Saturday, September 14, 2019

"This man welcomes sinners..."

Readings: Ex 32:7-11.13-14; Ps 51:3-4.12-13.17.19; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32

Today's Gospel is about how God, being the Good Shepherd and, more importantly, the Good Father, goes in search of those who are lost, those who are broken, those who need healing. In other words, God seeks out people like me. In our rush to get to the Parable of the Prodigal Son we often over look the context of the three parables that comprise our Gospel reading for this Sunday.

The context is the scribes and Pharisees, noticing how Jesus draws the "tax collectors and sinners" to himself, complain. Their compliant? "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." It is the importance of welcoming sinners that prompts Jesus to teach three parables in succession. Each of the parables presents a different way of explaining why he welcomes sinners. It is with the Parable of the Prodigal that importance turns into necessity. It becomes necessity because welcoming sinners and inviting them to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb is the very nature of God.

There's probably no passage in all of the Sacred Scriptures that provides us with a more beautiful, that is, truer picture of God the Father than the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is God, the God of Israel. This is the One God, living and true. The God who is love (1 John 4:8.16). Worshiping any other God is rank idolatry. The God worshiped by those who think they earn God's favor through what they call obedience is perhaps the most pernicious idol there is, making the Golden Calf from our first reading seem benign by comparison. God loves you as you are because God loves that you are. After all, God made you out of love in order to love.

By welcoming and dining with tax collectors, who were the lowest of the low for cooperating with and profiting from the occupying Romans, and sinners- prostitutes and other such folks- Jesus was demonstrating in reality what he taught in parables. These days it's even worse. The Lord goes even further than merely welcoming and dining with sinners. He invites such people, like me, to partake of his body and blood. We call this Eucharist. Thank you, Lord, for inviting a sinner like me to your table. Moreover, thank you for letting me serve at your table. What a privilege it is. I could never be worthy. Both my participation and service are graces.

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667-1670

The essence of my main point is captured in our epistle reading: "This saying is trustworthy and worthy of all acceptance: that Jesus the Anointed entered the cosmos to save sinners, among whom I am foremost" (1 Timothy 1:15- from David Bentley Hart's New Testament: A Translation). There is a reason we enact the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass (the vast majority of the time- the rest of the time the Sprinkling Rite still reminds us we need to be washed in the blood of the Lamb). There is a reason we all say out loud, just prior to receiving Holy Communion:
Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed
Jesus is the healer of your soul and my soul. The Eucharist is the medicine with which we are healed.

It's true that neither of these penitential rituals has the efficacy of the sacrament of penance, but sincere repentance is a matter of the heart. My heart is only known by God and by me. While always known to God, my heart is opaque to me at times. I can go to confession, make a good confession, and yet not be truly contrite or have a firm purpose of amendment.

Yet, I can be at Mass and have a moment of genuine repentance, feel contrition, and resolve, in my weakness, to strive to change what I need to change. By receiving the Eucharist, I seek the help I need, the medicine for my soul. In any case, I am in no position to judge the inward disposition of anyone else, ever! Neither are you, my friends.

Pope Francis asserts that Holy Communion "is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak." Lest someone accuse the Holy Father (yet again) of straying from the Tradition, consider these words of St. Ambrose of Milan: "If, whenever Christ’s blood is shed, it is shed for the forgiveness of sins, I who sin often, should receive it often: I need a frequent remedy."

I think it beautiful that our Psalm for this Sunday is Psalm 51. This psalm is also known as the Miserere. It is the first psalm of Morning Prayer each Friday of the four week Psalter. This psalm provides the words of the Invitatory with which the Liturgy of the Hours begins each day: "O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise" (Ps 51:17).

Even now Catholics are to observe each Friday, except those on which a solemnity falls, as a day of penance. This makes opening Morning Prayer with the Miserere very fitting. The verses of Psalm 51 that compromise our responsorial for this Sunday note that all I have to offer God by way of sacrifice "is a contrite spirit" (Ps 51:19). I make it in the confidence that God won't reject my offering of "a heart contrite and humbled" (Ps 51:19). Anyone who thinks s/he has more to offer God than this is an idolator. In the words the late Philip Roth placed in the mouth of his literary character Mickey Sabbath: "Whoever imagines himself to be pure is wicked."

Friday, September 13, 2019

"But to stand there it takes some grace"

Well, the week started out fine enough. In truth, it's coming to an end quite nicely too. However, the middle was a bumpy ride. More opacity, I know. Suffice it to say that the black dog came out of the bushes and jumped me Wednesday evening. For those who do not know, "the black dog" refers to depression. As I confessed to a friend, prior to this episode I was starting to have "illusions of progress." By that I mean since roughly the first of this year I had been doing pretty well. I made a lot of changes in terms of lifestyle: diet, exercise, prayer, quitting alcohol, again. Since I quit for 15 months in 2015-2016, I hadn't been imbibing much. But a little is too much for me. People prone to depression don't need depressants, at this one doesn't.

As a friend reminded me, Satan means accuser. Without going into excruciating detail, the nadir of these episodes most of the time is arriving at the conclusion I am no good and that everyone would be better off without me. Not only does this become believable, it grows very convincing. I wonder, "Why can't I just get on with things like everyone else? Why am I so needy? Why can't I accept that it's unfair to expect others carry the weight of my need? Why does life often seem so pointless?" This line of questions starts to make me feel like I am going to explode. Eventually, I run out of steam and find sleep. When I awake I am often struck by what I've been through and start to shame myself and to feel embarrassed. The reason for this is that it all seems so self-centered. Anyway, those are the Cliff Notes.

As I've noted before, my greatest insecurity is believing that if someone, anyone, really knew me s/he would not like me. Let's face it, we all care about what others think about us. This is not the problem, however. The problem is twofold: caring more than you should about what others think and assuming everyone, or most everyone, thinks poorly or negatively of you. Chances are there people in your life who think the best of you. Believe it or not, among those people are at least a few who think the best of you despite having seen you at your worst!

Some 40+ hours later, I am not quite my old self (whoever the hell that is). I am seeing things a bit more clearly. I am more in my right mind and not in the midst of panic, being battered by tidal waves of self-doubt and beaten bloody by mental self-flagellation. But I am tending the wounds by spending the day largely on my own doing small, manageable tasks. I went to the Church and did about an hour-and-a-half of sacristan duties, getting things ready for Sunday Masses, which I loved.

Once again, I see there are people close to me who care, who are pained by my suffering, who reach out persistently even as I balk at being helped, seeing myself as beyond their well-meaning ministrations. One of those people, somebody quite unexpected, shared her own story with me, which humbled me. In other words, these people are caring and compassionate, not merely sympathetic or sorry for me. Once again, I am determined not to wait for the crisis to seek support and to make sure I am supporting others. It's mutual thing because it's a human thing.

I am firmly convinced that God gives me more than I can handle. It's how I learn to rely his love and the love of others. Love is life.

Why do I share this publicly? Well, because I've lived to tell about it. To validate the legitimacy of my experience instead of beating myself up for not being able to always handle things. To express gratitude for my life and to the people who love and care about me and who I sometimes take for granted. To encourage other people so afflicted to open up and lighten up, to acknowledge their need for help and forge stronger bonds with others (hard, I know). To offer some companionship. And because it helps me to write about it, even if poorly. As I have long insisted, if I derived no benefit from blogging I would stop doing it.

The late and still dearly missed Rich Mullins's "We Are Not as Strong as We Think We Are" seems a more than fitting traditio for this Friday. Hey, Rich, put in a prayer for the rest of us Ragamuffins.

We are frail, we are fearfully and wonderfully made
Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage
And with these our hells and our heavens
So few inches apart
We must be awfully small
And not as strong as we think we are

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Year C Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wis 9:13-18b; Ps 90:3-6.12-14.17; Phmn 9-1.12-17; Luke 14:25-33

We are again reminded at the beginning of our Gospel reading that we are journeying with Jesus. The inspired author of St. Luke’s Gospel notes that at this stage of his journey, the Lord is accompanied by “crowds.”1 Probably many in these crowds wondered where Jesus was headed. You may sometimes wonder where the Lord is leading you, especially when the road takes an unexpected turn, or bypasses the route to a destination you desire.

But being Jesus’s disciple requires you to overcome a certain naivete about where you are headed by following him. As Jesus makes clear in our Gospel today, his destination is not only Jerusalem but the cross. This is why he says, again- “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come me… cannot be my disciple.”2 The reason that such a person cannot be Jesus’s disciple is because s/he refuses to journey to the destination, thus refusing her/his destiny. The fruit of our meditation on the fifth Mystery of the Blessed Virgin's Holy Rosary, the Crucifixion, is perseverance.

To refuse the cross is to reject the Gospel. As we heard three weeks ago in one of our readings from the Letter to the Hebrews: “preferring the joy that lay before him, [Jesus] endured a cross, disdaining its shame.”3 Like our Master, we should prefer the joy that lays beyond the cross: God's kingdom.

Jesus invites you to follow him. He does not compel, coerce, or manipulate you. Our reading from St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon gives us an idea of what extending Jesus’s invitation to others looks like in reality. Too often, in my view, we tell stories about the Scriptures at the expense of the stories we find in the Scriptures thus often obscuring the overarching story the Scriptures communicate. As the Bible translator and Church father St. Jerome insisted: “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Only once in the 3-year cycle of Sunday readings do we read from Philemon, which letter conveys a compelling real-life set of circumstances.

In his approach to Philemon, a Christian slave-owner, Paul is very Christ-like. The crux of the matter is that a slave of Philemon’s, named Onesimus, left without permission to journey with Paul, who was being taken as a prisoner to Rome.

Paul’s arrest, his arraignment before the Roman governor Felix, who imprisoned him in Caesarea for two years, then before Felix’s successor, Festus, who turned the matter over to King Agrippa, is chronicled in the final 8 chapters of the book of Acts. Both Festus and Agrippa wanted to acquit and release Paul, who was charged with inciting riots by preaching what some fellow Jews considered to be heresy, namely Christianity. It is ironic that this is what Paul formerly persecuted Christians for, beginning with his instigating the fatal stoning of Stephen. Because Paul already invoked his right as a Roman citizen to have his case adjudicated at the imperial court in Rome, they did not acquit him.

Realizing Onesimus left without Philemon’s approval, Paul sent him back with a letter. In the letter, Paul urges Philemon to deal gently with Onesimus, noting that their relationship as brothers in Christ trumps their master/slave relationship. In and through Christ, Paul insists, they are equals. Hence, Philemon should treat Onesimus as a brother, not punish him as a runaway slave. Far from endorsing slavery, this letter gives us a glimpse of the subversive nature of Paul’s radical message about the equality of all people in and through Christ.

Icon of Saint Onesimus, Wikipedia

Instead of invoking his apostleship to keep Onesimus, whom he describes as his “child,” and his “own heart,” with him, Paul avoids forcing Philemon’s hand. 4 The apostle does not present Philemon with a fait accompli, lest Philemon’s “goodness” be something imposed on him. Rather, in his pastoral concern, Paul sends Onesimus back and gives Philemon the opportunity to act in a genuinely righteous way toward his slave for the sake of the Gospel.5

Paul’s insistence that who they are in Christ by virtue of baptism overrides the master/slave relationship between Philemon and Onesimus sheds light on what Jesus says about prioritizing following him over everything and everyone else. As he does quite often, Jesus in this passage uses hyperbole when he enjoins his hearers to “hate” their spouses, parents, children, and even their own lives.6

It is by experiencing the love of God in Christ and responding to God’s love that you come to love yourself justly and form healthier, more loving attachments with your spouse, parents, children, friends, whomever. In other words, a relationship with God through Christ makes you less emotionally needy, less prone to crush others under the weight of your needs, of your insecurities, your fears. We often recite the Prayer of Saint Francis, in which we pray:
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
In today’s Gospel, Jesus urges anyone who would follow him to calculate the cost of doing so. Following Jesus does not merely require some inchoate something. In the Eucharist, Jesus gives himself whole and complete. In return, he asks you to give yourself to God completely.

It’s “a thing” among some Christians to choose a “life verse.” A “life verse” is a Scripture verse that succinctly captures for the one who adopts it what it means to follow Christ; a verse that inspires and challenges. If I were to adopt such a verse, it would almost certainly be the opening verses of the twelfth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
Therefore, I implore you, brothers [and sisters], by God’s mercies, to present your bodies as a living, holy, acceptable sacrifice to God… do not be configured to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of the intellect, so you may test the will of God, which is good and acceptable and perfect7
Were today not Sunday, we would celebrate the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is the model Christian disciple. Our Blessed Mother’s fiat (i.e., the words with which she accepted the call to bear God’s Son), when translated with a bit more precision than we usually encounter, serves as a great summary of God's word today: “See: the slave of the Lord; may it happen to me as you have said.”8

1 Luke 14:25.
2 Luke 14:27.
3 Hebrews 12:2 in The New Testament: A Translation, trans. David Bentley Hart, Yale University Press, 452.
4 Philemon 10.12.
5 Philemon 14.
6 Luke 14:26.
7 Romans 12:1-2 in The New Testament: A Translation, 311.
8 Luke 1:38 in The New Testament: A Translation, 105..

Friday, September 6, 2019

"Imagine something... you can have and hold"

I try avoid using the same song more than once for our Friday traditio. It's not unusual, however, for me to employ a few songs by the same group or artist in short succession. Last Sunday afternoon I was home alone, working on a few things and listening to the radio. As I worked and listened "Dreamin'" by Blondie came on.

Given some of what's been going on in my life the past several weeks, "Dreamin'" seems especially apt as our traditio this week.

The events to which I refer have not been unpleasant, just a bit disorienting for me. As a result, I have had to do some serious heart-work, some deep digging. Hey, I'm a work in progress. Progress isn't always pretty and doesn't always feel good. What I've realized is that it's important to be grateful for what I have even while, being human, I can't help but sometimes think about what might've been. Maybe this mental exercise isn't as fruitless as I insisted it was last Friday. Yeah, I don't claim to be infallible either.

While I'm at it, why not go literary as well?

Ever since I first read these words, written by C.S. Lewis at the beginning of his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, they have resonated with me. Far from appropriating his observation on false pretenses, these words capture something important for me and about me: "My father's people were true Welshmen, sentimental, passionate and rhetorical, easily moved to anger and to tenderness; men who laughed and cried a great deal and who had not much talent for happiness."

I apologize for the opacity of this post and last Friday's. I will try to get back to being more transparent next week. If nothing else, you were able to watch and listen to the opening song for Blondie's 1979 concert in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Hey, say a prayer for me if you don't mind.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Following Christ requires poverty and humility

Readings: Sir 3:17-18.20-28-29; Ps 68:4-7.10-11; Heb 12:18-19.22-24a; Luke 14:1.71-14

Humility, what a concept! More than a concept, humility is viewed by Christians and non-Christians alike as a virtue. To invoke the Seven Deadly Sins again, humility is the contrary virtue to the vice of pride. This makes humility very important because pride is at the root of a lot of sinful behavior. Like most virtues, we make too much and too little of humility at the same time. You make too much of humility by seeing as unattainable. Because it's unattainable, it requires nothing of you. We make too little of it by not valuing people who are truly humble. Because they're humble, it's easy to overlook them.

In today's Gospel, Jesus, our Master and Teacher, gives us a very straightforward lesson both on the importance of being humble and how to be humble. I really don't like the phrase "fake it 'til you make it." Nonetheless, when it comes the virtues, you have to start somewhere. This makes Jesus's teaching in our Gospel today very practical: it is by practicing humility that you become more humble.

The other focus of today's Gospel, as well as of responsorial Psalm, is poverty. Like humility, poverty is a virtue. This ties in very well with the Lord's teaching that warns us about placing our trust, our hope, in money, power, or material things. The virtue of poverty does not necessarily require to sell all you own and give everything to the poor. However, you should not be too hasty to rule out that option completely! It does require you not to hold on too tightly to what you have or to foolishly think things like, "I've been successful. I've accumulated enough money to live on easy street. I need not worry about anything." To be comfortable, to invoke Newman once again, is to be unsafe.

All of us must ever bear in mind that when it comes to what really matters, we're nothing more than paupers, than beggars. Death is the great equalizer. In his goodness, God has mercy on us beggars. God invites only beggars to the wedding feast of the Lamb. God invites only people who can never pay him back. It's true, nobody can pay God back for what he has done for us in and through Christ. Acquiring and cultivating the virtues of humility and poverty are our tickets, our invitations, to the heavenly feast. We must present these at the door. Hence, active and continuous service to those who are truly in need is an important harbinger of God's kingdom in the here and now.

Thinking about the virtues of poverty and humility caused the Joyful Mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary to pop into my mind. These are the mysteries that help us to meditate on the Incarnation of God's only begotten Son. Humility is the fruit of the Mystery on which we focus as we contemplate the first Joyful Mystery, which is the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin by the Archangel Gabriel that she was to bear God's Son. Bearing God's Son makes her the Mother of God. It's difficult to think of a more exalted calling. As in all things, Mary is a model disciple. She receives this astounding news with great humility. As I did last week, I turn again to her Magnificat, to the opening lines of this canticle:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him... (italicizing and emboldening emphasis mine)

The third Joyful Mystery- Jesus's Nativity- bids us to meditate on his birth in an animal abode, likely a cave, his being wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough (his being put in a feeding trough has serious Eucharistic overtones). The fruit of this Mystery is poverty. For our sakes he became poor so that we might become rich. The great Kenotic Hymn St. Paul uses in his Letter to the Philippians sets forth the marvel of the Incarnation by pointing out that Jesus Christ,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross
In the verse that precedes the Kenotic Hymn, Paul urges the early Christians of ancient Philippi and by extension us: "Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5). Like most of Jesus's teaching, this is easy to comprehend and difficult to do.

The virtues of poverty and humility can be nicely tied together by something C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity: "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less." Let's bear in mind the wisdom of Sirach: "Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms atone for sins" (Sir 3:29).

Friday, August 30, 2019

"You can't be sure of any situation"

Life is strange. But then you didn't need me to tell that, right? "Strange" is an ambiguous adjective. Life can be strange in ways that are good, in ways that are bad, and in ways that are just, well, strange. I have to say that my 50s thus far have been strange in both good ways and in puzzling ways. I am pretty sure that I've confessed before that I thought by the time I was the age I am now I'd have more things figured out. In reality, I am glad that I don't. In most ways, my life has worked out better than I expected it to, better than I had any right to expect. Of course, this doesn't mean that I have realized all my dreams and accomplished everything I set out to accomplish when I was younger. You know what? I am fine with that. Besides, I am not dead yet!

This observation was brought about by a lot of self-reflection these past few weeks. This introspection, in turn, was prompted by some interactions with an old friend. The nature of our friendship itself is rather strange. Without getting into any boundary-crossing detail, it is a relationship that not only left me very frustrated for more than a decade of my young life, it left me very much doubting myself and quite uncertain and insecure in ways I have found difficult to overcome. I blame none of this on my friend. It's all me. I will leave this already vague observation by stating something else you don't need to me tell you: in life, timing may not be everything but when it comes to certain things it is decisive.

As a result of the decisiveness of some choices, you have to learn to let the alternatives go. You can't live life in reverse. Nothing is more fruitless than going back 10, 20, 30 years and thinking "What if I had chosen differently?" What's even worse is to rewind the clock in your mind and wish someone else had chosen differently!

By contrast, few things are more fruitful than making the best of your choices and keeping the commitments you've made. This is not what some people describe as "settling." It is accepting reality in the realization that life will always fall short of the aspirations you have when making life's big decisions. This week the Church observed the memorial of St. Augustine. It was Augustine who wrote, at the very beginning of his Confessions (Book I Chapter 1): "You move us to delight in praising You; for You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You." Being fickle is not the road to happiness or the recipe for fulfillment.

Life forces some big decisions on each one of us. What I mean by big decisions are the kind of decisions that by choosing not to decide you've still made a choice. For example, do you join your life that of another person? Not deciding generally means you wind up alone, or maybe in a relationship of mutual convenience with someone else who refuses to choose. I believe the more intentional your big decisions and the more your adhere to them, own them, the better off you are.

As a Christian, I am not big on fate. Neither do I view God as a cosmic puppet master. In other words, I am far from certain that "everything happens for a reason." What is typically meant by the invocation of said "reasons" is everything that happens is at the service of some inscrutable and comprehensive plan for my life and for the cosmos. Whether consciously or not, people who adhere to the "everything happens for a reason" philosophy really don't believe in choice. Such a person believes that nobody makes choices because all outcomes are predetermined and at the service of the inscrutable cosmic plan. I believe my choices matter. I believe your choices matter. Your choices shape your life, just as mine shape my life. Even though all decisions are made at a specific point-in-time and within the constraints of specific set of circumstances, some choices are decisive for life and irrevocable. Frankly, I don't believe anyone who says they have no regrets. I have regrets, quite a few, truth be told. But if everything happens for a reason, what is there to regret?

While I am trying to zero in on the effect of choices on life, it bears noting, if only in passing, that some things happen for no discernible cosmic reason. I apply this to suffering, especially the suffering of the innocent and powerless. But then there are those decisions made intentionally and discerned as well as any decision can be that have disappointing outcomes.

Anyway, far too predictably our Friday traditio for this final week of August is Missing Persons "Destination Unknown."

When making the big decisions life imposes on you, you make them with some of destination, some kind of destiny, some imagined outcome in mind. That we desire a fulfilling destiny constitutes our humanity at its deepest level. If you had no desire you'd never be disappointed. As George Carlin noted- "Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist."

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Year C Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 66:18-21; Ps 117-1-2; Heb 12:5-7.11-13; Luke 13:22-30

The beginning of our Gospel reading today reminds us that during these weeks in Ordinary Time, as we read through St. Luke’s Gospel in a semi-continuous way, we journey with Jesus and his disciples from their native Galilee to Jerusalem. Their journey, which is a pilgrimage, is a metaphor for our lives as pilgrims, members of God’s pilgrim people, the Church, making our way to the city of God. Along these same lines, it also bears remembering that in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke) Jesus travels to the holy city only once during his ministry.

As he makes his way, Jesus conducts a School of Discipleship. Fundamental to being a disciple of Jesus is grasping the nature of God’s kingdom. From the perspective of our fallenness, God’s kingdom is a bizarro world, a world turned upside-down and backward.

Jesus gives insight into the nature of God’s kingdom when he tells his largely Jewish listeners the first will be last and the last will be first. Specifically, he refers to the inclusion of Gentiles, who will come “from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.”1 Our reading from Isaiah tells of the opening of the one covenant to everyone, which prophecy is fulfilled through Jesus Christ.

As a theological principle, however, the first being last and the last being first needs a broader application. This application occurs in our Blessed Mother’s Magnificat:
He has shown the strength of his arm.
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly
He has filled the hungry with good things
and the rich he has sent away empty2
The revolutionary nature of the Gospel, so powerfully captured in the Magnificat, must first happen within you. By proclaiming God’s kingdom and calling you to conversion, Jesus seeks to awaken you from your slumber, urging you to reform your life. This reform consists of shaping yourself in accord with God’s kingdom. As Martin Luther, taking his cue from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, insisted, the shape of fallen humanity is best described by the Latin phrase homo incurvatus se (i.e., the human being curved in on her/himself). Following Jesus bends you outward, away from yourself and toward your neighbor. This can be painful at times.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about having the strength to enter through the narrow gate. You might well ask- How do I receive this strength? In the first instance, Christ strengthens you in and through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. The other part of the answer can be found in our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. As Jesus’s disciples, we develop the strength we need by practicing the disciplines he taught us. After all, a disciple is one who practices the disciplines taught and modeled by her/his master.

When speaking of God’s discipline it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the point of authentically parental discipline is not retributive punishment of the wayward child. Rather, its purpose is to help the child understand the importance of self-discipline to growing in maturity and to realizing true happiness.

The Lord teaches three spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. Prayer, which includes the sub-disciplines of silence and solitude, meditation and contemplation, is where everything begins. Along with authentic worship, genuine prayer leads to compassionate action, that is, to selflessly serving others. Alms-giving is more than giving money, it requires you to give of yourself, your time, your skill, your energy.

Fasting, the most neglected spiritual discipline, integrates prayer and alms-giving. When you fast, sooner or later you will grow hungry. This is the point of fasting. Your physical hunger should prompt you ask a really important question: What am I really hungry for? Fasting helps you discipline yourself, strengthening you to resist harmful impulses as well as to live in solidarity with those in need.

It must be noted, spiritual disciplines are not ends in themselves but means to the end of loving God by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. The purpose of practicing spiritual disciplines, then, is to develop holy habits. Another name for holy habits is virtues.

Most of you are familiar with the Seven Deadly Sins. But how many know that each deadly sin has a contrary virtue? For example, the virtue that overcomes pride is humility, the virtue that trumps envy is kindness, charity is the opposite of greed, etc. Virtues are those habits on which we can rely to make our lives work, to make the lives of others work, and make the world a better place. Vices, by contrast, are habits we can rely on to make our lives not work, to bring down others, and to trap us in a cycle of dysfunction.

Holiness is not mindless adherence to rules and regulations. Mindlessly adhering to rules and regulations has no power to bring about conversion. Following Jesus is never a matter of going through the motions. Christian discipleship is always intentional. Holiness cannot be imposed on you from the outside. But if you hunger and thirst for holiness, God will fill you with good things.

Living a disciplined life is not a way to earn to God’s favor. Through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit and by virtue of your baptism, you already enjoy God’s favor. Engaging in spiritual practices is how you attune yourself to the frequency of God’s grace. Practicing the spiritual disciplines is not magic, there is no ex opere operato involved. It is by practicing the disciplines of a follower of Christ that you come to know and to be known by the Lord.

Far from seeking to control outward things, holiness is about making your heart responsive to God in each and every circumstance in which you find yourself. As Richard Foster defines it, holiness is “the ability to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.”3 I would add that holiness is the ability to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done and doing it in the proper way.

Because Jesus is our master, our teacher, it is important to come to know him by reading the Gospels. A lot of the material in each of the four Gospels consists of vignettes in which Jesus encounters people experiencing various situations and crises. He does not have a template, a one-size-fits-all answer, for the people he encounters. Rather, he deals with life’s big questions as they arise in the circumstances of peoples’ lives. Holiness, Foster, continues, “means being ‘response-able,’ able to respond appropriately to the demands of life.”4 Learning this is how you become like Christ.

As our Collect today notes, it is by loving what God commands that you truly come to desire what God promises. It is the purpose of the new life Christ gave you baptism to acclimate yourself to God’s kingdom. For most of us, this means experiencing a sea-change in what we desire. Practicing spiritual disciplines is how you open yourself to God’s grace, letting God change your heart. Practicing the spiritual disciplines is also how you make God’s kingdom a present reality. Through such practice, you bring God’s kingdom, our promised future, into the here-and-now.

1 Luke 13:29.
2 Luke 1:51-53.
3 Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water, from Renovaré website-
4 Ibid.

"This man welcomes sinners..."

Readings: Ex 32:7-11.13-14; Ps 51:3-4.12-13.17.19; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32 Today's Gospel is about how God, being the Good Shephe...