Sunday, December 29, 2013

Year A Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Readings: Sir 3:2-6; Ps 128:1-5; Col 3:12-21; Mt 2:3-15.19-23

Today we celebrate the Holy Family. “Holy” is one of those religious words that tend to make us wary. As a result, we are tempted to keep our concept of holiness vague. Or, if not vague, it is a standard we set very high in order to only view from a vast distance. We create this space, one too great to close, to comfort ourselves. Hence, we need not try to close it. We make it a mountain too high and, a bridge too far. But, the word “holy” in scripture simply means, “separate,” “different,” or “set apart for a purpose.” It implies being healthy and whole in an otherwise fragmented world. In English, the phrase “hale and hearty” captures the biblical idea of holiness well.

In Christian terms, the concept of purely and exclusively personal holiness is somewhat problematic. A person “who is obsessed with his own inner unity,” wrote Thomas Merton, “is failing to face his disunion with God and other men. For it is in union with others that our own inner unity is naturally and easily established” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 209). Stated more succinctly, we need each other. Therefore, there is no better school of holiness than the family. For it is in families that we live in closest proximity to one another. In families we see each other at our very best and at our very worst. Our family of origin is so fundamental to who we are and how we see and relate to God, the world, and others that it is difficult to overemphasize its importance.

In today’s first reading, Sirach, in what is likely a commentary on the fourth commandment, insists that we honor our parents and provides us many practical and still-relevant ways of so doing. This commandment is a bridge between the first three commandments about loving God and the final six about loving our neighbor. As such it is in a category by itself. It is also the commandment to which God attaches a promise- “that you may have a long life in the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you” (Ex 20:12). In God’s plan, parents are rightly situated between God and other people. This unique place parents occupy in each of our lives entails mutual responsibilities. Elders should be honored, even revered, because they are the repositories of life’s wisdom. Often it is their hard work, sacrifice, and suffering that earned the benefits we enjoy. They deserve our respect and care.

In today’s gospel, Mary and Joseph put aside their own plans in order to insure the safety of their child. One would think that such selflessness is inherent to parenthood. However, the news is filled with stories of parents abusing, neglecting, and even killing their own vulnerable children. Children should be cherished. Just as our elders carry within the treasury of the past, children are the hope of our future, a connection that many in our day either deliberately ignore, or simply cannot see.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul provides us with a list of values that are to be nurtured in the family. It is in the family that children first experience compassion and kindness. It is within the family that children’s spirits are shaped by gentleness, love, and forgiveness so they can bestow these on others. This feast reminds us that every family, regardless of its composition and circumstances, is called to be holy.

Being holy does not mean becoming moralistic automatons. On the contrary, it means becoming more human. In fact, to be holy is to be fully human. This is what the Incarnation of the Son of God demonstrates. The path of holiness includes sadness and pain, humor and laughter, boredom and angst, fun and excitement, as well as loving and being loved, forgiving and being forgiven. In our families “holy means striving to surrender to God’s light within us when the darkness around us seems overwhelming. It means struggling day after day to bring creative order – if only a bit of it – to the chaos of our lives” (Mitch Finley). In other words, families “embody” holiness by striving to be “hale and hearty,” to be resilient in order to combat the powerful forces seeking to destroy the family, not by trying to conform to some hopelessly unrealistic ideal.

Bob Hope once joked about his comedy partner saying, “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for Bing Crosby and there’s nothing Bing Crosby wouldn’t do for me. But that’s the trouble. We don’t do anything for each other.” Sadly, this is often true of families. We simply choose not to embody love.

My brothers and sisters, it is perfect love that became Incarnate for our sake in the person of Jesus. This season of Christmas and this feast of the Holy Family reminds us that God's Son, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity took on flesh because, as then-Bishop Niederauer wrote to us at Christmas a number of years ago, He “wants to make a difference in our lives each day, in what we say and do, and especially in why we say and do it- out of love for him, who has loved us enough to come and abide with us now and always.”

Well, dear readers, that's a wrap for blogging in 2013. Catch ya on the flip-side, as they say (I've no idea who the they might be).

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Let's remain grounded in the Mystery of the Incarnation

Today's Feast of the Holy Innocents is not ironic, odd, or strange in the least. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew, it is part of the Christmas story, the Infancy Narrative. It also reminds us that, to borrow a phrase, the wood of the manger becomes the wood of the Cross.

The only way that our commemoration and, yes, celebration of the Feast of the Holy Innocents can be seen as in any way ironic, contradictory, or inconsistent with this holy season is when Christmas, which for most people, Catholics included, is already over and done for another year, is viewed through the lens of sentimentality, which amounts to a denial of reality and the insistence on a Crossless pseudo-Christianity.

As Fr. Carrón noted in a pre-Christmas letter-to-the-editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, reality provokes us. Due to this provocation it is important for us, as followers of Jesus Christ, to discern the true from the false.

There are many temptations we daily face. In our time perhaps the most pervasive one is to put ourselves first, to seek our own ends by whatever means. In short, we are deceived into wanting our best life now. So let's remain grounded in the Mystery of God becoming man for us and for our salvation. To assist us today we'll turn to the inspired words of the apostle Paul:
Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written: "What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him," this God has revealed to us through the Spirit (1 Cor 2:7-10)
To wit: as good as my life is, my best life is yet to come, but the way to it is the Via Crucis.

Later in St. Matthew's Gospel, after His first prediction of His own death, which led Him to rebuke Peter for insisting that it simply could not be as the Lord said, Jesus uttered these words: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt 16:24-25).

Losing one's life for Christ's sake is, in my view, the best definition of martyrdom.

Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs

St. Stephen's day, St. John's day, now the Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs. We live in an age of Christian martyrdom, let us not forget our persecuted brothers and sisters and let us not hesitate to pray to the martyrs for their intercession before the Father of lights.

Today traditionally, again, meaning not much these days, when our forgetfulness seems to be almost universally acknowledged as the virtue of all virtues, was a day for altar servers, assistants, acolytes.

Our first reading for today is not from the Hebrew Scriptures, but from the New Testament, 1 John 1:5-2:2, to be exact. We are reminded of our need for a Savior:
If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us

The slaughter of innocents to no less appalling now than in the days we call to mind:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Feast of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

Following on the heels of yesterday's Feast of Stephen, comes today's Feast of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist. As St. Stephen's day is a day for deacons, St. John's day is a day for priests.

St. John the Evangelist, by Juan de Juanes ca 1445-50

Our Gospel reading for this Feast is the account of Jesus' empty tomb for St. John's Gospel. Here's a part of it, which occurs after St. Mary Magdalene tells Peter and beloved disciple that she has found the tomb empty. I have to admit, what I see as their jockeying for position always makes me smile:
So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there,and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed (John 20:3-8)
St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, pray for our priests, keep them faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, may they ever be good stewards of the sacred mysteries entrusted to them, keep them faithful to their sacred calling.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

In imitation of the Lord, St. Stephen shows us how love wins

Each year on 26 December, a sermon by the bishop, St. Fulgentius, is the second reading for the Office of Readings. It is a magnificent reflection on the deacon, Stephen's, martyrdom. It is one of those patristic sermons that remains impossible to surpass. Each year I am struck by this passage:

And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven... Love was Stephen's weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his [Christ's] name... Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven... Now, at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exults, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen's death, and Stephen delights in Paul's companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen's love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul's love that covered a multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven

Καθολικός διάκονος end of the year round-up

I have to be honest, 2013, as exciting as it has been in many ways, is a year I am not sad to see end. I understand all the problems with the calendar, the way way we mark time, but a 365-day year (366 every fourth year) is the way I am accustomed to framing time. Plus, I am always looking for a new beginning.

Below are 12 posts for this past year, one for each month, that I thought worth passing along towards the end of the year. I have no developed method for determining these, apart from looking back over the year, scrolling through, and thinking, "Yes, worth drawing attention to!" I never include homilies and I am disinclined to choose the really popular posts, or those few that are picked for publication elsewhere. I figure all of those pieces have received (perhaps more than) their due.

I am interested in hearing from one or both of my readers as to which post, or posts, that appeared here on Καθολικός διάκονος that stand out for you at the end of the year.

December- "Making distinctions, discerning the true from the false"

November- "On Guy Fawkes Day and being a revolutionary"

October- "Jesus did cast out demons"

September- "Moralistic political theater"

August- "Who will liberate me from myself?"

July- "'Homo curvatus in se' - attempt at skimming the surface"

June- "Marriage: seeking to ecclesially clarify"

May- "All Who Do Evil Are Redeemed- Christians Included"

April- "Saints are theologians par excellence"

March- "Papa Francesco calls on the Church to emerge"

February- "May we ever obey thy godly motions"

January- "On marriage: refuting a stupid argument"

"The Mystery likes to constantly challenge us"

This deeply insightful and, for me, very meaningful, reflection on Christmas by Fr. Julián Carrón, President of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica last Monday, December 23, was passed along to me by a dear friend. Posting Fr. Carrón's letter on this Second Day of Christmas strikes me as a nice way of framing the Solemnity we observed yesterday, in light of my Hilare Belloc Christmas Eve post:


The letter Pope Francis’ lesson on the meaning of Christmas

Dear Editor,

Under the daily pressure of living that we all have in common and that seems to quash our hope, does Christmas still have something to say to us? Is it just a remembrance that evokes good sentiments, or is it the news of a fact that can affect our real life?

“The reason for our hope is this: God is with us. However, there is something even more surprising. The presence of God among men did not take place in a perfect, idyllic world but rather in this real world. He chose to live in our history as it is, with all the weight of its limitations and of its tragedies […] to save us, to raise us from the dust of our misery, from our difficulty, from our sins.” (Pope Francis, General Audience, December 18, 2013). These days, to prepare for this great event of Christmas, I often repeat to myself these words of the Holy Father.

The Mystery likes to constantly challenge us “in this real world,” without hemming or hawing in the things He does! This is why God chooses circumstances that best put before our eyes who He is and what extraordinary newness He can generate in the world. This should gladden each of us, because it means that there is no situation, moment of life or story that can keep God from generating something new. How does He challenge us?

As we await Christmas, the Church re-reads the great vicissitudes of the people of Israel and shows us how God intervenes in history. For example, she sets before our eyes two sterile women, incapable of giving birth: a woman of Zorah and Elisabeth (the first would become the mother of Samson, the defender of the Hebrew people, and the second, the mother of John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for Christ; cf. Judges 13:2-7, 24-25a and Luke 1:5-25), two women who could not “adjust” things in any way; no brilliance of their own could make them mothers. It was impossible. It was something impossible for humans. In this way the Lord wants to make us understand that for Him, everything is possible, and that thus it is possible not to despair, that nobody can say they are abandoned, forgotten or condemned to their own situation, finding in it the justification for ceasing to hope. Nothing is impossible for One who does things like these: making two sterile women become mothers. Their unexpected maternity represents the greatest challenge for the reason and freedom of each of us. There is no situation, no relationship or human coexistence that cannot change. If we have become resigned, thinking of our own story, today again the Lord challenges our lack of hope.

“Your prayer has been heard,” the angel tells Zechariah. “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.” The Gospel defines this “good news” because we are not condemned to scepticism and we are not annihilated by the failure of all our attempts. There is not just the promise, but also its fulfilment, because she will truly have a son! These facts announce to those who retain at least a shred of tenderness for themselves that it is possible to change, because for God everything is possible; He just needs to find in us the openness of heart.

If we allow this power of God to enter, our life, like that of Zechariah, will be filled with joy: “You will have joy and gladness.” It is not for us alone, but is given for others as well: “Many will rejoice at his birth.” This joy demonstrates who God is, who is at work in our midst. John “will be filled with the Holy Spirit” and will begin to change what he touches. In this way the liturgy of the Church introduces us to look at another woman, this time a virgin named Mary, to whom something happened no less mysterious than what happened to the two sterile women: the event of the Incarnation by the work of the Holy Spirit, to which Mary simply consented, saying yes. With Christmas, the Lord brings us these glad tidings. Embracing them is up to us, to our simple openness to being surprised by He who, with His initiative, constantly reaches us here and now, “in this real world.”

If we ask for it and open ourselves to what the Lord is about to do in our midst with Christmas, many around us will rejoice in “our” re-birth. Only this newness can convince every person of the credibility of the Christian announcement that has reached us. Just think how many people of every culture rejoice today, and feel challenged as never before, by the existence of someone like Pope Francis, in whom the Mystery has found this openness of heart.

The author is President of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation

Feast of St. Stephen

As both of my readers will know, today the Church celebrates the glorious feast of her first martyr, St. Stephen, a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian of the first generation of Christians, who is numbered among the seven men traditionally considered to be the Church's first deacons (Acts 6:1-7).

Not content to merely assist with the daily distribution, the inspired author of the Acts of the Apostles recorded, "Now Stephen, filled with grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people" (Acts 6:8). Neither was Stephen content assisting with the distribution and "working great wonders and signs." So, he engaged in disputations: "Certain members of the so-called Synagogue of Freedmen, Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and people from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and debated with Stephen, but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke" (Acts 6:9-10).

The Coronation of St. Stephen, by Annibale Carracci, ca. 1597

According to the account in Acts, which was well-vindicated as history by the great Lutheran exegete and Scripture scholar, Martin Hengel (see his Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity- It was Hengel's work to which Pope Emeritus Benedict pointed in his letter to prominent atheist Piergiorgio Odifreddi), the cause of Stephen's stoning was the displeasure he incurred by what he said in these disputes. The long discourse, which comprises most of the seventh chapter of Acts, gives us a deep insight into the content of Stephen's preaching and teaching.

As a result, we learn,
When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”; and when he said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:54-60)
Traditionally, meaning not much these days, 26 December is a day for deacons. I have the happy blessing of being named Scott Stephen from my birth. So, along with St. Martin of Tours, on whose great feast I was born, St. Stephen is my patron saint. Perhaps being a deacon was my destiny. Who, but God alone, knows?

St. Stephen, holy deacon and martyr, pray for us. Pray especially for deacons that we, like you, may be love-filled and fearless heralds of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose Incarnation we celebrate during these days.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Urbi et Orbi- Christmas 2013


Christmas 2013

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours (Lk 2:14)

Dear brothers and sisters in Rome and throughout the whole world, Greetings and Happy Christmas!

I take up the song of the angels who appeared to the shepherds in Bethlehem on the night when Jesus was born. It is a song which unites heaven and earth, giving praise and glory to heaven, and the promise of peace to earth and all its people.

I ask everyone to share in this song: it is a song for every man or woman who keeps watch through the night, who hopes for a better world, who cares for others while humbly seeking to do his or her duty.

Glory to God!

Above all else, this is what Christmas bids us to do: give glory to God, for he is good, he is faithful, he is merciful. Today I voice my hope that everyone will come to know the true face of God, the Father who has given us Jesus. My hope is that everyone will feel God’s closeness, live in his presence, love him and adore him.

Peace to mankind

True peace - we know this well - is not a balance of opposing forces. It is not a lovely “façade” which conceals conflicts and divisions. Peace calls for daily commitment, but making peace is an art, starting from God’s gift, from the grace which he has given us in Jesus Christ.

Looking at the Child in the manger, Child of peace, our thoughts turn to those children who are the most vulnerable victims of wars, but we think too of the elderly, to battered women, to the sick… Wars shatter and hurt so many lives!

Too many lives have been shattered in recent times by the conflict in Syria, fueling hatred and vengeance. Let us continue to ask the Lord to spare the beloved Syrian people further suffering, and to enable the parties in conflict to put an end to all violence and guarantee access to humanitarian aid. We have seen how powerful prayer is! And I am happy today too, that the followers of different religious confessions are joining us in our prayer for peace in Syria. Let us never lose the courage of prayer! The courage to say: Lord, grant your peace to Syria and to the whole world. And I also invite non-believers to desire peace with that yearning that makes the heart grow: all united, either by prayer or by desire. But all of us, for peace.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Christ, the Savior is born!"

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

The Nativity, by Jacob Jordaens, ca. 1653

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests" (Luke 2:1-14)
Jesus is not one of many, one of several, He is one of a kind: true God and true man. Prior to His Incarnation the gulf between God and man, due to the fall, was infinite. Prior to His Incarnation, God was not a man. This is the Mystery, the amazing thing about what happened then. God has only One Begotten Son, only One, Jesus.

On a holy night, a silent night, in the little, out-of-the-way, dusty Jewish village of Bethlehem long ago something happened, the likes of which never happened before and will never happen again.

"Trim the hearth and set the table"

Yesterday was my annual day of running about by myself (I only do it once prior to Christmas). When I was finished, I took some time and read Hilare Belloc's short essay "A Remaining Christmas." This essay was brought to my attention by the author of the simply wonderful weblog, The Hliare Belloc Blog. Framing his description of how Christmas and New Year's were observed at his home, Kingsland, in rural Sussex, is an in-depth meditation on why we, as human beings, require unchanging traditions, observances that are the same year-after-year. These days not many people retain such practices, which is a great loss, not only injurious to faith, but detrimental to life.

As Michael Baker wrote in his brief introduction to Belloc's essay (which I linked to above), Old Thunder, as he was known, possessed "the singular gift of seeing the world sub specie aeternitatis." Hilare Belloc is a charter member of my community of the heart. His writings help keep sane me and even contribute to my happiness (no small compliment there).

Belloc begins by observing, "The world is changing very fast, and neither exactly for the better or the worst, but for division. Our civilization is splitting more and more into two camps, and what was common to the whole of it is becoming restricted to the Christian, and soon will be restricted to the Catholic half." I do not see, despite the hubub surrounding the current pontificate, Catholics long remaining "half." Advent is already practically extinct, even among us, but the "Holidays" (i.e., Kwanzuakkahthanksnewyearsmas) are here to stay, even if Christmas, qua our observance of the Lord's Nativity, is fading.

In a post from a few years back, "Notes from Eurabia," I cited a statistic, which Prof Wim Peeters conveyed in an article written by Maria Corradi for the Italian newpaper Avvenire, that in 2009 58% of Dutch people were not aware of the reason we celebrate Christmas.

Belloc's home Kingsland

I won't delve into what Belloc describes as far as the celebrations go, except to share what he wrote about the Nativity scene, which description resonates deeply within me:
a crib has been set up with images of Our Lady and St Joseph and the Holy Child, the Shepherds, and what I will call, by your leave, the Holy Animals. And here, again, tradition is so strong in this house that these figures are never new bought, but are as old as the oldest of the children of the family, now with children of their own. On this account, the donkey has lost one of its plaster ears, and the old ox which used to be all brown is now piebald, and of the shepherds, one actually has no head. But all that is lacking is imagined. There hangs from the roof of the crib over the Holy Child a tinsel star grown rather obscure after all these years, and much too large for the place. Before this crib the children (some of them Catholic and some Protestant, for the village is mixed) sing their carols; the one they know best is the one which begins: ‘The First Good Joy that Mary had, it was the joy of One’
Why does all this matter? Why not go to Chuck O'Rama and then to the movies?
Man has a body as well as a soul, and the whole of man, soul and body, is nourished sanely by a multiplicity of observed traditional things. Moreover, there is this great quality in the unchanging practice of Holy Seasons, that it makes explicable, tolerable, and normal what is otherwise a shocking and intolerable and even in the fullest sense, abnormal thing. I mean, the mortality of immortal men.

Not only death (which shakes and rends all that is human in us, creating a monstrous separation and threatening the soul with isolation which destroys), not only death, but that accompaniment of mortality which is a perpetual series of lesser deaths and is called change, are challenged, chained, and put in their place by unaltered and successive acts of seasonable regard for loss and dereliction and mutability... all the bitterness of living— become part of a large business which may lead to Beatitude
Maranatha! "Come, Thou long expected Jesus!"

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Year-end socio-political commentary

It is true that right now there are a lot of things I am ignoring, rather than thinking about and formulating posts on. This year that even includes the wonderful "O Antiphons." To ignore, of course, implies making a deliberate choice.

I have mostly ignored the furor over the recent statements made by Phil Robertson, of the Duck Dynasty program, in a GQ interview concerning homosexuality, which, as far as I can tell, amounted to no more than paraphrasing a passage from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (6:9-10), as well as a crude and anatomically graphic take on the natural law. While it may shock many cultural elites, the views Robertson expressed are still shared by quite a few people, the vast majority of whom, like Robertson, would never countenance, let alone encourage or engage in, acts of violence or less-than-human treatment of people who identify as homosexual. Since I have never viewed even one episode of the reality show, I don't really care to comment extensively because I think that the whole fake genre of "reality" television contributes as much to our collective cultural demise as anything else to which I can point.

In two separate rulings (see here and here) judges declared Utah laws, including one amendment to our state constitution, enacted after it passed overwhelmingly on a ballot initiative, unconstitutional. The amendment defines marriage as being exclusively between one man and one woman. U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled that the amendment violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Of course, even legally, let alone philosophically, this is laughable, but such is the soft, judicial tyranny we experience now in these United States. As a result of Shelby's ruling, which is culturally obtuse and socially irresponsible, and despite the State's explicitly expressed decision to seek an injunction and to appeal the ruling, just yesterday Salt Lake County started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Of course there are human rights that cannot be overruled by the will of the majority, but marriage is not among those rights. This brings us to truth and love. In the person of Christ Jesus we have Truth as Love.

Trying to live this tension is the only way of squaring Pope Francis' plea made in a letter, dated 9 July 2010, that he sent to four different Carmelite convents while he served as archbishop of Buenos Aires, as Argentina's Congress was about to enact a federal law granting legal recognition to same-sex relationships, according these unions equal status with marriage, in which he wrote, "The identity of the family, and its survival, are in jeopardy here: father, mother, and children. The life of so many children who will be discriminated beforehand due to the lack of human maturity that God willed them to have with a father and a mother is in jeopardy. A clear rejection of the law of God, engraved in our hearts, is in jeopardy," with his highly-publicized response to a letter written him by Kairos, a group of Florence-based Catholics who are homosexual, after he became Pope.

Christ seated in Judgment on the apse wall of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC

I was somewhat gratified to read a piece by Brandon Ambrosino, a man who is homosexual, written recently for The Atlantic: "Being Against Gay Marriage Doesn't Make You a Homophobe." I appreciate that at least some people who disagree with me think that my views ought to at least be tolerated. Since I brought up the topic of tolerance, Brian Doherty, in his post "Of Ducks and Gays and Tolerance," on's Hit and Run blog, notes something we all need to bear in mind: "Too often people forget that the idea of tolerance presumes that there is something objectionable that must be tolerated. Toleration is not the same thing as acceptance, yet in the name of the former, many people demand the latter."

Regarding all of this, let's allow Father Paul Check, the Executive Director of Courage International, to keep us in check, lest we go over the edge. He does just that here. Lest I grow too dialectical, I also need to keep in mind something written recently about God's law, by a blogger from whose posts (this blog linked me to a great 80s YouTube play-list) I increasingly benefit: "Sweeter than honey."

Among other important reminders, Advent keeps me mindful that all of us, myself, as well as those who are human judges, will someday by judged by the Judge. As a human being you can't be alive and awake more than perhaps five minutes without having to make a judgment, unless you are a complete skeptic, committed to a form of moral pyrrhonism, which is utter nonsense. While I do not look to the State to rule on the precepts of divine law, it is important for it not to be blatantly violated. Such violations, which in some instances, as with the HHS mandate, are turning into attempted coercion, are always unjust. Besides, here in the United States, our constitutional order is highly dependent on the natural law, which order is imperiled every time such an untethered ruling is made, not to mention our union rendered more imperfect and increasingly perilous by the repeated overturning of the express will of the people.

In the end, all of this is nothing more than a provocation, in the literal sense of the word, meaning that it calls on Christians to live our callings in a more conscientious and faithful manner. It's easy to get hung up on the perceived decadence of any age, but as the Talking Heads sang, it's the "same as it ever was," at least since the fall. This is true whether our calling is to celibacy or to marriage, both of which fly in the face of the Orwellian-named "sexual liberation." On my view, the deleterious and enslaving effects of this so-called "liberation" can be empirically verified. "Sexual liberation" is perhaps the most enslaving force operative in the wealthy, increasingly decadent, West today, which virus is spread via the explosion in technology at the disposal of the mass media, turning this into a flash point between the West and more traditional cultures.

Jesus came into the world to offer us true liberation, which, not ironically, is realized through obedience. As Bob Dylan sang, "Gotta Serve Somebody."

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Looking forward

Our readings for this Fourth Sunday of Advent truly point us to the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that is, His Incarnation, His taking on human flesh, blood, and bone, becoming one of us, not only in appearance, but in substance. Let us never forget that Jesus, the Only Begotten Son of the Father, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, is also consubstantial with His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. As Bl. Pope John Paul II began his first encyclical letter, Redemptor Hominis, way back in 1979: "The redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history" (par. 1).

Jesus' coming into the world was not without difficulties. Perhaps foremost among these was His blessed mother, who was betrothed to the "righteous man," Joseph, turning up pregnant before going to live with her betrothed. The Greek word for "righteous" in this verse is dikaioß, or, transliterated: dikaios. In the context of Matthew, this means that Joseph was an upright, righteous, and virtuous man, someone who sincerely kept God's commandments. This was why Mary's predicament, even before he was informed in a dream that the child was not the son of another man, but was conceived by the Holy Spirit, was a dilemma for him. He did not wish to shame, or disgrace Mary, let alone subject her to the harsh penalties prescribed by the Law. So, he was determined to handle the matter quietly, privately. Unlike Luke, who twice tells us something about the Blessed Virgin's interiority, namely that she "kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart" and she "kept all these things in her heart" (Luke 2:19; Luke 2:51b), neither Matthew nor Luke give us even one brief glimpse into Joseph's soul.

Three times in St. Matthew's Infancy narrative Joseph is the recipient of divinely-sent dreams. First, concerning the conception of Mary's baby. Second, being directed to flee to Egypt. Third, to return from Egypt. His name, Joseph, and the Holy Family's destination, Egypt, along with divine communication given in dreams ought to put us in mind of another Joseph, the son of Jacob, sold into slavery, who wound up in Egypt, and who rose to become the most powerful man in Egypt after the Pharaoh as the result of his ability to interpret dreams.

Every Christian husband and father should look to St. Joseph as an exemplar of manhood, the essence of which is not self-assertion, but selfless giving. Hence, we should daily seek his intercession. There are many means the Church places at our disposal to do this, two of which are listed in The Handbook of Indulgences: the prayer to St. Joseph, the Ad te, beate Ioseph, and the Litany of St. Joseph. He is the patron saint of the Universal Church, of fathers and husbands, of a happy death, of casting out demons, etc.

I think both St. Matthew and St. Luke do a masterful job of conveying St. Joseph's righteousness, his quiet dignity, nobility, all of which indicate his self-sacrificing nature. Even though the sacred author of Luke's Gospel tells us they did not understand what Jesus said to them ("Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?" Luke 2:49-50)when they found him, after frantically returning to Jerusalem to look for Him upon their discovery that He was missing and finding the 12 year-old boy more than holding His own with the doctors of the Law in the Temple, Jesus, nonetheless "went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them" (Luke 2:51a).

Of course, all of this is to get ahead of the story, which only brings us round full-circle to my initial observation- that our readings for this Fourth Sunday of Advent point us ahead, that is, forward. The whole season of Advent points us ahead, ever forward, until, as the previously cited second antiphon for Evening Prayer I for the First Sunday of Advent points out: Know that the Lord is coming and with him all his saints; that day will dawn with a wonderful light, alleluia. Will that day find us as watchful, attentive, and discerning as St. Joseph was found to be at our Lord's Incarnation?

St. Joseph, pray for us.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Prepare the way of the Lord: A concrete proposal

For those who have blown off Advent and fully embraced the generic holiday craziness of the season of Kwanzukkahmas, who are already feeling wiped out, tired, and who are sick o' the season, I invite you to put down the brandy, the eggnog, the eggnog with brandy, and the fudge, as well as to remove "Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer" from your DvD player, and, in these few days remaining prior to our observance of the Solemnity of the Nativity of our Lord, Jesus Christ, make a straight path for Him in your heart and soul.

Perhaps one of my two readers is saying to himself, "Sounds good, but how do I this?" Here is a bold proposal: Seek to obtain a plenary indulgence, which is a sure and objective way to draw close to Jesus Christ, as a member of His Mystical Body, the Church:

Either today or Monday, 23 December, make a thorough examination of your conscience, then go to confession. After confession, perform your penance, then, while still in the Church, pray a rosary (one full set of Mysteries; 5 decades), and say a Hail Mary and an Our Father for the Pope's prayer intentions. The Holy Father's prayer intentions for this month are: "That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need" and "That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming." Of course, even as you pray for the second intention, you are an answer to Pope Francis' prayer, how cool is that? And then, on the same day, receive Holy Communion. If this is inconvenient, all the better!

I also suggest fasting from after supper the night before until after you receive communion. Finally, make as generous a donation as you can to assist the poor. There are three objective, highly efficacious means of sanctification, we have at our disposal:
1) Three forms of penance: Prayer, Fasting, and Alms-giving

2) The Sacraments: Penance and Eucharist, along with Anointing of the Sick

3) Indulgences: Plenary and partial
With this proposal, you avail yourself of them all. So, whether you have endeavored to observe Advent, or not so much, this is a way to either bring an observant Advent to a marvelous end, or to avail yourself of the short time you have and to recover from an unobservant Advent.

My brothers and sisters, we are to never tire of doing both corporeal and spiritual works. An indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sins, the guilt (i.e., eternal punishment= hell) of which has been forgiven in and through the Sacrament of Penance (confession). You will pay the temporal punishment for your sins because your sanctification is not going to happen without you being changed.

The painful transformation we all need to undergo, which is only possible because of Jesus Christ, of necessity, must involve you, be something that happens to you, not apart from you. Hence, you will do it either here, or in Purgatory, assuming you make it there. So, avail yourself of mercy while you can, while it is still today! Opinions to the contrary abound, leading many into complacency and presumption. It bears noting that we can also apply the effects of the indulgences we gain to the souls in Purgatory, which is an act of charity that ought to fill us with awe, but not so much that we don't regularly do it. The authority to grant indulgences is a power, too little drawn upon these days, given to the Church by our Lord Himself,

To be open to Jesus requires self-judgment

Back on 11 December, during his weekly Wednesday audience, Pope Francis delivered his final catechesis on the Creed with a reflection on the statement, "I believe in eternal life." Befitting Advent, he narrowed this down further to speaking about the Last, or Final, Judgment. According to the ancient teaching of the Church, taken directly from the words of our Lord Himself, this Final, or General, Judgment will occur when Christ returns in glory "to judge the living and the dead." This will be the time of the resurrection. As the Holy Father noted, it is difficult not to contemplate this day with fear.

Nonetheless, as Christians, it is a day to be eagerly awaited, excitedly anticipated, not feared. Really, for us, now, while Advent is certainly about celebrating and solemnly commemorating the Incarnation of the Son of God more than 2,000 years ago, it is more about awakening in ourselves the hope that this same Jesus will return in glory, to revivify living in the awareness of the end for which we are created, redeemed, and are, even now, striving to attain, namely union with God.

It should not be a day that Christians think about fearfully. Pope Francis noted,
the testimony of the first Christian communities resounds ever so evocatively. In fact, they usually accompanied the celebrations and prayers with the acclamation Maranatha, an expression composed of two Aramaic words which, according to how they are pronounced, may be understood as a supplication: “Come, Lord!”, or as a certainty nourished by faith: “Yes, the Lord is coming, the Lord is near”. The whole of Christian revelation culminates in this exclamation, at the conclusion of the marvellous contemplation which is offered to us by John in Revelation (cf. 22:20). In that case, it is the Church as bride who, on behalf of all humanity and as its first fruits, addresses herself to Christ her Bridegroom, looking forward to be enfolded in his embrace: Jesus’ embrace, which is the fullness of life and the fullness of love
Christ the Judge, Chapel of San Brizio in Orvieto, Italy

Referring back to our present striving to fulfill the very end for which we exist, the realization of our destiny, and our need to awake from our slumber and live sub specie aeternatatis, the Pontiff went on to say something that all of us need to hear:
this final judgement is already in progress, it begins now over the course of our lives. Thus judgement is pronounced at every moment of life, as it sums up our faith in the salvation which is present and active in Christ, or of our unbelief, whereby we close in upon ourselves. But if we close ourselves to the love of Jesus, we condemn ourselves. Salvation is to open oneself to Jesus, it is he who saves us. If we are sinners — and we all are — we ask him for forgiveness and if we go to him with the desire to be good, the Lord forgives us. But for this we must open ourselves to Jesus’ love, which is stronger than all else. Jesus’ love is great, Jesus’ love is merciful, Jesus’ love forgives; but you have to open yourself and to open oneself means to repent, to accuse oneself of the things that are not good and which we have done. The Lord Jesus gave himself and he continues to give himself to us, in order to fill us with all of the mercy and grace of the Father. We then, in a certain sense, can become judges of ourselves, by condemning ourselves to exclusion from communion with God and with the brethren. We must not grow weary, then, of keeping watch over our thoughts and our attitudes, in order that we may be given even now a foretaste of the warmth and splendour of God’s Face — and this will be beautiful — which in eternal life we shall contemplate in all its fullness
The Lord is coming, make straight His path. Or, put another way, Are you ready? There are still some days left in Advent. So, if you've been running around, caught up in the craziness, perhaps this weekend you can slow down, take a breath, be quiet and do something as simple as meditatively pray the Joyful Mysteries of Rosary, looking up and reading the Scriptural passages in St. Luke's Gospel that pertain to each Mystery and, above all, focusing on the fruits of these Mysteries (humility, love of neighbor, poverty, obedience, and the joy of finding Jesus). Most importantly, examine your conscience and go to confession.

"Tempus ad est gratiae hoc quod optabamus"

In 1973 the folk group, who are still around, Steeleye Span, recorded a version of the late medieval hymn Gaudete. At least in the U.K. it broke the top 20.

Therefore, our Friday traditio for this final Friday of Advent this year is Steeleye Span performing Gaudete live back in 2004:

Monday, December 16, 2013

"Lord, I trust your gaze"

I suspect that both of my readers know that Pope Francis sat for another well-publicized interview last week. This time he was interviewed by Andrea Tornielli for the Italian newspaper La Stampa. I certainly encourage you, if you have not already done so, to read the entire interview. It is quite short, but no less luminous for its brevity.

I was immediately struck by two things. The first was how he spoke about ecumenism, particularly "an ecumenism of blood." But what most struck me was when Tornielli asked him what he had to say about the suffering of children:
One man who has been a life mentor for me is Dostoevskij and his explicit and implicit question “Why do children suffer?” has always gone round in my heart. There is no explanation. This image comes to mind: at a particular point of his or her life, a child “wakes up”, doesn’t understand much and feels threatened, he or she starts asking their mum or dad questions. This is the “why” age. But when the child asks a question, he or she doesn’t wait to hear the full answer, they immediately start bombarding you with more “whys”. What they are really looking for, more than an explanation, is a reassuring look on their parent’s face. When I come across a suffering child, the only prayer that comes to mind is the “why” prayer. Why Lord? He doesn’t explain anything to me. But I can feel Him looking at me. So I can say: You know why, I don’t and You won’t tell me, but You’re looking at me and I trust You, Lord, I trust your gaze

Notes for an Advent Monday morning

So we are always courageous, although we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yet we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord. Therefore, we aspire to please him, whether we are at home or away. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor 5:6-10)
I don't mind observing, yet again, that most contemporary Christian spirituality is rooted in presumption.

To wit: It's never a question of whether or not God loves you, Christ crucified is proof enough of that (John 3:16-17)! The question is, Do you love Him with all your heart, might, mind, and strength?

"In your struggle against sin," have you "resisted [sin] to the point of shedding blood"? (Heb 12:4). Of course, the sacred author is referring to the shedding of your own blood.

While love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably bound together, to the point of Scripture telling us that to say we love God and yet fail to love our neighbor makes one a liar (1 John 4:20), the two are distinct and distinguishable.

Two ways that we love God is by attending Mass each and every Sunday and on holy days, as well as confessing our sins and failures as often as we, in all honesty, need to, in order to receive Christ's pardon and peace. We must not simply dispense ourselves from participating in these objective means given to us so lovingly by God. To do so is be presumptuous in a most dangerous, damaging, perhaps even damning, way.

Advent is a great time to examine ourselves, to prepare to receive what the Father offers us in His Son, which is everything! Life is short, eternity is long.

"He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and His kingdom will have no end."

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear? Then, rejoice!

Gaudéte in Dómino semper: iterum dico, gaudéte. Dómino enim prope est (Phil 4:4-5; Ps 84:2)

Can you believe it, Advent is already in its third week!? Today is known as "Gaudéte Sunday," or, "Rejoice Sunday" (i.e., the Sunday we light the pink, umm...errmm, the rose, candle). The word "Gaudéte" is taken from the introit for today's Mass. It seems to me that beginning with the Third Sunday of Advent we experience what I usually describe as a a turn.

Judging by the content of the liturgies for Advent, it appears that the first two weeks are penitential in nature. On the Third Sunday we move to what is best described as joyful expectation, even excited anticipation.

Our reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is part of a lengthy vision of Zion and is taken from the portion of the book known as Proto-Isaiah. This first part of the book was written in the eighth century B.C., by Isaiah son of Amoz. It is of interest to note that the book of the Prophet Isaiah is comprised of three parts "proto," "deutero" (second), and "trito" (third). While the vast majority of the first section was likely written in the eighth century, the last two parts were written before and after Israel's sixth century B.C. Babylonian captivity. It is believed by many scholars that the part of Isaiah from which today's reading is taken, which consists of chapters 34-35, is a later insertion, dating to the sixth century B.C. instead of the eighth.

But today these divinely inspired words are spoken to us, to our hearts, to our longing for the fullness of God's kingdom: "Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; they will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee" (Is 35:10).

St. James' letter also speaks to us, telling us, "You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand" (James 5:8).

In one of his daily homilies this week, Pope Francis said, "Normally, Christmas seems to be a very noisy holiday: it would do us good to have a little silence and to hear these words of love, these words of such nearness, these words of tenderness." He was speaking, of course, about the readings for that day, but I think, too, the words we hear proclaimed from the Sacred Scriptures today are words of love and tenderness.

In our Gospel today Jesus affirms that He is the One whose advent St. John the Baptist proclaimed when He answers the Baptist's question, posed by John's disciples, due to his imprisonment:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.(Matt 11:4b-6)

Making distinctions, discerning the true from the false

In this somewhat rambling post, appropriate for a Saturday morning, I want to comment, yet again, on one of the things that afflicts us societally, namely our increasing inability to make important distinctions.

Most certainly this collective inability carries over to religion. For example, many Christians are unable to distinguish between self-help pabulum and the authentic message of the Gospel. To make things even more confusing, there are quite a few people who are really self-help gurus masquerading as ministers of the Gospel. While there are many of these, two in particular stand out, due to their influence: Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer. Despite the fact that they are more sophisticated in how they communicate it, they are purveyors of the "prosperity gospel," a message that Shai Linne denounced in his song "Fal$e Teacher$." Their fundamental message is- It's all about you, baby!

In my view, the surest touchstone we possess with which to make this distinction is to ask about any such message, Is this self-serving or self-giving? If it's the former, you can be pretty sure it's self-help. If the latter, even if not from a Christian source, it can be useful for us (see Mark 9:40).

Perhaps the most difficult teaching of our Lord is that He bids us, "Come, die." He proposes dying to self as the only way to eternal life:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct (Matt 16:24-27)
In this passage, Jesus (here comes the Advent bit) not only tells us that He is returning to judge, but He gives us the criteria for His righteous judgment!

It is the saints who show us what this looks like in "real" life. The Little Way of the Little Flower pops immediately to my mind in this regard. The Gospel largely consists in getting over ourselves, not indulging ourselves, whether it be with food, sex, sleep, or self-pity, which tells us to hold on to all of our hurts, to close in, to go into a protective shell.

Perhaps a bit closer to home for both of my readers, it bears noting that marriage is all about dying to one's self and living for one's spouse and for one's children. We must freely choose to live in this selfless manner and then do so cheerfully, or at least without complaint, especially when it proves  difficult, when the "thank yous" and appreciations, that is, the rewards don't seem to be flowing. Without going into any detail, I don't mind saying that I have been doing a poor job of this lately. Meanwhile, the book Cásate y sé sumisa (i.e., Get Married and be Submissive), by a married Italian woman, Costanza Miriano, is now on the best-seller list in Spain, after becoming a best-seller in Italy.

In Spain the publisher of the book is the Archdiocese of Granada, which is headed by Archbishop Javier Martínez, whose quote,"the Eucharist is the only place of resistance to annihilation of the human subject," appears on the masthead of my blog. Predictably, the popularity of Miriano's book has sparked a lot of protests. In Spain there have been loud calls for the book to be banned. In a blog post for Great Britain's Catholic Herald newspaper, Francis Phillips deals with all of this in her very forthright and gracious manner, made all the more appropriate by the fact that today the Church remembers the great Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross:
Really, this is straightforward Catholic mystical theology (for homemakers). St John of the Cross, a great Spanish mystic of the 16th century – this was before “equality” ruled – wrote, “Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love.” This is true in every sphere of life and every relationship, but it matters most acutely in marriage because, by definition, you are thrown on each other’s company a lot of the time
St. John of the Cross

She also offers this much-needed clarification- "The problem lies in translating the word 'submission'. It should be seen as 'self-giving' rather than as 'self-abasing.'

This past week I also came across a blog post by Mike Leake, "7 Ways Social Media Makes Pastoring More Difficult," via Tim Challies' blog. It's one of those short pieces I found very useful. As regards my point here, the last item on the list is the relevant one:
Terrible counselors. If the pastor is wise and stays off of Facebook for most of his week—he’ll be saddened to know that much of his flock has been seeking counsel on Facebook. Those faux problems and vent statuses will be answered by someone. And there is a pretty good likelihood that they’ll be feeding them full of self-help garbage.
One would be hard-pressed to find a better, more accurate, or more humorous, critique of the American self-help phenomenon than the one written by Walker Percy: Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. In his list of things so many of us find ourselves disappointed about, he includes the Church:
The churches are disappointing, even for most believers. If Christ brings us new life, it is all the more remarkable that the church, the bearer of this good news, should be among the most dispirited institutions of the age. The alternatives to the institutional churches are even more grossly disappointing, from TV evangelists with their blown-dry hairdos to California cults led by prosperous gurus ignored in India but embraced in La Jolla

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"And the morning lasted all day"

Since I have been so silent this week during which we celebrated the magnificent Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, today's lovely Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and tomorrow's feast of St. Lucy, I am posting this week's Friday traditio a bit early. Though, at least in liturgical terms, with the sun being down, it is Friday.

As we continue clearing the Lord's path by making our way through Advent, the season, not of "Wait for it," but of Waiting...for...Him... I am thinking a lot about how hope is not merely some Deus ex machina, but, while often (even usually) surprising, it arises from life, from our circumstances. In my view, if this is not so, then we might as well be waiting for Godot. The photograph below was created and posted by Ben Bell a number of years ago now, but it probably communicates what I am trying to write more clearly than words:

It's been cold and, through last weekend here in Utah, grey (it's bright and cold this week). Anyway, "Life in a Northern Town" by The Dream Academy has been running around in my brain a good bit. Like "Doot, Doot" by Freur, it's a song that I have always liked. I guess, at least for me, a bit of heart music. Besides, I usually like days when it seems like 9:30 AM all day.

They sat on the stony ground/
And he took a cigarette out/
And everyone else came down to listen

Saturday, December 7, 2013

St. Ambrose, Father of the Church

Today the Church commemorates and celebrates the life of an often over-looked Father of the Church, St. Ambrose of Milan. Usually Ambrose is remembered for being instrumental in the conversion and baptism of St. Augustine. Along with Saints Gregory the Great, Jerome, and Augustine, Ambrose is considered one of the Four Great Doctors of the Western Church. The Church in Milan to this day is not ritually Roman, but celebrates the liturgy according to the Ambrosian Rite.

During his life and ministry, St. Ambrose composed several works. Perhaps most notable among these is his catechetical work on the sacraments, De mysteriis ("On the Mysteries").

Given all of the heated commentary generated by the so-called economic paragraphs of Evangelii gaudium, it bears noting that in Pope Paul VI's penultimate encyclical (Humanae Vitae was his ultimate), Populorum progresso, the Pontiff turned to one of Ambrose's letters to make a particularly provocative point: that the right to private property is not absolute.
Everyone knows that the Fathers of the Church laid down the duty of the rich toward the poor in no uncertain terms. As St. Ambrose put it: "You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich." These words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional (par. 23)
I am not shy about once again noting that together Populorum progresso and Humanae vitae, Evangelii Nuntiandi forms a triptych of Pope Paul's papal magisterium.
Early mosaic of Ambrose that might be an actual portrait

If you're interested in reading more on this, I direct you to a paper of fairly recent vintage, one I recently read, by Siegfried Van Duffel and Dennis Yap, entitled "Distributive Justice before the Eighteenth Century: The Right of Necessity."

Apparently anticipating Pope Francis by more than 1,600 years, it was St. Ambrose who wrote: "It is a better thing to save souls for the Lord than to save treasures. He who sent forth his apostles without gold had not need of gold to form his Church. The Church possesses gold, not to hoard, but to scatter abroad and come to the aid of the unfortunate."

St. Ambrose, blessed doctor, pray for us.

"They say they want the Kingdom, but they don't want God in it"

I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Matt 3:11-12)
It is part of our liturgical praxis to hear the words of St. John the Baptizer, who receives far too little due these days in the Latin Church, on the Second Sunday of Advent. Are we ready for the Lord, or do we want to skip all that and get to the party?

John the Baptist Points to Christ, by Bartolomé Estéban Murillo, ca 1655

One can make a pretty strong argument these days, especially given our proclivity to practically blow off the season of preparation in order to just get to the Christmas party, that most Christian spirituality, at least in the United States, has its foundation, not in prayer, fasting, and alms-giving (i.e., watching and waiting, readying ourselves for the day He returns), but in a kind of lazy presumption concerning God's mercy (i.e., "Whoops, there it is"). It's as if in the minds of many, God's gracious mercy cancels justice out entirely. Implicit in this view is a failure to grasp God's irreproachable holiness and the harm even our small sins do to the order of grace God seeks to establish through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Following the axiom of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi (Latin shorthand for- how you pray forms what you believe, which, in turn, shapes how you live), this failure too, in my view, arises in large proportion from how we worship God in the Holy Mass.

In his far-too-little read and discussed encyclical on the theological virtue of hope (hope, which we must be careful not to conflate with mere wishing, is the focus of Advent, both prior to the "turn" that occurs on Gaudete Sunday, as well as afterwards), Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI addressed this in his remarkably cogent and clear way. I know I have cited this a few times before, but due largely to my own weakness and forgetfulness, I need to be reminded:
To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened (par. 44)
Last year when posting my annual series on the O Antiphons, it struck me that Johnny Cash's song "The Wanderer" is very appropriate for these (still) early days of Advent, capturing its "spirit" well:

St. John the Baptist, seal of the prophets, clearer of the way of the Messiah, of whom the Lord Himself said "among those born of women there has arisen no one greater" (Matt 11:11), pray for us.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Seeking to rescue St. Nicholas of Myra

It seems that for many Catholics today, 6 December, the day the Church honors St. Nicholas of Myra (270-343), has become mostly an opportunity to play the comedian and persistently joke, according to the logic, "if it's funny once, it's funny 1,000 times," that we observe "Punch a Heretic Day." Why punch a heretic today in honor of St. Nicholas? It seems that while participating in the Council of Nicea in 325, during an intervention of Arius, also a bishop, but one who taught a heresy that became known as Arianism, which held that the Son, at some point prior to the creation of the physical universe, was "created," that is, "made by" and not "begotten of" the Father, that Nicholas became so enraged that he stood, crossed the room, and slapped Arius in the face.

What gets left out of this weird attempt at being funny (in my opinion, this "meme" jumped the shark awhile back) is what happened afterwards: Nicholas was punished with imprisonment and banned by his fellow bishops from further participating in the Council. Most importantly, Nicholas came to feel guilty for and then to repent of the sin of slapping his brother bishop (even a heretical one- read a fuller version here).

While I realize that it is mostly meant tongue-in-cheek, it seems to me (personal opinion alert) that over the course of the past few years this regrettable incident in the life of St. Nicholas has kind of perverted this wonderful day. Saints are redeemed sinners, true. This means they had sins from which they needed to repent and for which they needed to be forgiven. They only achieved sanctity by the grace of God. Nonetheless, we don't celebrate their sins, we celebrate their sanctity, their overcoming of sin through Christ Jesus. To jokingly suggest that we observe "Punch a Heretic" day in honor of St. Nicholas makes as much sense to me as joking about celebrating "Call Someone Who Does Not Venerate the Blessed Virgin a 'Hooked Nosed Bastard'" day on 30 September, when the Church honors St. Jerome. Why keep it tame? Let's ramp it up (reductio ad absurdum alert) and start joking around about observing "Sleep With a Random Stranger" day on 3 April, the Memorial of St. Mary of Egypt.

In light of the many wonderful traditions handed on to us that we can use to celebrate this lovely Advent feast, it seems to me that we can do better than abject and persistent silliness. The communio sanctorum is holy and, therefore, should be treated, not with Puritanical strictness (i.e., made no fun), but celebrated with a sense of awe that inspires us to walk our own path towards holiness with more trust and to call upon the saints, imploring God, through Jesus Christ, to apply their merits to us and to the souls in Purgatory.

If nothing else, take pity. Poor St. Nicholas has already suffered the indignity of being made into the highly secularized Santa Claus!

UPDATED Mandela: "until I changed myself, I could not change others."

Since I've posted nothing since putting up my homily for the First Sunday of Advent back on 1 December, I have a lot of ground I feel that I need to cover. So, where to begin? Well, let's see, I'll start with this: because I have been on a serious listening-to-The-Smith's jag for the past few weeks, I intended to put up one of their songs as our Friday traditio (I had it narrowed down to 3), but due to the death of Nelson Mandela, I decided on Paul Simon with Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes."

Nelson Mandela was not a perfect man and the African National Congress to which he belonged had far from clean hands during the struggle against the terribly unjust apartheid regime in South Africa. However, when he was elected president in 1995, Mandela wisely saw reconciliation as integral to achieving anything approximating justice. Not content to dictate reconciliation, he reached out to his former enemies, seeking to be personally and publicly reconciled with them. He voluntarily chose to serve only one term as president. His personal modesty and modest lifestyle were also things that set him apart from so many other world leaders.

I firmly believe that the 27 years he spent imprisoned changed him for the better. In his autobiography, he wrote, "There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered." In his memoirs, he also observed, reflecting on his release from prison, "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."

Here's part of what Pope Francis conveyed to the people of South Africa in a telegram sent to their current president, Jacob Zuma:
Paying tribute to the steadfast commitment shown by Nelson Mandela in promoting the human dignity of all the nation’s citizens and in forging a new South Africa built on the firm foundations of non-violence, reconciliation and truth, I pray that the late President’s example will inspire generations of South Africans to put justice and the common good at the forefront of their political aspirations
UPDATE It does not surprise me that many fail, or refuse, to grasp the dynamics involved in the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Perhaps this exchange from the New York Review of Books from earlier this year will help set out those complexities in bolder relief.

It's easy to forget that the U.S. strongly backed South Africa's apartheid regime almost to its end. It can be argued that we did this to the detriment of both our short and long term interests (something similar can be said our support for many brutal South American regimes who maintained our support by convincing us that all of their opponents were communists, which, we now know- many knew then- was false). In terms of South Africa, in some ways, we forced the ANC into the arms of the Soviets.

Hence, the quote making the rounds by Mandela praising Cuba, while certainly something that should not be covered up, or glossed over, like all quotes, has a context. I think people forget the conflict in Angola, which featured a U.S.-backed military intervention in that country by South Africa and Zaire. In response, and likely at the behest of the Soviets, Cuba sent troops to fight there. Angola was Cuba's "Vietnam."

As noted by veteran journalist Bill Keller, Prof Stephen Ellis, who has conducted the most extensive research on this topic, noted "Mandela’s brief, expedient membership in the [South African Communist] Party 'does not detract from his historic stature.' Mandela, Mr. Ellis told one interviewer, 'wasn’t a real convert, it was just an opportunist thing.'"

It's easy to forget that there were a lot of opportunistic "communists" during the Cold War, that is, people who were committed to their own causes, like Mandela, who were able to obtain help and assistance from the Soviet Union. Is this right? I don't believe so. But we have to be careful drawing far-reaching conclusions from scant evidence. I am certainly not promoting the sainthood cause of Pres. Mandela.

I think Keller, who also points to some of the terrible things done by the ANC, grasps the reality, which, as reality tends to be, is quite complex:
Nelson Mandela was, at various times, a black nationalist and a nonracialist, an opponent of armed struggle and a practitioner of armed struggle, a close partner of the South African Communist Party and, in his presidency, a close partner of South Africa’s powerful capitalists. In other words, he was whatever served his purpose of ending South Africa’s particularly fiendish brand of minority rule. I should not have been so categorical in saying Mandela was not a Communist. But he was not a Communist in the values he upheld, the politics he practiced, the constitution he negotiated, or the presidency he held
People who are shocked by these facts and who, upon learning them, will either deny them outright, or emotively move from one extreme to the other as regards Mandela, need to both wake up and grow up. Many were surprised at the time apartheid crumbled that South Africa, which is still far from a wholly healed country, did not erupt into a violent, bloody civil war (the struggle to end apartheid was not bloodless, far from it) is a great credit to Nelson Mandela, as well as others. But it was his presidency that proved crucial in the early years of majority rule. UPDATE END

Monday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Hosea 2:16.17c.18.21-22; Ps 145:2-9; Matthew 9:18-26 Our Gospel today is Saint Matthew’s version of events first written about ...