Sunday, March 29, 2015

Year B Palm/Passion Sunday

Readings: Isa 50:4-7; Ps 22:8-9.17-20.23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Mark 14:1-15:47

We call this Sunday, which marks the beginning of Holy Week, both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. It is right and good that we call it both because it highlights the movement we enact in this liturgy- from revering Jesus, hailing Him with “Hosannas” while waving palm branches and acknowledging Him as Messiah, the heir of King David, if not quite yet as Lord, to reviling Him and calling for His crucifixion. This serves to highlight a reality described well by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

But it is only by His crucifixion and resurrection , through what we might call the inverse property of redemption, that the Jesus definitively demonstrated His Lordship, that is, His divinity.



It is important to point out that, in the Gospels, those who hail Jesus and those who revile Him and call for His death are not the same people. Pope Benedict, in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection noted that all four Evangelists are clear that those clamoring for the Lord’s death are not “the Jewish people as such” (185). As the long, sad history of Christian anti-Semitism amply demonstrates, such an understanding is vitally important.

We know, not only from Scripture and Church teaching, or even from the glorious witness of the saints, but from our own experience that we bear our share of the responsibility for Jesus’ cruel and painful death. Hence, I try to be ever mindful that when Jesus forgave those nailing Him to the Cross, He forgave me. When considering this convicting reality, it is important never to lose sight of the inverse property of redemption, which teaches us that love is stronger than death.

Just what is the inverse property of redemption? It is nothing other than this: without His resurrection, Jesus’ crucifixion is just another appalling instance of man’s inhumanity to man, which can only be lamented and mourned - AND - in order to be resurrected, Jesus had to die.

Yesterday was the 500th anniversary of the birth of that great Doctor of the Church, the Carmelite mystic, St Teresa of Ávila. In contemplating her life and witness we are faced with the fact that she suffered much, even after her profound encounter with the risen Lord. Once St Teresa complained to the Lord in prayer about the hostility she faced. When Jesus told her, “Teresa, that's how I treat my friends,” she replied, “No wonder you have so few.” This reality is something most of us, including myself, find disconcerting, despite the fact the Lord tells us that to follow Him is to be led to the Cross.

Let’s not forget the words of Jesus from last Sunday’s Gospel:
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me (John 12:24-26a)
Crucifixion, by Graham Sutherland, 1946


In the midst of your own pain and suffering, how often have you cried out, like Jesus on Cross, using the words like those found at the beginning of the twenty-second Psalm - “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Like our Lord on the Cross, do not forget that this Psalm, as well as your own suffering, at least when you unite it to Christ's, are occasions of hope, not despair, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. We read further on in Psalm 22: God “has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, [He] did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out” (25). The proof that God hears the cries of Eve's “poor, banished children" is His Son’s resurrection from the dead.

My brothers and sisters, our take-away today is simple: if we would rise with Christ, we must die with Him. This is nothing other than to understand and live, or, in the case of our Elect, to prepare for, our Baptism into the Lord’s death and resurrection.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

St Teresa of Ávila

Today marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of St Teresa of Ávila, a Doctor of the Church. I have yet to read her autobiography, which was the catalyst for Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, to convert. In her official biography on the Holy See's website, we read that, in the summer of 1921, Edith Stein "spent several weeks in Bergzabern (in the Palatinate) on the country estate of Hedwig Conrad-Martius, another pupil of [Edmund] Husserl's. Hedwig had converted to Protestantism with her husband. One evening Edith picked up an autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila and read this book all night. 'When I had finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth.' Later, looking back on her life, she wrote: 'My longing for truth was a single prayer.'"

Just as St Paul's writing about suffering had "street cred" because he suffered so much for the sake the Lord, St Teresa knew whereof she wrote for the same reason, she suffered much, especially after her turn to the Lord, a reality most of us find disconcerting despite the fact the Lord tells us that to follow Him is to be led to the Cross.

Santa Teresa de Ávila, by François Gérard


At one point in her life, prior to her profound encounter with God, Teresa contracted malaria and became very ill. During her illness she had a seizure that left her unconscious and near death. In fact, she was thought to be dead. She awoke several days later only to discover a grave had been dug for her. This illness left her paralyzed for three years. But she was still not yet able or willing to give herself to God through prayer. Once she was given the grace of desiring to pray and the grace to turn to God in prayer, she wrote: "Prayer is an act of love, words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love."

What kept her from prayer, even for years after entering the cloister? It was a malady all too common, even in our day. She did not believe herself worthy of God's love and tender care. After she  was able to truly pray, she asserted that not praying is akin to "a baby turning from its mother's breasts, what can be expected but death?"

Let nothing disturb you.

Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices. — St Teresa


Sancta Teresa de Ávila, ora pro nobis

Friday, March 27, 2015

Praying the Holy Rosary together with intention

Today, via the blog The hermeneutic of continuity (where I went to check out a "Tour of a Carthusian cell"), I came across, in another post, a reference to an encyclical letter of Pope St John XXIII- Grata Recordatio, which he promulgated in September 1959, in advance of the month of October, traditionally the month of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Pope St John XXIII

Pope St John began Grata Recondatio by making reference to the frequent encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, which he issued in the lead up to October, exhorting the faithful to pray the Holy Rosary. Of these letters, Good Pope John wrote that they
had varied contents, but they were all very wise, vibrant with fresh inspiration, and directly relevant to the practice of the Christian life. In strong and persuasive terms they exhorted Catholics to pray to God in a spirit of faith through the intercession of Mary, His Virgin Mother, by reciting the holy rosary. For the rosary is a very commendable form of prayer and meditation. In saying it we weave a mystic garland of Ave Maria's, Pater Noster's, and Gloria Patri's. And as we recite these vocal prayers, we meditate upon the principal mysteries of our religion; the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and the Redemption of the human race are proposed, one event after another, for our consideration" (par 2)
Grata Recondatio is a very short encyclical and so easily read. In it Papa Roncalli laid out what he wanted the Church to pray for during October 1959 through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin by means of her Most Holy Rosary. Among his intentions are several that remain relevant today, including this, under the heading "False Philosophies" -
It must also be remarked that there are current today certain schools of thought and philosophy and certain attitudes toward the practical conduct of life which cannot possibly be reconciled with the teachings of Christianity. This impossibility We shall never cease from asserting in firm and unambiguous, though also calm terms. But God wishes the welfare of men and of nations! (Wis. 1:14)



And so We hope that men will set aside those sterile postulates and assumptions, hard as rock and just as inflexible, which rise from a way of thinking and acting that is infected with laicism and materialism, and that they will find a complete cure in that sound doctrine which experience makes more certain with every day that passes. We mean that doctrine which attests that God is the author of life and its laws, that He is guarantor of the rights and dignity of the human person. God then is "our refuge and our Redemption" (par 17-18)
We live in a time when false philosophies abound. One example of this is the persistent attempt to turn behaviors into "identities" and then assert that those who share a particular "identity" are part of an inchoate "community." The proliferation of these "communities" contribute to the further fragmentation of society. All of this is nothing other than ideology at work. Such attempts succeed because they promise liberation, which is a lie, as many, sadly, discover through experience. We pray and act because we love God and our neighbor and, so, we will what God wills, which is "the welfare of men and of nations!"

While I am writing about our Blessed Mother, it bears mentioning that I am currently reading Eddie Doherty's book Matt Talbot: Fighting addiction, poverty, and the turmoil of Irish life at the turn of the century, Matt leads us humbly to the Mother of God. Yes, that is the subtitle. To give you some idea of the devotion Venerable Matt Talbot had for Our Lady, Doherty relates that he slept on his bed, made of rough, unsanded planks of lumber, "with a statue of the Virgin and Child in his right arm" (69). According to Doherty, Matt "searched all over Dublin for the right [statue], and it had taken a long time find it" (69).

For a shorter take on the life and witness of Venerable Matt Talbot see my teacher and mentor, Msgr M. Francis Mannion's article from last Spring, "A patron saint for those suffering from alcoholism?"

Thursday, March 26, 2015

"Let me go boys"

Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent puts us on the threshold of Holy Week, which begins this Sunday with our celebration of Palm Sunday. At least for me, Lent is always a roller coaster. I am convinced that this is the Lord's way of showing me how mistaken I usually am about Him and His ways with me. That is a vague way of stating that, even after all these years, I can't seem to shake what I can only describe as my hyper-Pelagian upbringing, meaning, even more clearly, I can't earn His love or His approval because I always already have both. The backside, so to speak, of this realization is that I can't lose what He not only gives me so freely, one might even say He wants to give me desperately, which isn't life through Him, but life with Him and in Him, which is nothing less than to share in the life of the Blessed Trinity.

I am a firm believer, however, that it is perfectly possible to refuse what the Lord freely offers me. What He offers is nothing less than Himself. As a result, I can accept His offer of friendship or reject it. After all, love that is mandatory, as opposed to freely given, doesn't qualify as love. I try not to follow Jesus from the motivation that He will provide for me in terms of worldly well-being, comfort, or even necessarily re-assurance, but for Himself. He is not the means, but the end, my ultimate end.



Both of my long-time readers know about my great affinity for Albert Camus. L'Homme révolté (in English entitled The Rebel) is perhaps the most mature reflection of his philosophy. Camus' thought as expressed in his writing is far from systematic. Any philosophy in our age that seeks to be truthful and, at the same time, speak directly to life can't be systematic because, as experience shows us time and again, human life, my life, in a fragmented world, is not reducible to a formula.

Being a Christian is my metaphysical rebellion against the seeming absurdity of my own existence (Heidegger was wrong: Christians do not have the question, the why-ness, of being all figured out. Even on a Christian view, human existence remains mysterious).

What is the "cash" value of this? It is that if, in the end, this life is all there is and death is truly the end, Christianity should've been true and (despite there being a sense in which this makes no sense) I do not regret striving to live as a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. If Christianity, as such, turns out to be mistaken about who Jesus of Nazareth is/was, it remains true that He really graced the earth and attempted to usher in the only true revolution in human history. This does not make me either a fideist, or an irrationalist, in the least. I affirm that there are very good reasons to both believe in the triune God and the Incarnation of second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. I simply like to think of myself as someone capable of defeasible reasoning, especially when it comes to matters that preclude certainty.

All of this is my lead-up to our Friday traditio, which is The Pogues' "If I Should Fall from Grace with God." Any fall from grace, which is simply what sin is, cannot be attributed to God, whose mercy endures forever, but only to me. The fruit of the Fifth (and final) of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary (i.e., Christ's Crucifixion) is perseverance to the end, which, apart from the gift of faith, is the greatest grace of all. There is a reason, upon entering into His Passion, Jesus said to Peter, James, and John, who could not stay awake and keep watch with Him, "Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" (Mark 14:38).



It's coming up threes, boys
Keeps coming up threes, boys
Let them go down in the mud
Where the rivers all run dry

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

Today we observe the event, which happened in time and space, when the Word became flesh in the womb of Miriam of Nazareth. As one might suppose, our liturgical observance of this great mystery takes place nine months to the day before Christmas.

At least when used theologically, the term "mystery" does not mean something that is unknown and utterly unknowable. Rather, it means something we know about, if not completely, because God has revealed it to us. Hence, a mystery is not something that we are unable understand or discuss, "but rather that there is a transcendent aspect to [them] that humans cannot fully grasp" (Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today: new Explorations of Theological Interrelationships xxiii).

To gain at least a partial grasp of the transcendent aspect of the mystery we celebrate today we need look no further than St Luke's Gospel:
"Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" And the angel said to her in reply, "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God" (Luke 1:28-35)
Even though I used this in my reflection for this Solemnity last year, I do not hesitate to invoke it again: "the Incarnational Event of God becoming human… is so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma” on the world (Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology, 7).

The Annunciation, by D. Werburg Welch


Our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews not only gives us a deep insight into the reason for the Word becoming flesh, it points us to the trauma of the Cross, that traumatic(/dramatic) event through which God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit, reconciled the world to Himself "once for all" (Heb 10:10), thus showing us Who God is for us contra mundum, but only in order to ultimately be pro mundum.

Another aspect, which emerges from our Hebrews reading, one that should never be lost on us, is how necessary is Jesus' Jewishness. After all, Jesus is not only consubstantial with the Father, but He is also consubstantial with His Blessed Mother.

In his essay "The Son of God Became Human as a Jew," published in the book I previously cited (i.e., Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today), Hans Hermann Henrix pointed out,
to be meaningful, the Incarnation had to be rooted in centuries of preparation. Christ would otherwise have been like meteor that falls by chance to the earth and is devoid of any connection with human history (117)
There is but one covenant between God and humanity, which, through Christ, is extended to all in fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham in the immediate aftermath of the incident on Mount Moriah, where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his only son, Issac, at God's command: "I will bless you and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants will take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth will find blessing, because you obeyed my command" (Gen 22:17-18).

So today, like the Archangel Gabriel in the presence of the young Miriam, who was, for reasons known to God alone, "filled with grace" "from the first moment of her conception," we bow before the great mystery of the Word made flesh for us.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Beginning anew each day is grace

C.S. Lewis is probably second only to G.K. Chesterton as the most-quoted English-speaking Christian writer. There is one quote of Lewis', from his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, that, until very recently, I found discouraging and even, at times, depressing: "Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done," even if the necessity of so-doing was not lost on me entirely.

In a short time, however, I have gone from finding this discouraging to seeing it as quite hopeful. This realization came about in the best possible way- via experience. You see, there are days when I rely on Christ most heavily, from before my feet hit the floor in the morning until my head hits my pillow at night. I can't say these days are always "the best" days when viewed through the lens of everyday, worldly existence, but these are days when I don't let circumstances dictate my behavior nor compromise my peace and happiness. There are other days, which usually begin after a period of time during which I have relied on God quite heavily, where I convince myself that my need is not that great. In all honesty, I might be fine for a day or two living that way.



There comes a point during these days when I don't rely on God where I notice a separation, begin to feel, not a distance, but my tendency to ignore Him and think, "What am I doing?," but then persist in going my own way. These are dangerous days.

In the Book of Lamentations we read: "The LORD’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; They are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness" (Lam 3:22-23). The third chapter of Lamentations, where these verses are found, unlike the first two, focuses on individual, or personal, suffering. I find a part of the footnote from New American Bible Revised Edition that pertains to these verses very relevant- "In the midst of a description of suffering, the speaker offers this brief but compelling statement of hope in God’s ultimate mercy."

God is faithful, I am not. This is why I have to rely on Him each day as if nothing had yet been done. Yes, it is very often the case that I am slow to understand, but, for me, it's important to verify these things in reality through experience,

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Third Scrutiny: "Take away the stone"

Readings: Ezk 37:12-14; Ps 130:1-8; Rom 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

In the seemingly hectic swirl that ensued upon the Lord learning of the death of His friend Lazarus, at which news "Jesus wept" (John 11:35), He told Martha, Lazarus' sister, the most fundamental truth of the Christian faith: "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25-26a). He follows this revelation by asking her, "Do you believe this?" My dear Elect, this is the question Jesus asks you today.

Beliefs are strange things. We all have well-founded beliefs and we all have unfounded beliefs. Belief does not preclude doubt. In fact, dealing with doubts is indispensable for clarifying what we believe and what we ultimately cannot accept as true. There is probably no greater uncertainty we face than contemplating resurrection and life eternal when faced with the death of someone dear to us, or even when we engage in momento mori- remembering our own death. Sure, living forever sounds great, but is it true? Can it be possible, or is it merely a desperate wish? Woody Allen expressed this deepest of human longings well when he said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."

"Do you believe this?" This is the same question posed in our first reading from Ezekiel, the immediate context of which is Israel's return from exile. But how anyone and everyone comes to know that God is LORD is through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. God's Lordship is made manifest by Christ's victory over death, which is the power that opens graves and has us rise from them (Ezk 37:13), not merely metaphorically, but really and truly. It is easy, as Christians, to become so numbed to this reality, this truth, that we lose sight of its audaciousness.

Jesus raising Lazarus, by James Tissot


In our second reading from St Paul's magisterial Letter to the Romans, all of this is fleshed out (pardon my pun) for us more fully:
If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you (Rom 8:11)
My dear Elect you are preparing for Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. These are the means Christ has instituted (and the reason He established His Church) to impart to you, or, turning to a term now popular in cooking, "infuse" into you, His Holy Spirit, Who is also the Spirit of the Father. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the way Jesus Christ remains present, not just to you, but in you.

Being infused with the Holy Spirit means being filled with new life, which is life eternal. Eternal life is not that life that begins after mortal death. Rather, it is the life each of us is given when we are reborn in Baptism. A few chapters earlier in Romans, in the midst of a rather complicated exposition on sin and grace, the apostle asks, "[A]re you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life" (Rom 6:2-3).

Don't drive the Spirit out by continuing to live according to the flesh, which, like St Paul, we must distinguish from the body; living according to the Spirit is something we do now and, as the result of Christ's resurrection, forever with our bodies. This determination to cooperate with God's grace, which builds on our nature, is sung about by Old Crow Medicine Show in their song "Darius Rucker," which is about a deep longing for home:
Oh, north country winters keep a-getting me down
Lost my money playing poker so I had to leave town
But I ain't turning back to living that old life no more
How a wish turns into a hope, an unfounded belief into a well-founded one, is through experience, by means of an event that becomes an encounter. What does this mean? I readily admit that, because it's a mystery, it is not possible to explain it completely using words. Pope Benedict, towards the beginning of his first encyclical letter Deus caritas est, with his characteristic clarity, in my view, does about as good a job describing this using words as anyone can: "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (par 1).

Dear Elect, today, in preparation for your re-birth in Baptism, Jesus directs you to "Take away the stone" from your hearts so that He can raise you to new life. Arise and turn your face towards home.

Friday, March 20, 2015

"Only God can change our minds"



With no commentary and no explanation, except what you can read on their website, which begins with "Marriage is tough," Casting Crowns' "Broken Together" is the Καθολικός διάκονος traditio for this Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent:



Maybe you and I were never meant to be complete
Could we just be broken together
If you can bring your shattered dreams and Ill bring mine
Could healing still be spoken and save us
The only way we'll last forever is broken together

Monday, March 16, 2015

In honor of St Patrick

Tomorrow is St Patrick's Day. Sadly, here in the United States we typically celebrate it as a bacchanalia. Let's not forget, the most important fact about Patrick: his great and deep love for Jesus Christ, which he demonstrated by spending his life as a missionary sharing Christ in the land and with the very people who took him captive in his youth.



Without a doubt, Patrick is the most well-known of the great Celtic saints. Patrick, who was a deacon's son, was not a native of Ireland. He first went to Ireland as a slave and later returned as a missionary. He was most likely a native Welsh-speaker. He is truly a pan-Celtic figure.

Given the tendency to caricature being Irish as being a hopeless, piss-pants, foul-mouthed drunk, I think writing about another great Irish Christian on this occasion is very appropriate: Venerable Matt Talbot. He lived from 1856 to 1925. This year is the 90th anniversary of his death.

By the time he was 13, Matt had a serious drinking problem and was considered by many to be a hopeless alcoholic. Having spent much of his young life drinking heavily, after taking a 90 day pledge not to drink in 1884, Matt remained sober for the rest of his life. By all accounts it seems that his first seven years sober were especially difficult for him.

Statue of Venerable Matt Talbot in Dublin

Matt Talbot was one person Pope St John Paul II very much wanted to canonize. No doubt Matt's intercession has resulted in many miracles among men and women struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction, enough to warrant him being a saint. To many he is a saint. In my view, it's really the popular devotion, not the canonical process, that matters. I urge you to go to his website, run by the Archdiocese of Dublin. When you do so, you'll read this on the first page: "Today we live in an age of addictions more sophisticated perhaps than those of Matt's day, addictions to substances such as alcohol and other drugs soft or hard, prescription or illegal, addictions to gambling, pornography and the internet, addictions to work, professional advancement, sex, money and power. All these have the ability to destroy our lives and like demons even our very souls as well." Forget about driving the snakes out of Ireland (there were never any there to begin with), what about the demons in your soul, the ones that haunt you?

Below is the official prayer for Matt Talbot's canonization:
O Jesus, true friend of the humble worker, Who hast given us in Thy servant, Matthew, a wonderful example of Victory over vice, a model of penance and love for Thy Holy Eucharist, grant, we beseech Thee, that we Thy servants may overcome all our wicked passions and sanctify our lives with penance and love like his.

And if it be in accordance with Thine adorable designs that Thy pious servant should be glorified by the Church, deign to manifest by Thy heavenly favors the power he enjoys in Thy sight, Who livest and reignest for ever and ever. Amen. 100 day's Indulgence each time. 15 June 1931
By all means celebrate St Patrick's Day, just don't forget Who it is about. To help you, here's a treat from The Chieftans:



Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us
St Joseph, pray for us
St Patrick, pray for us
Venerable Matt Talbot, pray for us
All holy men and women, pray for us

Saturday, March 14, 2015

A note on 1 Samuel 16

Initially I included this as a parenthetical aside in my reflection on the Sunday readings for the Second Scrutiny, but it detracted from the message I was trying to convey. Nonetheless, I think it's important to note that Saul, like David after him, was anointed king of Israel by the prophet Samuel (see 1 Samuel 9).

Samuel anointed David king of Israel due to Saul's disobedience (see 1 Samuel 15). Prior to anointing Saul as the first king of Israel, Samuel rebuked the Israelites for wanting a human king like the surrounding peoples, instead of being content with having the LORD as their king (see 1 Samuel 8). Without a doubt there is a lot going on in all this both historically and politically. It is rather Shakesperian.

King Saul attacks David, by "Guercino" Gianfrancesco Barbieri

This prophetic outburst of Samuel highlights a tension in ancient Israel, one that is best brought into relief by reading 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings- 4 installments of the same history- over and against 1-2 Chronicles. The work of Margaret Baker is most valuable in this regard. A great starting point is her short book Temple Theology: An Introduction.

King Saul was a member of the tribe of Benjamin (1 Samuel 9:1). Much later God would call another Benjaminite named Saul, better known as Paul, which was likely his Roman name, as apostle to Gentiles (Phil 3:5).

Second Scrutiny: "I was blind and now I see"

Readings: 1 Sam 16:1B.6-7.1013A; Ps 23:1-6; Eph 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

A prophet, a king, two anointings, the LORD as a shepherd, light, darkness, awakening, Jesus, a blind man, a washing, a healing, a warning of judgment- our readings for the Second Scrutiny of the Elect contain enough material to write good-sized book! Maybe it will be an international best-seller. We can call it "the Bible," which means "the Book."

Looking at Samuel's response to the LORD's prompting to head for Bethlehem to the house of Jesse in order to find and anoint Israel's new king, which was necessitated by Saul, the current king's disobedience, we see that is was only after Samuel considered six of Jesse's seven sons that he found God's anointed in the seventh, that is, the least, among them- even though, biblically-speaking, seven is a number of completeness, or divine perfection.

The episode we hear about in our first reading dramatically highlights the fact that God often (as in almost-always) chooses the least likely person to accomplish His purposes in and for the world. Of course, Jesus Himself, the only begotten Son of the Father, is the ultimate proof of this divine tendency. Why does God work this way? In my humble view, it's so that there is no doubt that it is God who is at work reconciling the world to Himself and not something done by human willpower and effort. In short, the people of God is and remains the original motley crew.



In order to see that God chooses the least likely of people to accomplish His purposes, you don't have to take my word for it, nor even that of Sacred Scripture, just look around, not only at the Elect, but look at the rest of the assembly, the ekklesia, that is, the Church, and not just in the pews, but up here on the chancel too. I believe that what St Paul wrote to and about the ancient Church in Corinth still applies today:
consider your own calling... Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God. It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor 1:26-30)
This highlights the gratitude expressed in Psalm 23, perhaps the best-known of all the psalms: "You spread the table before me in the sight of my foes; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows" (Ps 23:5).

My dear Elect you have been called by the Lord from darkness to live in the glory of His magnificent light, which illumines you from within and is the very power of the Holy Spirit, who is the way our risen Lord remains present, not just to us, but in us until the consummation of all things at His glorious return, for which you need to stand ready by being ever watchful. Heed the apostle's exhortation: "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light" (Eph 5:14).

"As the old saying goes," Fr Jim Martin wrote recently in Jesus: A Pilgrimage, "original sin is the one verifiable Christian dogma" (100). Accordingly, in a very real sense, we're all born blind. Like the man Jesus heals by restoring his sight, without doing all the required theological parsing, there is a scriptural sense in which our blindness is not necessarily the result of either our sin or that of our parents. St Paul, in his magnum opus, his Letter to the Romans, noted that "creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:20-21). This is wonderfully and gloriously sung about at the beginning of the upcoming Paschal Vigil in that great and ancient hymn, the Exsultet:

O felix culpa,
quæ talem ac tantum méruit habére Redemptórem!


In English:
O happy fault,
that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!


My dear Elect, Christ has chosen you, which election was confirmed by Bishop Wester at the Rite of Election we celebrated at the beginning of Lent. Like the blind man in today's Gospel, you are chosen so "that the works of God might be made visible through [you]" (John 9:3). You've done nothing to earn your election. Our lovely God is nothing if not gracious and gratuitous. Your chosen-ness, like David's, like mine, is a mystery.

Again, like the blind man in today's Gospel, who immediately began to pay a price for being chosen (another of those great mysteries- that of the Cross), you will be washed in Baptism, anointed in Confirmation, and further drawn into the very life of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when you receive Christ in communion for the first time. Then you can say, "I was blind and now I see" (John 9:25).

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Cathedral of the Madeleine: Farewell, but not goodbye

I began serving at The Cathedral of the Madeleine years before I was ordained. After a year or so of working for the Diocese of Salt Lake City full-time, I was hired by then-Cathedral Rector, Msgr M. Francis Mannion, who oversaw the magnificent restoration and renovation of the Cathedral, completed in 1993, to serve as Director of Religious Education and Formation in 1995, replacing the irreplaceable Dr (Deacon) Owen Cummings. I served in that job for a year, but, even after moving on career-wise, I continued to serve in RCIA and as the Cathedral's main Master of Ceremonies (MC).

My first time serving in any liturgy was during the first-ever Society for Catholic Liturgy Conference, which the Cathedral hosted because Msgr Mannion was founder and president of SCL. I broke into liturgical service when I served as acolyte for sung Vespers presided at by Fr Chrysogonus Waddell, OSCO, a well-known Cistercian composer of liturgical music and liturgical scholar. My most vivid memory of that nerve-wracking service is when I spilled iradescent blue incense down the front of my white server's robe just before coming out with the thurible and boat for the first time.

It was at this same conference that I also had the great pleasure of meeting both Fr Aidan Nichols, OP and Eamon Duffy, the Cambridge Church historian and author of The Stripping of the Altars, which, while then several years published, was still making a splash.

I can say in all honesty that were it not for Msgr Mannion's encouragement and urging, I would never have become a deacon. Even though Msgr Mannion left the Cathedral in 1999 to become the founding Director of the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary, named to that post by Francis Cardinal George, OMI, I continued to serve at the Cathedral teaching Adult Formation, including RCIA, and serving as the main MC during my diaconal formation, which I received from 2000-2004. Along with my classmates, I was ordained on 24 January 2004 by then-Bishop George Niederauer in The Cathedral of the Madeleine. Bishop Niederauer then assigned me to the Cathedral.

I have performed the whole of my diaconal ministry to this point (11+ years) at the Cathedral. I can say, without any reservation, that, apart from being my wife's husband and father of my 6 children, serving at The Cathedral of the Madeleine has been the greatest honor in my life. I have served under three rectors, Msgr Mannion, Msgr Joseph M. Mayo, without whose financial help I could not have completed my graduate degree, and for the past roughly year and-a-half, Fr Martin Diaz, the current Rector. All three of these men are wonderful priests and pastors, who have taken great care of me not only as a deacon, but as a Christian placed in their charge.



As you've probably already guessed, all of this is a lead up to the announcement that I am leaving The Cathedral of the Madeleine. Today, in the mail, I received a letter from my bishop making my requested transfer official. Beginning 1 May 2015 I am assigned as a deacon to St Olaf's Parish in Bountiful, Utah.

I must note, in addition to having served at the Cathedral under three wonderful rectors, I have also had the privilege of serving there under two amazing bishops: George Niederauer and now John Wester. Bishop Wester has truly been a pastor to me and to my family. One of our great thrills and cherished family moments was when he baptized our youngest son, Evan. In my estimation, there are few things a deacon can do that are more meaningful than assisting his bishop in the celebration of the Holy Mass in the bishop's Cathedral. I have had that privilege innumerable times. I certainly hope I have not done so for the last time!

When I first began serving at The Cathedral of the Madeleine, we lived in Salt Lake City. We continued living there for a few years after I was ordained. In the summer of 2006, we moved north of the city, to a town called Bountiful. We currently live only about a mile away from our local parish, St Olaf's, where my lovely wife and children attend Mass and are involved in music and other liturgical ministry, as well as in children's catechesis, both as recipients and as catechists. After thinking, praying, and discussing a possible move since Easter 2014, it became evident between last Christmas and New Year, that the Lord was calling me to make a move. Many things have verified the rightness of this very difficult, even somewhat excruciating, decision. At the end of January, I began the process of asking for a transfer. While it became official on 9 March, it has been a done deal, so to speak, for several weeks.

Above all, the greatest privilege of my service at the Cathedral has been serving all of the wonderful people over the years. Serving at a downtown, urban parish has been nothing short of amazing at times, and heartbreaking at others. The greatest aspect of my new assignment will be serving and serving with people here in the community in which I live.

"But listen carefully to the sound"

Lent always turns out differently than I plan it, which is okay, even preferable. The difference is not that I jettison everything I planned to do or not do over the course of this holy season- though I certainly struggle and never fail to be reminded that, in many ways, I am pretty weak-willed. It's precisely those areas (i.e., the ones in which I am weak-willed) that there is the most value because they remind me, experiencing this phenomenon we call "being saved," that I cannot save myself. I need a Savior.



Writing about salvation, a subject about which we are highly prone to being absurdly reductive, it seems to me that the question is not, "Are you saved?" Rather, it strikes me that the salient question is, "Are you allowing yourself to be saved," or, perhaps a bit more concisely, "Are you being saved?"

While by no means absolute, as some mistakenly imagine, freedom is not illusory, as Dostoevsky sought to demonstrate in The Brothers Karamazov, in the chapter entitled "The Grand Inquisitor," as told by Ivan Karamazov, when the Inquisitor interrogates Jesus Himself:
Hast thou the right to divulge to us a single one of the mysteries of that world whence Thou comest?' enquires of Him my old Inquisitor, and forthwith answers for Him. 'Nay, Thou has no such right. For, that would be adding to that which was already said by Thee before; hence depriving people of that freedom for which Thou hast so stoutly stood up while yet on earth.... Anything new that Thou would now proclaim would have to be regarded as an attempt to interfere with that freedom of choice, as it would come as a new and a miraculous revelation superseding the old revelation of fifteen hundred years ago, when Thou didst so repeatedly tell the people: "The truth shall make you free." Behold then, Thy "free" people now!' adds the old man with sombre irony
Our traditio for this Lenten Friday is Eve Goodman singing Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams":



Now here you go again
You say you want your freedom
Well who am I to keep you down
It's only right that you should
Play the way you feel it
So listen carefully to the sound
Of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat... drives you mad

Monday, March 9, 2015

Why a deacon should sing the Exsultet

As he does so often, Deacon Bill Ditewig wrote an article that is well-worth reading. He posted it on his blog, Deacons Today: Servants in a Servant Church. The post is entitled "Christ, Cross, Candle, and Gospel: An Early Lenten Reflection on the Deacon and the Exsultet." It is particularly worthwhile reading for bishops, priests, deacons, as well as for diocesan and parish music and liturgy directors. I am remiss for not posting this sooner, but we're still in Lent with the Paschal Vigil a little less than a month away.

According to Deacon Bill, what prompted this post was a question asked him by a friend who is a priest: "The rubrics permit someone other than the deacon to sing it, so why not just get the person with the best voice to do it? Tell me why the deacon should do it!" It's a fair enough question.



I agree with Deacon Ditewig, who holds a Ph.D in Theology from the Catholic University of America and formerly served as head of the office of the permanent diaconate for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, that when it comes to this question, "there is so much more than simply worrying about the niceties of who gets to do what during the Easter Vigil." In fact, if it were about that it wouldn't be worth mentioning. I don't want to steal any of Bill's insights (as you will see, I did poach the picture above from his post) and so, for those interested, please read it. As for me, I look forward to singing the entire Exsultet for the first time at next year's (2016) Paschal Vigil. I plan to begin preparing for this late next summer in the hope I don't suddenly break out singing Train in Vain, or something like that.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

First Scrutiny: Are you thirsty?

Readings: Ex 17:3-7; Ps 95:1-2.6-9; Rom 5:1-2.5-8; John 4:5-42

In addition to marking the beginning of Daylight Savings Time, today is the Third Sunday of Lent, which means for parishes and missions that have members of the Elect (i.e., those who will be baptized at the upcoming Paschal Vigil on 4 April), today is the first of three Scrutinies. At Masses during which the Scrutinies are celebrated, instead of using the Year B readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, the Year A readings are supposed to be used.

The first reading for the Third Sunday of Lent in Year A is taken from the book of Exodus and tells about when Moses, under great duress, struck the rock, making water flow from it to give drink to the parched Israelites and their livestock. Taking the near mutiny to the LORD in prayer, Moses said, "What shall I do with this people? a little more and they will stone me!" (Ex 17:4) Thirst in the desert, it seems, was getting the better of everyone. After striking the rock with his stick and making water flow from it, Moses 'named this place "Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled there and tested the LORD, saying, "Is the LORD in our midst or not?'" (Ex 17:7).

The responsorial Psalm is Psalm 95, which is the Psalm with which we begin the Liturgy of the Hours each day. "Today listen to the voice of LORD, do not grow stubborn as your fathers did in the wilderness, when at Meribah and Massah they challenged me and provoked me although they had seen all of my works." Massah is Hebrew for "the place of testing" and Meribah is Hebrew for "the place of strife, or of quarreling." So, by opening each day with Psalm 95, the Church, God's people, are invited to remember what the Lord has done for us, which remembrance eases our anxiety about the present and the future.

Yesterday I began Fr Jim Martin's book Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Commenting on Mary's encounter with the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation, which solemnity we will celebrate on 25 March, Fr Martin writes beautifully about this very thing- about calling to mind what God has already done. In this case he points to Gabriel reminding Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of St John the Baptist, had conceived a child despite, like Sarah, being well beyond child-bearing years (I agree that Gabriel was not breaking this news to Mary, but citing something she already knew in order to encourage her): "'You have doubts about what God will do? Then just look at what God has already done.' Looking backward helps Mary to look forward. Awareness leads to trust" (39). It's interesting in our first reading that, while the people invoke being led out of Egypt, attributing their being led out to Moses, not to God ("Why then did you bring us up out of Egypt? To have us die of thirst with our children and our livestock?" Ex 17:3), Moses does not remind them that is was God, not him, who delivered them, nor does he bring to mind the many signs and wonders that were part of their deliverance.

Mosiac from the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo- Ravenna, Italy

Our reading from St Paul's Letter to the Romans is an exhortation to hope. Of the three theological virtues, hope (like the relevance of fasting in prayer, fasting, and alms-giving), is the least understood. While one who hopes aspires to something not yet realized, hope is distinct from mere wishing. Hope is the flower, or fruit, of faith. Faith, far from being a blind leap (the person of faith has her/his eyes wide-open and applies reason), is built through experience. It is by faith, the apostle tells us, that "we have gained access... to this grace in which we stand" (Rom 5:2). The result of this grace is hope. The hope we have, which can be discussed as thirst, "does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Rom 5:5).

Finally, we come to the Gospel passage, which tells of Jesus' encounter with Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob. As, I think, most of us know, as what the woman said to the Lord indicates, Jews and Samaritans, while closely related, didn't like each other very much. Usually Jews going from Galilee, from where Jesus hailed, to Jerusalem, rather than walk the direct route through Samaria, they by-passed this region by going east and walking along the west bank of the Jordan River, to Jericho, and from there heading up the mountain to the Holy City. The mere fact that Jesus, along with his (clearly very uneasy) disciples, is passing through Samaria, is no small thing. The unusual nature of this episode is further brought home when Jesus begins to speak, not only to a Samaritan, but to an unaccompanied woman, two things to be avoided.

This woman went out to fetch water, not at the usual time, but at an alternate time, presumably a time she knew she would be alone. Likely due to her having been married five times and currently living with a man who was not her husband, she was likely viewed as a bit of a hussy, someone to be shunned by decent people. Not only did our beautiful Lord not shun her, He engaged her. He did so by appealing to what it was she was really thirsty for- unconditional acceptance, life-giving love. His pastoral skills are unmatched. He offered her the water that will slake her deep, existential thirst, the water that becomes in the one who imbibes "a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:14). She eagerly accepted it. But Jesus tells her to go fetch her husband, which occasions her oblique confession, "I do not have a husband" (John 4:17). Upon this admission, we see Divine Mercy at work when Jesus said to her, in what I can only imagine Him saying this with the greatest of tenderness: "You are right in saying, 'I do not have a husband.' For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true" (John 4:17-18).

My friends, here is some very good news: the Lord already knows everything about you and still loves you with an infinite, deep, passionate love that you cannot comprehend. While Jesus takes us you as you are, He is not content to leave you where He found you. If you were fine, why would you feel so unfulfilled? Why would you bother being here today? Jesus is leading you to the fulfillment of what you truly desire - the life that is truly life.

As a result of her encounter, this unnamed Samaritan woman was clearly changed. Jesus told her that He is the Messiah, the one for whom both Jews and Samaritans awaited, the one in and through whom God would no longer be worshiped either on Mount Gerazim or in Jerusalem, but worshiped by true worshipers, being temples of God's Spirit, anywhere and everywhere. Like those who also encountered the Lord up close and in person, she could not keep it to herself, she was compelled by love to tell others what Jesus had done for her.

Jesus invites the Elect to the water, to the water of Baptism, not only to drink, but to be immersed in the very life of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You are to worship God in spirit and in truth, witnessing to what God has done for you in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. He gives this living water, which is His very self, freely to all who desire it. Your presence here today is an expression of your desire. But never forget what led you here, remember always not merely what the Lord has done for you, but the particularity of how He did it, this is especially important when life seems impossible, when you find yourself starting to thirst.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Christianity= Eucharist + Church

For Christians, Sunday is the Lord's day. Sunday is the day we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. In the great exchange of the Eucharist, Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, gives Himself to us body, blood, soul, and divinity as we offer ourselves to the Father, through Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul, and humanity, an offer that can only be honored by the power of that same Spirit.

This is expressed well by the prayer, said sotto voce by the deacon, or the priest, in the contemporary Roman Rite, when the water is poured into the wine on the altar during the Offertory: "By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity."



Father Nicholas Afanasiev, a Russian Orthodox priest and theologian, who lived and wrote in the last century, insisted, to borrow the words of Fr Michael Plekon, "The Acts 2:44 description of the apostolic eucharistic assembly, epi to auto - 'always everyone and always together for one and the same thing' - becomes the defining characteristic of the Church" (Living Icons 159).

Plekon notes that Afanasiev identified the Church with the Eucharist "so radically as to become provocative" (159). As proof of this assertion, Plekon offers this from Afanasiev's book The Church of the Holy Spirit:
Christianity is the "Church of God in Christ." Whoever confesses Christ also confesses the Church and whoever does this, also confesses the Eucharistic gathering. Christianity apart from the Church is something that never was and never can be (159)
unus Christianus, nullus Christianus — "one Christian [is] no Christian."

On the Feast of Sts Perpetua and Felicity

As Christians we once again live in an age of martyrs. By my inexpert reckoning, we have lived in such an age for roughly the past 100 years. I mark the beginning of this age by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which began in 1917. In that regard, I am reading Fr Michael Plekon's Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church, which profiles the lives and works of leading figures of the Russian Orthodox emigré resurgence. In my view of lives and work of men and women such as Mother Maria Skobtsova, Nicholas Afanasiev, Fr Lev Gillet (a man after my own heart,) et al, was the healthiest development in Orthodoxy and ecumenism perhaps ever. While the bloody, atheistic regime that swept into power in Russia collapsed more than 25 years ago, the number of Christian martyrs is on the rise, as we witness in graphic detail almost every week. Recently we were the blessed recipients of the particularly powerful witness, that is, martyria, of 21 Christian brothers, the so-called "Coptic Martyrs of ISIS."

Holy Coptic Martyrs, pray for us


Let me note, despite the fact that he did so twice, it did not take a public declaration by the Roman Pontiff for these brothers to be revered as martyrs. Given the public approval of the Bishop of Rome, one must ask the question, Why has the Catholic Church not canonized the Holy Martyrs of Baghdad, who were killed celebrating the Lord's Nativity and for no other reason than that they were celebrating the Lord's Nativity, along with other recent martyrs? In order to be considered genuine, or authentic, must their witness be approved by an incomprehensible bureaucracy? Taking my cue from the early Church, I venerate them, but anyway, I digress... (see "we ask that the martyrdom of our people be officially recognized", "'do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul' (Mk 8,35) )," "In Memoriam", and "Sadness in Anatolia").

When we consider Tertullian's observation, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," I think it is important not to merely, or even primarily (perhaps not at all), to think about this in terms of breadth (i.e., quantity- the number of people who will come to believe as a result of the witness of martyrs), but to consider the depth, summons to follow Jesus to the Cross (i.e., quality- imitating Christ, who was crucified).



Historian Dr Christopher Shannon, in a stunning article for Crisis on-line magazine, simply entitled "Sts. Perpetua and Felcity," published three years ago, provided some important insights into both the history and the (super)nature of Christian martyrdom. I am more interested in the latter than I am in the former, even while recognizing that the latter depends on the former for accurate articulation.

Dr Shannon began his piece by observing, "In the early Church, to be a saint was in most cases to be a martyr." While this may shock the ultramontanists among my Roman Catholic brethren, Dr Shannon also pointed out, "The city of Rome earned its privileged standing among early Christians less as the see of Peter than as the home of shrines to many of the earliest Christian martyrs." For the Church to be "apostolic" we must heed the call and be sent to give our lives selflessly for the sake of Christ and to usher in the reign of God.

Sts. Perpetua & Felicity

After surviving her initial exposure in the Coliseum, St Perpetua implored her sisters and brothers in Christ, "Stand fast in the faith, and love one another, all of you, and be not offended at my sufferings." The martyrs today issue us the same exhortation. It is an exhortation, not a plea, by which I mean that Perpetua's words can in no way be taken to mean that the glorious martyrs look to us for approval. They have their approval and their crowns. It is for our own sake that we must heed her words. What Dr Shannon noted three years ago only grows truer by the day: "Today we live in a new pagan culture that once again worships power and despises weakness."

Indeed, as it seems we must be taught over and over again down through time, Jesus' grace is sufficient, "for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9).

Sts Perpetua & Felicity, pray for us!

Friday, March 6, 2015

"Seasons forever changing"

Skenfrith, Wales


Since last Friday I did not share a Welsh tune in anticipation of the Feast of St David of Wales, I am doing it this week. So, our traditio is "Tir Aur" (i.e., "The Golden Land"- sung by Ceredwen, pronounced ker-ED-wen), a Celtic folk duet.



This morning I read a quote from St Teresa of Avila, which bids us, "Be gentle to all, and stern with yourself." I admit to being deficient in my reading of the Carmelite mystics (i.e., St Teresa and St John of the Cross) and so I do not know the context for this piece of advice. Far be it from me to correct a Doctor of the Church, but I think "all" must include myself. Hence: "Be gentle to all, including yourself." All advice, especially spiritual advice, is not for everyone all the time.

In my experience it is of the utmost importance to learn to gaze on myself with the same tenderness with which Jesus gazes upon me. At least for me, that is the bigger challenge than being stern with myself, which I find far too easy. Being stern with myself usually leads to me being stern with and judgmental towards others.

We are full of longing-

Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.
May you have the courage to listen to the voice of
desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for some-
thing safe.
May you have the wisdom to enter generously into
your own unease... John O'Donohue


In his last sermon St David told his monks to "do the little things, the small things you've seen me doing." Commenting on this very practical exhortation, Dr Rowan Williams observed, "...it reminds us that the primary things for us are the relationships around us, the need to work at what's under our hands, what's within our reach. We can transform our domestic, our family relationships, our national life to some extent, if we do that with focus and concentration in the presence of God."

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Year B Second Sunday of Lent

Readings: Gen 22:1-2.9a.10-13.15-18; Ps 116:10.15-17.18-19; Rom 8:31b-34; Mark 9:2-10

One of the biggest societal challenges we face today is our collective loss of the ability to make distinctions, the ability to tell one thing from another thing, especially when the two things are inextricably bound together. A few years ago, a friend of mine, who teaches Philosophy at a well-known university on the East Coast, said he was tempted to take some of his classes for a walk around their campus. During this walk he was going to point out the differences between things they encountered: “This is a rock.” “This is a run of fencing.” “This is a metal pole to which a sign is attached. The sign, while attached to the pole, is distinct from it.” “That is a tree,” etc.

In light of God’s word for us today, I ask you to consider the distinction between hearing and listening. I submit that while it is impossible to listen without hearing, it is not only possible, but very often the case that we hear without listening. My use of the word “hear” in this context simply refers to the physical phenomenon of sound waves striking and vibrating our intricate human hearing apparatus. Listening, on the other hand, means something like, to pay attention and then to heed. Of course, in English, we a have word for this: “obey.” But our word “obey” finds its origin in the Latin word oboedire, which means to listen.

In our first reading we see a clear demonstration of what it means to listen to God. Indeed, what we have heard proclaimed is surely one of the most disturbing events in all of Scripture. God speaks and Abraham not only hears, but listens. As a result, he sets out to fulfill what God commanded him to do, which is to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, whose name, Yitz’ak, in Hebrew means “laughter.” Indeed, it seems that God is playing a cruel joke on Abraham. God promised our father in the faith that his descendants would be as numerous as the sands on the seashore (Gen 13:16). Yet, despite this promise, Abraham and his wife Sarah remained childless until after Sarah was well beyond child-bearing age (that their son was named “Laughter” refers to Sarah’s response at being told she was going to have a son).

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who also observed that “Purity of heart is to will one thing,” contemplating this awful episode in his famous work Fear and Trembling, wrote this about Abraham’s listening to God:
If Abraham had doubted as he stood there on Mount Moriah, if irresolute he had looked around, if he had happened to spot the ram before drawing the knife… then he would have gone home, everything would have been the same, he would have had Sarah, he would have kept Isaac, and yet how changed! For his return would have been a flight, his deliverance an accident, his reward disgrace, his future perhaps perdition. Then he would have witnessed neither to his faith nor to God’s grace but would have witnessed [only] to how appalling it is to go to Mount Moriah
Last Sunday we heard proclaimed God’s promise, made after the great flood, which he sealed by placing a rainbow in the sky, never again to wipe out all of humanity. It is safe to say that because Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only begotten son was a foreshadowing of what the Father would do in and through His only begotten Son, that God will never again ask such a terrible thing of anyone.

To hear and heed God is what it means to have faith. Faith is our response to God’s initiative towards us. But even our response is the grace of God at work within us. So it is God, who both begins and completes the good work begun in those who listen to Him (Phil 1:6). God, who loves us so much that He did spare the life of His innocent and only begotten Son, both pulls and pushes us towards Himself. But God does not pull and push us towards Himself with so much force that we're unable to resist. We must reject any theology that holds that God's grace is irresistible.

Transfiguration, by Gerard David, ca. 1450, via Wikipedia commons

It’s important, I think, not to be too distracted by the shiny object of Jesus’ Transfiguration. To be sure, it is a preview of His resurrection, albeit only understood as such after the resurrection. His appearing along with Moses and Elijah shows that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. What we are to attend to are the words of the Father, who says to Peter, James, and John, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (Mark 9:7). After hearing these words, “They no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them” (Mark 9:8).

If we are truly followers of Jesus Christ, when we consider things that are inextricably bound together, yet distinguishable, the relationship between loving God with our heart, might, mind and strength and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves must be considered. While it is impossible to love God without loving our neighbor (1 John 4:20), there are ways we love God that are distinguishable from how we love our neighbors: prayer, fasting, and worship, to name only three.

We are at “Mass.” The word “Mass” comes from the Latin word misa, which means to be dismissed, to be sent forth to make Christ present wherever we are. In addition to apostolic succession, which refers to the Church receiving her authority from Christ and the apostles, our being sent forth from here to demonstrate that the liturgy, which is our common work, has consequences in the world, is what makes the Church truly apostolic.

Our take away today is obvious: Listen to Jesus. During this Lent, what is Jesus saying to you? Are you taking time each day to listen to Him? Once you have heard what He is saying to you, are you willing to do it?

St Paul today tells us that following Jesus means embracing the Cross. In other words, if everything you think you hear the Lord saying to you is aimed at making your life easier and more prosperous in worldly terms, then I would suggest that you need to exercise better discernment, meaning you need to make a better effort to listen to Jesus, who speaks to us through Scripture and in prayer by the power of the Holy Spirit. “The end of the story is God’s glory,” John Martens observed about today’s readings, “but it requires hearing God's voice in the midst of trials, suffering, pain and loss, even when it seems to be God's voice commanding the suffering. Be patient and listen again, for the voice of God desires only our blessing."