Sunday, May 31, 2020


Readings: Acts 2:1-11; Ps 104:1.24.29-30.31.34; 1 Cor 12:3b-7.12-13; John 20:19-23

After Easter, Pentecost is the most important observance of the liturgical year. Since it brings people from different places, languages, and cultures together, Pentecost has traditionally been viewed as the Holy Spirit’s undoing the confounding of languages and the resultant separation of peoples at Babel. If you remember, this was the result of their attempt to build a tower reaching to heaven.1

As with the Incarnation, at Pentecost God comes down. In the end, we will not “go up” to some imaginary heaven. Rather, as the Book of Revelation dramatically shows, the City of God will come down from heaven and the reign of God will be established on the earth forever.2

Because Pentecost marks bringing people together in the Church, the Body of Christ, made up of people of different languages, races, genders, and cultures, it seems fitting to bring up the subject of race and racism, which seems to plague our nation these days. Racism manifests in a multitude of ways. Among these ways are Antisemitism, White Supremacy, the animus shown toward Hispanic people that very often isn’t too far below the surface of most anti-immigrant rhetoric. Institutional racism is a reality but one that is invisible to most of us not directly affected by it.

Cutting to the chase, we watched in horror as a policeman, employing unapproved methods, killed yet another black man before our eyes. The name of the man who was killed is George Floyd. Because we are Christians, George Floyd is our brother by virtue of our common Baptism. George Floyd was affectionately known by many as “Big Floyd.”3

Before moving to Minneapolis for a job through a Christian work program, Floyd labored to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of peace, to the hard-pressed third ward of Houston, his hometown. He heeded Jesus’s Great Commission, which we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel, by seeking to make disciples. He worked to bring the Gospel to young men in the Cuney Homes housing project, known popularly as “the Bricks.” A focus of Floyd’s ministry, in his own words, was “breaking the cycle of violence.”4

Now, I am not seeking to automatically canonize George Floyd. He certainly had his troubles. What I am saying is that he was a Christian. By the witness of his life, we know he was not Christian in some nominal sense. He was a disciple of Jesus. Discipleship can never be incidental or accidental. Christian discipleship is always intentional.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Minneapolis and several other cities, including Salt Lake City, which is currently under curfew, erupted into protests that turned into riots. As Christians, we know that violence only breeds violence. As Bishop Shelton Fabre, one of the few black Catholic bishops in the United States insisted in the wake of George Floyd’s death: racism is a life issue because people are losing their lives because of it.5 In another statement, seven U.S. bishops insisted: “We cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities and yet still try to profess to respect every human life.”6 While, as Christians, we are committed to non-violence, we can’t be passive in the face of injustice. As Martin Luther King, Jr. and others showed us, non-violence is not pacifism.

But what to make of all this? I suppose each one of us has our own opinion. But as followers of Jesus Christ, we should all have in common the desire to break the world’s cycle of violence. We do that by committing ourselves to work for justice. One way to work for justice is seeking racial reconciliation. This begins with doing the hard work of confronting ourselves, becoming aware of certain attitudes, oftentimes deeply ingrained. It also involves listening to people different from ourselves, whose experiences in our culture and society differ from our own. As Pope Saint Paul VI insisted: “If you want Peace, work for justice.”7

Pope Francis calls on Catholics to create a “culture of encounter” in the societies in which we live.8 It was just such an encounter that is at the heart of Pentecost. Jews traveled from nations all over the known world to observe Shavuot. Shavuot in Greek is “Pentecost.” It is called Pentecost because this festival occurs fifty days after Passover, just as Christian Pentecost falls fifty days after Easter. On Shavuot to this day Jews celebrate God giving the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. The people say in response to hearing the Gospel in their own languages:
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs…9
More than a digression, reflecting on the sin of racism and how the Gospel helps us overcome it is most fitting for this celebration. What we need to realize today as we celebrate Pentecost is founding the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost is reckoned to be the Church’s “birthday”), the risen Christ seeks to unite all peoples in and through the Church, making her “the universal sacrament of salvation.”10 In the Book of Revelation, John sees
a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation comes from* our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb”11
It is this new reality that Saint Paul pointed to when he wrote to the Christians in ancient Corinth: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”12

It is faith in Christ, which prompts Baptism. Baptism and Eucharist constitute our Christian DNA. Faith gives birth to hope. What is it we hope for? We hope for the reign of God to be fully established. When our hope turns into love, then God’s reign breaks through into the here and now, the future appears in the present. This is precisely why God gives us the great gift of faith, not for some individualized, singular salvation. Following Christ requires you to love your neighbor, to forgive those who trespass against you, to pray for and do good to your enemies, and work for justice. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor.13 You cannot be a racist and a Christian.

Because of Jesus Christ, membership in God’s people is not a matter of race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, or location. Membership, which is the work of the Spirit, is determined by faith in Christ alone. Inherent to this faith is a commitment to follow Jesus. This means not merely “preaching” the Good News but being good news by the way you live your life. And so, with great hope let us pray: “Come Holy Spirit and renew the face of the earth!”

1 Genesis 11:1-9.
2 Revelation 21:1-2.
3 Christianity Today, “George Floyd Left a Gospel Legacy in Houston.”
4 Ibid.
5 Catholic News Service, “Louisiana bishop: ‘People are losing their lives because of racism.’”
6 America, “Bishops call racism a ‘real and present danger’ in aftermath of death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.”
7 Pope Paul VI, Message for V World Day of Peace, 1 January 1972.
8 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, sec. 220.
9 Acts 2:9-11.
10 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium], sec. 48.
11 Revelation 7:9-10.
12 1 Corinthians 12:13.
13 1 John 4:20.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Ascension of the Lord

In many dioceses of the Western United States, including my own- the Diocese of Salt Lake City, Ascension has been transferred from Thursday in the Sixth Week of Easter to what would normally be the Seventh Sunday of Easter. I'll tell you upfront, this is not a post lamenting that transfer. Heaven knows I have weighed-in several times on that issue.

As I mentioned in my homily last Sunday concerning Pentecost, the fruit of the third of the Glorious Mysteries of our Blessed Mother's Rosary- the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost- is God's love for us. In Saint John's Last Supper Discourse, from whence comes the bulk of our Sunday Gospel readings during this Easter season (Year A of the three-year Sunday lectionary), Jesus tells his closest disciples: "But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you" (John 16:7).

Especially in light of the reality that the Holy Spirit has never been absent, why does Jesus say it is necessary to depart for the Spirit to come? It seems prudent to note that in the first instance it is a mystery. This means that any and all attempts to answer this question fall short of the mystery. But this doesn't mean we must pass over this singular aspect of the multi-dimensional Paschal Mystery in silence. One way I have come to think about this takes as necessary premises that after his resurrection, the Holy Spirit becomes the mode of Christ's resurrection presence in and for the world, which means that the Church, the ekklesia, the assembly of God in Christ, animated- empowered- by the Holy Spirit, becomes the sacrament of salvation in and for the world.

Getting to the point, by becoming present through the Holy Spirit, the risen Lord can be closer to us than if he were "here" and standing "over there," as it were. At least in the context of the Gospel according to John, again, during the Last Supper Discourse, Jesus uses a lot of 'in" language: "I am in the Father." "The Father is in me." "If you have seen me you have seen the Father." Perhaps looking forward to Pentecost- but maybe not from a historical-critical perspective- Jesus tells his close followers that after they have received "the Spirit of truth" they "will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you" (John 14:17.20).

My reason for drawing attention to Jesus's in language in the Last Supper Discourse is to make the point that how the risen Lord comes to be in us is by the power of the Holy Spirit. This, of course, brings us almost reflexively to sacraments and to the Eucharist, the sacrament of sacraments, the Most Blessed Sacrament, in particular. In the Eucharist, Jesus comes to be "in" us by the proclamation of the word, which happens aurally. The word of God is very important. So important, in fact, that without it the Eucharist is incomprehensible. This is a major theme in the Emmaus episode from Saint Luke's Gospel (see Luke 24:13-35). Then comes our reception of Holy Communion, which happens orally. Ultimately, sacraments, even when properly understood as symbolic signs (sacraments are signs and symbols or they are nothing at all), are pretty concrete.

The Ascension, by Benjamin West, 1801

One advantage, especially in these times, is that the vast majority of us- certainly anyone reading this- has access to God's word- the Sacred Scriptures. We need to remember, especially now, we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from God's mouth. As no less than a Doctor of the Church, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, averred: "No doubt it is a great grace to receive the sacraments; but when God does not permit it, it is good nonetheless, everything is a grace." Perhaps consider learning how to "do" a Liturgy of the Word with your family during these times. The Church's lectionary is a great treasure, one too little cherished.

It is by the Holy Spirit's illumination that the word of God comes not only to inform us but to shape and form us. From the opening verses of sacred writ, we come to see that God's word is creative. He spoke everything into existence. We need to let God "make" us through the power of his divine word. This is why there is no reason for us to stand around gazing up at the sky (see Acts 1:11).

By his ascending to the Father, the Son, our Lord and Savior, can be nearer to us, not farther away. To receive the Holy Spirit, then, is to level your gaze. By leveling your gaze, you live as a Spirit-filled disciple of Jesus Christ. Inherent to being a disciple of Jesus Christ being a missionary, one who evangelizes, a person who seeks to spread the good news. Is this not the gist of our Gospel reading today? In today's Gospel we hear again the so-called "Great Commission," in which our risen Lord bids us to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). The good news is spread primarily by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. This requires diakonia, serving others in selfless and often inconvenient ways.

Whether Saint Francis of Assisi said it or not (probably not), it is important to preach the Gospel by using words only when we must. As someone noted on "Catholic" Twitter this week: "the positive apologetic is the christian life of loving one's neighbor, and that's insanely hard." The Spirit is given us to make it, not easy, but possible, even to the point of forgiving us when we fail. After all, "everything is a grace."

Because in and through Christ everything is a grace we can have hope. By accepting everything as a grace we come to realize that hope is not optimism. Rather, we learn through experience, even if sometimes painfully, that hope lies beyond optimism. Hope is the fruit of the second of the Glorious Mysteries of the Virgin Mary's Holy Rosary, which invites us to reflect on the Ascension of the Lord; an unfathomable mystery.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Monday Sixth Week of Easter

Readings: Acts 16:11-15; Ps 149:1b-6.9b; John 15:26-16:4a

It is important to make yourself a dwelling place for God. How you do this is quite simple: through prayer. You extend hospitality to God, like Lydia, extended it to Paul and his companion, by daily inviting God in.

When praying, you need to spend at least as much time in silence and you spend talking, if not more. Silence is God’s first language. As in any conversation, how can you listen if you’re constantly talking? Especially for people in advanced societies today, silence is difficult and uncomfortable. But like any spiritual practice, you have to stick with it until it becomes easier and more comfortable. Persistence is the path of fruitfulness.

Not only is the Holy Spirit the mode of God’s communication with us but because “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” Paul notes in his Letter to the Romans, the Spirit “intercedes [for us] with inexpressible groanings.”1

Only those who make themselves a dwelling place for God can convincingly testify to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who strengthens us when the inevitable trials start so “that you may not fall away.”2 Then as now, falling away is a real danger.

I am convinced that one of the biggest dangers for Christians today is not the usually facile “new atheism" or simply going from belief to unbelief in single bound. Because it is not certain knowledge, faith implies, or least easily accommodates, doubt. A great danger is getting caught up in bad religion, then realizing it for what it is, projecting that onto everything else, rejecting it, and walking away.

What do I mean by “bad religion”? I am referring specifically referring to the phenomenon of “internet Catholicism.” This phenomenon presents not only a false magisterium but many false teachers, whose sole claim to authority, be they priests or lay people, is their internet audience. They operate on the premise, even if unspoken (though many are increasingly bold), that their authority supersedes that of bishops and even the Pope. This is what Saint John Henry Newman called “the Protestant principle.”3 Oddly, many Protestants today show more respect for and receptivity to Catholic (catholic) teaching than the purveyors of "internet Catholicism." Being sectarians, these purveyors are the antithesis of what it means to be Catholic.

St Paul Meeting Lydia of Thyatira, by Edward Irvine Halliday

These self-anointed authorities presume to teach universally on all matters of faith and morals. They set themselves up as alternatives to authentic teaching authority in the Church, not just that of the Pope, but of bishops and duly appointed pastors. They expatiate on everything from the proper way to receive Holy Communion to whether bishops in this time of pandemic can and should restrict participation in Mass for the safety of their flocks. The activities of such people are analogous to those of the Judaizers with whom Paul was frequently forced to contend.

If you’re following the teaching of someone on the internet that is at odds with the teaching of your bishop, who is a Successor of the Apostles, a member of the College of Bishops in communion with the Pope, then you can be quite sure you’ve wandered from the path. In doing so, you are putting yourself at the mercy of wolves.

One thing that seems to unite these self-appointed pontiffs is their dislike of Pope Francis, especially his determination to tackle Pharisaical legalism within the Church. Rather than liberate, such legalism seeks to enslave and labors under the delusion that a person saves himself by his own righteous deeds. Eventually, many people who labor under these heavy burdens come to think “God is asking too much of me. I just can’t do it.” Here’s good news: Jesus did what God expects! Only he is capable of doing it. Jesus is our Savior.

After being burned by the flames of misplaced zealotry, a lot of people find it difficult to believe and continue practicing the faith. Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”4 Given the nearly overwhelming noise to signal ratio in our and age, it takes prayer and discernment to hear and follow the Master’s voice. It's safe to say, that the voice of authentic shepherds is gentler, less severe, not as dictatorial as those who seek to usurp authority.

If through prayer, you make yourself a dwelling place for God, it becomes easier to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd, which resonates in the voices of those duly appointed to guide his flock safely along the pilgrim path of this life.

The inspired author of Acts does not tell us what Lydia and the other women were doing on the banks of the river when Paul and his companion, who left the city of Philippi to find a place to pray on the Sabbath, encountered them. It is noted that Lydia was “a worshiper of God.”5 This likely means she was a Jewish proselyte, meaning one who was in the process of converting to Judaism, or perhaps a God-fearer, meaning a Gentile who, while not seeking to convert, recognized the God of Israel as the one true God and worshiped accordingly.

Therefore, it is probable that Lydia could receive the good news of Jesus Christ because she understood his Jewish context and recognized him, through Paul’s preaching, as the anticipated Messiah. This can be nothing other than the work of the Holy Spirit.

1 Romans 8:26.
2 John 16:1.
3 Mark E. Powell, Papal Infallibility: A Protestant Evaluation of an Ecumenical Issue, 87.
4 John 10:27.
5 Acts 16:14.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Year A Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 8:5-8.14-17; Ps 66:1-7.16.20; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21

Believe it or not, dear friends, in this oddest of years we are already celebrating the Sixth Sunday of Easter. This means that we are preparing for that major feast, which comes second only to Easter: Pentecost. Indeed, the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ after he ascended to the Father’s right hand is a major focus of today’s readings.

The fruit of the Third Glorious Mystery of the Blessed Virgin’s Rosary, which bids us to meditate on the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, is God’s love for us. In today’s Gospel reading, taken from Saint John’s Last Supper Discourse, Jesus assures his worried disciples that he will not abandon them. He tells them, “I will come to you.”1 Of course, the Spirit comes fifty days after Jesus’s resurrection on what became the first Christian Pentecost.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the Holy Spirit is the mode of Christ’s resurrection presence among us, in us, and through us. In other words, the Holy Spirit, as Jesus indicates later in the same chapter from which our Gospel today is taken, “will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you.”2 Just as the Son speaks the will of the Father, the Holy Spirit, in turn, speaks the will of the Father and the Son.

We have to tread lightly whenever we speak of commandment-keeping. We must do so because in talking about keeping the commandments it easily turns into long lists of prescriptions and proscriptions, that is, dos and donts. The Pharisees, to whom Jesus had a thing or two to say, were great at making lists of rules and, at least in their own minds, even better at keeping those rules. When we start to make such lists, we begin to speak and act as if our salvation depends on our own relative goodness, our own righteousness. Thanks be to God, it does not. If it did, there would be absolutely no reason for us to celebrate this morning.

During Saint John’s Last Supper Discourse, Jesus gives his disciples only one commandment: love one another as I have loved you.3 To keep Jesus’s commandments is to do what love requires in every situation. This requires constant prayerful discernment. To love another means to seek her/his good, even at a cost to yourself. Agape requires diakonia. Love requires selfless service. This is how you “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.”4

It has been noted that no good deed goes unpunished. Our epistle reading today bids us persist in love even when doing that means suffering for doing what is good. Never forget that the most loving and good deed in the universe was when the Lord of the universe “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”5

When we speak in our overheated times and in our hothouse American culture about the Holy Spirit, our words and minds turn to almost crazy things: speaking in tongues, writhing on the floor, laughing hysterically, staged healings, shouting, etc. Therefore, it is important to bear in mind what the inspired word of God enumerates as the gifts of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”6

This is not to dismiss belief in the miraculous, it is just to bring our expectations more in line with Sacred Scripture and Christian experience. Jesus, who seems to me to have been quite ambivalent about the miracles he performed, said that it is “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign.”7

In our first reading, Philip, reckoned by the Church to be one of the first seven deacons, demonstrates the power of the good news. By proclaiming Jesus’s resurrection and his Lordship and Messiahship, the power of the Gospel began to be made manifest as people were cured of various ailments and liberated from oppression by the enemy.

Peter and John went to Samaria to confirm the baptism of those who responded in faith to Philip’s preaching. They conferred on them, by the laying on of hands, the same Spirit by which Philip, who, like Stephen and the other five men set apart, was filled. This brought “great joy” to their city.8

Philip, who fled Jerusalem to avoid persecution, was able to give the people of the city of Samaria “an explanation” for his hope.9 Presumably, as with his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, he did so with gentleness and reverence, as one would expect of a person filled with the Holy Spirit.10

During this season of Easter, perhaps more this year than ever, “We are,” in the words of Saint Augustine from a discourse on the Psalms,
all urging one another to praise the Lord, and all thereby doing what each of us urges the other to do. But see that your praise comes from your whole being; in other words, see that you praise God not with your lips and voices alone, but with your minds, your lives and all your actions11
We are made from love in order to love. In reality, our lives have no other purpose. Our words and actions, therefore, should flow from loving God by loving one another. When people consider the community of Saint Olaf Parish, they should come away marveling: “See… how they love one another.”12

1 John 14:18.
2 John 14:26.
3 John 13:34.
4 1 Peter 3:15.
5 Philippians 2:8.
6 Galatians 5:22-23.
7 Matthew 16:4.
8 Acts 6:3; Acts 8:8.
9 1 Peter 3:15.
10 See Acts 8:26-40; 1 Peter 3:16.
11 Liturgy of the Hours, Volume II, Office of Readings, Saturday, Fifth Week of Easter, Second Reading, 757-758.
12 Tertullian, Apology, chap. 39.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Friday Fifth Week of Easter

Readings: Acts 15:22-31; Ps 57:8-10.12; John 15:12-17

Today’s readings highlight the tension between law and grace. Bringing it a bit more down-to-earth, our readings demonstrate the tension between faith and works. In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples that he has chosen them and not vice-versa. We make a mistake when we say faith is a choice. We also make a mistake when we reduce faith to mere belief. While faith cannot be compelled, it requires a certain openness and cooperation on our part.

A person of faith is impelled by the love of Christ.1 Faith, like hope and love, which together make-up the theological virtues, is a gift from God. While faith is our response to God’s initiative toward us, it can neither be imposed by God nor earned by us.

Jesus choosing his followers is an act of love. God’s initiative toward us can be summed up in one word: love. “God is love.”2 And because God is love, the divine initiative is nothing other than God’s offer of God’s very self through the person of the Son, Jesus Christ.

By offering himself to us, which he does in a deeply profound way in the Eucharist, Jesus is present in us so, by the power of the Holy Spirit, he can be present through us to others. Isn’t this the point of our reception of Holy Communion? If it is, then it becomes clear that communion is not an end-in-itself. In other words, communion is not a “Jesus n' me” moment. Rather, communion makes us, together, Christ's Body. As a result, it is the ultimate “Jesus and we” experience.

What is the result of being “chosen” by Jesus? We are chosen to “bear fruit that will remain.”3 If hope is the flower of faith, then love- the kind referred by the Greek word agape- is its fruit. Agape is self-sacrificing or selfless love. It is demonstrated by acts that show we put others before ourselves.

There are more ways to lay down your life than to die a martyr’s death. You lay down your life by performing acts of lovingkindness. I think it’s important to note that, while certainly more intimate, the word “friend” in this passage from Saint John’s Gospel refers to much the same thing as “neighbor” in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke).

Love liberates, it does not enslave or seek to bind with all manner of rules. While faith without works is dead, works without love are also lifeless. Love makes faith fruitful through works.

Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles comes from a section devoted to the so-called Council of Jerusalem. The reason for this council was to deal with the crisis precipitated by Paul bringing many Gentiles into the Church. What was to be decided was the relationship of non-Jewish converts to the Law.

While, in the end, this council of the primitive Church issued some rules, let's remember that at the core of Jesus’s teaching is the truth that keeping rules cannot save you. Let’s face it, we’re not very good at keeping rules. Sooner or later we chafe under their tyranny and often wind up rebelling. It's a good thing being a Christian has never been a matter of keeping rules.

More problematic than our tendency to push-back against rules is our disposition to forget the reason for the rule. In a healthy sense, rules are a means of achieving ends. During the pandemic, for example, the reason to follow government-issued restrictions and guidelines is to slow the spread of the virus, to “flatten the curve,” so-to-speak, and keep hospitals from being overwhelmed with acute cases of COVID-19. An additional benefit of this is that we can perhaps prevent some people from contracting the virus until after there is a vaccine and/or there are better treatment options.

We can become so focused on the rule that we lose our senses and the end for which the rule was created in the first place. The end of the Law and the rules for living it is to love God with your entire being by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. What Jesus seemed to take issue with most of the time was mistaking the means for the end.

Regarding the rule not to eat meat sacrificed to idols, it becomes clear in Paul’s letters that this is not an absolute prohibition. Sure, a Christian would never sacrifice to an idol, but meat is meat. The apostle’s stipulation was that in eating meat sacrificed to idols you don’t scandalize someone whose faith is weak.4

The result of getting means and ends backward concerning the Law is to allow the Law to make you an enemy of God and a terror to other people. This is exactly what Jesus is getting at in this rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves5
Truly good works are not done out some sense of obligation externally imposed. Rather, good works are motivated by love, by the kind of love Jesus has for us. Because love is the fruit of faith, if we love as Jesus loves, we will bear fruit that remains throughout eternity. Faith works by love.6

1 2 Corinthians 5:14.
2 1 John 4:8.16.
3 John 15:16.
4 1 Corinthians 8:7-13.
5 Matthew 23:15 RSV.
6 Galatians 5:6.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Repentance requires an awareness that you are loved

I don't mind admitting that I often have a difficult time looking on the lighter side of life. This is not to say that I don't have a sense of humor. I do. Humor, too, can be heavy or light. Frankly, I usually prefer heavier humor to the lighter stuff. I also have a difficult time just shaking things off, as it were, putting them into perspective and moving on. To a degree, this is just how I am built, part of who I am. Maybe the reason I am kind of stocky is to carry a heavy load.

Being built for heaviness enables me to appreciate those who live more lightly. Far from resenting such people or denigrating them, I admire them and, at times, even envy their seeming ability to live lightly. I sometimes find myself desiring to live with a lighter touch. Once in a while, for a time, perhaps for a day or two, I succeed.

Introspection, a certain amount of which is necessary for anyone in order to have and maintain a healthy self-awareness, can go from being useful to destructive very quickly. I don't mind admitting that, like many people who tend to view life as a heavy load, I am prone to too much introspection. I have to say, at least for me (this is such an important caveat for so many things!), rather than veer away from meaningful self-examination to keep myself from excessive introspection, I find it helpful to engage in it fruitfully.

The most fruitful way I have found to do this is by engaging in a very old and proven method of self-examination: the Examen. It is the Society of Jesus, popularly known as the Jesuits, who practice and teach the practice of Examen, along with some other useful spiritual practices, to others. Since it is not the purpose of this post to teach the Examen, I will point you to two things that I have found most helpful in both practicing and teaching the Examen. The first is Jesuit Fr. Dennis Hamm's "Rummaging for God: Praying Backwards through Your Day." I distribute this whenever I teach about practicing the Examen. The second is a daily podcast: "The 'Examen' with Fr. James Martin."

As I never tire of asserting that spirituality consists of spiritual practices. The spiritual practices that constitute a spirituality are spiritual disciplines. Disciplines are not ends in themselves but means to the end of loving God with your entire being by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. Another spiritual discipline of which I am a big proponent is lectio divina, which, like the Examen, is fruitful and "doable" on a daily or nearly everyday basis. Both are very simple and easy to learn. What is perhaps most lovely about these time-proven practices is that they require healthy doses of silence.

When we consider what we're living through and our inability to gather and worship together, practicing lectio divina and the Examen, along with spiritual practices, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, at least the so-called "hinge" hours (i.e., Morning and Evening Prayer), along with popular devotions such as the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet, become very important lest you start to feel adrift. For those who undertake these disciplines, I trust that their importance will not fade when the pandemic is over.

If this post is not about the mechanics of praying the Examen then what is it about? It is about the need to engage in the Examen deeply aware that God loves you. Otherwise, the Examen can turn into the unhealthy practice of self-shaming that can lead to self-loathing. To that end, I found this insight by Rebecca DeYoung most helpful: ​
reflec­tion on the vices is one part of the prac­tice of self-exam­i­na­tion, but that prac­tice must first and always be framed by the love of God, which stead­fast­ly holds us. Pro­ceed in the con­fi­dence that when we con­fess our sin­ful nature and die to sin, it is only a pre­lude to God’s cre­ation of a beau­ti­ful new life in us
It is very easy to reduce myself to my mistakes and my vices. When I do this God's love starts to become incomprehensible. I get stuck in the mire of shame. Rejecting God's love makes it difficult if not impossible for me to love others. When I reject or ignore God's love, my ability to love others erodes. "In this is love," we read in 1 John 4, "not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins." Hence, it is important to begin my self-examination, which also includes reflecting on the good things of the day, in the knowledge and with the assurance of God's love trusting that in and through Christ Jesus I am always already forgiven.

Brian Morykon stated this well: "When sin is the focus of our self-examination, despair follows. But when we, guided by the Holy Spirit, look honestly at our sin while maintaining focus on Jesus—on his presence and love toward us—genuine repentance and freedom follows." Genuine repentance, which consists of so much more than contrition for sin, is true freedom. I find practicing the Examen with God's love foremost in mind a very fruitful discipline. It is a way Christ relieves me of the heavy yoke and replaces it with his lighter one.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Monday Fifth Week of Easter

Readings: Acts 14:-18; Ps 115:1-4.15-16; John 14:21-26

In our first reading, taken from Acts, the witness of Paul and Barnabas is irrepressible. Despite the threat of violence against them, they could not help but continue to proclaim the good news to others. Our reading also puts an aspect of early Christianity into bold relief: that the good news spread more easily in cities than in the countryside. In fact, it was in the countryside of the ancient Roman Empire that paganism maintained a stronghold for a number of centuries. It was in the urban centers of the ancient empire that the early Church took root and began to flourish.

What is interesting to note in this reading is that even after Paul and Barnabas tell the villagers emphatically they are not Zeus and Hermes, the people of the village remain determined to make a sacrifice to them. It is also important to point out that even after the miraculous healing Paul accomplished, the villagers were not converted en masse. I think this demonstrates how ineffectual miracles usually are in bringing people to faith.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, in his sublime novel, The Brothers Karmazov asserted:
miracles are never a stumbling-block to the realist…The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact… Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith1
Of course, the villagers in our reading from Acts are not modern skeptical realists. They are ancient, rural pagans. But like the modern realist and, indeed, all human beings, they labor under their preconceptions. Our preconceptions bound what we conceive as possible, desirable, right and proper. A preconception, you might say, is a conceptual rut in which you are stuck. Christians are certainly not exempt from having preconceptions. Many of these preconceptions hamper and handicap our mission to evangelize, impeding the spread of the Good News.

Perhaps nothing brings the preconceptions of many Christians to the fore like Jesus’s insistence in today’s Gospel on keeping his commandments. When it comes to commandment-keeping, our tendency is almost always to start making lists of things we must not do and things we must do. In all honesty, many of us never make it to the list of things we must do because we become so caught up in all the proscriptions, all the perceived prohibitions. This turns the good news in to the great "NO!"

Priest of Zeus Sacrificing to Saint Paul, by Raphael

Strict adherence to what many people mistakenly believe to be the checklist of holiness, results in a gloomy, stern, self-righteousness that is devoid of the Spirit. Instead of life-giving, it is soul-sucking. Such an approach smacks of the very thing Jesus constantly challenged and rebuked during his public ministry. For people who practice and advocate for this, the Lord becomes one who enslaves instead of the one who sets us free. In his Letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul exhorts concerning this rule-bound view of discipleship: “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”2

In what, then, does keeping Jesus’s commandments consist? In the chapter before the one from which our Gospel reading for today is taken, which is also from John’s Last Supper Discourse, the Lord says to his disciples:
I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another3
In response to Judas’s question about God revealing himself only to the chosen few, Jesus says that the Father will dwell in the one who keeps his commandment: the commandment to love. And so, it is by loving others as Jesus loves us, which is not easy, that God is revealed and Jesus is made present. This sounds lovely. But in the nitty-gritty of life, loving others as God loves us through Christ is very hard.

How do we love others? By forgiving those who’ve trespassed against us. By loving and praying for our enemies. Remember, an enemy is someone who actively opposes you, someone who is hostile toward you, speaks of ill of you, seeks ways to “get” you, plots your demise, etc. In other words, someone who, for whatever reason(s), gives you a hard time and who often seeks to make your life miserable. It’s important to briefly note that there is a difference between bearing a wound and bearing a grudge. Love is what prevents wounds from turning into grudges.

Our challenge as followers of Jesus, who died and rose for love of us, is to make ourselves neighbors and not enemies. To be a Christian, your neighborliness must extend even to your enemies. Talk about overcoming a preconception! In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus himself teaches:
if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?4
Our unwillingness to live in this new way puts us in a far worse state than than the well-meaning pagans who wanted to sacrifice oxen to Paul and Barnabas.

1 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book I, Chapter 5, “The Elders.”
2 Galatians 5:1.
3 John 13:34-35.
4 Matthew 5:46-47.


Readings: Acts 2:1-11; Ps 104:1.24.29-30.31.34; 1 Cor 12:3b-7.12-13; John 20:19-23 After Easter, Pentecost is the most important observan...