Sunday, April 16, 2017

Urbi et orbi- Easter 2017


Easter 2017

Dear Brothers and Sisters, Happy Easter!

Today, throughout the world, the Church echoes once more the astonishing message of the first disciples: “Jesus is risen!” – “He is truly risen, as he said!”

The ancient feast of Passover, the commemoration of the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery, here finds fulfillment. By his resurrection, Jesus Christ has set us free from the slavery of sin and death, and has opened before us the way to eternal life.

All of us, when we let ourselves be mastered by sin, lose the right way and end up straying like lost sheep. But God himself, our shepherd, has come in search of us. To save us, he lowered himself even to accepting death on the cross. Today we can proclaim: “The Good Shepherd has risen, who laid down his life for his sheep, and willingly died for his flock, alleluia” (Roman Missal, IV Sunday of Easter, Communion antiphon).

In every age, the Risen Shepherd tirelessly seeks us, his brothers and sisters, wandering in the deserts of this world. With the marks of the passion – the wounds of his merciful love – he draws us to follow him on his way, the way of life. Today too, he places upon his shoulders so many of our brothers and sisters crushed by evil in all its varied forms.

The Risen Shepherd goes in search of all those lost in the labyrinths of loneliness and marginalization. He comes to meet them through our brothers and sisters who treat them with respect and kindness, and help them to hear his voice, an unforgettable voice, a voice calling them back to friendship with God.

He is Risen!!

It is finally Easter Sunday. Khristós Anésti! Alithós Anésti! Alithos anesti! Alleluia! Allelulia!
Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.' Behold, I have told you (Matt 28:5-7 )

Jesus' Easter victory is our Easter victory. Alleluia! At least for me, it would be Easter without Keith Green's "Easter Song."

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday homily

Readings: Isa 52:13-53:12; Ps 31:2.6.12-13. 15-17.25; Heb 4:14-16.5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

It doesn’t take too many years of preaching to figure out that preaching is probably one of the least effective ways to reach people. It seems to me that when it comes to the homily many people distract themselves mentally, waiting for it end, while others listen to it as a “talk,” or a prepared speech, designed to be of interest for the time it lasts with little or no lasting relevance.

No doubt there are reasons for these responses. In the first instance, one of the things Catholics in the pews report year-after-year is the need for preaching to improve. All of us have been subjected to inadequately prepared homilies, many of which seem endless and on never get around to making a point. It’s difficult to listen to such preaching. On the other hand, in a society that offers us so much constant entertainment, or what we might we might call infortainment, like TED talks and the like, we can easily privilege style over substance and grade the preacher on his performance, not giving it a thought beyond its entertainment value.

The reason for preaching is simple: to help you gain a deeper understanding of the Sacred Scriptures in order to better follow Jesus, or, perhaps stated a bit more plainly, to be clearer about where he is leading you. With regard to the readings for any given Mass or celebration of a Liturgy of the Word, there are a variety of different ways of getting the point(s) of the readings across. But Good Friday presents the preacher with a unique challenge because his job is to bring his sisters and brothers, as well as himself, face-to-face with the great mystery of our redemption.

Just as the church is stripped down on Good Friday, so must the preaching be. As we stand before the cross of Christ, which we always do here at St Olaf in a profound way, and prepare to venerate it in a few moments, the question is as simple as it is obvious: “Why the cross?”

Jesus did not go the cross in order to satisfy the anger, vindictiveness, or blood lust, of the Father. In other words, the Father did not inflict the punishment you and I deserve onto his beloved Son. In the branch of theology that concerns itself with Christ’s cross, which is known as soteriology (the study of how God saves us through Christ’s death), there are different atonement theories that have been set forth. What these theories seek to explain is precisely how Christ’s death reconciles us to God. Penal substitutionary atonement is one such theory. This theory holds that God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and so he bore the punishment that we deserve. It is important to note that while this theory is widespread in the United States, it is not a Catholic understanding of the atonement.

Crucifix over the altar, St Olaf Church, Bountiful, Utah- taken 25 March 2017

So, why did Jesus have to die on the cross? First, he didn’t have to die on the cross. He freely chose to do so in obedience to the Father. Why, then, was it the will of the Father that his only begotten Son die on the cross? I think theologian Owen Cummings answered this question as well as it can be answered:
God did not predetermine that Jesus would have to suffer on the cross, just as God does not predetermine that any of us has to suffer on our own crosses. That would turn God into a cruel tyrant [and us into something like marionettes acting out a script]. What God did in the whole event of Jesus, in the incarnation and crucifixion, was to enter into the messy details of our world, a world marked by arbitrariness and unpredictability. The God who is nothing but unconditional Love, embodied and made visible in Jesus, lets the consequences of being Love in our flawed human world happen without evasion or avoidance. He did not turn away from pain and suffering. Perhaps we could say that through Jesus, pain and suffering are absorbed into the life of God, and, if absorbed, then finally transformed (The Dying of Jesus 52)
This transformation is one way to understand what is meant when, in our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is described as our "great high priest." Just as a priest transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ, in turn, transforms pain and suffering into salvation.

Jesus went to the cross out of love for the Father and you. And so, as scholar Terry Eagleton noted a number of years ago in a review of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion: “The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you.”

My friends in Christ, this is what Jesus meant when he said that anyone who would follow him must take up his/her cross. It is not optional. One way or another the cross will find you. This is not in question. What is in question is whether you will bear the crosses that come your way for love of God and neighbor and do the work your baptismal priesthood calls you to, which is to work with Christ turning pain and suffering into salvation. The only way to resurrection is through the cross. Following Jesus is not a formula for worldly wealth, health, or even happiness as it is popularly understood. It is the way to salvation, which alone is true happiness. Faith means trusting that this is true and hope means living your life like it is true.

"Not everyone can carry the weight of the world"

Far from not posting a traditio today, Good Friday is a day that positively screams out for one! Since I didn't post anything on Holy Thursday, I think it's okay to post twice on Good Friday. I can't think of a better song than REM's "Talk About the Passion" off their 1983 album Murmur. Before cutting to the chase, I want to share something I read last night while keeping vigil in our parish's Chapel of Repose. It is from a book I highly recommend for prayer and reflection: Owen Cummings' The Dying of Jesus.

In particular, the passage comes from Cummings' reflection on the Fourth of Jesus' Seven Last Words as he hung dying on the cross. This "word" is taken from St. Mark's Gospel (15:34)- Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?, or, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Of course, these are the opening words of Psalm 22. Pressing forward a little from Christ's intelligible cry, Owen moves forward a few verses, to the words "Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last" (Mark 15:37), writing: "Mark's Jesus dies in agony with a wordless cry." Citing John Barton, he points out that, unlike the other Evangelists, "Mark does nothing to relieve the 'unadorned brutality' of the death of Jesus."

Crucifixion, by Bartolomé Estebán Murillo, ca. 1675

Here is what I found particularly valuable:
God did not predetermine that Jesus would have to suffer on the cross, just as God does not predetermine that any of us has to suffer on our own crosses. That would turn God into a cruel tyrant [and us into something like marionettes acting out a script]. What God did in the whole event of Jesus, in the incarnation and crucifixion, was to enter into the messy details of our world, a world marked by arbitrariness and unpredictability. The God who is nothing but unconditional Love, embodied and made visible in Jesus, lets the consequences of being Love in our flawed human world happen without evasion or avoidance. He did not turn away from pain and suffering. Perhaps we could say that through Jesus, pain and suffering are absorbed into the life of God, and, if absorbed, then finally transformed
I find this valuable because, to state the matter indelicately, it calls bullshit on all Christians who seek to dismiss suffering as part of some grand plan to which we are not privy and, once we are, it will all make sense. Concretely, this results in the uttering of worse-than-useless pious platitudes in the face of someone else's suffering. When I think about these matters, these lyrics from Rich Mullins' song "Hard to Get" come to mind:
And I know you bore our sorrows
And I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained

The Friday Christians call "Good"

For this Good Friday, which comes for me at the end of perhaps the most difficult Lent I have personally endured, I offer a poem Welsh priest and poet R.S. Thomas (1913-2000):
In Church

Often I try
To analyze the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs

Crucifixion, by Eric Gill

Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
To which I add, "But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit" (Matt 27:50).

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Passion (Palm) Sunday: Holy Week begins

When writing about or preaching on the readings for Passion (Palm) Sunday one can choose either to go long, normal length, or short. Given that there are two Gospels, my tendency is to go long, but for this post my aim is to go shorter. Since I am composing this off-the-cuff, we'll see (I need to be a little light-hearted in the beginning because my thoughts are heavy).

At the Vigil Mass yesterday evening, as I was reading the Narrator's part of the Passion According to St. Matthew, I became choked up as I read these words:
Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, "I have sinned in betraying innocent blood." They said, "What is that to us? Look to it yourself." Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself (Matt 27:3-5
After Mass I found myself wondering, "What if?"

"What if instead of trying to return the money, Judas had gone to the Lord and expressed his remorse? What would this have cost Judas?" In pondering the second question, I thought to myself, "It couldn't have been worse than the punishment he inflicted on himself." Maybe I am projecting, but it seems to me we are good at eschewing God's mercy, preferring instead the punishment we think we deserve and that, in some sense, we might actually deserve.

Even though Jesus' life was not taken from him- he laid it down of his own will, which was the will of the Father to which he resigned himself- Jesus proclaimed woe on the one whose betrayal led to his death. Since Jesus died for our sins- mine and yours- it is our betrayal, too, that led to his death on the cross. While not seeking to completely exonerate Judas, or putting myself at odds with Sacred Scripture, it is important that we not use Judas as our personal scapegoat, seeking to excuse ourselves for our complicity in Christ's crucifixion. I wish to call attention here to something the author of the Letter to the Hebrews pointed out to his readers- "In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood" (Heb 12:4). If you have, I beg your pardon. I know I haven't.

Fresco from Vienna, Italy, shows Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss

Idle speculations? Hardly. As John Donne noted in his poem No Man Is An Island,
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee
Because of my personal and, I don't mind saying, traumatic, experiences with suicide, and as someone who struggles quite often with depression, it would be impossible for me to explain in words the emotion that swept over me as I read out loud, "Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself." Only a deep breath, taken at the wrong moment, saved my voice from cracking. Faces of people I know and love who have either taken their own lives, or have made serious attempts to do so, came before my mind's eye. I guess if I had to put it into words those words would be sorrowful grief.

Given the fact that most of us Christians have betrayed Jesus for far less than thirty pieces of silver, what better way to end this post than by invoking this prayer given by our resurrected Lord to St. Faustina: "For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world," or perhaps this prayer, given by Our Lady to the blessed children at Fatima: "O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy."

I believe that Pope Francis is quite right, "The name of is Mercy." If it isn't, then we're doomed. Another name for Mercy is Jesus.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Quia caritas Dei

According to St. Matthew, Jesus insisted it was on his two Great Commandments- love God with all your heart, might, mind and strength; love your neighbor as you love yourself (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27)- that "The whole law and the prophets depend..." (Matt 22:40).

It is certainly not incidental that loving God is the first of the Lord's two commandments. I don't mind saying that I believe there are ways we are to show our love for God that are distinct from how we are to love our neighbor. First and foremost, I would say, we love God by worshiping God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. It is through our worship that we acknowledge God as the one God living and true, who for us men (Greek anthropos- "human beings"- a neuter noun distinct from both masculine and feminine nouns) and for our salvation became incarnate in the Virgin's womb, was born, lived, taught, suffered and died, rose for us, ascended to heaven, sent his Spirit; it his return we joyfully await.

I think we have to be careful, however, not to make too hard and fast a distinction between loving God and loving our neighbor. To do so is very dangerous because it plays to an all too human tendency. But then there are many ways we must be discerning when it comes to revelation. For example, "God is love" (1 John 4:8.16) cannot be inverted to "love is God," at least not without fairly disastrous consequences for what God has revealed (unveiled) about Mystery of the divine. Loving God and loving one's neighbor, while distinct in some ways, are so inextricably bound together that you can't have one without the other: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother" (1 John 4:20-21).

Ideally, orthodoxy (right confession/profession/worship) leads to orthopraxis (right practice/conduct/living). But we all know, likely from our own experience, that this is often not the case. For those many times, Kyrie eleison. It is in St. Matthew's Gospel that Jesus said to the Pharisees, who were complaining (again) about him consorting with those who were considered unclean, citing the prophet Hosea: "Go and learn the meaning of the words, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' I did not come to call the righteous but sinners" (Matt 9:13).

Christianity is never just plug and play, which is to say it is never a matter of fulfilling an obligation, checking a box, or performing a duty. To live that way is, in a very real sense, to be a pagan. This is why to understand the sacraments strictly in terms of ex opere operato deprives them of their power to convert us (see "Dengenerate language; degenerating faith"). By seeking to reduce these powerful means through which God seeks to communicate divine life to us to a kind of "pure objectivity" we remove ourselves, the "subject" of God's communication, from the "blast" zone, thus making the sacraments something that happens "out there," working on their own, having little if anything to do with me- this is the all too human tendency. This mode of understanding, which run deep, not only leads us to make too hard and fast a distinction between loving God and our neighbor, but runs the risk of actually severing what is inextricably woven together, not by God, but in God. What is the change effected in us by the sacraments if not becoming more like Christ? If to be like Christ is anything at all it is to love perfectly.

In light of what revelation tells about the lie of loving God without loving one's neighbor, I think it is fair to say that loving one's neighbor is a necessary but insufficient requirement for loving God with one's entire being. Hence, we must proceed with extreme caution whenever we seek to make a distinction between loving God and loving our neighbors.

Becoming a living cross

Having finished reading Guardini's short, but very impacting, book The Rosary of Our Lady, I started reading the short book The Dying of Jesus, by Owen Cummings. Owen, who is a permanent deacon, is a teacher, mentor, and, I daresay, friend of mine. I would be hard-pressed to think of anyone, with maybe the exception of Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, who has influenced me more not only theologically, but spiritually. Theology that does not nurture spirituality, that is, help you draw closer to God as well as to your sisters and brothers, your neighbors, is worse than useless and perhaps even dangerous.

The Dying of Jesus contains Owen's reflections on the Stations of the Cross and our Lord's Seven Last Words. In his conclusion on the section in which he reflects on the Stations of the Cross, which I finished just this morning- I am saving the Seven Last Words for Holy Week, Owen quotes at length a passage from Benedict Canfield's Rule of Perfection on what it means to follow Jesus to the cross:
Therefore our own pains - insofar as they are not ours but those of Christ- must be deeply respected. How wonderful! And more: our pains are as much to be revered as those of Jesus Christ in His own passion. For if people correctly adore Him with so much devotion in images on the Good Friday cross, why may we not then revere Him on the living cross that we ourselves are?
Being in no position to comment on how anybody else conforms herself to Christ in this way (being conformed to Christ means becoming cruciform), I can say that for me what the sixteenth century English recusant Capuchin friar asks here remains merely an aspiration. Most of the time, including this very morning, I grumble, complain, stew, even explode in the face of the slightest difficulty, inconvenience, or perceived slight.

Bearing wrongs patiently is not merely one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. Bearing wrongs and other sufferings that come my way, not merely passively, but consciously using them to unite myself to Christ, "offering it up," to use the old words that these days are usually invoked in a sarcastic way, is what it means to follow Christ. In the Christian calculus, you add by subtraction and you win by losing. While the path of following Christ ultimately leads to the glory of the resurrection, it passes inevitably through the cross. In the words of a hymn:
Take up your cross, the Savior said,
if you would my disciple be;
take up your cross with willing heart,
and humbly follow after me
Lord, give me a willing heart.

Perhaps the central paradox of the Christian religion, which is a religion of paradox, is that of the cross of Christ (see 1 Cor 1:18-25). Stated simply, if I am to be salt, light, and leaven, I must become a living cross. A six word sentence is easy to write. How far away I am from realizing those words! Too often I resist the death Jesus himself insists I must endure with every fiber of my being. Instead, I frantically scramble to save myself. Especially this last week, I keep hearing the question Jesus asked Martha when, after telling her he is resurrection and the life and that everyone who believes in him will never die, he said to her, "Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26).

Pondering the Lord's question "Do you believe this?" all week led me to make an important, even necessary, distinction between wanting him to be the resurrection and the life and actually believing that it is true. After all, wouldn't actually believing him lead me to follow him, to imitate him in the way he insists I must? Grasping the necessity of this distinction enables me to understand two things. First, faith is much more than intellectual assent. Even I believe in the sense that I give my assent. Second, hope is not synonymous with optimism. We often speak of hope and optimism as if you can't have one without the other, but my experience teaches me again and again that hope lies beyond optimism. I think this is the lesson of Christ's cross.

What the Cross of Christ shows me is my my inadequacy, my refusal to become fully human. However, reading the words of Benedict Canfield this morning reminded of something vitally important: the need to gaze on myself with the same tenderness with which Christ gazes on me. Too often I am content to just beat myself up, accuse and condemn myself, or, in the words of the late Passionist priest, Harry Williams: "to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee [within that I] call God and who despises the rest of what [I am]." Such a god is an idol, a diabolical one.

My wounds are dear to Jesus' Sacred Heart and so they should be dear to me and offered lovingly to him. In the end, it's all I have to give to him who loved me, not just to the point of death, but to the extent of rising of from the dead. Just as love is the reason for creation, love is the power that raised Christ from the dead: Christus resurrexit quia Deus caritas est.

Who crucified Jesus? I did. But I rely on his words, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Despite the fact that I often know full well what I am doing, I trust in Christ's mercy. I am convinced that Jesus never looked on us with more tenderness than when he hung dying on the cross.

Friday, April 7, 2017

"In this dread act your strength is tried"

It's been a long time since I had a week as downright difficult as this week. I am eager to walk the Stations of the Cross this evening. Why so difficult? Is work going badly? No. Have I suffered a great loss? No. I did learn that Archbishop George Niederauer, who ordained me while serving as bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, a man of whom I am very fond, is not doing well. In fact, he's close to passing over. Last Friday was the funeral for a brother deacon who was my classmate in diaconal formation. Today we celebrated the funeral Mass for one of our dearly beloved parishioners. Also, my best friend's Dad died today.

Of course, there was the utterly unconscionable chemical attack in Syria this week, our response to it, and with both the prospect of more innocent people being killed and forced to flee even as we protest taking in refugees.

I am glad at today's funeral Mass our Gospel reading was from John 11. It was an extract from last Sunday's long Gospel reading:
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “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. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world” (John 11:21-27)
There is something about dealing with death makes me want to rebel. My rebellion is my audacious faith in Christ's resurrection. This faith, more precious to me that anything, is a gift from God. Without it I would be lost. It is only the Son of God hanging on the Cross that allows me to make sense of things, even as I realize my complicity in and guilt for Christ's death.

I love this passage from St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians:
And even when you were dead [in] transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he brought you to life along with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions; obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross; despoiling the principalities and the powers, he made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph by it (Col 2:13-15- emboldening and underlining emphasis mine
Jars of Clay, singing one of my favorite hymns, "O Come and Mourn With Me Awhile" is our Friday tradito for this last Friday before that Friday we paradoxically call Good:

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Degenerate language; degenerating faith

In my earlier post on the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord I alluded to the mystery of the uniting of the divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ, noting that the dogmatic definition of this mystery is denoted as the "hypostatic union." The Church's dogmatic definition of this mystery was promulgated at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, which set forth the following concerning Jesus Christ:
acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us
Reading section 7c of Heidegger's Being and Time, I was struck by a passage that seems quite relevant to the domain of Christian dogma. This passage was well-summarized by Pope St. John XXIII in his speech to open the Second Vatican Council:
What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else (emboldening and italicizing emphasis added)
In section 7c, in which he seeks to describe and define phenomenology, Heidegger, in discussing how phenomena, which he understands as the objects of philosophical inquiry, can be covered up, concealed, "buried over," or distorted observes- "It is possible for every phenomenological concept and proposition drawn from genuine origins to degenerate when communicated as a statement." This happens when truthful, or authentic, propositions start to be "circulated in a vacuous fashion," thus becoming "free-floating" theses. In other words, the historic, time-conditioned, contextualized nature of the proposition is lost and, along with it, an adequate understanding of its meaning.

In the realm of dogma, it usually becomes the answer to the question nobody is asking, or repeating incomprehensible formulae in response to genuine questions. In the first edition of her translation of Being and Time, Joan Stambaugh, translating the sentence I just cited, uses the word "autochthony" to describe what happens when a proposition that adequately conveyed a phenomenological concept degenerates. "Autochthony" means both that it originates where it is found and it is native to the system in which it is produced. De-contextualized, de-historicized, de-temporalized, I think, gets at the matter quite well.

As with the hypostatic union, a concept must first be grasped to some extent before it can degenerate. Just as most Christians, to paraphrase Karl Rahner, remain mere monotheists rather than full-blown Trinitarians, so most Christians merely pay lip service to Christ's humanity, his consubstantiality with the Blessed Virgin and so with us. While revering him as divine, many Christians, implicitly adhere to a sort of Docetism (from the Greek verb "to seem," meaning he only seemed to be human) with regard to his humanity.

In my view, a dogmatic concept that seems to have degenerated in the manner described is that of transubstantiation. To be clear up-front-I do NOT deny and fully accept the dogmatic definition concerning transubstantiation, which seeks to explain how the bread and wine become, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, in order to accept it, I have to grasp in its historical context- the counter-Reformation, a time when Christ's "real" presence was beginning to be denied by Protestant reform groups and rethought by others; Thomas Cranmer's own views on Christ's "real" presence in the Eucharist, which he never denied, for example, evolved over time to a quite subjective understanding. The Council of Trent sought to teach very clearly that Christ is truly present in the consecrated elements in what might be described as more or less "objective" manner. Nonetheless, this explanation, rooted as it is exclusively in the Aristotelian metaphysics of substance, as all dogmatic explanations are bound to be, does not take us to the core of the mystery.

No statement, dogmatic or otherwise, could ever fully explain how Christ comes to be present to us through the sacramentum caritatis, the sacrament of love, any more than a dogmatic definition can fully convey to us the mystery described as the hypostatic. Perhaps the best such a statement can do is enable us to rationally grasp that it can happen by giving a plausible explanation as to how, according to Greek metaphysics, it can be so. While we understand Christ's presence in the consecrated species to be "real," an action of God's, as it were, we cannot discount that sacraments depend, at least to some extent, on the faith of recipients. In other words, our insistence on objectivity (just as there is no pure subjectivity, there is no pure objectivity- it is a self-refuting claim because only a subject can posit the concept "pure objectivity") can turn sacraments into something akin magic tricks, which is why a strictly ex opere operato understanding of sacraments is a degeneration of their original meaning, rendering sacraments static.

At least in my view, sacraments need to be grasped phenomenologically, as philosopher Fr. Robert Sokolowski's work suggests (as an example see his article "Steps into the Eucharist: The Phenomenology of the Mass"), not in some manner that plays the subject off against the object, which playing off suggests a fundamental incongruity between subjects and objects, which metaphysical mismatch phenomenology helps us to overcome. This is exactly why we must do what Good Pope John urged in conveying our understanding of what God has revealed in ways that make sense to intelligent people living today.

As Anglican theologian John Macquarrie (among others) suggested in his book Pathways in Spirituality (a book I just finished), perhaps the best attempt to describe how Christ comes to be present to us in the Eucharist since the Council, transignification, is not incompatible with transubstantiation. In other words, entertaining such explanations as transignification does not require rejection of transubstantiation, even in an implicit way. Our understanding of a mystery as deep and unfathomable as the Eucharist, resting as it does, as all the sacrament do, on that Mystery of mysteries, the Incarnation, can certainly benefit from a variety of explanations.

I believe it was theologian Nicholas Lash who wrote something along the lines - A theologian is a person who watches her/his language in the presence of God.

"Do you believe this?"

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

It's funny what you notice in a Gospel reading by proclaiming it out loud at Mass. As a deacon, I have the privilege of proclaiming the Gospel in the Eucharistic assembly. In fact, proclaiming the Gospel is the most indispensable thing a deacon does in the Mass.

In proclaiming the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year A of the lectionary cycle, both last night and again this morning, I was struck by what Thomas said in response to Jesus telling his disciples (there are no apostles, as such, in St. John's Gospel) that Lazarus was not sleeping but was, in fact, dead. After telling his disciples of Lazarus' death, which no doubt saddened them because, like Jesus, they probably knew Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, quite well, the Lord tells them he is glad he was not there to heal Lazarus (something for which both Martha and Mary sort of him rebuke for) "that you may believe" (John 11:14-15).

If we take what Jesus said to Martha as the content of what the disciples were to believe, then what they were to believe is what the Lord said to Lazarus' grieving sister: "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 11:25-26). Raising Lazarus, which was a resuscitation, not (yet) resurrection, Jesus, in praying to the Father, expressed, once again, his ambivalence when it comes to working miracles: "Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me" (John 11:41-42).

Backing up to Jesus' summons to his disciples to accompany him to Bethany, where Lazarus lived and was now entombed, with the words "Let us go to him" (John 11:15), Thomas, who was called "Didymus" ("the twin"), or "Doubting Thomas," as he came to be popularly known due to his refusal to believe his fellow disciples when they told him Jesus was risen from the dead, replied with these words: "Let us also go to die with him" (John 11:16). What? Doubting Thomas made this faith-filled statement? Indeed, he did. I think exploring the meaning of this easy-to-miss statement can allow us to go deeper, not into the mind and soul of "Doubting" Thomas, but into the nature of faith, which is what makes it relevant to us.

One way to understand this puzzling statement is that while Thomas understood Jesus' summons to die, he did not yet fully grasp resurrection. To be fair, neither did any of the other disciples. But really, who among us does? Faith does not come by giving intellectual assent to a series of well-thought-out propositions convincingly exposited. Faith comes through experience, from events, things that happen to you, by hearing, which, in turn, comes "through the word of Christ" (Rom 10:17). Like Thomas, I think we're more familiar with dying than rising, which sometimes appears outside the realm of what is possible, but with God all things are possible (Matt 19:26; Mark 10:27).

The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Guercino, 1621

Because it can easily give rise and/or lend support to an unhealthy Platonic dualism that is sadly all-too-familiar among Christians even today, I think it helps to point out that in our second reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, the distinction the apostle makes between "spirit" and "flesh" can in no way be construed as a rejection of the body. In other words, salvation is not achieved by liberating our spirits from our bodies, as the Manicheans and other Gnostics believed. To understand what St. Paul wrote as being dismissive of or denigrating the body is not only to badly misread this passage, it demonstrates an adherence to a Gnostic tendency that has led to a lot of what I briefly described in Friday's post. As human beings, we are embodied beings, which is why bodily resurrection is so terribly important for us.

The Greek word for "physical body" transliterates into English as soma, whereas the Greek word for flesh transliterates as sarx. The word St. Paul uses for spirit, whether our spirit or God's, is pneuma. Like sarki, the proper form of sarx for the context in which the apostle employs the word, the appropriate variant of soma (i.e., soma- singular; somata- plural) is used twice in this passage. It is good that both sarx and soma are used because it helps us grasp the distinction between flesh and body.

Soma first appears in the phrase- "the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also" (Rom 8:10- emboldening and italicizing emphasis mine). Because the word in the original Greek is soma, the word "bodies" in this verse is better translated as "body," as it often is in other English translations. Somata appears in this sentence: "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- emboldening and italicized emphasis mine). By "flesh" (i.e., sarki), St. Paul referred to something like an unregenerate mind or soul, a person who has not received, has not been infused with, the Holy Spirit, what the apostle, in this passage, refers to as both "the Spirit of God" and "the Spirit of Christ"- the indwelling of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We can't really blame Thomas for not grasping resurrection, even after witnessing Jesus' miraculous resuscitation of Lazarus, or even for refusing to believe the testimony of his fellow disciples after Christ was raised was from dead. Would you have believed? More importantly, as Jesus asked Martha, "Do you believe this?" It's a lot to grasp; too much at times, really. Like Thomas, what remains important for us, what we are supposed to be reminded of on Fridays of Lent as we abstain and generously give alms to help those in need of material assistance, as we walk the Stations of the Cross together, is the necessity of going to die with Jesus. The only way beyond the Cross is through the Cross. In order to enter the light, you must first pass through darkness.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Some thoughts on the theology of marriage

In my disorderly and quite undisciplined intellectual life, if that's what you can call it (I am possessed of an intellect, even if not a terribly good one), this week I began reading a May 2013 report produced by a theological commission appointed by the Church of Scotland's General Assembly: "Theological Commission on Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry" (the report can be accessed here). In all honesty, given everything else I have going on (about which I try not to be too bitter), I haven't made it very far through the report. The report explores the question as to whether a member of the Church of Scotland can be a minister of the Word and Sacrament or a deacon if s/he (the Church of Scotland has permitted women in ministry since the late 1960s) has entered into either a legally recognized same-sex civil partnership or a legally recognized same-sex marriage.

In Section 1.5.4, the report points out a few things that, at least in what I read about marriage (mostly books and articles written by Roman Catholics for Roman Catholics), are often ignored. The title of this section of the report is- "The Contemporary Debate: Believing in Marriage. Believing in Marriage was a different report issued by the Church of Scotland's Working Group on Human Sexuality the previous year, 2012. The section of the report under consideration gives an overview of some the findings of the previous report concerning marriage in the Bible. Citing Believing in Marriage the report states:
There are clearly both continuities and discontinuities between Old and New Testament perspectives on marriage. There is clear continuity when the gospels explicitly interpret Genesis 2:24 [which I frequently refer as the Bible's UR verse on marriage] as an indication of the Creator's intent that marriage be monogamous and for life; and although the New Testament primarily addresses Christian disciples, it understands the call to marital faithfulness to be universal, and adultery to be a mark of general rebellion against the Creator
In seeking to expound on the discontinuity, Believing in Marriage went on to note:
... the Old Testament uniformly sees marriage and procreation as signs of God’s blessing and human virtue, both in the order of Creation and amongst the covenant people, the New Testament moves in a different direction. First, there is a departure from the assumption that marriage is for all – living in the light of Christ may have different implications for disciples. Second, there is almost silence on the issue of procreation – no longer is this a significant means of God fulfilling his promises to his people. Disciples are called into relationship with God in Christ, and with each other, and that relationship stands apart from, and perhaps even in tension with, the ‘normal’ social order of family life. This differing attitude can in part be explained by how the people of God are to be constituted in the light of the gospel. No longer is belonging seen as genealogical. It is not birth but belief that defines who belongs. It is primarily mission and not procreation that ensures the growth of God’s people, although this is not to deny that the divine covenant has always included the children of believers. Further, whereas the Mosaic Law assumes an intention to regulate the social order of Israel as a whole, the New Testament assumes that God’s people will exist as a minority differentiated from the wider social order, a differentiation existing even within the same family structure
I think the discontinuity highlighted here by the Church of Scotland's Working Group on Human Sexuality has relevance for Catholic discussions concerning marriage and family and not merely when it comes to ecumenism.

Continuing its analysis of the discontinuities concerning marriage between the Old and New Testaments, the section continues:
The theological motifs governing marriage also change. The New Testament views both Creation, and God’s covenant relationship to his people, in the light of Christ. As the Old Testament compares marriage to God’s covenant with Israel, the New Testament compares marriage to Christ’s relationship with his Church. Furthermore, the theme of an expected marriage between Yahweh and his people is drawn into the New Testament and presented as part of the self-understanding of Jesus. The kingdom of God is compared to a marriage-feast thrown in honour of the coming bridegroom (Matthew 9:14-15, 22:1-2; 25:1, Mark 2:18-20, Luke 5:33-35). Jesus himself is portrayed explicitly as this expected bridegroom, whose return is delayed

Before anyone starts to go crazy about "that heretical deacon," let me clearly note that the view of marriage set forth in Believing in Marriage is discontinuous with the Catholic Church's understanding of marriage. This becomes clear in light of the fact that, as Believing in Marriage points out, Reformed and Catholic views of marriage diverge most dramatically when it comes to the question as to whether or not marriage is a sacrament. Believing in Marriage points out that the Church of Scotland, being a Reformed Church, or, to stick with clunky Catholic terminology, "ecclesial community," does not view marriage as a sacrament. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion (4.19.34), citing Genesis 2:21-24 and Matthew 19:4-12, Calvin argued against marriage as a sacrament. Briefly, Calvin asserted that nowhere in his life and ministry did Christ institute marriage as a sacrament and he also noted that Scripture does not contain anything like a marriage ceremony. Of course, there is plenty to be discussed with regard to both of these assertions.

While some Catholics may protest, it helps to understand that marriage vis-à-vis the Church has a very complex, if not downright convoluted history. The history of what is and what is not a sacrament is an interesting history in and of itself and certainly not as straightforward as Catholics often believe. If marriage is not a sacrament, there is a credible argument to be made, one made by the Church of Scotland's Working Group on Human Sexuality, that marriage is not fundamental to the faith. After all, it does not touch on the content of the Creeds, which for the Church of Scotland are the Apostles Creed and the Westminster Confession. If marriage is understood as not being fundamental to the faith, then different conscientious views concerning the possibility of what are called "same-sex" marriages may be held and charitably discussed.

One thing that becomes increasingly clear to me as I study the sacraments at the service of communion as a married Catholic cleric is that Roman Catholics have a very high theology of both marriage and ordination. I think there is a distinction to be made between a high sacramental theology and an impossibly high theology of these two sacraments. I think it is pertinent to point this out in light of the fallout over Amoris laetita, which controversy, about which everyone seems to have an opinion, tends to obscure the most important task of all arising from the two synods on marriage: better preparing couples to live the sacrament of matrimony. Having an impossibly high theology of matrimony (and orders) concerns me because it has very real, very vexing, practical, personal, and pastoral implications.

It is not the case that I am opposed to a sacramental understanding of what have been described by theologian Owen Cummings as the "diaconal" sacraments. It is certainly not the case that I reject the sacramentality of either. But I do think our sacramental theology is often not only ahistorical, but often downright unhistorical (high vs. impossibly high). With regard to marriage, the Catholic Church has articulated very well the continuities between the Hebrew Scriptures and our uniquely Christian Scriptures, but I think we need to pay closer attention to the discontinuities, as well as to the actual history of the Church's understanding and practice of marriage over two millennia. Even accepting an ever deepening, Spirit-led, development of the Church's understanding of the sacrament of matrimony, how we got from there to here cannot be traced with anything approaching a straight line, which is not to say there is no inherent, what one might call "dogmatic," and enduring properties of matrimony. Conversely, the Church of Scotland, in light of the articulation by their Working Group on Human Sexuality of marriage in the New Testament, and virtually all other Protestant ecclesial communities, could stand to focus some attention on the importance and practice of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom in the Church.

When it comes to the mystery of faith as made explicit in and through the sacraments, which explicitness is at least partially derived from the lives of participants in sacramental rites, thus contributing to what makes them "real," I suppose a certain "ahistoricity" is to be expected. But fanciful and unhistorical views need to be critically engaged and charitably challenged because faith is not fantasy. Evangelization is dramatically impacted by Christians who seek to live and perpetuate some kind of saccharine alternative reality. I think the trajectory on which the Second Vatican Council, particularly Part II, Chapter I of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), set the Church when it comes to marriage, needs to be followed. This trajectory can can be described as understanding marriage first and foremost, even exclusively, as a sacrament (a mystery) instead of as a juridical reality, or a remedy for concupiscence. Like the cursus honorum, it is useful to discern to what extent the theology of marriage in the Latin Church is rooted in Roman law. I think it is only by doing this that we can begin to grasp to what extent this is consistent with revelation. I also think we're overdue for an updating, a ressourcement, of Christian celibacy, or celibacy for the sake of God's kingdom. Of course, ideally, the two need should develop hand-in-hand.

Since today is 1 April, or April Fools Day, and I am writing on marriage, I remembered that I have an aunt and uncle who were married close to 50 years ago on 1 April.

Friday, March 31, 2017

"By Friday life has killed me"

Writing the other day in Great Britain's Catholic Herald newspaper, John Waters, as is his forte, focuses on what matters at a time when the focus by many in the Church is on what doesn't, what I call majoring in the minors. While hew writes specifically about Ireland, much of what he writes is transferable to other "advanced" Western countries, especially the U.S. and, I imagine, the Catholic Church in England, given how foundational the Irish were to the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in both of these countries.

I think this, for example, finds some resonance in the U.S.:
The brand of Christianity purveyed by the Irish Church since the famines of the 1840s was rich in piety but poor in reason, which meant that in the end people regarded their priests more as a moral police force than the custodians of mystery in the world. Christ, at once the Chief of Police and yet manifestly incompatible with this moralism, became externalised and suffused in an aura of sentimentality
This not-so-old-school, but rather new and untenable form of Catholicism, mistaken by many as "that old-time religion," held sway among the largely Irish Catholics of England too. Morrissey wrote about how deeply about how distressfully off-putting this ultimately toxic form of religion, in the worst sense of the word, was for him in his Autobiography. His song "I Have Forgiven Jesus" is sort of about this. It's infantile, which is why it is easily outgrown and rejected.

I think permanent deacons, who have been described as clerics who largely live lay lives, can help overcome this. In fact, it would be ridiculous to argue that narrowing the breach between the Church and society in Western countries was one of the major reasons for restoring the renewed diaconate. I can't help but think Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin had this in mind when he established the diaconate in his diocese, and because he was the first bishop to so do, established it in Ireland. The Irish bishops sought and obtained permission from the Holy See to establish the diaconate as a permanent order on Emerald Isle in 2001, but Archbishop Martin ordained the first 8 deacons only in 2012.

The other day there was an article making the rounds on social media that posed the rhetorical question about whether reading Pater Tom (Merton) was dangerous for one's faith. The pre-determined conclusion was "Yes" and that reading him should either be avoided or done with great caution. One commentator even opined that Merton died when he did because God took him out- the Puritan god goes Catholic hunting? I would agree that reading Merton is dangerous, but not in the way the author of this puerile piece supposed. In my view, reading Merton poses just the kind of danger to which faith needs to be exposed.

In any case, perhaps with boring predictability, our Friday traditio is Morrissey singing "I Have Forgiven Jesus" from his brilliant 2005 "Who Put the 'M' in Manchester" concert. I have used this song before. Please forgive my repetition, which I don't see as being mindless.

Why did you give me
So much desire?
When there is nowhere I can go
To offload this desire

Sunday, March 26, 2017

"I was blind and now I see"

Despite the persistent efforts of many to by-pass, overlook, and/or ignore this fact, Christianity is a religion of paradox. For example, according to Christ, it is only those who forfeit their lives for the sake of the Gospel, that is, for love's sake, whose lives will be saved. Those who seek to save their own skin will lose their lives. In other words, the central paradox of the Christian faith can be stated as, the only way to live is by dying. The only way to witness to the Gospel is by selflessly laying down your life for love of God and neighbor. Not being ends in themselves, but means to ends, this is what practicing the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving more intensley during this holy season is aimed at accomplishing. This is why to give witness is to be a martyr.

The only way beyond the Cross is through the Cross. You can't go over, around, or under it. This is why Jesus describes what it means to be his disciple thus: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me" (Matt 16:24). Living a paradox requires a person to live a sort of tension. Another way to describe living a paradox is living a mystery.

Cutting to the chase, in today's Gospel it is the blind man who sees. He does not regain his sight after he washed off the saliva-infused clay in the waters of Siloam. He does not come to really see, or see things as they really are, until after he is tried, not once, but twice, and then thrown out. It was not until after he was tried, found wanting, and cast aside that Jesus "found" him"- "When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out," St. John tells us, "he found him and said, 'Do you believe in the Son of Man?' He answered and said, 'Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?' Jesus said to him, 'You have seen him, the one speaking with you is he.' He said, 'I do believe, Lord,' and he worshiped him" (John 9:35-38). When he says, "I do believe, Lord," is a sure sign he now sees.

After this, those who tried and cast out the man who was born blind also see Jesus; they behold him with their own eyes. Unlike the formerly blind man, who now truly sees because he "sees" who Jesus is, not only do they not believe, but they think Jesus is someone opposed to God because he breaks the Law by healing on the Sabbath. Jesus says to them, "If you were blind, you would have no sin" (John 9:41a). In other words, if they had had no clues as to who Jesus is- their clue, as the formerly blind man had, in fact, taught them (something they rebuked him for trying to do), was his healing- they would have no culpability. They would have no culpability because it was not intuitively obvious to the casual observer who merely saw Jesus in passing that he was the Messiah, God's only begotten Son in the flesh, the Savior of world. Nonetheless, they insist that they can see and see things clearly, see things how they really are. It is their insistence that they could see despite being blind that caused their sin to remain. How do you heal a sick person who thinks he's well? How do you save someone who thinks she's saved?

In order to really see, we need to apprehend reality according to all the factors that together constitute it. God-made-man-for-us in the Incarnation of the Son of God is not just a factor that contributes to the make-up of reality, but, as Pope St. John Paul II insisted in the very first sentence of his fist encyclical, Redemptor hominis ("Redeemer of man"): "The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history." This is what it means to see.

One might say, in order to see you need to be blinded by the Light of Christ. Saul of Tarsus was blinded on the road to Damascus. It was not until after he arrived in Damascus and that faithful disciple, Ananias, laid hands on him that he regained his eyesight (Acts 9:17). In a reversal of what is presented in St. John's Gospel, it was only after Saul could see that he was washed- died, was buried, and rose with Christ- in and through the waters of baptism (Acts 9:18). It is only by amazing grace that you can live the Mystery of Christ. And the mystery of life in Christ is that Christ can live in you by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Annunciation of the Incarnation, the Mystery of mysteries

I feel a twinge, but just a twinge, of guilt for not posting anything this year in honor of the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Today is the second solemnity that falls during Lent: the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. For those who like to do liturgical arithmetic, nine months from today the Church will celebrate the Lords' Nativity. For some reason, there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding the nature of the Immaculate Conception, which Roman Catholics celebrate on 8 December, mistaking it for the Annunciation.

The Incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, who is also Mater Ecclesiae (i.e., Mother of the Church), means that, in addition to being "consubstantial," homoousios, one in being with the Father, Jesus, in his humanity, is also consubstantial with his mother and so with us. We call the Church's attempt to convey the mystery of Christ's full divinity and full humanity the hypostatic union. Of course, words, even poetry, which comes closest, always fall short of the mystery, which, by its nature eludes our secure grasp.

Yesterday I wrote about Heidegger's assertion that "historicity," that is, temporality, determines "the ground of [Da-sein's] being." Da-sein, again, is being capable of thinking about being. In his philosophy, Heidegger distinguishes between Sein (Being) and sein (being). Hence, Sein and sein refer to different aspects. Sein is Mystery that Da-sein can't help but ponder, whereas sein refers simply to the existence of some entity. One might say that in the Incarnation Sein and sein collided, creating a sort of metaphysical Big Bang. This collision has been described as "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). After the trauma inflicted by the Incarnation, Da-sein can never be the same.

Annunciation, by Matthew Whitney

In light of this, I think it can rightly be said that the Incarnation of the Son of God is the Mystery of mysteries. In an uncharacteristic manner, St. Paul points this out in an understated way: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption" (Gal 4:4). If I am not mistaken, isn't this why we are to bow when, during our recitation of the Creed in the Eucharistic liturgy, we say the words, "and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man"?

In reading Guardini's reflection on the third Glorious Mystery of the Blessed Virgin's Most Holy Rosary- The Descent of the Holy Spirit- this morning, I was struck by these words:
The picture of Mary's later life serves as promise and security. It shows us that we must not take time too seriously, for if we have faith, eternity dwells in us (The Rosary of Our Lady 128)
Eternity can dwell in us because the mystery of life in Christ, only made possible by his Incarnation, is that Christ can dwell in you by the power of the Holy Spirit. As Michael Card, in his contemporary Christian song, "The Final Word," insightfully wrote: "And so the Light became alive and manna became Man/Eternity stepped into time so we could understand."

I think a fitting reflection for today's solemnity is one by Fr. Tomáš Halík from his book Patience with God:
The biosphere of Truth is mystery, inaccessible depths, and unreachable heights. Its homeland is the eschaton, the absolute future beyond the horizon of history - and its major role in the present is to be constantly in a state of opposition to our attempts to make absolutes out of some of our human attitudes, approaches, and opinions, which are limited by our own individual (not universal) experience

Friday, March 24, 2017

"Those who find themselves ridiculous"

Nearly every Friday across most of the years I have blogged, I have posted and will continue to post what I call a traditio. Traditio, to remind both my readers, is a Latin noun that refers to the content of what is handed on. Tradere, by contrast, is a Latin verb denoting the act of handing on.

During Lent I have been dipping back into Heidegger’s seminal work, Sein und Zeit, which translates into English quite easily as Being and Time. What is great about dipping into this work is being able to dwell on what strikes me whenever I take a dip. Today I read the sixth section of the second part of Heidegger’s Introduction to Being and Time. He gave this section the title “The Task of a Destructuring of the History of Ontology.” In reading it, I was struck by his treatment of “tradition” that occurs in the course of his discussion on the “historicity” of Da-sein. In German "da" means "there" and "sein" means "being." Da-sein, to give a brief description, is a subject capable of considering its own subjectivity, or a being capable of thinking about being. The “tradition” Heidegger refers to in this section and throughout his work, through which he sought to recover the question of Being, is the Western metaphysical tradition. Heidegger held that this tradition had forgotten the question of Being, which, in his earlier lectures on metaphysics, he set forth as “Why are there beings rather no beings; something instead of nothing?” This question is clarified even further at end of the section of the Introduction to Being and Time under consideration: "What does being mean?"

After noting that the “historicity,” which I take to mean the inherent temporality hinting at the finitude of Da-sein, “can remain concealed from it,” he notes that Da-sein can “discover, preserve, and explicitly pursue tradition.” For Heidegger, “The discovery of tradition and the disclosure of what it ‘transmits’ [hands-on with regard to Being], and how it does this, can [and should, according to Heidegger] be undertaken as a task in its own right.”

Heidegger posited that because Da-sein is being-in-time, it “is determined by historicity.” Because Da-sein is being-in-time, “historicity” determines “the ground of its being.” So then, it is of necessity that Da-sein has a history. But history, or, more precisely, Da-sein’s historical memory, tends to forget. Just as, on Heidegger’s account, it forgot the question of Being, it forgets many other things too.

It is no great insight to point out that history usually conceals as much as it reveals. This is not just true with regard to the Western metaphysical tradition that Heidegger boldly and with some success sought to “destructure” by retrieving the question of Being, but with history in general. History, as it is handed-on, often consists of what might generously be called ironed out narratives, or simplifications that leave a lot out. Often what is left out, it might be argued, is not included because it is deemed unimportant. It is frequently the case, however, that things are left out, not because they are unimportant, but because they are inconvenient to the ideology being handed-on. This is not always conscious, even when the omission, which frequently and over time gives way to convenient additions and glosses, begins.

Take a story as well-known as Martin Luther’s initial presentation of his ninety-five theses. The narrative handed-on tells us that he made his objections to the sale of indulgences known by nailing them to the door of the church of the Holy Spirit in Wittenberg, Germany on 31 October 1517. It is this date we are commemorating this year as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. But as Catholic Luther scholar, Erwin Iserloh, insisted way back 1961: the story is most likely a legend.

Iserloh noted that it was Philipp Melanchthon who first wrote about Luther’s bold hammering of his theses to the church door. But Melanchthon was not an eyewitness because he did not arrive in Wittenberg as a professor until the following year, 1518. Further, the story of nailing his theses to the church door did not appear for the first time until after Luther’s death. During his lifetime, Luther, who was quite dramatic in his speaking and writing, never made mention of having done this.

Luther’s theses were contained in a letter he wrote to his superiors on 31 October 1517. The title of Luther’s document was Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum. In it, he denounced the sale of indulgences. A disputatio was an invitation to dispute, or debate, a given subject. It’s easy to forget that Luther did not set out to create a schism in the church, or to become a heretic, but to clear up the misunderstandings that led to the gross abuse of indulgences. In response to the Augustinian friar and professor of Scripture’s proposed disputatio, the Catholic Church did not acquit itself very well. It was not until quite awhile later that Luther renounced his belief in indulgences altogether. Another example of “history’s forgetting” is set forth well by Gary L. Macy in his book The Hidden History of Women's Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West.

Where am I going with this? According to Heidegger in the section under consideration,
Da-sein grows into a customary interpretation of itself and grows up in that interpretation. It understands itself in terms of this interpretation at first, and within a certain range, constantly. This understanding discloses the possibilities of its being and regulates them. Its own past- and that always means that of its ‘generation’- does not follow after Da-sein but rather always already goes ahead of it
It is the awareness of this dynamic that allows Da-sein to interrogate and investigate the “customary interpretation” in which it has grown up, whether this is the metaphysical inheritance of the Hellenic/Roman/Christian West or the specific content of what is handed on as Christian tradition, which often depends heavily, too heavily some argue, on Greek and Roman thought. While the past, in a manner speaking, always beats Da-sein to the future, Da-sein’s ability to “better remember” the past can shape and form the future.

What is our traditio for this Friday in the Third Week of Lent? It’s James singing “Sit Down.”

Those who feel the breath of sadness
Sit down next to me
Those who find they're touched by madness
Sit down next to me
Those who find themselves ridiculous
Sit down next to me

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A few notes on deacons

Over the past month or so, I have been over-preparing for a lecture I am giving at a local parish tomorrow evening. The title of my presentation is "Diakonia and the Diaconate: Past, Present, and Future." The lecture, as you might imagine, is divided into three major sections: "The diaconate past"; "The diaconate present"; "The diaconate future". What is found below comes from the end of "The diaconate past" and beginning of the "The diaconate present" sections. It provides a very top-level overview of the history of the diaconate in the United States and the history of the order to which I belong in my own local church, the Diocese of Salt Lake City, which received 15 new deacons last month:


On 2 May 1968, shortly after Paul VI’s motu proprio [Sacrum diaconatus ordinem] paved the way for the establishment of the renewed diaconate, the bishops of the United States requested permission from the Holy See to establish the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry in this country. The justifications provided by the bishops for establishing the renewed diaconate in the U.S. were:
1. To complete the hierarchy of sacred orders and to enrich and strengthen the many and various diaconal ministries at work in the United States with the sacramental grace of the diaconate
2. To enlist a new group of devout and competent men in the active ministry of the Church
3. To aid in extending needed liturgical and charitable services to the faithful in both large urban and small rural communities
4. To provide an official and sacramental presence of the church in many areas of secular life, as well as in communities within large cities and sparsely settled regions where few or no priests are available
5. To provide an impetus and source for creative adaptations of diaconal ministries to the rapidly changing needs of our society

Newest deacons for the Diocese of Salt Lake City- Photo Intermountain Catholic

A little more than a year later, on 30 August 1968, the Holy See’s apostolic delegate to the United States informed the bishops that Pope Paul VI had granted their request.

In the Diocese of Salt Lake City, it was Bishop Joseph Lennox Federal, our sixth bishop, who established the permanent diaconate. He did this on 28 September 1974. Then-Father (later Monsignor) John Hedderman was in charge of forming our first deacons. He went on to serve as one of the early presidents of the National Diaconate Directors Association. On 26 December 1976, the Feast of St. Stephen, one of the seven men set apart by the apostles to serve the Christian community, who was martyred for his preaching, Bishop Federal, who was present at all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council, ordained the first deacons for the Diocese of Salt Lake City. In 1977, Bishop Federal ordained seven more men to the permanent diaconate. So, for the past forty-plus years, the permanent diaconate has thrived in our local church.

Diaconate present:

As of October 2016, there were 44,566 permanent deacons throughout the world. As of May 2015, there were approximately 18,500 permanent deacons in the United States. Of these about 14,600 were engaged in active ministry. Ninety-three percent of active deacons are currently married, while 4% of active deacons are widowed, and 3% have never married. After the ordination of our 15 newest deacons, permanent deacons now outnumber priests in the Diocese of Salt Lake City.

Thirst, hope, a well, and life-giving water

I preached today, but I am not posting my homily. In thinking about the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, I am struck by thirst, hope, a well, and life-giving water.

Faith in Christ is your own deliverance from Egypt. This faith that St. Paul declares justifies, liberates you from sin and death. Sometimes, as with the Israelites of old, as you make your way through life's deserts, it is only natural to sometimes wonder, "Is the Lord with me or not?" What prompts this question are circumstances that suggest God may not be present, at least not in a way you expect or would like him to be.

In his book Patience with God, Fr. Tomáš Halík suggests that love happens when faith and hope have been obliterated. It's an interesting take and a fairly convincing one framed as it is in the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and rooted in St. Paul's discourse on the matter (1 Cor 13:1-13). While Halík provides a worthwhile discussion on the primacy of love, my own view remains a bit more synthetic. I agree that when a person learns to love perfectly s/he also knows perfectly and, therefore, faith and hope reach their destination as a person realizes her/his destiny.

I believe the question, "Is God with me or not?" ought to prompt two things. First, it ought to prompt one to call to mind what the Lord has already done for her, which includes how he did it. Second, it gives one the opportunity to become more mature in her faith. Maturity in faith enables us to use what is happening, even that which is unpleasant and causes suffering, for bringing about God's purposes in and through us. In light of today's readings, there seems to be an important sense in which the Dos Equis motto, "Stay thirsty," applies to faith.

Thirst, I think, easily relates to what St. Paul wrote to the Christians in ancient Rome in the passage that is our second reading. Hope is the aspiration for something not yet fully realized. What I believe distinguishes hope from wishing is trust. Trust can only be built through experience. This trust goes back to the fact that God did not free you in order to lead you into the desert to die. The experience of the ancient Israel is recapitulated in Jesus' forty days in the desert, where he was tempted. The apostle mentions the love of God being poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. God's love is life-giving water. It was created, sustains, and is now redeeming all that is. If hope is the flower of faith, then love is its ripe fruit.

God is mystery. As such God is unfathomable depth, the bottom of which you can never reach. But, as Luigi Giussani succinctly stated, human beings are a direct relationship with the Mystery. This is why the question "Why?" constitutes our humanity. It is the concrete manifestation of the fact we are made in God's image.

In Jesus, God, who is Mystery, became one of us. The Christian answer to the question posed in a song made popular by singer by Joan Osborne more than 20 years ago, "What if God was one of us?", is: "For us men [in the original Greek anthropos- neuter term for human being- in Greek the neuter is distinct from both the masculine and feminine, unlike English, in which it is identical to the masculine] and for our salvation, he came down from heaven and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man."

The life-giving water Jesus gives us is himself. He doesn't just want us to drink it, but to be immersed in the water, which refers to baptism and is a metaphor for the very life of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For my money, the best definition of grace is God sharing divine life with us. Divine life is constituted by love. As Scripture conveys: "God is love" (1 John 4:8.16).

St. Teresa of Kolkata (a.k.a. Mother Teresa of Calcutta) took as her motto these words of Jesus: "I thirst." The Lord uttered these words as he hung on the cross (John 19:28). That Jesus thirsted for the Samaritan woman more than she thirsted for him is expressed well in the Preface for the Eucharistic Prayer for the Third Sunday in Lent:
When He asked the woman of Samaria for water to drink, Christ had already prepared for her the gift of faith. In His thirst to receive her faith He awakened in her heart the fire of Your love

Friday, March 17, 2017

"maybe they'd tell you what I would say"

Today is St. Patrick's Day. I always like to note that, in addition to being a deacon's son, Patrick was most likely a native Welsh speaker. As a young man he was captured and taken to Ireland as a slave. He escaped, became a priest, and went back to Ireland as a missionary. He is, without a doubt, a pan-Celtic saint. While St. Patrick's Day in the U.S. is a secular holiday largely consisting of the kind of excess that would make classic Celtic saints cringe, it is more of a religious observance in Ireland.

While I recognize it's probably a bit sanctimonious to say so, today I have been asking Venerable Matt Talbot to intercede for all who think and act as through the quintessence of being Irish, or any kind of Celt, is getting piss-pants drunk. If you drink, I have to say, no self-respecting Celt would drink something like Bud Light dyed green.

For what it's worth, today was a normal Lenten Friday for me, replete with abstinence, a good run, Stations of the Cross, the Sorrowful Mysteries of Our Lady's Rosary, soup and bread for supper with my parish. I did permit myself the indulgence of a Del Taco shrimp burrito for lunch. I also read Romano Guardini's short reflection on the first Sorrowful Mystery of the Blessed Virgin's Most Holy Rosary, which is Jesus' Prayer in the Garden. As I learned the Rosary, the spiritual fruit of this mystery is contrition for sin. It is a personal custom of some years now to pray the Act of Contrition after invoking each of the five Sorrowful Mysteries, just before the Our Father. What stuck with me from Guardini's reflection was this: "The hour of Gethsemane is inexhaustible. We must draw from it as much as our hearts can hold" (The Rosary of Our Lady 101).

Our tradito for this St. Patrick's Day is U2's "Bad" off their truly unforgettable album The Unforgettable Fire. Either this or a "A Sort of Homecoming" is my favorite song off this album. The Unforgettable Fire is my favorite U2 album, followed by All That You Can't Leave Behind. I picked a live version of "Bad" from their 1985 "Wide Awake in America" tour.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Praying thoughtfully, from my heart

It's easy to pray thoughtlessly, especially when praying set or fixed prayers. For those of us who pray the daily offices of the Liturgy of the Hours, it can easily become a matter of fulfilling an obligation. As part of ordination, clerics promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Secular clerics, such as myself, also known as diocesan or regular, clergy, are understood to be obligated to pray what are called the "hinge" hours (because it is on them the other 5 offices swing, as it were). One priest said to me recently after I told him the difficulty I sometimes encounter praying Evening Prayer (Vespers in the old idiom): "The office is like a difficult wife- nobody wants to put up with her." While this made me chuckle a bit and gave me some comfort in knowing that my struggle to pray Evening Prayer was widely shared, this does not describe my relationship with office.

My experience with praying the Liturgy of the Hours, especially Evening Prayer, to extend the metaphor, is more like a good, undemanding wife, who, rather than cherish, I sometimes (not always) ignore. I remember reading a kind of guilty reflection by Pater Tom (Merton) about praying the office out of obligation while he was away from the monastery. At the end of the day, like any other commitment, praying in general and praying Evening Prayer in particular is a matter of priority, of setting aside the time and, as with my wife, faithfully keeping the commitment. In other words, cultivating my spiritual life isn't that different from the rest of my life- there are no tricks or shortcuts.

What prompted these thoughts about thoughtless prayer this morning? Lent, which, like Advent, by the grace of God, never goes according to my well-laid-out plan. Because prayer is a dialogue, not a monologue, it doesn't only depend on the one praying, but also on the One to whom we pray. Therefore, sometimes it is enough simply to maintain the discipline of prayer in watchful waiting. Reading about the fifth Joyful Mystery, "The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple," from Romano Guardini's dense little book The Rosary of Our Lady, I ran across this, concerning the Blessed Virgin's maternal worry upon realizing, three days later, that he Son was not with the group traveling back to Galilee:
All of this repeats itself spiritually in the life of every believer. At first, Christ is the center; our faith in Him is firm and loving. But then He disappears for awhile, often suddenly and apparently without the slightest reason

A remoteness has been created. A void is formed. We feel forsaken. Faith seems folly. "Against all hope," we must maintain hope. Everything becomes heavy, wearisome, and senseless. We must walk alone and seek

I read this this morning just after finishing Morning Prayer (the office in Latin called Lauds). It wasn't this passage that started me thinking about how rote praying the office can become. It was the powerful Intercessions for Wednesday, Second Week of Lent, not just one of the petitions, but all of them:
Help us to receive good from your bounty with a deep sense of gratitude,
-   and to accept with patience the evil that comes to us.
Teach us to be loving not only in the great and exceptional moments,
-   but above all in the ordinary events of daily life.
May we abstain from what we do not really need,
-   and help our brothers and sisters in distress.
May we bear the wounds of your Son,
-   for through his body he gave us life
So, today, Jesus showed back up, not so much to comfort and console me, but to challenge and provoke me. In all honesty, he showed up yesterday during my silent time in a similar manner. I think these petitions go to the heart of the meaning of Lent.

To paraphrase Tolstoy: "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." Among Catholics it might be said: Everyone thinks of changing the Church, seeking to move it forward or backward, but only a few think of changing themselves. It is these few who, during their time on earth, allow themselves to be sanctified, that is, made holy, made like Christ. We call them saints. One way they allow themselves to be converted is not only by persevering in prayer, but by persevering in prayer with the Church, which can be quite difficult at times.