Thursday, March 31, 2016

Certain matters of sex and the believing deacon

Over the past few weeks I have been having what I think is a very fruitful dialogue with an old friend, a Christian brother who I love very much. We have been discussing Church teaching on the matter of homosexuality. While I believe and seek to personally adhere to what the Church teaches on matters of sexuality, I don't presume for one moment to have it all figured out.

The immediate cause of our exchange was a homily he heard at Mass in which the preacher, in an apparently very forceful manner, was heard not only to condemn homosexuality, but homosexuals. For a variety of reasons, not least among which his son, a baptized Catholic, identifies as homosexual, this gave my friend pause. I have no intention of re-hashing our whole correspondence, but our discussion took an interesting turn as the result of my post earlier this week on Camus. Reading that prompted him to read Camus' "The Unbeliever and Christians." He was struck by Camus' insistence in this talk, given to a group of Dominican friars, that "the world of today needs Christians who remain Christians." I think this admission goes some distance to support the point that Camus knew there was more to Christian faith than he was often willing to admit, for whatever reasons.

In his lengthy newspaper correspondence with the recently deceased Umberto Eco, the late Cardinal Martini (their correspondence was published in book form, entitled in English Belief or Non-Belief: A Confrontation), specifically writing about why the Church does not ordain women, said- "The Church does not fulfill expectations, it celebrates mysteries."

When it comes to sexuality, it seems to me the mystery involved is well-summarized in verses 31-32 of the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians, concerning the meaning of marriage. It begins by citing what I usually call the Bible's ur verse on marriage, Genesis 2:24: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." The next verse notes, "This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church" (Eph 5:32).

In the wake of finishing the second book of C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy, Perelandra, last fall, I took a stab at addressing this matter: "Metaphysical dialectics vs Sophiology." After finishing Perelandra, I went on to read Lewis' memoir Surprised by Joy. I was very much struck by what he wrote at the very beginning of the book's seventh chapter about the schoolboy homosexuality at the boarding school, Wyvern, he attended in his teens:
Here’s a fellow, you say, who used to come before us as a moral and religious writer, and now, if you please, he’s written a whole chapter describing his old school as a very furnace of impure loves without one word on the heinousness of the sin [homosexuality]. But there are two reasons. One you shall hear before this chapter ends. The other is that, as I have said, the sin in question is one of the two (gambling is the other) which I have never been tempted to commit. I will not indulge in futile philippics against enemies I never met in battle.

("This means, then, that all the other vices you have so largely written about…" Well, yes, it does, and more’s the pity; but it’s nothing to our purpose at the moment.)"
I found much for personal application in this passage. In the same chapter, Lewis went to observe: "There is much hypocrisy on this theme [of homosexual relations]. People commonly talk as if every other evil were more tolerable than this. But why? Because those of us who do not share the vice feel for it a certain nausea, as we do, say, for necrophily? I think that of very little relevance to moral judgment."

At least for me, it's not necessary either to figure everything out all at once or figure anything out once and for all. By "figure out" I am referring to the why of things, not the what, which is pretty straightforward and easy to grasp. I've found it's good for me to re-visit matters and be open to the Lord's leading. Being open does not include expecting God to contradict himself, especially given how central marriage is to the divine plan; the Bible, after all, practically begins with a marriage and certainly ends with the wedding feast of the Lamb.

I suppose the question that I find relevant is a variation on Msgr. Giussani's all-encompassing "Is it possible to live this way?" - "How do I live the truth in love?" I've found a compelling and provocative answer in Micah 6:8, which tells me what the LORD requires of me: "Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God." Especially as a deacon, it's not my place to judge others, but it is my God-given duty to lovingly serve them in persona Christi servi. The only person I am in a position to judge is myself and I do so each and every time I go to confession. This reminds me how much I persistently have to be humble about.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Rejecting faith as a resource

I am not up to much mental heavy-lifting today, but I can't help but post something as the result of reading an article this morning in the on-line version of the Los Angeles Review of Books (LRB). The article, by Robert Zaretsky, is entitled "The Limits of Absurdity." Zaretsky reminded me that it was 70 years ago this month that my dear Camus made his one and only visit to the United States. While here he delivered an address that served as something of an outline to what I consider his magnum opus, L'Homme révolté, the English title of which is The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. Reading The Rebel as a twenty-something new convert was transformative for me. The other work of Camus that made a deep impression on me are some fragments of a talk he gave in 1948 to some Dominican friars at the Monastery of Latour-Maubourg. What was written down appears in an English language collection of Camus' essays - Resistance, Rebellion and Death - under the title "The Unbeliever and Christians."

In his New York lecture, "La crise de l’homme" (trans. "The Crisis of Man"), Camus proposed metaphysical, as opposed to political, revolt as the answer to the absurd predicament in which humanity found itself in the wake of the desolation wrought by the modern world (i.e., World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, especially under the shadow of the mass murder of European Jews). In light of these bloody catastrophes and others, Camus felt everything and virtually everyone was discredited, which is why he insisted that only through such a rebellion could a person gain authenticity by living in solidarity with poor and oppressed of the world.

In his LRB piece, Zaretsky, Camus' biographer, noted:
In a world shorn of sense, [Camus] stated, too many people had concluded that whoever succeeded was right, and whatever was right was measured by success. For those who resisted this conclusion, for those unwilling to live in a world of victims and torturers, neither faith nor philosophy offered a resource. Instead, the only source of justification 'was in the very act of rebellion.' What we fought for, Camus concluded, 'was something common not just to us, but to all human beings. Namely, that man still had meaning'
Admittedly, the Church in 1945 was badly in need of reform. Many of the needed reforms would flow from the Second Vatican Council. Even Pope Pius XII, considered by too many as nothing more than a reactionary arch-conservative, grasped this and did a lot to initiate reforms between the end of the Second World War and his death in 1958.

I think perhaps Camus was too generic about what Zaretsky dismisses as "faith." Properly grasped, faith is not a "resource" upon which one relies, a mere coping mechanism. It especially bears noting on this Easter Monday that faith is faith in a person, Jesus Christ risen from the dead and already reigning at the Father's right hand, transforming the world from within by the power of the Holy Spirit. This transformation is the rebellion and revolution Jesus came to bring. Jesus' revolt is very much in line with what Camus suggests in The Rebel. In his LRB article, Zaretsky provides some evidence for this assertion by pointing out something that happened at the New York lecture:
At the end of his address, Camus invited the audience to join this rising tide of rebellion. “As for the American youths listening to us,” he announced, this generation of European rebels “respect the humanity that animates you and the freedom and happiness reflected in your faces. They expect from you what they expect from all people of good will: a loyal contribution to the dialogue they wish to establish in this world.” No sooner had he finished speaking than a Columbia official revealed that a burglar had broken into the ticket office and stole the evening’s earnings, all of which had been earmarked for orphanages in France. From the audience a voice suggested that everyone pay again on their way out; by the time the last person left the hall, there was more money in the register than the first time around
Camus once told his friend Paul Raffi- "Catholic thought always seems bittersweet to me. It seduces me then offends me. Undoubtedly, I lack what is essential." Perhaps it was because he viewed faith too generically, as a resource that allows a person to avoid the reality of a screwed up, broken down, world. It may well be the case that Camus' grasp of faith can be attributed to the Church's reductive and narrow proclamation of the Gospel at the time. It was right about this same time that this narrow, simplistic, and reductive proclamation was starting to be challenged by theologians like Henri De Lubac, Yves Congar, and Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Von Batthasar once described what is often termed neo-scholasticism as a pastry with a lot of dry crust.

My own experience has taught me that I do not "have" faith to provide me with simplistic answers to life's most vexing questions. I think it's faith that allows me to shout "Why?" in the assurance I'm not shouting the most human of questions into a void. I receive this assurance by seeing that between where I stand and the void stands the Cross of Christ.

Far from negating or obliterating the absurdity of the human condition, Christ's passion and death only serve to highlight our plight without in any way reducing it by making sense of it all. In other words, faith in Christ does not spare the believer from reality. Rather, faith in Christ forces the person possessed of it into a fatal collision with reality. It seems to me that The Rebel and "The Unbeliever and Christians" are necessary reading for anyone who is serious about anything remotely approximating what is termed "New Evangelization," much of which takes the form of religious propaganda. This is why, with Pope Francis, I still believe Bl. Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi still serves as our blueprint for evangelization. Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation, which, like Paul VI's, came at the end of an Ordinary Synod of Bishops dedicated to evangelization, Evangelii gaudium, strikes me as a twenty-first century update.

In Evangelii gaudium Pope Francis wrote this about Christ's resurrection:
Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force. Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit (par. 276
Conversely, Camus, while being largely pessimistic, was insistent that it's important not to give in to despair. But he was unable to offer hope. As conceived by Camus, metaphysical rebellion did not end in victory, except the victory of living authentically, but was otherwise largely futile. I think he was correct when he asserted in The Myth of Sisyphus that only question that really matters is whether or not life is worth living. Beside this question, he insisted, "Everything else is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question." Indeed, we must.

I don't think the turn to faith can be merely pragmatic because such an approach sets aside the question of truth, which is an evasion of reality, even if "the truth" is always bigger than our ability to grasp it. Granted, in the first instance, turning to Christ might be a pragmatic move borne of desperation, but it must deepen. If it does not deepened, then faith rooted in pragmatism is like the seed in Jesus' parable that falls on rocky ground, where the soil is not deep. The seed that falls on rocky ground withers when the sun of life beats down on; it dies "for lack of roots" (Matt 13:5).

Urbi et Orbi - Easter 2016


Easter 2016

“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his mercy endures for ever”
(Ps 135:1)

Dear Brothers and Sisters, Happy Easter!

Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God’s mercy, out of love for us, died on the cross, and out of love he rose again from the dead. That is why we proclaim today: Jesus is Lord!

His resurrection fulfills the prophecy of the Psalm: God’s mercy endures for ever; it never dies. We can trust him completely, and we thank him because for our sake he descended into the depths of the abyss.

Before the spiritual and moral abysses of mankind, before the chasms that open up in hearts and provoke hatred and death, only an infinite mercy can bring us salvation. Only God can fill those chasms with his love, prevent us from falling into them and help us to continue our journey together towards the land of freedom and life.

The glorious Easter message, that Jesus, who was crucified is not here but risen (cf. Mt 28:5-6), offers us the comforting assurance that the abyss of death has been bridged and, with it, all mourning, lamentation and pain (cf. Rev 21:4). The Lord, who suffered abandonment by his disciples, the burden of an unjust condemnation and shame of an ignominious death, now makes us sharers of his immortal life and enables us to see with his eyes of love and compassion those who hunger and thirst, strangers and prisoners, the marginalized and the outcast, the victims of oppression and violence. Our world is full of persons suffering in body and spirit, even as the daily news is full of stories of brutal crimes which often take place within homes, and large-scale armed conflicts which cause indescribable suffering to entire peoples.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Religion vs. relationship

Most of the time when Protestants, usually of the Evangelical variety, talk about rejecting religion in favor of a personal relationship with Christ, Roman Catholics have no idea what they are talking about. In the first instance, the confusion stems from the fact that "religion" is a complex term, it is equivocal instead of univocal. A univocal word is a word that possesses only one, fixed meaning. By contrast, an equivocal word has a variety of meanings. Without a doubt the word "religion" is equivocal.

It's important to act in good faith by granting the person seeking to draw a contrast between religion and relationship the benefit of the doubt. One does so by understanding that, at root, a person who speaks of rejecting religion in favor of a personal relationship with Christ is talking about rejecting empty ritualism and having things imposed on them from without. In other words, they emphasize experience, which is always personal, and inner conversion. Insofar as that is what such a person means, I agree with them, but not only does that not make me a Protestant - though I make no bones about identifying as an Evangelical in the healthiest and fullest sense of that term- it makes me very Catholic. It makes me Catholic because it enables me embrace the both/and. In my experience, it is often the case that the healthy impulse often becomes exaggerated and leads to a false dilemma- either religion or relationship, which dilemma leads to privatizing Christian faith.

What makes the exaggerated pitting of religion against relationship a false dilemma is that it not only leads to a faulty and deficient ecclesiology, but to a non-existent ecclesiology. This lack of an identifiable ecclesiology arises from a mono-Christic theology, which replaces a full-blown Trinitarian theology. After all, God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit, is a communion of divine persons. The Church, at least in its essential and ultimate form is the communio sanctorum (i.e., the communion of holy people and things). The false dilemma between religion and relationship turns God and we into Jesus and me.

Resurrection, by Pietro Perugino, 1496, part of the artist's Polyptych of St. Peter

Recently I've been reading and re-reading Luigi Giussani's At the Origin of the Christian Claim. Today, backing up once again to the beginning of the book, I re-read a blurb that appears on the very first page of the English-language paperback edition. No author is identified for this abstract of the work. It was reading this that prompted me to write what I wrote above. It states that in his book,
Giussani argues that if we accept the hypothesis that the mystery entered the realm of human experience and spoke in human terms, the relationship between the individual and God is no longer based on a moral, imaginative, or aesthetic human effort but instead on coming upon an event in one's life. Thus the religious method is overturned by Christ: in Christianity it is no longer the person who seeks to know the mystery but the mystery that makes himself known by entering history (i)
I think this expresses what is at the root of making the distinction between religion and relationship before the exaggeration occurs. This brief summary also leads to a robust ecclesiology, especially when we consider the Christian event did not last for only 30+ years more than 2,000 years ago, but is on-going.

Whether people realize it or not, whether they like it or not, it is just what Giussani highlights here that Pope Francis is trying foster. Let's call it Christian maturity.

"He's risen, Alleluia! Alleluia!"

It would not be Easter for me without listening to Keith Green's "Easter Song." I think he captured the beauty and intensity of Christ's resurrection.

Christ is risen! Truly he is risen! Alleluia! Come let us rejoice.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Paschal Vigil

Christ is risen. Alleluia!

Tonight our celebration of the great mystery of faith reaches its culmination as we celebrate with great joy the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. Tonight we celebrate our creation in God’s image and likeness, our fall, and our redemption. You might ask, “Celebrate our fall, are you serious?" I am serious. To support this bold assertion, I appeal to these stunning words of the great Exsultet, sung at the beginning of this Vigil:
O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ/O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a redeemer
Think about it, it’s mind blowing: Our sin, our fault, our rejection of God did not earn us God’s wrath, but earned us Divine Mercy. How good is God? Only God can take our rejection of him, our attempt to displace him and establish ourselves on his throne, and turn us back to himself through love and not by punishing us.

The orders of nature and grace go together, the one, nature, being brought into existence by the other, grace. Created in the image and, at least initially, in the likeness, of God, human beings, made male and female, were created for communion with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation. Being created for communion means being made to participate in God’s divine life - the life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Stated simply, we are made for eternal life.

While the image of God is ineradicable and can never be lost, our likeness to God is lost through sin. Losing our likeness to God through sin while retaining the imago Dei, the image of God, is perhaps best described as a divorce between the orders of nature and grace. The best proof of this great divorce is death.

Death is the result of sin. Death was never meant to be. Death is a sign that something is deeply wrong with us and with the world. While death is a part of nature, and so, natural, it is only “natural” because the order of nature has been disconnected from the order of grace. Christ came to restore this vital connection. He did it by his passion, death, and resurrection, thus proving that love is not only as strong as death, but stronger than death.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, in light of Christ’s triumph, the apostle Paul taunted death:

Christ's Resurrection, Jacopo Tintoretto, 1679-81
Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (15:54b-55)
Just as God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bondage through the waters of the Red Sea, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God delivers us from sin and death through the waters of baptism. This is exactly what St. Paul is getting at in our reading from Romans. “Are you unaware,” the apostle asked his readers, “that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” In baptism we die, are buried, and rise to new life, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-5).

The new life we have in Christ does not begin at mortal death; it begins at baptism, our paschal death and resurrection. Eternal life begins with our re-birth, with our dying, being buried, and rising with Christ to new life in baptism. It’s not a dream deferred, let alone just a nice idea. Our baptismal vocation is to make God’s reign a present reality. It's not an easy call. It usually means swimming upstream against the cultural current. Living this way can even mean being killed, which is why it’s the only way to be truly alive. Our Lord told his followers, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more” (Luke 12:4). Speaking in ultimate terms, you can’t be killed because you already died and rose in baptism.

If Christ was not raised from the dead, then, taking a cue from Monty Python, baptism is a farcical aquatic ceremony signifying nothing at all. As St. Paul wrote to the church in ancient Corinth, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins,” before concluding, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Cor 15:17.19).

The good news is, my friends, Christo anesti. Alithos anestiChrist is risen! Truly he is risen! And so, we are not the most pitiable people of all. We are the most blessed people of all because, through Christ, we have conquered death. Jesus is not merely an historical figure from the remote past, who lived a long time ago in a land far away as part of a culture that is difficult for us to understand. To view Jesus, either exclusively or primarily, as an historical figure is to “seek the living one among the dead” (Luke 24:5), like the women who, upon discovering the empty tomb, were puzzled to find the Lord gone (Luke 24:4).

My friends, Jesus Christ is alive. He remains present in us and among us by the power of his Holy Spirit until he returns in glory. Our elect, who are about to be baptized, are living proof of this reality. But the surest proof that someone has encountered the risen Lord is that s/he feels impelled to become a witness, sometimes even to the point of death. After all, martyr is simply another word for witness. So, let us go forth from this place, filled with joy, bearing witness to Christ’s death and resurrection as we wait in joyful hope for his glorious return.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Triduum: Good Friday

"He mounted the Cross to free us from the fascination with nothingness, to free us from the fascination with appearances, with the ephemeral."- Servant of God Msgr. Luigi Giussani

Crucifixion, by Rembrandt, 1631

We worship your cross, O Lord, and we praise and glorify your holy resurrection, for the wood of the cross has brought joy to the world (Antiphon 3: Morning Prayer for Good Friday)

Johnny Cash with the Carter Sisters sing our Good Friday traditio, "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord."

Today marks a rare convergence, the Solemnity of the Annunciation (9 months to the day before Christmas) and Good Friday. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church this year transferred our observance of the Annunciation from 25 March to Monday, 4 April. Rather than de-conflict these days, a very modern and rational thing to do, I think it would be good to let them collide. I wonder

Rembrandt Sketch of the Annunciation, ca. 1635

This convergence also happened back in 1608, I don't know how many times between then and now. It prompted John Donne to write a poem - "Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608"

This Church, by letting these daies joyne, hath shown
Death and conception in mankinde is one

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Holy Thursday: Mass of the Lord's Supper

Readings: Ex 12:1-8.11-14; Ps 116:12.13.15-16c.17-18; 1 Cor 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

Tonight we enter what are for Christians our high holy days. With the beginning of Mass this evening Lent ended and we entered the shortest season of the liturgical year, the sacred Triduum. It’s important up front to point out that tonight at the end of Mass there will be no dismissal. Tomorrow, when we gather again to observe Good Friday by venerating the Cross, that cruel instrument of torture that our Lord Jesus Christ turned into the Tree of Life, there won’t be any opening rites- no greeting, no penitential rite, and certainly no Gloria- we will begin by praying the collect for Good Friday.

At the end of our Good Friday liturgy, again, there will be no dismissal. In fact, we won’t be dismissed until the end of the great Paschal Vigil, the Mother of all Masses, on Saturday evening. What does this mean? It means that from then until now we remain in liturgy, praying about, pondering and seeking to enter more deeply into the great Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus is the true Lamb of God whose blood saves us from sin and death. His passing over from life to death is the true Passover, as is indicated in St. John’s account of the Last Supper, which was a Passover meal the Lord shared with his disciples before his passion.

At the end of Mass this evening, like Jesus' first disciples, we will leave the table and accompany Jesus out. Unlike those disciples, however, we do so in the awareness of his resurrection, which makes it solemn but joyful.

In St. John’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is the institution narrative. In other words, St. John’s Gospel does not contain an account of our Lord taking bread and wine, breaking the bread, blessing the cup and then giving them to his disciples as his body and his blood. We find those accounts of the Last Supper in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke- those are the accounts to which St. Paul refers in our reading from 1 Corinthians, which was likely written some twenty years before any of the canonical Gospels.

Jesus told Peter, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” As with Peter, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus washes us in the bath of baptism, which is baptism into himself, the living water. Because we were bathed in baptism, we are, by the grace of God, “clean all over” but we need our feet washed from trudging our way through life. Undaunted, Jesus humbly washes our feet over and again. How does he wash our feet? By forgiving us in the sacrament of penance, which is an extension of baptism. He washes our feet by making himself small for us and vulnerable to us in the Eucharist. It is by humbling himself and becoming small for us that he shows us his greatness and his great love for us. How can you refuse so kind an offer?

For these sacraments we need priests. In addition to celebrating our Lord’s institution of the Eucharist, which is the sacramentum caritatis, the sacrament of love, tonight we also celebrate the institution of the priesthood. When celebrating the Eucharist and the sacrament of penance, a priest acts in persona Christi captis, in the person of Christ the head. By contrast, the assembly at Mass or the penitent in confession acts in persona Christi corporis, in the person of Christ the body. A body without a head, or a head without a body, is dead. In case you’re wondering, a deacon acts in persona Christi servi, in the person of Christ the servant, serving body and head.

It’s important for us to grasp what we’re doing over these next three days, vitally important. It can never be a matter of going through the motions, of empty ritualism. We need to be open so our hearts can not only be touched, but so our hearts can be changed by being broken and healed by God's love. God is love (1 John 4:8.16) because God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God delivered Israel from Egypt out of love, not just for Israel, but all humanity in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that through his seed all peoples of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:2-3). Christ washed the feet of his disciples and urged them to do the same for each other out of love; Christ gave the world priests to serve his holy people by providing for them the bread of life, the cup salvation, and forgiveness of sins.

Tonight, acting in persona Christi captis, Fr. René will wash the feet of people from the parish who represent all those he is called to serve, performing for them and the rest of the community the humblest act of service. The sacrament of orders is about selfless service, not power. By washing the feet of 12 members of St. Olaf Parish, like Christ, he exhorts us to go forth and serve others out of love for God and neighbor.

My dear friends, tonight is all about love, divine love, which, as the old hymn tells us, excels all love. Without divine love there would be no love. Let me summarize with a quote from the late Dominican theologian Fr. Herbert McCabe:
The gospels … insist upon two antithetical truths which express the tragedy of the human condition: the first is that if you do not love you will not be alive; the second is that if you do love you will be killed. If you cannot love you remain self-enclosed and sterile, unable to create a future for yourself or others, unable to live. If, however, you do effectively love you will be a threat to the structures of domination upon which our human society rests and you will be killed… (Herbert McCabe, OP, God Still Matters)
This is why in our Psalm this evening we heard the words, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” You see, the way to resurrection is through the Cross, not over it, around it, or underneath it, but through it. The Lord bids all who accept his kind offer - “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Jesus’ passion and death show the truth of Fr. McCabe’s pronouncement. This sacred Triduum is about self-sacrificing love to the point of death or it is about nothing.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Holy Week: a chance for some to major in the minors

One of things I dislike about Holy Week on social media is how eager some Catholics are to major in the minors when it comes to liturgy. Because a lot of this occurs on-line, it strikes me as fairly passive-aggressive. The palms distributed on Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday's Mandatum Rite are always a particular focus for those spoiling for a liturgical fight. As with most negativity, these complaints, once they start, almost always spill over into the predictable complaints: holding hands during the Our Father, communion in the hand, exchanging hugs, handshakes, and gestures of peace during the sign of peace (Gasp! Imagine wanting to say to the person sitting in front of you two people to the left, "Peace be with you." Oh, the horror! What is the church coming to?), the assembly making certain gestures, and on and on.

I actually like seeing the many beautiful things into which people weave their palm branches. It's amazing to me because I am so utterly unskilled at those kinds of things. As for the Mandatum Rite, I posted something rather lengthy after the formal change was made earlier this year, at the request of Pope Francis, by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments permitting women to have their feet washed during the rite (see "On the overdue rubrical change to the Mandatum Rite"). This change permits, but does not mandate, the priest-celebrant to wash the feet of women. In fact, a priest is not required to celebrate the rite at all. In all honesty, based on a then-NCCB (the national conference of Catholic bishops is now known as the USCCB) document from the late 1980s, in many places in the U.S., perhaps even most, the feet of women have long since been washed on Holy Thursday.

Here's some news, good news some might say - You're not obligated to hold anyone's hand, or to receive communion in the hand, or make the reciprocating gesture when responding to "The Lord be with you," that is, while saying, "And with your spirit," or to say to even one person, "Peace be with you." Keep in mind, apart from standing, there is no prescribed posture for the assembly while praying the Our Father, no rubric that directs the assembly what to do or not do. Holding hands, in many places, has become a local custom, which is not binding, but is normative for that parish or congregation. I am sure there are other regions, countries, dioceses, and particular assemblies in which not holding hands is the norm. It is certainly true that holding hands while praying the Our Father is a post-Vatican Council II innovation, but it is not forbidden or really contrary to anything other than a subjective judgment, even if that judgment is well-informed. But keep in mind, what might be called "liturgical accretions" had crept to the Roman missal in the centuries following the Council of Trent. What is true of holding hands while praying the Our Father together, also goes for what I called "the reciprocating gesture." I understand that the argument from silence (i.e., nothing is stipulated about these matters) has it weaknesses, but I can't quite grasp why there needs to be a constant fuss about things that are not forbidden and don't violate or contradict an actual rubric or other authentic liturgical law. In order to be truly traditional, tradition must have a certain dynamic.

As a deacon, I try do things the way I am supposed to do them, which, among other things, means not making gestures reserved to the presider, like the 'orans' position or making the sweeping gesture when I say, before reading the Gospel, "The Lord be with you." But it doesn't cause me to go into hysterics when I see a brother deacon do those things.

To wit: how we do liturgy certainly matters, but everything in the liturgy is not of equal importance, not by a long shot. Some things must be done in a certain way, certain things are not to be done, other things may or may not be done. Above all, the liturgy should not produce rank polemics and division either on-line in the "cyberworld" or in the actual world. Because it is the Eucharist who makes us who we are collectively (i.e., it makes us the Church) and individually (i.e., Christians who belong to Christ because we belong to the Church), the liturgy is about Jesus and we, not Jesus and me.

Year C Passion Sunday

Readings: Luke 19:28-40; Isa 50:4-7; Ps 22:8-8.17-20.23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

Very often we expend a lot of words attempting explain the mystery of faith. But the mystery of faith is really quite simple to articulate: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Today on Passion Sunday we not only contemplate, but seek to enter more deeply into one aspect of the mysterium tremendum, namely Christ’s sorrowful passion and death. Today we not only commemorate Christ’s passion and death, we also observe Holy Week in a very compressed form.

Compression is the force used by nature to create diamonds. Hence, we should pray that our compressed observance of Holy Week today will crystallize and turn our observance of the sacred Triduum, which begins at sundown on Thursday with our celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, into something truly beautiful for God, an observance through which our lives will be transformed thus, by the Holy Spirit's power, conforming us more to the image of Christ by our full, active, and conscious participation in the mystery of our redemption.

What is the image of Christ to which we are to be conformed? St. Paul, in our reading today from his Letter to the Philippians, gave us a deep insight into the person of Jesus Christ, who did not deem equality with God something to be held onto, but something to be let go of. I believe our New Testament reading today holds the interpretive key to our lengthy Gospels. Last Sunday the adult elect of our parish, along with our candidate, all of whom will be fully incorporated into the body of Christ at the great Paschal Vigil next Saturday, were presented with the Nicene Creed. This presentation preceded a discussion of the Creed, the symbol of our faith. It only takes reading through the Nicene Creed once to see that it is what we might call asymmetrical.

The only thing we say about God, the Father, that is not in relation to the Son and/or the Holy Spirit is very brief: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”

Jumping ahead in the Creed, we profess belief in “the Holy Spirit, the Lord the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.” And we end the Creed by making a very condensed profession: “I believe one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

Between what we profess about God, the Father in and of himself and what we profess about the Holy Spirit, we find the vast majority of the Creed, which is all about Jesus, without whom we could not call God “Father” or have the Holy Spirit. Pope St. John Paul II began his very first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, with these words: “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history” (par 1). From the beginning Christ, the only and eternally begotten Son of the Father, who is “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God” is, was, and always will be the center of universe. Perhaps a better translation of the sixth verse of the second chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians than what we usually encounter goes something like this: “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” Jesus is divine.

As St. Paul also noted in our New Testament reading, it was only by becoming human that Jesus became the center of history. Christ the Lord did not deem equality with God something to be held onto, but something to be let go of for us and for our salvation. Rather than cling to his divinity, Christ emptied himself of it, “taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance” (Phil 2:7). Furthermore, he “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

The Greek word for “emptied” in our reading from Philippians is a form of the verb kenosis, but can also mean “to make of no reputation,” or, more to the point, to reduce to nothing. Why does this parsing of words matter? It matters because Jesus not only emptied himself of his divinity for love of you, for you and for your salvation he not only condescended by becoming human, he allowed himself to be humiliated on your behalf, to the point of suffering a degrading and unjust death on the cross.

In the verse immediately preceding our reading from Philippians the apostle exhorted the church in Philippi to “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5), before going on to quote what most New Testament scholars believe to be an ancient Christian hymn: “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself…” (Phil 2:6-7). My dear sisters and brothers, this is the attitude we are to have among ourselves. It’s the only way others will know we are Christians. It is Christ who brings us together week after week, month after month, year after year. Jesus Christ is the reason, the point and purpose, of St. Olaf Parish.

If the Eucharistic liturgy is truly the theologia prima, that is, prime, or first, theology, then it is during Holy Week, especially the Triduum, which are our high holy days - the Easter Vigil being the main liturgy of the entire year - that we see the words that comprise the Creed are an -urgy, not an -ology. The word “urge,” from which we derive the suffix -urgy, means to do, to act, or, in the case of the liturgy, to enact- it refers to something concrete. By contrast, an -ology is abstract. In English we usually define -ology as “the study of” something, as in biology, theology, psychology, etc. Without a doubt, following Christ is an -urgy, not an -ology, just as loving your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, your fellow parishioners, the poor, the outcast is judged by what you do, or don’t do, not by what you say, let alone by what you intend or think.

Above all, I humbly pray that on this Passion Sunday, in preparation for our celebration of the Paschal Vigil, this man of no reputation, who for our sake let himself be reduced nothing and who, in the words of Rick Elias, “loves us all with relentless affection,” will, by his passion and cross, heal our hearts of darkness, our hearts of stone (song “Man of No Reputation”).

Friday, March 18, 2016

Lent, baptism, penance, and being busy

In terms of busy-ness, March came in like a lion will go out like lion. My busy-ness, which is mostly of the good variety, has prevented me from posting much this month. By busy I don't mean too busy, just busy enough that I have to prioritize and let some things go until I have more time. As enjoyable as I find it, blogging is one of those things I sometimes have to let go of for a week or so. Besides, I am not deluded enough to believe there's anyone who is really jonesing for another post from me. I suppose it may sound a little weird, but I miss blogging when I am unable to do it for very long. This small cyberspace is really part of my life.

What have I been doing? Well, apart from my family and my day job, I've been making arrangements to begin a Doctor of Ministry (D. Min) program at Mt. Angel Seminary in Oregon. Assuming it all works out my first (of 3) residencies will be this summer. I have also been busy preparing to lead a retreat for the Elect and Candidates of our diocese. The retreat is tomorrow. I've been giving some serious thought to a book proposal I have been invited to submit by a Catholic publisher. I don't mind sharing that I find the prospect of writing a book very intimidating. This week, I participated in our diocese's annual Chrism Mass for which Archbishop George Niederauer, Archbishop Emeritus of San Francisco and former Bishop of Salt Lake City, was the celebrant. It was then-Bishop Niederauer who ordained me. Also, I've been preparing to preach on Passion/Palm Sunday.

The main focus of the retreat I am leading tomorrow is a passage from The Gospel According to St. John, namely 4:4-42. This passage is the gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Lent during Year A of the lectionary. It is also the gospel reading for the Mass at which the First Scrutiny is celebrated, regardless of the lectionary year. As per The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), there are three scrutinies for the elect. The elect are people, women and men, along with boys and girls who have reached the age of reason (reckoned to be 7-8), who will be baptized at the Paschal Vigil. The scrutinizing element of the scrutinies is the gospel reading. So, it is not the case that the elect are scrutinized by the community to determine if they are ready to receive the sacraments of initiation. Their readiness was verified at the Rite Election, which happens around the First Sunday of Lent. Rather, the elect scrutinize themselves in light of the Gospel.

According to the RCIA, the scrutinizing gospel passages serve two purposes. First, “the elect are instructed gradually about the mystery of sin, from which the whole world and every person longs to be delivered and thus saved from its present and future consequences” (RCIA, 143). Secondly, the scrutinies should fill the spirit of the elect “with Christ the Redeemer, who is the living water (gospel of the Samaritan woman in the first scrutiny), the light of the world (gospel of the man born blind in the second scrutiny, the resurrection and the life (gospel of Lazarus in the third scrutiny). From the first to the final scrutiny the elect should progress in their perception of sin and their desire for salvation” (RCIA, 143).

In light of all this, our Friday traditio is Jars of Clay, with an assist from the The Blind Boys of Alabama, singing the hymn "On Jordan's Stormy Bank I Stand," from their album Redemption Songs:

In my spare time I have been reading Msgr Giussani's At the Origin of the Christian Claim along with José Pagola's Jesus" An Historical Approximation. What is strange about reading these two books together this is that in his book Pagola employs the kind of methodology that Giussani rejects in his. For his rejection, Giussani invokes Hans Von Balthasar, who wrote that far too often there is a rule is imposed that holds it is only the one who employs solely the historical-critical who is "unprejudiced by faith" (At the Origin 42). The rule holds that it is only the one who approaches the gospels in this way who is "in any position to see the truth of what happened at the time in Palestine" (42). While it's true that Pagola seeks to apply just the kind of method critiqued, I have benefited a lot from reading the book. For example, I found his section on the baptism administered by the Baptist to be fascinating. Pagola points out that it is very likely that those Jews who were baptized by the John the Baptist in the River Jordan entered the Jordan from the east side, which was the direction from which ancient Israel, liberated from Egypt, entered it, and came upon on the western side of the river, into the promised land (81).

According the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, “The two elements which are especially characteristic of Lent -- the recalling of baptism or the preparation for it, and penance -- should be given greater emphasis in the liturgy and in liturgical catechesis. It is by means of them that the Church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Easter, while they hear God's word more frequently and devote more time to prayer” (par. 109).

Friday, March 11, 2016

"Do you feel in me, anything redeeming"?

Our Friday traditio for this Fourth Friday of Lent is U2's "Shadows and Tall Trees." This song, which was one of the band's demo tracks, appeared on their 1980 album Boy. I had the cassette tape version and I wore it out. "Shadows and Tall Trees" is actually my second favorite track from the album. My favorite is "I Will Follow."

This song seems fitting for a gray, overcast day in early March. The snow is melted, but everything looks disheveled and even dead. It's even too early where I live for that feeling of life to emerge. But I wait in joyful hope, even if the joy is of the fake it 'til you make it variety.

The face of God

Jacob was called Israel because he spent an entire night wrestling with an angel, or, as most Scripture scholars would concede, wrestling with God. According to the footnote in my Bible, "Israel" means either "'one who strives with God' or 'God strives.'" I don't claim to be a Hebrew scholar, but I suggest that theologically it might make more sense (and at the same time less sense, thus giving us a true insight into the divine) to replace the "or" with an "and." Going back to the beginning of Israel (i.e., the night of Jacob's wrestling match), which was the night before Jacob was to meet his brother Esau after more than 20 years of being away. Understandably, Jacob was fearful of meeting Esau not only because he had extorted Esau's birth right in exchange for food when Esau was famished, but because he also usurped Esau's blessing from their father, Isaac, by deceiving their father at the behest of his mother Rebekah, making Isaac think that he was Esau.

In my view, the scene of Jacob and Esau meeting is one of the truly remarkable scenes found anywhere in Sacred Scripture. Esau went out to meet Jacob with 400 men, leading Jacob to believe that his older brother had come to exact revenge, to do him harm, perhaps even kill him. And so, believing revenge was Esau's motive, Jacob had an elaborate plan to split his large traveling party in two and to appease Esau by offering him a gift of many, many animals from his flocks. But upon seeing his younger brother, the very one who had so callously deprived him of his dignity as the older brother, Esau, much like the father in the Lord's parable of the Prodigal Son, "ran to meet him" (Gen 33:4). Upon encountering his wily younger brother, Esau "embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him" (Gen 33:4). Scripture tells us that as they embraced "they wept" (Gen 33:4).

After embracing and weeping together, Jacob introduced his family to his brother. Initially, Esau refused Jacob's generous offering to him, telling his younger brother that he had enough. He accepted the gift because Jacob insisted, saying, "No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God - since you have received me with such favor" (Gen 33:10).

As I read it, we see the face of God when we are received with favor despite whatever we have done, the way Esau received Jacob despite what he had done against him. It has always struck me as a little odd that in this passage it is Esau, not the "patriarch" Jacob, who acts in so godly a manner. Being the sinner I am, it is always easier for me to identify with Jacob. But I am not going to let myself off that easily. How often could I act after the manner of Esau, graciously extending love to someone who has wronged me, even if, unlike Jacob, they don't make a magnanimous gesture either out of fear, which was clearly Jacob's motive, or genuine contrition? God stands always ready to welcome us the way Esau welcomed Jacob.

St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians: "Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you" (Eph 4:32). I don't know about you, but I sometimes find the Christian community one of the least forgiving places. Maybe this is an extension of the oddity of Esau being the godly person and Jacob being the deceptive person. This would explain a lot of theological contretemps. In this regard, it is somewhat understandable that the Church consists of a lot of people like me, Jacobs, rather than Esaus. But being Jacobs, as Paul intimates, should make us more like Esau. My question is- Does it?

Looking ahead in Genesis, it is easy to see that in his son Joseph, who behaves towards his less-than-deserving brothers after the manner of his uncle, Esau, lies Jacob's vindication. At least in my view, Jacob is one of least sympathetic figures in Scripture, which is perhaps why it is so easy for me to identify with him.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Mercy moment

My pace of blogging in March is what I expected it to be after the first of the year. As I pondered blogging over the last few days it occurred to me that the last time I posted was an early Friday traditio last Thursday. But this thought didn't really prompt me to action. One of my key Lenten endeavors, prayerfully-discerned, was to begin to develop a healthier relationship with being on-line, which is code for using social media more sparingly. Along with Facebook, Twitter, and G+, blogging is social media. But for me, blogging is a form a social media that I find useful and is actually a vehicle for growth.

Once again, beginning 1 March - the Feast of St. David of Wales, on which this year I posted nothing- I began, again, the endeavor to read the Bible in a year. Well, actually, I began yesterday, 7 March, by reading chapters 22-24 of Genesis. But since the plan I am following kind of forces you to start at the beginning of the month, I am reading the chapters for the current day in the morning and the 21 make-up chapters from 1-6 March in the evening at a pace of at least 3 chapters a day. Tonight, feeling a little ambitious and having the time, I read chapters 5-10 of Genesis. Included in those chapters is the well-known tale of Noah and the ark.

It was interesting to consider that both before and after the flood God noted the wickedness of humanity:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them" (Gen 6:5-17- ESV)
After the floodwaters subsided and Noah and his family left the ark for dry land, Noah "built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar" (Gen 8:20-ESV). Upon smelling "the pleasing aroma" of Noah's sacrifice, "the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done" (Gen 8:21-ESV).

This reminded me of the important, I would say necessary, juxtaposition of two verses of Scripture: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight" (Prov 9:10-ESV) with "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not a been perfected in love" (1 John 4:18- ESV). Knowing the love of the Father given us in the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit is what it means to have "the knowledge of the Holy One," which is why we can gauge our holiness by our willingness and ability to love.

Realizing how utterly preachy the last phrase of the last sentence of the above paragraph sounds, let me assure anyone who reads this that neither my willingness nor my ability to love, especially those closest to me, would qualify me as holy by that definition, not by a long shot. It is this realization about myself that helps me to better grasp that God's vow to never again "curse the ground because of man" or destroy every living thing is not conditional on our righteousness, which is what makes it truly mercy. This epiphany of sorts also helps me to appreciate, in light of Noah's pleasing sacrifice, which prompted God to establish his faithfulness as an ordinance, as opposed to a covenant, how important the Church's Treasury of Merit is for us all.

Citing Bl. Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, "In the communion of saints, 'a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things'" (par 1475). After all, communio sanctorum refers to the communion of holy people and holy things. The Church's Treasury of Merit, according Pope Paul, "is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ's merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy" (Indulgentiarum doctrina, par 5).

"This treasury," Papa Montini insisted, also includes "the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body" (Indulgentiarum doctrina, par 5).

My mercy moment today did not begun with reading the account of the flood in Genesis, but by praying Evening Prayer for Wednesday during the Fourth of Week of Lent, particularly the responsory to the scriptural reading. The scriptural reading is from the second chapter of the Letter of St. James, which emphatically highlights that faith that is truly faith is made manifest by good works. Following this reading makes the responsory all the more poignant:
To you, O Lord, I make my prayer for mercy.
    - To you, O Lord, I make my prayer for mercy.
Heal my soul, for I have sinned against you.
    - I make my prayer for mercy.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
    - To you, O Lord, I make my prayer for mercy

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 ...