Sunday, November 29, 2015

The luxury of an eventless life

Today, the first day of Advent, I discovered someone new quite unexpectedly. I made my discovery browsing the blog of Darton, Longman, and Todd. The name of the person whose writing I discovered is Christian Bobin (see 'Get Moving, Jonah, I'm Waiting'). At the bottom of this post, which features an excerpt from a recently translated anthology of Bobin's writings, The Eighth Day, I found a link: When you go to the link there is a single selection: ENTER. Upon entering you are immediately connected to the page "About Christian Bobin."

Recently my wife and I have been watching the Welsh television program "Stella." The show takes place in the fictional Welsh town of Pontyberry, located in the not fictional Welsh valleys. At least to me, the show is about the power and importance of place. Some people are rootless, others very rooted. I fall someuwhere in between, but definitely lean far more towards being rooted. Rootedness is what I found when reading about Christian Bobin:

Christian Bobin
Christian Bobin was born in 1951 in Le Creusot, a town in Burgundy with a long industrial history, and has spent his life there or in its deeply rural surroundings. He studied philosophy at Dijon, was employed variously at the public library in Autun, the industrial heritage museum at Le Creusot, and as a student psychiatric nurse. He began writing in his twenties and soon found a committed public, which has allowed him the luxury of an eventless life in a land ‘whose borders are defended by boredom; whose speech is “a language without desire”, whose time is a stopped clock, where the self waits without waiting, like “a hive emptied of its bees”'
It is also noted on this page that Bobin's books sell in France "in quietly astonishing numbers."

In my heart of hearts, for as long as I can remember, I have longed for the luxury of an eventless life along the lines of what is described on Bobin's "About" page. But somehow events keep catching me. I suppose my purpose this Advent, then, is to wait until it no longer seems like waiting.

Doesn't waiting constitute most of history and most of our lives? Let's be honest, doesn't it sometimes seem like we're waiting for Godot, or who knows what? But reading this short blurb about Christian Bobin made me nostalgic. Without a doubt I shall read Eighth Day.

A short excerpt from the excerpt, which is about Jonah, two ten year-old girls walking in the wind in a modern wasteland, and the forces that laid the land waste:
While he’s in the whale Jonah sings, there’s nothing to do except sing in the dark, the cavernous belly of the dark, in the end he says right, you win, I give in, I’ll go there, I’ll tell these people of your anger and their doom

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Resolve to run forth to meet Christ

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

I am one of those who believes that the signs enumerated by the Lord in today's Gospel were given precisely to demonstrate the impossibility of calculating when He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. Can you think of a time during your own life when the nations have not been in disarray, or when there have been no natural disasters, or predictions of cosmic catastrophies? I can't.

I think Christ's point is that He can return at any time, which is why He gave this exhortation:
Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36)
But even if the Lord does not return soon, you do not know when you will be called to meet Him. Does death not catch many unawares? This is why St Paul, in what is perhaps the very first pastoral letter he wrote, which would make it the earliest book of the New Testament, prays that the Lord will increase the abundance of love in and among the Christians of ancient Thessaloniki- so that they would conduct themselves in a manner pleasing to God in order to be found blameless and holy in His sight when Christ returns. The Lord's return has been imminent ever since His ascension.

Today we begin a new year of grace, a new time of preparation, another chance to turn our eyes from what is passing and ephemeral to what is eternal and real. We do this by letting ourselves be drawn more deeply into the Paschal mystery, the very core of reality, that is, into the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is what the Eucharist is all about. As Fr Robert Hart noted, "to prepare for the coming again of Jesus Christ, we need do no more, and no less, than we do when we prepare to receive the Communion of His Body and Blood."

We begin each new liturgical year by putting last things first, or, stated another way, we begin by putting what matters most first. So, on this first Sunday of Advent we look forward to Christ's return in glory, which will usher what the prophet Jeremiah called "The LORD our justice."

Our collect for the First Sunday of Advent expresses all of this very well:

Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming,
so that, gathered at his right hand,
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Cultural resistance and creative subversion

Is there a culture war? What a stupid question. It's stupid because the only appropriate answer is another question, Who cares? As a Christian I am tired of hearing about various options. I have the option to live my faith fully, which means engaging in and not running from society and culture. Hence, the only "option" I have found attractive in the least is the one whose creator told me in person he did not want it branded as an "option"- Dr Chad Pecknold's "Dominican Option". Another person whose work is starting to influence me in these matters is Dr Michael Martin. I highly recommend his book The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics.

Triumph of the Church, by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1625

Let's be clear, the only leaven the Lord warned His disciples to be wary of was the leaven of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and Herod (Matt 16:6-12; Mark 8:14-21; Luke 12:1). While we need to avoid bad leaven (i.e., hypocrisy, condescension, and the corruption of worldly power), we are to be leaven: "He spoke to them another parable. 'The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened'" (Matt 13:33; Luke 13:20-21). There are innumerable ways to constructively engage contemporary culture. The least effective of these is by condemning it all wholesale. The fundamental issues and questions with which women and men wrestle remain perennial. As Luigi Giussani noted, it is precisely these fundamental issues and these existential questions that constitute our humanity.

You may have caught wind of the controversy surrounding the rejection of a Church of England-produced 60-second ad featuring the Lord's Prayer by Digital Cinema Media (DCM), the firm that handles advertising for Great Britain's three largest cinema chains. Neil Davenport, commenting on this rather unsurprising development for Spiked (a secular on-line publication), noted:
The banning of the Lord’s Prayer ad may seem like a minor story, but it exposes how bereft of meaning and purpose Western societies have become. The tragedy is that this uncertainty only acts as an invitation for anti-Western Islamists to pose their ideology as the principled alternative to that of decadent, hollow Europe. A nominally Christian country in which some people deem that a 60-second advert featuring the Lord’s Prayer is ‘offensive’ has surely lost the plot
So it seems that the question for us Christians is, How do we help our society regain the plot? My answer is, through culture, genuine culture, human culture, which does not prudishly ignore any aspect of reality as we experience it, or foster a bizarre, sentimental sub-culture.

As a result, our traditio for this final Friday of this Year of Grace is The Church of England's Lord's Prayer ad:

Given that I blew at least one mind by entitling a post "Eucharist as immanentized eschaton," let me note that by asserting that the Eucharist "immanentizes the eschaton," all that I was trying to say, albeit in a philosophical and alliterative way, is that in each and every Eucharist the Lord returns and the saints rejoice. In other words, when we participate in the Eucharist we participate in the wedding feast of the Lamb, in Christ's ultimate triumph. This is how the Eucharist becomes "the only place of resistance to annihilation of the human subject." In light of this, please note 2 things:

1. Resistance, despite not having the appearance of power, is not futile

2. Resistance is both joy-filled and beautiful

In the second chapter of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, entitled "Concentration Camp," C.S. Lewis traced back to his early years at a terrible boarding school what, in time, became a major part of his contribution to helping modern Western society maintain or regain "the plot". Referring to the resistance of the boys to their awful headmaster, "Oldie," Lewis wrote,
We stood foursquare against the common enemy. I suspect that this pattern, occurring twice so early my life [the other time was his camaraderie with his brother vice their father after the death of his mother], has unduly biased my whole outlook. To this day the vision of the world which comes most naturally to me is one in which "we two" or "we few" (and in a sense "we happy few") stand together against something stronger and larger
We all know how Lewis engaged culture. He did so by engaging it creatively. Pope St John Paul II, rather than taking up arms and joining the armed resistance against the Germans after Poland was conquered, also chose cultural resistance, thus aiding his country in maintaining the plot. In addition to resisting the Nazis, the effects of this cultural resistance were strong enough to ultimately defeat Soviet-style communism more than 40 years later.

The important thing to attend to here is that Christianity, when practiced well, is a subversive force. Don't believe me? Forget Star Wars and read St Paul, a man who very clearly set out to creatively subvert the Empire- Star Wars is a very pedestrian story by comparison. One can also consider the conditions under which Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, became human. He did not become human as the emperor of Rome, Persia, or any other powerful empire, but, to borrow John P Meier's title, He became incarnate as "a marginal Jew"; a marginal member of a marginal people living under Roman occupation. Here's something simpler yet- just recite the Lord's Prayer.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving for "bleeding charity"

I am currently reading C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. This morning I read the fourth chapter, which takes place after the narrator has left "grey town," a purgatorial kind of place, the sort of place I imagine when I consider John Lennon's nihilistic anthem "Imagine," and the bus on which he and the other ghostly passengers traveled arrives at their destination. Once they disembark from the bus the passengers encounter people who are more whole, more substantial, those Lewis' narrator describes as "the bright people." Rather than walk towards the encounter of the just-bused-in arrivals with the more substantial crowd coming to the meet them, the narrator veers off into the woods. He is followed by perhaps the most memorable character from the bus, "the Big Man - to speak more accurately, the Big Ghost."

The Big Man is himself "followed by one of the bright people." After shouting to the Big Man, the the brighter, more solid, soul is recognized by him. It turns out that the more substantial spirit, is named Len. The reader learns in short order that Len murdered a man named Jack, which apparently accounts for the Big Man's surprise upon encountering Len in this place. Len reassures the Big Man that Jack is present there too and the Big Man will meet up with him shortly.

An artistic depiction of the bus stop in "grey town"

Replying to the Big Man's blunt statement, "But you murdered him," Len says, "Of course I did. It is all right now." "All right, is it?," the Big Man retorts, "All right for you, you mean. But what about the poor chap himself, laying cold and dead?" But Jack, as Len has already noted, is not lying dead, he is there, where the two are now. This is where things start to grow interesting.

The Big Man admits that he was not a religious man, or without fault ("far from it")- though his tune on this changes a later on. He claims he did his best in life, never asking for or taking anything more, or anything less, than he deserved, asking only for what he deemed was his by right. And so what he wants now are what he deems to be his just desserts. Using this logic, he wonders out loud why Len, a self-confessed murderer, has been in this glorious place while he, the Big Man, has "been walking the streets down there [in grey town] and living in a place like a pigstye all these years."

Cutting to the chase, the Big Man has no clue about or apparent use for grace, for mercy, for forgiveness. You see, he is too taken up with the idea that you get what you deserve and nothing more, but perhaps something less. It is receiving less than he deserves, extended purgatory, while Len, who, by the Big Man's reckoning, is receiving far more than he deserves, that really irks him. Len would be the last one to argue with the Big Man that he (Len) is receiving far more than he deserves.

A bit later in the exchange Len states, "I haven't got my rights, or I should not be here." He tells the Big Man, who still shows no signs of getting over what he perceives to be the gross injustice of it all, "You will not get yours either. You'll get something far better. Never fear." To which the Big Man, feeling emboldened, but still failing to comprehend what he is being told asserts [here comes the change of tune that often happens when we make righteousness a comparative endeavor]:
That's just what I say. I haven't got my rights. I always done my best and I never done anything wrong. And what I don't see is why I should be put below a bloody murderer like you
When Len effectively tells the Big Man to just get over it, to get over himself, the Big Man asks Len, "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" To which Len replies, "No. Not as you mean. I do not look at myself. I have given up myself. I had to, you know, after the murder. That was what did it for me. And that was how everything began."

Christ Crucified, by Carnegriff, 2010

The Big Man continues to press for what he see as his by right, which is certainly better than what a murderer, like Len, deserves: "I only want my rights. I'm not asking for anybody's bleeding charity." Ah, the words "bleeding charity"! Len bids the Big Man, "Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought."

In the attitude of the Big Man I hear a modern and secularized echo of the voice of the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like the tax collector. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector was acutely aware of his great need for God's mercy (Luke 18:9-14). I hear a similar echo in the voices of those who wonder aloud why someone guilty of murder can be re-admitted to communion when people who are divorced and re-married cannot, at least not while insisting upon the conjugal rights of marriage. The difference can be explained in one word: repentance.

On the homepage, to which my web browser opens, the main this morning headline read, "Do You Carve Turkey Totally Wrong?" I am sure I do it totally wrong. Right underneath it was another headline: "Food You Can Make in a Toaster Oven." This made realize how I grateful I am for my lovely wife and beautiful children. At times in my young life I felt a pull to remain single. I have no doubt God called me to the vocation of marriage. He did so precisely because it is, at least for me, the more difficult path, the path to selflessness and self-forgetting (though I still have a long way to go), which is the only path to Love. This is a difficult thing for me to grasp. In other words, I empathize with the Big Man.

A friend posted this on on Facebook this morning: "Give thanks? Of course. But I find myself thinking of the Pete Townshend lyric: 'GIVE BLOOD.' (And of course, for us Catholics, these things are related . . . )" With that I am off to serve at the altar of the Lord, to accept His Bleeding Charity, and give thanks. I'll take grace over karma every time.

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Preparing to prepare

Unless the Word becomes flesh it remains only a word, not imperceptible or even totally incomprehensible, but certainly not concrete.

Recently I wrote elsewhere something like: "The saints are those who show us, not tell us, what it means to be holy." Someone objected to this observation, stating he was tired of folks insisting that obedience did not matter. Frankly, I have no idea how someone could construe what I wrote to imply any such thing. Nonetheless, I responded: "The saints show us how to be obedient to the Church and the joy that results from obedience. They show us that when done in love, obedience, far from being an imposition, is liberating." Obedience to Christ, which is obedience to His Church, is the path of liberation.

In the person of Jesus Christ, to quote Michael Card's song "The Final Word," "eternity stepped into time so we could understand." But as those called by Jesus we must also seek to give the Word, who dwells in us and among us by the power of the Holy Spirit, flesh. When the Lord gives Himself to us wholly in the Blessed Sacrament, He asks that we, in turn, give ourselves wholly to Him, in an exchange that is modeled on the mutual self-giving of the Most Holy Trinity. God is a communion of Persons and the Church is called to be a communion of persons.

Advent draws neigh. It begins at sundown this coming Saturday with First Vespers. It is a season we are in danger of forgetting amidst all the excitement that is whipped up about Christmas, which these days begins in earnest immediately following All Hallows. So, this post is perhaps best described as begin the begin, or preparing for the season of preparation; preparing for the Word to take flesh in you and me.

In 2010 my then-bishop, John Wester, who now serves as Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, promulgated the only pastoral letter he wrote while serving the Diocese of Salt Lake City. The subject of this letter, "Waiting in Joyful Hope," was Advent. Bishops issue pastoral letters to address pastoral concerns. Clearly, virtually skipping Advent in our rush towards Christmas is a genuine pastoral concern.

In his 2010 pastoral letter, now-Archbishop Wester provided some questions that are perennially relevant for us to reflect upon each and every Advent, that is, at the beginning of each new year of grace:
Is our hope really in Christ? Have we really allowed ourselves to wait in silence and ponder the great mystery of salvation? Have we been changed by our reflection on this mystery so that we live differently as our relationship with Christ deepens? In the darkness, we watch for the coming Lord. We must not let our busyness distract us from that, lest we be caught unawares like the foolish virgins in the Matthew's Gospel. The season calls us to be attentive to our preparations for the final day and attentive to the quality of our life in union with Christ
I am hard-pressed to remember a year darker than the one now ending. Here is our hope: "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

"Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice"

Readings: Dan 7:13-14; Ps 93:1-2.5; Rev 1:5-8; John 18:33b-37

To many non-Christians and perhaps even to a growing number of Christians, especially Christians in the United States, the passage from St John's Gospel proclaimed to the assembly this Sunday might seem utterly odd and out-of-tune with today's solemnity.

When pressed by the Roman prefect to divulge whether He thought Himself a king, Jesus told him the Truth: "My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here" (John 18:36). When our blessed Lord was finished replying to the proud prefect's demanding question, Pilate retorted, "What is truth?" What I find interesting in this passage is the last sentence: "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Keep in mind that by that point in our Lord's Passion all His followers had bailed on Him, most of them beating feet as fast as they could for fear of being apprehended, tried, and violently executed.

Might one surmise that if Jesus' kingdom was of this world, His followers would've sought to establish it by means of violence, defending our Lord with the sword with His approval? I think this a fair observation, especially when one considers that earlier in this same chapter when Simon Peter cut-off Malchus' ear, likely not with a sword, but with something more akin to a dagger, the Lord reprimanded him, saying- "Put your sword into its scabbard. Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me" (John 18:10).

In our reading from the Apocalypse (i.e., Revelation- "apocalypse" means "unveiling") we hear these words about our Lord's return in glory and triumph: "Behold, he is coming amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him. All the peoples of the earth will lament him. Yes. Amen" (Rev 1:7). I think it is not too much to say in light of this passage that we are undone, so to speak, by our own violence.

In light of the violent attacks conducted by groups who adhere to a perverted version of Islam, even as I am mindful of the profound differences between Islam and Christianity, especially when it comes to mercy and forgiveness, I think the message of today's solemnity as set forth by the Church in our Scripture readings is particularly relevant. Let us call to mind our recently martyred brothers and sisters, who were butchered by violent men who are clearly in the grips of the true enemy of humanity. We can be certain that these witnesses, even now, are subjects in the eternal kingdom of the One whose kingdom is not of this fallen, violent world. "Your saints, O Lord, will tell of the glory of your kingdom," so goes the responsory for Morning Prayer for today's solemnity.

St Paul noted, "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). Our Lord Himself said, "do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna" (Matt 10:28). Perhaps this is why our Lord reprimanded Peter for his violent strike against Malchus, the high priest's slave, who was one of those who came to lay violent hands on the King of kings, the One who came end violence.

Eucharist as immanentized eschaton

I suppose this post can be considered as a bookend to my post on the Eucharist from a few Saturdays ago.

Last night I was reflecting on Eucharistic miracles. The kind of thing I am referring to are those phenomena like bleeding consecrated hosts, or host taking on the properties of human flesh, or the consecrated wine becoming human blood. I don't invoke these miracles either to lampoon or promote them. I will note that no Catholic is obligated to believe even those miracles that have been "approved" by the Church.

If I'm not mistaken, the "approval" of Eucharistic miracles is more negative than positive, meaning that the observed phenomenon cannot be adequately or exclusively explained in terms of the natural. I never tire of pointing out that the most compelling proof that the consecrated bread and wine become Jesus Christ are lives of those of us who eat and drink it. Let's face it, for many people this constitutes the only meaningful proof for the truthfulness of this belief of faith.

Christ in Majesty, National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC

Our belief that bread and wine, once consecrated, become Jesus Christ body, blood, soul, and divinity is a belief of faith, not of reason. This assertion does not mean that it can't be reasonably explained and apprehended. I use "apprehended" because this mystery can never be fully comprehended, either in terms of what happens or how it occurs. Transubstantiation, which is a dogma, that is, something that Catholics must believe with divine and Catholic faith, is a way of reasonably explaining how the consecrated elements are substantially, that is, metaphysically, transformed while remaining physically unchanged. Orthodox Catholic belief concerning the Eucharist has always steered clear of any and all attempts to reduce Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharistic species to a cheap magic trick.

As we approach tomorrow's solemnity, the Church's annual looking forward to the end of time, I think it's important to note that in a very real sense each and every celebration of the Eucharist is an immanentized eschaton. Given all that is happening in the world at present, it is easy to conceive that we live in the end times. It's important to keep in mind that from a Christian perspective, we've been living in the end times since our Lord's Ascension. In other words, the Lord's return isn't any more imminent now than it ever is- His return is always imminent.

My personal understanding of the Eucharist does not preclude or exclude miraculous occurrences, but neither does it rely on such extraordinary manifestations. The Eucharist is always a miracle.

I think our grasp of the Eucharist must remain firmly rooted in the Incarnation, in the second Person of the Trinity, "who humbled himself to share in our humanity." As Kenneth Tanner recently noted: "Jesus is how God is human and we do not become human until we are human as God is human." This nicely states what Archbishop Francisco Javier Martínez Fernández Martinez of Granada, Spain noted in his talk "Beyond Secular Reason"- "The Eucharist is the only place of resistance to the annihilation of the human subject."

Friday, November 20, 2015

"Exaudi, Christe. Ecclesiae Sanctae Dei salus perpetua"

This Sunday Roman Catholics throughout the world will observe the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe. It is the final Sunday of this liturgical year, which extends over the following week and ends at sunset on Saturday, 28 November, when the season of Advent begins. This celebration marks the end of time. It calls for a big liturgy. It will be the first time since being re-assigned earlier this year that I will sorely miss serving at The Cathedral of the Madeleine.

"Behold, he is coming amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him. All the peoples of the earth will lament him. Yes. Amen" (Rev 1:7- from our second reading for this Sunday).

In thinking about what our Friday traditio might be, in addition to "We Shall See the King," I considered three possibilities: the great Dies Irae (Verdi's composition), REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It," and the great hymn, Christus vincit.

My selection is Christus vincit:

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Are you ready should the Savior come today?"

I have a Friday traditio on tap for tomorrow. But given that we're headed towards the great Solemnity Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, which is the Church's annual looking forward to the end of time, my thoughts grow a little apocalyptic. I think apocalyptically in what I hope is the best possible sense- awaiting the unveiling- Maranatha!- I have something a bit earlier.

I think the worldwide epidemic of evil we seem to be experiencing at present is proof that the king of this world is making hay while the sun shines, having a "hay"-day, so to speak. But Christ, the true and only King, will come again to usher in His glorious reign and claim His Bride.

Religious crazy talk? Clearly I don't think it is.

Rather than the nihilistic anthem "Imagine" (it would be difficult for me to conceive of a more truly depressing song), I'd love to have heard this play on a Parisian street corner early last Saturday morning. Brothers Glenn and Darrell, take it away!

It's impossible for me to ponder Christ's return without my thoughts turning to Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus says: "Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me." This seems more than a little relevant right now.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Year B Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

In the wake of last night’s horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris it is natural that many of us are in what might be called an apocalyptic state-of-mind. If this is the case, then our readings today no doubt resonate within us more than usual. In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus talking to His disciples about His future return in glory, which advent will follow the events He predicted up until this point in the thirteenth chapter of St Mark’s Gospel, from which chapter our reading is taken.

In the passage immediately preceding today’s Gospel, Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. We know that the Romans levelled the temple in AD 70, roughly 40 years after our Lord predicted this “desolating abomination” (Mark 13:14). Jesus also told His followers that there would be many false messiahs. Indeed, in the decades immediately after Jesus’ ascension, there were false messiahs who gained a following among the Jewish people. One of the most prominent of these false messiahs was Simon Bar-Kokhba.

Bar-Kokhba led a three-year Jewish revolt against the Romans beginning in AD 132. The revolt was successful for a time, but it was ultimately crushed by the Roman army. It was probably with the rise of Bar-Kokhba, whose followers explicitly revered him as the messiah - the savior the Jewish nation - that there was a definitive split between in the holy land between the Christian Church and the Jewish synagogue.

But neither the destruction of the temple nor the rise of false messiahs, not even the persecution of the Church in its earliest centuries, when, in fulfillment of what Jesus taught earlier in this chapter – “They will hand you over to the courts. You will be beaten in synagogues. You will be arraigned before governors and kings because of me, as a witness before them” (Mark 13:9) - resulted in Christ’s glorious return. Indeed, our Lord taught “of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). Besides, our Lord told His disciples that before His return, “the gospel must first be preached to all nations” (Mark 13:10).

The word “apocalypse” means an unveiling or the unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling. It was likely incomprehensible to most of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries that God would again allow their magnificent temple to be destroyed. I say “again” because their first temple, Solomon’s Temple, was destroyed by king Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon just about 450 years earlier, in BC 587.

Next week we will observe the Solemnity Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, the last Sunday of this liturgical year and the Church’s annual looking forward to the end of time.

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews tells why the destruction of the temple in AD 70 did not lead to the end of the world, but marked the beginning of the reign of God:
Every priest stands daily at his ministry, offering frequently those same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But this one offered one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat forever at the right hand of God; now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool. For by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated (Heb 10:11-14)
Of course the “this one” to whom the sacred author refers is none other than Jesus Christ, who, after His death and resurrection, ascended to the right hand of the Father from whence, as we confess in the Apostles Creed, “He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Who are those “being consecrated”? Those being consecrated, that is, set apart for a sacred purpose, are you, me, and all who come to faith and are baptized. We are set apart to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who died and rose for all.

Last Judgment, Stefan Lochner, ca 1435

It is from our first reading, taken from the Book of the Prophet Daniel in the Old Testament, that we hear about Christ’s conquest of death: “At that time your people shall escape, everyone who is found written in the book” (Dan 12:1). I do not think it too much of a stretch to find a parallel between “the book” written about here in an ambiguous way and the “book of life” about which we read in the Book of Revelation (20:15). After all, both Daniel and Revelation belong to the Bible’s apocalyptic writings.

Looking again at our first reading, which comes from the twelfth chapter of Daniel, we hear: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; Some to everlasting life, others to reproach and everlasting disgrace” (Dan 12:2). We find Jesus echoing these words in the fifth chapter of St John’s Gospel:
Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation (John 5:28-29)
St Mark tells us that Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel today was delivered to His disciples “While he was sitting on the Mount of Olives across from the temple complex” (Mark 13:3). Our Lord brings His listeners back to the present moment after His rather frightening teaching with a simple parable about the fig tree. Perhaps He held a branch from a fig tree as He taught this simple parable. I think perhaps the message of this parable is best summed up by these words of Jesus, spoken in the Gospel According to St John: “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).

Responding today to last night’s violence in Paris, Fr Julián Carrón wrote:
The evidence has been placed in front of our eyes: each of our lives is hanging by a thread, and we could be killed in any moment in any place, in a restaurant, at the stadium or during a concert. The possibility of a cruel and violent death has now also become a reality in our cities. The events in Paris, therefore, put us in front of a decisive question: what makes life worth living? It’s a provocation that none of us can avoid. The search for an adequate response to the question of meaning in our lives is the only antidote to the fear that overshadows us as we watch the images of the past [day] on TV. This is the foundation that no terror can destroy
Is the answer eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die an adequate response to the question of meaning in our lives? I think that is a nihilistic response to this provocation.

Fr Carrón went on to say, “By keeping our eyes on [Christ], we will be able to look even death in the face . . . we will be able to offer our children a meaningful hypothesis for facing such massacres and for returning to work Monday morning, for continuing to build a world that achieves the stature of our humanity, with the certainty of the hope that is in us.”

Friday, November 13, 2015

"We're talkin' riddle of the soul"

One of the best presents I received for my 50th birthday was something I discovered on my own last Sunday evening: KCQN: The Next Wave of New Wave internet radio.

KCQN is the best of KCGL, Utah's first New Wave station, and it's follow-on KJQN, known simply as KJQ. Hey, it's Bessie approved! Our Friday traditio, therefore, is Mirrors' "Broken By Silence.'

The track is the title of the EP on which it is featured. Rather than going back 25-30 years, Mirrors are a contemporary group. This EP was initially released on 11 November 2010.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

On turning 50

I like that Veteran's Day is on Armistice Day and that Armistice Day is on the feast of St Martin of Tours and that all 3 happen on my birthday. Today I turn 50. While I don't feel old, I certainly recognize that I am not a young man.

Growing up I had a fuzzy belief that some indescribable something happened when you reached certain ages, especially at 18 and 21. I am not sure exactly what I thought would occur when I reached those milestones along the road of life. Then I turned 18, then 21, and nothing happened. While I may have thought about turning 30 in those days, I am quite certain I never ruminated on turning 50.

In the words of the Social Distortion song "Ball & Chain"- "But wherever I have gone/I was sure to find myself there/You can run all your life/But not go anywhere." Such thoughts also remind me of a funny anecdote that happened on Easter when I was young, when all of the children in our family received new clothes. One of my younger sisters, after putting on all her new clothes, came out and said something like, "I have on new socks, new shoes, new underwear, and a new dress." My other younger sister replied, "Same old face." My point? No matter how old I grow I am still me. Unlike when I was younger and disappointed in the reality of still being myself each year, these days I take great comfort in still being me. In fact, it makes me grateful. Who else would I be, or even want to be?

St Martin of Tours and the beggar

I don't mind sharing that most of this year I have been preparing for turning 50, readying myself for a new decade of life, looking forward with eagerness to what lies before me in the years and decades ahead. I am fully aware that there is a sense in which how we measure time is abstract and can even be seen as perhaps a bit arbitrary.

By the grace of God, over the past year I've been able to change some habits that harmed me and contributed to certain patterns of unhealthy behavior. Some of those patterns persist, but the changes in some of my habits make it much easier to engage in the agon, the struggle.

As an introvert, I find many aspects of life exhausting. It is good not to give in to exhaustion or be deterred from engaging life in ways I know will take a lot out of me. In the words of English poet Edward Thomas, which words are carved on memorial stone that lays on the hill he climbed when leaving his wife, home, and hearth to fight in the Great War, from whence he never returned: And, I rose up, and knew that I was tired, and continued my journey. Permit me one more relevant quote, this one from Fyodor Dostoevsky (who was also born on 11 November) taken from his novel Demons: "All my life I did not want it to be only words. This is why I lived, because I kept not wanting it. And now, too, every day I want it not to be words." Since I am on the subject of words, I think it bears noting that while I technically started this blog when I was 39, I began blogging in earnest almost a year later, when I was 40. It will be interesting to see where this endeavor continues to go.

I am grateful not only for a new year but a new decade of life. God is good. I pray that I may, by God's grace, continue to follow Jesus along the road of life, the only road that leads to life eternal, to the life that is truly life.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Giving and getting: A kingdom lesson

Readings: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Ps 146:7-10; Heb 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

The message of today's readings is pretty straightforward: trust God like the poor widow who put virtually all she had into the temple treasury, or like the widow of Zarephath learned to do during the prophet Elijah's sojourn with her and her son during a time of famine. On the negative side, the message seems to be do not be like the scribes who act very pious, but who secretly act unjustly and who will receive, to quote our Lord directly, "a very severe condemnation" (Mark 12:40). Our psalm for this Sunday contains both of these messages.

One might ask, How does our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews fit in with the positive and negative messages outlined above? I think one likely answer is that Christ gave Himself to the Father on our behalf holding nothing back. Perhaps a more recognizable way of stating this for Catholics is, He gave Himself body, blood, soul (i.e., He gave His humanity), and divinity as an offering to God on our behalf, receiving in return nothing that was not already His from all eternity. What He receives in return is us, yes, us, as hard as that is to believe. Conversely, we receive Him. God is not a means to any end. God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- is the very end for which we were made, redeemed, a for which we are being sanctified.

The widow in today's Gospel is the living embodiment of two parables given by Jesus in St Matthew's Gospel: "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field" (13:44); "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it" (13:44-46).

The Widow's Mite, anonymous from the School of Rembrandt, ca 1650-1655 (Courtesy of the British Museum)

In short, where your treasure is there your heart will be. A living embodiment of this teaching is the rich young man who read about Jesus encountering several weeks ago. He went away sad because he was unwilling to part with his possessions and content himself with receiving Jesus. In his judgment it seemed like a poor exchange. Make no mistake, our attachment or detachment from wealth and possessions, especially if our attachment keeps us from helping those in need, are criteria against which we will judged.

In his insightful commentary on St Mark's Gospel, Michael Card shared a story from a rabbinic commentary on a passage from Leviticus that is relevant to Jesus' teaching in today's Gospel:
A priest rejected the offering of a handful of grain from a poor widow. That night in the dream he was commanded: "Do not despise her. It is as if she had offered her life" (155)
Keep in mind, it may well be that the priest was well-intentioned, refusing to take what he felt the poor widow could not afford to give. This is also in parallel with the episode concerning Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. I think it's a pretty safe assumption that there were families to whom the prophet could've gone in the time of famine who would've been able to provide for him with little or no threat to their own well-being. Nonetheless, Elijah went to a poor widow who was not sure she would be able to feed herself and her son beyond the day Elijah appeared at her door. In God's kingdom things are almost never as we think they ought be, which only shows us how far we are removed from that kingdom in which we hope to dwell forever.

Like the widow of Zarephath, the Lord does not promise us earthly wealth and plenty, only our daily bread, for which He taught us to pray. If one truly listens to the teaching of Jesus, earthly riches can never be mistaken as a token of having found favor in God's eyes. For many people, by no means all, riches are a curse, not a blessing, an obstacle, not a boon. We know we have come to believe that everything comes from God and belongs to God when we give from our poverty and not from our wealth, when we stop rendering to God only that we deem extraneous, only what we regard as surplus.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

"Take it; this is my body"

Today I ran across a very insightful piece by Church historian Kelly Pigott on Patheos' Faith Forward blog. The post is entitled "Where the Reformation Got it Wrong about the Eucharist."

In his post Pigott observes- "But as odd as it may sound, perhaps it’s easier for us to talk about what happens to the bread and wine than it is to do the real work that communion demands, which is to follow Jesus by becoming living sacrifices." I agree with this statement. I also agree with many other points made in the post. It is because I agree with these points that I think it's important for us to reflect on and seek to understand this great mystery of our faith.

Even though he ends it by citing Henri Nouwen, Piggot's post is not a Catholic apologia, far from it. He is a self-identified Progressive Christian. While he may not go as far as asserting "what happens to the bread and wine" doesn't matter in the least, he doesn't think it matters that much. Along with many other Catholics and quite a few non-Catholics, I would point out that there is an indispensable aspect of receiving holy communion that empowers us to make of ourselves living sacrifices as Scripture enjoins us to do (Rom 12:1). In other words, the je ne sais quoi that makes the Eucharist what it is, what Pigott calls it later in his post, "spiritual food." Hence, grasping, at least to some extent, "what happens to the bread and wine" cannot be beside the point, even if at times in the Church's history it has led to division and perhaps even to violence. The absurdity of the Eucharist being a source of division and violence should not be lost on any Christian.

When I consider how dispensable the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, has become for many Christians today, I don't think, either from a Protestant or a Catholic perspective, anymore de-emphasis of the central act of Christian worship is necessary. In other words, it doesn't seem to me that contemporary Western Christianity is being suffocated under the weight of too heavy a theology of the Eucharist.

One of the best aspects of Diarmaid MacCulloch's magisterial biography of Thomas Cranmer was his all-too-brief expositions of Cranmer's thinking about the nature of the Eucharist. MacCulloch does not really do the matter theological justice, which is not the purpose of a biography nor the task of an historian. I look forward to reading some of Dr Ashley Null's work on Cranmer's private theological notebooks, as well as some of his published work on Cranmer.

While it may be a stretch for many Catholics, Trent's definition of transubstantiation was something new in the sixteenth century and was promulgated only after the various splits we call the Reformation had occurred. While this is a relatively straightforward fact, it is one that is all too easily forgotten by would-be Catholic apologists. Transubstantiation seeks to go beyond the mere "what" of the Eucharist by attempting to explain, at least to some degree, the "how." Defined dogmas are explanations of mysteries. However, a mystery is never exhausted by its dogmatic definition.

The best way I have found to explain this in my own preaching and teaching is- At the end of the day, the only empirical evidence that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ are the lives of those of us who partake of it. Hence, I appreciate Pigott fleshing this out more fully (pun fully intended):
Many modern Christians have been led to believe that worship will satiate us, like the gorged feeling one gets after eating a super-sized combo meal. The truth is, true spiritual food . . . burns us, like the hot coals on Isaiah’s lips. It breaks us, like when Jacob wrestled with God and his hip was dislocated. It frightens us, as when Moses hid his face when he heard the voice speak from the burning bush. It reveals our neediness more than anything else, as Job discovered when he proclaimed, “By the hearing of the ear I heard Thee, and now mine eye hath seen Thee. Therefore do I loathe [it], And I have repented on dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6, Young’s Literal Translation)

Friday, November 6, 2015

"When I consider thy heavens"

It's already the sixth day of November and this is my first post of the month. But after a busier than anticipated October, I am okay with a late start for the month of my birth.

As I noted on Facebook yesterday, shortly after 9/11 I ran across a Facebook "meme" with a slightly fuzzy, ethereal image of the Twin Towers that featured a paraphrase of lyrics from one of the worst songs ever, John Lennon's "Imagine," in the forefront. Quite clearly this song is the anthem of utopia, which literally means "nowhere," that is, an anthem of human life utterly de-humanized and emptied of anything and everything that makes life worth living: "Imagine no religion."

I was very tempted to create a "counter-meme" with stacked dead bodies from the killing fields of Cambodia, or some other equally horrific result of mass atheism, which has proved infinitely deadlier than "religion" has been over millenia in just a little more than a century, using the same words.

At the deepest level, what constitutes us as human beings is what Luigi Giussani named as our "religious sense." It is what impels us to attempt to embrace or eradicate our innate orientation not just towards transcendence, but our reaching towards the infinite; the choice between life or death.

I was hard-pressed today to think of a Friday traditio. Despite the fact that is a day of penance, I settled on a beautiful Anglican choral setting of Psalm 8, which is unmistakably a psalm of praise.

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels,
and hast crowned him with glory and honour (verses 3-5)

I don't mind admitting that I am spiritual because I am religious, which, rather than being an arrogant boast of self-sufficiency, is a humble admission of my need, if not always my burning desire for, communion. In my view, the virulent strand of atheism so popular today plays into the meaninglessness created and sustained by what Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han has called "the achievement society," the most prominent feature of which is sickening positivization, which flows from the impulse to create one's own meaning. Such a society, however, is poor culture. It is de-humanizing because among other things such a society "is very poor in interruption; 'betweens' and 'between-times' are lacking. Acceleration is abolishing all intervals" (The Burnout Society 22). Han goes on to cite Nietzsche from Human All Too Human: "Active men are generally wanting in higher activity . . . in this regard they are lazy . . . The active roll as the stone rolls, in obedience to the stupidity of the law of mechanics" (22). In other words, rather than creating meaning, uninterrupted activity in an achievement society is usually a way of avoiding the questions that constitute human being.

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 ...