Sunday, May 9, 2021

On loving like Jesus loves

Readings: Acts 10:25-26.34-35.44-48; Ps 98:1-4; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17

In the first reading for today, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, taken from the Acts of the Apostles, tells about an event that has been dubbed "the Pentecost of the Gentiles." This occurred when Peter was summoned to the house of Cornelius. Cornelius, if you remember, was a Roman centurion. Digging a little deeper into memory, you may also remember that Peter was hesitant to go to Cornelius's house because, well, Cornelius was a Gentile. According to the narrative, it was in a dream that God urged Peter not to be hung up on keeping kosher, that whatever food God declared clean was clean.

It's clear that even upon his arrival at the house of Cornelius, Peter was still hesitant. Even though he declared forthrightly something central to Christianity, namely "that God shows no partiality," it was not until Holy Spirit demonstrably "fell upon all who were listening to the word" that Peter saw fit that Cornelius and his Gentile household were baptized.

It has been noted that Christianity is universal or it is nothing at all. This is more important than I am making it sound. I think that the essence, of Christianity's universality is well-captured in today's second reading from 1 John: "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God."

Christian universality is rooted in Christians loving as God loves. God's love is made manifest in and through Jesus Christ. "In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins." What is sin but our refusal to love?

Sadly, I think many Christians are conditioned to start making a long list of rules to be followed whenever we hear the phrase "keep my commandments." What does Jesus command in today's Gospel? "This is my commandment: love one another as I love you." Let's face it, it is a lot easier to keep a list of rules than it is to love others the way Jesus loves us. The logic of love doesn't seem to be intuitive or innate. It cuts against our tendencies and, dare I say, against some of our instincts.

In the twelfth chapter of Romans, Paul instructs the Christians resident in the imperial city, who faced persecution from their community's inception, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all" (Romans 12:17). Further along he concludes with this exhortation: "Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good" (Romans 12:21). If you're anything like me (I hope you're not!), when you are not faced with the reality of having to do this, these words are inspiring. On the other hand, when you find yourself in the middle of a situation that tests you in this regard, you quickly realize how hard it is to live this way.

I don't mind divulging that twice this year I have found myself in vexing situations, circumstances that really challenge me to be a Christian, to follow Christ, to adhere to him ("adhere," as the word adhesive shows, means to "stick"), or to give into seeking revenge, giving as good as I get, or even retreating into bitterness and resentment. I also don't mind saying that in both instances it is a struggle. All of this is encapsulated in the Spiritual Work of Mercy that bids us bear wrongs patiently. If these situations don't drive us to our knees in prayer, I don't know what will.

As the late Rich Mullins sang: "It's hard to be like Jesus." What else can Jesus mean when he bids his disciples "Remain in my love."

One of the petitions found among the Intercessions for Morning Prayer today is this:
You have given faith to save us,
-may we live today by the faith of our baptism
Our faith bids us to trust the Lord and to learn through sometimes difficult, perhaps even excruciating, experience that living in this way is what completes our joy.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Not much to write but going on but not on and on

May is here. It is a lovely month, one of my favorites. I don't know about you but my life is slowly getting back to normal. This is good in some respects and bad in others. Returning to normal does make me realize, yet again, how overextended I am prone to make myself. I keep thinking, "I need to do something about that."

More precisely, what I need to do about that is do less. I am pretty good at tinkering around at the margins just to make things work but I think what I need is more systemic than doing that. Anyway, I probably need to make my end-of-the-week posts less autobiographical.

Anyway, this was a long week. I am tired. It is okay to be tired. If it is okay to be tired, it is okay to rest. Rest is what I did last evening, which is why there was no Friday traditio. I am sure both of you were very disappointed (laughing emoji here).

It's weird trying to write when I don't have much to say. In the words of one of my favorite authors, Samuel Beckett, the words with which he ended his novel Unnamable:
It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don't know, I'll never know: in the silence you don't know.

You must go on.

I can't go on.

I'll go on.
Actually, I won't.

Beckett also wrote: "Music always wins." I went back and looked up "Why music struck a chord with Beckett."

Beckett very much liked Beethoven's Sonata Pathetique, also known less glamorously as Piano Sonata Number 8 in C minor, Op. 13., very much, especially the final movement. So, our very late traditio is the third movement of Beethoven's Sonata Pathetique:

Sunday, May 2, 2021

On the necessity of pruning branches

Readings: Acts 9:26-31; Ps 22:26-28.30-32; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8

Not only am I not preaching this weekend, I am only serving at one Mass. The Mass I served was the Vigil Mass last night. It's been a while since I did what I used to do the first weekend of each month, which is take a little rest. Nonetheless, I think this week's readings are worth a short reflection.

It is pretty well-known that the vine imagery the inspired author of John's Gospel employs in today's Gospel is taken from the Hebrew Bible. In what we Christians refer to as the Old Testament, the vine is an image of Israel, of God's people. In our Gospel for this Fifth Sunday of Easter, it remains an image of God's people. In short, it is an image of communion. Christianity is inherently communal, which is why there is a Church, for better or for worse.

What can easily be ignored in all the explanations of the meaning of the image of the vine and branches is the necessity of pruning grapevines. Grapevines that aren't skillfully pruned don't bear fruit. This goes back to the inherently communal nature of God's people: we're better for the worse. Belonging to any community has its ups and downs. This is even (especially?) true of the community of marriage and family. It stands to reason that belonging to a parish, which a lot of people avoid, preferring to be ecclesial nomads, exhibits this same dynamic.

As Jesus indicates, the word of God prunes us. This can remain very abstract. A clue to what Jesus means can be found in our second reading, also taken from the Johannine corpus. It has to do with keeping his commandments. It seems pretty natural that when we hear the phrase "keep the commandments" our minds go to a list of rules to keep.

In our passage from First John, it is reiterated that what is meant by keeping God's commandments is to love God and to love our neighbor. The pruning comes when the going gets tough, like forgiving someone who wronged you, praying for and being benevolent toward your enemy, someone who opposes you. It is assumed you will have enemies. As the saying goes, having no enemies means you've never stood up for anything, at least nothing that matters.

Interestingly, our Responsorial is from Psalm 22. The opening words of Psalm 22 are what Jesus recited as he hung dying on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" The lament ends with the third verse of the Psalm. The subsequent twenty-nine verses are a psalm of praise. This is the kind of pruning referred to in our Gospel. This is stated beautifully in the opening words of our Collect for today: "Almighty ever-living God, constantly accomplish the Paschal Mystery within us..." What is the Paschal Mystery but dying and rising, being pruned to bear fruit for God's kingdom.

We have a concrete example of this in our reading from Acts. The Jerusalem community is suspicious of Saul. Why? Well, according to the Acts narrative, it was because he formerly persecuted them, culminating in the stoning of Stephen. He had left Jerusalem to go to Damascus to persecute followers of the Way there. Was this a ruse to infiltrate the community? It fell to Barnabus to vouch for the authenticity of Saul's conversion and his subsequent faith. The community forgave and embraced a murderous enemy. They were pruned and so bore more fruit.

It wouldn't take much longer for the Jerusalem Church to be scattered as the result of persecution. While this was no doubt harrowing for those forced to flee, we see in the example of Philip, who, along with Stephen, was one of the seven chosen by the Jerusalem community and set apart by the apostles for service to the community, that this pruning made the branches more fruitful because it resulted in the spread of the Gospel. Of course, Saul's subsequent missions to the Gentiles also occurred.

It would be remiss not to mention the Eucharistic dimension of the vine and branches analogy. Community/communal/communion. Our participation in the Eucharist is what connects to each other through Christ, making us, the Church, the Verum Corpus, his true Body. This is the meaning of the observation, usually attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila, that Christ has no hands, no feet, etc., in the world but ours.

Friday, April 30, 2021

On cusp of May, the month of Mary

Friday! Today is the last day of April. Tomorrow is May Day, the international day of workers and, for us Roman Catholics, the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker. An important aspect of Church Social Teaching has to do with workers. Sadly, in the U.S. the Church's long-time collaboration with labor unions is a thing of the past. We're all the worse off for it. Anyway, I don't look for that collaboration to be revived anytime soon.

While it begins with a feast in honor of her husband, May is the month of Mary, the month for May crowings. As of today, 120 days of 2021 have passed. Have you prayed 120 Rosaries? If not, don't worry. I urge you to pray 31 Rosaries in May.

The fundamental dogmas of the Christian faith are paradoxical: One in three, human and divine, etc. One of these, as we note whenever we say or sing the Divine Praises is "virgin and mother." Our Blessed Mother occupies a unique place: latria, dulia, hyperdulia. Loosely translated in order: worship, veneration, super-veneration that falls short of worship.

We worship God and only God. We venerate those holy women and men who are saints. Hyperdulia pertains to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Just as in the Ten Commandments the fourth commandment to honor your parents falls between the commandments about loving God and those concerning love of neighbor, Mary, as our Mother, occupies a unique space. Parents, even absent parents, occupy a unique space between God and other people.

Sung by a virtual 450 voice choir, our traditio for this final day of April is Salve Regina:

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Listening for the Shepherd's voice

On Good Shepherd Sunday I think it bears noting that there is but one Good Shepherd: Jesus Christ. For the most part, clergy are hirelings. Not all hirelings are bad, many care and are not driven exclusively by self-interest or self-preservation. On other hand, some are driven by less than laudable motivations. Like most human beings and human relationships, it is a mixed bag, to say the least.

Another thing that is worth pointing out is that being compared to sheep is far from flattering. Just as Jesus did not demand unquestioning obedience, Catholics are not to be blind followers. Mature faith requires a certain critical conscientiousness, which is informed by the Gospel and by Church teaching. Even when accepted in principle, infallibility, problematic in itself, is pretty restricted.

The English word "obedience" finds its root in the Latin word that means "to listen." Hence, being obedient does not mean simply doing what you're told. It also doesn't mean just doing what you want. To have faith is to accept Jesus as Lord. In the circumstances of our lives, we need to listen for his voice. It takes time and a lot of listening to be able to discern the Shepherd's voice, which has a lot of competition both internally and externally. Besides, don't we learn to trust through experience?

It is in the second reading from 1 John that the language employed is less analogous and more real: "Beloved, we are God’s children now." We are children not merely of a loving Father but of a Father who, with his Son and their Spirit, is love.

Doctrine is regulative, not prescriptive. If it were otherwise, Christianity would simply be a matter of following the rules. If there's one thing Jesus demonstrates over and again, this cannot be the case. Variances from the norm can and must be permissible. If this were not the case, would there be the need for pastors or pastoral ministers? Would there be a need for seminaries and schools of pastoral ministry? From the Council of Trent until the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church became very dogmatic. What I mean by that is many teachings, quite far removed from the fundamentals of Christian faith found in divine revelation, have been promulgated with an authority such teachings can never claim.

Enforcing the rules is not pastoral ministry. Far from seeking to make us uncritical and unquestioning followers, Jesus's shepherd analogy is about his care for us, his willingness to lay down his life for those in his care, to look out especially for the most vulnerable. His love extends beyond laying down his life. It reaches out to his taking his life up again. Jesus didn't just die for us, he rose for us. Love is the power that raised Jesus from the dead.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Languishing and thriving- the beat of life

This week I have been in St. Louis attending my first annual convention of the National Association of Diaconate Directors. It's my first time traveling since January of last year when I went to southern Georgia for my primary job. While the convention, on the whole, has been fine, this week reinforced that the older I get the less I like business travel.

Despite being able to travel and attend a convention, the pandemic is still a reality. As a result, there isn't much socializing. Evenings are pretty free. In a first, I have used Uber Eats to order supper every evening. Being on my own for a day or two is usually a nice break. But beyond that, I begin to miss my wife, my children, my co-workers, etc.

This week highlighted for me how much I need the people in my life, beginning with my wife. I guess being married for nearly 28 years cements a deep bond. When we're apart for extended periods, sappy as it sounds, it's like a part of me is missing- the best part. I could wax eloquently about what I miss when we're apart but that important thing, it seems to me, is to learn to cherish her more when we're together. If there's one thing I don't do well it's being alone for days. Another thing I find difficult is having a lot of free time. By myself and unencumbered by daily demands I tend to languish.

To start with a slightly critical point, "languishing" has become something a buzzword used to describe what a lot of people are feeling due to the disruption of social patterns caused by the pandemic. The dictionary definition of "languish" is to lose vitality or even growing weak and feeble. My guess is, languishing is the term of choice because it stops short of depression, especially clinical (i.e., diagnosed) depression. In that regard, I suppose it suits this purpose.

Languishing is a precarious predicament for me, there are some potential pitfalls. One is too much introspection and the other is what I might do to distract myself so I don't become overly introspective. A personal challenge moving forward is to have free time and to use it well, to both plan and then enjoy the time without mentally burdening myself with the other things I "should" be doing. It's easy to put all my eggs in the basket of work and to gauge my own worth by how much I get done and accomplish. Theoretically, I completely get the need to have unproductive time and to recreate. Practically, it's a different story.

One of the results of having a lot to do, completing it, and then doing more is that it starts to seem to me that my worth to other people is calculated by what I do for them. In all honesty, that is my relationship with some people. This is alright because it is the nature of some relationships, like professional ones.

Even professional relationships shouldn't be exclusively defined in such a pragmatic and calculating way. It's when every relationship starts to seem that way to me that it becomes problematic. Being in ministry definitely exacerbates this issue. As a deacon, I exist to help and serve others unselfishly without expecting anything in return. This gets back to compartmentalization except understood as healthy boundaries.

Especially for middle-aged men, building genuine friendships isn't easy. Even setting out to intentionally live an integrated life, it seems to almost be the nature of late modernity to compartmentalize the various aspects of life. There is probably even some necessity to do this to some extent.

I also need to keep in mind that the need and desire for friendship render me vulnerable in certain ways. There are those who can take advantage of those vulnerabilities, even if in so doing they're quite unaware. In their "giving," they are really taking. As long as I know I am giving and not expecting anything, this can be okay. Knowing what's what matters. Life requires discernment, which often occurs after-the-fact. It should go without saying, but doesn't, that I only experience things from my perspective. As important as it is to try to broaden my perspective, I really only know how it seems to me.

Understandably and by necessity, there are limits to how much most care for you. In truth, there are precious few people who care about me, or any of us, completely, in season and out, good days and bad days, fair weather and foul weather. Therefore, it's important to cherish the few people who care completely. Being human, even on our best days and, again, without perhaps knowing it, we relate to others on the basis of mixed and mixed-up motives. I certainly don't exclude myself from this.

Living as we do in an alienating and alienated culture and society, our longing for someone who cares about us not just always but completely and totally and without condition reveals the transcendent dimension of our humanity.

Earlier this week, a friend posted an article on languishing by an organizational psychologist, Adam Grant: "There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing." Grant provides the closest thing to a tidy conclusion: "The lesson of this simple idea is to treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to guard. It clears out constant distractions and gives us the freedom to focus. We can find solace in experiences that capture our full attention." It's silly to think that there is a remedy for what came to the fore this week that doesn't require effort on my part.

Our traditio for today is The Go-Go's lockdown version of "We Got the Beat." They performed this on the Today show last year.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Year B Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 3:13-15.17-19; Ps 4:2.4.7-9; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:25-48

“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his incredulous disciples at the end of today’s Gospel reading.1 What things are they witnesses to? Initially and perhaps primarily, they are witnesses to his death. Even if not yet fully convinced, they are also witnessing his resurrection.2

After the risen Lord opens “their minds to understand the scriptures,” they are witnesses that his death and resurrection are the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.3 This is something the risen and disguised Christ also makes clear to his two disciples as walks the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus with them. Hence, it is not just very important, it is crucial for our faith and so for our witness to understand what the scriptures convey on a deep level.

It’s too bad that we often engage the scriptures superficially, if at all. Or, worse yet, we read the scriptures through the lens of our preconceptions, imposing on them a narrow field of meaning in attempt to reduce God to our measure. And so, instead of letting God’s word shape and form us, expand and broaden us, we attempt to keep revelation, which “is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword,” within the safe boundaries we establish4 We read scripture instead of letting the scriptures read us. Let yourself be challenged, changed, converted. This is what it means to repent.

None of us saw Jesus die on the cross or have seen for ourselves the wounds in his hands and feet. None of us witnessed him eat the baked fish.5 Yet, we are convinced he rose. Your participation in this Mass is proof you believe. Would there be any reason to be here doing what we’re doing if Christ is not risen from the dead?

It is only because Jesus is risen that he can be present here, effecting what we Roman Catholics call his “Real Presence.” Just as we tend to reduce the Church’s apostolicity only to apostolic succession, we tend to reduce the risen Lord’s real presence to the consecrated bread and wine. It is because both apostolic succession and the understanding that by the power of the holy Spirit the bread and wine become for us Christ’s body and blood are necessary aspects of Catholic faith that we must not reduce them to one aspect.

According to the Second Vatican Council, the risen Christ’s real presence in the Mass happens in four distinct but interrelated ways. All of these together make the Mass what it is. First, Christ is present in the assembly, in the gathering of the baptized. The assembly, therefore, acts in persona corporis Christi, in the person of the body of Christ. Second, he is present in the person of the priest, who acts in persona Christi captis, in the person of Christ the head. The deacon acts in persona Christi servi, in the person of Christ the servant.6

When gathered around the altar, the Church constitutes what Saint Augustine called the totus Christus, the total or complete Christ. This is necessary for Christ to be really present in the proclamation of the scriptures and in the breaking of the bread. No Church, no Christ.

As in the episode of the disciples walking seven miles with Jesus, whom they did not recognize, in today’s Gospel the risen One expounds the scriptures and then eats. In both instances, as we might expect from Luke’s Gospel, which is very centered on the Eucharist, what we hear about is a Liturgy of the Word and a Liturgy of the Eucharist.

This is not just an exegetical/theological digression. Something that’s kind of neat to know. Grasping this is vital if we are to understand what we not only witness but participate in. We must understand so that we can bear witness. Our Gospel today is about how Christ remains present not merely to us, or even among us, but in us and through us. He is made present in us not merely by receiving communion but by hearing his word, that is, the scriptures. Hearing is a different mode than reading.

While it is a great practice to spend time with the Sunday readings before coming to Mass when we’re gathered and the scriptures are proclaimed they enter us through our ears. The scriptures are proclaimed orally and received aurally. Of course, the readings need to be proclaimed in such a way that it is not necessary for those who can hear to read along. As Saint Paul wrote to the Christian community in ancient Rome: “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”7

Doubt is necessary for faith, especially a vibrant faith, one worth sharing and one that can be shared. Faith is not shared when it pretends to a certainty it cannot possess. Apologetics is not evangelization. Something easy to miss in our Gospel for this Third Sunday of Easter is that despite being “incredulous,” Jesus’s disciples, on seeing him, were filled with joy.8

Being “incredulous” means being unwilling and/or unable to believe something. While we might, at times, find it difficult to believe, we, who have experienced the mysteries we are celebrating, should never be unwilling to believe.

Jesus ‘s resurrection often seems too good to be true. Like his disciples immediately after the Transfiguration, upon hearing Jesus tell them he must die and rise on the third day, we’re still interrogating the meaning of his rising from the dead.9 Our questioning of just what Christ’s rising means intensifies in the face of suffering. But it is by persisting through suffering that we experience what it means to die and rise.

And so, we should heed Saint Paul’s exhortation and “Rejoice always,” especially when the chips are down.10 Our joy is perhaps the most powerful witness to what we see, hear, touch, and taste at Mass. And so, “I shall say it again, rejoice.”11 My dear friends in Christ, the Lord is not only near, he is now here.

1 Luke 24:48.
2 Luke 24:41.
3 Luke 24:45.
4 Hebrews 4:12.
5 John Martens, The Word on the Street: Sunday Lectionary Reflections, Year B, 42.
6 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Sacrosanctum Concilium], sec. 7.
7 Romans 10:17.
8 Luke 24:41.
9 Mark 9:10.
10 Philippians 4:4.
11 Philippians 4:4.

On loving like Jesus loves

Readings: Acts 10:25-26.34-35.44-48; Ps 98:1-4; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17 In the first reading for today, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, t...