Sunday, July 16, 2017

Year A Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 55:10-11; Ps 65:10-14; Rom 8:18-23; Matt 13:1-23

In theological terms, a mystery is not something unknown and about which we can know little or nothing. Rather, in the realm of faith, a mystery is something we know because God has revealed it. This is important because of the question Jesus was asked by his disciples after telling the “large crowds” the Parable of the Sower: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” The Lord did not reply by saying, “I teach them in parables in order that they will better understand my message.” No! He says the opposite. He teaches them in parables so that his meaning is harder to for them to grasp.

Despite our understandable tendency to oversimplify Jesus’ parables, it would be foolish to assert his parables always served to make his teaching less clear. In context, the Parable of the Sower in Matthew’s Gospel has to do with Jesus distancing himself more and more from those Jews who refused to see that he is the one who fulfills the purpose for which they were chosen. It is safe to assume that the author of Matthew conceived of the large crowds as exclusively Jewish. In other words, these are the people who should’ve looked and seen; who should have heard and understood, but they did not. Only the small band of disciples, who were themselves Jews (Matthew is a Jewish Gospel written for a mostly Jewish Christian community), heard and understood, looked and saw. Contrary to the paintings we often see, which depict Jesus with a golden halo or surrounded by an aura of light, it was not intuitively obvious to the casual observer during his public ministry that he was the Son of God in the flesh.

In our first reading from Isaiah, taken from a section of the book designated Deutero, or Second Isaiah, written during the Babylonian exile, we heard that God’s word accomplishes what God wants to achieve by speaking it. While this may sound like a trite bit of wisdom to us, such an assertion would’ve seemed dubious to many of the Jews to whom it was originally proclaimed. Why? Because they were exiles in Babylon, displaced from the land God promised them. No doubt to many of these exiles God’s purposes seemed to be frustrated, if not thwarted, by Israel’s conquest. In addition to taking much of the population of Judah into exile, the Babylonians also destroyed the first Temple, an event from which ancient Judaism never recovered.

Of course, what God set out to accomplish is accomplished in and through the Incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. As with Israel’s exiles and his Son’s Incarnation, God’s purposes are accomplished in mysterious ways. By “mysterious,” I mean counter-intuitive and usually contrary to our preconceptions. God does not use the means of worldly power to accomplish his purposes. It is often the case that we hear and don’t understand, look and don’t see because we don’t hear and see what we expect or want. We are disheartened when God does not carry out our plans. The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but God, as we the cliché has it, writes straight with crooked lines.

Our wanting to dictate to God both ends and means is not only true with regard to how God works in the world, but is especially true when it comes to how God works in our own lives. What today’s readings ask us to do is to examine our own hearts with respect to God’s word and ask ourselves, what kind of soil am I?

Looking at the four kinds of soil onto which the seed is sown, I want to focus on the second and third kinds because I believe these are most relevant to us. Too often we are content with an infantile faith. This is a faith that holds God is pleased with me when things in life are going my way. Conversely, this kind of immature faith also holds that when the going in life gets tough it is the result of God being displeased with me. Sooner or later someone who believes this will either mature in faith, which means realizing that God’s disposition towards her never changes, or, as is the case in the Parable of the Sower, lose faith altogether. We can be confident, to quote St Paul, “that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). How can you know you are called according to God’s purpose? This is the call you received when you were baptized. God is faithful because God is love.

We can also become too wrapped up in things that can never satisfy us, spending all of time and energy trying to get ahead, taking one more vacation, purchasing one more luxury, etc. Living like this often creates heavy burdens, like debt, fatigue, the gradual disappointment of the law of diminishing returns, which refers to the point at which the level of satisfaction you derive from something is less than the amount of money, time, and energy you invest in it. This often leads to those afflictions so common to late modern life in Western societies: stress, anxiety, depression, even existential despair, which is life-threatening. Too often we refuse the invitation Jesus issued in last week’s Gospel, to find our rest in him. As with tribulations and persecutions, being overly concerned about or wrapped up in maintaining one’s own material well-being can cause someone who has heard and responded to “the word of the kingdom’ to fall away.

What leads to strong, well-rooted, well-nourished faith, or, stated differently, happiness and fulfillment? I think our second reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans goes some distance towards answering this question. It is by experiencing life’s trials and tribulations, which the apostle likens to a woman experiencing labor pains. Experience is how we verify that what we believe is true. What Paul is pointing to in this passage is our rebirth in baptism. Baptism is our passage from the already to the not yet of God’s kingdom because it restores us to the state of original grace, which is characterized by communion. Therefore, Christians are people who strive to live the not yet of God’s reign, which will be fully established when Christ returns.

An effective way to test the soil of your soul is by meditating on the central paradox of being a Christian, of what it means to be someone who hears and understands, who looks and sees. In St Matthew’s Gospel, this is found a few chapters on from today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus tells us:
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? (Matt 16:24-26)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Making an important point in an unconvincing way

I am back after a month away from posting regularly. Sometimes it is important to let my mind lie a bit fallow. Perhaps I invest too much of myself when I post. By the end of May, while rewarding, blogging was starting to feel like hard work. Since it is something I do because I find value in doing, it is important that I enjoy it and want to do it. One thing about being an independent blogger, whenever you take an extended break you almost have to start all over in terms drawing readers. Another thing about being an independent blogger, I don't financially profit from my efforts and so building readership is not paramount. Nonetheless, I certainly hope some people find what I humbly offer worth reading.

Cutting to the chase, this week an Italian Jesuit publication, La Civiltà Cattolica, published an opinion piece that has stirred up a lot of controversy in the United States: "Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism" (at the time of this writing the magazine's website is inaccessible). La Civiltà Cattolica is unique among Catholic periodicals in that the contents of each issue are vetted by the Vatican Secretariat of State. This relationship means the magazine enjoys something of a quasi-official status. This relationship is nothing new, it has been published this way for a long time. The article in question was co-authored by Fr Antonio Spadaro, S.J., who serves as editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, and Presbyterian minister Rev Marcelo Figueroa, an Argentinian who is editor of the Argentinian edition of the Vatican's newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

Predictably, the article has come under fire from some of those who feel they were subjects of the article's rather pointed critique. I don't want to wade too deeply into matters that are beyond my competency, but having read two critiques of the La Civiltà Cattolica piece ("On that strange, disturbing, and anti-American "Civiltà Cattolica" article" and "Antonio Spadaro has discovered a brand of Protestantism he doesn’t like", the latter of which is not adequate to the task it undertakes) along with numerous social media criticisms, I think the central thesis of Spadoro's and Figueroa's piece was lost.

Before coming to the thesis of the article, I want to explain why I think it was lost. How one arrives at a conclusion matters. The more precise the argument the more convincing the conclusion. What was offered in the article as the explanation of the brand of U.S. politics at which the authors took aim maintained a cruising altitude of 50,000'. In other words, it was too general and not nearly nuanced enough in its consideration of the relationship between Christianity and politics in the United States over roughly the last century. In my view and that of some more expert that me, Spadoro and Figueroa did not provide a credible exposition of the historical dynamics that have led to so many Catholics adopting what they see as an un-, perhaps even anti-, Catholic the political stance. Hence, their "take" is subject both to criticism and correction.

However deficient Spadoro's and Figueroa's historical explanation might be, when it comes to describing the current state-of-affairs, specifically how many Catholics came not only to vote for but enthusiastically support Donald Trump and his political agenda, which offends against Catholic social teaching on many matters (this is the case with both major political parties in the U.S., which is why I belong to neither), I think they do so quite accurately. I don't think their oversimplified history negates their main point, which is to set forth something that is at the heart of the Franciscan papacy, which is truly post-secular:

Pope Francis, a post-secular Pontiff
The religious element should never be confused with the political one. Confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other. An evident aspect of Pope Francis’ geopolitics rests in not giving theological room to the power to impose oneself or to find an internal or external enemy to fight. There is a need to flee the temptation to project divinity on political power that then uses it for its own ends. Francis empties from within the narrative of sectarian millenarianism and dominionism that is preparing the apocalypse and the 'final clash.' Underlining mercy as a fundamental attribute of God expresses this radically Christian need
It seems to me that many Catholics in the U.S. today try to draw parallels between the Church's current situation and that of the Church's first 3+ centuries. For sure, there are parallels to be drawn, but the situations, on close examination, are quite different. For one thing, the early Church did not have the burden of centuries of Christendom to bear. The Christian message is often crushed by this weight.

One thing I think everyone agrees on is that Christianity no longer enjoys the cultural and political hegemony it once enjoyed in Western nations. Such influence wanes more all the time and shows no signs of waxing. Nonetheless (and this may be disappointing to some), I don't believe we're in imminent danger of full-out persecution in the West. People are simply more indifferent towards and suspicious of religion in general and Christianity in particular. If we're honest we must acknowledge that, along with the bad reasons, there are a some good ones. This indifference and suspicion will cause us some problems; it already has.

Right in tune with Pope Francis, in fact preceding him, is the work of the Czech priest, psychologist, philosopher Tomáš Halík, who insists the Church needs to go through the purification of secularization. In other words, we must grow accustomed to what Havel called the power of the powerless. In my view, for Christians today this is the power of joyful witness to God's mercy given in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Stayed tuned to Καθολικός διάκονος; tomorrow my homily for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Corpus Christi

I was struck at Mass today by these two stanzas of the Sequence for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi:

Hear what Holy Church maintaineth,
That the bread its substance changeth
Into flesh, the wine to Blood.
Does it pass thy comprehending?
Faith, the law of sight transcending,
Leaps to things not understood.

Here, beneath these signs are hidden
Priceless things to sense forbidden;
Signs, not things, are all we see-
Flesh from bread, and blood from wine,
Yet is Christ in either sign
All entire confessed to be.

Another note from last week: Christ is the sacrament of God. The Church is the sacrament of Christ. Individually we are to be sacraments of the Church, that is, visible and tangible signs of Christ's presence in and for the world.

Expectation, desire, hope

A long note I took in class this week apropos of nothing:

I have to distinguish my desire from my expectations.
Even when realized, my expectations don't completely satisfy my desire- desire remains
Desire is that in me which corresponds to God's grace.
Desire is what responds to God's initiative towards me.
One way to understand this is to see very self as desire; a longing for fulfillment.

Quite often my expectations are not met.
This leads to disappointment, but a different kind than when my expectations are met.
Dissatisfaction and disappointment are the fertile soil in which hope can grow.
Just as death is necessary for resurrection, travail and suffering are necessary for hope.

This an update. On reflecting further on this, it occurred to me that years ago there was a song I turned to whenever I felt like this. I was glad to rediscover it today. It seems fitting at the end of the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.

Friday, June 9, 2017

"Somewhere out there waiting is a place where I'll know peace"

Thanks to the charity of friends and one stranger, enough money has been raised to inter John Ellichman and not leave his mausoleum crypt unmarked. I will conduct his committal service later this morning at Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery here in Salt Lake City. Burying the dead is an work of mercy.

Because we believe in the resurrection of the body, Christians treat the bodies of our dead with great reverence and respect. Treating the bodies of the departed, of course, is not a unique feature of Christianity. In fact, this is something we inherited from our elder brothers and sisters- the Jewish people. Respect for a person's human dignity, which includes reverencing each person's bodily integrity, does not end at death. Given the vulnerability and defenselessness of someone's dead body, we have an obligation to safeguard the body of the person who has died.

Mt Calvary Cemetery, Salt Lake City

I am feeling pretty good that I am putting up a traditio on succeeding Fridays. Our traditio this week is a song I heard for the first time last night on 103.1 The Wave's Newer New Wave program, which airs on Thursdays at 7:00 PM. Since the advent of the program several months ago, I have been busy on Thursday evenings and unable to tune in. The show features both new releases by New Wave bands who have been around since the '80s and newer bands whose sound has the New Wave warp and woof. Without further delay, our traditio is VNV Nation's "If I Was."

If I was a better man
Or a poor man or a king
Would I have the strength to start again
Walk the path that called to me
Somewhere out there waiting
Is a place where I'll know peace
Calling out and beckoning
Be I a poor man or a king

"VNV" stands for "Victory Not Vengeance." It's a nation to which I can pledge allegiance.

Even with our observance of two major solemnities the next two Sundays (Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi, respectively), we are back in Ordinary Time. So, it's time to get back to observing Fridays as days of penance in an intentional way. Momento mori - remembering death - is not morbid in the least.

Considering the brief span of one's mortal life ought to infuse one with meaning and purpose, causing us to spend time wisely. Scripture is incessant on this point. Sadly, what matters are not the things we tend to spend most of our time doing. May God have mercy on us all.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Tobit and the importance of burying the dead

Because my parish celebrated Mass in the evening instead of in the morning today, I was able to assist my pastor at the altar on this Memorial of St. Boniface, who was a fearless evangelist. Like my patron saint, Stephen, Boniface's fearless evangelizing led to his martyrdom. I did not have a chance to do more than glance at today's readings prior to Mass. When I heard it proclaimed, I was delighted by the first reading from the Book of Tobit, which is one of the deuterocanonical books, which are usually called "Apocryphal" by Protestant Christians.

Tobit is set in Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria, during the time when thousands of Israelites were exiled from Samaria to Assyria in the eighth century BC. Tobit was most likely written centuries later, in the late third or early second century BC. The Assyrian exile was the population exchange that led to the Samaritans having their unique, syncretistic from of Judaism, the center of which was Mount Gerazim, not Jerusalem.

It is from the first chapter of Tobit that we receive a lesson in the Corporal Works of Mercy
I would give my bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked. If I saw one of my people who had died and been thrown behind the wall of Nineveh, I used to bury him (Tobit 1:17)
According to the Book of Tobit, when Sennacherib succeeded his father, Shalmaneser, as king of Assyria, he took to killing Israelites. After Sennacherib killed them, Tobit would bury his fellow Israelites. Eventually, this caused Tobit to flee Nineveh for his life, leaving his wife Anna and his son Tobiah behind. After he fled into exile, all of his property was seized by the state, leaving his wife and son with nothing. Forty days after he fled, Sennacherib was assassinated. His son, Esarhaddon, succeeded him.

King Esarhaddon put Tobit's relative Ahiqar, "in charge of all the credit accounts of his kingdom, and he took control over the entire administration" (Tobit 1:22). Ahiqar interceded with the king on Tobit's behalf. As a result, Esarhaddon allowed Tobit to return to Nineveh. During the Festival of Weeks, called by Greek-speaking Jews "Pentecost," Tobit, being a man of mercy, told his son Tobiah to
go out and bring in whatever poor person you find among our kindred exiled here in Nineveh who may be a sincere worshiper of God to share this meal with me. Indeed, son, I shall wait for you (Tobit 2:2)
Tobit Burying the Dead

As he went to find a poor person to invite to share their feast, Tobiah came across an Israelite who had been murdered and whose body was thrown into the marketplace. On hearing this, Tobit went and retrieved the body of his fellow Israelite, brought it to his house, put the body in a room so he could bury it after sundown, when no one would see him. Tobit's neighbors were aghast, saying,
Does he have no fear? Once before he was hunted, to be executed for this sort of deed, and he ran away; yet here he is again burying the dead! (Tobit 2:8)
Burying the dead in accord with their human dignity is important. It is one of the Corporal Works of Mercy.

I was struck by this reading because last week a man I have known for the past 10 years or so, John Ellichman, passed away. Prior to his conversion, John lived a dissolute life, which had brought him a lot of pain and sorrow. As a result, he was pretty much alone in the world. He would speak to his daughter in St. Louis once in awhile, but he had never really been part of her life. For several reasons, she is not traveling to Salt Lake for his burial. After his conversion, John was as faithful as anyone I know. He loved Jesus and, more importantly, knew he was loved by Jesus. John was without doubt one of the most humble, unassuming, unimposing people I have ever known.

John was nearly indigent. He was able to maintain a small apartment. He managed to pay his utilities as well as keep himself fed and clothed. Here is an example of John's faithfulness: after it was mentioned in a homily by a former rector of The Cathedral of the Madeleine that it was expensive to bury people and that the parish had, in recent months, paid for the burial of a number of people, John paid what he could for his own funeral and burial expenses.

John had heart problems the whole time I knew him. His doctors were amazed he was still alive. They were even more amazed that John walked everywhere. In all the years I knew him, John never owned a car and he didn't take the bus or the train. He walked everywhere, including to the 11:00 AM Mass at the Cathedral every Sunday, no matter the weather. He always wore a red bandana around his neck and a brown leather vest.

The only thing that is not paid for to decently bury John is his metal memorial plaque, which will serve as his headstone. Otherwise, his grave will be unmarked. The plaque will have John's name along with the dates of birth and death. The plaque costs $425.00. To ensure John a dignified burial I have started a GoFundMe campaign to raise the money for his memorial plaque. Apart from the fee charged by GoFundMe to use their service, there is ZERO overhead. If any money is raised over and above $425.00, I will donate it all to Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Salt Lake City to use for others who, like John, need money to be decently buried.

This is an opportunity to do a Corporal Work of Mercy. No donation is too small. Twenty-five people giving $17 each would cover it. To donate click here.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

"One simple thing is all we really need"

With a few exceptions, it has been very difficult to post a Friday traditio the past several months. Yesterday it happened again that I was busy from dawn to sunset. This is okay because life trumps blogging. For some reason, like the fact that I've heard this song on the radio several times this past week, Stabilizers singing "One Simple Thing" is our late traditio for the first week of June.

I am used to time seeming to speed up as I grow older, but at the pace 2017 seems to be going, I will 80 the day-after-tomorrow. It's easy to see that Einstein was correct without doing any math.

"One Simple Thing" is one of those wonderful 80s songs the meaning of which remains slightly ambiguous. It seems to be about love between two people who want to just be together, excluding everything else, by building a wall "no one else can see." There is a lot of talk these days about "safe spaces." Desiring a "safe space," despite the harsh words of some, is a very understandable reaction to reality. In the past, we used to call this place home. But with the advent and widespread availability of the internet and various kinds of social media, I don't think home feels as safe as it once did for most people. For many, home is not a place where you can keep the world at bay.

Love both is and is not a safe space, so to speak. It is not a safe space because loving another always requires you to take a risk. But once love, if it merits the name, is experienced, it becomes something with a reliable degree of certainty, making it it highly desirable in an uncertain world.

Erecting and then living behind an invisible wall with one's beloved is, it seems to me, if in perhaps an overly philosophized way, expressive of the desire to inhabit eternity within time. Love between two finite beings can't be anything other finite, despite the longing for eternity love brings forth from within us, exposing the need that constitutes us as human beings made in the divine image. Hence, eternity often remains elusive. The passage of time, as noted above, stops for nothing and nobody. As the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted: "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." These assertions are, of course, as subsequent philosophical discourse amply demonstrates, disputable. But the intuition that only love is eternal strikes me as beautiful and, hence, true.

If the "one simple thing" is love, even if restricted to the love of two people for one another, it bears noting that few things are more complex than the love between two people. On the other hand, nothing is more simple than what God has revealed about God, namely "God is love" (1 John 4:8.16). Moreover, "In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). Being what it is (i.e., the very basis of reality), love does not build walls, or put up and maintain barriers, but removes them. The best evidence of this is creation and the Incarnation of the Son of God. Concisely, then, love is profuse, which means, according to the dictionary, "exuberantly plentiful; abundant." It is God, who is love, who enables us to inhabit eternity within time.

We would be wise to "give back all the things we had but one." In fact, in the end, that is what we'll be asked to do. Whether or not we can bring ourselves to do it will perhaps be the determining factor in how we live, or whether we, in fact, go on living. You see, to live is to love.

Sundown this evening marks the beginning of the Pentecost. After Easter, Pentecost is the most important observance of the liturgical year. Yes, it even trumps Christmas. Today I am privileged to accompany 6 adults from my parish, who I have been preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation over the past few months, to The Cathedral of Madeleine to be confirmed by our bishop, Oscar Solis. I am excited. At least as I learned them, the spiritual fruit of the Third Mystery of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary - the Descent of the Holy Spirit - is God's love for us. The Holy Spirit is Christ's resurrection presence in us, among us, and through us until he returns in glory.

One simple thing: ἀγάπη, agápē, love.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A few barely coherent notes on a thing called "spirituality"

The Lord does not lead me to himself merely for my own sake, but for his sake and the sake of others.

The above thought came to me as I was silently preparing to serve at Mass this morning. I was tempted to write that it came to me unbidden, but I always bid the Lord to speak to me in some way. It is by no means the case that he always does so.

This May has not been the most prolific month in the not-so-illustrious history of Καθολικός διάκονος. In fact, I had the feeling throughout most of the month of being a faltering blogger. Blogging wasn't the only thing I felt faltering. I don't mind sharing that from about midway through Lent until early last week, my spiritual life was faltering. The reason for this is simple: my spiritual practice, or my practice of the spiritual disciplines, waned almost to the point of disappearing. This happened because I allowed myself to become way too busy (again) and, as a result, overly anxious. Over the past week or so, by the grace of God, I have begun again. To paraphrase Pater Tom (Merton), when it comes to the spiritual life, we are all always only beginners.

The spiritual task I think the Lord has given me for now is to be at peace with myself in his presence. This requires stillness and silence, two things I cherish, but that I have gotten away from practicing. Once lost, it requires effort to regain the ability to enter into silence through physical and mental stillness.

At least for me, the great battle of middle age stems from the realization that at 51, in all probability, more of my life lies behind me than before me. If not, then I will live to be at least 103. Closely related to this realization is coming to grips with my limitations, which is not to say I am incapable of learning new things or any self-improvement, but that there are certain things that are no longer possibilities for me. Apart from sometimes thinking that I've wasted most of life so far, this is liberating. Without a doubt, the biggest battle of all remains overcoming myself.

I am currently reading Thomas Nevin's The Last Years of Saint Thérèse: Doubt and Darkness, 1895-1897. It is a remarkable book. One that I would say is indispensable for any devoteé of the Little Flower. This book is indispensable because Thérèse Martin is often the victim of the silliest of sentimental reductions. I learned of Nevin's book by reading another book, one that I also highly recommend: Fr. Tomáš Halík's Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us.

Let's face it, there is nothing more disheartening than self-serving and sentimental reductions of the Little Way of the Little Flower. Such reductions abound, written by well-meaning Christians who really have no grasp of the charism given to Thérèse Martin. Our Holy Mother, the Church, grasps the depth of the witness of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Making the Little Flower a Doctor of the Church is proof of this. Thérèse is a saint for the twenty-first century, someone who was very far ahead of her time. "Bearing the Cross of Community" is the title of the third chapter of Nevin's book. In this chapter, Nevin gives the reader a glimpse of what Thérèse's "Little Way" looked like in practice. To the final section of the third chapter Nevin gave the title "Seeking Escape from Self."

While, as Christians, we do not believe in or anticipate the annihilation of the self, but live in the hope of living forever as self-conscious resurrected beings with physical bodies, we do seek liberation from the self- not the body, which is the instrument we're given with which to love. Love of self is exhausting, consuming as it does one's spiritual, mental, and physical resources. Whether we know it or not, we long to be people for others; people whose entire being is consumed with love of God and neighbor; people who think of ourselves last, if at all. Forget the run-away bestseller from several years ago, The Secret, which sought to forward something called "the law of attraction," by means of which we draw to ourselves everything we want, meaning money, success, hot women and the like, the secret to happiness is grasping your need to be a person for others.

There are a few things from this short section of Nevin's sub-chapter that, I think, bear noting. In Nevin's own words, Thérèse told her sister Céline: "The more helpless one is... the more loving is God" (117). In her own words, Thérèse wrote: "He prefers to see you stumble in the night upon the stones of the way than to walk in the full light of day on an enameled path of flowers which might slow you down" (117). Writing again to Céline, Thérèse insisted: "Yes, it's one's sheer nothingness enough to humble oneself and sustain one's imperfections gently. There's the real sainthood!" (121) Writing to Pauline, who, like Céline, was Thérèse's natural sister and a Carmelite sister in the same cloistered community, who served for many years as Prioress of their convent, Sister Marie de la Trinité, just a few months before Thérèse's canonization, observed, referring to the Little Flower, whom she knew well: "What canonized saint has ever spoken like this: 'We others,' [Thérèse] told me, 'we're not saints who weep for their sins, we rejoice in them as they serve to glorify the Good Lord's compassion" (121). This passage from Marie de la Trinité's letter to Pauline prompted Nevin to observe:
If Thérèse did not reach the bathyspheric [there's your word to look up today] perceptions of sin that Dante records in his Commedia, she was well informed, by herself and by her sisters, both natural and spiritual, that a futile self-oriented longing, and ever turning of self into Self, moves diametrically against the truth that must always be directed to God. Self also moves against charity, which can only be directed to others (121-122)
Obsessing over one's faults and failings is self-love, a way of rejecting God's love, which is at work pulling us beyond ourselves.

Thérèse's "Little Way" is not only reduced, but is obliterated when it is made into a Pelagian path of perfection that presumes human perfectibility without the need of God. Very often, Nevin points out, Thérèse's "'way' has been construed as little daily acts by which one can work toward a cryptic sainthood" (120). "What has not been given sufficient emphasis," he continues, "is Thérèse's own model of a studied imperfection, an attention to daily inadequacies and failings" (120). "Her way of imperfection"- this is important - "marked the path of trustfulness she wished to give God. Without continuous imperfection and a continuous sense of it, trust could fall into presumption of one's sufficiency. Thérèse is not explicit but she hints at a creeping Arianism [not a transposing error on my part; Nevin uses "Arianism," but I am quite sure he means Pelagianism], the heresy of self-advancement, wherever a steady conviction of one's inadequacy and weakness may falter" (120).

In what Nevin describes as "the liveliest of her plays," Le Triomphe de l'Humilité, Thérèse puts the following words on the lips of Lucifer, words with which he seeks to instruct demons on how best to invade the convent: "suggest to them above all to be self-centered, for self-love is the weakness of every human being, it's even found in the cloistered communities, and I assure you, my friends, it's my most reliable weapon for slowing down he love of God in the hearts of all his nuns..." Given that she identifies self-love as "the weakness of every human being" it seems reasonable to extrapolate the last phrase to include all God's people.

Memorial Day- Peace in Jesus

Readings: Acts 19:1-8; Ps. 68:2-7; John 16:29-33

I am very glad that I went to Mass first thing this Memorial Day. Beginning today by serving at the Lord's altar was the best beginning I could imagine. By participating in Mass we remember - call-to-mind-in-order-to-make-present - what is most important: the Father bringing about the reconciliation of the world through his Son, by the power of their Holy Spirit. In and through the Mass, God seeks to bring about peace, the communion, that he meant his good creation to be. It is only this reconciliation, which is God's work, that will bring about true and lasting peace. As our opening hymn, we sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth," composed by Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller in 1955. The song begins:
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me;
Let there be peace on earth,
The peace that was meant to be
Using the readings of the day, we celebrated the Mass for the Preservation of Peace and Justice. While it would be a pitiable nation that did not remember those who died in its service, we must remain cognizant of the horribly destructive nature of war, not only on combatants, but on civilian populations and on the environment. Being not only Christians, but human beings with at least an ounce of humanity, we must consider the human, civilizational, and environmental devastation that warfare leaves in its wake. Lest we romanticize and sentimentalize warfare, which tempts us to view it as something of a positive good, it seems fitting to me that on Memorial Day we also remember before God all those innocent children, women, and men who have been killed, raped, maimed, and psychologically afflicted by the waging of war. In our current milieu, we also need to think about those who are forced to leave their homes, their cities, their countries, and their regions because of fighting. We have a word for these dispossessed and displaced people: refugees.

As you can see, for me, Memorial Day is a solemn day. I make no apologies for this.

Today's first reading from Acts is yet another vignette about baptism in the Holy Spirit, one that points us, again, to the necessity of the Sacrament of Confirmation. This is not wholly a digression from the main theme of peace. After all, one of the Twelve Fruits of the Spirit is Peace. Peace is not passive. It is not just the absence of conflict. Being a peacemaker, which is one of the Beatitudes, is an active endeavor, one that is to be practiced in the midst of conflict. There may be nothing in this world that requires more fortitude (i.e., courage), which is one of the Seven Gifts of the Spirit, than being a peacemaker.

In today's Gospel, the disciples tell Jesus, after hearing what he tells them in the preceding four verses, which culminates in these words: "I came from the Father and have come into the world. Now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father" (John 16:28), that now they "get it," the light has come on. They tell Jesus that now they understand clearly who he is, why he came, and where he is going. Their answer seems to carry with it the implication that, as a result of their "getting it," they will act accordingly. With his initial response - "Do you believe now?" - Jesus clearly chides them before letting them know that do not, in fact, "get it." The good news is their "getting it" is not what matters most.

When push-comes-to-shove, Jesus tells his newly confident followers, they will run away and abandon him. Despite their abandonment, he will not be left alone. He is never alone because the Father is with him always. The Lord goes on to say that he will not be left alone as a result of their running away from him and because of this they "might have peace in me" (John 16:32). In other words, their catastrophic failure to stand with Jesus will not rob them of peace. Jesus gives them peace by giving them himself, by their being "in" him, or, conversely, he being "in" them. The courage to which Jesus summons them is not courage in themselves, or courage that results from their own noble intentions and resulting brave actions, but the courage that comes from knowing Jesus has conquered the world, including their self-deception, duplicity, and myopia-induced cowardice.

Just as the Father is always with and "in" his only begotten Son, Jesus, the Son, desires to always be with his disciples that we might remain "in" him. He remains not just with us, but in us, by means of his Holy Spirit, who empowers us not only to do what Jesus did, but to enable us to do even greater things (John 14:2). The courage to be peacemakers in the midst of a world that is characterized by conflict, a world in which we will have trouble, a lot of which comes our way precisely for trying make peace, is not the least of these greater things.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Seeking to make some sense of the Lord's Ascension

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3.6-9; Eph 1:17-23; Matt 28:16-20

I have to admit that it bothers me a little that in the part of the United States in which I live the observance of the Lord's Ascension has been transferred from Thursday in sixth week of Easter to what would normally be the Seventh Sunday of Easter. Part of what bothers me is that this transfer throws off what might be called our "liturgical arithmetic." According to Acts 1:3 - Jesus "presented himself alive to [the apostles] by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God." As the beginning of the footnote to this verse in the New American Bible puts it: "Appearing to them during forty days: Luke considered especially sacred the interval in which the appearances and instructions of the risen Jesus occurred and expressed it therefore in terms of the sacred number forty (Dt 8:2)." The so-called "Gospel of the 40 Days," during which Jesus imparted to his apostles much more about the kingdom of God is very important to Christian tradition. Be that as it may, the Ascension of the Lord is an important observance. As my pastor pointed out last evening at the Vigil Mass, perhaps the transfer allows more Christians to participate in this important liturgical celebration.

I am always fascinated by Luke's account of Jesus' Ascension with which he begins the second volume of his two-volume work. Volume two is called "The Acts of the Apostles," or "Acts" for short. Acts is sometimes referred to as "the Gospel of the Holy Spirit." There are three aspects of the Lord's Ascension according to Luke that each year give me much to ponder. The first is that despite now being witnesses to Jesus' resurrection and receiving instruction from the risen Lord over the course of forty days, his disciples still ask Jesus, just prior to his Ascension, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" Old ideas, our human preconceptions, die hard. It is clear that Jesus' disciples, despite all they've been through, are still looking for this-worldly deliverance. What they are hoping for is a king, like David, to unite Israel, overthrow their Roman oppressors by force, and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel as a major player in the ancient Levant. Given that this weekend is Memorial Day weekend, we can see this same kind of religious nationalism prevailing in the minds of too many Christians in these United States. Don't get me wrong, it is right and good that we honor those who died serving our country. As we do so, we should also ruminate on the ruinous nature of war, which rumination should cause to consider whether chest-thumping bellicosity befits a country that often trumpets itself as a Christian nation, or at least a nation that is largely made of citizens who profess Christianity. But our country is not the kingdom of God on earth. What we might ask about the apostles, we should ask of ourselves, "When will we ever learn?"

The second aspect of Luke's account of Jesus' Ascension that strikes me is related to the first. This aspect is what the two men in white garments, who are not up in the air with Jesus, but who, according to Luke, "stood beside" the awe-stricken disciples (Acts 1:10). Those who witnessed Jesus' Ascension did what you and I would do- stood there looking at the Lord ascending in slack-jawed wonder. As they stand there looking up in awe, these two men in white garments, standing beside them, say, "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven" (Acts 1:11). I have taken to describing this as "leveling their gaze." You see, as disciples of Jesus, our job is not to inhabit another world, but to fully engage this one. Jesus will come back and bring heaven to earth. In the end, we will not go to live in the sky. Christian doctrine holds that the earth will be renewed and restored; it will be fashioned into an eternal paradise.

Jesus is resurrected, which means he has a physical body. Like Jesus, we, too, will be resurrected and have physical bodies. Physical bodies inhabit space and so require a place to be. The place God has made for us is this earth. Just as Luke tells us, via the two men dressed in white standing beside those whose gaze is fixed on the sky, that "This Jesus...will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven," the inspired author of Revelation conveys
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Rev 21:1-2)
The third aspect of Luke's account of Jesus' Ascension that I find myself pondering each year is when the Lord himself tells his followers, "But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). He even tells them that, in addition to being baptized with water, in the manner of the baptism Jesus himself received at the hands of John the Baptist, "in a few days you will be baptized with the holy Spirit" (Acts 1:5). Bearing witness to what they have experienced first-hand, being what Pope Francis has called "missionary disciples," is what they are to be engaged doing, not staring up at the sky. The Holy Spirit is given them to empower them to be witnesses to what they have seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled. The Greek word translated as "witnesses" in this passage is martyrs. Jesus' promise to baptize them with the Spirit, of course, points toward the first Christian Pentecost that occurs in the next chapter of Luke's work. It was at the first Christian Pentecost that Jesus' promise to send the Holy Spirit as his post-resurrection presence in them, among them, and through them is fulfilled. Just as the Lord's Ascension occurred forty days after his resurrection, Pentecost is fifty days afterwards.

The Ascension of Christ, by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, ca. 1745-1750

We hear Luke's account of Jesus' Ascension in our first reading from Acts, in today's Gospel we hear Matthew's account of the same event. There is an unsurprising consonance between these two accounts. Matthew, too, points to mission and hands on what we call "the Great Commission." The Great Commission consists of going forth to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Jesus has] commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20a). They are sent to do this with the Lord's assurance that he is with them "always, until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20b). Again, how he remains with them is by means of the Holy Spirit, who is the mode of Jesus' presence until he returns.

All of this sounds very glorious, extremely enticing. I think often the enticing part stems from something similar to what the apostles expressed when, even after forty days of post-resurrection instruction, they asked Jesus when he was going to fulfill their preconception, which was a misconception, of what he, to their minds, as the Messiah, should fulfill. To put it succinctly, the glory of the Lord is something very different from the glory of this world. This is something Jesus shows us in the Incarnation from start to finish. He was conceived by a girl who was a nobody, living in a remote village in Roman-occupied Israel. In Jesus' day, the Jews were a marginal people. Whatever historical glory Israel had ever achieved was centuries in the past, a time to which Jews of Jesus' day, as his disciples question just prior to his Ascension demonstrates, looked back upon longingly. We might characterize this with a slogan, "Make Israel Great Again!" Jesus was a marginal person among a marginal people. No doubt, Jesus' was a disappointment to many as Messiah. His claim to messiahship, especially given what he said being Messiah consisted of, was likely ridiculous to many others from the get-go. In addition to all that, as the inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews points out (see Hebrews 7:12-16 ff) and then seeks to explain, Jesus was not even a member of the priestly tribe of Levi, but was of the non-priestly tribe of Judah. While it may not seem an obvious conclusion, what all this points us toward is- being a disciple of Jesus first leads you to the Cross before leading you beyond it.

In order to make Christian disciples, you must first be one. In this regard, actions speak louder than words. How you are doing loving your neighbor, assisting the poor and needy, the widow, the orphan, the mentally ill, the seemingly hopelessly addicted, in working to make that upside-down reality Jesus taught as the reign of God a reality, despite the worldly chances for success? Being a Christian is not adherence to a set of clearly defined propositions, let alone a list of rules, like the 613 mitzvot, a list of prescriptions (dos) and proscriptions (donts), strict adherence to which makes one holy, as the Pharisees, like Paul before his conversion, believed. Being a Christian means living according to the Spirit. What is the life of a Spirit-filled person characterized by? Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, awe in the presence of the Lord (which does not consist, according to Luke, in standing there staring at the sky), Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Generosity, Gentleness, Faithfulness, Modesty, Self-control, Chastity.