Friday, August 23, 2019

The delusion of being powerful

Ministering to the sick is important on many levels. Most importantly, it is about the sick person knowing s/he is loved and not forgotten or discarded. But as the late Cardinal Carlo Martini wrote:

Sickness is part of life, not like growth or gratification, but more like an interruption, a suspension, a burden, a nuisance even. Far from being an accident, it reveals to us the normal, limited condition of all human satisfaction. Sickness defines me as a fragile, weak, uncertain, and needy being.

Sickness clearly reveals what is hidden in me even when I am healthy, and I fear it because I am loath to see my limitations and my weak points revealed (On the Body: A Contemporary Theology of the Human Person, 20-21)
It was St. Paul who insightfully observed: "Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 12:10). This is one of those statements we can either reduce or simply pass over. In the passage leading up to this statement Paul recounts his woes. In other words, understanding what he means can only be learned through experience.

As the late and still badly missed Rich Mullins sang: "We are not as strong as we think we are." You guessed it, that is our Friday traditio:

"To stand there it takes some grace, 'cuz we are not as strong as we think we are."

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Jesus and the fire of God's love

Readings: Jer 38:4-6.8-10; Ps 40:2-4.18; Heb 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53

What is Jesus on about in today's Gospel? These are the kinds of passages that prove scary to people, especially when they are treated in a vacuum rather than in context. As it pertains to Gospel readings from the Lectionary, context means both situating the passage in the biblical book and section of that book in which it is found, as well with the other readings from the Lectionary for that day, with which it is harmonized.

Our reading from the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) for this Sunday is taken from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. It is a difficult reading because Jeremiah, in being true to his prophetic calling, which consisted of calling the kingdom of Judah back to fidelity with its covenant with God, experiences the wrath of the king. The reason the king's advisors call for Jeremiah's death is because by speaking prophetically he is demoralizing people and, in their view, not interested the nation's welfare. The implication is that he is seeking to bring about Judah's demise. In short, Jeremiah is deemed an enemy of the state. In reality, the welfare of the people and of the nation are foremost on Jeremiah's mind as well as first in his heart.

Nonetheless, Jeremiah is seized and cast into a cistern in which there was "only muck." Seemingly in despair for being punished simply for being faithful to his divine calling, the prophet "sank into the muck." I use "muck" instead of "mud" as the result of making reference to Robert Alter's translation of the Hebrew Bible. His insistence on using "muck" arises from his observation that a cistern, which is a pit for collecting rainwater, in midsummer, which is when this episode takes place, would contain "only a residue of muck" (The Hebrew Bible: A Translation- Prophets, 986). Living in the desert, Alter's explanation makes me think of gnats, flies, and wasps, which hover over such muck in the heat of a summer's day.

It bears noting that it was a Cushite, not an Judahite (i.e., a Jew), who implored the king to let him save Jeremiah from starvation. So, Jeremiah's life was spared by the good graces of a benevolent foreigner. As Alter observes, the Cushite, Ebed-Melech, was very likely a black African. He further notes the irony that it should be a foreigner who takes "the initiative to save the prophet" (The Hebrew Bible, 986).

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews shows that the connection between Jeremiah and Jesus could not stronger. "For the sake of the joy that lay before him," the inspired author writes, Jesus "endured the cross" (Heb 12:2). Jesus did not merely endure the cross, by despising the shame this hideous form of death was intended to impose who were so executed, Jesus he defied death. Just as Christ endured "opposition from sinners," we, too, should remain steadfast and "not... lose heart" when our love not only when our love is not returned but when we are rejected and despised for it (Heb 12:3). In fact, our steadfastness should be such that we struggle against sin, our own sin, "to the point of shedding blood" (Heb 12:4).

This past week, the Church observed the Memorial of St. Maximilan Kolbe, who, like Jeremiah, died of imposed starvation. Fr. Kolbe voluntarily the place of a Jewish man in German concentration camp. Praying Morning Prayer that day I was struck by one of Intercessions, taken from the Common of One Martyr:
Your martyrs followed in your footsteps by carrying the cross,
   -help us to endure courageously the misfortunes of life
It may seem that, unlike Jeremiah, Maximilan Kolbe was not rescued by a foreigner. In a reversal, this righteous Gentile was rescued by the resurrection of the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.

Indeed, Jesus came to bring fire upon the earth. In its essence, what is this fire? Is it literal? Is God going to burn everything just as, in the flood, he drowned nearly everything? No! Jesus came to set the earth on fire with the love of God. He is God's love incarnate and resurrected. Jeremiah shows, as does Jesus, for that matter, that the love of God is frequently not well-received. It is not the one aflame with the fire of God's love who divides herself from others as the result of some imagined holy separation. Rather, it the division arises from the rejection of God's love by those on whom it is lavished. Far from embracing being cast into the cistern as a relief, Jeremiah languishes still on fire with the love of God.

Just as Jesus "endured" his passion without arguing or disputing, our passage from the Hebrew Bible conveys no words spoken by Jeremiah. The prophet certainly does not speak in his own defense. Just as Jeremiah was seen as a nemesis to his people, so Jesus was deemed to be a danger by the Sanhedrin of his own day. Let's recall these words put in the mouth of Caiaphas by the inspired author of St. John's Gospel: "it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish" (John 11:50).

As the Lord indicates in our Gospel today, love usually results in suffering. Love, of course, is not all suffering. But to love is to suffer, at least to some extent and some of the time. Jesus speaks about the "anguish" he must experience until the redemption, the reconciliation, the communion he came establish is fully realized. Walking the way of love is to intentionally embrace that path of maximum resistance. As a member of his body, the Church, it is through you that the earth is to be set afire by God's love and it is through you that Christ experiences the anguish to which he refers in our Gospel reading.

It was only a month ago that our second reading for Mass, taken from St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians, began with these words: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking* in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church" (Col 1:24). Indeed, these days faithful members of the Christ's Church suffer for the things inflicted on the young and innocent lambs who by wolves masquerading as shepherds and businessmen pretending to be bishops. To give up on the Church, however, is not only to give up on Christ, it is to give up on the love with which God seeks to set your heart aflame.

As the last verse of the twelfth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, the chapter from which our second reading is taken, asserts: "For our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:29). "Be who God meant you to be," wrote St. Catherine of Siena, "and you will set the world on fire."

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Depression and hope through faith

I don't want to go on and on about depression. One reason is that I don't want to wallow in my affliction. Another reason is I don't desire to impose my suffering others, still less to garner pity. In all honesty, it isn't really that pleasant to deal with either internally or externally. Hence, the purpose of this brief post is to share how, in my experience, God finds a way through the fog of my self-absorption. One key to this, at least for me, is to send out a beacon through the fog, so to speak.

I send out this beacon by keeping up the spiritual discipline of prayer. On a daily basis, for me, this consists of fidelity to praying Morning & Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, doing some spiritual reading in conjunction with Morning Prayer, which Monday-Wednesday consists of practicing lectio divina with the readings for the upcoming Sunday and Thursday-Sunday reading from a carefully selected book, along with reciting the Rosary during my morning walk. Something I do with less regularity than I should is practice the Examen in conjunction with Evening Prayer. In certainly helps in these circumstances that I am attentive, desperately looking for something, anything, that might be a life-saver.

For those who are unaware, just as Fridays are days of penance for Roman Catholics, Saturdays are devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. As a result, the Intercessions for Morning Prayer on Saturdays typically seek her intercession. Being the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time, we are currently praying from Week III of the four-week cycle found in the Liturgy of the Hours. This petition today struck me as my prayer:
You strengthened Mary at the foot of the cross and filled her with joy at the resurrection of your Son,
   - through her intercession relieve our distress and strengthen our hope

For spiritual reading, have recently taken up a book by the late Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini: On the Body: A Contemporary Theology of Human Person. This book is ideal for spiritual reading because, as the author says in his Preface: "I chose to write this book as a series of notes, comments, and maxims. I thought this was a more appropriate genre than a research paper or exegesis." Because he wrote this book in this way, it is well-suited for spiritual reading.

Reading only one note this morning was all I needed to be helped. The note I read is about physical illness. However, it quickly dawned on me that it is easily transferable to depression. To suitably adapt it I substituted one phrase, which will appear in brackets, for the phrase "physical pain"-
Sometimes I am seized by a fear of the future in which I see only darkness; at other times, I feel I am not receiving proper care. Loneliness, [mental anguish], irritability, disappointment, the difficulty of human interaction- I am disturbed by all this, and these predicaments reveal a part of me I did not know existed.

The positive, spontaneous flow has been blocked, and my first impulse is to distrust everyone, myself included1
One caveat: at my age, I know all too well this part of me exists. Probably time for confession: Jesus, I trust in You. 

Like Mary at the foot of the cross, always remember, hope lies beyond optimism.

1 Carlo Maria Martini, On the Body: A Contemporary Theology of the Human Person, Crossroad: New York, 2001, 18

Friday, August 16, 2019

"What they want, I don't know"

In my opinion the only thing good about late Summer is the early morning when there is a hint of Fall in the air. Otherwise, you can have it. People still speak of Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.), which was quite the rage years ago. But as someone who works to keep the black dog at bay, I don't find wintertime the worst season of the year. For whatever reason, late summer seems to be the time I struggle most.

This particular August is proving to be very busy. Now, I admit I am mostly busy with good things, that is, doing things that I enjoy. Still, I am too busy. Add to that being an older parent of younger children and you have a recipe for dissatisfaction. Perhaps I am projecting, but dissatisfied people are rarely able to keep their dissatisfaction to themselves. To be more specific, I am unable to keep my dissatisfaction to myself. Predictably, this only makes things worse.

I am glad that Fridays for Roman Catholics have traditionally been and still are, at least for those who care to observe them as such, days of penance. Without a doubt the main way this has been expressed is by abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals. While not obligatory, except on the Fridays of Lent, abstaining from meat remains the primary way Roman Catholics in the United States observe penance on Fridays. Let's face it, it's not much of a deprivation.

Praying Morning Prayer this morning, I by these words from Psalm 51, known as the Miserere: "My sacrifice to God, a broken spirit." The implication of this for me is that when I feel broken-spirited (i.e., dispirited), I need to offer it to God. Part of what it means to offer it to the Father through Christ in the power of their Holy Spirit is, like fasting and abstaining, not drawing anyone's attention to the fact that I am doing it.

In case you're wondering, I am indeed asserting, very strongly, that there can still be meaning in the exhortation, these days mostly used in jest, to "Offer it up." By making this assertion, I am not saying this is the best thing to do in every situation. It's important to let the circumstance determine the method.

In an effort to assuage my overwhelming feeling of dissatisfaction with everything and pretty much everyone, our Friday traditio is The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop."

In addition to (once again) there is nothing in the world that will yield the satisfaction for which I really long. By the grace of God, may I be able to make a more acceptable sacrifice next time around this dilapidated block.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today the Church throughout the world observes the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For Roman Catholics, today is a holy day of obligation, which means we are required to attend Mass, just as we are on Sundays, on pain of sin. That sounds pretty solemn, I know. I don't know about you, but for me, it's really the case that today I get to go to Mass. To that end, on holy days, parishes offer more Masses and celebrate them at convenient times.

Christians believe that the Blessed Virgin, either prior to dying or immediately after dying, was bodily assumed into heaven. In a week's time we celebrate the related Memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church teaches that after her glorious Assumption, she was crowned Queen of Heaven. In fact, the Blessed Virgin's Assumption and her coronation as Queen of Heaven are the fourth and fifth mysteries of Glorious Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. And so, her bodily Assumption is a mystery of our redemption that we can and should ponder often. The fruit of this mystery is the grace of a happy death.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven serves a preview of what awaits those who respond to God's gracious invitation issued through his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Any authentic response is both prompted by and made in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our Blessed Mother is often closely aligned with the Holy Spirit. After all, she was in the midst of the nascent Church at the first Christian Pentecost, when, in accord with Jesus's promise, the Holy Spirit descended on Mary, the Twelve, and others who responded to God's call in the form of fire. Being the model Christian disciple, Mary shows us the glory that awaits the children of God.

In the one and only infallible papal proclamation since the First Vatican Council, in the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, set forth and loosely defined the dogma of papal infallibility, Pope Pius XII, in 1950, dogmatically declared the Blessed Virgin's Assumption. This was no great innovation as her Assumption, at least up until the 16th century, was held always, everywhere, and by everyone. In other words, it was held to be a dogma of the faith prior to the then-Holy Father's proclamation.

As Pius wrote in his Apostolic Constitution On the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
the august Mother of God, mysteriously united from all eternity with Jesus Christ in one and the same decree of predestination, immaculate in her conception, a virgin inviolate in her divine motherhood, the wholehearted companion of the divine Redeemer who won complete victory over sin and its consequences, gained at last the supreme crown of her privileges - to be preserved immune from the corruption of the tomb, and like her Son, when death had been conquered, to be carried up body and soul in the exalted glory of heaven, there to sit in splendor at the right hand of her Son, the immortal King of ages
Today the Church throughout the world prays: Veni Sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam - Come Holy Spirit, come through Mary!

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Year C Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wis 18:6-9; Ps 33:1.12.18-22; Heb 11:1-2.8-19; Luke 12:32-48

Today Jesus teaches “where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”1 This prompts a question each one of us should ask ourselves: “Where is my heart?” The central theme of this week’s Scripture readings is faith. Like “grace,” “faith” is a word we use and hear all the time, at least in Church. As a result of its frequent use, the theological meaning of “faith,” along with its implications for our lives, can grow dim.

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews provides a working definition: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”2 It is important to link faith to hope, just as it is important to link faith and hope with charity. Hope is the flower of faith and charity is their fruit.

The Greek word translated as “faith” is pistis. Pistis refers to placing your confidence, your trust, in something or someone. Especially in light of how “faith” is often used, it seems important to note that faith requires an object; you don’t have faith in faith.

At root, being a Christian means placing your trust in someone, namely Jesus Christ. This is why even Catholics can assert: we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Making this assertion it becomes all the more important to have some grasp of what faith is.

In the context of our second reading, hope refers to what you expect as a result of placing your trust in Jesus Christ. This realization spares us the nonsense of reducing faith to mere belief, to intellectual assent to a set of carefully constructed doctrinal propositions. Faith reduced in this way has no power to save. We also don’t place our faith in ourselves, at least not when it comes to what truly matters: life eternal.

Exactly what should you expect as a result of saying “Jesus, I trust in You”? Jesus himself makes clear what you must not expect: health, wealth, and a trial-free life. We must never forget that the only way to resurrection is through the cross, which is why, a few chapters earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel, the Lord tells his would-be followers:
If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it3
As the soon-to-be-canonized John Henry Cardinal Newman observed: “To be at ease is to be unsafe.”4

In our first reading, taken from the Book of Wisdom, we hear about Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Leaving Egypt required the children of Israel, along with the mixed multitude who came with them, to place their trust in God’s promises as delivered through Moses, their one-time oppressor.5

Abraham's Journey From Ur to Canaan, by József Molnár, 1850

God’s oath was to bring them out of Egypt to the promised land, the very land to which God led Abraham when he called him in a similar way. Abraham “went out, not knowing where he was to go.”6 This shows us that faith is our response to God’s loving initiative towards us. When we come to faith, we begin learning what it means to trust Christ by taking baby steps.

Like the children of Israel, whom the inspired author of Wisdom refers to as “the holy children of the good,” we, too, in this very Eucharist, offer “sacrifice… putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.”7 The sacrifice we offer is nothing other than ourselves. During the Offertory of the Mass, our gifts are collected and then brought to the altar, along with the bread and wine that will become for us the body and blood of Christ. These gifts symbolize the offering of ourselves. The only convincing evidence that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ is the transformed lives of those who partake of it.

In the consecrated bread and wine, Jesus gives himself to us body, blood, soul, and divinity. All he asks in return is that we offer ourselves to the Father through him by the power of their Holy Spirit body, blood, soul, and humanity. During the intercessory part of Eucharistic Prayer III, the priest implores the Father: “May [Christ] make of us an eternal offering to you, that we may obtain an inheritance with your elect…”8 This, dear friends, is an act of faith, hope, and love, which is what makes it acceptable to God.

In our Gospel, Jesus urges his followers to sell their belongings and give alms to the poor. In a subsequent parable, he asserts that those who do so are like the Israelites of old, who, trusting only in God’s promise, were ready to depart Egypt at a moment’s notice. In the parable, those who obey Jesus are the vigilant servants who are ready for the return of their master, who can arrive at any time.

When Peter asks if these hard teachings apply to everyone or just to a select few, Jesus tells another parable, this one about a steward. A steward has charge of the household in the master's absence. He contrasts a faithful steward, who takes good care of the other servants, with one who abuses his power and status by ill-treating his fellow servants. This leads to the crux of Jesus's teaching: if, as a follower of Jesus, you have wealth and/or power, much is expected of you in terms of helping the oppressed and those in need.

Contra many self-professing Christians, rather than being a sign of God’s favor, riches often constitute the greatest obstacle to inheriting God’s kingdom. It seems obvious that one who hoards riches and uses power for his/her own sake works against the establishment of God's reign, thus becoming in their very person an obstacle to the realization of that kingdom. It bears recalling what we learned in last week’s Gospel: one who seeks security in riches dies twice.

When distilled, the point of today’s Gospel is that by handling well the wealth and power you accumulate, that is, using it for the benefit of those in need and the building up of God’s kingdom, this obstacle is lowered if not removed entirely. If you save your life by losing it for the sake of the Gospel, how much more do you become rich in what truly matters than by divesting yourself of earthly riches for the sake of God's reign? By so doing you provide evidence for things not seen, a sign of hope.

1 Luke 12:34.
2 Heberws 11:1.
3 Luke 9:23-24.
4 Henri Bremond, The Mystery of Newman, trans. H.C. Corrance, 203.
5 Exodus 12:38; Wisdom 18:6.
6 Hebrews 11:8.
7 Wisdom 18:9.
8 The Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” Eucharistic Prayer III, sec. 113.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Saint Lawrence, deacon and martyr

I suppose with a blog named Καθολικός διάκονος, I would be remiss not commemorate today's Feast of Saint Lawrence. Rather than doing so out of a sense of obligation, however, I am eager to post something about one of the greatest deacons of Christ's Church on his feast day. More than 1,700 years after his martyrdom, the deacon Lorenzo stands as an exemplar of diakonia. Deacons today should look to Lawrence as they allow Christ to shape and form them, by the power of the Holy Spirit given through the grace with we are infused by virtue of our ordination as servants, into his likeness, the likeness of a servant.

Part of what it means for deacons to look to Lawrence is to ask for his intercession, especially in matters pertaining to our diaconal service. Diakonia is either a self-sacrificing undertaking or it is nothing. While it is necessary for deacons to manage our commitments to marriage, family, and employment vis-à-vis our ministry, keeping in mind that we are always and everywhere deacons who are called upon to act in persona Christi servi- our ministry extends well beyond the Church door- it is important that a deacon does not merely serve at his convenience.

Lawrence originally hailed from Spain. He lived his entire life in the third century: AD 225-258. It was in Spain that he met and struck up a friendship with the future Pope Sixtus II, who was Greek. Upon becoming pope in AD 257, Sixtus ordained Lawrence, who was quite young (20 or 21), a deacon. Moreover, Pope Sixtus appointed Lawrence as the archdeacon of Rome, placing him in a preeminent role over the other six deacons of that city. I don't have any problem surmising that it is likely Lawrence was engaged in diakonia prior to being ordained a deacon. In terms of the renewed and restored order of deacons in the Latin Church, this is key: diakonia is the not result of ordination. Rather, a candidate for the diaconate is someone who is already engaged in diakonia. It is also easy to see that Lawrence was martyred not long after ordination.

It's interesting that today Christians lament martyrdom as a tragedy. In the ancient Church, martyrdom was viewed as a crowning achievement. In his sermon for the Feast of Saint Lawrence, Saint Augustine said this about him: In Rome "he ministered the sacred blood of Christ; there for the sake of Christ's name he poured out his own blood." This strikes me as a very good and succinct description of diakonia, boiling it down to its essence.

Saint Lawrence, icon by Theophilia

As the archdeacon of Rome, Lawrence was entrusted with responsibility for the Church's material goods. This meant that he also had charge of distribution of alms to the poor. There are many legends handed down about this sainted deacon. Saint Ambrose of Milan related that when the prefect of Rome demanded Lawrence hand over the Church's treasures, he brought the poor before the prefect with the words: "Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church's crown." This occurred during the reign of the Roman emperor Valerian, who undertook a persecution of the Church in Rome.

Lawrence and Pope Sixtus were was arrested in the same imperial round-up in the Eternal City. Sixtus was arrested while celebrating Mass in the catacombs of Saint Callistus, along with four deacons who were serving alongside their bishop. Like Lawrence, Sixtus, along with his four deacons, were executed by imperial decree. Pope Saint Sixtus II was buried in the same cemetery in which he was arrested. The Church observes the memorial of Saint Sixtus II, pope and Companions on 7 August.

One can imagine the resilience this persecution summoned forth from the Roman Church, which lost its bishop and five of its seven deacons. It fell to Sixtus II's successor, Pope Dionysius, to reorganize the Church in Rome. He was aided in this when Emperor Gallienus, Valerian's successor, issued an Edict of Toleration, which brought that persecution of the Roman Church to and end.

It is said that during the days he spent in prison awaiting his execution, Lawrence preached the Gospel and baptized fellow prisoners. Another traditional legend has it that Lawrence died by being roasted on a hot gridiron. He is alleged to have said as he roasted, "I'm well-done on this side. Turn me over." While the credence of both his manner of death and his uttering these words are doubtful, the deacon Lawrence is patron saint of comedians, as well as of cooks and chefs.


Father, you called Saint Lawrence to serve you by love
and crowned his life with glorious martyrdom.
Help us to be like him in loving you and doing your work.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

If I were to provide a traditio for the Feast of the deacon Lorenzo, it would surely be Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" (see "Who do you serve? You gotta serve somebody").

Friday, August 9, 2019

"Just sees what he wants to see"

I am pretty sure that my reflection on last Sunday's readings was my least popular post ever (see "Guarding against the desire for more"). As I ruminated on this a bit (I've blogged too long to obsess over such things), I wouldn't change a thing. The past few times we have cycled through Year C of the Sunday lectionary, I have been struck by how challenging St. Luke's Gospel is during this long stretch of Ordinary Time between Pentecost and the Feast of Christ the King. This is especially true, it seems to me, for the Sundays that fall during these hot summer months. As Jesus teaches his School of Discipleship whilst on the way to Jerusalem, we are provoked virtually every week. Jesus shakes us out of our lazy notions about what it means to follow him as well as our self-serving ideas about the kingdom of God.

One of the great benefits of blogging independently and doing it for absolutely free is that people can take it or leave it. As I have written many times before, at least in the first instance, I blog because I find it personally beneficial. If others find some benefit from reading Καθολικός διάκονος, so much the better. It comes as no surprise at this point in my life, ministry, and blogging that people are happy to leave what makes them uncomfortable. As Tolstoy observed a long time ago: "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." Jesus is relentless in his call to conversion to those with ears to hear and eyes to see, especially those of us who are relatively well-off and comfortable. By no means do I exempt myself from this critique. Heaven knows I need to change A LOT to be conformed fully to the image of Christ.

It occurred to me this week that in attempting to meet the Enlightenment-generated demand for certainty, Church doctrine since about the mid-eighteenth century, began to be formulated in a highly reductive and hyper-detailed manner, seeking a clarity and precision that is just as illusory in the realm of divine revelation as it is in the natural sciences. Inherent to this shift is the risk of getting it wrong. In no aspect has this tendency been more pronounced than in the realm of human sexuality. Of course, this is the result of a very reductive and quite unnatural formulation of natural law.

The Second Vatican Council's insistence that truth is hierarchical (see Unitatis redintegratio, sec. 11), it seems to me, provides a lever to help the Church overturn this reductive tendency. Contrary to what many think, sexual morality and whatever ethics might flow from it are not first order theological concerns. In fact, sexual morality is a third order issue. Recognizing Church teaching on sexuality is not dogmatic is a first step to dealing with the genuine complexity and ambiguity of human sexuality.

It has been noted that a major hallmark of spiritual maturity is the ability to deal with ambiguity. Ambiguity is nothing other than humility in the face of the complexity of reality. Other names for ambiguity are "mystery" and "wonder." Doctrine should never reduce mystery to human measure or seek to eradicate wonder. When it comes to the complexity of the human person, this is nothing less than a reflection of the imago Dei, the very source of our humanity.

To tie the first and second part of what I wrote above together, while the imago Dei is ineradicable, our likeness to God is lost through sin and restored by grace. As the Angelic Doctor noted: grace builds on nature. Hence, the orders of grace and nature not only complement but complete each other.

My next to youngest son, who is 10, has developed a great love for The Beatles. While, like everyone, there are a few Beatles' songs I really like, I cannot say I am a great Beatles fan. This is simply the result of never having gone through a Beatles phase in my life. One of The Beatles' songs I like, a song with which my son was unfamiliar until last Sunday, is "Nowhere Man." So, "Nowhere Man" is our Friday traditio for this summertime week:

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Guarding against the desire for more

Readings: Eccl 1:2. 2:21-23; Ps 90 3-6.12-14.17; Col 3:1-5.9-11; Luke 12:13-21

Taken in an aggregate way, today's readings urge us to focus on the things that really matter. In his short book, the English title of which is simply On Prayer (in its original German the title is Von der Not und dem Segen des Gebetes - On the Need and Blessing of Prayer), the late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner hit the nail-on-the-head beginning at the top of the very first page. Late in his life, when asked which of his many works he found most pleasing in retrospect, he indicated this short book. He intimated that he felt he had synthesized his theology very well in it.

From the very beginning of On Prayer:
Human life is made up of many and varied activities. Deep in the human heart is the longing, fitfully glimpsed and but half realized, to gather up all these strivings into an intense pursuit of one all-embracing objective worthy of the toil and tears and devotion of the human heart. Such is the half-shaped dream; but the reality is a picture of heaped-up activities, where the trivial jostles the less trivial, and the less trivial elbows the important things, and there is no unity of design, nor any intensity of single, concentrated purpose. There is no real perspective of values: what is essentially trivial but immediately urgent, looms large and commands attention; while what is essentially important, but not immediately urgent or insistent, is relegated to the hazy recesses of the background. But the thing of greatest importance is not always what is demanded by the needs of the moment
Of course, the last sentence refers to prayer. If anything, advanced Western society has grown more fragmented in the nearly 70 years since Rahner wrote those words. To borrow a well-worn cliché, this observation has as much if not more relevance now than when it was written.

Prayer, meditation, contemplation, which require both solitude and silence, are, as Rahner insisted, "essentially important." However, they are not urgent and usually not insistent, especially if you have never formed the habit of practicing these disciplines. Indeed, we call these practices "spiritual disciplines."

When discussing spiritual disciplines, it is important to note up-front that they are not magic or transactional in nature (i.e., my doing y does not necessarily result in God doing x as a result). It is also necessary to note that disciplines are not ends in themselves but means to the end for which we are created and redeemed. These spiritual disciplines are time-tested and proven means of sanctification.

At least from a Christian perspective, practicing spiritual disciplines are the means to the end of loving God with your entire being by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. These ends can be summarized as becoming Christ-like or, to borrow a more ancient term, divinized. It is through silence, solitude, prayer, meditation, and contemplation that you not only discern how to live the circumstances in which you find yourself each day but these help us makes sense of what we experience- life is strange and the unexpected happens frequently.

Our first reading from Ecclesiastes deals with exactly the same thing Rahner dealt with at the beginning of On Prayer. So much so that the lengthy quote above can accurately be viewed as an updated version of this reading. Are you someone whose "business," or occupation, is worry? If so, why? Making worry your occupation shows a distinct lack of trust in the Lord, who repeatedly tells his followers not to worry, even about life's most basic needs. The very next section of this same chapter from which today's Gospel reading is taken contains Jesus's teaching about not worrying about what you will eat or what you will wear, etc. In effect, the Lord tells his disciples not to put their hope (i.e., their trust) in ephemeral or passing things.

Detail from Jesus Teaching the Sermon on the Mount, by Fra Angelico, 1442

In today's Gospel, the Lord urges us, as his followers, to "guard against all greed" (Luke 12:15). In the original Greek, the word translated here as "greed" transliterates as pleonexias. Literally, pleonexias means "having more." As his followers, Jesus is telling us to guard against our seemingly insatiable desire to have more. This means guarding against the temptation to equate having more money with security, having a bigger house or more things "completing" you, fighting against the mindset that "What I need to be truly happy is (fill-in-the-blank)." I think most of us have had the experience of thinking some achievement, possession, experience, amount of money is what we need to be fulfilled, only to attain the achievement, acquire the possession, have the experience, or receive the money and then experience an anti-climax- the realization that it is nothing more than ashes and dust.

Disciples of Jesus not only revel in having less but in giving what they have to those in need in the certainty that doing so is the path to fulfillment, the realization of her destiny. Jesus did not come to make you monetarily or materially wealthier, or even secure. He makes the same point over and over in varied ways that wealth, far from being the assurance of divine favor, is an obstacle to be overcome. Jesus came to make you truly wealthy by urging you to divest yourself of what you don't need and by encouraging to you to use what comes your way to help those in distress. Any person or any doctrine that teaches otherwise is not only un-Christian, it is anti-Christian!

Too often we reduce the call to discipleship to some imaginary form of "being moral," which we mistake for true righteousness. To give but one example, we assiduously avoid saying words like "fuck," "damn," or "shit." Most Christians do not realize that St. Paul, in several places in his letters, uses what many would consider to be "bad," even shocking, words. Drawing from Isaiah, Paul likens the works we do that we are prone to think make us "righteous" to used tampons. He says he would like to castrate the Judaizers, whom he sarcastically calls "super-apostles." He uses the Koine Greek equivalent of "shit" for sure. Too often what we think of as righteousness is nothing more than self-congratulatory and self-righteous nonsense. Biblically-speaking, usually a better translation of words rendered in English as "righteous" is "just."

What the Lectionary has been providing us with the past 6 weeks or so is nothing less than the heart of the Gospel. We know it constitutes the heart of the Gospel because what Jesus teaches us to do is way harder than not "swearing," etc. Because being a Christian is so contrary to how we are socialized, which socialization finds its origin in our fallen human nature, being a Christian seems to cut against the grain of our very being. The Gospel confronts us, challenges us, provokes us. This is why Paul refers to living as a Christian as an agon. Agon refers to a battle, or a struggle. Agon is the root of our English word "agony." Never be deceived, the only way to resurrection is through the cross.

It is to the cross that Jesus leads his followers. This is the pattern of discipleship that can be discerned so easily in St. Luke's Gospel and that of the other Synoptics (i.e., Matthew and Mark). Back in the ninth chapter of Luke, the inspired author tells his readers: "When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem..." (Luke 9:51). As Msgr Luigi Giussani sagely observed: "[Christ] mounted the Cross to free us from the fascination with nothingness, to free us from the fascination with appearances, with the ephemeral." Putting your trust in money, status, or possessions is nihilism pure and simple. It is a fascination with nothingness.

The point of Jesus's story about the rich man is simple enough: he who dies with the most possessions and/or money still dies. Moreover, he dies in a perilous state, a state liable to harsh judgment. You can't buy or bribe your way into God's kingdom. Besides, if you are not striving live as if God's kingdom is a present reality, seeking to make it present, even if in small ways, like a mustard seed, you are not preparing yourself for beatitude, for the happiness that comes from putting others before yourself. The time for repentance, for conversion, for change is now, not later.

Once again, Paul in our second reading is discussing the effect baptism should have on our lives. Remember, in baptism you died, were buried, and rose through and in Christ to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit. As a result, baptism should bring about the change of heart and mind (in Greek metanoia, frequently translated as "repentance"), what we might call the "conversion," or "change," Jesus is calls us to make today. We think about the things above precisely by living in a different way here below. Living this way is called hope.

Friday, August 2, 2019

A visit to Vernal: faith and reason

I had the great opportunity to spend last weekend in Vernal, Utah, with most of my family (minus our 2 oldest children, who are grown). We visited Dinosaur National Monument and the wonderful state-run natural history museum there. We went swimming, to supper at local establishment (7-11 Ranch Restaurant). We also attended Mass on Sunday morning at St. James the Greater parish. On our way there and back we listened to Agatha Christie's intricate thriller And Then There Were None. In short, it was one of those weekends that made me wish we could do these kinds of excursions more often.

What I wrote above may seem a bit incoherent to some people, to some who are not religious at all and to some who are. It's those religious people who the irreligious think all religious people are like, that is, biblical literalists and fundamentalists, who would find my insistence problematic. For my part, after my hyper-fundamentalist upbringing, I marvel at what a wonderful thing it is to grasp that faith and reason go hand-in-hand. It's wonderful to grasp that the two creation narratives found at the very beginning of Genesis, which, while complementary in certain aspects, are irreconcilable. It's great to comprehend that these narratives, which echo other Near Eastern sources in some ways and differ from these sources significantly in others, were never intended to explain how things came into being. Instead, these texts deal with the why of existence, but do not seek to do so exhaustively. When one considers the first of these two texts, which comprises the whole of the first chapter and the first four verses of the second, it is a very poetic take on creation. If one attends to reading it closely, it clearly has what might be called an evolutionary structure. The second narrative is earthier, quite literally. It lacks the cosmic dimensions of the first narrative, taking more an existential viewpoint.

I will be so bold as to assert that to read these texts in a literal way (i.e., as explaining the how rather than dealing exclusively with the why) is to forfeit the rather rich revelatory value they possess. It makes no sense from the standpoint of reason and faith cannot smash the two accounts together to make them a seamless whole, just as the three synpotic Gospels cannot be completely harmonized and the Synoptics cannot be harmonized with the Johannine account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Nazareth. The ancient Jewish redactors (i.e., those put Genesis together in the form in which we possess it) did their best to make these two divergent stories complementary. At least in my view, they did a pretty remarkable job.

Taken in Hog Canyon, a box canyon located on Morris Ranch in Dinosaur National Monument

In his book On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, written all the way back in the early fifth century, St. Augustine lamented that all Christians were tarred with the same brush as those who read the creation narratives in Genesis literally. He grasped that they were not to be read or understood as scientifically verifiable accounts of how the earth came to be and to be populated. My first step towards becoming Catholic was encountering John Henry Newman's Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. What this showed me was that faith and reason are not only compatible but have an symbiotic relationship. Hence, I believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ, belong to the Church he founded, celebrate the sacraments, read Scripture, etc. and grasp that human beings, like the rest of life on our uniquely situated planet, are the product- though not exclusively- of evolution. In terms of the overall age of the earth, homo sapiens are a fairly new and late-breaking phenomenon. Human culture dates back maybe 10,000 years and history, the beginning of which was marked by human beings chronicling events, is younger than that by a few thousand years. The Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) stands as a remarkable chronicle of a single people over the span of about 1,000 years or so.

Our traditio for this mid-summer Friday, the first of August, is a song that was on our family playlist during our trip. It's a song we all sang along to- The Proclaimers singing "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)." This is song rife with the requisite Celtic spirit.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

God is the fullness of mercy

Readings: Gen 18:20-32; Ps 138:1-3.6-8; Col 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13

Since I am not preaching this week, my reflection doesn't have to be as structured. This is good because I am currently finding the discipline of writing very difficult. So, I am just going to go with my impressions. These impressions, it is important to point out, are derived from my practice of lectio divina with the Sunday readings. I work with the first reading Monday, the second Tuesday, and the Gospel on Wednesday. Some weeks I attempt a synthesis. I guess that's what I am doing for this week's reflection.

I have to admit that it was not until recently that I realized how fundamental the story of Sodom's destruction was to the Gospel According to Luke. It is a strand woven throughout Jesus's entire ministry and mentioned or implicitly referred to fairly often in Luke's account of his preaching. I suppose in light of the late Eugene LaVerdiere's brilliant book Dining in the Kingdom of God: The Origins of the Eucharist in the Gospel of Luke, the counter-example of Sodom should not be surprising given the centrality of table fellowship in the third Gospel and the hospitality such fellowship demands.

What brings about God's wrath more than anything is the oppression of the weak by the strong. This is what led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to assert: "It is not the sins of weakness, but the sins of strength that matter." Yes, this ought to bring our minds and hearts back around to what is happening along our southern border, to what is happening in the Middle East to the Palestinians as well as to our fellow Christians across the Levant and into the Maghreb.

Our first reading is the episode that finds Abraham pleading with God to spare Sodom from divine wrath. Abraham famously bargains God down to 10 righteous people. I have always wondered if Abraham stopped too soon. Well, in reading Robert Alter's commentary on verse 32 in his The Five Books of Moses, I found a reason as to why Abraham stops there. According to Alter, Abraham did not go lower because 10 is "the minimal administrative unit for communal organization in later Israelite life" (60). Later Israelite life is important because the text does not date to Abraham's time but much later.

Despite Alter's reason for Abraham stopping at 10, I still think it may well be a case of a human being selling God's mercy short. As James and John discovered in our Gospel reading four Sundays ago, you'll always get farther with God appealing to his mercy than you will calling down his wrath. Don't we often try to reduce God to our own measure?

Our reading from Colossians is one of those beautiful passages on baptism we find in Paul's writings. The apostle's point in this passage is that when we died, were buried, and rose with Christ to new life in baptism we entered life eternal. Post-baptismal life should be markedly different from your previous life. Unless, unlike me, you were baptized as an infant. I'll be really honest, these days I am not sure how well-disposed I am towards infant baptism. Somewhere in the book Who Is a Christian?, von Balthasar, too, questions the wisdom of infant baptism in the present age. This is not a full-out rejection of so-called pedo-baptism. It is certainly not an Anabaptist argument. Sweeping away those two strawmen, it is an interesting question.

I suppose how the Church ultimately answers it will have to wait for the time, which is rapidly approaching, when few parents will present their children for baptism. At that point, I suppose, the Church would not need to change this practice. Way back in 2011, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin preached on how parents lacking faith should not, according to their own consciences, present their children for baptism, etc (see "Archbishop urges lapsed Catholics to leave the faith").

Archbishop Martin said: "It requires maturity on those people who want their children to become members of the church community and maturity on those people who say 'I don't believe in God and I really shouldn't be hanging on to the vestiges of faith when I don't really believe in it.'" Lacking faith, it should be said, is not the same thing as having faith and being critical of the Church. Lacking faith does not equate to being free from doubts. Someone who professes unbelief and who absents himself from the community, except possibly for rites of passage, which he views in a reductive anthropological way, a way that lacks a theological grasp of the what the sacraments symbolize and mediate, are the ones to whose consciences Martin is appealing. In short, Christianity is not tribal. One is not Catholic because one is Irish, or Italian, or Mexican, Argentinian, etc. God has no grandchildren, only children. Later in Luke's Gospel, Jesus asks, "when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8).

To the point of selling God's mercy short, our Gospel is wonderful exposition of God's mercy. God is patient and kind. We should not hesitate to turn to God, to ask, to knock, to seek. If we desire to give our children good things, how much more does the Father long to give us eternal life? He wants us to enjoy eternal life so much that he gave us his only begotten Son. What we need most of all is stated very eloquently in a quote I used in my last post by Dom Erik Varden, OCSO: "before God, merit is as nothing... what matters is to know one's need for mercy and to receive it thankfully." Mercy is nothing but faith put into practice.

Because we are his children through rebirth in baptism, we can petition God for anything. Persistence is required, I am convinced, not in order to persuade God, but to persuade ourselves. In other words, is what you're asking for what you really want?

It has been observed and often repeated that one does not pray to change God; one prays to change herself. What we pray for and how we pray are good indicators of spiritual maturity. The conversion for which we pray is spelled out in Luke's simplified version of the Lord's Prayer, which consists of 4 petitions: 1- God's kingdom come; 2- Give us our daily bread; 3- forgive us our sins because "we" (i.e., Jesus's disciples) "forgive everyone in debt to us"; 4- do not subject us to the final test. Why not subject us to the final test? Because we'd fail, each one of us, which is precisely why we need to be forgiven. Because we're forgiven, we must forgive. Mercy is not merely the hallmark of that kingdom, for the coming of which we pray, it is how this kingdom will be realized.

Friday, July 26, 2019

"I see myself in a wounded heart"

On Wednesday morning, I read Erik Varden's treatment of the story of the meetings between St. Mary of Egypt and Fr. Zossima. Zossima was a monk who lived a very ascetic, nigh-unto-prefect, monastic life. As a result, he doubted if there was anyone who could teach him anything about ascetic living, its practice or purpose. On Varden's telling, in the second chapter of his book The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance, despite his exceptional manner of life, Zossima realized there was more. He realized that his means had not achieved his desired end.

This reminds me of a woman from a Jewish background who went through RCIA a number of years ago. After the Rite of Election, I met with the Elect separately from the Catechumens. At our first meeting of the Elect, after sharing what I was doing or not doing for Lent, I asked everyone in the group to share their Lenten plans if they wanted to. Everyone was quite eager. Three weeks later, I began the meeting by asking the people in the group how Lent was going vis-à-vis their plans. I emailed everyone a few days prior to let them know this how we would start our meeting. For the most part, it was the usual story about good intentions and some failures. Everyone seemed to grasp that growth occurs through the struggle. When it came to this person, she basically said that she was able to do everything she had planned to do for Lent and then some. She had not set the bar low. But she then shared that as she realized her "success" it occurred to her that success of that kind was not why she was doing or not doing these things. I think Zossima, at least on Varden's telling, felt something similar.

Especially as Varden conveys it, the story of Zossima and Mary is a story with a deeply late modern flavor. Varden keeps the focus off the prurient curiosity that often arises from Mary's recounting of her promiscuous behavior. Not only does he refuse to dwell on it, he is clearly not shocked by it, nor should he be. Rather, he focuses on the conversion of the Zossima, the monk who was in danger of becoming self-righteous, which is far worse than having sex with a lot of people. In other words, Varden refuses to engage in anything close to retrospective, ecclesial slut-shaming. It seems pretty clear from the story that Mary liked sex. For seventeen years after her conversion, she at times pined away for a good shag. Hey, a lot of people do. It's okay, relax. Certainly, the rush sex provides can become inordinate, even addictive.

Color version of the picture Varden uses in his text, from a fifteenth century manuscript

According to Varden, what Zossima gleans from his encounters with Mary, who went into the desert to live an ascetic life after her profound conversion experience in Jerusalem, is "that, before God, merit is as nothing, that what matters is to know one's need for mercy and to receive it thankfully." Sure, this story handed down smacks more than a little of legend. But it is a truth conveyed very forcefully. Another thing I like about the story of Mary of Egypt is the emphasis it puts on the power of baptism and the way it privileges that over Zossima's ordination.

The fruit of the lectio with Sunday's Gospel on that same morning cemented this insight for me: "you being wicked" (Luke 11:13).

Watching Good Omens, I am struck not only by how easy humanity makes Crowley's (the demon) job, but by how shocked Crowley himself is by human wickedness. I have to wade through a lot of self to get to the devil.

With all this in mind, I guess I should not be quite so disappointed in the trajectory the second series of Fleabag took in the penultimate episode. C'est moi, always hoping for better but not expecting it.

Anyway, our traditio this week is a song by Phil Keaggy, "World of Mine." It is from his Crimson and Blue, which came out in the early '90s. I owned the album, as I did so many others, on cassette tape. I recently discovered that the entire album is available for listening on YouTube. I laugh at people who are quick to dismiss all Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), just as I scoff at anyone who dismisses any entire genre of music. Truth be told, there has been a lot of very good, quite original CCM artists, songs, and albums.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Saint Mary Magdalene: proclaimer of the living Christ

For the first eleven-and-a-half years of my diaconate, I served at The Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. Prior to that I served at the Cathedral for over 8 years in a variety of capacities. Working full-time at the Cathedral, I first served as the Director of Religious Education and Formation. After I was ordained, I would later serve in this same position on a part-time basis for two additional years. During all my years at the Cathedral, I was heavily involved in RCIA, adult formation, and liturgy. Prior to being ordained and for a few years afterwards, I was the Cathedral's primary master of ceremonies for major liturgies involving the bishop. All-in-all, I served at The Cathedral of the Madeleine just shy of 20 years.

The Cathedral of Madeleine is the only cathedral church in the United States dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. Hence, this woman from Jesus cast out seven demons (see Luke 8:2), is the Patroness of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Being at the Cathedral all those years, I am used to observing today's Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene as a solemnity. I was very gratified when, in 2016, at the behest of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, 22 July became a Universal Feast and not merely a liturgical Memorial. As a result, it is obligatory (as opposed to optional) to celebrate it in the Church's liturgies (i.e., Mass and the Liturgy of Hours).

Yesterday I read a short article by Fr. Alvin Amadi, who currently serves in the Diocese of Green Bay. He argues for the Church to elevate the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene to a Solemnity (see "How can the church honor women? Elevate Mary Magdalene’s feast to a solemnity"). I could not agree more. I especially like the argument Fr. Amadi sets forth at the beginning of his piece, referring to the Gospel According to St. John 20:11-18:
Nothing in the Gospel occurs by mere chance. It is highly significant that in a society where men wielded power in almost every aspect of life, Christ chose a woman to be the first to see him after his resurrection and to announce the news to his apostles.
Frieze of St Mary Magdalene proclaiming the Gospel

One of the things on which the four canonical Gospels are unanimous is that Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection. She is the original witness of this earth-shattering event. As a result, she is an apostle. An apostle is one who is sent forth. It is the Risen Lord himself who sent Mary forth to tell the rest of his disciples that he is risen. This is why none other than St. Thomas Aquinas himself dubbed her apostula apostulorum, that is, apostle to the apostles (Super Ioannem, 2519). Over the years here on Καθολικός διάκονος I have written a lot about Saint Mary Magdalene, about the traditions handed on about her both East and West. She is a fascinating figure to be sure. It was of her that the Angelic Doctor, in his work Super Ioannem (2519), wrote this lovely sentence: “just as it was a woman who was the first to announce the words of death, so it was a woman who would be the first to announce the words of life.” So, in addition elevating her day to a Solemnity, instead of using the Common of Holy Women for the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church should use the Common of Apostles for this day.

Apart from being the first witness of Christ's resurrection, it seems clear that Mary of Magdala was very close to Jesus. She was very dear to him and he to her. Jesus seems to have a had a small circle of people to whom he was close: Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary as well as Mary Magdalene and other women who followed him from their native Galilee to Jerusalem. It was the women, who financed his ministry and provided for him and the Twelve, who stayed with Jesus throughout his Passion and up to his death. It was the women who went to his grave at sunrise to properly care for his body.

It seems wrong to suggest that at least some of these women would not become evangelists in their own right, telling other people about Jesus and testifying to his resurrection. When I saw the frieze I included in this post it made me very happy. A scholarly commentator on another post featuring this frieze pointed out that the St. Albans Psalter features a picture of Mary Magdalene preaching to the apostles. So, while the traditions concerning Mary Magdalene are really legends and irreconcilable ones at that, it seems hard to imagine that she did not feel impelled to share with others what she had experienced for whatever time remained to her after encountering the risen Lord.

Below is the Collect for today's Feast. May it truly be an instance of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi:
O God, whose Only Begotten Son
entrusted to Mary Magdalene before all others
with announcing the great joy of the Resurrection,
grant, we pray,
that through her intercession and example
we may proclaim the living Christ
and come to see him reigning in your glory.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
one God, for ever and ever.
Sancta Maria Magdalena, ora pro nobis.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Year C Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Gen 18:1-10a; Ps 1:2-5; Col 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42

The main theme in this week’s Scripture readings is hospitality. The word “hospitality” is derived from the Latin word hospes. In turn, hospes, which means “guest” or “stranger,” is formed from the word hostis, which refers not only to a “stranger” but even to an “enemy.” So, in addition to being the root of “hospitality,” hostis is also the root of the word “hostile.”

Our first reading tells of the strange encounter Abraham and Sarah have with three mysterious visitors. Practically from the beginning, Christian commentators have seen these three mystery men as foreshadowing what would be fully revealed by Christ: the Most Holy Trinity. Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev, composed one of best-known icons depicting Abraham’s three guests at table. While icons are wordless, the symbolism in Rublev’s icon points to an understanding of the visitors as the three divine persons of the Most Holy Trinity.

That this episode conveys a rather mundane theophany is gleaned from its beginning. It starts with the narrator letting the reader in on a secret: it is God who approaches Abraham as he sits at the entrance of his tent in the shade of a terebinth tree on a hot desert afternoon.1 Not knowing it is God, all Abraham sees is “three men… standing before him.”2 Without a doubt, the three are strangers to Abraham.

Rublev icon

Walking out to meet his unexpected guests, Abraham bows before them and bids them to rest in the shade of the large tree under which he and Sarah have pitched their tent. He invites them to wash their feet and prevails on them to let him serve them “a morsel of bread.”3 The three accept the patriarch’s hospitality. However, rather than providing them with minimal hospitality, once his guests are resting comfortably, Abraham rouses his entire household and prepares an elaborate feast.

Contrast Abraham’s hospitality with the hostility shown the two visitors who went from Abraham’s tent to Lot’s house in Sodom. This visit and its aftermath constitute the following chapter of Genesis.4 The residents of Sodom not only refuse to welcome these strangers; they seek to commit unspeakable acts of violence against them. Their hostile attitude is further revealed by the disdain in which they held Lot. Despite living in their midst for a long time, the men of Sodom still did not consider Lot and his family as part of them, as belonging there. The price Sodom pays for its hostility is utter destruction. Welcoming the stranger, when looked at from a divine perspective, is serious business.

Like Abraham and Sarah, Martha and Mary, sisters of Jesus’s good friend Lazarus, also hospitably welcome the Lord into their home. In this instance, rather than remaining incognito, they host Jesus, whom they revere as Lord. Hence, their two responses: to sit at the Lord’s feet, relishing the opportunity to be with him and learn from him and working to provide him great service. On first glance, it might appear that our first reading and our Gospel for today are studies in contrast: Abraham’s three visitors accept hospitality, while Jesus seems to refuse it.

It is important to point out that Jesus does not refuse Martha’s hospitality. To use today’s Gospel to exalt contemplation at the expense of service is lazy and inaccurate. Jesus says nothing about what Martha is doing until she complains to him about Mary being lazy. At which point, he tells Martha, no doubt to her chagrin, that it is her sister, who, at least in this instance, “has chosen the better part.”5 To state the obvious: the Lord is not like any other guest but that is how Martha treats him.

An episode that occurs later in Luke’s Gospel holds the key to understanding both the harmony between our first reading and our Gospel as well as the crux of today’s readings. In this passage, Jesus asks his closest followers, who are arguing over which of them is the greatest, a rhetorical question: “who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves?”6 He then answers his own question with another question: “Is it not the one seated at table?”7 Only then does Jesus make his point: “I am among you as the one who serves.”8 The noun translated as “one who serves,” which literally means “one serving” (i.e., serving continuously) is diakonon. In English, a diakonon is a deacon. Jesus is the deacon, just as he is the priest, and the great high priest.

Jesus wants Martha let him dwell with her, not just in her house but in the depths of her being. In turn, she can serve others in the manner to which she is accustomed. Sitting at the feet of the master, like Mary, is the disposition of a disciple. When we discuss Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, we need to remember that he is present in and through the proclamation of the Scriptures just as “really” as he is present in and through the consecrated bread and wine. This is why we should not tune out during the Liturgy of the Word, thus missing the opportunity to sit and listen to Christ. The pattern of discipleship is listening in order to learn and learning in order to do. Worship that does not lead to serving those in need is not Christian worship.

In its original Greek, the verb translated as “serves” in today’s Gospel is diakoneō. Along with diakoneō, the verb used to describe Martha’s activity is diakonia. Just as there is a priesthood of all the baptized, there is a diaconate of all the baptized. To consider yourself a follower of Jesus, you must choose to selflessly serve others, especially those in need. The name for this Christian service is diakonia. Since Jesus is the deacon, our service flows from his. As to the office of deacon, it has been noted that “the deacon makes it clear that the liturgy must have concrete consequences in the world with all its needs...”9

What it means to keep God’s commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself, which is necessary for eternal life, is the main point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which we heard last week. The person Jesus calls you to serve is not someone from your own family, nation, or tribe, but the stranger. Our Gospel readings for the past three weeks convey that following Jesus means not only welcoming the stranger but helping the person in distress, not even if but especially when it is someone towards whom you feel hostility, whether justified or not.

The theme of welcoming the stranger hospitably constitutes a very deep stream that runs through the whole of Scripture, from the Old Testament straight through the New. We find this exhortation at the beginning of the final chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect hospitality to strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”10 This is exactly what Abraham, Sarah, and Lot do and what the residents of Sodom spit in the face of doing. The Rule of Saint Benedict stipulates: “Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ himself, because he promised that on the last day he will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”11

Is it not Christ who invites and welcomes you to each and every Eucharist? By sharing the one bread, he makes us, who would otherwise be strangers and perhaps at odds, companions traveling the pilgrim path together. What is “the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past” in our second reading?12 According to St. Paul, this mystery “is Christ in you, the hope for glory.”13

In the Eucharist, Christ does not only make his presence in you through your reception of holy communion. He also dwells in you when you listen to his word. Allow me to refer, again, to St. Benedict’s Rule. The opening words of the Rule are, “Listen carefully, my child, to your master's precepts, and incline the ear of your heart.”14 The mystery that life in Christ means Christ can live in you was not revealed to Abraham and was only made known to Martha after she complained about her sister, who was participating in this mystery by sitting at the Lord’s feet. It goes without saying that what is revealed must be put into practice. Contra the Gnostics, you are not saved by mere knowledge.

To borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, our current situation calls on us to summon “the better angels of our nature.”15 My friends in Christ, from the perspective of divine revelation, how you treat the stranger, whether you welcome her as a guest or revile her as a threat and an enemy, is a serious choice. As Christians we should work to ensure the humane treatment of immigrants and refugees being detained crossing our border, most of whom are seeking asylum as refugees. This is not an argument for open borders. It is a plea for open hearts in obedience to the word of God.

1 Genesis 18:1, from The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter, 56.
2 Genesis 18:2, Ibid.
3 Genesis 18:5, Ibid.
4 Genesis 19:1-29.
5 Luke 10:42.
6 Luke 22:27.
7 Luke 22:27.
8 Luke 22:27.
9 Herbert Vorgrimler, Sacramental Theology, trans. Linda M. Maloney, 270.
10 Hebrews 13:2, from The New Testament: A Translation, David Bentley Hart, 453.
11 Saint Benedict's Rule: A New Translation for Today, Chap. 53, trans. Patrick Barry, OSB, 62.
12 Colossians 1:26.
13 Colossians 1:27.
14 Rule of Saint Benedict, Prologue, trans. Leonard J. Doyle OblSB
15 Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address.

Friday, July 19, 2019

"And if the darkness is to keep us apart"

Coincidences are interesting. This past week, in conjunction with my reading of Primo Levi’s collected short stories, I started reading Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses, which I have owned since it was first published in 2004, I believe. Yesterday evening, in addition to reading Alter’s translation of this Sunday’s first reading (Genesis 18:1-10a), I read his translation of the first chapter of Genesis. Alter’s book is not only a translation, it is also a deeply insightful and very useful commentary.

Alter’s first comment in his commentary on Genesis is made with reference to Genesis 1:2. He translates the Hebrew phrase, transliterated tohu wavohu, as “welter and waste.” In his first comment, he notes that this phrase is used only two more times in the entire corpus of the Hebrew Bible. He also points out that in both of those instances a clear allusion is being made to this passage. His translating the phrase thus is the result of his trying to maintain the phonetic rhythm of the original. Personally, I like it.

The first section of his essay "Introduction to the Hebrew Bible" with which he begins The Five Books of Moses is entitled "The Bible in English and the Heresy of Explanation." His main point in this section is that most English translations seek to explain rather to translate. Explanations require both assumptions and, too often, presumptions. In short, it is not a good approach to complex and often highly nuanced ancient texts. Most valuably, Alter provides a number of examples that demonstrates his main point and subpoints very well.

In addition to Morning Prayer and practicing lectio divina with the readings for the upcoming Sunday Monday-Wednesday, I very slowly read a spiritual book. Yesterday, I (finally) finished John O’Donohue’s brilliant Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. I found this book sublime and quite practical. I did not like the final two sections of the final chapter in which he writes about death. His take is far too disembodied ethereal for me. Stated forthrightly, O'Donohue comes up a bit short on resurrection.

This morning I began Dom Erik Varden’s The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance. I was so excited about this book by the Cistercian Abbot of Mount Saint Bernard, located near Coalville, in Leicestershire, England, that I pre-ordered it and awaited its publication. Varden, a native Norwegian, who prior to becoming a Cistercian monk was a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, is a deeply insightful commentator and spiritual guide. Besides, while far from identical, his conversion story bears enough resemblance to mine to resonate with me.

On the fifth page of his "Introduction" to Shattering of Loneliness, Varden makes reference to “the tohu wavohu.” He gives the translation of this phrase as “formlessness and void,” which is a fairly standard English rendering. To make yet another inexplicable yet highly relevant connection, the general context in which Varden makes reference to this Hebrew phrase comes toward the end his writing about his youthful interest in the lives and writings of those people who survived and bore witness to the Nazi’s attempt to eradicate all Jews in Europe during Hitler’s 11-year reign of terror. Among those whose lives and writings he studied and who made a lasting impact on his life he lists Primo Levi. More specifically, he employs tohu wavohu when discussing the fifth movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, popularly known as the “Resurrection Symphony.”

Of Mahler’s Second Symphony, Varden writes: "Out of its peace, the fifth, final movement arises like a thunderstorm. It conjures up images of chaos, a world in the grips of the tohu wavohu, ‘formlessness and void’, of the first verse of Scripture.” Well, it’s actually the second verse but that is a minor detail. Referring to the chorus, Varden asks, “Could it be true? Before disbelief had time to configure, it was hushed by voices singing of a hope that must, in secret, have gestated in my depths…”

It might stand to reason that the fifth movement of Mahler’s Symphony number two would be our traditio for this penultimate Friday in July. However, it is not. The simple reason is that it is more than a half-hour long, at least the Zubin Mehta-conducted performance, featuring Silvia Greenburg as soloist, I had in mind is. Rather, in sticking with the theme of the irrepressibility of hope while continuing to maintain that hope transcends optimism, our traditio is a stripped-down cover of my favorite late-period U2 song, "Walk On":

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Christian discipleship is concrete

Readings: Deut 30:10-14; Ps 69:14.17.30-31.3334.36-37; Col 1:15-20; Luke 10:24-37

In today's first reading, which comes towards the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses preaches a most stirring and important sermon. Moses's insists that what is enjoined upon Israel is not incomprehensible metaphysical drivel. I believe what Moses descibes is transferable to Christians vis-à-vis the Gospel. In fact, the Incarnation of God's only begotten Son is the enfleshment of what Moses here asserts. Without ceasing to be transcendent, God becomes immanent in Jesus. This is what our epistle reading St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians sets out so poetically. Far from esotericizing Christianity, the Holy Spirit, being Christ's resurrection presence among us, in us, and through us, enables us to make the God who is love incarnate as well. What Jesus enjoins on those who would follow him is not some esoteric wisdom, contra the gnostics, who are probably more prevalent today in non-Christian forms than in Christian. As Pope Francis noted, however, gnosticism is still too prevalent among Christians (see Gaudete et Exsultate, secs. 36-46).

What Christ asks of you is nothing other than to follow the deepest yearnings of your heart, your very best instincts and impulses. This is why what he commands is to love God with your entire being and to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Hence, "it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts" (Deut 30:14). This what Paul refers to when he writes about the law "written" in all human hearts (see Rom 2:13-16). Since I took a shot at non-Christians in my comment about gnosticism, taking a cue from Paul, I will say here that many non-Christians seem to grasp loving your neighbor as you love yourself much better than do many Christians.

This brings me very quickly to today's Gospel, the central feature of which is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When Jesus is asked by a scholar of the law what is required for eternal life, in true rabbinical fashion, he turns the question, putting it to the inquirer, who he knew was trying to trip him up. The scholar's reply, as one would expect, is straight out of law. Therefore, it is nothing new or surprising. The commandment to love God with your whole self is enjoined by the law (see Deut 6:5). Loving your neighbor as you love yourself is also found in the law. In fact, the commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself is found in the section of the Book of Leviticus known as the "Holiness Code" (chaps 17-26- see Lev 19:18).

One can start to see the revolutionary nature of Jesus's teaching in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Leviticus 19:18. The verse consists of three sentences. The second sentence is "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" and the third is "I am the LORD." The first sentence is the one that provides the context for this commandment: "Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people." In other words, those who do not belong to "your own people" can be treated differently, with less deference, to state it diplomatically. But it's important to bound the scope of this by pointing out that the law has plenty to say about the treatment of foreigners, especially those who live in Israel's midst. So, while foreigners are to be treated in a just manner, they are understood to be second-class citizens in the domain of Israel.

While for those who are familiar with the New Testament this is very basic, it is important to point out that Jews and Samaritans mutually despised each other. This is why in our Gospel from two weeks ago it is notable that Jesus began his journey toward Jerusalem by traveling through Samaria (see Luke 9:51-62). It was not unusual for pious Jews in Jesus's day to avoid Samaria while traveling to Jerusalem. They did so by traveling east and heading south along the Jordan River until they reached Jericho. It was from Jericho that they made their way up the mountain to the holy city. In fact, Jesus seems to be using this very route in his parable. It was on the road to Jericho that the Samaritan finds the man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead, the very one who was left in his misery not merely by members of his own people, but by a priest and a Levite respectively. It was likely that they left him for dead due to concerns about their own ritual purity.

In our Gospel from two weeks ago it is easy to overlook that when Jesus sent some of his followers ahead to a Samaritan village to ask the Samaritan villagers if they would welcome him and his followers for a stay, meaning offer them hospitality (i.e., food, water, perhaps shelter, an opportunity to wash), the Samaritans effectively said, "Nope. We're not welcoming them." It is their refusal to welcome them that causes James and John to ask Jesus if they can call down heavenly fire to consume the village and its inhabitants. Jesus rebukes these disciples for asking him permission to destroy their perceived enemies. He simply journeyed to a more welcoming, presumably Samaritan, village.

The good Samaritan, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

After listening to the scholar's answer about what is necessary for inheriting eternal life, the scholar attempts to turn the table back around by asking Jesus "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29) According to the inspired author of Luke, the scholar asked this follow-up question because "he wished to justify himself" (10:29). In other words, he wanted to demonstrate both his own rightness and righteousness. To be blunt, Jesus never accedes to those who wish to demonstrate their own righteousness. This can be shown in a variety of ways, but suffice it to note that several chapters later in Luke, Jesus says "No one is good but God alone" (Luke 18:19).

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is as revolutionary now as it was back then. This is especially true at a time and in a place in which attempts are made to vilify not just the so-called "other," thus dividing people, but to treat those who enter the U.S. seeking refuge and asylum as threats instead of as people in distress. Neither should we be ignorant or blind to the fact that the U.S. has contributed heavily to the conditions these people are fleeing. I'm afraid that locking poor people in inhumane "detention centers" puts us at risk for being subject to what Jesus warned unwelcoming towns and and about when sending out his 72 disciples ahead of him as he went along his route to Jerusalem: "it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for [us]" (Luke 10:12). For those who remain sex-obsessed, there is reportedly sexual abuse occurring in these detention centers.

Again, the sin of Sodom, when one analyzes Genesis 19 exclusively on its own terms, is their refusal not only to welcome Lot's mysterious visitors into their city but their despising of Lot and his family, who they viewed as outsiders, that is, "Not one of us," despite their long-term residency in Sodom. What makes our refusal perhaps even worse is that I have no doubt the vast majority the women, children, and men seeking entry into the U.S. are part of us. The vast majority are not only baptized Christians, but Catholics. In addition to being racist, the history of nativism is the United States is also rife with anti-Catholicism!

My response to anyone who thinks I am exaggerating or engaging in hyperbole is simple: if we can't apply Jesus's teaching to concrete situations, then the Gospel is a dead letter, worse than useless, just another way to self-indulgently make us feel better about ourselves or a self-help program of some mundane variety. Let's face it, we want to rail on and on about sexual morality, about which Jesus had very little to say, and other less important matters. But when push comes to shove, we are quick to excuse ourselves from the really difficult demands of the Gospel. This gives lie to the claim that the United States is a Christian nation. If we were judged on the basis of this alone, we'd be judged an anti-Christian country.

What Jesus's Parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrates is the necessity not only of recognizing that your enemy is your neighbor but that you love your neighbor (which category includes your enemies) by acting mercifully towards them. While it should flow from or result in an inward disposition, acting mercifully toward your neighbor requires just that... action. This is why we have the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Did the Samaritan not clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and not only visit but see to it the sick/injured person was housed and cared for? Given the mutual animosity between Samaritans and Jews, did the Samaritan not bear wrongs patiently, forgive injuries in the face of a Jewish person in need, and comfort the sorrowful? If the answer to these questions is "Yes," then only one conclusion can be drawn: "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37).

The delusion of being powerful

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