Sunday, December 9, 2018

"Prepare the way of Lord"

Readings: Bar 5:1-9; Ps 126:1-6; Phil 1:4-6.8-11; Luke 3:1-6

In his detailed commentary on St. Luke's Gospel, Franciscan scholar Robert Karris, commenting on the first two verses of the third chapter, points out that these two verses are "one long periodic sentence (kinda like this sentence!)" (The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 685). Karris calls these verses "an elegant beginning to Luke's story of how John [the Baptist] affects world history" (Ibid). Karras then immediately points out something even more important: "just below the surface of literary finesse lies the tragic reality of negative response to God's word and its messengers" (Ibid).

Unlike Luke's Infancy narrative, all of the rulers mentioned in this passage seem to accurately correspond with the period about which the inspired author is writing. Relevant to the negative reception of God's word and its messengers, Karras points out that with the exceptions of Philip and Lysanias, the latter of whom we know very little, all of the rulers mentioned are complicit in Jesus's crucifixion or, as in the case of Herod the Great, among whose sons his kingdom was divided at his death, the attempt to kill Jesus when he was an infant (see Matthew 2:1-12). God's word, is rarely received as good news by the rich and powerful. It is rejected by the rich and powerful as well as by the comfortable and complacent because it is a word that seeks to overthrow the status quo. For the rich, powerful, comfortable and complacent, God's word is a huge provocation, the implications of which are huge, at least for those who hear it.

Keep in mind that it is only two chapters earlier in Luke that we encounter the Magnificat of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Far from being a sloppily sentimental effusion of fluff, the Magnifcat is highly subversive. In this timeless Canticle, Mary proclaims that God, through his Anointed, "has scattered the proud in their conceit"; "has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly"; "has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty" (see Luke 1:46-56). Kathleen Norris observed this about the Magnificat:
Mary utters a song so powerful that its meaning still resonates in profound and disturbing ways. In the twentieth century Mary's "Magnificat" became a cornerstone of liberation theology, so much so that during the 1980's the government of Guatemala found its message so subversive that it banned its recitation in public worship
John the Baptist Preaching, by Mattia Preti, ca. 1665

After this "elegant beginning" to the ministry of the Baptist, our passage continues, telling us: "John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan," we learn, "Proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 3:3).

As the subsequent theological geology, taken from Isaiah 40:3-5, shows, the effect of the proclamation of the word of God is to completely reshape the world. By "world" I mean what Wittgenstein meant: "The world is all that is the case" (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1). It's easy to see why those for whom the present state of the world works well, or very well, might be inclined to outright reject the word of God. More insidiously, many are inclined to alter it in ways that make it congruent with the current state-of-the-world. This view calls for a certain passivity as we await a cataclysmic end to the world.

I presume anyone reading this has either accepted God's word or is at least not hostile to it in its true meaning, while rejecting its many "Christian" distortions. If you're like me, there's plenty in God's word to challenge and daily provoke you to wake up and begin participating in God's reign, which is already present, even if it's only the size a metaphorical mustard seed. This is what Advent, especially its first week, is all about. Very often we seem content to revel in syrupy sentimentalism.

If you've responded, or maybe more accurately, you're endeavoring to respond, or at least have not rejected God's word, then God has begun a good work in you. Through your cooperation and perseverance, God "will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil 1:6). It's time to let God's word cause an earthquake in your soul, thus changing your spiritual geography in order to conform you more to the image of Christ, whom we claim to follow, or at least whose message we deem worthy of our attention.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

Readings: Gen 3:1-9.15; Ps 98:1-4; Eph 1:3-6. 11-12; Luke 1:26-38

The most obvious way Catholics both honor the Blessed Virgin Mary and seek her intercession is by praying her Most Holy Rosary. As I suppose nearly everyone here knows, there are four sets of mysteries we can contemplate as we rattle the beads, as the old saying puts it.

By the grace of God, the Rosary of the Blessed Mary presents us with a set of mysteries we call “Luminous.” The Luminous mysteries allow us to contemplate key events in the Lord’s life and ministry. We also have the Sorrowful mysteries that bid us reflect on Jesus’s passion and death. Next, we have the Glorious mysteries, by means of which we contemplate Christ’s Resurrection, Ascension, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The final two events we contemplate when meditating on the Glorious mysteries are Our Lady’s bodily Assumption into heaven and her Coronation as Queen of Heaven.

During the season of Advent, which we started last Sunday, we focus in a particular way on the Joyful mysteries of the Rosary. Of course, it is through the Joyful mysteries that we bring our attention to the events surrounding Jesus’s birth. First among the Joyful mysteries is the Annunciation. St Luke’s account of the Annunciation, which is the only account we have, is our reading for this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

To be clear, we celebrate the Annunciation as a Solemnity in its own right on 25 March each year. 25 March, as you might expect, falls exactly nine months prior to 25 December, the day on which we celebrate the Nativity, or birth, of our Lord and Savior.

What we celebrate today is the Blessed Virgin’s chosenness. Her wholly unique role in God’s plan of setting the world to rights. Once set right, God’s creation will be completed. Mary’s Immaculate Conception does not refer to the manner in which she was conceived. Mary, the Mother of God in the flesh, was conceived by her parents, who Tradition tells us were named Joachim and Anna, in the normal way. Her Immaculate Conception refers to the reality that by a unique and singular grace, through the merits of her Son, she was conceived without Original Sin.

Saying she was born without Original Sin, however, is to muddy the waters a bit. What her Immaculate Conception truly means is that, like our first parents, Miriam of Nazareth was born in the State of Original Grace. This is why our first reading is the account of our first parents’ fall from the State of Original Grace. It bears noting that the Church, practically from her beginning, sees the Blessed Virgin Mary as the new Eve.

It is in this State of Original Grace that God originally intended and still intends human beings, whom he made male and female in the imago Dei- the image of God- to live. For the rest of us, we are born into the State of Original Grace when are reborn through the waters of Baptism. But so strong is the weight of our fallenness that we tend to sin, even after being baptized. This tendency to sin after Baptism we call concupiscence. Nonetheless, as our reading from Ephesians tells us, like the Blessed Virgin, by virtue of our Baptism, we, too, are “chosen… so that we might exist for the praise of [God’s] glory” (Eph 1:11a.12a).

Each year during Advent we celebrate two great days for Our Lady: today’s Solemnity and the Feast of the Patroness of all the Americas, Our Lady of Guadalupe. I urge all of you to come next Wednesday, 12 December, for our celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The spiritual fruit of the first Joyful mystery is humility. The Blessed Virgin is nothing if not humble. When she is greeted by the Archangel Gabriel with such grand words, she cannot believe this angel of light is referring to her. This is why, upon hearing the angel’s greeting, “she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29 ). Once she received the news that she was to conceive a Son by the Holy Spirit- a development that put her at risk of being accused of serious immorality in her culture- she delivered her Fiat to Gabriel: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:28). Much to the delight of Star Trek fans, perhaps the most accurate way to translate the Latin word Fiat is, “Make it so!”

Arnold Geulincx, a little-known Dutch philosopher of the seventeenth century, in his best-known work, Ethica, wrote: Ubi nihil vales ibi nihil velis (John Calder, The Theology of Samuel Beckett, 16). What this sentence seeks to communicate is that where one is nothing, one should act accordingly, as though s/he is nothing. Because God is love, we are not made only something; through the Incarnation of his Only Begotten Son, God makes us children by rebirth in Baptism.

And so, my sisters and brothers, with the words of the Annunciation ringing in our ears, fresh in our minds, and hopefully rooted in our hearts, let us go forth and use this Advent season to humbly prepare ourselves to receive Christ anew. Praying the Joyful mysteries of the Rosary is a great aid in doing this. Christ wants to be born into the world through each of us and all of us together who comprise his Body. In his song “Distressing Disguise,” singer/songwriter and Bible scholar, Michael Card, beautifully tells us how this happens:
Every time a faithful servant serves
A brother that's in need
What happens at that moment is a miracle indeed
As they look to one another in an instant it is clear
Only Jesus is visible, for they've both disappeared

Friday, December 7, 2018

"This way or no way"

I spent a good part of the early afternoon today reading The Theology of Samuel Beckett by John Calder while listening to David Bowie's final album, Black Star. At least for today, prior to the beginning of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which starts at sundown (about 5:00pm where I live), engaging in these activities constitute my rebellion against Christhaunkwanzika. I don't mind sharing that engaging in these activities feels to me like Advent: sitting in the dark waiting for a glimmer of light. Being a bit more honest, it's more accurate to say I am savoring the darkness a bit.

Commenting on Beckett's late work Worstward Ho, which he sensibly sees as the sequel to another of Beckett's undervalued late works, Ill Said, Ill Seen, John Calder, commenting on Beckett's take on blind evolution à la Charles Darwin, insists that for Beckett
Creation, growth and advance in terms of progress is not a positive thing but a disaster. Even Darwin did not perceive any benevolence in evolution, but only the continual advance of power. In economic terms capitalism exactly fits the description, and greed, which is the motivating force behind power, although looked at with a negative eye by much of civilized society, is certainly responsible for much of the suffering that pervades the world (The Theology of Samuel Beckett, 77)
Unsurprisingly, this is very Schopenhauerian. That Beckett was well acquainted with Schopenhauer's philosophy is a well-established fact.

Samuel Beckett

Worstward Ho takes Darwinian evolution as its starting point, while Ill Said, Ill Seen is Beckett's creation account. God is the narrator of Ill Said, Ill Seen. While Worstward Ho has clear Schopenhauerian bent, Ill Said, Ill Seen is rooted in the philosophy of one Arnold Geulincx (1624-1669), who was Dutch or, what amounts to virtually the same thing, a Flemish-speaking Belgian. According to Calder, Beckett came across Geulincx's Ethica almost by accident while a student at Trinity University in Dublin. According to Calder, as a young man, Beckett took to heart something Geulincx wrote: Ubi nihil vales ibi nihil velis (The Theology of Samuel Beckett, 16). What this sentence seeks to communicate is that where one is nothing, one should act accordingly, as though s/he is nothing.

This disciple of Descartes took his line of inquiry into the nature of God and the human condition way beyond Descartes's investigations. While Descartes endeavored to remain within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy, Geulincx did not. Epistemologically, Geulincx was what is now called an occasionalist and an extreme one at that. In other words, he believed that God is the cause of all events and that human perception of cause and effect relationships is illusory. Metaphysically, this little-remembered Cartesian disciple saw "God as being so far away that he was not necessarily aware of our very presence, a remote group of intelligent beings on a far away planet" (The Theology of Samuel Beckett, 16). A metaphor of Geulincx that stuck with Beckett and is evident in virtually all his work is that an aware human being is like someone on a ship headed West but who wants to go East. The aware person cannot steer the ship eastward or get off the ship. short of death. Therefore, all s/he can do stand at the stern of the ship, thus placing herself as far East as she possibly can.

As far as what turned out to be Bowie's final album, I am eager to see a documentary released last year: David Bowie: The Last Five Years. Andy Green's review of this film, "Inside David Bowie's Final Act: New Doc Dives Into Lazarus," begins with this paragraph:
In October 2015, David Bowie decided to end his cancer treatments after learning the disease had spread too far to recover from. The very same week, he traveled to a Brooklyn soundstage to shoot a video for his new song “Lazarus,” the name of a biblical figure that Jesus brought back from the dead. Bowie spent the day in a hospital bed as cameras captured him with a bandage around his head. "Look up here, I’m in heaven," he howled. "I’ve got scars that can’t be seen"
In the anti-spirit of the of this soul-sucking season, I offer a second Friday traditio: "Lazarus" by David Bowie.

This way or no way
You know, I'll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now, ain't that just like me?

Dreams: looking oddly backwards while moving forward

Early this morning, as lay abed in the chill of December, I dreamt it was Good Friday- perhaps the result of reading Beckett before falling asleep. Being a deacon, it is my duty during Good Friday service to leave the sanctuary, make my way up the nave, go into the church's narthex, and emerge with the Cross that will be venerated by everyone else present as I hold it. This moment each year serves for me as something of a renewal of my commitment to serve my parish and the larger community in which I live.

On my way back up the narthex, I stop three times. The third stop is in front of the altar at the top of the chancel, facing my sisters and brothers. Each time I stop, elevating the Cross, I sing: Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. To this sung verse, the congregation responds: Come let us adore (Good Friday, no. 15). My dream was set in the church of the parish to which I am presently assigned (my neighborhood parish, a mile from our house) but I was vested in the red vestments from my previous assignment: our Cathedral.

Crucifix over the altar at my parish

As I came around the altar to begin my trek up the nave to retrieve the Cross, my bishop suddenly appeared, wearing vestments that matched the ones I was wearing. Then, from the congregation, emerged a dear friend who died earlier this year. She was vested in the same diaconal vestments with which I was vested. She came alongside the bishop, to his left. Once she was there, everyone in the church (which was filled), began to prostrate. As they prostrated for the first time, being me, I thought, "What are they doing?! This isn't part of the service!" They prostrated three times. Setting aside my alarm at this rubrical anomaly, and thinking, "Well, it is the bishop" and "This seems fitting on Good Friday, especially given the large crucifix over the church's altar," I scrambled to the other side of my bishop and made it in time for the third prostration.

My friend was a mentor, a wonderful woman, one of the best Christians I have ever known. She was a prominent family law attorney and ended her career, which she interrupted for 20 years to raise her three children, as a state district court judge. She was quietly and genuinely pious. She was a person of deep and abiding faith, even through her last few years as she quietly battled the cancer she knew would ultimately kill her (and it did). In short, I cannot think of a person I know who lived such a diaconal life, that is, a life of service. What does it mean? I don't know. It was a nice dream. I awoke with a smile.

Anyway, as I thought about what our traditio might be for today, Matthew Wilder's 1983 hit "Break My Stride" came immediately to mind. This video and song are from the heart of the 1980s, which is why is why I find them both amusing and strangely comforting.

Ain't nothin' gonna break-a my stride
Nobody gonna slow me down, oh no
I got to keep on movin'

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

"We the people" - another political non-rant

This morning I read a short but packed editorial by John Dingell. Dingell served in the United States House of Representatives from 1955 until the end of 2015. His sixty years of service in Congress makes him the longest-serving member of either the House or the Senate in the history of the Republic. Retired now for nearly four years, he wrote a short piece for The Atlantic, which was posted yesterday: "I Served in Congress Longer Than Anyone. Here’s How to Fix It: Abolish the Senate and publicly fund elections." This strikes me as a good starting point for how the United States needs to be constitutionally altered if it is to thrive or even survive in the future. In essence, this means making some revolutionary constitutional changes in the service of democracy. Before I delve into Dingell's prescriptions for what currently ails the United States, allow me a short, albeit relevant, digression.

Ever since learning about it as an undergraduate, I have been a strong believer in the "Iron law of oligarchy." First posited by German sociologist Robert Michel in a book published at the beginning of the last century, the Iron law of oligarchy asserts all countries, institutions, and organizations, even those founded on and dedicated to perpetuating democratic ideals and practices, yield over time to oligarchy or governance by the few. Stated more robustly, this law holds that, in essence, there is no such thing as "organizational democracy." Even more to the point, while "elite control makes internal democracy unsustainable, it is also said to shape the long-term development of all organizations—including the rhetorically most radical—in a conservative direction" (see "Iron law oligarchy: Sociological Thesis" in the Encyclopedia Britannica). Historians of the United States have amply demonstrated that the Constitution of the United States was clearly the work oligarchic forces, which diminished the radicality of the colonies' rebellion against Great Britain and channeled it in a more conservative, anti-democratic, that is oligarchic direction.

Given that the Iron law of oligarchy has been proven over and over again, even in advanced Western societies (a factor usually overlooked by recent critics of liberal democracy, most of whom, especially Catholic ones, seem to want to bring oligarchy in through the front door, instead of smuggling it in the back), revolutions are required from time-to-time. The revolutions required need not be violent and bloody. In fact, they can be non-violent and peaceful. This is what brings me to John Dingell's Atlantic editorial. In it, he suggests nothing less than constitutionally altering the United States of America. Given that most U.S. citizens revere the Constitution as something akin to sacred writ (some, like the LDS among whom I live, do so quite explicitly- not a criticism, just a statement of fact), suggestions that it be changed in fundamental ways is never a popular position, no matter the issue or how compelling the argument. By contrast, state constitutions are altered all the time via ballot propositions.

In his piece, Dingell highlights four things, including two revolutionary constitutional reforms: "An electoral system based on full participation"; "The elimination of money in campaigns"; "The end of minority rule in our legislative and executive branches"; "The protection of an independent press." I concur that these are four keys areas. I am certainly in favor of every citizen being automatically registered to vote when s/he turns 18. We have the technology to do this. When it comes to getting money out of campaigns, taking aim at Citizens United without naming it by name, Dingell wrote:
Public service should not be a commodity, and elected officials should not have to rent themselves out to the highest bidder in order to get into (or stay in) office. If you want to restore trust in government, remove the price tag. I am fully aware that the Supreme Court has declared that 'money is speech.' That’s nonsense. The day my wallet starts talking to me, I might reconsider that view. Until then, I believe that the pernicious influence of money on our elections must be removed

Given the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, this would require a constitutional amendment. All I can say to this is, "Amen!" The necessity of a free press should be apparent to everyone. Attacks on the free press by our current president should be alarming to us all.

I also agree with him about the need to end minority rule in the legislative and executive branches of government. I part ways with him on how best to accomplish this. To wit, I am not sure about having a unicameral national Congress. I know the state of Nebraska has a single-chamber legislature. If we maintain a two-chamber Congress, Senate seats need to be allocated differently with each state having at least one and states with large populations more than 2. As a result, the Electoral College should be altered with it, or perhaps eliminated altogether. Should the Electoral College be maintained, the system of granting the Electoral vote(s) for Senate seats to whoever wins the state overall should be kept. All the other Electoral votes should be given to the candidate who wins the Congressional district. Winner-take-all is undemocratic and cuts across the grain of congressional representation.

Even if we eliminate the Senate and add the 100 seats to the House of Representatives, we would still need to increase the number of seats in the House to make it, once again, the chamber of the people. If the Senate were to remain, senators' terms should be four-years, not the current six. As presently constituted, each member of the House of Representatives "represents 747,184 people" (See "The case for massively expanding the US House of Representatives, in one chart"). Compared to other advanced representative democracies that is a very high number. In the United Kingdom, the ratio of people to members of parliament is about one to 100,000. In Australia, the ratio is one representative for about 164,686 people. Germany has one Bundestag representative per 115,817 citizens. It would be most useful just to cut ~750,000 in half.

Another practice that fosters oligarchy is our silly practice of office-holders maintaining titles for life. In reality, once a person completes his/her service in, say, the Senate, the House, as a cabinet secretary, ambassador, governor, or even as president, they are no longer Senator So-and-so, President So-and-so, Ambassador So-and-so. Retention of titles runs contrary to our egalitarian ideals. After your service ends, you once again become an ordinary citizen. Hence, you should be called Mister, Missus, Miss, or Ms, as you like.

I appreciate Mr. Dingell's wise words. With his piece, he proves he is an elder statesman, of which this country currently has very few.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

We shall see the King when he comes

Today's reading from Luke's Gospel is wonderful for showing us how, as followers of Christ, it's always the end of the world until the end of the world (see Luke 25:25-28.34-36). Our Gospel begins with Jesus telling his followers about cataclysmic events that will portend his glorious return. This is followed by him exhorting them to live vigilantly in anticipation of his return. Looked at a certain way, the second part of this passage neutralizes the first.

There has never been a time in human history when there were not the kinds of cataclysmic "signs" the Lord points to in this passage as indicative of his return. According to news reports, back on 11 November, a "tremor occurred... near the archipelago of Mayotte, a collection of French islands in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mozambique." So massive was this tremor that it registered on seismometers around the world, "from New Zealand to Canada - and even in Hawaii." Nobody is clear as to what caused this huge seismic event. Best assessments are that it was either volcanic activity or a meteor strike. But its cause remains unknown. Does this mean Jesus is due back by month's end? My point? There is no way to calculate the Lord's return.

Let's face facts, the earth is far more endangered by reckless human activity than by natural disasters. What do I mean by reckless human activity? Things like dead whales being found with loads of plastic, which was dumped in the ocean, in their stomachs (see "Yet Another Dead Whale Found With Pounds Of Plastic In Its Stomach"). How will we, to borrow the words of today's Gospel "stand before the Son of Man" and answer for this? My point? We should be far more worried about our environmental stewardship than about natural disasters. We can do something about the former and nothing about the latter. As we know, when it comes to natural disasters caused by extreme weather events, rapid climate change caused by human activity is increasingly caused by the same kind of pollutive activity that results in whales consuming deadly plastics. Maybe a good Advent activity would be a careful reading of Pope Francis's encyclical letter Laudato si'. Follow this up by finding practical ways to be a better steward (see "Reusable coffee cups? Tote bags? Here's the truth about what you can do to be more climate-friendly").

Taken by the author at St Olaf parish Bountiful, Utah, 2 December 2018

My primary point is not repentance with regard to our abuse of the environment (as badly as this is needed). Advent is a time of joyful waiting. Joyful waiting implies preparation in anticipation of encountering the one for whom we wait. What do I mean by the second part of our passage, which begins six verses after the first part, neutralizes the first part? I mean that we are to live not only in constant readiness for the Lord's return but anticipate it eagerly as we wait for it in joyful hope. Joyful anticipation of the Lord's return requires us to be awake and alert. Living this way means living sub specie aeternatatis, or, in English, "under the aspect of eternity." As I suggested in my previous post, this means living between the already of the Lord's Incarnation and the not yet of his glorious return. This, in turn, means seeking to extend God's reign, not by power-seeking through politics but by our constant practice of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving.

In short, if we could calculate Christ's return in some kind of algorithmic way based a pre-determined convergence of natural and human-made disasters, we would not need to be vigilant. Stated this way makes it sound like, pardon the expression, "Well, duh?!" But there have been charlatans who have claimed to have made just that kind of calculation and determined the exact day. Sadly, there have been people who believed these religious grifters and altered their lives dramatically but incorrectly. Advent is the time to alter my life accordingly and correctly. This means an inward conversion that results in a changed life. I can think of no better example of what it means to alter one's life in anticipation of the Lord's return than the Christmas Eve conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol.

Being a Christian means experiencing the transcendent in the immanent, like finding Jesus in the poor or in a small, flat, tasteless wafer and a sip of not-that-great wine. These two are connected. If you don't see Jesus in poor, downtrodden, forsaken, addicted, imprisoned or ill people, it's unlikely you'll find him in the bread and wine. After all, the most convincing proof he becomes the bread and wine is whether or not by our partaking of these we become more like him.

Advent: Forsaking darkness, embracing light

For the First Sunday of Advent I want to focus briefly, not on the readings for Mass, but on the reading for another of the Church's liturgies: Morning Prayer. More traditionally, Morning Prayer is called by its Latin name: Lauds. I would point out that the name Lauds is derived from the last three Psalms (Psalms 148, 149, 150), together known and "the Laudate Psalms." Before the revision of what is now known as the Liturgy of the Hours after the Second Vatican Council, these three Psalms were prayed each day during the morning office. Beyond that, in all three of these Psalms the Latin word laudate is often repeated. Of course, even in English, to "laud" is to praise. Over time, the entire office came to be known as Lauds.

Given that the morning office no longer features the Laudete Psalms each day, apart from carrying the name over for the sake of continuity, it really makes no sense to call it "Lauds." So, we properly call it "Morning Prayer." Now that my didactic itch has been scratched, I want to move onto Advent and the reading for Morning Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent.

The reading for Morning Prayer at the dawn of the first full day of Advent, a season that calls us to repent as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, is taken from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. Specifically, Romans 13:11-12 (the translation from the Liturgy of Hours differs from that found in the New American Bible):
It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep, for our salvation is closer than when we first accepted the faith. The night is far spent; the day draws near. Let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light
Repenting means to wake up, to return not only to God but to yourself and to reality. This requires asking yourself some serious questions about the meaning of life and how you live your own life in light of its meaning. You see, faith means more than just believing in some inchoate way. To have faith means to step out, to take action. Faith is my response to God's loving initiative towards me. While faith is a gift from God, the surest sign one has faith, as James suggests (likely contra some of the excesses or incompleteness James found in some of Paul's preaching and writing), is shown through works of righteousness. Chief among righteous works is caring from the poor, the outcast, the person who probably makes you uncomfortable. What else could Paul be referring to in his exhortation to "put on the armor of light"? Well, since it's Paul, he's referring to a lot of things but he certainly includes caring for each other and those in need. Too often we limit morality to "personal" morality, by which we usually mean things like not swearing, not drinking to excess, if at all, comporting ourselves circumspectly in matters pertaining to sex, and so on. I reject none of this, but these do not come before the requirement to love my neighbor in concrete ways. Indeed, what Advent calls us to, again, is to practice the three fundamental spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, the latter of which can also be called selfless service to others.

Taken last night in the chapel of St Olaf Parish Bountiful, Utah, as I began First Vespers- the first liturgy of the new liturgical year

As to "deeds of darkness," each of us knows our own heart. We are all too aware of what often lurks there. We need to expose the darkness of our hearts to the light of day. Light disperses darkness automatically. A good place to start is by going to confession. I would urge you, as you examine your conscience, to consider sins of omission and not just those of commission. Since Advent begins as a penitential season, the Sacrament of Penance is usually made more available towards the middle of the season with Advent Penance services and the like. With the Third Sunday of Advent, on which we hear the Baptist's call to repent, Advent takes a turn from preparing for Christ's return in glory by extending God's reign, which requires us to live as if God's kingdom is already fully realized (it should be fully realized in us), or the "not yet," to "the already" of his Incarnation. Even our turn from the not yet to the already is a plea for Christ to be born anew, or maybe for the first time, in us by the power of the Holy Spirit so that we might incarnate him, each of us an alter Christus, another Christ. Becoming an alter Christus is what each of us was baptized and confirmed to be. Communion and confession, then, become means of grace for each of us to be transformed into the image of Christ, together becoming Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ.

In the magnificent Prologue to St. John's Gospel, the inspired author states: "through him [the Incarnate Word] was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:4-5). As Christ's followers, made the children of the Father by rebirth, we are light of the world:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father (Matt 5:14-16)
And so, as we begin a new year of grace, a new year in which we wait in joyful hope and eager anticipation for the Lord's return, let us repent, casting aside deeds of darkness and putting on the armor of light. In anticipation of the establishment of God's never-ending reign, let's seek to establish this kingdom each day in all we do, seeking to make Christ present wherever we are. In addition to making us all one with him and with each other, which unity should include everyone, Christ comes to dwell in us so that we can make him present wherever we go.

Perhaps the best thing about Advent is that, unlike Christmas, it is not a sentimental season, but one that beautifully enables us to engage reality to the full as we await the fulfillment of reality. I will end by turning to our Sunday readings. As befits a post in which the Liturgy of Hours, which mostly consists of praying them, I turn to our Psalm (25):
Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior,
and for you I wait all the day
This, my friends, is the pilgrimage of Advent.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Join the Conspiracy: Wait for it

Here in Utah, Advent does not officially begin today until 5:01 PM, which is official sundown. Again this year it appears that many people, Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans included are already deep into Christmas.

Being demographically and culturally LDS, Utah is a place where there is little-to-no liturgical sensitivity. This not so much a criticism as it is a statement of fact. To give an example, on Ash Wednesday it is not unusual to be told, "You've got something on your forehead." Even after a brief pause, there is no realization that it is a Wednesday in late-Winter or early-Spring and so it just might be Ash Wednesday. Saying, "It's Ash Wednesday" usually provokes a puzzled expression. Similarly, there is a popular notion here that the Twelve Days of Christmas are the eleven days prior to 25 December with Christmas Day being the twelfth day. But, hey, what are you going to do?

More generally, for us Americans, there are few things we find more frustrating than the admonition Wait for it. No doubt this contributes to why we find things so dissatisfying and move quickly to the next thing, looking for who knows what. Waiting for something good, savoring it when it arrives, as the Advent and Christmas seasons bid us do vis-à-vis the Lord's Incarnation, are things we have simply given up on, or, more accurately, forgotten how to do.

It was not unusual growing up for me complain a few hours before supper that I was hungry. My Dad would say in a calm, gentle way, "It's good to be a little hungry. Your supper will taste better." Guess what? I found what he told me to be true! Of course, back then I didn't realize what a valuable life lesson he taught me. When it came to celebrating, our house was not one in which we went nuts for any holiday. We observed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, etc. but managed to keep sight of their essence, what they were about. My parents were more quietly than overtly religious. To this day, a lot of my family is taken aback by my religious fervency. Far from complaining, I appreciate the check and balance they provide for me.

As for me, starting at 5:01 PM, I will pray First Vespers by myself in the small chapel that connects our parish office to the rectory. I will do so by candlelight. I will sing, chant, stand and sit at appropriate times as called for by this office. Most days when I pray Morning and Evening Prayer alone at home I just sit in a chair. However, I always sing and chant Sunday Evening Prayer out loud.

I pray that by my no doubt imperfect observance of this sacred season the Holy Spirit will soften my heart so Christ can be born anew in me and live his resurrected life through me by the power of the Spirit.

I invite everyone reading this to join me in the hopeful waiting of this sacred and oft-neglected season by intensifying prayer, fasting, and selfless service to others (i.e., alms-giving). This is how we resist the fevered pace of the rush to and premature observance of Christmas, which leaves many people tired, broke, physically bloated and spiritually empty. Join the resistance! Join the Advent conspiracy!

Friday, November 30, 2018

Listening to podcasts and longing for home

Back in September I (finally) acquired an Android phone that, as I like to say using technical jargon, "does stuff." I apologize to Apple affectionados, among whom is my wife. I jokingly say, when pressed by Apple users, that Apple is the tech subsidiary of Scientology. Then, a few weeks ago for my birthday, I was given a pair of Bluetooth headphones. Since then I have discovered podcasts. What a vast domain! The app. I chose for podcasting, after doing a little market research, is Castbox. I won't bore you with all my adventures in the podcast-i-verse over the past few weeks. I have to say, it's been kind of fun.

I have found a number of entertaining, inspiring, and informative podcasts. One is an old stand-by: the podcast of Harry Shearer's weekly radio program Le Show. This is a program I have listened to for years. It's nice to be able to listen to it almost anywhere on my "audio device of choice." While I know this will rub some people the wrong way, I also very much enjoy listening to Alec Baldwin's Here's the Thing podcast, which I discovered onboard a Delta flight on business trip earlier this year. Most recently, he interviewed Roger Daltrey, lead singer of one of the greatest rock groups of all-time, The Who. I have also found a couple of useful podcasts that help me with some issues with which I struggle.

On the spiritual side of things, I benefit immensely from the Renovaré podcast with Nathan Foster. Over this past week I have listened to a few episodes of In the Studio with Michael Card. Michael has a new book coming out that I am excited about- Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God's Lovingkindness. A recent podcast features Michael giving a deeply insightful presentation on the Hesed, or lovingkindness, of Jesus. Do yourself a favor and listen to exactly the first 24 minutes of it.

One particular episode of Michael Card's podcast that struck me even to the point of tears, touched on a theme I have explored on this blog: my longing, our common human longing, for home. In a post from more than four years ago (tempest fugit!) I wrote about this (see "Odysseus and the quest for home"). From 2002 to 2009, The Studio with Michael Card was a weekly radio program. Judging from the episodes available for listening, about a year ago Card resurrected this for a podcast. Some of the episodes, those dubbed "Classic," are radio programs that were digitally recorded and now made available for podcasting.

The episode of In the Studio that struck a deep chord within me this week is a Classic episode. Well, actually, it's the first-half of an episode. This part of the the program featured Dr. Larry Crabb, from whose writings I have benefited for years, and contemporary Christian musical artist Sarah Groves. It is one of the "Classic" episodes, meaning it was originally broadcast at least nine years ago. It also features a pretty insightful discussion on the Book of Job.

Home is where the heart is, which is why our hearts our restless as we journey towards what the inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews called our "sabbath rest" (see Hebrews 4:9-11). I suppose this is a good place to cite the over-cited observation of St. Augustine, which he made in Book I Chapter 1 of his Confessions: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

Yesterday on Facebook I posted the titles of several movies that I think are among the best Christian movies (another post will follow on this). I asked my friends to do the same. I was surprised by how many responded (I only have 112 FB friends). One friend of very long-standing, not-so-tongue-in-check, put forward Monty Python's Life of Brian. This prompted me to immediately call-to-mind these lyrics from the song with which the movie ends - "Always Look on the Bright of Life" - "Life's a piece of shit/When you look at it/Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true..."

Hope, it often seems to me, is simply the obstinate belief that somehow, in the end, the journey of life is worthwhile. The idea of returning home, of suffering to return home, like Odysseus, which is what the word "nostalgia" literally means (not "Odysseus" but suffering to return home - language is a funny thing), is how this obstinate belief can be understood in the service of being realized.

Fittingly, our traditio for this final Friday of this year of grace is Sarah Groves singing her song "Going Home"-

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Making God's kingdom present

Because it's Year B of the Sunday lectionary cycle during which we take St. Mark's Gospel as our Sunday staple, on today's Solemnity of the Christ the King we turn, as we did for five weeks earlier this year, to St. John's Gospel. But what we hear is perfectly congruent with what have heard from Mark over the previous few months. In today's Gospel, when Jesus tells Pilate "My kingdom does not belong to this world," he is referring to the fact that God's kingdom is not established by force, by political coercion, or by imposition. In much the same way we distinguish "the flesh" from the body in the writings of St. Paul (in Greek "flesh" is sarx and body is soma), we must distinguish between "the world" to which God's kingdom is the antidote and the world, perhaps most accurately described by Wittgenstein at the beginning of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as "everything that is the case." In short, Jesus is not saying his kingdom is other-worldly. Because of the Incarnation, Christianity is not a form of Gnosticism.

The kingdom over which Jesus will rule and reign is a kingdom made u[ of those like Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, the scribe who grasped that loving God by loving one's neighbor is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices, and the poor widow who selflessly gave all she had, even though it wasn't very much. Suffice it say, a kingdom comprised of such people does not need to be ruled with a firm hand, let alone an iron fist.

As the Messiah, Jesus was a disappointment. Yes, he was a descendant of David, which is why Bartimaeus hailed him with the Messianic greeting "Son of David." But he did not come to route the occupiers (i.e., the Romans) and re-establish a united Israelite kingdom over which he would serve as temporal ruler. Because his kingship is æternal, there is nothing temporal or temporary about Christ's kingship.

Jesus is autobasileia, the kingdom in person. This is why, in the very first chapter of Mark's Gospel, after he emerges from the desert, the Lord declares, "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15). By means of the communion we share, Christ desires to be present in us so that through us he can be present wherever we go. Wherever we go we should seek to make God's kingdom present. You see, the kingdom of God is not currently absent. It is present in you and me like the small mustard seed. God's kingdom is not established by governments or cultural institutions but by people who lose their lives for the sake of further establishing it. Whether through martyrdom or simply by lives lived in service to those in need, God's kingdom is spread by people most of whose names we do not know. This does not matter, as these people seek to glorify the name of Jesus, not their own.

Last evening we watched the 1975 movie The Hiding Place. Filmed two years after the book was published, the movie (and the book) tells the story of the Ten Boom family. The Ten Booms were Dutch Christians who, in German-occupied Holland, opened their watchmaking shop and attached home to Jews seeking refuge.

Eventually, the Ten Booms were arrested by the Germans. Casper, the family patriarch, died shortly after being detained. His daughters Corrie and Betsie, along with his son Willem, were deported to concentration camps. Corrie and Betsie were sent to Ravensbrück. Throughout their ordeal, the two sisters made the kingdom of God present by praying, bearing witness, serving their fellow prisoners, and working not to harbor hatred in their hearts for those who mistreated them. Betsie perished in the camp. Willem also died in detention. Only Corrie, who wrote The Hiding Place, survived.

Corrie Ten Boom's gravestone in Fairhaven Memorial Park, Santa Ana, California

What the sisters Ten Boom discovered while interned in Ravensbrückis is set forth very well in a sort of motto Betsie uttered: "There is no pit so deep, that God's love is not deeper still." This certainly echoes the words of Psalm 139:8b- "if I lie down in Sheol, there you are." These two women show us what it means to make God's kingdom present. They also show us what Christ himself showed us on the cross: the power by which Christ will finally establish God's kingdom in full is love. It is people like Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom who will inhabit God's kingdom. I suggest reading the book or watching the movie over Advent.

We are not to wait for Christ's return to reign in a passive manner. No, as his followers, we must seek every day in each situation to make God's kingdom present wherever we are.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

A return to prayer: relearning the goodness of God

Immediately after the bishop's homily during Mass of Ordination, the candidates for ordination to the diaconate are called forward and, if married, they are asked five questions. If they are not married, a candidate(s) is asked a sixth question, which comes after the third, vowing celibacy (Roman Pontifical, "Promises of the Elect" in Rite of Ordination of Several Deacons, sec. 200). Answering in unison, the candidates respond "I do" to the first four questions (Ibid). Again, in unison, they respond "I do, with the help of God" to the fifth question. The fourth question the ordaining bishop asks the candidates (fifth question for unmarried candidates) is:
Do [all of] you resolve to maintain and deepen the spirit of prayer that is proper to your way of life and, in keeping with this spirit and what is required of you, to celebrate faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours with and for the People of God and indeed for the whole world? (Ibid. NB: words in brackets in Pontifical text)
In practical terms, what this typically taken to mean for permanent deacons, whose vocation, as James Keating noted, is one of "creative tension - a cleric living a lay life" (The Heart of the Diaconate: Communion with the Servant Mysteries of Christ, 1), is daily praying what are known as the two hinge hours of the Liturgy of the Hours: Morning and Evening Prayer. These offices are still sometimes called by their older Latin names: Lauds and Vespers, respectively. Over the nearly fifteen years I have been ordained, I have remained faithful to this promise with lapses here and there. Personally, I view these lapses as grave enough to bring them to confession.

I don't mind sharing the first few weeks of November this year has seen me lapse in prayer. Prior to my recent lapse, after Morning Prayer and some days after Evening Prayer as well, I was daily reading a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict and then making recourse to Esther de Waal's excellent commentary on it. One reason for my lapses in blogging this year is that I am striving to complete a Doctor of Ministry degree. I am part of the inaugural class of Mount Angel Seminary's Doctor of Ministry (D.Min). Completing academic work for my final year, which includes my dissertation and comprehensive examination, has proven to be very stressful. In addition to being a seminary, Mount Angel is a thriving Benedictine Abbey. So, for about a month the past three summers, I have been in residence at the Abbey during my academic residencies. All of this is just to point out that I have experienced a bit of an immersive experience into Benedictine life. In fact, I picked up de Waal's A Life-Giving Way: A Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict at the Abbey/Seminary library this past summer.

My only previous foray into St. Benedict's Rule was a few years ago when I was asked by our parish's Knights of Columbus Council to give a one-day Lenten retreat. Over the course of a few weeks, I put together a half-day on the seventh chapter of the Rule, which bears the heading "The value of humility." Chapter seven is perhaps the most famous and well-known part of the great saint of Nursia's Rule, or regula. It is in this chapter that Benedict uses a twelve-step ladder to symbolize "for each of us our life in this world during which we aspire to be lifted up to heaven by Lord, if only we can learn humility in our hearts" (Saint Benedict's Rule: A New Translation for Today, trans. Patrick Barry, OSB, 21- courtesy of one of my spiritual mentors, I have a nice cloth-bound copy of Abbot Patrick's translation).

My lapses in prayer end once I stop feeling bad about not praying as I have promised to pray and simply start praying again. This simple step shows me once again, every time, how gentle and merciful is the Lord. In the prologue to his regula, which vies for the ladder of humility in being the best known part of his Rule, St. Benedict writes:
This, then, is the beginning of my advice: make prayer the first step in anything worthwhile that you attempt. Persevere and do not weaken in that prayer. Pray with confidence, because God, in his love and forgiveness, has counted us as his own sons and daughters (Saint Benedict's Rule, 1)
Having finished chapter seven on humility and de Waal's insightful commentary on it prior to my lapse, I picked up this morning with the eighth chapter.

Chapter eight of the Rule bears the heading "The Divine Office at night." Here is the complete text:
It seems reasonable that during wintertime, that is from the first of November until Easter all should rise at the eighth hour of the night. By that time, having rested until a little after midnight, they may rise with their food well digested. Any time which is left after Vigils should be devoted to study of the psalter or lessons by those who are behind hand in these tasks. From Easter until the first of November the times should be arranged so that there is a very short break after Vigils for the needs of nature. Lauds can then follow at the first light of daybreak (Saint Benedict's Rule, 93)
In Abbot Patrick's translation chapters 8-18 appear as an appendix. In light of some alterations to the routine Benedict laid out, especially those ushered in by the Second Vatican Council, he felt they were somewhat obscure and perhaps even irrelevant to non-monastics. In her commentary, de Waal shows how this chapter, given its practicality, is relevant to non-monastics.

A photo I took of an icon of St. Benedict at Mount Angel Abbey, 29 June 2018

One of the things that becomes apparent reading the Rule of Saint Benedict, especially the Prologue through the seventh chapter, is that outward practices are engaged in only for the purpose of fostering in them the proper inward disposition. In other words, the practices laid out in the Rule are means to the end of loving God and neighbor. This is what makes it a valuable regula, with proper adaptations, for anyone who endeavors to be Christ's disciple, even those of us who do not belong to Benedictine monastic communities. As de Waal sees it, chapters 5-7 of the Rule are geared towards helping me form "the attitude that is to underlie the art of praying" (A Life-Giving Way, 56). She enumerates five attitudes: "the fear of the Lord, the total dependence on God, the constant awareness of God's presence [even when my prayer goes lax], the demand of continual perseverance and patience [of which I am reminded each time I chose to simply start praying], and above all, the motivation of love" (Ibid). In a straightforward Benedictine manner, she points out: "The whole end of life is to hear the Word and respond to it" (Ibid). It is in this way "The whole of my life" can "become prayer" (Ibid).

De Waal notes that in this short chapter, mindfulness, while necessary is not sufficient for prayer. Prayer requires fixed times and a certain structure. It is a discipline. This gets back to adhering to the discipline of praying Morning and Evening Prayer, as well as setting aside time for prayer between these two poles of the day, like reciting the Rosary or simply taking ten minutes for silence and meditation. Benedict, de Waal notes, never removes prayer from life's rhythms. Rather, he seeks to make it part of the changing seasons of the year, of daytime and nighttime, "and not least of which the rhythm of my own body" (A Life-Giving Way, 56). Returning to the tremendous practicality of Benedictine spirituality, de Waal points out:
In a world in which the techniques of prayer are widely discussed and so many varying techniques seem to be offered, it is rather startling to have the subjects of sleep, digestion, and making time to go the lavatory introduced in this short chapter (Ibid)
Once again, she highlights the truly Christian character of the Rule by noting that Benedict does not provide us with "some idealized blueprint" but rather he takes into account "our total humanity - body, mind, and spirit - and recognizes that balance here: praying is dissociated neither from a gentle handling of bodily needs, nor from intellectual demand" (Ibid). The Rule is for those people who follow it, not the other way around.

De Waal ends her commentary on the eighth chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict by highlighting the spiritual importance of rising early. I recently read two articles on this, which served to reinforce the goodness of early-rising: "It’s Astounding How Many Problems Can Be Solved Just by Waking Up Early" and "The Scientific Argument For Waking Up Early." Comparing these to the Rule of St. Benedict, as well as other useful spiritual writings, this seems to be one of those instances in which reason ("science" as it is often called these daze) is catching up, or rather confirming, to faith. or at least wise human praxis. Arising early, before the break of day, it seems, is a habit worth acquiring.

According to the Rule, monks went to bed at 6:00 PM and arose at 2:00 AM to communally pray the night office(s). "They would thus start the day in the dark," de Waal observes (A Life-Giving Rule, 57). In de Waal's view, starting the day in the dark enabled them to experience "the slow coming of the dawn," which "would be a symbolic daily reminder of the movement from dark to light, from sleep and death to new life" (Ibid). Pointing to Pater Tom's (for newish readers, this how I refer to Thomas Merton) habit of arising at 2:15 AM while staying in the hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani, she highlights "that those hours before dawn are perhaps the best time of all for prayer" (Ibid). She cites Merton's own rather poetic observation about this:
It is necessary for me to see the first point of light which begins to dawn. It is necessary to be present alone at the resurrection of Day, in blank silence when the sun appears. In this completely neutral instant I receive from the eastern woods, the tall oaks, the one word, "Day" which is never the same. It is never spoken in any known language (A Life-Giving Rule, 57)
Simple as I am, experiencing all of this today as I chose to pray again, which is what each day requires, I am grateful that God is good, kind, and merciful to me, his slacker son, but a son I remain.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The importance of giving thanks

I suppose the Friday after Thanksgiving still counts as Thanksgiving. Over most of the years of my blog I have put up a post about Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving. Beginning three years ago, we began celebrating this holiday at home. Celebrating Thanksgiving at home requires me to work most of the day preparing food and cleaning up as we go. You know what? Believe or not, putting myself in the direct service of my family in these ways, along with serving at Mass and going for a long walk with my wife, have made this holiday much more enjoyable than going to someone else's house, which created the space for a certain listlessness.

Despite the fact that I believe being thankful is very important, I am often not as thankful as I should be, especially in any given moment. Thankfulness for me usually arises when I look backwards in time. Like a lot of people, I find it easier lament what I don't have. A lot of what I don't have that I think I need are just things that I want. Quite a few of these things I am better off without. Hence, even in these uneasy times (maybe especially in these uneasy times), it is good that my country, the United States of America, dedicates a day each year for giving thanks. Beyond one day, we should cultivate, to borrow a cliché, an attitude of gratitude. I don't know about you, but for me that is a tall order many days, perhaps even most days.

However, despite themselves, people seem to cotton to the opportunity to express gratitude. It seems quite natural to express thanks for people and circumstances before getting around to expressing thanks for things. As I never tire of saying, at least from a Christian standpoint, wealth and material abundance are obstacles not only to salvation but to happiness in the here and now. Like eating junk food when you are really hungry, trying to fill the existential void tha is part and parcel of being human, which parcel is made larger for many of us by living in affluent, late capitalist societies, the chasm only yawns wider.

Welsh landscape

As Christians, we first and foremost express gratitude to God. Our primary way of doing this is by participating in the Eucharist. In its original Greek, "Eucharist" refers to giving thanks. So, if you attended Mass yesterday, or otherwise celebrated the Lord's Supper with members of your local Christian assembly, you participated in the greatest feast of all, which dwarfs whatever other meal you went on to eat. You know, receiving a small, tasteless, wafer and sip of not-so-great wine highlights nicely what I was trying to communicate in the previous paragraph.

Of the several options for Gospel readings on Thanksgiving, we used the pericope from St Luke's Gospel in which Jesus heals the 10 lepers who cry out to him for mercy (see Luke 17:11-19). Of the 10, only one returned to give him thanks. The Greek word used in this verse for the English phrase "thanked hi" is euchariston (Luke 17:16). Just like in the parable related by the inspired author Luke seven chapters earlier (see Luke 10:25-37), the one healed leper who returned to thank Jesus is a Samaritan. Just as Jesus averred at the end of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, referring to the thankful Samaritan who was healed of leprosy, we can end this too by insisting "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37).

Speaking of being thankful, two days ago, the day before Thanksgiving, we celebrated the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This observance is all about us sharing in the gratitude of Joachim and Anna for Our Lady, who was chosen before she was presented.

The National, with their characteristic gravity, singing "Save the Bird" from this year's Thanksgiving episode of a television show I like quite a bit - Bob's Burgers- is our Friday traditio:

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Year B Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Dan 12:1-3; Ps 16:5.8-11; Heb 10:11-14.18; Mark 13:24-32

Today is the penultimate Sunday of this liturgical year. For those who are scratching their heads, “penultimate” (a great word) means “next-to-last.” Since each year on the Feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the liturgical year, we ritually commemorate the end of the world, our Gospel reading for today is fittingly apocalyptic in anticipation of next Sunday.

“Apocalyptic” (another great word) refers to something covered or unknown being unveiled or revealed. This is why another title for the Book of Revelation is “The Apocalypse.”

Sometimes it’s easy to forget or, perhaps more accurately, ignore that we believe and profess Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” (The Roman Missal, English Translation According to the Third Typical Edition, The Order of Mass, sec. 18). Today’s Gospel shows us that this teaching comes from the Lord himself. While we believe that he will return in glory to gather his elect, we do not know the day nor the hour of his return. Every attempt to predict Christ’s Second Coming has been wrong. For some people who have believed those who claimed to know the day and the hour of the Lord’s return, this has proven catastrophic.

Because we do not know when Christ will return, like the ten wise virgins in Matthew's Gospel, we need to live in a state of readiness (Matt 25:1-13). In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus tells those listening that his return is imminent, thus implying they should be prepared. Among other things, being prepared to meet the Lord means not growing weary during our hopeful waiting. It means not becoming distracted by our society’s many allurements, almost all of which are like eating junk food to satisfy real hunger. After professing that Christ will return to judge the living and the dead, in the Creed we confess that his “kingdom will have no end” (The Roman Missal, English Translation According to the Third Typical Edition, The Order of Mass, sec. 18). Making yourself ready for the coming of God's unending kingdom means living it now as a present reality instead of deferring it, believing it has nothing to do with how you live.

Who are the elect that Jesus speaks about in today’s Gospel reading? They are the ones who live the kingdom of God as a present reality. This means living in accordance with those teachings Jesus imparted in his School of Discipleship. If you remember, Jesus's teaching centered on the fact that you become great by serving others for the sake of God’s kingdom. Indeed, he taught the way you save your life is by losing it for his sake, while seeking to save your life will result in losing it.

In St Mark’s Gospel, once the lessons that make-up Jesus’s School of Discipleship are concluded, what these things mean immediately begin to become clear. The first encounter in the section of Mark’s Gospel that follows the “On the Way” section occurs as Jesus and the disciples pass through Jericho. It is from Jericho that they will make their way up the mountain to Jerusalem. Passing through the town, they encounter the blind man, Bartimaeus. Despite being blind, Bartimaeus is the only one who “sees” that Jesus is the Messiah. This is indicated by his calling this itinerant rabbi from Nazareth “son of David” (Mark 10:47-48). Son of David is a Messianic greeting. And so, even before restoring his eyesight, Jesus tells the blind beggar, “Go your way; your faith has saved you” (Mark 10:52). Rather than going his own way, Bartimaeus follows Jesus.

The Last Judgment, by Giotto, 1306

After arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus encounters the sincere scribe who asks him which of all the commandments are the greatest. For observant Jews of Jesus's day, observance of the Law meant adhering to the 613 mitzvot (mitzvot means "words" in Hebrew). These were 613 rules, dos and donts, the observance of which constituted keeping the Law. He wanted to know which of all these were the greatest. The Lord answers this serious inquiry from the heart of the Torah by telling the scribe the end to which all the other commandments are but the means: loving God with your whole being and loving your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31; Deut 6:4-6; Lev 19:18).

Understanding the Lord, the scribe makes the relevant point, which bears a similarity to our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: “to love [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself' is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33). This realization prompts the Lord to tell him: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). After Jesus tells the scribe this, the inspired author of Mark relates that nobody dared ask him any more questions (Ibid.). This is a curious remark, is it not? Why did no one dare to ask him more questions? Perhaps it was because they found his answer perhaps a bit too challenging.

In last week’s Gospel, we heard about the poor widow who put what little money she had into the Temple treasury. Observing her at a distance, Jesus tells those who were with him that her few pennies are worth more than the much larger bequests made by wealthier people (See Mark 12:41-44). These three people bring to life the lessons Jesus taught the Twelve while they were “On the Way.” By so doing, they also provide the criteria for judgment.

Lest we grow discouraged by the high demands Jesus makes of those who would follow him, our reading from Hebrews today should encourage us. Jesus Christ is the Mercy of God. All of the sacrifices made in the Temple were but foreshadowings of the one sacrifice Christ made on the cross. By believing that Jesus is the Christ we who are set apart by baptism and confirmation are being made perfect by grace. We come to this table of Word and Sacrament each week to receive the instruction and strength we need to live as Jesus’s followers and to encourage each other as we walk the road of life.

By living in the expectation of Jesus’s imminent return, which we do by nurturing the mustard seed that is God kingdom, planted by Jesus, we don’t need to worry ourselves about looking for esoteric signs of his coming. Besides, seeking such signs, as the Lord indicated, is a futile endeavor. As we contemplate the end of the world, or at least call to mind the horizon of our own mortal lives in preparation for a new liturgical year, a new year of grace, I hope all of us re-commit ourselves following Jesus. You do this by loving God with your entire being. You cannot love God completely without also loving your neighbor as yourself. You cannot love your neighbor, who, Jesus tells us in the Parable of the Good Samaritan is the person you encounter who needs help (Luke 10:29-37), without serving her.

There is a story told about St Francis: one day he was working in the garden with another friar when the friar asked Francis, who was committed to serving others and who knew what it means to call Jesus Lord, what he would do if the Lord returned right at that moment. Francis replied: “I would just keep working.” This answer is indicative of someone who understands that God’s kingdom is already present in the world and who works to spread it and so looks forward with a peaceful conscience to its growing until the day when, having subjected all things, including to death, to himself, Christ turns everything over to the Father and God becomes all in all (1 Cor 15:28).

In a recent tweet, Pope Francis pointed out: “Nobody can delude themselves by thinking, ‘I’m fine because I’m not doing anything wrong’. To be a follower of Jesus it is not enough not to do wrong, because there is good that we must do!” In a very real sense, every day is judgment day. This is why taking the opportunity to both think about your death and examine your conscience daily as well is a good, perhaps even necessary, spiritual practice, as is going to confession with some frequency. The Church’s Prayer after Communion for today implores God that our participation in this Eucharist “may bring us growth in charity” (The Roman Missal, English Translation According to the Third Typical Edition, Proper of Time, Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time). Lord, hear our prayer.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Celebrating the world's end and feeling fine

Each year the Roman Catholic Church dedicates the month of November to praying for the dead. It is also during November that the liturgical comes to an end. Of course, the last Sunday in Ordinary Time is the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Hence, our readings from the lectionary during these final weeks of the year tend to be eschatological (i.e., having to do with the end of time). Our second reading for this Solemnity is taken from the Book of Revelation. In the northern hemisphere, late autumn lends itself nicely to reflecting on death and last things.

Throughout our uniquely Christian Scriptures, collectively known as the New Testament, great emphasis is placed on living in anticipation of Jesus's return, which can happen at any time with no warning. Living this way is how Christ's disciples are to live. It doesn't mean that the things of this world do not matter. On the contrary, it means how we live in this world matters greatly. It is not whether or not life in this world matters, but what in the world matters and what doesn't. Living this way requires us not only to detach ourselves from riches and possessions but to use our time and resources to take care of those in need.

Christ the Judge, Basilica of the Immaculate Conception

To live in this way is how a person prepares for eternal life, for unending life in in God's kingdom. To live in any other way is move away from life in God's kingdom, perhaps ensuring that life in that kingdom, which, according to the teaching of the Lord, is our world turned upside-down, is not our desired destiny.

It's important to keep in mind that God's unending kingdom, once established, will not be in heaven. Rather, heaven will come down to earth:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.b 3I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away (Revelation 21:1-4)
A fitting for traditio for this penultimate Friday of our current year of grace is the Gradual from the Requiem Mass:

Monday, November 12, 2018

Beginning a bit early: a pre-Advent reflection

Since returning (or is that "returning"?) from my blogging hiatus at the end of July my efforts here have been pretty spotty at best. This can be put down to two factors: lack of time and lack of desire. Lately, my desire to write regularly has begun to return. As I was pondering this earlier today, it occurred to me that Advent is just around the corner. Advent, of course, marks the beginning of a new Liturgical Year. It seems a good time to start making New Year's resolutions. One of those is to renew my commitment to blogging, which I have missed terribly. As I have stated a number of times, blogging helps me a great deal. I am in need of just the kind of help blogging provides.

While I am on the subject of Advent, it bears noting that today, the day of after the Feast of St Martin of Tours, known as "Martinmas," on which fell Armistice Day- the centenary of which we observed yesterday, and my birthday, that formerly in some parts of the Western Church was the beginning of a season of preparation for Christmas. Where it was observed, it was a season similar to Lent, a season of intensified prayer, fasting, and alms-giving after the conclusion of a great feast and in preparation for an even greater one.

Most Eastern Christians are still encouraged to observe an Advent fast. Among Roman Catholics, it seems to me, Advent has become a very confused affair. This confusion predates the reforms made after Vatican II. Years ago as I was learning about these things myself and experimenting with them, I posted about them a lot. I mention this because today I am beginning my preparation for the celebration of the Lord's Nativity, that day when eternity broke into time. The Incarnation, it has been observed, "is so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma" on the world. These next few weeks, Thanksgiving excepted, will be my Advent preparation.

During this period of preparing for Advent, I am going to endeavor to post more, not for your sake, dear readers, that would be presumptuous, but for my own. Nonetheless, as it's been for the past 12+ years, my prayer will be that what I write will help others encounter and follow Jesus in the hurly-burly of late modern life in advanced Western society. This milieu, the very one in which I find myself, is one in which it can be very difficult to encounter and follow Jesus. For those who are trying to follow him, it can be difficult to even really know what that means. One thing I can write with great certainty: the risen Lord is not encountered and cannot be followed by means of a political ideology, either of the left or right.

The challenge for disciples of Christ is to follow him in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Finding out exactly what this consists of for me requires me to be connected to him through prayer. In other words, it is always a matter of discernment, of being led by the Spirit. In addition to prayer, this requires sacrifice and the willingness to step outside of myself. Dear friends, there is no Christian spirituality that does not consist of the three spiritual disciplines taught to us by the Lord himself: prayer, fasting, alms-giving.

St Martin of Tours, by Léo Schnug, 1906. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Advent itself begins with First Vespers, known these days as Evening Prayer. Hence, the first liturgical office of the new year will be prayed on Saturday, 1 December, on or about sundown (liturgical days go from sundown to sundown, which is why you can attend Sunday Mass on Saturday evening). Here in Utah, official sundown on that day is (brace yourself) 5:01 PM.

It seems to me that Advent, despite being a short liturgical season, has several distinct aspects. The first aspect carries over from the Feast of Christ the King, which Roman Catholics observe on the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year. Each year on Christ the King we acknowledge that with the Incarnation of God's Only Begotten Son the end of the world has begun. And so, preparing for Christ's return in glory to judge the living and the dead, Advent takes on a penitential tone. Another aspect of Advent is preparing to celebrate, to commemorate, Jesus birth in Bethlehem of Judea more than 2,000 years ago. One might say these two aspects are welded together on the Third Sunday of Advent. The Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday (the Sunday we light the rose-colored candle in the Advent wreath and, if available, the day we wear the rose vestments, instead of the violet ones). Each year on Gaudete Sunday our Gospel reading tells us about the ministry of John the Baptist. In no certain terms, our Gospel reading calls upon to repent. This reveals yet a third aspect of Advent: Jesus coming to us now in the present.

Advent, in case you did not know, means "coming." Without exaggeration one can say that nearly all of human history has been an advent: waiting for the Lord's Incarnation and waiting for his glorious return. But it is not as though his first advent was without effect. It's not like he showed up for a little while and then disappeared again. His Ascension was followed by Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is the mode of Christ's resurrection presence between the already of his first advent and not-yet of his second. The masterworks of the Spirit are the sacraments. The Eucharist is the sacrament of sacraments. It is through the sacraments that Christ not only makes himself present now but makes himself present among us, in us, and through us.

Keeping the above in mind, for those of us who participate in Mass predominantly or exclusively on Sundays and holy days (i.e., the days we are "obligated" to participate- this number includes me), each week can be approached as an Advent, as a preparation for another profound encounter with the Lord in the Mass. Hence, we observe Friday as Good Friday, Saturday as Holy Saturday, and Sunday as Easter/Pentecost.

A practice that helps me observe each week as an Advent is praying the Rosary daily. On Monday I pray the Joyful Mysteries; on Tuesday I pray the Luminous Mysteries; on Wednesday the Sorrowful Mysteries; Thursday the Glorious Mysteries. I let this be interrupted for some solemnities, on which I might pray the mysteries most appropriate for it. Then on Friday, I pray the Sorrowful Mysteries in the morning and try to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy during the hour of mercy (i.e., 3:00 PM). On Saturday I might pray either the Joyful or Luminous again (during Advent and Christmas, the Joyful) and on Sundays, always the Glorious Mysteries. I know, I know this is not the traditional pattern. But then, in my view, the traditional pattern has never accounted for the Luminous Mysteries, promulgated by Pope John Paul II. It seems to me that not having a set of mysteries with which to meditate on the Lord's life and ministry was quite a discernible gap.

Just as during Advent, the Lord is with us throughout the week. It is our joy to make him present wherever we may be. It is his joy make himself present through us to others in our acts of kindness and charity.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Following Jesus requires a change of heart

Readings: Deut 6:2-6; Ps 18:2-4. 47.51; Heb 7:23-28; Mark 12:28b-34

It's very likely that you've heard or read the observation "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car." Like most such pithy observations, there is something in this to which it is worth the church-goer to attend. Of course, there's a sense in which this observation is used in an exaggerated manner. The aim of this exaggerated manner is to point out that there is no need to attend church, at least not often. Sticking with the analogy of this observation, a car that never goes to a garage will likely break down and, while remaining a car (at least until it is scrapped or fixed, which fixing usually occurs in a garage) will be useless. However, my purpose in mentioning this observation is not so I could give this retort. On the contrary, it is the bit to which the church-goer ought to attend that interests me.

What is the bit to which church-goers, like me, should attend? We should attend to whether our religion is true or false. What makes the religion, the Christianity, of any particular Christian true or false depends on whether it is a matter of external observance only or whether one's external observance leads to the necessary change of heart. Having a changed heart can be summed up in one word: repent. The Greek word that is often translated into English as "repent" is metanoia. Without belaboring the etymology of this word, in essence, metanoia means to have a change of mind. Colloquially, then, to repent means to be converted. Making it even simpler, to be converted is to be changed. For the disciple of Christ, being changed into Christ-likeness is a long (usually life-long) endeavor. If taken seriously, becoming like Christ is at times very difficult because I need to be changed in ways that I recognize I need to change but that are very difficult for me and because I need to change in ways to which I am resistant as well as in ways I may not even recognize at present.

That true religion is a matter of the heart is what Jesus seeks to convey in today's Gospel. Jesus teaching about the two great commandments is the heart of the Torah: loving God with your whole being expressed as loving your neighbor as you love yourself. That this teaching is the heart of the Torah is demonstrated, at least in part, by our first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, which contains what in Hebrew is called the Shema Yisrael- "Hear, O Israel" (Deut 6:4). The other part comes from one of the chapters of the Book of Leviticus that comprise what is often referred to as "The Holiness Code": "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18).

Like last week, one of the unique features of today's Gospel is that the Lord encounters someone who appears to be on the same wavelength. If you remember in last week's Gospel Bartimaeus (see: Mark 10:46-52), the blind beggar, by calling Jesus "Son of David," recognizes him as the Messiah. The irony of this pericope is that it is the blind man who "sees" Jesus for who he truly is even before the Lord restores his sight. This is why Jesus, after hearing Bartimaeus's request to see, tells him- "Go your way; your faith has saved you" (Mark 10:52). This is reminiscent of Jesus's healing of the paralytic way back at the beginning of his Galilean ministry (see Mark 2:1-12). Jesus tells the man whose friends lowered him into the room from the roof, "Child, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5). The Lord only commands the man to walk in order to show those who doubted that he has the power to forgive sin, which is the power to bring about the healing we all need: a healed, or changed, heart.

In posing his question to the Lord, the scribe in today's Gospel seems to ask in an authentic manner. In other words, he is not trying to debate with Jesus or to trip him up. In light of Jesus's answer, the scribe recognizes that true religion is a matter of the heart, a matter of loving God by loving your neighbor. Going further, he recognizes something many of the Hebrew prophets taught: that the practice of rituals, even the ones commanded by God, in and of themselves accomplish nothing (see Amos 5:21-24 as an example). To believe you are saved merely by showing up gets back to the salient bit that arises from the car in the garage analogy. This is why Mass begins with the Penitential Rite and concludes with the Dismissal.

What happens in between the Penitential Rite and the Dismissal matters a lot. What matters even more is how we respond. One of the things that happen in between is the Liturgy of the Word, the proclamation and hearing of God's word, which hopefully includes a homily that instructs about what we've heard and draws some implications for our individual lives and our life together from it. If we're paying attention right now, both as preachers and hearers (a preacher must hear God's word before preaching), our Gospel readings are very challenging, especially for congregations consisting mostly of comfortable middle class people living in a wealthy society, one in which the haves seem hellbent on taking even more from the have-nots. If we are not open to letting ourselves be challenged by the Lord, then in what manner can we be considered his disciples?

Our epistle reading for today, taken once again from the Letter to the Hebrews, reinforces the Gospel lesson. The Eucharist is not a sacrifice like those offered by ancient pagan religions or even by the ancient Israelites in their Temple. The Eucharist is a living, non-bloody sacrifice by which, through the ministry of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, we sacrificially offer ourselves to God in service to those in need.

A fitting way to end this reflection is by appealing to the Letter of James. Along with the Gospel According to St. Mark, the Letter of James may well be the book of our uniquely Christian scriptures that teaches us, in a practical manner, what it means to adhere to the religion of Jesus:
Indeed someone may say, "You have faith and I have works." Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble (James 2:18-19)
Recognizing this and amending your ways accordingly is the change of heart Christ calls on his followers to have. It is the only way to move closer to God's kingdom and to make God's reign a present reality.

"Prepare the way of Lord"

Readings: Bar 5:1-9; Ps 126:1-6; Phil 1:4-6.8-11; Luke 3:1-6 In his detailed commentary on St. Luke's Gospel, Franciscan scholar Robe...