Monday, December 6, 2021

Monday Second Week of Advent, Year II

Readings: Isa 35:1-10; Ps 85:9ab-14; Luke 5:17-26

According to Jesus, it is harder to forgive sins than it is to heal the lame. The main reason Jesus spent a lot of time talking to the Pharisees is because they were the Jews with whom he had the most in common. Here’s something about the Pharisees: they understood the gravity of sin. Too often, we don’t. Hence, we continue to think that it’s a greater miracle to make a paraplegic walk than it is for God to our forgive sins through Christ.

Of course, Jesus can forgive sins because he is “True God from true God.”1 Just think of how difficult it is sometimes to forgive someone who has wronged you. Usually, we don’t just want to forgive. We long to be reconciled. But being reconciled requires that the wrong-doer acknowledge her/his offense and ask the one s/he has acted badly towards for pardon.

Forgiving means letting it go, not seeking revenge, not trying to get even. It is possible and, in fact, often the case that we forgive and remain hurt, even angry, sometimes justifiably so. Reconciliation requires speaking, hearing, and then reckoning together with the truth. A reckoning is the settling of an account.

We all need not only God’s forgiveness but to be reconciled to God. Why? In his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul provides the answer: “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.”2 It is the work of Christ to reconcile us and the whole of creation to God. God deeply desires to share his glory with you.

You don’t go to confession to find our whether or not God will forgive you. As Jesus demonstrates in today’s Gospel, in and through him, you are always already forgiven. Confession is where you go to be reconciled with the Father, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Through the Sacrament of Penance you are also reconciled to your sisters and brothers, that is, the Church. This is why we also call this the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Christ Healing the Paralytic at Capernaum, by Bernhard Rode, 1780

In confession, you face the truth by acknowledging your sins and, in the Act of Contrition, telling God you are sincerely sorry for them. Then, by doing your penance to show the sincerity of your promise to amend, you receive the full grace of the sacrament. It is with the help of God’s grace, his unmerited favor toward you, his love of you, that you can truly repent.

Repentance means changing your heart and your mind. These must change before your behavior changes. As Jesus teaches in the next chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel:
A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good,
but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil;
for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks3
Later in Luke, a rich man says to Jesus: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” To which Jesus responds: “No one is good but God alone.”4 As novelist Philip Roth wrote: “whoever imagines himself pure is wicked.”5

The first two weeks of Advent pick-up where Christ the King left-off: looking forward to Jesus’s return in glory. As a result, these weeks really have one theme: our need to repent, to be converted. To convert is to change. By grace, we are to be changed into the very image of Christ. In the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern Church, Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council stated this powerfully: Jesus Christ
Who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), is Himself the perfect man. To the [children] of Adam He restores the divine likeness which had been disfigured from the first sin onward. Since human nature as He assumed it was not annulled, by that very fact it has been raised up to a divine dignity in our respect too. For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every [person]6
This is summed up nicely by the whispered prayer said during Mass when the water is added to the wine on the altar: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”7 At root, this is what the Incarnation of the Son of God is about.

1 The Roman Missal The Order the Mass, The Liturgy of the Word, sec. 18.
2 Romans 3:23.
3 Luke 6:45.
4 Luke 18:18-19.
5 Philip Roth, Sabbath's Theater.
6 Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et spes], sec. 22.
7 The Roman Missal, Order of Mass, The Liturgy of the Eucharist, sec. 24.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Hopefully waiting

Today is the First Friday of Advent and First Friday of December. It also the feast day of that great Jesuit missionary, Saint Francis Xavier.

In with the new- a new Year of Grace and a new month, even if it is the final month of 2021. As I noted in my homily last Monday, as a Christian, I appreciate always being able to start again over and over again. It gives me hope. Who knows, with the help of God, maybe one of these times I'll "get it right"? That's the hope: my desire to get it right. Without that desire, there is no reason to be enthusiastic about being able to start again.

Saint Joseph Church Monticello, Utah

Perhaps in the missionary spirit of St. Francis Xavier, I am traveling today with my Bishop. We are headed to southeastern Utah. Specifically, paying pastoral visits to to Moab and Monticello- the parishes of Saint Pius X and Saint Joseph, respectively.

It will be nice to get away. The past few months have been incredibly busy. I've been busy to the point of nearly being overwhelmed. So, while there are places to be and things to do during this trip, the drive, the little bit of hiking, the quiet of a room, will be a nice, if brief, respite.

So, I am off today to Utah's beautiful red rock country. In the spirit of Advent, I am keeping today's post both simple and hopeful.

Our traditio for today. J.S. Bach's Jesu, joy of man's desiring as sung by the Choir of Somerville College, Oxford:

Monday, November 29, 2021

Monday First Week of Advent, Year II

Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Ps 122:1-9; Matthew 8:5-11

At Mass, just prior to receiving communion, we echo the words uttered by the Roman centurion in this evening’s Gospel: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”1 The acknowledgement of our unworthiness implies that our souls need healing.

Here’s the thing about Jesus, as demonstrated by his healing the centurion’s servant: when we sincerely ask, he always says the healing word! We only learn that the servant of the centurion is healed two verses after the final verse of our reading, when the inspired author writes: “And Jesus said to the centurion, ‘You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.’ And at that very hour [his] servant was healed.”2

Why this Gospel today, the second day of a New Year of Grace? Because with the advent of Advent we are invited to begin again, again. Important for Christian hope is the belief that because of God’s love for us given in Christ Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit we can always begin again. As Pope Francis noted: you will get tired of asking God’s forgiveness long before God tires of forgiving you.

Jesus Healing the Servant of a Centurion, by Paolo Veronese, 16th century

Just as it is arrogance, not humility, to think your sins are too great for God to forgive, to think God will tire of forgiving you before you tire of sincerely repenting is to give yourself too much credit and God too little.

What is the healing word that Jesus says? It is absólvo or, in English, “absolve.” After confessing and expressing sorrow for your sins, the priest, acting in persona Christi, as part of Absolution in the Sacrament of Penance, says, Et ego te absólvo a peccátis tuis- “and I absolve you from your sins.” Apart from saying something fancy sounding in Latin, to say the priest acts in persona Christi is to say that it is Christ himself who absolves your sins, who says the healing word. Of course, Christ is himself the healing Word.

The main pastoral reason the Sacrament of Penance is encouraged and made more available during Advent is so that we can truly begin again, again. The grace we receive in and through the Sacrament of Penance, which is a unique grace- the restoration of sanctifying grace, the renewal of your baptism- prepares us to celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus, the Incarnation of the Son of God. It is through the sacraments that Christ is born and abides in us to accomplish his purposes through us. At the end of each Mass, you are sent to make him present wherever you are.

1 The Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, sec. 132.
2 Matthew 8:13.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Abounding love

Readings: Jer 33:14-16; Ps 24:4-5.8-10.14; 1 Thess 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28.34-36

Central to the philosophical project of Martin Heidegger was the recovery of the question of Being. The question of Being Heidegger sought to recover was just that, a question, not an answer, let alone the answer. What is the question of Being he sought to recover? Stated inexactly it takes the form of Why does any-thing exist rather than no-thing? Why are there beings who can ask and wonder about Being?

Maybe it's the word wonder that is the key to the recovery of the question. I mean wonder in a dual sense: wondering about Being, about our own being, as in pondering it and wonder, as in being struck by the self-conscious nature of my being.

Judging from some of Heidegger's early work, like his lecture on Saint Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians, what concerned him was how to live with meaning, purpose, even urgency. Maybe all these coalesce into a key Heideggerian term: authenticity. How does one live authentically? These are big questions and raise big issues.

First Thessalonians may well be the first of the uniquely Christian scriptures, known collectively as the New Testament, to be written. Its rival for being the earliest New Testament composition is Saint Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. First Thessalonians, one of the seven authentically Pauline compositions (i.e., written by Paul himself) in the Christian scriptures, was likely composed in about AD 50, which is probably 20 years before the first written Gospel (i.e., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, presumably written shortly after AD 70).

One of the things that prompted the apostle to write to the Church in Thessaloniki was in response to their anticipation of Christ's imminent return. This brings us to the passage from the end of the third and beginning of the fourth chapters of the letter that comprises our second reading for this First Sunday of Advent in Year C of the three-year Sunday cycle of readings. One way to frame our readings for today is that each of the three tells about one of Christ's comings.

In the first reading from Jeremiah, we hear what the Church takes to be a prophecy about the Lord's birth. Our Gospel, while contextually about the destruction of the Second Temple, which occurred in AD 70 and had already occurred when the Gospel of Luke was written, is about Christ's return in glory. Our reading from First Thessalonians, meanwhile, is about Christ's presence in the here and now.

You see, Christ wasn't born, lived, died, rose from the dead, and then, with his Ascension, taken away. On Pentecost, he sent the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the third Glorious Mystery of the Rosary, which is the Spirit's descent at Pentecost, is God's love for us. God shows his love for us by always being with us, not leaving us orphans. The Holy Spirit is nothing other than the mode of Christ's resurrection presence in us, among us, and through us.

It is just this that Paul addresses in the passage that is our New Testament reading: "May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we have for you, to strengthen your hearts" (1 Thess 3:12). It is through such love that the hearts of believers are strengthened for the Lord's return. It is by abounding love that Christ is present in, among, and through us.

In our Gospel, the signs about which Jesus speaks are ambiguous insofar as they are things that always happen. When has there not been natural disasters, strange interstellar events, and the like? Tribulation is always imminent, is it not? Jesus urges his followers not only to not be afraid, but to "stand erect and raise your heads" when these things happen. Why? Because when you experience these things "your redemption is at hand." As the Second Vatican Council put it in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: "Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us" (Gaudium et spes, sec. 22.)

"Be vigilant at all times," Jesus tells us. Don't let the anxieties of daily life obscure your ability to read the signs of the times by the light of faith. Don't let trials and tribulations overshadow the reality and inevitability of your own death and what lies beyond. Christians live life with purpose and urgency, that is to say, with passion. In essence, passion means to suffer. The Buddha was correct- to live is to suffer. In and through Christ we overcome suffering and even death. This overcoming happens through experience, not avoidance. Because of Christ, we can truly live!

While Advent is a short season, consisting of only four Sundays- this year Advent is almost as long as it can possibly be (next year, it will be as long as it can be)- it is polyvalent. Picking up from Christ the King, Advent starts as a season of penance, looking forward to Christ's return and his judgment of the living and the dead. On its Third Sunday, known as Gaudete Sunday, Advent takes a more hopeful turn, directing us to Christ's birth and the effects of that, namely that Christ is not really born until he is born in you! This gets us back to abounding love. "Abound" means to have or, in the case of love (i.e., agape), to give in large amounts.

Abounding love is how one lives life with purpose and passion. To love is to live authentically. It is Christ who "fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (Gaudium et spes, sec 22). Our existence is an act of love. Without love there is nothing.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Sober thoughts

Last Friday I fully intended to post something for the weekly traditio. But true to form these daze, I was overcome by events. Well, life trumps blogging, right? It's funny how much energy writing takes. Besides energy, writing takes time.

This morning, the day after Thanksgiving and the penultimate day of this Year of Grace (i.e., liturgical year), I seem to have both the time and the enrgy. It's made a bit easier by the fact that I hand-wrote what I was going to post last week.

In addition to Morning Prayer, my daily spiritual praxis consists of reading a chapter (or a portion of a chapter) of The Rule of Saint Benedict. I also usually listen to 24/7 Prayer's Lectio 365. I also pray the Rosary.

Saint Benedict, ca. 480-ca. 550

Several years ago, for a variety of reasons, I quit drinking alcohol. I won't bore you with the details of my long, winding relationship with that substance. Suffice to say that it will be three years this 26 December, the Feast of Saint Stephen, that I quit for good. Along with Saint Martin of Tours, on whose feast day I was born, Saint Stephen is my patron saint. My middle name is "Stephen" from birth. Stephen was my Dad's first name.

Of course, as a Catholic deacon I drink wine at Mass, even during the pandemic. Since I serve at 3-5 Masses weekly, my wine consumption probably amounts to one small-to-medium size glass of wine per week. So, whatever health benefits moderate wine and/or alcohol consumption might provide, I receive.

Last Thursday morning, my reading from The Rule of Saint Bendict was the fortieth chapter. The title of this section of the Rule is "The Quantity of Drink." At least for me, this chapter captures well the issue with alcohol consumption, especially as one grows older.

In his distinctive way, Saint Benedict begins by noting the problems that naturally arise from limiting how much another person can eat and drink. I start with this because I don't judge anyone who drinks. Since I am not their abbot, bishop, spouse, parent, etc., it is not my place to seek to place limits on anyone else. According to his moderate sensibility, Benedict does not prohibit monks from drinking wine. He does assert that "those to whom God grants the strength should abstain [from wine]."

Father Benedict goes on to state something rather interesting about those who abstain. He insists that they "earn a special reward." True to his grounded spirituality, I can only imagine that Benedict understands that abstaining from alcohol is its own reward. This is certainly true for me. As the late Scottish writer, William McIlvanney wrote in the final installment of his Jack Laidlaw trilogy, Strange Loyalties: "To pretend that subjective conviction is objective truth, without testing it against the constant daily witness of experience, is to abdicate from living seriously." Even though it is monastic, or maybe precisely because it is monastic, Benedictine spirituality is existential, that is to say, grounded in experience.

Our traditio for this last Friday of the Year of Grace 2021 is an the Introit for Mass for the First Sunday of Advent:

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Year B Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Readings: Deut 7:13-14; Ps 93:1-2.5; Rev 1:5-8; John 18:33b-37
That’s great, it starts with an earthquake/
Birds, and snakes, an aeroplane/
Lenny Bruce is not afraid...1
Many of you are probably asking yourself, “What in the world is he talking about?” But for those of us of a certain age, REM’s song “It’s the End of the World” is the best apocalyptic anthem ever!

Indeed, on this Solemnity of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the liturgical year, we celebrate the end of time and we look forward to the end of the world as we know it. It is an article of Christian faith, which we confess each time we profess the Creed that Jesus Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” and to fully establish God's Kingdom.2

We do not know when and or really how the Lord will return. Whenever Jesus spoke about his second coming, he was, I believe, deliberately ambiguous. As his followers, we just believe that he will return as he promised. This belief coupled with the fact that we don’t know when or how he will come back should help shape how we live our lives.

Insisting that our belief in Christ’s return should inform and, at least in part, form our lives is not to say that we should live in fear. Christians, those whose lives are shaped and formed by Jesus’s teachings, await the Lord’s return with hopeful anticipation. They are the ones who pray one of the most ancient Christian prayers. A one-word prayer, found in Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians as well as in the ancient Christian document known as the Didache: Maranatha!3

Maranatha is an Aramaic word that means “Come, our Lord.” Each time we celebrate the Eucharist we hear a form of this when, between the two parts of the Lord’s Prayer, the priest prays “as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”4

Jesus Christ is our blessed hope. He is the hope that lies beyond all our optimism and all our pessimism. It is a dangerous thing, in terms of your faith, to mistake optimism for hope. Optimism is about what I want to happen, how I would like to see things turn out, what I think would be best. This often consists of having pretty specific ideas not only about the result but how that result is to be realized, often including a sequence and timeline.

Crucifixion, by Unknown Hungarian Master, ca. 1476

As I think most of us know from experience and/or reading the Bible attentively, God, while utterly faithful, is in no way bound to bring about your desired ends, let alone doing it in the way you prescribe or according to your schedule. This is dangerous for your faith because it can be discouraging. Unchecked discouragement can easily turn into despair. Just as pessimism is the opposite of optimism, despair is the opposite of hope. Despair is the mother of many sins.

Understanding this gives you some idea of the kind of king Jesus is. Because his kingdom is not of this world, Jesus is not a worldly king, a monarch who ruthlessly wields absolute power. What makes him a different, even puzzling, kind of king in our Gospel is his refusal to fight violence with violence. “If my kingdom did belong to this world,” Jesus tells the quizzical Pilate, “my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”5

Jesus is the kind of king whose attendants (i.e., his disciples), rather than fight, run away. It’s easy to be bold until your boldness entails a cost, especially if that cost is your life. But Jesus was undaunted by his abandonment, even later forgiving them. Knowing that his power lay precisely in his seeming powerlessness, instead of fighting violence with violence, fighting fire with fire, he countered violence with peace. He fought fire with water.

Jesus’s throne is the Cross. Several chapters earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells a crowd, “Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”6 It is by being lifted up- and by no other means- that Christ drives out “the ruler of this world” to establish God’s kingdom. You see, Jesus doesn’t teach one thing and then, when push comes to shove, does another.

Saint Paul came to the realization that “when I am weak, then I am strong” in a dramatic way.7 By contrast, during his life and ministry, Jesus always grasped that his power, at least in worldly terms, lay in his powerlessness. In light of our own lives lived in the “blessed hope” we joyfully await, Vaclav Havel, in his essay “The Power of the Powerless,” observed: “There are times when we must sink to the bottom of our misery to understand truth, just as we must descend to the bottom of a well to see the stars in broad daylight.”

To be a Christian means to be comfortable living a paradox: when I am weak, then I am strong; when I am powerless, then I am powerful; I win by losing; it is by dying that I truly live. As Havel and Saint Paul both demonstrate, the truth of these paradoxes can be grasped intellectually but are only understood experientially. It is your life, the things you experience all day every day, that provide you opportunities subject yourself to Christ’s kingship.

Our reading from Revelation refers to how Jesus, by his blood, has made us a kingdom of priests.8 Priests offer sacrifices. It is by sacrificing our hopes, our fears, our disappointments that we render ourselves fit subjects for the Kingdom of God. This is how we can consider the end of the world as we know it and feel not just fine but joyful. We make the Lord present whenever and wherever we help someone in need. This is how we fulfill the priestly calling we received in baptism. This is how we pray very day, Maranatha! Come, our Lord!

1 REM, “It’s the End of the World,” 1987.
2 The Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, sec. 18.
3 1 Corinthians 16:22; Didache 10:6.
4 The Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, “The Communion Rite,” sec. 124.
5 John 18:36.
6 John 12:31-32.
7 2 Corinthians 12:10.
8 Revelation 1:6.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

"It's the end of the world as we know it..."

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

This Sunday is the penultimate Sunday of this year of grace. Each liturgical year we celebrate/live out (of)/ritually reenact the Paschal Mystery. Hence, the theme of this Sunday is "The End Is Near!" "Time is is nearly up!" "Christ will come soon."

Each time we profess our faith by confessing the Creed, we affirm the Church's conviction that "...he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his Kingdom will have no end." Even some 2,000 years on, Christianity remains an apocalyptic religion. Christians should always live with urgency and purpose.

Our purpose? The realization of God's Kingdom, making it present in this dialectical time between the already and the not yet of God's Kingdom. Living this way makes us odd. But it is also what makes us people of hope. Our hope is borne from the love of God we have experienced in Christ through the power of their Spirit, whom we revere as "Holy".

The time of "distress" mentioned in our reading from the book of Daniel is now. It is always now. For Christians, it is the end of the world until the end of the world. Key to this is Jesus's assertion about his return "that day or hour, no one knows" (Mark 9:32). Pondering the end of the world, the question, as REM posed it, is Do you feel fine? In a way, Jesus's resurrection marked the beginning of the end. His return will be mean mark God's completion of creation.

In his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul writes that "We," that is, Christians "know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now" (Rom 8:22). He goes on to point out that even those of us who possess "the firstfruits of the Spirit groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom 8:23). Nonetheless, we experience this time of distress with hope. "For in hope we are saved" (Rom 8:24).

Hope, it should go without saying, lies on the far side of optimism. In this passage from Romans, the apostle points to this: "Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees?" (Rom 8:24). To have hope is to light a in the darkness of faith.

In the Virgin's Holy Rosary, the fruit of the third Sorrowful Mystery, which is Jesus's crowning with thorns, is courage. Sister Lucia, one of the Fatima visionaries, insisted that one of Our Lady's messages to her and her two cousins was exactly this courage- the courage to follow Christ in the concrete circumstances of your daily life. Of course, as did Saint Bernadette before them, these children were courageous by remaining faithful to their experience in the face of no little hostility.

Hope, as our first reading from Daniel also indicates, means having the courage to work for justice. Working for justice is an expression of hope because, while we can certainly achieve a more just society, we will never achieve a perfectly just society on this side of the eschaton. Comprehending the latter does not negate the former. Working for justice, which seeks results in the real world, not mainly or even preferably through the exercise of political power, but through the conversion of hearts realized through love, is what prepares the way for the full realization of God's kingdom.

Working for justice also helps make us fit for God's kingdom, which is, as the Preface for the Eucharistic Prayer on Christ the King indicates, "a kingdom of justice, love and peace. As Pope Saint Paul VI, in his 1972 message for the World Day Peace (1 January), insisted: "If you want peace, work for justice."

No matter how you parse it, faith fosters good works. "Faith" that is passive, content with the odd abstraction that one need not respond in love to what the Father has accomplished in the Son by the power of the Spirit, is not faith. It is nothing. Faith is our response to God's initiative toward us. No, you can't save yourself. But faith that is true faith is fruitful. Its fruitfulness arises from the fertile ground of God's love.

As Christians, our response to "Christ is coming soon" is Maranatha!. מרנאתא (i.e., Maranatha), is the cry of the Church from her beginning. Maranatha is an Aramaic word that means "Come, our Lord."

Our response to the end of time is hopeful. After the Feast of Christ the King, which we celebrate next Sunday, the final Sunday of this liturgical year, the following Sunday we begin the season of Advent. Derived from the Latin word adventus, Advent is not a season of waiting. Rather, it is a season of hope-filled anticipation. So, we pick up where we left off.

This somewhat complex point is brought home by an anecdote of Saint Francis of Assisi. Like many stories about Francesco, this one may be somewhat legendary. However, it tells us something true about Francis and about being a Christian:
One day, while Francis was working in the communal garden, a brother approached him and asked what he would do if Christ were to return that very moment. Francis responded that he would simply keep working in the garden
That, my friends, is a hopeful outlook. Fortitude, or courage, is the virtue, the habit, of following Christ no matter what, through thick and thin, as it were.

Liturgy, our experience of the Paschal Mystery through it year after year, both reveals and fosters our hope. Christianity is mystagogical. It is not merely words but gestures, singing, postures, community. As a friend said to me in a phone call yesterday: "We need to teach people how to pray the Mass."

Monday Second Week of Advent, Year II

Readings: Isa 35:1-10; Ps 85:9ab-14; Luke 5:17-26 According to Jesus, it is harder to forgive sins than it is to heal the lame. The main ...