Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tuesday of 6th Week (Year II)

Genesis 6:5-8; 7:1-5, 10 / Mark 8:14-21

Is there a point of no return in the spiritual life? Can we ever come to a place where we find that there is no going back, from which we cannot and will not hear what God has to tell us, however insistently? We might think that there is no such point, no such place. After all, God's mercy is greater than any of our sins, indeed than all of our sins. Moreover, his patience is surely greater and more long-suffering that our stamina, than the force that fuels our rebellion against him.

However, the Scriptures today suggest otherwise. God's decision, rather his judgment of the human race at the time of Noah is quite clearly final, even while the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve remain alive, if not well. His decree is clearly beyond recall; apart from Noah and his family, and those representative pairs of the clean and unclean animals, none will be spared. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus raises a worry which amounts to the same idea. In response the the disciples confusion over the meaning of "the leaven of the Pharisees" and "the leaven of Herod," and thinking these to be some peculiar way of noting that they were without provisions, Jesus sighs deeply. His concern is this: Are the disciples confused because they do not yet understand (which suggests that they are slow to believe, but may still come to understanding), or is it because their hearts are hardened (and so, by implication, they simply will not understand, or more accurately, like the Pharisees and like Herod, they will to misunderstand)?

Of course, it is spiritually fatal to imagine either or ourselves or of others in this life that we have reached this point, that point when in our hardness we have been passed over, and will no longer see or hear. To imagine so would be the sin of despair, and so would result in the end of charity in the soul. Even so, it is equally dangerous to fall into presumption, to imagine that we can never turn ourselves irrevocably away from God, that because we do not see ourselves as hardened moral monsters, that we don't have anything to worry about.

Today, brothers and sisters, is Shrove Tuesday, and in the midst of the pancakes glistening with butter, syrup, sugar, jam, and spirits, and while we make merry with what may well be our last taste of sweets, meat, and the fruit of the vine or of the grain, it is also a traditional day to go to confession, to be shriven, which is to say forgiven of one's sins. The old wisdom was not that one should use Lent to prepare for a full-bodied confession right at the season's end, but rather that, before the penitential disciplines are upon us, we should free our souls of the sins that still bind us. We are freed by the sacrament so that we might enter Lent more openly, to receive God's words of warning and encouragement more fruitfully, free from any and all presumptions about our virtue, and ready to see with our eyes, hear with our ears and understand with hearts made soft, warm, and receptive to the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Tme (B)

Job 7:1-4, 6-7 / 1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23 / Mark 1:29-39

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.

It is not difficult for us to understand, or at least to think that we understand, Jesus' decision to leave, to be alone, far from all of his work and from all of the requests made by the whole town...gathered at the door of the mother-in-law of Simon. As a man, and so like us, Jesus Christ had his limits, the need to rest so he could find the strength to continue his work. Even though, being God, and so being the very source of all strength and energy, he would not have lacked the power to heal the sick and deliver those possessed by demons, he had all the same fundamental human needs, not the least of which is rest from work. And so, we cam imagine that, at the beginning of his earthly ministry, non yet accustomed to the crowds needing his help, Jesus found a moment for himself, a quiet moment of self-care.

However, such a reading, whatever truth there may be in it, misses something crucial about the life of Jesus. Jesus did not rise so early, he did not go off to a deserted place, to find and renew the strength necessary to take up again the healings and deliverances of the people of the town. As we read, after Simon and those who were with him had found Jesus and told him that the whole town was looking for him, Jesus revealed to them that he had no desire to return to those healings that he had dome in the city. Even though he had compassion for the people, his priority was that purpose for which he had come — the preaching of the Good News, of the Gospel. That is to say, his mission, his being send, more precisely his being sent by the Father, and so even more his identity as the Son, the Son send into the world by the Father but never absent from him — this mission and this identity, not his tiredness nor any kind of self-care, were at the heart of Jesus' prayer in the deserted place, early in the morning.

We, of course, are not sons of the Father by nature, and we have not been sent in the same way, with just the same saving mission of the eternal Son of God and his Paschal Mystery. We are, however, rightly and truly sons of the Father by our baptism; we are also, by our baptism and our confirmation, anointed by the same Spirit, and in that same Spirit partakers in the mission of Christ; some of us, moreover, are by our religious vows dedicated to preaching, and it is for us as preachers, no less than it was for Jesus in his earthly mission, to say, Let us go on to the nearby villages that we may preach there also. For this purpose have we come. Given all of this, it is also clear that our prayer, and in a particular way our private prayer, the prayer we make either physically or spiritually "early in the morning before dawn" in a "deserted place" ought to be rooted in this mission — the preaching of the Gospel — and in this identity — the filial participation in the mystery of God.

Brother and sisters, we all have a lot of work to do, and it is easy to feel sorry for ourselves, as though we were with Jesus in the house of Simon's mother-in-law, the whole town gathered at the door asking to see us, asking for our time and our energy. It is understandable that after our work, and after that sense that our work has been, and perhaps always will be, beyond our ability to accomplish, we desire a time, some time, brief or long, in which we can get some rest, be entertained, taste that dolce far niente during a few hours of idleness. It is understandable, and considering the weakness of our humanity, probably even justifiable. However, during these quiet moments, whether early in the morning or late at night or in a momentary pause between our daily tasks, we have even greater need of prayer. We need a life of prayer rooted non in the desire for energy to do even more work, nor in the desire to stop working and enjoy idleness, however necessary these both may be. What we need is a prayer rooted in the awareness of our identity — an identity received by the grace of the sacraments, an identity which we renew every time we celebrate the Mass and receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, an identity of being sons of God, partakers of the eternal life of the living God.

Filial prayer is not in the life, of course, a magic solution for our fatigue. Job's question is in a certain sense the question that will remain until the end of the world: Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?
Are not his days those of hirelings?
Filial prayer does not take away the difficulties that belong in this world to our mission. We ought rather to say with St. Paul, If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it! Filial prayer, however can be, and it ought to be the source of our joy whether we are at work or at rest, in drudgery or in play. We are sons of the Father, and by grace and love, we can taste, even today, here and now, the sweetness of the immortal life of the Trinity, the life promised by our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Septuagesima Sunday

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

I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty; I so fight, not as one beating the air...

Among those sticks used to beat the Church, and the Church's faithful, one frequently used is the charge of arrogance. How, it is asked, can anyone possibly make the assertions the Christian faithful do — about the nature of God, the world, human life in this world and the world to come, and a host of other things — with any kind of certainty? What sorts of assurances warrant the kinds of sacrifices Christians themselves make, and more to the point, the kinds of sacrifices they sometimes insist others make, when what they assert seems to those who do not share the faith to be hogwash at best? Moreover, if Christians really believed what they profess to believe, should we not expect the world to work differently — less evil, more spontaneous healing of severed limbs, more and less dubious miraculous visitations, and the like? Minimally, should we not expect Christians themselves to behave differently?

In one sense, these critics are altogether correct. However compelling the evidence presented on behalf of the Christian faith, none of it actually compels belief. Nothing about the Scriptures, even the evidence of the fulfillment of prophecy, requires that a neutral observer take it to be anything other than an anthology of texts from the ancient Near East and Egypt, written by various persons over the course of centuries, with a somewhat spotty history of transmission. Nothing about the history of the Church's magisterium demands that the unbeliever see in any historical, or even present-day, articulation of Christian doctrine, the very same teaching proposed by Jesus Christ in his earthly ministry and confirmed by the work of the Holy Spirit. Even the proof of God's existence, which is compelling to reason, does not when honestly accepted require anything like the admission of the Trinity, much less the specific saving purposes of that Holy Trinity in saving the human race through calling us to share in his nature.

Why, then, is this not arrogance? Why is St. Paul able to distinguish our running of the race of faith from those who run for crowns that fade precisely on the point that we who run the race of faith do so not for some crown that may or may not be there for us? We submit to the discipline of the Gospel not thinking that only one of us might succeed, as though it is all practice with no reward. We do so out of confidence in Jesus Christ, confidence in his promises, confidence in the grace poured out upon us by the blood of the Cross. There is life eternal, and we have been called to share in it, indeed we already share in it through our Baptism.

The answer is simple, but not for that reason simplistic. We do so because of faith, the gift of faith. Faith is not the mere assertion of what we do not otherwise know. Faith is not a leap in the dark, based on the mere desire that what we long for should be out there where we cannot see. No, the faith we receive in Baptism is luminous. Faith makes us to see with eyes more than our own. Faith is a participation not in willful human assertions about unknowable truths, but rather a participation, here and now, in God's own knowledge of himself and of his purposes in and for the world. In faith, God has given us just enough light here and now to recognize in the Scriptures not merely many and disparate authors, but one principal Author, the Holy Spirit. In faith, God has given us illumination to see in the Church and her pastors not merely a group of men within a long, institutional history, but the very Body of Christ, the locus of God's saving work in the world. In faith, we can know not merely of God's general Providence, but more precisely how he has responded, will respond, and even now is responding to the evils of the world through the work of Jesus Christ.

This being so, that God has given us to see what our reason cannot reach, that we act really and truly out of sight, not out of will or assertion, makes the unbelievers challenge one we ought to make all the more to ourselves. That is, given not merely what we profess, but given that we in fact share in the light of faith and so can hold with a confidence not of our own devising that the promises of the faith are true, why do we not strive all the more to live in a way others can see this to be so? What have we done, and what are we doing now, to help one another in the faith to see at the very least within the Church, within the Body of those illumined by faith, to live the life that light of faith reveals more honestly, more truly?