Sunday, August 20, 2017

Year A Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 56:1.6-7; Ps 67:2-3.5-6.8; Rom 11:13-15.29-32; Matt 15:21-28

There is a remarkable convergence between the troubling events of this past week and our readings for this twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Our first reading comes from the part of the Book of the prophet Isaiah known as trito, or third Isaiah. This section consists of the final eleven chapters of the book, which were written after the Israelites returned from their captivity in Babylon. As incredible as it might sound, we are the fulfillment of the prophecy this oracle contains. We are the foreigners who have entered into covenant with the LORD. In fact, through our participation in this Eucharist this covenant into which God brought us when we were baptized is renewed.

Throughout the history of Israel, God’s chosen people, there were two main strands of thinking concerning their chosenness. The first strand, which is lampooned in the Book of Jonah, held that Israelites, as children of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were chosen to exclusion of all other people. Predictably, such a view inevitably led those who held it to think of themselves as superior to those who do not belong to Israel (i.e., the Gentiles). There is another, healthier, strand that reaches back to the covenant that God entered into with Abraham, when God promised our father in faith that his descendants would be more numerous than grains of sand on a seashore (Gen 22:17).

God told Abraham that because of his obedience, which bid him to take his household and journey to the land God had set apart for him, that through his descendants all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 22:18). Of course, the blessing was God’s only Begotten Son becoming human and reconciling the world to the Father by his life, passion, death, and resurrection. It is Jesus who allows us to become Abraham’s children through faith. This is why St Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, insisted:
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:27-28)
Immediately following this magnificent explanation about what it means to be a Christian, the Apostle wrote: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29). Being a child of Abraham is a matter of faith, not of blood, let alone soil.

The Woman of Canaan, by Michael Angelo Immenraet, 17th century. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

With regard to the correlation between current events and today’s readings, Paul stated that one of the purposes of his ministry to the Gentiles was to make his fellow Jews “jealous” because of the Gentiles’ acceptance of salvation. God gave salvation to the world through Israel, not merely for them, but for them and everyone else. This is why we can say with confidence: The Church, God's people, “exists in order to evangelize” (Evangelii Nuntiandi par 14). Right now, our world and our country are badly in need of the Good News of God's mercy given us in Christ.

The mission of the Church, the mission of all the baptized, is to spread the Gospel to everyone, no exceptions. By bringing Christ to people, we play our role in God’s mission of making the whole of humanity a single family. It was Paul’s hope that by witnessing the conversion of the Gentiles, his fellow Jews would respond to their vocation as God’s chosen people and realize the end for which God chose them. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman whom he encountered at Jacob’s well: “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). As St Peter is recorded preaching in Acts: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34b-35).

Today’s Gospel is one of those passages that marks the beginning of the fulfillment of the oracle from Isaiah in our first reading. We hear of an instance through which God begins expanding his covenant to include everyone through Christ. Despite being a Gentile, the Canaanite woman greeted Jesus with the messianic greeting, which one would think only a Jew who recognized him as Messiah might use: “Son of David” (Matt 15:22). She also hailed him as “Lord,” which goes beyond Messiah. But before greeting him thus, she first pleaded with him to have mercy on her by casting demons out of her afflicted daughter (Matt 15:22).

It is because of the woman’s faith expressed in her greetings that Jesus could use this encounter as we might call “a teaching moment.” What Jesus sought to teach is that God extends divine mercy to everyone, to Jew and Gentile alike. As seems to have often been the case with people they perceived as pesky, perhaps particularly a Gentile woman, Jesus’s disciples demanded that he send her away. Rather than doing so, Jesus stated that he was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). Upon hearing him say this, replying from her helplessness, she simply pleaded, “Lord, help me” (Matt 15:24). Their dialogue proceeded in this manner until the woman said she would be content with scraps from God's table. Her begging moved Jesus. He then commended her for her steadfast faith, which resulted in her daughter being healed.

I think that the inspired author of Matthew’s Gospel handed on the dialogue in the manner he did to demonstrate to Jewish Christians the same thing Paul wrote about accomplishing through his ministry to the Gentiles. It is important to note that the Gospel of Matthew was written for a largely Jewish Christian community. While it was likely a mixed group of Jews and Greek-speaking Gentiles that made up the community from the beginning, the balance was shifting with Gentile Christians growing larger in proportion to Jewish Christians. There is a parallel between this situation and that in our own diocese.

In 1979, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued a Pastoral Letter on Racism: Brothers and Sisters To Us. In it they stated clearly: “Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.”

In light of today’s readings, it seems fitting to observe that if we ourselves, the Church, or our nation are to be healed of the sin of racism, each of us needs to reflect on what in us needs to be healed in this regard. We may not think of ourselves as racist, being prejudiced, or intolerant but is that entirely the case? Intolerance and bias can hide in our attitudes and manifest in our actions. Each one of us needs to search our heart and find those places where we might harbor hostility, concealed discrimination and prejudice. Then we need to repent and change, endeavoring to do better in our relations with those who are different from us. If we are to be agents of the Gospel, that is, evangelists, and convert others we must first be converted.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

"And if the mountain should crumble"

Ah, blogging! I haven't quit altogether. My life presently is very busy. Despite being constantly busy, I can't seem to get the things done I need to get done. Poor time management? To some extent, yes. Not living my priorities? Again, no doubt to a point. So many things competing for my attention that I don't give anything the focused attention I need to? Ding, ding, ding. We have a winner. While I enjoy blogging, these days it is way down my list of priorities,

Recently I wrote down my priorities in an effort to better manage my time. I came up with 6 priorities, which I won't bother sharing with you. Like budgeting money, these plans only work if you discipline yourself to carry them out. Right now that is my struggle. I am not complaining. It's precisely the struggle in which I need to be engaged.

During my morning devotion yesterday, I was thinking about Dostoevsky's observation that "beauty will save the world." It's one of those phrases one cannot avoid these days, which is my polite way of suggesting that it's overused. I then began wondering that if I were to align the transcendentals (truth, beauty, goodness) with the theological virtues (faith, hope, love) to which virtue would beauty correspond? After giving it a few moments thought it became clear to me that beauty aligns with hope.

It is something of a theological/pastoral hobby horse for me to insist that hope is the most neglected of the three theological virtues. Fasting is the most neglected of the three fundamental spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, alms-giving). I also align fasting with hope. While it may be a bit of a stretch, it seems that beauty is often the most neglected of the three transcendentals. With so many self-styled Catholic apologists running around, it seems goodness, usually expressed as a rigid moralism, is the starting and ending point. This moralism arises from truth understood in a very restricted and static manner. It usually results in what I can only describe as a kind Catholic hyper-Calvinism; rule-bound, hide-bound.

It is precisely here that beauty comes to the rescue. Beauty becomes hope. In the eighth chapter of Romans, which for me is St Paul at his peak, the Apostle wrote: "For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees?" (Rom 8:24) Indeed, beauty points beyond itself. Something - a view of nature, music, a painting, a poem, a story, a film, a dance, etc. - is beautiful because it is transcendent. When we recognize something as beautiful, we experience correspondence. Another way to say this is that beauty strikes an inner chord. While not completely subjective, beauty that is beauty has an indispensably subjective element. Perhaps another way to describe correspondence is encountering something that resonates with my experience. It is important not to exclude our interior life from our experience.

Yes, I am avoiding the whole subject of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend and its aftermath. Suffice it to say, racism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism are utterly abhorrent. When these hateful and dangerous attitudes congeal and morph into a poisonous ideology that begins to be manifested publicly we must oppose those who espouse them. As Christians, how we oppose dehumanizing ideologies matters. If we claim to follow Christ, we must pray for our enemies and do good to them. In other words, our opposition must be rooted in love, not only for those who are being denigrated, but for those who espouse dangerous and hateful ideologies that denigrate. Love, not hate, is the basis of the only sustainable revolution. Come to think of it, love is beautiful. I don't need to abstract about this.

The response of Heather Heyer's father to her death, which was the result of the young woman being hit and killed by the car of an obviously very confused, hate-filled, and outraged young man, who drove it into a crowd of counter-protestors, very concretely and beautifully demonstrates what I am trying to express. What was Ms Heyer's father's response to the senseless death of his daughter?
And my thoughts with all of this stuff is that people need to stop hating and they need to forgive each other. I include myself in that forgiving the guy that did this. He don’t know no better. I just think about what the Lord said on the cross. Lord, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing
Any action that does not flow from prayer, from a real discernment is bound to fail. Many predict that the United States is headed for a period of increasing violence and confrontation. Therefore, we need to keep in mind that ideology is toxic. Moreover, let's not forget that Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers." Peace is not merely the absence of violence - though no violence is a necessary condition for peace - it is the realization of justice. Justice does not lack mercy because justice is the result of love, not vengeance.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Concerns about North Korea's nuclear capabilities

While U.S.'s bellicosity over the past few decades has often deeply troubled as well as puzzled me strategically (it seems we have gotten into the habit of instigating more chaos than we quell, resulting in too many civilians being killed, harmed, and displaced- ONE is too many, ideally), I do not believe we should stand idly by while the DPRK acquires nuclear weapons and a robust and increasingly accurate means of delivering them.

I like very much this statement by Defense Secretary (Gen) James Mattis. It is clear, concise, and reasonable. Above all, it expresses a desire for peace. Let's de-nuclearize, if I may use that clunky term, the Korean Peninsula and then start helping North Korea become a responsible state by taking care of its people.
While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth. The DPRK regime's actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates
As Secretary Tillerson noted recently and publicly, speaking to North Korean leadership, which has even taken to isolating itself from China: "We are not your enemies."

For those who want to dismiss Gen Mattis and most of the military top-brass as run-of-the-mill neo-cons, you're wrong. Neither are they part of some "deep state" conspiracy. I've heard some people suggest this about Gen Mattis with regard to Iran. It might be useful to know that GCC states identify Iran as their greatest threat and have for decades. It would not be a good thing for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons either, but that is another issue for another day.

The U.S. military is under civilian control. The JCS provides the best military advice they can to the president and the rest of the National Command Authority. However, the president is free to heed or disregard.

U.S. Secretary of Defense, (Gen.) James Mattis

Someone asked smugly, "So, is North Korea the new thing we're supposed to be scared of?" I wouldn't say scared at this point. But let's see, North Korea's development of nukes has gone on apace with significant progress over several decades. Every administration during that time has had moments of tension with North Korea and attempted to dissuade and/or deter them from so doing without success, but not despite trying and probably not without delaying them. As anyone who follows the news knows, North Korea is currently working on a nuclear-capable ICBM and making progress, as their recent robust testing regime demonstrates. This would give them the capability of "nuking" the United States, which they have (unsurprisingly) identified as a target. Please correct me if I am wrong, but didn't we freak out when Cuba requested the Soviet Union put nukes on that island in 1962? So much so we were willing to risk war? Thank God it didn't result in such a horror.

For anyone who thinks resuming the Korean War is in any way akin to Afghanistan or other recent Middle Eastern (mis-) adventures, you're badly mistaken. Simply using their existing conventional weapons capability, the North Koreans launching a first strike would decimate Seoul very quickly. What is very alarming about Kim Jong-Un is that he has isolated himself far more than his father or grandfather ever did, even from China. I am not sure the hard-press we're putting on right now is the best idea because it is escalating an always-volatile situation, but that's not my call. I would like Russia and China to chime in too, more than just voting to impose further sanctions, which they did today. While it may be a bit early to be scared, this is certainly news and something we should be interested in and concerned about.

In any case, if you believe in God, please pray for a peaceful resolution to this tense state-of-affairs, which means North Korea stopping its missile-testing and sitting down at the negotiating table, not just with the U.S., but perhaps a new round of Five Party talks (North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, U.S.). Whether you voted for, like or loathe, President Trump, pray for him on this (and other matters), as well as those who advise him, and those who carry out diplomacy. I think it is worth praying that no more countries acquire nuclear weapons and that countries that currently possess such weapons will work together to reduce them with an eye towards eliminating them altogether. At the end of the day, a peacefully realized nuclear weapon-free Korean Peninsula is a worthy goal.

Unlike at least one Christian leader, I don't believe God has given President Trump sanction to take out Kim Jong-Un, or start a war, especially one involving nuclear weapons, which would be the height of insanity. I do believe in praying for our leaders as they face the challenges of leadership, praying for a lasting peace, the end of nuclear proliferation, as well as the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord

There's proper Christian apocalypticism and then there is end-time madness. Jesus's Transfiguration, rightly grasped, is the former. The difference between apocalypticism properly understood and the kind of madness that grips people regarding the end-of-the-world is the difference between hope and fear. On the one hand, in a very real sense, due to the fall, the world is always in a mess. On other hand, God is at work in the mess accomplishing his purposes not despite the mess, but through it. "Bless this mess," then, becomes a form of the cry of some of the earliest Christians: Maranatha!.

In today's Gospel reading, we heard without much adieu, "Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them" (Matt 17:1-2a). Moses and Elijah, traditionally taken to represent the Law and the prophets respectively, appeared alongside Jesus. Matthew tells us that they "conversed" with Jesus. He gives us no insight into what they might have discussed.

I don't think it's too much to say that what Peter and the sons of Zebedee beheld that day was not necessarily things as they really are as much as things as they were meant to be and ultimately will be; the world transformed into what God created it and is redeeming it to be. After all, "apocalypse" literally means "an uncovering," a revelation.

Like Peter in this pericope, we are quick to memorialize things. He wanted to make three tabernacles, three booths- one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. To memorialize something in this way usually means being in a rush to put it in the past. Perhaps we can go back and revisit the memory: "Remember that time Jesus turned bright white and we saw him talking to Moses and Elijah? I wonder what they were talking about?"

The Transfiguration, by Raphael, ca. 1520

I find it interesting that Peter makes his suggestion to erect three booths, or tabernacles, before they were overshadowed by the cloud. Upon being overshadowed, they heard the voice of the Father declaring, as he had at Jesus's baptism: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matt 3:17). This is an encounter with ultimate reality! They experienced a theophany, an apocalypse. The only response to their encounter was to fall flat on their faces and be "vehemently," or "tremendously," afraid. Yes, there is an adverb in the original Greek to go with the verb indicating "they were afraid." Were that the sum total of their experience it may well have led the three disciples to adopt what is characterized as a kind of end-time madness, which deals in death and despair and turns God into an angry tyrant looking to exact revenge upon an unrepentant world with Jesus as his agent of mayhem.

What happened next was Jesus touched them- this is important. He touched them while they were still lying prostrate on the ground, afraid to look up. As he touched them he said, "Rise, and do not be afraid" (Matt 17:7b). Upon feeling his touch and hearing his words, it seems they felt it was safe to look up and stand up. When they looked, "they saw no one else but Jesus alone" (Matt 17:8b). This is the revelation, the apocalypse, the uncovering! While they did not yet possess full knowledge, they would never look at anything the same way again. Notice, there was no more discussion of erecting memorials. Why? Because Jesus walked down the mountain with them. God was with them, not left behind on the mountainside. God is with us, too.

You were transfigured in baptism. In the waters of baptism who you really are, who God created and redeemed you to be, was made known, was uncovered, revealed. What up until that moment was implicit became explicit. We also encounter Jesus each time we come to Mass. In the Eucharist the eschaton, the apocalypse, the final revelation of God is made immanent, just as it was for Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor. In the Eucharist, Jesus does not merely draw near to you, or make an appearance in our midst. He comes to be in you in order to transfigure you, to complete the good work he began in you with your baptism.

When you are dismissed from Mass, you are sent forth in the knowledge that Jesus is not only with you, but in you. As someone touched, encouraged, and empowered by Christ, you are to make him present wherever you go. How the world is transformed until Christ returns is by your proclaiming, "Lord, bless this glorious mess!" You make the mess glorious by engaging in it for Christ's sake, which primarily means helping those in need, working to see those who are without have what they need. In biblical language, this means taking care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger you encounter.

My friends, in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, surely God is with us.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Liturgy and the totus Christus

Showing a picture he took of a Lutheran chapel in Denmark, where he was participating in a conference of the European Hymn Society, Benedictine priest, musician and liturgical scholar, Fr Anthony Ruff (who I had the pleasure of meeting more than 20 years ago), where he celebrated Mass, noted that while "the Lutherans still use the medieval high altar of the former Cistercian monastery," he, a Catholic monk, "set up an altar/table facing the people."

In a further comment he noted something that strikes me as tremendously important:
If ad or[i]entem reinforces a sense of community - we're all facing the same direction and the priest is one of us - it's a good thing. If, however, it reinforces that the priest is doing Mass FOR the people or ON BEHALF OF the people - which can easily be the impression, then we have a major theological problem. Not denying at all the indispensible [sic] and irreplacea[b]le role of the ordained priest in the (communal) offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass, it is a distortion to think that the ordained priest is the mediator. He ain't. Christ is. It's also a distortion to think that only he shares in Christ's priesthood - which is a very widespread misconception. This is totally false - just look at the rite of baptism - all share in the priesthood through baptism
All I can say is, I agree. This is an important point to be discussed among those of us who care deeply about the sacred liturgy.

In my experience in pastoral ministry and on-line, the "major theological problem" Fr Ruff identifies is usually the crux of the matter. This ties very much into the reception, or non-reception, of the Second Vatican Council. It has to do with something far more fundamental than the liturgical reforms that followed the Council. It goes to those things on which the reform is based: a renewed and restored ecclesiology and theology of the Council as expressed in the Dogmatic Constitutions and the Pastoral Constitution. As it pertains to the liturgy, this results in the importance for all to fully, actively, and consciously participate.

Lutheran Church in Logumkloster, Denmark, by Fr Anthony Ruff, OSB

I have heard/read a number of people lately speak/write about wanting to worship in the Extraordinary Form precisely so as not to participate. I read one piece in the Catholic Herald yesterday, by a U.S. blogger, (not sure how they settled on him, retrograde and crosswise would be kind ways of describing his stance) who was lamenting things like formation for marriage and having children baptized. The whole concept of and our need for Christian koinonia, which is rooted in our participation in the Eucharist, seems lost on many people.

Do we need silence, space and quiet time for recollection and contemplation? Yes! I am an advocate for more silence than we often have at Mass: a pause before the Confiteor or penitential litany at least long enough to silently recite an Act of Contrition, some silence after the first reading, Psalm, and second reading, a few moments of reflection after the homily, a pause between the end of the Communion Rite and the Prayer After Communion. But we should have a prayer life outside of Mass, too, one that brings us to the Eucharist and enhances our participation in the Mass.

A dilemma someone posed to me about whether the liturgy is the work of God or work of the people strikes me as utterly misguided. It seems to me a classic false dilemma. If one chooses to impale him/herself on either horn of this dilemma I can't help but see that s/he runs the risk of rendering the liturgy practically meaningless- it would result in a fatal disconnection or dysfunction in one's conception of what is happening, which impacts how one engages at Mass. Therefore, it seems to me the only Christian approach is to grasp that the liturgy is at one and the same time the work of God and the work of God's people, the Church, who together constitute the totus Christus- the total or complete Christ. Stated simply, Baptism and Confirmation matter for Eucharist.

Friday, August 4, 2017

"A broken soul stares from a pair of watering eyes"

I had an idea this evening - just for fun and old times sake, why not put up a Friday traditio on Friday?! Why not, indeed. So, to kick-off August, which finds me still trying to regain my blogging chops, I offer THE THE with their classic song, "Uncertain Smile." Why? Because I heard it today on the radio driving home from confessing to my Spiritual Director. Hearing it, I was struck all over by what a great song it is. This makes it worth handing on, makes it a traditio.

Upon coming out of a fairly serious bout of depression I find it is good to give my sinful responses to being in that condition to the Lord through the Sacrament of Penance. I don't mind telling you, dear reader, July 2017 was about as rough a month as I can remember having experienced. God is good, very good.

On the first day of last month, the day after I arrived back home from my three-week residency at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, I had lunch with a friend who is a priest. We are the same age. He's a member of religious order that used to serve in my diocese. We met when he served here years ago as a fairly young priest. Prior to him being assigned back East, even when he served in Houston and Albuquerque after being in Utah, he was my Spiritual Director. He said something during lunch to which I found myself giving full assent. It was something along the lines that he always thought when he hit 50 or so many of life's struggles would become easier. Instead of becoming easier, he said he is finding many of these things more difficult. He provided a litany of things with which many of us struggle. I know that's vague. I may often write in a confessional manner, but I have no desire to go to confession on the internet or divulge the contents of a private conversation with a friend publicly. Especially you're a middle-aged man, apply your experience.

Without further delay, here's our traditio. It may be late, but it's on Friday.

A howling wind that blows the litter as the rain flows
As street lamps pour orange colored shapes, through your windows
A broken soul stares from a pair of watering eyes
Uncertain emotions force an uncertain smile

The jam at the end of this song is delightful.

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 ...