animals and be understood by them, that one could learn difficult things with great ease, or that one could sprout wings and fly. However, such fancy can be worrisome when it leads us to avoid what must be done, whether we think we have the power to bring it to a happy end or not. We might, that is, refrain from speaking words that must be said because we do not have perfect command of a language not our own. We might fail to give comfort to a friend in need because we know her troubles exceed our capacity to soothe and heal. We might fail to speak out for the poor and the voiceless because we know what little influence our voice has with those in power. That is, we might spend our time musing about what we could do, if only we had superhuman talents, and avoid attending to the real, pressing human need right here before us.

The psalmist knows this all too well. Confronted by his friend's betrayal and fearing for his life, the psalmist muses what it would be like to have the power to escape far away from the clutches of his enemy, to have wings like a dove to fly away and be at rest, there, in a safe place of his own making, to wait for him who saves. All the same, the psalmist knows that this fantasy is not the truth, and is in the end unhelpful. He sees that wanting to escape his troubles by his own power, superhuman or not, is merely a delay is his placing trust in God.

We, too, know our weaknesses, and we know our limits. As satisfying as it seems to imagine that we had no limits at all, we realize that doing so puts off discovering the wonderful, saving power to be manifest not in spite of, but precisely through our weaknesses. As we prepare to enter the season of Lent, we can see already the many ways we not only might, but almost certainly will fail to meet or unrealistically imagined expectations of a perfect forty days of holiness. Even so, this is not a counsel to despair. Rather, it is a call to the joy of humility, the joy of being exalted by the Lord who saves, the joy of heeding the words of the psalmist: Throw your cares on the Lord, and he will support you.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Quinquagesima Sunday

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 / Luke 18:31-34

Love is patient.

Anyone who has been to a wedding, certainly to a Catholic wedding, is more than likely to have heard this passage before from Paul's letter to the Corinthians. Indeed, for those who are priests or Church musicians, or who find themselves at that age when friend after friend is getting married, it can be easy to have our minds wander when the reading begins. If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love ... Right. Got it. Check. Poke me when I need to pay attention again.

It's not, of course, that we think the matter of the letter is untrue. Surely love is, or by rights ought to be, patient, kind, envy not, deal not perversely, not be puffed up, ambitious, seeking its own, provoked to anger, thinking evil, or rejoicing in iniquity, but rather out to rejoice with the truth. All the same, when this reading evokes for us the freshness of marital love, of newlyweds caught up in the hopes and dreams of a new life together, it is hard not to hear in this litany of love's virtues more a pious hyperbole than anything real. It is at best an aspiration of human relating, but not something we would ever encounter, much less live.

However, suppose in hearing Paul's encomium of love, our minds turned not to marital bliss, but rather to him who turned from the successes of Galilee to go up to Jerusalem that he might be delivered to the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and scourged, and spit upon: and after they have scourged him, they will put him to death. That is, what if we recalled that for Paul to highlight first that love is patient, he means more, far more, exceedingly more than that love means waiting to start dinner because one's spouse is late from work or even giving one's partner time to make a difficult decision about a job. No, to be patient, at root, means being able to be done to, that is, to suffer. In other words, the hallmark of love, the love of which Paul spoke, is to embrace the suffering that, in this vale of tears, is simply convertible with what it means to live. Love, then, is to affirm and embrace life, and in embracing life here and now means inevitably and unavoidably, to suffer.

This is the love which Paul calls us to remember, the love not of man and wife, but rather the love of God, a God who chose to suffer, in the flesh, yes, and also in rejection by those he came to love. He chose to suffer because he chose to live our life, and to draw this broken, painful, suffering life up into his own glory and joy. He suffered because he lived, and lived because he loved, and in that love, we will partake of his life, and in him and by his suffering, we shall rise again.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sexagesima Sunday

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

The Chinese philosopher Mencius (Mengzi) argued that the human heart, every human heart, was fundamentally good. By this, Mencius was not being willfully blind to human wickedness, the weakness and even darkness that can reside in human character. Rather, what he claimed was that, merely in virtue of being human, every heart had four sprouts, compassion, shame, deference, and judgment, which, when rightly cultivated, will grow and flourish as the four cardinal virtues of Confucian thought: from compassion the virtue of benevolence or humaneness, from shame the virtue of uprightness and dutifulness, from deference the virtue of the observance of rites and right relatedness to persons, and from judgment the virtue of wisdom. Were one to see a wicked man, or someone devoid of these virtues, Mencius would conclude not that he had not a fundamentally good heart, but rather that circumstances and his own folly had torn up the sprouts of virtue, and continually did so, that that what was essentially fertile by nature would nonetheless be barren in fact. Furthermore, Mencius notes that we can err just as much by trying to hard to force the virtues as by failing to cultivate them, even as only a fool would pull at seedlings to help them to grow, even as it would be folly not to remove the weeds that would choke them in their early and fragile stage of growth.

On the face of it, the Confucian wisdom of Mencius seems to collide with the divine teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospel. Like Mencius' image of the sprouts in the human heart, Jesus sets before us a parable of soil and seedlings, of some plants that succeed and flourish and others that wither and die, or never even begin their growth at all. However, while Mencius would assert that each and every heart, by its nature, is as capable as any other of producing even the sublime virtue of a Sage, Jesus' parable presents the image of soil of different character: the wayside with no soil at all, the rocky ground with only the shallowest of soil, the soil overgrown with thorns, and the rocky soil. This image, on the face of it, suggests that human hearts are not all able to receive God's word, that the success or failure of human flourishing is not a universal potential in every human heart.

Such a reading, though, would not be true to the parable. On a second reading, we can see that the receptivity of the soil, the potential to yield rich fruit from the seeds of God's word, is not a static and unchanging fact that divides the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve into different types of people, namely, those who can and those who cannot receive God's Word. Rather, it is our mode of living that renders our soil the way it is. The wayside without soil is not an inhuman heart with no fruitfulness by nature, but one who is still so with the Prince of this world, the devil, that preaching does him no good. The rockiness of the shallow soil comes, again, not by nature, but by weakness in the face of temptation, from a good weather and not a lasting embrace of God's Word in good times and in bad. Even the thorns do not represent permanent and natural features of the soil of human hearts, but rather cares and riches and pleasures of this life.

And the good soil? Does Jesus simply say that all soil is good by nature? What we see is that the focus of the parable is not on the nature of the soil as such and in itself. The goodness and receptivity of soil is just as much a feature of how we choose to respond to God's Word in our lives as the badness of the other soil was a result of prior bad choices and spirit-killing commitments. As Jesus tells us, that on the good ground are they who in a good and perfect heart, hearing the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit in patience. Even as Mencius saw by natural wisdom, so Jesus teaches us by divine knowledge, that the growth from seed to seedling to fruitful crop is not something that we can leave unattended, but equally so, it is not something that can be forced to occur on our schedule, on our time, according to our expectations of what good growth ought to be. It must occur, as Jesus tells us, in patience.

In the light of the glory of the Cross, this means not merely the delayed gratification of waiting in time, but also the stronger sense of patientia, that is suffering. While the Gospel may not demand of any one of us the trials of St Paul — Of the Jews five times did I receive forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I was in the depth of the sea: in journeying often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils from my own nation, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils from false brethren: in labor and painfulness, in much watching, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness — we are surely all bound by the law of love to share his daily instance, the solicitude for all the churches. That is, we are bound by love to care for those who share our life in Jesus Christ and in a willingness to suffer hardship in its service, perhaps in our bodies, likely in our social lives and reputations, necessarily in our hearts. We are, more than that, called to do so not as equipped with power and might to ward off all who would oppose us, as though our confidence in the Gospel were derived from a confidence in our strength to be up to whatever task the world set before us. No, our patience by which we will bear fruit is rather that we can say with Paul, If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things concerning my infirmity.

O God, Who seest that we put not our trust in any thing that we do: mercifully grant, that by the protection of the Doctor of the Gentiles we my be defended against all adversities.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Septuagesima Sunday

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

Years ago, during my summer training as a cashier, I was informed by my supervisor that while I was free of course to join a union, he wanted to assure me that I did not need to go through anyone else should I have any problems or concerns. I was, after all, not an employee, but an "associate." Mind you, for an eighteen-year-old seeking summer employment in the few months between school years, I was not especially inclined to join a union. However, even to me this canned speech sounded perverse and self-serving. Why would I imagine that the management of a national chain of stores would be more likely to listen to a teenager than the voice of a multitude through the spokesman of a union? Even if I appreciated my freedom not to be unionized, I resented this less than subtle attempt to keep me from doing so.

So, we might be surprised to find that when the workers in the vineyard who have toiled from the first hour raise a collective concern about their wages, that they should receive only as much as those who have worked only from the eleventh hour, the householder does not speak to them all. Rather, we are told that he answering said to one of them: Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst thou not agree with me for a penny? In other words, what the workmen have received as a collective slight against their labor which bore the burden of the day and its heat, the householder has chosen to treat as a private matter, a concern between him and one man. What the workers take to be a violation of principle applicable across many cases, the householder treats rather as a discourse between two friends, and the specific agreement between them. He insists, moreover, that this private agreement has no relation at all with any other private agreements he may have made: Take what is thine and go thy way: I will also give to this last even as to thee. Or, is it not lawful for me to do what I will?

While Jesus likely does not intend this parable to guide us in employment practices, he clearly does want us to see in this story something of the Kingdom of heaven. If that is so, then Jesus is directing our questions about that kingdom, about its logic, about its recompense, about its principles of inclusion, away from the general and directly to the particular. Like the worker to his wages, our relationship to God's kingdom is rooted most essentially not in the categories of the group or the collective, not by principle or by impersonal logic, but by the interpersonal communion who is the Trinity into which we, precisely as persons have been invited to come. Whatever concerns we have about God and what he asks of us or the reward he offers others on seemingly less demanding grounds, Jesus refuses to allow us to conceal our concerns behind fictions of fairness to us or justice to them. He demands that we come to him, face to face, and bring before him whatever objections or worries or complaints we have to lodge. For, while God may save us as a people, and indeed in that collective unity of the Body that is the Church whose very head is Jesus Christ, he actually saves persons, not collectives, so the saving approach of the Kingdom is its coming to me, to you, and to him or her, to each of us as individual persons.

Yet, unlike my experience at the chain retail store, we do not stand alone before the householder. We have an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who pleads and prays for us when we do not know how to pray, and we have a Mediator, Jesus Christ, whose blood speaks better than the blood of Abel. In coming before God our Father to receive our penny, we have not been left alone and naked to face the truth of our labor, to hear whether we have won, or even placed, in the race for the imperishable crown. Rather, we have God already with us, pleading for us, dwelling within us, sanctifying and conforming us to the measure of his own life. So, unlike the workman with no one to plead his cause, we who labor in the Lord's vineyard, whether through the burden of the day and the heat, or only for the last few minutes of the eleventh hour, we can come with confidence before the householder of the world and the world to come.