Sunday, October 21, 2018

Year B Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 53:10-11; Ps 33:4-5.19-20.22; Heb 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

Our first reading today is again taken from one of the so-called Servant Songs in Isaiah. The Servant in these passages suffers on behalf of others. While in their authorial intention, the Servant Songs are about Israel being delivered from its captivity in Babylon, in their deepest meaning, they are about Jesus Christ and his redemptive suffering and death for us. In the Lord’s passion and death, evil did its worst and was defeated.

Our epistle reading, taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, tells us explicitly what our first reading only hints at. This is not surprising given that Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, asserts: “God… wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New.” (sec. 16).

What is it that our reading from Hebrews makes explicit? As this brilliant letter does in a number of places, our passage for today sets forth in very practical terms why it is important for Jesus to be truly human and truly divine. As a human being, he experienced everything we experience but did so sinlessly. Because he became human, now that he is “seated at the right hand of the Power,” (to borrow his own phrase- Mark 14:62), Jesus is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb 4:16).

What the inspired author of Hebrews likely means by using the word “sympathize,” which is Greek in origin, is probably closer to our word commiserate, which, stated simply, means to share someone else’s misery. In her novel Absolute Truths, Susan Howatch’s character Martin Darrow says to another of her characters, Bishop Charles Ashworth:
It makes all the difference to know there's someone else screaming alongside you - and that's the point of the Incarnation, I can see that so clearly now. God came into the world and screamed alongside us (New York, Fawcett Crest, 341)
Surely, the Incarnation conceived of as God entering into the world to scream alongside us is not too far from what the inspired author of Hebrews had in mind when composing this passage. Prior to his excursus on the Incarnation, Martin said, “God, isn’t life bloody sometimes?” To which the circumspect Bishop Ashworth simply replies, “Yes.” (Ibid.) Because Jesus came to share our sorrows we can approach the throne of grace boldly in prayer for timely help (Heb 4:16).

Our Gospel reading for today is still in the section of Mark’s Gospel often called “On the Way” (See Mark 8:14-10:52). It is called this because these lessons occur as Jesus and the Twelve make their way from their native Galilee to Jerusalem, a trip they make only once in St Mark’s Gospel. Jesus teaches these lessons in discipleship as he makes his way to the cross. While it occurs a few verses before the beginning of today’s reading, this lesson begins, as do the other two, with Jesus predicting his passion and death (Mark 10:33). Without a doubt, these lessons are provocative and challenging. Our response upon reading or hearing them is to domesticate them, water them down, reduce them to our measure. But it's good to let ourselves be provoked by Jesus, who loves us and wants us to be saved.

Each of the three discipleship lessons follows a three-fold pattern: Jesus predicts his passion and death, the Twelve demonstrate they don’t understand by faltering or failing in some way, after they falter, Jesus teaches the Twelve what it means to be his disciples. How the Twelve fail to grasp the fundamentals of Christian discipleship in our Gospel today is that the brothers, the sons of Zebedee, James and John, ask Jesus to let them sit on his right and on his left when he attains his glory. Jesus quickly points out, before the glory it gets pretty gory. Note: even before they tell Jesus what they want, the brothers tell the Lord they want him to do whatever they ask. Isn't that the way with us sometimes? Knowing best, we want God to carry out our demands?

In no uncertain terms, Jesus tells James and John have no have no idea what they are asking (Mark 10:38). He asks, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Ibid.). Demonstrating that they have no clue, they respond: “We can” (Mark 10:39). Jesus then tells them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Ibid.) But the Lord still insists that whoever sits on either side of him in glory is not his to determine (Mark 10:40).

The martyrdom of James, known as James the Greater, to distinguish him from James, Jesus’s relative, known as James the Lesser, is written about in the Acts of the Apostles, which tells of Herod having him “killed by the sword” (Acts 12:2). While Tradition tells us John did not die a martyr, it hands on two attempts to take his life. First, he was boiled in oil in Rome, but emerged from the cauldron not only alive but seemingly renewed in strength, a kind of baptism. It is also handed on that John drank from a chalice that was poisoned and survived. Given their response to Jesus’s prediction of his passion, they likely would have protested any prediction of their own martyrdom with even greater vehemence. This is why Jesus speaks vaguely about what will befall them both.

The heart of today’s lesson is the same as the heart of the previous lesson: “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant” (Mark 10:43-44). The Greek word for “servant” in this passage is diakonos, which, translates into English as “deacon.” Jesus tells them that he, who is the greatest, is great because he came not to be served but to serve, to be a deacon, and like Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, to give his life for others.

According to Jesus, at least for the Twleve, it is not enough to be a servant. He tells them that to be the greatest in God's kingdom they must become the slave (in Greek doulos) of all. This is made very clear in the Kenotic Hymn, found in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, which, referring to Jesus, begins:
Who, 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 (Phil 2:6-8)
I read recently that among the early Mennonites, who suffered persecution and death, the least useful person was chosen to be the pastor because the pastor was most likely to be martyred, and you didn't want your one cobbler or blacksmith to get killed. Whether this is wholly true or not I don’t know and neither did the Mennonite pastor who shared it. However, she did say she carried this anecdote close to her heart. By doing so, I think she is serving in the manner of Jesus. While this lesson is relevant to all who seek to follow Jesus, I think it is especially applicable to those of us called to holy orders. We are ordained, not to be served but to serve our sisters and brothers. This explains why the first ordained office is that of deacon. To do otherwise is to be guilty of clericalism, which has proven catastrophic for the Church’s witness.

As last week’s Gospel demonstrated, far from being a blessing, riches and material comfort are perhaps the greatest obstacles to entering God’s kingdom. According to Jesus, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for someone who is well-off to enter into the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25). The Lord is not exaggerating when he says it takes an extraordinary act of God for someone who is rich to be saved. It was just such an act that Jesus tried to perform in his encounter with the rich young man, whom Jesus loved (Mark 10:21). Nonetheless, the young man rebuffed Jesus because he “had many possessions” (Mark 10:22), which he apparently valued more than eternal life. For a rich person to enter God’s kingdom, s/he must have the change of heart the rich young man failed to have as a result of his encounter with Jesus.

Like James and the many other Christian martyrs, the cost of following Jesus is your life. According to Jesus, the only way to save your life is to lose for his sake and the sake of God's kingdom. This is true whether you are killed for your faith or whether you pour out your life in service to others. In this and every Eucharist there is an exchange of gifts. Just as Jesus offers himself to us body, blood, soul, and divinity, in exchange, we offer ourselves to the Father, through him, by the power of their Spirit, body, blood, soul, and humanity. It is by offering ourselves as a living sacrifice through Christ that we are able to go forth and bear witness by selflessly serving others in his name for the sake of God’s kingdom (Rom 12:1-2).

Sunday, October 7, 2018

I get by with the help of some friends

These days I try to be more judicious about what I post on social media about my life. Keeping that in mind, I don't think I am over-sharing by stating that prior to yesterday's breakthrough the past two weeks or so I have been in one of my dark, depressive funks. These episodes come upon me unpredictably and sporadically. Typically, they are not prompted by seasonal change. In the early fall, I usually feel quite energized. I suppose the fact that this is my third post today here on Καθολικός διάκονος is evidence of the uptick, or somewhat "manic" side of my mental equation.

There are 6 things that helped pull me through: 1- the love of God, especially given me in the Sacrament of Penance; 2- the intercession of our Blessed Mother (I was able to pray the Rosary daily excepting one day- the nadir- these episodes make it difficult, sometimes impossible to pray); 3- the selfless patience-to-the-point-of-heroic-virtue of my wife; 4- the intercession of my dear heavenly friends Gianni Molla, Matt Talbot, and Cora Evans; 5- my Guardian angel; 6- the music of Amy Grant.

As to the significance of Amy Grant's music in this latest bout with the metaphorical "Black Dog," this past Tuesday, 2 October, Roman Catholics observed liturgical Memorial of the Guardian Angels. As I was reflecting on this observance, Amy's song "Angels" just popped, unbidden, into my mind. This, in turn, prompted me to retrieve her album The Collection, which I have on CD, so I could listen to it in my car. Who knows perhaps the unbidden remembrance of "Angels," which also took me back to my early days a Christian. It wasn't just a sentimental trip but a calling-to-mind that has really helped me.

Perhaps all-too predictably, our late traditio is Amy Grant singing "Thy Word." Now that it is October, a new month, I will endeavor to be more diligent about putting up tradio post and making a few observations along the way.

I will not forget
Your love for me and yet
My heart forever is wandering.
Jesus be my guide,
And hold me to your side,
I will love you to the end

How do two become one?

Readings: Gen 2:18-24; Ps 128:1-6; Heb 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16

Given how contentious the subject of marriage has become, I am tempted to avoid our reading from Genesis and the Gospel and focus instead on the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. It is not a surprise to both my readers that, apart from the Gospel of Mark, Hebrews is perhaps my favorite of all books found in the Bible.

It is useful to note that during the long season of Ordinary Time that runs from Corpus Christi to the Feast of the Christ the King, we read from the featured Gospel (we're in Year B of the three-year Lectionary cycle and so that Gospel is Mark's) in a semi-continuous manner. In the Lectionary during this time, the first reading, taken from the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, is harmonized with the Gospel reading. The Epistle readings, on the other hand, are also presented in a semi-continuous manner. And so, we spend several weeks reading from one of the New Testament letters. Last week we finished our time in the Letter of St. James. The Epistle reading may or may not be harmonized with the first reading and the Gospel. It would seem, at first glance, that our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews this week is not harmonized.

Someone may protest - "Wait a minute! The first reading and the Gospel speak about marriage and the Epistle reading tells us how we are made perfect through suffering. How much more harmony could you ask for, dim-witted deacon?" Okay, okay! There is both a mildly humorous, if very clichéd, and a serious sense in which these readings are in harmony or can be meaningfully harmonized. I know from the experience of being married for 25 years that two being made one flesh is a painful becoming. Anyone who has been married for awhile, even if "happily," can also attest to this reality. The secret to remaining married, as far as I can tell, is just not to give up. You're never beaten until you quit.

If the existential realization of becoming one flesh is having children together, then, like marriage, the difficulties and pains, the joys and sorrows, of raising children is a means of sanctification, a way to become holy together. You must become holy together. Nobody is sanctified all by herself. If, as the Buddha asserted, to live is to suffer, to love, which always requires us to take a risk, is not only to endure suffering but to do so by choice. It's not a one-time choice but one you need to make over and over. If we're honest, in marriage and as parents, suffering is not only that which we endure, but is something we inflict on others due to our weakness, our forgetfulness, our tendency to be very self-centered. So, despite the apparent lack of harmony, there is, in fact, a deep harmony between our reading from Hebrews and our readings from Genesis and Mark concerning marriage and not merely a trivial, clichéd, and mildly humorous one.

As the our reading from Hebrews tells us, Christ is our leader on the way to salvation. Therefore, it becomes necessary as we make our way to the Sabbath rest that the inspired author of this letter, which was probably a long sermon, articulates so beautifully, to unite our sufferings to the Lord's so that they might have salvific value not only for us but for the whole world.

Lest I strike too depressing a note, for most of us, marriage and parenting are not only sources of suffering but sources of life's greatest joys. This seems to be a law of human of life: those relationships that cause us the most pain are also, at least potentially, the source of life's greatest joy.

Of course, as Catholics, we believe that marriage is a sacramental sign of Christ's relationship with his Bride, the Church. We believe that the Church is the sacrament of salvation in and for the world. Being not just a sign, but a sacramental one, which means that it is what it signifies (this is what makes it a mystery), married couples mediate Christ's presence to the world and for it. By making their homes a domestic church, married couples give deep meaning to the Church as the sacrament of salvation. Home is a place where everyone belongs. A place where you come as you are, as who are, and are assured of a warm, hospitable welcome.

In what is known as Jesus's High Priestly Prayer, which is St John's account of Christ's prayer in the garden, after which his excruciating Passion began to unfold, the Lord prayed that those who believe in him would "all be one" (John 17:21). In addition to praying that we all be one, as he one with Father, he intimated how this unity is achieved. Praying to the Father in the Spirit, Jesus prayed: "I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one..." (John 17:23). The relevant question this prompts is: How does Jesus come to be in us? The top-level answer is, Jesus comes to be in us by the Holy Spirit. More specifically, that is, more concretely, Christ comes to be present in by means of the sacraments. More precisely still, Christ comes to be present among us, in us, and through us in the Eucharist. It is the Eucharist that makes e pluribus unum - out of many, one.

It is through his self-emptying in the Eucharist that Christ makes manifest his love for his Bride, which is nothing other than love for the world and everyone in it. Among the expressions of the unity wrought by the Eucharist, marriage might just be the premiere expression, if married couples seek to intentionally live their marriage as the sacrament it intended to be. I am hard-pressed to imagine anything in the world designed to make us less selfish, to make us more self-emptying and self-sacrificial than marriage and parenting. Of course, this doesn't happen through mere sentiment, through affectivity- though it would be impossible without any. It happens by engaging daily circumstances, facing life's ups and downs, all of those possibilities mentioned when we make our vows: for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, etc. Like most vows and religious stuff, this much easier sad than done.

While not brought about exclusively through suffering, two becoming one requires endurance through thick and thin. Our Sunday readings these past several weeks have been teaching us about what I like to call the inverse property of salvation: without the cross there is no resurrection and with the resurrection the cross is pointless cruelty. Today's lesson is a powerful one.

Ushering in God's Reign is not primarily a political project

Several years ago I gave up blogging about current events for the most part. In short, I am too busy to keep up with the onslaught of what happens everyday enough to provide commentary on it. Heaven knows, there is enough news commentary without me pitching in my two cents. I cannot imagine attempting to keep up during this made-for-Reality-television presidency. This does not mean I have given up staying abreast of what's happening in my community, state, country, and in the world.

Like a lot of people, I have found the Kavanaugh hearings very hard to take. The outcome (i.e. Kavanaugh being confirmed) is most disheartening. I think the legitimacy of the Supreme Court has been very tenuous for most Americans for decades. Kavanaugh's confirmation, in my view, will only serve to further de-legitimize the court.

As someone who has blogged for 12 years and counting it's difficult not to be somewhat self-referential. With that confession, I will assert again: the Supreme Court, like the presidency, currently plays a role in our republic it was never envisioned to play. This is the result of Congress, both houses, largely abdicating their role. Kavanaugh's confirmation, topped off by what I can only describe as Sen. Susan Collins's very disappointing speech on Friday, is but the latest case in point of this abdication. Don't worry, what follows is not a detailed account of what has transpired these in Washington, D.C. these past two weeks. I haven't the time or energy to produce such a post.

Writing for, Simone Stolzoff asserts that there is a horrendous downside of great perks at the office (see "Cushy office perks are a trap"). Indeed, there are. Her article runs deeper than the title indicates (this is refreshing, in the age of "content" it is usually the opposite). Stolzoff cites Neil Postman, a most prescient observer: "Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history ... As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think."

I think Orwell and Huxley were both right. On an even more fundamental matter Dostoevsky was correct. This is powerfully demonstrated in a section of his great novel The Brothers Karamazov entitled "The Grand Inquisitor." In "The Grand Inquisitor," Dostovesky powerfully demonstrated that we don't really want to be free. Our resistance to the liberation Christ came to bring has been detrimental for the Church. Instead of standing prophetically against our ultimately nihilistic human impulses made respectable by politics, with rare exceptions here and there (Oscar Romero, pray for us), the Church has often caved into these and, hence, very much become a distortion of what she is supposed to be. Ah, the Casta Meretrix, or Chaste Whore.

Soon-to-be-saint Oscar Romero

Midterm elections are approaching. Obviously, the political stakes in this particular election are high. There are a lot of impassioned pleas to vote, including ones from Christians. I read an article in a Catholic publication this past week that asserted it is by voting that we help bring about the Kingdom of God. This is false. Voting in an election, no matter who you vote for or how well-informed and conscientious your vote, will not usher in the reign of God (i.e., the kingdom of God). This is not an anti-voting screed. Though I think, when one looks at viable candidates, there is a case to be made for conscientiously choosing not to vote. Voting is not a moral requirement. If you conscientiously choose not to vote, you have committed no sin. Not voting doesn't mean you must remain silent, what a bunch of crap that assertion is. I write this as someone who votes and who plans to vote in the upcoming election, despite it largely being an exercise in futility. I am slow to shed the vestiges of moralism.

While politics matter, they are provisional, not ultimate. This is why, as Catholics, voting requires no little prudential judgment. Things like not voting for a candidate because s/he supports abortion-on-demand but being able, morally, to vote for such a candidate despite her/his pro-abortion stance based on other factors is one example of what I mean by using prudential judgment when voting. After all, there are certain social policies that can empirically be shown to reduce abortions. Sadly, most, if not all, of these policies are opposed by many people who also oppose abortion. While opposing abortion is necessary for being pro-life, it is not sufficient. Our bishops in the U.S. have given us fairly good guidance on the prudential judgment voting requires: Faithful Citizenship.

The revolution required for God's reign cannot and will not be primarily a matter of worldly power-seeking, that is, politics. This is where the witness of Bl. (soon to be saint) Oscar Romero can inform us in a very detailed and contemporary manner. As is asserted in Ephesians: "our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness..." (6:12). Romero grasped and articulated this very well:
Don't become fanatics because you don't look from within this one organization, of this one project, at the whole political panorama of the common good of our people. You have to be a citizen who, from the perspective of Christian hope, understands another who has a different political project, and work together to seek the kingdom of God so that it might be made flesh...
This is also demonstrated by an observation made by the late and saintly Don Hélder Câmara, a Brazilian prelate who served as archbishop of Olinda and Recife from 1964-1985: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Year B Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Num 11:25-29; Ps 19:8.10.12-14; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-43.45.47-48

Nearly fifty years ago, theologian Karl Rahner observed: “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all” (Karl Rahner, “Christian Living Formerly and Today,” in Theological Investigations VII, trans. David Bourke, New York: Herder and Herder, 1971, 15, as quoted by Mary Steinmetz in her article “Thoughts on the Experience of God in the Theology of Karl Rahner: Gifts and Implications,” 1). From a Christian perspective, a mystic, at least for Rahner, as well as in the Church’s tradition, is not someone with her head in the clouds all the time, who lives a life disconnected from the world, its people and their concerns. A mystic is a person in whom God’s transcendence and God’s immanence intersect. Because it flows from the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, Christian spirituality is always incarnational. For the genuine mystic, love of neighbor is the result of experiencing divine love.

Mysticism is the fruit of contemplation. Contemplation, in turn, is the root of Christian action. Thomas Merton put this simply: “Action is the stream and contemplation is the spring” (No Man Is an Island, 73- First Shambala Library edition).

In light of our first reading, we may well ask, “What does it mean to be a prophet?” As Moses’s response indicates, a prophet is a person filled with the Spirit. As we learn elsewhere in Scripture, like the wind, the Spirit “blows where it wills” (John 3:8). As a result, while the Church, being the sacrament of salvation in and for the world (Lumen Gentium, sec. 48), remains indispensable (albeit not in the way we are inclined to think it so), no group or person has a monopoly on God. As the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World stated:
since Christ died for all [people], and since the ultimate vocation of [every human being] is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every[one] the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery (Gaudium et Spes, sec. 22)
If there’s one thing we should learn from Jesus’s life and ministry it is that God is made manifest to us in the most unpredictable ways. Because God is always at work in the world in the most unexpected people and situations, overcoming the idolatry to which we are all naturally quite prone, means recognizing that we can’t manufacture an encounter with the Mystery. Finding God, as it were, is very often counter-intuitive. The most profound proof of this assertion is that the Son of God, Jesus, whom we revere as the Christ, became one of us, not as the emperor Rome, but as a marginal member of a marginal people. From a worldly perspective, Jesus was born a nobody.

In the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus and the Twelve journey to Jerusalem from their native Galilee only once. We are currently reading from the section of St. Mark’s Gospel that is referred to by some scholars as “On the Way” (“On the Way” section Mark 8:14-10:52). It begins with the restoration of the blind man’s sight in Bethsaida and ends with Jesus’s restoration of Bartimaeus’s sight in Jericho just before heading up the mountain to Jerusalem, where he will undergo his thrice-predicted passion and death.

From Bethsaida, Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages in the region of Caesarea-Philippi. It is while making their way to Caesarea-Philippi that Peter, speaking for the Twelve, confesses Jesus as “the Christ” (Mark 8:29). With the first prediction of his passion and death that follows Peter’s confession, the Lord inaugurates what might be called a school of discipleship, which he teaches as he makes his way to the cross (Mark 8:31).

This school of discipleship consists of three lessons, each of which begins with Jesus predicting his passion and death. These lessons follow a three-fold pedagogy: Jesus predicts his passion and death, the Twelve demur, Jesus teaches his reluctant followers what it means to be his disciple. Our Gospel reading for today is part of the second lesson. Last week’s Gospel, which was the beginning of the second lesson in Christian discipleship, ended with the Lord’s insistence that whoever would be greatest must become the least, by which he means becoming childlike (Mark 8:33-37).

In the first section of today’s Gospel, Jesus expands what it means to be the least, to be childlike, which is infinitely different from being childish. The difference between the two primarily consists of the difference between being selfless and selfish.

The first part of today's Gospel is about not being jealous and narrow-minded in a childish way. One of the Twelve, John, becomes upset when he encounters someone driving out demons in Jesus’s name. He was so upset, in fact, that he tried to stop the man from doing it because he did not belong to Jesus’s traveling band of disciples. Jesus challenges John’s indignation directly by stating that “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). Being much like John, we often reverse this by insisting that “whoever is not for us is against us.”

Of course, in St. Matthew’s Gospel we find Jesus saying, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (See Matthew 12:26-30). It is important to notice the difference in context between these two utterances. The one John encounters healing in Jesus’s name is gathering with Jesus, cooperating in his ministry of liberating people from their demons. In the context of Matthew’s quote, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of the devil. Those who oppose him in that instance are not interested in the liberation Christ brings, they remain intent to lay heavy burdens on themselves and on others (Matthew 23:4).

All of this allows us to conclude by considering our very challenging Epistle reading, taken from the Letter of James. After the manner of Jesus, the inspired author reminds us that far from being a blessing from God, riches and/or focusing your life on obtaining them is a curse and a path to damnation. This flies in the face of a lot of what passes for Christianity in the U.S. Inexplicably, many U.S. Catholics have adopted this very un-Catholic view. Such a view holds either explicitly or implicitly that wealth and prosperity are God's blessing on the righteous and God-fearing. The Gospel insists on the opposite; riches and material comfort are obstacles to salvation, not assurances of it in the here and now.

Today, my friends, we need to take Jesus's insistence that the greatest in God's kingdom is the least with the utmost seriousness. This means investing your time, efforts and resources in ushering in God's reign. In the end, investing in others, especially in those who lack life's necessities, is the only investment worth making. Orthodoxy means correct confession, or, more simply, right belief. Orthopraxy, on the other hand, refers to correct practice or doing the right thing. As would-be disciples of Jesus, we need to recognize that “there is no orthodoxy without orthopraxy” (Vladimir Lossky cited by Jonathan Warren in “Lancelot Andrewes, the Star of Preachers”).

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Year B Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 50:5-9a; Ps 116:1-6.8-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35

What does it mean to have faith? Too often we reduce faith to mere belief, to affirming the truth of certain propositions. Defined this way, faith doesn’t require anything other than holding certain beliefs. From a Christian perspective, this way of defining faith is utterly inadequate. This is made clear in our challenging reading from the Letter of James, which tells us not only that faith without works is dead but insists that faith without works is no faith at all.

The flower of faith is hope and its fruit is love. Just as faith does not consist of intellectually affirming a bunch of stuff, love does not exclusively, or even primarily, consist of having positive feelings for others. While love usually has an affective dimension, at its core, it isn’t a feeling, but an act of your will. Love means making the choice to put the interests of someone else before your own. Love, then, is often a very difficult choice.

As Christians, living our faith is not easy. Following Christ doesn’t just cost you something, it costs you everything. Faith that is true brings the person of faith to the realization that the glory of the resurrection only comes after the cross. Hence, it is important not to try to evade or avoid the cross. Besides, in the end, you can’t.

If the Buddha was right about anything, he was right in his assertion that to live is to suffer. Suffering, in some form or another, will afflict you if it has not already. Anyone with any experience of life can attest to this. Hence, you do not need to find ways to make yourself suffer. Spiritualities that bid you inflict suffering on yourself should be avoided. Neither is God the cause of your suffering.

It is difficult if not impossible to preach or write about suffering without sounding glib. As I prepared this homily I thought of many people who have suffered greatly, much more than I have, saying “If you experienced what I have experienced you couldn’t say what you’re trying to say.” In all honesty, these people may be correct. I have no great counter-argument to this.

In a soon-to-be-published book, Cistercian monk Erik Varden wrote: “The anguish of the world… is embraced by an infinite benevolence investing it with purpose” (see “Spirituality without platitudes”- The Tablet Interview: Erik Varden, 12 September 2018, by Maggie Fergusson). When questioned in an interview how you might communicate this to someone experiencing intense suffering without angering that person or at least making her roll her eyes, Varden said, “One can only try to communicate it by trying to embody the benevolence without naming it” (Ibid). Where words fail, works prevail.

How you respond to suffering is a good gauge of faith. Suffering provides you with the opportunity to experience faith. In and of itself, suffering has no redemptive value. What gives suffering redemptive value is the work wrought by having faith, by which you can unite your suffering to Christ’s (Col 1:24). Suffering presents you with an opportunity to experience not only that God is with you when you suffer but shows you just how God works in and through your suffering to accomplish his purposes in you and through you, if you let him. After all, Jesus himself, as we learn in the Letter to the Hebrews, was made “perfect through suffering” (Heb 2:10).

Our first reading today is a passage from one of four so-called Servant Songs found in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The central figure in these texts is the Suffering Servant, which, as Christians, we view as prophecies about Christ. The Servant Songs were written during Israel’s exile in Babylon, a time when Israel was suffering greatly. Ancient Israelites believed themselves to be God’s chosen people and Israel was their promised land. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to imagine the cognitive dissonance that resulted from Israel being conquered by a foreign power, having the Temple desecrated, their land occupied, and many Israelites led away into captivity. Is this what God lets happen to his chosen people? Is this how God keeps his promises?

While walking to the villages in the region of Caesarea Philippi, the Lord asks his disciples what people were saying about him, who they thought he was. Keep in mind, they are still in their native Galilee and have not yet ventured to Jerusalem where Jesus will encounter fierce opposition, much fiercer than what he encountered in our Gospel reading two weeks ago when certain Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem were questioning him about his disciples’ lax observance of Jewish law. This is why the responses to his question about what people were saying about him were positive: John the Baptist, Elijah or another of the prophets.

When Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, Peter, speaking on behalf of the Twelve, confesses him as “the Anointed.” Christos, or “Christ,” is a Greek word meaning “Anointed.” At this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is still keeping what some New Testament scholars call “the Messianic Secret.” In other words, despite his teaching, healing, and performing miracles, he is not yet ready to fully reveal himself as the Messiah, the Christ. This is why “he warned them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8:30).

Grasping that his disciples knew he was the Christ, “He began to teach them that [he] must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days” (Mark 8:31). His disciples not only found this incomprehensible but unacceptable. This is what prompted Peter to pull him aside and rebuke him. In reply, Jesus told him frankly that he was thinking in a very human way, a way in which the Lord, being human, was also tempted think. This human way of thinking stands in stark contrast to the ways of God. Christ was glorified not just through his suffering and death but by his suffering and death.

The Lord is not content to leave the matter by only referring to his own rejection, “great” suffering, and death. Gathering his disciples around him, Jesus tells them what it means to follow him. Following Jesus means denying yourself and taking up your cross. The ultimate denial of one’s self is the willingness to lose one’s life for Christ’s sake and the sake of the Good News. This could refer to martyrdom or to simply living in a sacrificial manner for Christ.

It bears noting that traditionally the Gospel of Mark is held to originate from the seventh decade of the first century in Rome. The milieu in which this Gospel was written, then, was one in which Christians were being persecuted and even killed by the Roman authorities. One way to save your life in such circumstances is to deny your faith. If we jump ahead three verses beyond where our reading for this Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time ends, to the last verse of the eighth chapter of St. Mark, Jesus says something very sobering: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words… the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). To know the Lord and to be ashamed of him, to renounce him, is worse than never knowing him at all.

As Jesus showed us by his passion and death, the road to glory is not glorious. Denying yourself to serve others as well as bearing your own suffering for Christ’s sake is the work genuine faith produces. This is captured well by St. Paul at the beginning of the second chapter of his Second Letter to the Corinthians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God (2 Cor 1:3-4)
The point here is summed up very nicely by the first line of the final stanza of the Prayer of St. Francis: "O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console." The final line of this prayer is relevant for us today as well: "it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."

What Peter does not like about what Jesus tells him after confessing him as “the Christ” is the same thing we don't like, namely, without exception, the cross precedes the resurrection. This reveals that, like Peter, we often think in an all-too-human way. This means we need to repent. Metanoia is the word found in the New Testament that is usually translated into English as “repent” (see Mark 1:14). Metanoia does not mean showing contrition, or sorrow, for your sins . It means having your mind transformed by the Spirit so that you can have what St. Paul calls “the mind of Christ” (see 1 Cor 2:11-16). This transformation is a lifelong process, a process in which suffering plays a key role.

Having the mind of Christ means understanding you gain through loss, you win by losing, you live by dying. Far from sparing you trouble, choosing to follow Jesus may be the source of worldly troubles. Faith certainly will not spare you all suffering. Surely, conquering in the paradoxical manner of Jesus is precisely what the inspired author of 1 John refers to when he writes: “And the victory that conquers the world is our faith” (1 John 5:4).

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Ephphatha! Open our hearts

Readings: Isa 3:4-7a; Ps 146:6-10; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37

This past week, Wednesday in fact, the Church observed the liturgical memorial of St Teresa of Calcutta. St Teresa is more familiarly known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, a religious order that serves the poorest of the poor. I point to Mother Teresa because her life exemplified the overarching point of our readings today, which is that we best perceive Jesus in the poor. It was Mother Teresa who, speaking of the poor she spent her life serving, said: "Each one of them is Jesus in disguise." Michael Card wrote and recorded a lovely song about this: "Distressing Disguise."

It is so obvious that we don't notice it most of the time, but Christianity, the Church, at least in the United States and most advanced Western countries, is largely a middle-to-upper class affair. Our churches are comfortable places, which, while theoretically open to everyone, practically have become places in which a person of the kind described in our second reading would likely never set foot. Look around your church this weekend. How many poor people, people on the margins, people who are down-and-out do you see? Chances are none-to-very few. Looking around we probably see people very much like ourselves. Of course, there's probably ethnic and cultural diversity, there are men and women, girls and boys. If you look closer, there may even be some gay or lesbian folks. No doubt, it is good that there is (hopefully) a fairly diverse assembly gathering together to praise and worship God in Christ by the power of the Spirit. A good thing for us to consider today before being sent forth to proclaim the Good News, however, is how committed is your congregation, your parish, to serving the poor and inviting them to the Eucharistic banquet. It's important that our parish's main mission is not serving ourselves. This is just the kind of self-referential sickness Pope Francis is calling on the Church to diagnose and treat.

Our very challenging reading from the Letter of St James ends with the inspired author posing rhetorical question: "Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?" The answer to this question is, "Yes, God chose the poor." This is not some metaphor, it is meant quite literally. Most of the earliest Christian assemblies consisted, to a large degree, of the urban poor. This should be a perennial challenge to each of us individually and to our local assemblies.

That God reaches out to all is profoundly demonstrated in our Gospel today, which finds Jesus in a non-Jewish area, the Decapolis. The man who was brought to Jesus was almost certainly a Gentile, as were the people who brought him. At that time, to be deaf and mute was a much worse handicap than it is now. There was no such thing as universal sign language, which meant those who could not hear or speak could not communicate or be communicated with very easily. They were outcasts who were often reduced to begging in order survive. Jesus's healing of the man is a sure sign that he is the Messiah foretold by our first reading in Isaiah.

Something to which we need to attend in these readings is the prophecy and its fulfillment. Isaiah's prophecy is given in very flowery and exalted language. It is given in a way that makes the hearer think "When this happens, I will perceive it." But the prophecy's fulfillment happens in the real-world and in real-time. It consists of Jesus agreeing to lay his hand on a deaf and if not mute then inarticulate deaf Gentile who was brought to him. Look at what Jesus does: he takes the man off by himself, sticks his fingers in his ears, spits, then touching the man's tongue, looks up to heaven while groaning and utters the Aramaic word Ephphatha!, which means "Be opened!" I can only read this as being indicative of Jesus, the Messiah and Lord, laboring to bring about the Messianic kingdom, which is a new creation. This Kingdom is open to anyone and everyone, Gentiles as well as Jews. In God's Kingdom there is no us and them, there is only an us. In short, everything that Isaiah mentions is happening but you can perceive it only if you're paying attention and have idea as to what you're looking for.

All who witnessed the miracle Jesus performed could not keep quiet about it, despite the Lord imploring them not to tell anyone. In fact, the more he implored them to keep quiet the more compelled they were to tell others what they had seen him do. While most if not all of the witnesses were Gentiles, simply proclaiming what Jesus had done (i.e., "He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak"), they hail him as the Messiah. Even if only to his Jewish disciples, who no doubt were with him, it became a matter of Gentiles evangelizing the Jews: "Look! Here is your Messiah!"

How we hear and see Jesus is in the poor, the destitute, the outcast, the victim, which in our current situation is vitally important. There's a reason Jesus proclaimed that tax collectors and prostitutes were closer to God's Kingdom than many who considered themselves righteous. If we fail to see Jesus in these least then we remain deaf and blind. If deaf, then mute, not literally mute, but because our deeds do not match our words they are rendered, not unintelligible, incredible, that is, lacking any credibility. If we remain in this state, instead of being heralds of the Good News, we become purveyors of pious piffle. Today let us pray, "Lord, open our eyes, our ears, and hearts that we might recognize you in all your disguises, many of which are distressing to us."

To flesh this out more, I invite you to read as article by Dr. John M. Perkins that appears in the current issue of Plough, a quarterly to which you should subscribe: "Beyond Racial Reconciliation."

Year B Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 53:10-11; Ps 33:4-5.19-20.22; Heb 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45 Our first reading today is again taken from one of the so-called S...