Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunday of the Prodigal Son

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 / Luke 15:11-32

One of the puzzles that vexed Medieval theologians was how it was that the fallen angels actually fell. While the philosophical and theological issues are complex, in brief the worry was grounded in the knowledge that angels, not having bodies, and knowing what they know through direct intuition without the possibility of error, could not have their evil choices explained either by being drawn to another real, but unreasonable and disproportionate, good through the senses or through being mistaken in fact, and nonetheless making a decision to act out of that ignorance. These latter explanations, after all, seem to cover much, if not all, of human evil. We turn to sin, that is, in pursuit of some kind of perceived good, even if not a moral good. What makes us sin, it seems, is that the good we seek actually violates the bounds of reason, and so violates what marks us out specifically as human. We miss the mark in a fundamental way, for example, when we choose sexual pleasure for the sake of the sexual pleasure alone, and not in light of the kind of relationship, viz. marriage, in which such pleasure fulfills what it means to be human. Similarly, we sin because we do not know enough about something, perhaps the motivations of another for an action of his that harms us, and so we lash out, accuse, seek vengeance, acting as though we were in justice opposing a malicious wrong, even though in fact we do not know this to be the case.

If angels, however, have no physical senses, and so no physical appetites, they cannot be led astray by the particular goods of the senses that exceed the bounds of reason. Likewise, if they cannot be mistaken in the light of their natural knowledge, then their actions are never in ignorance, never guilty of rash judgment. Or, so it would seem.

Yet, as St Paul reminds us, what marks out a rightly lived human life is not merely that the passions and desires of the body fall under the greater, richer, more perfecting rule of reason, but also that our reason must itself bend the knee before the wisdom of God. In Corinth, Paul faced those who proclaimed, by virtue of the liberty in Christ, that to them all things were lawful, and in light of that liberty, they acted in ways, especially through sexual license, that violated the truth of what it means to be a Christian, to be a Temple of the Holy Spirit and a member of the Body of which Christ is the Head. No doubt, these Corinthians felt rationally justified in their acts, and we see this in their self-defense: All things are lawful unto me. They are not, that is, merely responding to a momentary whim or lust. They have a plan, a vision, in light of a rational principle, and they are acting accordingly.

However, as important as our reason is in guiding us to what it right and good, it necessarily falls short in guiding us to our true and lasting happiness in a life with the Triune God. To live eternally with God is, for angels as much as for men, to seek and end that exceeds anything we could imagine. Indeed, it means to walk along a path that, for all that it generally accords with reason, will occasionally stretch the power of our reason to understand, as it would even for the exceedingly greater intellectual power of an angel. As much as our bodies, if they could speak directly to us, might find most of our decisions to their liking, but others — staying up all hours of the night to tend to an ailing parent, refraining from sexual intercourse in the absence of a spouse, enduring hardship for the sake of the Gospel — would seem, in the body's terms, incomprehensible without the insight of reason, so much of what it means to follow Christ, for men and for angels, entails receiving wisdom neither from our bodies, nor from our minds, but from our Head, Jesus Christ, and his Spirit who dwells within us.

That angels could, in the beginning, have fallen for failing to seek the one thing their intellect could not penetrate, which is to say the deep mystery of God, despite its vast power, we, whose reason in comparison is far dimmer, ought to take caution. We have been given, in the life of the Gospel and the indwelling of the Spirit of God, a sure and certain source of a wisdom that surpasses our powers but will guide us unfailingly to our end, if we but heed its promptings.

For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

2 Timothy 3:10-15 / Luke 18:10-14

We know quite well the parable of the publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee, rightly, but with disdain for his fellow man, recites before God his own righteousness, asserting how happy he is that he is not like the publican, whom he also rightly identifies as a sinner. The publican, by contrast, stands in the back, considering himself unworthy of God because he, again quite rightly, identifies himself as a sinner. He relies not on his merits, which he knows are not merely inadequate, but positively contrary to God's holiness, and instead calls merely upon the mercy of God. Jesus assures us that it is the publican, and not the Pharisee, who walks away justified.

On the face of it, we might think that key to this parable is a warning about judgment, that we ought not to identify some people as sinners and others as living an upright and godly life. However, this cannot be the case. After all, the publican is in fact a sinner, and the works of the Pharisee more than fulfill what is required by the Law. Were one to choose the manner of life one ought to want to live, only the morally corrupt or confused would willingly choose to live as the publican rather than as the Pharisee.

Moreover, St Paul himself speaks quite explicitly in his second letter to the Thessalonians about the difference between the wicked and those who live a life in accord with Christian teaching. He is quite clear; one is to avoid the former and be zealous in remaining among the latter. Indeed, as Paul warns, that while all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution, nonetheless out of them all the Lord will deliver them. By contrast, evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived.

How shall we square the explicit marking off of the sinners and the godly in Paul's letter from what seems to be precisely the counsel not to see the world that way in Jesus' parable? Do we simply chalk this up to residual Pharisaism in Paul? Or, have we missed something crucial in our reading?

If we attend closely to the parable, we will see that what is absent in the Pharisee, but present in the publican, is the recognition that goodness and justification come as a gift from God, that to be righteous is a cause of thanksgiving to be sure, but with due recognition of its source. The Pharisee thanks God for his goodness and uprightness, but rather than either acknowledge that, apart from God's gift, he would be standing with the publican, or what's more rather than praying that the publican, too, might be justified and live according to the Law, the Pharisee remains self-oriented, self-justified. It is only the publican who recognizes that only God is truly just, truly righteous, and that it is his mercy, not his congratulation or approval, that we ought to seek.

Yet, this is also precisely what Paul wants us to see as well. In rehearsing the sufferings he has endured, Paul points not to his merits, but to Jesus Christ as the source of his deliverance: but out of them all the Lord delivered me. It is not simply that the godly suffer persecution, but the godly in Christ Jesus who do so. To continue to live in accord with Christian teaching he asserts is not a reason for boasting of ourselves. Rather, we are to attend to the origin of those teachings, knowing of whom we have learned them, and that we keep to them to become wise unto salvation we must credit not to ourselves, but through faith which is in Christ Jesus.

This is why we can and must distinguish between wickedness and godliness. Jesus Christ did not teach us so that we would remain muddled about what directs us to a life with God and what turns us away, but that we might share in the divine light by which God knows, that we might become wise. Yet, in being wise, in seeing things in light of God, to see as God sees, means precisely to see our fellow men and women, our brothers and sisters, as, just like us, the beneficiaries of God's mercy. It is only to the extent that we love those who are still trapped in darkness, that we truly will their good, even while at the same time living a way of life apart from theirs and so inviting persecution at their hands, that we can truly be said to have learned what it is that Jesus Christ came to teach.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Leavetaking of the Theophany

2 Timothy 2:20-26 / Luke 19:37-44

In the convent where I live, we are blessed with a wonderful array of trees in our cloister and in our garden. Now, in the midst of winter, we are graced with the many oranges and lemons which hang temptingly on the branches. Other fruit trees make themselves known in the fall, but my favorite are the cherry trees. While their blossoms are rivaled in fragrance perhaps by the orange blossoms, the beauty of our garden, blanketed in soft pink and white, to be followed by the bright red of the fresh cherries. In my springtime walks praying the rosary, I cannot help but pick a few cherries along the way, thinking of Our Lady in The Cherry-Tree Carol. Even though the garden had been thick with trees, and making one's way through all the more difficult in the spring, the branches heavy with leaves and fruit, I delighted in the shade, the colors, the smells, the tastes, and the blessed solitude of a walk under the trees.

I say had been thick with trees because recently, through some gardening project, the trees of the garden were quite radically pruned, including, much to my despair, many if not most of the cherry trees. What once was a see of trees and branches now gives way to the open ground, the tall trees cut back to far more modest heights, their branches far fewer. I can easily suppose that this is for some real good. That is, perhaps there were other plants, such as our herbs which we use in the kitchen, that had begun to suffer from the competitive thriving of the trees. Or, perhaps the trees themselves were grown beyond what would be good for them collectively, and so also individually. Perhaps.

All the same, it is hard for me not to feel the loss. Whatever the good, I can know with certainty that my garden walks will not be the same. I can know that the delightful canopy of leaves and blossoms will not be there come the spring to shade my walks, and there will hardly be any cherries to delight my rosary strolls, much less to repeat the cherry pies we baked last year. However much my reason may suggest that this is for the good, that the goods with which I had to part, even without being bad in themselves, could not remain as they were, my imagination and memory part with them only with reluctance.

When Paul urges us to become worthy vessels of honor, to flee youthful lusts and avoid ignorant and foolish disputes, even to avoid quarreling altogether, we might too glibly assent that such a course is to be taken for granted. But is it? Is our moral transformation in light of the Gospel we have received, the new life and faith given to us in our Baptism, so clearly a good for us, here and now, that the kind of good we have known up until now, in our life apart from Christ, is manifestly unfit, unworthy to be held on to?

This is why Jesus warns the Pharisees at his entrance into Jerusalem that they did not know the time of his visitation. Our lives, even when filled with much that is good in itself, can easily become overgrown, needing much pruning to make way for the goods God intends for us to enjoy. The point is not that we have evil in our lives we need to reject, although that is most likely the case. It is also that goods, real and true goods, we have allowed so to capture our imagination and delight that, unless they be cut back, unless they be pruned, we will never know the glories God wills to impart to us.

As we take leave of the Theophany, and with it the Christmas season, will be be prepared for a little pruning? Have we listened to the comfortable and joyous proclamations of the Nativity and Theophany of the Lord such that we can, without regret, let the pruning begin, and so open the way for his glorious entrance into our lives, and so begin to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works he has done, and continues to do to bring us to share in his eternal and unending life?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Afterfeast of the Theophany

Ephesians 4:7-13 / Matthew 4:12-17

Now that the celebrations of the mystery of Christmas are coming to a close, when the few who have held on to their lights and tinsel, their creches and their cards, are conceding that Christmastide has indeed come to and end, what do we expect to see? The promises of Christmas are high. I mean here, of course, not the hopes and dreams of Christmas presents or perfect Christmas moments with the family by the tree or in front of a roaring fire. What I mean are the spiritual promises, the hope for a world transformed, a world not nearly as dark, not nearly as cold, not nearly as divided as it had been before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned. It might be quite easy to become disappointed, jaded even, by the ordinariness we know we will face when the new week begins.

Yet, in many ways, this is precisely what Jesus had prepared for us in his own ministry. When John was arrested, and Jesus came to Galilee, it might well have seemed the appropriate time for a clear sign of something new. One might well have expected that, with the friend of the Bridegroom gone, and the arrival of the Bridegroom himself, fresh from his cleansing in the river Jordan and in the desert, things would change, and change notably, radically, unmistakably. Instead, we hear from Jesus what we had heard all along from the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

The same is true of the Church. In the face of so much disappointment in our fellow Christians, and especially in those appointed to lead us, although we must admit in ourselves as well, we might have hoped that the celebration of Christ shining his light in the darkness would have led to something new, something different. Instead, Peter reminds us that what we can expect, what we must expect here and now, are those same ministries the Church has always had, the same hierarchy willed by grace into the Church by Jesus Christ himself: And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.

The ordinary, the run of the mill, with its losses and disappointments included, is not meant to be a sign of the absence of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, Jesus' most merciful coming in Bethlehem, and his wondrous manifestation to the nations, while meant to transform the world utterly and decisively, was also to do so in and through the world as it is. It was not to save another world, a different world, that Christ came. Jesus came among us so that this world, the world we live in here and now, with all of its joys and trials, its boredom and terrors, it victories and its defeats, could come to share in his everlasting glory. Indeed, in and through the ministry of the Church, this is what he is doing even now. However, much we may fear that nothing has changed, our life in the Church, and precisely our being open to the ministry of those appointed by Christ for our edification, is precisely the occasion for that radical transformation for which we have been longing. It is nowhere else but here in the Church, no other time but the ordinary time of our lives, that will be the locus, the time and place, for the newness of life to dawn upon us, that day when we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Holy Theophany of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7 / Matthew 3:13-17

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men...

There is an art, and a special kind of luck, in the opening of gifts. Open the best ones first, and what remains, however good, however well-intentioned, will necessarily either pale in comparison, and so disappoint the one who receives, or eclipse the gift of greater worth, and so disappoint the one who gives. Wait too long to disclose the gift long awaited, even if the recipient did not even know how much he wanted it, and the desire to open the gift at all may well wither and wane. Both surfeit and dearth, both too early an anticipation and too delayed a revelation can all spoil what out properly to be the joy of giver and receiver alike.

So, what is there to be said of the gift of the grace of God that brings salvation? To be sure, God was willing to delay his merciful coming for quite some time, at least many thousands of years, depending on when one imagines the appearance on the earth of man, properly so called. Yet, even then that grace of God, the Word of God himself, Son of the eternal Father, came among us in the flesh, God, like a good giver, did not spoil the surprise all at once. Piece by piece and step by step, the glorious mystery was allowed to unfold, each opening seemingly the best and most hoped for, only to be undone by a gift of love altogether unanticipated in its heart-achingly profound depths. From the Annunciation we were led to the Nativity, and thence to the happy witness of the angels and shepherds, of ox and ass. Yet, this was not enough. To the heights and heaven and to the elect nation of Israel was added the witness of the riches of the nations, the kings from the East, the Magi, seeking a foreign king promised by the prophets of a God not their own, who nonetheless they recognized as Lord over all.

Were the Christmas mystery to end here, all might be well. We might, that is, think all had been done that need be done, that all peoples, Jew and Gentile alike, had been made privy to the merciful appearing of the grace of God that brings salvation. But for God, the expert giver of gifts, this was not enough. To each appearing, he has gladly added another. Even as the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ in the cave to Mary and Joseph was extended to the shepherds, and to them the witness of the Magi, so later was added not merely the voice of the hosts of heaven, but rather the voice of the Father himself at the Baptism of the Lord in the river Jordan: This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

Indeed, we know that God was not content to end there, which may well have been the final moment, the clear declaration of the peace the Father had declared between heaven and earth, between Jew and Gentile, and so called each and all that he might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. Beyond the banks of the Jordan we can witness Jesus' first public miracle in the transformation of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, and beyond there to his ministry of healing and exorcism in Galilee, or his wondrous Transfiguration on Tabor, to he triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his terrible but no less glorious Passion, his Resurrection and Ascension, the sending of the Spirit, the fearless preaching of the Apostles and no less fearless witness of the martyrs, and the global witness to Jesus Christ even to the present day.

Which of these can we say is the best gift, the definitive appearing for which every preceding gift was a prelude, and to which every gift to follow was a witness? Was it all about the fidelity to the promise made once to Adam and Eve of the son who would crush the serpent's head, the promise made to Abraham in his gift of faith, the giving of the Law amid cloud and fire on Sinai, the dwelling in the Temple in Jerusalem, the promise made to the exiles upon their return to the Land? Can we place the definitive moment in the cave at Bethlehem, the banks of the Jordan, the village of Cana, the Mount of Olives, Golgotha, the Tomb, or the Upper Room? Or, might we not rather say that, in Jesus Christ, who is at once the consummate Giver and Gift, every gift, every manifestation, every epiphany and theophany, is the center? Who would be able to say that his later knowledge of the mystery of the Passion was not prepared for by a childhood delight at the babe in the manger? At the same time, can we really say, after a lifetime of turning in the sins of our adulthood to the image of the Crucified, that we are not turned in a newer and deeper way to the Cave of Bethlehem, as though the Cross were meant to send us back to that moment of his first gracious appearing in the flesh?

On this day Thou hast appeared unto the whole world, and Thy light, O Sovereign Lord, is signed on us who sing Thy praise and chant with knowledge: Thou hast now come, Thou hast appeared, O Thou Light unappproachable.