Friday, February 26, 2021
How is Lent going for you? I hope well. By "well," I mean hope you've hit the point of giving up on your plans for self-improvement. Lent is not about self-improvement. Actually, it would be difficult to think of anything more antithetical to his holy season than self-improvement. What is Lent about? It's about preparing for Easter by practicing more the fundamental spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. By "more" I mean more intensively and more intensively.
One of the four things that constitutes my morning prayertime is listening to 24/7 Prayer's Lectio 365. Last Monday, the passage at the heart of the daily Lectio 365 was from Mark 14, the section about his prayer in Gethsemane (see Mark 14:32-36a). After listening to passage for the second time, as is common in the practice of lectio divina, the listener is asked to find a word or phrase from the text that speaks to her/him.
The phrase that I felt spoke directly to me was Jesus's words to Peter, James, and John as he was about to pray in the Garden "Sit here while I pray" (Mark 14:32). Jesus didn't want me to labor, strive, to feel as though I had to do something, prove something, demonstrate some correct behavior. It was a moment of liberation, one that gave me an insight I have had before but one I seem to lose hold of.
On that very same day, I received a package. In the package was a book. I didn't order the book. It was sent as a gift by a friend. What was the book? In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk's Memoir. This did nothing but reinforce the sentence from lectio that spoke to me.
Once again, I hope your Lent is going well.
Our traditio for this First Friday of Lent is the Tenth Avenue North song "By Your Side" off their still remarkable 2008 album Over and Underneath.
Zero apologies for letting my charismatic proclivities shine through.
Sunday, February 21, 2021
Because of a passage in today's Gospel, deacons are sometimes associated with angels. The association stems from a phrase from today's Gospel reading: καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι διηκόνουν αὐτῷ- "and the angels ministered to him." The next-to-last, or the penultimate, word in that phrase, which transliterates as diakonein, is from the word for "deacon."
It seems that the angels "served" Jesus. Serving means they met him in his need. They rendered him aid and succor. They strengthened him as he wrestled with the temptations "Satan" threw his way.1 In the Synoptics (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus spends forty days in the desert being tempted by the "Satan" between his baptism by John in the Jordan and the beginning of his public ministry. It seems safe to say, that what the inspired authors hand-on is Jesus's preparation for his public ministry. It makes sense that Jesus confronts and wrestles with his self-doubts, his hesitations, the voice that says "God wants you to do what?"
It is important to note that these ministering (deaconing) angels did not do battle for Jesus. Rather, they strengthened him for the fight, the internal struggle prompted by self-doubt, which is the stock-in-trade of the satantas.
While Luke is the lone Synoptic author that does not mention angels ministering to Jesus in the desert, along with Matthew, this Gospel relates the Tempter, quoting scripture (Psalm 91:11-12), telling Jesus, as he urges him to hurl himself off the Temple, that God "will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and: ‘With their hands they will support you lest you dash your foot against a stone'"(see Matthew 4:5-7 and Luke 4:9-12). Jesus responds also by quoting scripture: "You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test" (see Deuteronmy 6:16).
Diaconal ministry is an angelic ministry. Deacons should call on their Guardian Angels, on the great Archangels- Michael, Gabriel, Raphael- and on all heavenly thrones, principalities, dominions, virtues, cherubim, and seraphim to aid us in our service of assisting others whether this be in the diakonia of liturgy, word, or charity.
Angelic ministry is diaconal and, when done well, diaconal ministry is angelic.
1 A couple of people have asked why I put Satan in quotation marks in this sentence. My reason for doing so is that I am referring to this pericope in both Matthew and Mark. While Mark uses satana (i.e., Satan) in 1:13, in 4:1, the parallel verse, Matthew uses diabolou (i.e., the devil). Matthew does use satana in 4:10.↩
As our first two readings for the First Sunday of Lent show, Lent is inextricably linked to baptism. In the Christian Church, observing the forty days before Easter as a time intense preparation began as something for those preparing for baptism at Easter. Eventually, it came to be a season observed even by the baptized. Unlike Advent, which is a shorter but more layered liturgical season, Lent is straightforwardly a penitential.
Even in his brief account of Jesus's sojourn in the desert, the inspired author of Mark's Gospel mentions "forty days" (Mark 1:13). It was in the desert, this first written Gospels noted, that Jesus was "tempted by Satan" (Mark 1:13). The Greek word translated as "tempted" is peirazomenos, which literally means "being tried." The Greek verb peirazo, like many verbs, can take on different meanings and, in given contexts, have various meanings, all related, of course. But the sense in which I think the author of Mark uses it in today's Gospel is something like testing Jesus in a malicious or crafty way, putting his feelings and judgments to the test.
Satanas (i.e., "Satan") means someone who opposes you in purpose and/or act. Unlike Matthew and Luke, who share a source for this other than Mark, Mark's Gospel does not detail the nature of the temptations with which Jesus's adversary confronted him (see Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13). What the temptations we read about in Matthew and Luke amount to, generally, is calling into question Jesus's divine Sonship.
In other words, the temptations Matthew and Luke write about were meant to cause Jesus to doubt his identity and, hence, his purpose and mission. There is a reason why Jesus rebukes Peter in Matthew's Gospel, calling him satana- satan. Peter was tempting him to doubt his purpose, which, as he had just expressed, was to go to Jerusalem and be killed (Matthew 16:13-20).
Make no mistake, Jesus was subjected to temptations. For this to mean anything, it must mean there was a possibility that he might give into one or more of them. Otherwise, Jesus simply came down and put on a divine puppet show. As the scriptures teach: "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).
"Okay, great," you might say, "but what does that have to with me?" Well, Jesus calls you to die and rise with him. Unless you die, you cannot rise. Each trial in life is a temptation to question your purpose and, therefore, to divert you from following Jesus. Unlike Jesus, we are with sin. What is sin but your failure to love God with your entire being and to love your neighbor as you love yourself, going so far as to make even your enemy your neighbor?
As Christians, we sometimes wander off the path along which Jesus is leading us, the path to God's Kingdom, to what the inspired author of Hebrews dubs our "sabbath rest" (Hebrews 4:9). Sometimes our reason for wandering is that the path isn't easy. Therefore, Jesus's call to repent and believe in the Good News is a loving summons back to the winding, twisting, the often uphill path of selfless love, one that requires you to embrace dying to yourself in order to live for God in Christ by the power of the Spirit, which is fullness of life, the path to joy and true fulfillment.
The order of Jesus's proclamation, I think, matters. He puts repenting before believing. Both Greek verbs (i.e., metanoeite and pisteuete) are in the continuous tense, saying something like "Be repenting and be believing." Repenting, contrary to the popular way of understanding it, does not mean exclusively or even primarily being sorry for past wrongs. Metanoeite means to have a continuous change of mind, a mind transformed into what Saint Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians calls "the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16).
Just as repentance is not exclusively or primarily feeling sorry for your wrongs but a positive commitment, having the mind of Christ is not exclusively or primarily adherence to a morality- that is to give in to the constant temptation to turn Christianity into Stoicism. "Good morals" are at best a by-product of true and on-going repentance. Just as repentance is the starting point of belief, it is also the starting point of right living. Because it is a continuous process, having the mind of Christ is infinitely on-going. To be a Christian, therefore, is to commit to an on-going process of conversion.
Each liturgical year we re-live, re-celebrate, re-imagine the Paschal Mystery. We even do this in each Eucharist. The idea is that through our liturgical praxis God graciously draws us more deeply into the mystery of Christ's living/dying/rising. One of the prayers in the Intercessions for Morning Prayer today implores:
Christ, our life, through baptism we were buried with you and rose to life with you,What Thomas Merton wrote about prayer is true of the entire Christian life: "We do not want to be beginners but let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything but beginners, all our life!” (from his book Contemplative Prayer). As Saint Benedict insisted: "Always, we begin again."
-may we walk today in newness of life
Today, on the First Sunday of Lent, after our four-day warm-up- time enough for the shine to wear-off all our plans to use Lent as a time for self-improvement- we are called to repent so that our belief, our pistis, the Greek word used most often in the New Testament for faith/belief, including in our reading Gospel today, may be strengthened.
Pistis either means or carries the connotation of being persuaded. What persuades us to believe, to have faith? Not clever arguments concerning abstruse metaphysical matters, or even arguments about practical matters. According to Jesus, it is by living what he teaches that will persuade you, helping you to believe. It is also how you evangelize or persuade others. Experience is the best teacher and example is the best persuader.
Let's heed Church's scripture reading from Morning Prayer today: "Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength" (Nehemiah 8:10).
Friday, February 19, 2021
My practice over the past several years is to do what the Church bids me to over Lent: fast on Ash Wednesday and abstain from meat on Fridays. Today, I had fish n' chips, which were delicious and seemed a little indulgent!
I usually try to fast a few more times during Lent and then, as the Church bids me, on Good Friday. But then, I try to incorporate fasting into my life outside of Lent, as well as Friday abstinence. Except for Sundays, on which I pray the Glorious Mysteries, and the solemnities of the Annunciation & Saint Joseph, on which I pray the Joyful mysteries, I pray the Sorrowful Mysteries during Lent. My custom is to recite the Act of Contrition before the 5 Our Fathers when praying the Sorrowful Mysteries.
This year, at least over the first few weeks of Lent, I am reading some books on mental health: J.P. Moreland's Finding Quiet: My Story of Overcoming Anxiety and the Practices that Brought Peace and Sara Griffth Lund's Blessed Union: Breaking the Silence About Mental Health in Marriage. I am reading both books first and foremost for my own benefit and secondly to aid me in my pastoral ministry. I may give a brief update on something I find useful from these books.
As always, I am doing other reading as well. Specifically, I am finishing Francis Spufford's novel Golden Hill and working my, again, through James P. Mackey's magisterial and fascinating Christianity and Creation: The Essence of the Christian Faith and Its Future among Religions When I finish Golden Hill, I plan to read Eric Idle's memoir Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography.
It seems fitting on this Friday after Ash Wednesday to select as our traditio a choral setting of Psalm 51- known by the first phrase of its Latin translation found in the Vulgate: Miserere Mei Deus, or even simply as the Miserere.
Wednesday, February 17, 2021
A week ago last Sunday, when I told Father Stan [a retired priest who lives at our parish] I was preaching on Ash Wednesday, he told me, “Be nice.” I think that’s great advice, especially this year as we approach a whole year of enduring this coronavirus pandemic. Besides, Christ’s summons to repentance is a great act of charity, one that should be responded to with joy. Today the Lord invites us to live according to the purpose for which he created each one of us and all of us: communion.
Last week, I listened to a podcast featuring Eric Peterson, the son of the late pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson. In addition to authoring many books, Peterson pastored a relatively small church in Maryland for decades. After retiring from ministry, Eugene taught full-time for some years at Regent University in Vancouver, where he had taught part-time for many years during his ministry.
During the podcast, Eric related that his brother, Peterson’s other son, once told his Dad, “You basically have one sermon.” This sermon, his son asserted, while taking different forms, consisted of the following four points: “God loves you. He’s on your side. He’s coming after you. He’s relentless.”1
Revelation informs us that “God is love.”2 Far from despising or rejecting you, God loves you so much that he sent his only Son to save you.3 God’s love, not my weaknesses and/or my failure, is the starting point of repentance. Therefore, Lent is not the time to do an orthodox grovel to the pseudo-Lord who despises me. I must reject this god my inner Pharisee is drawn to worship. Lent is a time to experience, or re-experience, God’s full embrace. “Repent and believe in the Gospel” is Christ’s invitation to enter fully into God’s love.4
When you were baptized, you were immersed into the very life of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Love, agape, is the essence of divine life. Agape is self-emptying, self-sacrificing, salving and so saving love.
Lent comes from the Old English word for “springtime.” Springtime is the time when life re-emerges, is renewed. Lent is preparation for Easter. Specifically, Lent prepares us to renew our baptismal promises at Easter.
In our second reading, Saint Paul tells his fellow Christians, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.” Because God makes his appeal through us, he has reconciled us to himself through Christ Jesus.5
As most of you know, the distribution of ashes this year, due to concerns about transmitting the sars-cov-2 virus, is different. But it is not new or novel. It is an older tradition, one used continuously in many parts of the Church, including at the Vatican. Instead of having a big, black cross smeared on your forehead, you will have palm ashes sprinkled on the top of your head.
In light of our Gospel, which is the same each year on Ash Wednesday, the normal way Catholics in the U.S. receive ashes should cause no little cognitive dissonance. Instead of being able to take selfies and, as the marketing that passes itself off as evangelization urges you, “Show Your Ash,” it gives you the opportunity this year to be known by your fruits, that is, by your good works.6
How do you produce good fruit? Good fruit grows on healthy trees. Healthy trees require good soil. Good spiritual soil is made by the authentic and daily practice of the three fundamental spiritual disciplines Jesus himself teaches: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
These disciplines, while distinct, are interrelated. Prayer can become too personal, abstract, and disconnected. Almsgiving, which includes serving others, is not a uniquely Christian undertaking. Fasting, which the Church bids to do today and on Good Friday by obligation, is the discipline that integrates prayer and almsgiving. Therefore, fasting is a discipline we should integrate into our own spiritual practice. Spiritual practices are what constitute spirituality.
Prayer is embodied by fasting. This embodiment results in almsgiving. Without a doubt, fasting is the most neglected of the three fundamental spiritual disciplines. I think there is a useful correlation to be made between the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving and the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love, or caritas (i.e., charity).
Prayer corresponds to faith, almsgiving to charity, and fasting to hope. Just as fasting integrates prayer and almsgiving, hope integrates faith and love. Hope is the flower of faith and charity is the fruit.
It is important to note that according to Church teaching, faith, hope, and charity are gifts from God. God gives divine gifts gratuitously. In other words, God’s gifts are grace. God doesn’t give these gifts because we’ve earned them. God gives us gifts to use in his service. We serve God whenever we serve others in Christ’s name and for the sake of God’s Kingdom. The New Testament word for such charitable service is diakonia.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, in and of themselves, will not bring you closer to God. There is nothing magical about doing any or all of these things, even together: “Only God can bring you closer to Himself. What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to his grace.”7
If you’re anemic, hypoglycemic, or suffer from an eating disorder, it is probably best to forego fasting rigorously. According to canon law, you can eat one full meal and two smaller meals that together are not more than a single meal and still be fasting, while abstaining from meat.
Above all, do not get hung up on the rules for Lent, especially if you are prone to scrupulosity or have similar unhealthy tendencies. Spiritual disciplines can be life-giving or soul-killing.
When understood and practiced well, spiritual disciplines are done freely and produce joy. “The purpose of the [spiritual] Disciplines,” Richard Foster noted, “is liberation from the stifling slavery to self-interest and fear.”8 The risk, however, is practicing spiritual disciplines in a way that is rule-bound and enslaving.
TToday start your Lenten journey with the reassurance that “God loves you. He’s on your side. He’s coming after you. He’s relentless.” It is God who will bring to completion the good work he’s begun in you.9 May this Lent be a time when, by a more joyful, intentional, and integrated spirituality, you clear some space for God to accomplish his “good work” in you and through you.
1 Renovare Podcast 206, "Eric Eugene Peterson – That’s My Dad" (go to 17:55-18:23).↩
2 1 John 4:8.16.↩
3 John 3:17; 1 John 4:10.↩
4 Roman Missal, Ash Wednesday.↩
5 2 Corinthians 5:20.↩
6 Matthew 7:20.↩
7 James Kushiner, Mere Comments blog, "Lent: Take Three, 22 February 2007, accessed 16 February 2021.↩
8 Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiirtual Growth, 2.↩
9 Philippians 1:6.↩
Saturday, February 13, 2021
Perhaps the most memorable account of Jesus healing in Mark's Gospel is found in the second chapter. The first twelve verses of that chapter tell of Jesus's healing in a house. People were lined up to receive the healing of Jesus. Four men brought their paralytic friend on a stretcher. In their eagerness, they jumped the queue, pulled their disabled friend up on the roof, and then lowered him down in front of Jesus.
What Jesus did when the paralytic man was put in front of him startled everyone in the room, especially those who keeping a wary eye on him. He said to the paralyzed man "your sins are forgiven." Discerning the dubiousness of those keeping an eye on him about his claim to forgive sin, Jesus asks out loud whether it is easier to say "your sins are forgiven" or "get up and walk." He then tells the man to stand up, pick up his stretcher, and walk. This is a demonstration of the validity of his claim to be able to remit sin (see Mark 2:1-12).
Sadly, in our time and culture, we take the latter as "proof" of the former, thus separating the two. As the recently-deceased Irish theologian James P. Mackey observed: "the healing is not separate from the forgiveness" (Christianity and Creation, 115). It is important not to separate the two lest we persist, even subconsciously, in the lie that sin causes God's punishment, including misfortunes, physical disability, injury, even death. In fact, as Mackey further noted, "the [only] punishment for sin is a self-inflicted punishment by humanity on humanity" (Ibid).
Setting things straight theologically is important when addressing the Scriptures. One of the distinct features of the disease identified in the Bible as "leprosy" is that nobody knew its cause and there was no surefire cure. Because it was held to be contagious, should someone be afflicted with this disease, they were unclean. This status exiled them from family, home, and society. Among Jews, contact with a leper rendered you ritually unclean, at least temporarily.
Most of us know after a year of living in pandemic conditions the fear of being infected with a possibly fatal disease. Many who are in vulnerable categories have more-or-less been isolating for nearly a year. A lot of us have been forced to quarantine after possibly coming into contact with someone infected with sars-cov-2 for a few weeks.
Others, such as myself, were forced to isolate while sick with the disease caused by the virus: COVID-19. For most of us, even if extended, these quarantines and isolations will prove temporary. This gives us a little taste of what a leper in Jesus's day experienced, except, barring a miracle, for the rest of their lives, which would likely be taken slowly by the disease. Another fairly contemporary analog is the early days of AIDS, the disease caused by HIV.
The first thing we must attend to in this pericope (a "pericope" is a distinct episode found in the Gospels) is so obvious we can easily miss it: Jesus did not fear contact with this leprous man. Beyond that, Jesus willed to make him clean, to impart to him, impute to him, imbue him with the healing and wholeness he sought. After making him clean, Jesus directed the man to do what the law, as set forth in our first reading from Leviticus, prescribed. Presumably, Jesus directed this so the man could be properly restored to home, family, and society. In short, he could once again belong.
As I mentioned yesterday in my second weekly chronicle about my own struggles, belonging is a fundamental human need. If you're anything like me, sometimes you might balk at that statement. Hearing it or reading it might even make you angry. In short, this insistence might provoke you. But, at a deep level, we all want to belong because we need to belong. We need to belong because we are made to belong. We are made for communion. This is why you can't really flourish without belonging.
Jesus is the agent of belonging par excellence. His ministry consisted, in large part, of gathering those on the margins, inviting them to belong to God's people. The Church is nothing if not an assembly consisting of those Christ has gathered. But the Church is only really the Church when it is radically inclusive, like Jesus. Sadly, the Church is experienced by many as a place of exclusion, even rejection, and repudiation.
Too many people suffer and are even traumatized by this all-too-human tendency to make the Church of Christ an exclusive club. We do well to bear in mind Jesus's words to those who were scandalized by his eating and drinking with "tax collectors and sinners"- “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners" (Mark 2:17)
"Once you were 'no people' but now you are God’s people; you 'had not received mercy' but now you have received mercy" (1 Peter 2:10). As Pope Francis tirelessly teaches, being a Christian is about receiving and extending mercy. It is nothing other than the mercy of God given us in Christ that makes the Church. God's mercy, in turn, is made real, that is, experiential by the Holy Spirit. Because it is the Spirit who effects the sacraments, it is the Spirit that makes the Church the sacrament of salvation for the world.
The man Jesus heals in today's Gospel is a model of evangelization. Too often we endeavor to make evangelization a program replete with repeatable formulae. In reality, evangelism consists of nothing more than telling others what Jesus has done for me. So strong was the urge of the man-made-clean to tell others what Jesus had done for him that he ignored Jesus's direction not tell anybody anything about what had happened.
Apologetics is not evangelization. Nobody is going to be argued into the Kingdom of God. We make a potentially fatal error when we reduce evangelization to apologetics, just as we make a huge mistake when we reduce faith to morals. I return often to this passage from Timothy Radcliffe's book What Is the Point of Being a Christian?:
The Church has nothing to say about morality until our listeners have glimpsed God’s delight in their existence. People often come to us carrying heavy burdens, with lives not in accord with the Church’s teaching, the fruit of complex histories. We have nothing to say at all until people know that God rejoices in their very existence, which is why they exist at all (Kindle Locations 1154-1155. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition)To wit: there is no one who Jesus doesn't wish to make clean, to include, to imbue with a sense of belonging. As we are on the threshold of Lent, perhaps our Lenten challenge is twofold: to accept, again perhaps, Jesus's invitation to belong and to extend that invitation to others, especially someone we know who feels excluded.
Friday, February 12, 2021
These days restlessness and dissatisfaction seem to stalk me. To be honest, I haven't dealt with it very well. I am all too familiar with the very real difference between being made miserable and making myself miserable. Lately, it's been the latter. In some ways, this is worse misery than that which emanates from external sources. Hopefully, I write this without self-pity but it seems during times like these I am built for unhappiness.
Life really isn't enjoyable when I feel impatient and irritable. I want to be left alone but that seems to make things worse, meaning I don't really want to be left alone. I am feeling better today than I have for a while. Good enough to type the two paragraphs above. I feel good enough to express gratitude to two wonderful women who persist with me in dark times and help me through dark times, shining light in the darkness.
The first of these two is my wife, who not only experiences me at my worst first-hand but who, frankly, bears the brunt of it. I was tempted to add "of course" after the word "two" in the previous sentence. In thinking about it that would be to take her for granted. There are a lot of people, perhaps most, who wouldn't or couldn't hang in there with me when things get bad. Not only does she stick with me, but she does it with patience and grace while doing a good job of setting her own boundaries.
The second person is a friend I've known for decades but with whom I'd lost touch until about 11 years ago. It amazes me that there are people who've experienced my low ebbs and still love me anyway. Because of her own experiences, she's able to be empathetic. An important aspect of the support of these wonderful people is they don't simply indulge me. Indulgence is not support. Support requires threading a needle. It takes enough care to engage with the required patience.
A third thing was listening to a two-part Encountering Silence podcast featuring Pastor (Dr.) Sarah Griffith Lund. Pastor Sarah, who was a guest on the same podcast last year, is someone who manages to speak to me right where I'm at (for the first part of the podcast click here). Her book Blessed Union: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness and Marriage is going to be the first of my Lenten books this year.
To bring these together, one of the things Pastor Sarah is adamant about is that for those of us who suffer, you can't make it alone. I know this. Again, if it weren't for the love and support I receive I simply wouldn't be here. It's really as simple as that.
A fourth thing is that I am nearing the end of Brother David Steindl-Rast's Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer. This is a book, like John O'Donohue's Anam Cara, I will read again. His chapters on faith, hope, and love are magnificent. One of the main themes of O'Donohue's writing is our deep need to belong. In his chapter on love, Steindl-Rast covers this territory as well.
Brother David's chapter on love is called "Love: A 'Yes' to Belonging." For those who share struggles similar to mine, it's not always easy to say yes to belonging. Sometimes I don't want to belong or maybe it's just that I find very difficult to belong. Mental health is important, too. Don't neglect it.
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