Thursday, October 31, 2013

Solemnity of All Saints- homily

Readings: Rev 7:2-4.9-14; Ps 24:1-6; 1 John 3:1-3; Matt 5:1-12a

What is "the seal" to be placed "on the foreheads of the servants of our God" (Rev 7:3)? It would seem that "the seal" put on our foreheads is the oil of sacred chrism, with which we are anointed when we are confirmed. What did your confirmation confirm? Or, stated another way, Who are you?

What was confirmed when you were anointed was nothing other than the identity given you at baptism; your identity as a child of the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ identity as the only begotten Son of the Father was confirmed by the descent of Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and, at the same time, by the voice of the Father, who said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matt 3:17), as He emerged from the Jordan River after being baptized by John.

My brothers and sisters, on this glorious day let us not fail to "See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God" (1 John 3:1).

Now that you are perhaps a bit clearer as to who you are, you may well ask, "Who are the 144,000 we heard about in our first reading?" Let’s start by noting that one hundred forty-four thousand is 12,000 x 12. Of what symbolic significance is the number 12 in Sacred Scripture? Twelve were the tribes of Israel and twelve was the number of apostles called by Jesus. It was the apostles, the ones sent (apostle means one who is sent) by Christ to "make disciples of all nations," to baptize "them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit" (Matt 28:19), who around whom formed the Church, the new and true Israel.

Hence, one hundred forty-four thousand, the square of twelve multiplied by a thousand, is indicative of the new Israel. It is not, as some suppose, a literal number, but a symbolic number, indicative of the "great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue," who "stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands" (Rev 7:9). Their white robes and palm branches are symbols of joy and victory.

Our reading from Revelation, also called The Apocalypse, both of which mean to unveil, to show what was hidden, is fitting as we gather this evening to celebrate the joyful solemnity of All Saints, or in older English, All Hallows. So we are gathered to rejoice in our participation in the communio sanctorum (the communion of holy people and things).

I cannot help but note that it was on the Solemnity of All Saints, 1 November 1946, that a young Karol Wojtyla, who will be raised to the altar as a saint next April under the name Pope John Paul II, was ordained to the priesthood, in which ordination he received, as do all priests at their ordination, another anointing with sacred chrism, but this time on their hands, which are used to carry out their priestly ministry.

Most of all, the solemnity of All Saints exists to remind each of us of our vocation, our divine call, to holiness, which call we received in Baptism and had strengthened in Confirmation, is renewed in the Sacrament of Penance, and for which we are strengthened and fortified by our reception Christ in the Eucharist. It was Pope John Paul II who taught us that holiness, Christ-likeness, arising from our Christian initiation, is our primary vocation, and that the means to this end are our state of life, whether lay or ordained, married or single, along with the work we engage in daily.

In our Gospel this evening, taken from our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount and familiar to us all as "the Beatitudes," which constitute the core of Christian discipleship, we are taught in detail how we are to live our vocation, which is not an easy row to hoe.

I realize that this can easily come across as very anodyne, very easy, very coherent. But let’s be honest, the Beatitudes, at least for most of us, are a huge provocation, one that often throws life into chaos because how Christ calls us to live is so much at odds with how we are inclined to live, with how we are conditioned to live, very often with how we want to live. To be provoked is to be called out, to be challenged to live our calling, which is to holiness, to Christ-likeness. To cite only one example of many that could be cited, how many times, when you find it difficult to live your vocation in the world because it puts you at odds with others, instead of being angry, combative, argumentative, do you say, "Thank you, Lord Jesus."? Living in this way is evangelism!

As Léon Bloy observed in his novel The Woman Who Was Poor, "There is only one sadness, and that is not to be saints."

My dear friends because of the Father’s great love for us, "we are [His] children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed" (1 John 3:2). It is the saints who not only show us who we are to become, but they show us how we are to become who God intended us to be. So, on this glorious feast of hope, as we celebrate this Eucharist, with the psalmist let us say, "Lord WE are the people who long to see your face," or, in the words of the still-popular song, played and sung so enthusiastically by the great Louis Armstrong, which undoubtedly refers to the “great multitude” from Revelation, "O Lord, I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in."

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Do you want to go home justified? Listen to Jesus

As I mentioned last week, which marked the Sunday in Year C that we began reading Luke 18, verses 9-43 of this chapter serve as vignettes that seek to teach the kind of faith (in Greek pistis) the Lord wants to find on earth when he returns.

Jesus does this in this week's Gospel reading by telling the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, which is a parable about a person who is seen by himself and others as a religiously upstanding person, someone who is "tight" with God, and a person who is a manifest public sinner, someone alienated from God.
Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, "O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity -- greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income." But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:10-14)

This is one of those passages that we need to handle with care lest we dilute Jesus' message, which is crystal clear as long as one understands the contrast between the Pharisee, a serious Jew concerned about exact observance of the 613 mitzvot that entail keeping the law, and the tax collector, who, if Jewish, was seen as one who was in collaboration with the occupying power, a cheat, someone not concerned with keeping the law.

So, in an effort to keep my reflection this week short and to the point I will note four things. Two from the other readings, one from a different source, and a final thought:

"The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal; Nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right" (Sir 35:21-22a).

"The Lord hears the cry of the poor" (Psalm response).

"Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen" (the ending of the Prayer of St. Efrem the Syrian, my brother deacon, who lived long ago).

Finally, when reading Luke's Gospel we need almost always look for the connection to the Eucharist. The connection today seems very clear and bends us back towards Jesus' parable. It has to do with our inward disposition towards those sitting around us. How's your heart disposed towards your brothers and sisters with whom you are gathered around the table of the Lord?

Oh yea, it's Priesthood Sunday, an event that really doesn't arise directly from our readings. So I guess priests shouldn't act like the Pharisee either and should teach like Jesus, not being afraid to challenge themselves and the people they serve, and set the example in leading sacrificial lives (if it were "Deacon Sunday" I'd write the same about us).

"I am ignorant, but I read books"

Reading a rather lovely article written by my dear friend Sharon for Il Sussidiario: "La Strada/The Fellini film which is a favorite of Pope Francis," brought up a few memories last night.

I first saw this movie in a film class as a freshman in college. It is a movie that I watch and re-watch. Fellini was an amazing artist.

I was a fairly new Catholic when Fellini died in 1993. Shortly after his death, in memoriam, I watched his last film Intervista (a movie only a true Fellini fan can love). I recall that, as a new convert, I was a little off-put (despite admiring his films greatly) by his relationship to the Church, having been brought up in an environment in which taking such a stance pretty much ruled out being a believer, let alone a practitioner of any kind. In other words, I did not really know what "being Catholic" meant. While I grasp this better now, I am still very much an apprentice. Nonetheless, being put off turned out to be a meaningful experience for me.

It turns out that Fellini, while at odds with the Church's hierarchy for what he saw as their self-indulgence, was devoted to Our Lady and viewed the Church as a loving, even indulgent mother. It was later, watching his movie Amarcord, that I was able to grasp where he came from a bit better. In a recent article, "Why Fellini's films speak to the pope," Annette Insdorf, observed, "Fellini was more concerned with the individual than with politics. As he once said, 'our trouble, as modern human beings, is loneliness … No public celebration or political symphony can hope to be rid of it.'" I watched a movie just last night, Safety Not Guaranteed, that was about our longing not be lonely, but instead to be loved and accepted, or, to use John O'Donohue's preferred term, to belong.

Fellini had a Catholic funeral, which was celebrated by no less than Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, who at the time served as Prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches and who was a family friend (these seeming contradictions- his distaste for the "self-indulgent" hierarchy and having hierarchical friends [think of his film Roma]- would've seemed very natural to Fellini).

At Fellini's funeral, Cardinal Silvestrini told the congregation that Fellini's work was "poetry" that enters people's hearts and that "We should put our questions to the poets, listen to them for the knowledge they have of the suffering world." He acknowledged that Fellini had denounced the Church, but "with irony and love." As a solo trumpet played Gelsomina's song from La Strada, His Eminence came down off the chancel and kissed Giulietta Masina's hand (Giulietta played Gelsomina in La Strada and was Fellini's wife).

"Sometimes, if you're not going to sin, it's nice to be tempted"

It was twenty years ago this week that Rich Mullins and his Ragamuffin Band released their still amazing album, A Liturgy, A Legacy, and A Ragamuffin Band.

In observance of this anniversary, Rich's producer, Reed Arvin, sat for an interview with Christianity Today's Chris Marchand. I was particularly struck, but not really surprised when Mr. Arvin shared this:
Most people are surprised to learn that Rich wasn't particularly involved during recording, simply because he wasn't interested. He would disappear for long stretches. I would beg him to stay around more, because I was quite worried that he would come back after we'd spent a good deal of time going in a direction and pronounce that he didn't like it. But he very rarely expressed opinions about things musically. I very rarely had musical discussions with Rich. On the other hand, I had many, many discussions with him about politics, religion, and philosophy
I was struck because this reminded me that Rich didn't see his music as an end itself, as his road to fame, fortune, and making a name for himself. It was a means to an end, both for himself and those who listen to it, thus making his music a true ministry.

When asked how Rich would've fared had he not been tragically killed back in 1997, given the changes in the music industry, especially in Contemporary Christian Music, Arvin said, "He was immune financially, because he set up his life to live on a tiny fraction of what he earned. The implosion of the music business would have meant next to nothing to him."

Rich's lead-in to this song off the album, which is really a prayer asking Jesus to help us fight the battle that is within, may seem quaint, even hokey to many people, but these are battles that I believe are worth fighting daily. You know what? Like Rich, sometimes I get my butt kicked, especially when I am stupid enough to try to fight on my own, spiritual weakling that I am. But Jesus reminds me over and over that He won the victory for me by His passion, death, and resurrection. I always appreciated Rich's honesty, even in the awareness that being honest made him vulnerable. We need companions. We cannot walk the road to destiny alone, which reality can serve as a huge provocation, a challenge to our preference of going it alone.

This is not a late Friday traditio, but a whole-hearted remembrance.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Got faith?

As Christians ("Christian" being a word that has taken on too many negative connotations in our day), that is, followers of Jesus Christ, our "weapon," if you will, is not the sword, but prayer. The opening lines of Casting Crowns' song "Jesus, Friend of Sinners," with which I have been quite (entirely too?) taken with recently, states this well: "Jesus, friend of sinners, we have strayed so far away/We cut down people in your name but the sword was never ours to swing." We do not pray for God to destroy our enemies, real or perceived, but to convert, that is, to change them, beginning with changing our hearts towards them. Is this not the substance of Jesus' teaching: "love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?" (Matt 5:44-46)

As we sing in our Psalm response for this Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, "Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth" (Ps 121:2). We obtain God's help, as we learn from Jesus' parable in our Gospel for today, through constant prayer, calling on God "day and night" (Luke 18:7).

Unlike ancient Israel in our reading from Exodus in which they enjoin battle upon the Amalekites, "our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens" (Eph 6:12). And so, we are to "put on the armor of God, that [we] may be able to resist on the evil day" (Eph 6:13). Therefore, "our sword is the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Eph 6:17).

In our reading from 2 Timothy the recipient of letter, Timothy, is exhorted to remain faithful to what he has learned and believed from the Scriptures he has been taught from the time he was an infant. The "Scriptures" referred to here are the Jewish Scriptures, those we call the "Old Testament." The usefulness of Scripture derives from the fact that they are the "inspired by God" (2 Tim 3:16). The Greek word used for this English phrase is theopneustos, which literally means "God-breathed." The one who has received God's word is to be "persistent" in proclaiming it "whether it is convenient or inconvenient."

God is faithful. God will do what He has promised. One could effectively argue that this is the overarching "lesson" of Scripture: God will accomplish His purposes in His way, which is usually surprising. Hence, as Jesus tells His listeners in today's Gospel, "Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them?" He then answers His own rhetorical question: "I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily" (Luke 18:7-8).

Our Gospel passage today ends with a question that Jesus poses and does not answer, at least not directly: "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

In the overall context of St. Luke's Gospel, what constitutes this "faith" Jesus asks about finding on earth when He returns is laid out until the end of chapter 18, beginning with the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector. Next, He teaches about the requirement to become like children if we are to inherit God's kingdom. After that, Jesus has an encounter with the rich young man, who goes away sad after Jesus told him to sell everything he had, give it to the poor, and come follow Him. This prompts Jesus to teach about how difficult it is for a wealthy person to enter God's kingdom. Appropriately, Jesus, for the third time in Luke's orderly account, predicts His passion, death, and resurrection. Of course, believing that He is risen is the sine qua non of Christian faith. Faith is not its own object (i.e., faith in faith), but faith in Christ, in God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Finally, to cap His teaching on what it means to have the faith He hopes to find, Jesus heals the blind beggar, who persists in calling out to Him despite being told by some of those accompanying Jesus to shut up. Approaching the blind beggar, Jesus asks him straight up, "What do you want me to do for you?" Without missing a beat, the blind man says, "Lord, please let me see." Jesus said in reply, "Have sight; your faith has saved you."

All of these are constitutive of this "faith" (in Greek pistis) Jesus wonders about finding when He returns in glory. Throughout this chapter, Jesus sets about providing evidence for faith (what Aristotle called pisteis, which are basically evidences for pistis, or, faith). Jesus does this both through His teaching and His actions.

In his Wednesday General Audience this week, Pope Francis, after explaining just how the Church is apostolic (i.e., that it has a "constitutive" historical "bond" with the 12 chosen by Jesus and that, like them, the Church is sent "to continue the mission of Christ in history"), he insisted that praying is the first task of the Apostle. "The second task, according the Holy Father, "is to proclaim the Gospel." Therefore, "All of us, if we would be apostles, must ask ourselves: 'Do I pray for the salvation of the world, and proclaim the Gospel?'" I am sure, judging from his other daily homilies, Pope Francis meant proclaiming the Gospel in deed and, then, in word. He insisted, "This is the Apostolic Church."

Friday, October 18, 2013

"Bless the Lord, my soul"

"Bless the Lord My Soul," a Taizé song, is our Friday traditio this week.

Bless the Lord, my soul

And bless God's holy name

Bless the Lord, my soul

Who leads me into life

Monday, October 14, 2013

A few more things about yesterday's readings

A "Short Take" homily for the Year C Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time readings:

We're lepers. Sin is our leprosy. Baptism is the river Jordan. Hence, it is in Jesus Himself that we are washed clean. Participating in the Eucharist, which means "thanksgiving," that is, going to Mass and worshiping the one God, living and true, out of our gratitude for what He has done for us, is how, like the Samaritan leper, we thank Jesus. Jesus does not give us two mules loaded with dirt. In communion He gives us Himself, thus continuing to heal us of our on-going affliction. St. Ignatius of Antioch referred to the Eucharist as "the medicine of immortality." This is unarguably the most powerful way that He remains faithful even when we are unfaithful.

When reading Scripture it is easy to engage in what has been characterized as the "hermeneutics of suspicion." Hence, when one reads commentaries on 2 Kings 5 and learns that perhaps, instead of "leprosy," Naaman may have been suffering from psorasis, or another type of chronic skin condition, it is easy to start down the path of thinking that the miracle stories recorded in Scripture are bunko. This is in keeping with our all-too-modern refusal to believe in miracles. So, let's examine the text more closely by means of a word study.

There is some textual warrant for biblical scholars to assert that Naaman suffered from psorasis, or other incurable, chronic skin condition. Apparently, the Hebrew word transliterated as qal refers specifically to a leper and the word pual refers specifically to leprosy. The Hebrew word used for the various forms of the word "leprosy" throughout 2 Kings 5 (i.e., "leper," "leprosy," and "leperous;" verses 1,3,6-7,11, 27) is transliterated as tsara`ath, which is a more general term for skin disease and can be used for leprosy. Further, I could not find one English translation that did not translate tsara`ath and its variants as a form of the word "leprosy." I looked at the New American Bible, both the revised edition and the older edition, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version, the New International Version, the New American Standard Bible, the King James Version, and the New King James Version, as well as the Douay-Rheims. I even looked the chapter up in Young's Literal Translation, as well as in the Latin Vulgate, which both use variants of the word leprosy.

It is also important to cite something that appears in the footnote to 2 Kings 5:1 in the New American Bible: "the terms traditionally translated 'leper' and 'leprosy' covered a wide variety of skin disorders like psoriasis, eczema, and seborrhea, but probably not Hansen’s disease (modern 'leprosy'); there is no clear evidence of its existence in biblical times."

In interpreting this passage theologically for the purpose of what I will call, for lack of a better word, application, it is important to account for how this text has been received and interpreted by the Church, or, how it has been handed on. Although one could dig much deeper, you need not inquire any further than this passage about Naaman being paired with the Gospel passage from Luke 17 in the lectionary in order to get a solid idea of how this text has been received and passed down and, hence, how to interpret it.

One might ask, as I asked myself, "How does this differ from what you posted about 'epilepsy" the other day?"

I readily concede what is apparent from the use of the word "epileptic," employed in many English translations for the Greek word seleniazomai (the word used by the troubled father to describe his afflicted son in Matthew 17:15). Seleniazomai could reasonably be taken to refer to what we now know as epilepsy, which neurological condition was unknown to the ancients. As I asserted in my previous post, translating seleniazomai as "epileptic" is an anachronism, which makes using it an interpretation. The New American Bible avoids this by translating the Greek word more literally, as "lunatic." But, in terms of taking the inspiration of Scripture seriously, the inspired authors of all three synoptic Gospels record Jesus rebuking and casting out a demon/evil spirit from the afflicted boy.

In the case of Naaman, whether he was cured of "leprosy" as such, or from a chronic, debilitating autoimmune skin disorder, while it has some bearing on the story, certainly does not negate the main point, which is that he was miraculously cured by dipping himself seven times in the waters of the Jordan at the behest of Elisha and was grateful to God for curing him. On the other hand, to assert that Jesus likely did not cast an evil spirit from the afflicted boy stands in direct contradiction to the inspired texts.

Finally, a dear friend, referring to the two mule loads of dirt Naaman took with him back to Syria, asked, "What did Naaman do with the dirt?" Well, according to most commentators, the reason that Naaman took dirt from Israel back to Syria with him was likely related to his belief, common in the ancient Near East, that gods had territories. So, on Naaman's reasoning, the God of Israel resided in Israel. Hence, Naaman would likely have used the dirt to build a sanctuary, or shrine, a place where he could offer sacrifices to the God of Israel, the One who healed him and so the only One worthy of his gratitude.

Happy Columbus Day!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Year C Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Kings 5:14-17; Ps 98:1-4; 2 Tim 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19

After being cleansed of leprosy by heeding the words of Elisha, the man of God and successor to the great prophet Elijah, and bathing himself seven times in the Jordan River, Naaman the Syrian offered Elisha a very generous gift, which the prophet steadfastly refused. What he had to give was free. But before proceeding any farther, I think it’s important to back the story up a bit.

Upon first discovering a leprous spot on his body, Naaman, the commander of the whole Syrian army, on the advice of a young Israelite woman, who had been led away captive to Syria and made a servant to Naaman’s wife, sought out an unnamed “prophet in Samaria” for a cure. Prior to leaving for the territory of Israel with a large amount of money with which to pay for his cure, Naaman sent a letter to Israel’s king announcing his arrival and the purpose of his visit. The king, convinced that it was a trick by the far more powerful nation to the north that would lead to war, tore his clothes because he did not know how Naaman was to be cured (2 Kgs 5:1-8).

When he heard of his king’s torment, Elisha sent a message to the king of Israel, telling him to send Naaman his way so the Syrian leader would “find out that there is a prophet in Israel” (2 Kgs 5:8). When Naaman arrived at Elisha’s abode, the prophet himself did not go out to meet him, but sent a messenger, who told the general, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean” (2 Kgs 5:10).

Naaman, who was clearly a man used to being catered to and getting his way, started to leave, very angrily saying, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand there to call on the name of the LORD his God, and would move his hand over the place, and thus cure the leprous spot. Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be cleansed?” (2 Kgs. 5:11-12). Stated simply, Naaman was angry because God didn’t do what he wanted God to do in the way he wanted God to do it. If we’re being honest, are we not often very much like Naaman?

Ultimately, the Syrian general heeded the pleas of his servants and and did as he was instructed. The result was his immediate and complete cure from the terrible disease of leprosy. Refusing his generous gift, which was likely the money mentioned earlier, Elisha sent him away with two mules loaded with earth from Israel, even as Naaman assured the prophet that henceforth he would only worship the one, true God, the God of Israel, the One who had healed him and to whom he owed a debt he could never repay.

My dear friends, this is a homily in itself. But I think it is important to add that Jesus, about whose healing of ten lepers we hear in today’s Gospel, fully reveals to us the one God, living and true, whom Naaman worshiped from the day of his healing forward.

To paraphrase the psalmist, Jesus is the revelation of God’s saving power to the nations. More than healing us from leprosy, or any other physical ailment, Jesus heals us from the ravages of sin and its ultimate consequence, death.

Anyone who has experienced God’s saving power through Christ cannot be anything but grateful. This is summarized well in the lyrics of the song “Jesus, Friend of Sinners,” by the contemporary Christian group Casting Crowns, “you died for sinners just like me, a grateful leper at your feet.”

Like Naaman and the grateful leper, who was a Samaritan, that is, a non-Jew, someone not a member of the chosen people, we too should express our gratitude for what Christ has done and continues to do for us by bearing our sins daily. We express our gratitude by worshiping God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and Him alone, forsaking all idols, like the healed Syrian general.

Let it not be lost on us that what we are doing right here, right now is called “Eucharist.” Eucharist is simply the Greek word for thanksgiving. To fully, actively, and consciously participate in our worship is to do nothing but obey the first of Jesus’ two great commandments- “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27). We do this because, as our reading from 2 Timothy assures us, once we truly belong to Christ, He remains faithful even when we are unfaithful (2 Tim 2:13), which is often. This requires us to acknowledge that we are incapable of saving ourselves and need make frequent recourse to the healing power of Christ, which is made available to us in and through the sacraments.

My brothers and sisters, worshiping God in gratitude is precisely what makes us members of His chosen people. What ought to bring us to our knees in gratitude is our personal memory of God’s mercy given us in Christ Jesus. This is why we kneel when we say, after being exhorted to “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sin of the world…,” in the words of the grateful Roman centurion, whose servant Jesus healed, “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…” (Matt 8:8).

I believe with my whole heart that Jesus really did cure ten lepers and that God healed Naaman of his leprosy too, just as these things are handed on to us in Sacred Scripture. I find all of this find this easy to believe because it pales in comparison to what Jesus has done and continues to do for me, a sinner. He can and desperately wants to do the same for everyone. But He can only heal you if, like Naaman, you relent and let Him do it His way, which, we can trust, is the best way. Then, like the grateful leper, we will fall “at the feet of Jesus and” thank Him (Luke 17:16), both now and forever, which is how long His love and mercy endure.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Jesus did cast out demons

"Is the Devil for Real?" was a question that Fr. James Martin, SJ took up recently in Time magazine. I think, on the whole, his article is a balanced and informative piece, especially given its length and the complexity of the subject. Judging from the beginning of the piece, Fr. Martin wrote in response to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's professed belief in the devil, a belief he divulged in a recent interview with Jennifer Senior for New York magazine (click on the link and type the word "devil" into your browser's "Find" feature- you'll be in for what I would describe as a treat).

I do think Fr. Martin provides one glaring example of the kind of eisegesis (meaning to interpret a text by reading one's presuppositions into it) the Holy Father took aim at in his homily this morning. The passage in question is one found in all of the synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew 17:14-20, Mark 9:17-29, and Luke 9:37-43); the father of a boy who exhibits epileptic symptoms bringing his son to Jesus for healing.

It is important to note that none of the synoptic accounts describe the boy as an "epileptic." In Matthew's account the troubled and weary father tells the Lord his son is a "lunatic" (in Greek seleniazomai). Martin uses the word "epileptic," even putting it in quotation marks. It is true that some modern English translations use this word (the English Standard Version, RSV, NRSV, whereas the NAB does not- to cite a few examples). Nonetheless, "epileptic" remains anachronistic to the biblical text. Based on this, Martin asserts, appealing to William Barclay, a Scottish commentator whose New Testament commentaries remain very popular, "Here the ancient mind attributes to a demon what we now attribute to a physiological condition. It conflates possession with illness. (We should also remember that the Gospel writers were not diagnosticians.)"

But even in Matthew's account we are told that Jesus, after being informed by the boy's father that His disciples had been unable to heal the child, rebuked them for being "faithless and twisted," told the father to bring his son to Him, then "Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly" (v. 18).

If I am not mistaken, I think the Holy Father today sought pose a few questions about this manner of interpreting Scripture: How does one know the mind of the inspired author, "ancient," or otherwise, apart from what is in the text? Do the Gospels do a poor job of conveying Jesus' acts to us? Above all, was Jesus Himself so spiritually undiscerning that He could not tell the difference between a natural illness and a supernatural affliction?

Most importantly, I believe Pope Francis was calling on us to engage reality according to all the factors that constitute it. We ought not judge God's word, but let ourselves be judged by it.

I recognize the potential dangers in taking a such a view of Scripture, but it is easy enough today to insist that before any sort of exorcism takes place that all natural explanations be satisfactorily eliminated and that nobody forego medical treatment in favor of casting out demons. We certainly cannot expect anyone else to be as spiritually discerning the Lord.

What I think is truly dangerous is to decide for ourselves what is inspired and what is not, especially when it comes to the Gospels. According to Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei verbum-
It is common knowledge that among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament, the Gospels have a special preeminence, and rightly so, for they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our savior.

The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (par. 18)
Pope Francis has stated more than once that we must know Scripture and the Catechism. In the latter we learn,
Scripture and the Church's Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called "Satan" or the "devil". The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: "The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing."

Scripture speaks of a sin of these angels. This "fall" consists in the free choice of these created spirits, who radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign. We find a reflection of that rebellion in the tempter's words to our first parents: "You will be like God." The devil "has sinned from the beginning"; he is "a liar and the father of lies" (par. 391-392)

"Do I guard the presence of the Holy Spirit in me?"

Lord preserve us in your grace today and always. Save us from ourselves, our fleshly desires, and from the evil one, who is lord of this world, of this present darkness.

Preaching at daily Mass today in the chapel of la Casa Santa Marta on Luke 11:15-26, the Holy Father said several things that struck me:
There are some priests who, when they read this Gospel passage, this and others, say: "But, Jesus healed a person with a mental illness." They do not read this, no? It is true that at that time, they could confuse epilepsy with demonic possession; but it is also true that there was the devil! And we do not have the right to simplify the matter, as if to say: "All of these (people) were not possessed; they were mentally ill." No! The presence of the devil is on the first page of the Bible, and the Bible ends as well with the presence of the devil, with the victory of God over the devil
He went on to preach about the necessity of committing ourselves to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. Quoting the Lord Himself, Pope Francis said, "Either you are with me, says the Lord, or you are against me." According to the Vatican Radio summary of the Pope's homily, he then added "Jesus came to destroy the devil" and, quoting the Holy Father directly, "to give us the freedom" from "the enslavement the devil has over us." The Pope insisted that this is not an exaggeration, "On this point there are no nuances. There is a battle and a battle where salvation is at play, eternal salvation."

Pope Francis then urged those listening and, by extension, us, to ask ourselves, "Do I guard the presence of the Holy Spirit in me?" He warned that "if you do not guard yourself, he who is stronger than you will come. But if someone stronger comes and overcomes, he takes away the weapons in which one trusted, and he shall divide the spoil." We must be vigilant, he added before giving three criteria: "Do not confuse the truth. Jesus fights the devil: first criterion. Second criterion: he who is not with Jesus is against Jesus. There are no attitudes in the middle. Third criterion: vigilance over our hearts because the devil is astute. He is never cast out forever. It will only be so on the last day."

The bottom line here, it seems to me, is that if you think all of this is trite nonsense and superstition, you are deceived. Another aspect of the Holy Father's homily I like is that he throws down the gauntlet as to whether we believe the Bible to truly be God's inspired word, in which "the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength," welcoming "it not as a human word, 'but as what it really is, the word of God'" (Catechism, par. 104). If the Bible is the "word of God," then we are not free to contradict the inspired text, especially on points about which the inspired author is very clear. Arrogance, presumption, and intellectual vanity are not fruits of the Spirit.

And so dear friends, on this day of penance, let's recommit ourselves to following Jesus with our whole heart and invoke the aid of St. Michael the Archangel, whom we implore to "defend us in battle and to "be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil."

Let us heed the words of the apostle: "For, although we are in the flesh, we do not battle according to the flesh, for the weapons of our battle are not of flesh but are enormously powerful, capable of destroying fortresses. We destroy arguments and every pretension raising itself against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive in obedience to Christ, and we are ready to punish every disobedience, once your obedience is complete" (2 Cor. 10:3-6). This can only be done through prayer, fasting, and selfless works of mercy. I urge you to do all three today.

In light of this, I can really think of no other Friday traditio than Jars of Clay singing the hymn "God be Merciful," even though I have used it before:

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"[T]hese benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us"

In a passage from his Operationis in psalmos, which he wrote between 1519-1521, Martin Luther observed, "For just as, according to Bernard [of Clairvaux], knowledge of self without knowledge of God leads to despair, so knowledge of God without the knowledge of the self leads to presumption." Indeed, this insight, which the reformer gleaned from a sermon by St. Bernard, a Doctor of the Church, is but one demonstration (of many that could be made) of just how much of monastic theology, which is both biblical and humanist (I would argue it is humanist in an authentic way because it is biblical), was preserved by the reformers, who by and large resisted the systematic taxonomy of the scholastics.

In his wonderful book, Pater Bernhardus: Martin Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux, which I have been savoring for several months, Franz Posset, commenting on Luther's citation of the Doctor Mellifluous above, wrote, "This monastic mind-set encouraged the search for the knowledge of God and of self and recognized man's nothingness, his need for salvation, and his dependence on God's mercy, all of which are included in the mystery of the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ" (226).

Being increasingly wary of commenting on mysteries that are too great for me, I want to note that Book I of John Calvin's magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion, is "Knowledge of the Creator." Chapter I of Book One is entitled, "The Knowledge of God and That of Ourselves Are Connected. How They Are Interrelated." Article One of Chapter I is "Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God" and Article Two of Chapter I is "Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self." Hence, the first words of the Institutes are, "Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and or ourselves." Calvin went on to immediately note-

while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he "lives and moves" [Acts 17:28]. For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself. Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God
Yesterday the Roman Catholic Church observed the liturgical Memorial of Bl. John Henry Newman, who remains perhaps the most well-known and beloved convert of modern times. Newman, a former priest of the Church of England, was a self-described Evangelical in his youth, having had a profound conversion experience, which occurred in 1816, when he was 15. Mentioning a Rev. Walter Mayers, who was at Pemboke College, Oxford, Newman recalls towards the beginning of the first chapter of his autobiographical Apologia pro sua vita, that this man "was the human means of this beginning of divine faith in me." He also mentioned the effect of the books Mayers had him read, "all of which were of the school of Calvin." One of these books, the title of which Newman could not recall while writing his religious memoir, was by an author named Romaine. He remembered that he "received it at once, and believed that the inward conversion of which I was conscious (and of which I still am more certain than that I have hands and feet,) would last into the next life, and that I was elected to eternal glory."

Later in life Newman insisted, "To be steeped in history, is to cease being a Protestant." This may well be true. However, I would insist, even as a Catholic convert (though not from Protestantism) and clergyman myself, that there are those with whom we do not enjoy communion and who are not in the Orthodox Church, or one of the ancient Oriental Churches, who are better described as "Reformed" Christians than as mere "Protestants." We do well, I think, to make this distinction. After all, to follow Christ is not to live one's life as a protest, but as a surrender, as a selfless sacrifice of love best manifested by serving others (Luke 9:23-27; Rom 12:1-2). Besides, Jesus loves us too much to ever allow us to be smug, especially towards those who also love Him.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Jesus seeks to provoke us

Grace is not terribly difficult to grasp conceptually. It is, however, extremely hard to comprehend existentially and so live the reality of God's grace given us freely through Christ Jesus, our Lord. This is why Jesus' final words in our Gospel passage for this Sunday are so very useful.

Even for those of us who are Christians, who understand that we cannot save ourselves, we have a tendency to drift into a mindset that makes too much of our (usually occasional) good efforts, causing us to bestow heaven's blessing on ourselves as a reward for our faithfulness and generosity, as if we were somehow capable of putting God in our debt. Such an attitude is revealed when we utter things like, "Helping people makes me feel so good," or, worse, "I help others because it makes me feel good." I don't recall ever reading, or hearing, where St. Francis of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, or Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, uttered such words.

As people who dedicated their lives to assisting the poor, I think more often than not St. Francis, St. Vincent, and Bl. Teresa were overwhelmed by the scope of the human need they encountered just in their own milieux. In other words, they were aware of how far short the help they were able offer those in need fell from the scope of the need. I believe this is one of the reasons that led Bl. Teresa to say, "Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love."

St. Vincent de Paul

Performing small acts with great love is "the little way" of the the Little Flower. Love, the apostle wrote, "does not seek its own interests" (1 Cor 13:5), even if that interest is a warm fuzzy. Love, as Jesus showed us, is utterly selfless. In the words of Christian singer/songwriter Don Francisco, taken from his song, "Love Is Not a Feeling," "Jesus didn't die for you because it was fun/He hung there for love because it had to be done."

It is by realizing the smallness of even our greatest efforts that we begin to make progress in being humble, in imitation of our Lord. Because of our pride it is easy to either just pass lightly over Jesus' words at the end of today's Gospel, or to take them as a slap-in-the-face. In my view, taking them as a slap-in-the-face is better than ignoring them. His words are a provocation (i.e., a call for us to fulfill our vocation), one borne of His great love for us. It is love that prompted Him to teach His disciples these things, which are the deep things of the kingdom of God.

I was reminded as I watched, once again, Roberto Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis on Friday (the Memorial of St. Francis of Assisi) that while it is difficult for us to fully realize that we remain "unprofitable servants" even after "we have done what we were obliged to do," such a realization is utterly necessary for anyone to live in the glorious freedom of the children of God, to live in light of the good news that God loves us anyway. We can't earn God's love and favor, but once we experience it we can't help but want, even to feel compelled, to share it with others. This desire to share what we have been so freely given is what the Scriptures call "faith," which is why "the just one, because of his faith, shall live" (Hab 2:4).

Friday, October 4, 2013

"I will not glory save in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ"

Today is the liturgical Memorial of St. Francis of Assisi. In an exchange with one of his friars, a certain Brother Leo, Brother Francis taught that prefect joy is only found in the Cross of Christ: "Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to His friends," Francis told Leo, "is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ. For we cannot glory in all those other marvelous gifts of God, as they are not ours but God's, as the Apostle says: 'What have you that you have not received?' But we can glory in the cross of tribulations and afflictions, because that is ours, and so the Apostle says: 'I will not glory save in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ.'"

St. Francis of Assisi, by Giotto

In his homily for last Friday, 27 September, the man who took the papal name Francis, preaching on Luke 9:18-22, spoke of the same thing. The pope said, "'Spiritual well being can only take us so far.' What remains in order to be a true Christian is 'the anointing of the Cross, the anointing of humiliation. He humbled himself even to death, death on the Cross. This is the touchstone, the proof of who we are as Christians.'"

The Holy Father urged us to ask ourselves, "Am I a Christian of the culture of comfort, or am I a Christian who accompanies Jesus to the Cross?" The sure sign that we are those who follow Jesus to the Cross is our "ability to endure humiliation. The Christian who doesn't agree with the Lord's plan is only halfway down the road: he is tepid." Dear friends, let's not be tepid Christians, but ones on fire with love, the love for which the Cross is the only conduit.

Or, as the first line from the Church's reading for Morning Prayer today (regular psalter- Week II), taken from the second chapter of Ephesians, states it: "Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near through the blood of Christ."


In reading, once again, through the Book of Job, I was struck yesterday by this passage:
A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble,
      comes up like a flower and withers,
      flees like a shadow and does not last.
Do you fix your eyes on such a one?
      Do you bring me into judgment with you?
Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?
      No one can (Job 14:1-4 NRSV)
These inspired words, written without knowledge of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, express the hopelessness and futility of life without Him. We can rejoice in the words of the apostle, who wrote that for our sake, the Father "made" Christ, "who knew no sin," to "be sin" in order "that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).

In beholding Jesus Christ hanging on the Cross we see what the inspired author(s) of Job could not see; how, in Him, God's justice and mercy are perfectly reconciled, "making peace through the blood of his cross" (Col 1:20). Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Jesus Christ, offering Himself as the only acceptable sacrifice to the Father on our behalf. Hence, we pray, "For the sake of His sorrowful passion/Have mercy on us and on the whole world."

In light of all this, a fitting Friday traditio, returning after a two-week hiatus, is Phil Keaggy's rendition of "Nothing But the Blood":

Oh! precious is the flow/That makes me white as snow

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Evangelization means to "Open the doors to Christ"

Pope Francis gave yet another high profile interview (it's probably impossible for him to give a low profile interview). He sat down to speak with Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of Italy's largest daily newspaper, La Repubblica. Scalfari, a professed atheist, previously wrote an open letter to Pope Francis, which was published in La Repubblica. Francis famously answered Scalfari's letter with his own letter, which was published by the same newspaper. Lest anyone think this kind of exchange is entirely new, the Francis/Scalfari correspondence put me in mind of something I recently read- the newspaper exchange between Cardinal Martini and Umberto Eco, which is available in book format, even as an ebook, under the title Belief or Nonbelief?: A Confrontation (the translation is a bit sketchy in parts, distracting, but not destructive).

Eugenio Scalfari

It seems that Francis, once again (see "All Who Do Evil Are Redeemed- Christians Included"), may have overestimated how well many Catholics understand their faith. I am referring specifically to his critical comments about proselytizing, which he made at the beginning of the interview. As they sat down to talk the Holy Father joked that his friends warned him that Scalfari would try to convert him, which prompted Scalfari to comment that he was similarly warned. Striking a more serious note, Pope Francis said, "Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us." Apparently some have taken this to mean that Pope Francis does not believe in evangelization, or missionary activity. To draw the contrast- proselytism stands in relation to evangelization the way threats stand in relation to good faith negotiations.

Pope Benedict with then-Brazilian President Lula da Silva

During his Apostolic Visit to Brazil back in 2007, Pope Benedict, in his homily for the Mass celebrated to inaugurate the fifth General Conference of CELAM, which gathering was the main reason for his visit, noted,
The Church considers herself the disciple and missionary of [God's] Love: missionary only insofar as she is a disciple, capable of being attracted constantly and with renewed wonder by the God who has loved us and who loves us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:10). The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by “attraction”: just as Christ “draws all to himself” by the power of his love, culminating in the sacrifice of the Cross, so the Church fulfils her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of the love of her Lord (underlining emphasis mine)
Pope Paul VI addressing the UN General Assembly in New York, 4 October 1965

In short, proselytization is merely an attempt to get to someone to change from his/her religion to your own, a endeavor that fails to take into account the person in his/her totality.

When it comes to evangelization, almost thirty-eight years after its promulgation, it would still be difficult to top Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi. This is the source of the concept (not the phrase) of "missionary discipleship" invoked by Pope Benedict in his Brazilian homily and repeatedly by Pope Francis during his visit to Brazil earlier this year (see "What is missing from post-WYD Catholic commentary?"), which concept constitutes the footings of the foundation of CELAM's 2007 Aparecida document.

Pope St. John Paul II struck the same notes in his encyclical letter on the Church's permanent missionary mandate, Redemptoris missio. One must keep in mind that in JPII's ranking of human rights, freedom of conscience in religious matters only took second place to the right to life. It is from this document that we are given the best definition of evangelization, one I think that is reflected in Francis' dismissive comment about proselytism: "On her part, the Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience. To those who for various reasons oppose missionary activity, the Church repeats: Open the doors to Christ!"

Job longs for Jesus

In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei verbum, the Second Vatican Council gave us something of an interpretive key: "God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New" (par. 16). This key is not something new, invented in the 1960s. Origen, to pick just one example, clearly understood that Christ is the key for unlocking the treasure chest of the Hebrew Scriptures.

I think the Book of Job, as complete and brilliant a literary work as you'll find from ancient world, is terribly unsatisfying. That this observation in no way harms the integrity or brilliance of the work can be shown by pointing to any number of literary works that end on an uncertain note, that is, without all of the loose ends being neatly tied up. More often than not, it is this characteristic that greatly contributes to the work's literary merit, often enabling it to transcend time and even cultures.

But Job is a book of Scripture, meaning that, as Christians, we believe that even though it was written by flesh and blood human beings, it is still and somehow an inspired work. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 we read, "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work." The word "inspired" is a translation of the Greek word theópneustos. Theópneustos literally means "God-breathed."

As Kiekergaard demonstrated with regard to the episode in Genesis 22 in which Abraham heeds God's summons to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah in his classic work Fear and Trembling, taken all by itself, Job is not only unsettling, but deeply disturbing because it is easy to read it in such a way that it makes God out to be more than a little capricious, which is scary. It was just this rather primitive, not to mention highly inaccurate, understanding of God that Pope Benedict sought to refute in his amazing Regensburg address, in which he said
Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist

This morning I read the second intervention of one of Job's friends in the wake of all that had befallen this righteous man, that of Bildad the Shuhite. In the words of one commentator, James Crenshaw, Bildad's intervention "Makes God's Character the Issue." Suffice it to say that Bildad's God is a demanding, kick-ass deity, the kind of God worshiped by those who seek to make the Gospel the ultimate self-help method, one who rewards the good and ruthlessly punishes those who do evil. Bildad implores his friend, who insists he has done nothing to incur God's punishment, to make earnest supplication to God and "Should you be blameless and upright, surely now he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful home (Job 8:6).

In his reply to Bildad, Job readily concedes that he does not understand God's ways and asks who can get into a dispute with God and win (Job 9:2). Job laments that even though, as far as he can reckon, he is innocent, God seems to account him as guilty (Job 9:29). In light of this, Job wonders why he should keep striving and contemplates giving up. Employing a metaphor to express his inability to grasp why such evil has befallen him, Job, speaking to God, not Bildad, complains, "If I should wash myself with soap and cleanse my hands with lye, Yet you would plunge me in the ditch, so that my garments would abhor me" (Job 9:30-31). Acknowledging God's transcendence, the stricken man observes, "For he is not a man like myself, that I should answer him" (Job 9:32). Job then expresses his desire for an arbiter to mediate between him and God, someone "who could lay his hand upon us both and withdraw his rod from me, So that his terrors did not frighten me; that I might speak without being afraid of him" (Job 9:33-35).

Attempting to close-the-loop, let's look at a passage from the fourteenth chapter of St. John's Gospel, which chapter is the beginning of the Lord's Last Supper Discourses. It is here that we read about Jesus telling His disciples, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments [i.e., love one another as I have loved you]. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you" (John 14:15-18). It's important not skip over the word "another" in this passage. Jesus Himself is our first Advocate, that is, Parakletos, literally one whom we call to our side. We call a Parakletos alongside to help us. In this context, Parakletos is an "Advocate," one who pleads our cause before a judge.

"For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human,who gave himself as ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2:5-6). As the inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help" (4:15-16). What's afflicting you today? Be it large or small, turn to Jesus.

On Job, St. Thérèse, and the Psalms

I am once again reading through the Book Job, an endeavor I began last weekend. Yesterday, after writing of St. Thérèse's torment during the terrible terminal phase of the tuberculosis that killed her, I read the sixth and seventh chapters of the Book of Job, which together constitute Job's first reply to the first (of many) interventions of one of his three friends (four if you count Elihu, the only truly wise on among the group). The first of Job's friends to weigh in on his sufferings and afflictions is Eliphaz the Temanite, who, predictably, wonders what Job might've done to incur God's terrible wrath.

In light of Thérèse's temptation to commit suicide, I was struck by a passage, verses 13-16 of chapter 7. Speaking to God, Job complains:
When I say, “My bed shall comfort me,
my couch shall ease my complaint,”

Then you frighten me with dreams
and terrify me with visions,

So that I should prefer strangulation
and death rather than my existence.

I waste away: I will not live forever;
let me alone, for my days are but a breath.

What are human beings, that you make much of them,
or pay them any heed?

In turn, the last sentence of this passage puts me in mind of Psalm 8:5: "What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him?" And, even more to the point, to Psalm 144:3-4:
LORD, what is man that you take notice of him;
the son of man, that you think of him?

Man is but a breath,
his days are like a passing shadow
It's important to point out that, from both a human and Christian perspective, the story of Job is incomplete and very unsatisfying. The answer to Job's question, the same question posed by Psalmist, "What are human beings to you, O great, infinite, eternal, all-powerful God?" is answered by Jesus Christ. Christ shows that, inexplicably and surprisingly, we are everything to God. This is also what St. Thérèse shows us so clearly.

After being healed of her hyper-sensitivity about what people thought about her, how things impacted her emotionally, the Lord let the Little Flower know that He loved her just as she was. Once she grasped this, she came to see that she shouldn't despise herself because of her weaknesses and faults. She came to see her weaknesses as that which made her dependent on the Lord. It is God's unwavering, affirming love and our recognition that we depend on Him completely that enables us to trust, borrowing St. Paul's words, written to the Philippians, "that the one who began a good work in [us] will continue to complete it" until He comes to bring us home to the house of the Father.

Being reminded of God's unfailing for us, is it not fitting that today is the liturgical Memorial of the Holy Guardian Angels? And so we pray,

Angel of God,
My guardian dear,
To whom God's love commits me here,
Ever this day, be at my side,
To light and guard, rule and guide. Amen.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

St. Thérèse, Little Flower, pray for us

Today is the liturgical Memorial of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, more affectionately known as the Little Flower. Just this past week, re-reading the opening chapter of Josef Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity, specifically the first section of the first chapter, which is about what it means to be a believer in the (late-) modern world, I was struck by his invocation of Kierkegaard's description of the believer (i.e., a circus clown warning a village of an impending fire, which warning is mistaken for the clown's act and so the village burns). I was more moved by his exposition of Rodrigue, the Jesuit priest, in Paul Claudel's Le Soulier de satin, who finds himself afloat on the ocean tied to the mast of a destroyed ship. As Ratzinger describes it, Rodrigue is "Fastened to the cross - with the cross fastened to nothing, drifting over the abyss."

In between these two striking and dramatic literary images, Ratzinger points to the real-life experience of St. Thérèse:
That lovable St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who looks so naïve and unproblemtical, grew up in an atmosphere of complete religious security; her whole existence from beginning to end, and down to the smallest detail, was so completely molded by the faith of the Church that the invisible world became, not just a part of her everyday life, but that life itself. It seemed to be an almost tangible reality that could not be removed by any amount of thinking. To her "religion" really was a self-evident presupposition of her daily existence; she dealt with it as we deal with the concrete details of our lives.

Yet this very saint, a person apparently cocooned in complete security, left behind her, from the last weeks of her passion, shattering admissions that her horrified sisters toned down in her literary remains and that have only now come to light in the new verbatim editions. She says, for example, "I am assailed by the worst temptations of atheism". Her mind is beset by every possible argument against the faith; the sense of believing seems to have vanished; she feels that she is now "in sinners shoes"
As with revelations about Bl. Teresa Calcutta's interior desolation, this endears the Little Flower to me more than before. She is someone to whom I can easily turn, with whom it is easy to seek fellowship and from whom I gain courage and comfort.

Among the temptations that assailed Thérèse in her consumptive suffering, which led to her excruciatingly slow death at age 24, were thoughts of suicide. About a week before she died, her biological sister, who was Mother Superior of her Carmelite convent, Mother Agnes, commented on how much the Little Flower had suffered and how well she had borne her suffering. In response, Thérèse said, "Yes! What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not any faith, I would have committed suicide without an instant's hesitation." Testifying during the proceedings for the Little Flower's canonization, another nun said, "Three days before she died, I saw her in such pain that I was heartbroken. When I drew near to her bed, she tried to smile, and, in a strangled sort of voice, she said: 'If I didn't have faith, I could never bear such suffering. I am surprised that there aren't more suicides among atheists.'" She was not being, even if inadvertently, glib, let alone smug, and certainly not naïve when she uttered these words because she knew from her own experience the crushing desolation of unbelief.

St. Thérèse, Little Flower, pray for us, especially those who find themselves in despair and desperate circumstances.

Imprudent politics: ends and means

I think that the Affordable Healthcare Act (AHA), known politically as "Obamacare," is one of the worst pieces of legislation passed during my lifetime. Meant to bring about the long overdue reform of healthcare in the U.S., thus providing access to quality, affordable healthcare to everyone, it has wound up being a financial and administrative albatross, a drag on our national economy, which is trying to recover from the greed-driven financial meltdown of 2008. I hope everyone would agree that having tens of millions of people in the U.S. without access to quality healthcare, especially preventative care, was a problem that our nation needed to grapple with and to solve. Anyone eager to repeal the AHA needs to be able to clearly articulate how they are going solve this difficult problem.

It also bears noting that the way the Affordable Healthcare Act was passed, ram-rodded through by a narrow majority, one that was not willing to debate either the content or consequences of the bill (remember then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's infamous quip that the bill had to be passed in order for anyone to what was in it?), or make any compromises, is perhaps one of the worst moments in the recent history of the U.S. Congress, an institution rife with such prudential lapses. Worst of all, as the president, in his remarks yesterday about the impending shutdown, which has now come to pass, by vigorously invoking a woman's "right" to contraceptive coverage highlighted, yet again, what I find to be the most odious aspect of the AHA, which cannot merely be fobbed off as inadequate conscience protections, the bill's utter disregard and disrespect for the consciences of millions of U.S. citizens, which, in my view, constitutes nothing short of an assault on human conscience with an eye towards the evisceration of conscience in the realm of human sexuality.

The foregoing was a necessary prelude to what I have to say about the sheer irresponsibility of those who have worked so hard to shut the government down, primarily the Republican leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Affordable Healthcare Act is not a wildy popular law. According to a recent CNN/ORC International survey, conducted over the weekend, fewer than 1 in 5 people in the U.S. believe their families will be better off after the bill goes into effect. 40% believe they will be worse off and 41% believe they will be "About the same." Hardly a ringing popular endorsement of this problematic law, but not an outright repudiation either. A Washington Post-ABC News poll indicates that 63% of people disapprove of how "The Republicans in Congress are handling negotiations over the federal budget," while only 26% approve of their histrionic tactics and scorched-earth strategy.

When it comes to politics and morals, it is important not to be fooled into confusing ends with means. One of our worst societal afflictions is our increasing inability to make important distinctions. This increasing inability makes us easy prey for sophists. If modern politicians are anything, with very few exceptions, they are ideologically-driven sophists, shilling for themselves and the wealthy interests that finance them. As a result, there is almost no attention paid to what truly serves the common good. I believe that the end of either repealing, or seriously altering, some of the unacceptable and burdensome aspects of the AHA remains a laudable and even necessary goal. However, the means congressional Republicans are using to accomplish this end are unacceptable because they are both self-serving and short-sighted. After all, What is to be gained by adding to our nation's economic uncertainty? What is to be gained by making our public discourse more polarized? Where is the bi-partisan group, consisting of members of the House and Senate, who will present "The 10 Amendments Aimed at Fixing the Affordable Healthcare Act," which takes seriously the conscientious concerns of millions of U.S. citizens, while seeking to alleviate the financial burden on medium and small-sized businesses, and the heavy administrative burden levied on healthcare practitioners, even while preserving access to affordable, quality, preventative healthcare for everyone?

When politics becomes a zero sum game, everyone loses. In the U.S. politics has become a zero sum game. As a result, today we have all lost.

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 ...