Friday, January 26, 2018

"Where is the harmony...sweet harmony?"

At the expense of appearing to be a bit out-of-line, in light of a recently publicized letter signed by more than a dozen faith leaders here in Utah calling on the Utah Legislature, which is currently meeting in its annual legislative session, to pass hate crime legislation, I have to state that I am not in favor of hate crime laws. Why? Because they strike me as too 1984-ish. Frankly, I am alarmed at the prospect of the state establishing thought crimes.

According to Bob Mims, religion reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, Senate Bill 86, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, a Republican from West Valley City, "punishment for a class A misdemeanor could be meted out at a harsher, third-degree-felony level if the crime targeted a person based on 'ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation.'"

Do I like hate? Of course not. I hate hate. But I love haters. I don't mind saying that I often find Jesus's command to love haters the most difficult thing about being a Christian (see Matt 5:43-47). It's a command I often fail to heed. Hate is ugly and sometimes leads haters to engage in illegal behavior such as vandalism and/or assault, even murder. The Tribune provided the full text of the letter on the same webpage as Mims's article. To wit: all of the examples given in the letter are already illegal acts. Making a bomb threat, for example, is illegal. Is it worse to threaten a building full of worshipers than, say, a building full of federal employees? Is it worse to threaten a Catholic school than a public school full of children whose religions run the gamut from devoutly Islamic, to Jewish, to Hindu, to Protestant, to Mormon, to Catholic, to to children being raised with no religion?

Will such hate crime laws have a deterrent effect? This is an important question not least of which is because many people who favor hate crime legislation oppose the death penalty. I oppose the death penalty. Opponents of the death penalty, such as myself, frequently argue, based on the available evidence, that the prospect of receiving the death penalty does not deter violent crime. Can hate crime laws be shown to have a deterrent effect on alleged hate crimes, an deterrent effect over and above existing laws?

What Alasdair MacIntyre identified in his landmark book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory as "emotivism" strikes me as the driving force behind such laws. I know my stance on this will not be popular with some people who read my blog. Opposing hate crime laws means having to endure the accusation that I think crimes against certain groups are alright. To be clear: such crimes are not alright, which is why such acts are already illegal, usually felonies. I am in favor existing laws that protect persons and property. Equality under the law, like the presumption of innocence, is fundamental to a free society.

Prudence, a virtue I sometimes lack, prohibits me from being too critical of the letter but I found its invocation of the death of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith, Jr. and his brother Hyrum more than a little historically dubious, but that is another issue for (perhaps) another day. It bears noting that the Mormon church was not signatory to the letter. Whether the Mormon church not being a signatory to the letter means it does not support SB86 or whether it is simply due to the recent leadership transition necessitated by the passing of church president, Thomas S. Monson, I do not know.

Does my criticism of the letter's use of the killing of the Smiths as an example as to why such laws are needed mean I don't think Mormons should be protected under the law? Of course not! They should be; Catholics should be; atheists should be; Jews should be; Muslims should be; Wiccans should be; homosexual people should be; transgendered people should be. All people by virtue of being human should be protected under our laws. A just society demands such universal protection. But nobody should be "more equal" than anyone else. If you assault me, you already commit a crime, even if you assault me for being an annoying Catholic cleric.

As Senator Thatcher's bill makes clear, all offenses that would be subject to hate crime penalties are already illegal and, therefore, carry criminal penalties. It is often the case that perpetrators of these kinds of crimes can be subject to civil litigation too. At least in my view, the culture of encounter that Pope Francis is calling on Catholics to create is not fostered by hate crimes legislation and will not be brought about by the state, only by people committed to peace, love, and understanding enough to act. In terms of what government can do, I think restorative justice proceedings in cases that racial, religious, or other kinds of similar animosity may have played a role might prove effective at healing such rifts within our communities.

I recently watched an episode of Sarah Silverman's I Love You America, one in which she interviewed former white supremacist, Christian Picciolini. In the episode, Picciolini averred - "The secret to stopping people from becoming extremists is to understand that in most cases they're not monsters, they're broken human beings doing monstrous things." I think this episode of Silverman's program provides a great catechetical lesson on fostering a culture of encounter. In that same vein, I think people who sponsor and advocate for hate crime laws are well-intentioned. I am not completely closed-minded about this but I have yet to be presented with an argument for hate crime laws that refutes the concerns I have expressed. I agree with the end supporters of hate crime laws are trying to achieve, I just disagree with this means of trying to achieve it.

While it is a repeat from about a year ago, our Friday traditio is Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?" The last time this was our traditio it was performed by Elvis Costello. For today we'll let Nick take it away:

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Year B Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Jon 3:1-5.10; Ps 25:4-9; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

In our Psalm response, we implored the Lord to teach us his ways, which indicates we want to learn his ways in order to be his disciples and participate in his mission of reconciling the world to the Father.

If Lent is the time we devote each year to preparing for Easter, then this relatively brief period of Ordinary Time after Christmas is this time during which we prepare for Lent. Each Lent the Lord invites his Church to learn his ways by practicing them and not merely thinking or talking about them.

Our Gospel today is St. Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. It’s important to be reminded that the beginning of the Lord’s public ministry was preceded by his baptism by John in the Jordan (Mark 1:9) and by spending forty days “in the desert” being “tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:13).

According to Mark, Jesus began his public ministry with these words: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). There are two things that bear noting about the Lord’s proclamation. First, he is the kingdom in person. This reality was captured well by the great third-century theologian and Scripture scholar, Origen, with his use of the Greek word autobasileia, which translates into English as “the kingdom in person.” Wherever Jesus is, there is God's kingdom. The second aspect of the Lord’s proclamation that requires some attention is the final sentence: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Translating Jesus’s words about repenting and believing in a very literal way it would be rendered be-you-repenting and be-you-believing. This, in turn, tells us two things: that repenting and believing are on-going activities; it also indicates that repenting comes before believing. Most of the time we think of believing as acquiring a certain degree of knowledge, learning the Lord’s ways through study and instruction. Then on the basis of this understanding we set about, with God’s help, to reshape our lives. It was St. Anselm of Canterbury who averred, “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand” (Proslogion, sec. 1).

Metanoia is the Greek word translated as “Repent” in our Gospel reading. When we hear the word “Repent” we usually understand this to mean something like expressing sorrow for one's sins. But metanoia means to change one’s mind, to be converted, to be transformed from within. You are not transformed merely by thinking good thoughts, or having orthodox beliefs – though orthodoxy, or correct belief, ought to lead to orthopraxis, correct behavior, but, sadly, too often it does not. What transforms or converts you is what you do, how you act. You learn to be Jesus’s disciple by doing, like an apprentice.

The Lord’s way is the way of loving others by selflessly serving them. Our first reading today is one of the very few times we hear a passage from the Book of Jonah proclaimed during Sunday Mass. In the context of the narrative, our reading occurs after Jonah is delivered to the seashore nearest Nineveh by the “great fish” (Jonah 2:1). His unconventional delivery was necessitated by Jonah’s refusal to obey God’s call to go to this large pagan city and call them to repentance.

It’s important to recognize that God’s call for Jonah to go to Nineveh is analogous to God calling a Jewish prophet to go to Berlin in the mid-1930s and call on Nazi Germany to repent. Recognizing this is important to understanding not only why Jonah initially refused to go but why he booked passage on a boat headed in the opposite direction. Though none too happy about it, he went and called the Ninevites to repentance. It was not only to his surprise but to his great chagrin that the people of Nineveh heeded his message and repented. The Book of Jonah is not an historical book, it is a comedy, it’s a joke. The punchline is: the Ninevites converted but the prophet who called on them to do so did not.

Nineveh responded to Jonah’s proclamation by putting on sackcloth and by fasting. Along with prayer and alms-giving, which mainly consists of selflessly serving others, not just chucking your spare change into a cup, fasting is one of the Lord’s ways we need to learn. How rarely we fast! But fasting is what connects prayer to alms-giving.

Lent begins with a fast. Receiving ashes on our foreheads is our way of symbolically putting on sackcloth. It may surprise many people that Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. In other words, the Church does not obligate you to attend Mass on this day, but the Church does obligate you to fast, at least if you are 18-59 years of age. But people who are at least 14 are obligated to abstain from meat. And people who are 60 or older and are able, are encouraged to fast and or abstain. Too often the first question we ask about the two days per year the Church obligates us to fast (i.e., Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) is, “How much food can I eat and still consider myself to be fasting?” This is not repenting and believing, it’s not only wanting to have your cake and eat it but to have it frosted with some kind of imputed holiness, magically granted that requires nothing from you.

For Christians, it is always the end of the world until the end of the world. In our New Testament reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle tells the Church to live in a peculiar and self-denying manner because “the world in its present form is passing away.” We must never lose sight of the fact that the mission of the Church, the work of God’s people, is to hasten the passing of the world in its present form, preparing the way for God’s kingdom.

That Jesus issued his call to the two pairs of brothers in today’s Gospel with great urgency is revealed by their immediate and decisive response. They grasped that the moment they heard the Lord call was their time of fulfillment, not the next day, the next week, or in five minutes. Jesus calls you today with no less urgency.

Friday, January 19, 2018

"We'll find another end" - Dolores O'Riordan requiscat in pace

I have to admit I was kinda proud of myself for having this week's Friday traditio all thought out. You, see last Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of Johnny Cash's famous Folsom Prison concert. I had planned to pay tribute to the Man in Black this week. But on Monday I learned of the sudden death of Dolores O'Riordan, the Irish singer who is most famous for fronting a band I like very much: Cranberries.

O'Riordan was only 46 at the time of her passing. She died alone in her London hotel room. Apparently, she was in London doing some recording. Her battles with depression and bi-polar disorder which, at least to some extent, arose from the trauma she experienced as the result of being sexually abused as a child. After a suicide attempt in 2013, she was more open about the abuse she suffered. There can be little doubt her speaking out was an attempt to exorcise the demons her abuse inflicted on her. If you're interested in what her speaking out consisted of, you can look at this article: "Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan Suffered Horrific Sexual Abuse: 'I Buried It.'" By all accounts, she continued to experience mental health problems. Additionally, she suffered from various physical maladies. While the cause of her death is currently unknown there are a lot of markers suggesting she may have taken her own life. No matter the cause, she died too young.

Dolores O'Riordan 1971-2018

In Spanish, the language from which the word is taken, her name, "Dolores," means "sorrows." The horrific sexual abuse she suffered at such a young age certainly caused her plenty of sorrow, too much. Her mother is a devout Catholic. O'Riordan was raised a practicing Catholic. To my knowledge, throughout most of her life, she identified herself as a Christian, albeit she was usually careful to put some distance between herself and the Catholic Church. I do not know why she felt the need to do that but I don't think she ever trashed the Church, not that it would bother me if she had. Sometimes, based on their experiences with the Church, it is very understandable to me why some people speak very critically of the Church. After all, the Church has inflicted sorrows on people. People who speak out are doing the Church a favor.

Frankly, in a world so badly in need of a punk rock revolution, the last people we can afford to lose are bona fide punks like Dolores O'Riordan.

O'Riordan has twice been featured as our Friday traditio: on 22 December 2007 singing the Ave Maria at the Vatican and again on 9 September 2011 singing one of the Cranberries' most popular songs, "Linger," with Simon LeBon, the lead singer of the British band Duran Duran. When she sang at the Vatican Christmas concert in 1995 (she sang at it again in 2013), along with her Mom she met Pope John Paul II. After meeting him she said: "I was chuffed [means very pleased] to see the inside [of the Vatican] and to meet [the Pope], who was lovely, very saintly. I was mad about him. I thought he really cared about the poor and he loved to meet the people. I saw him when he came to Limerick when I was a kid, so it was pretty mind-blowing to take my mum out to meet him."

Dolores Eileen O'Riordan rest in peace. I pray your sorrows are at an end. She and her husband divorced in 2014. Together they had 3 children. I also pray for her children who must be bereft.

Our Friday traditio is the Cranberries with "I Can't Be With You," a song off their second studio album No Need to Argue. It's a song of lament and longing and so one to which we can all relate. Her vocal stylings are very Celtic and so resonate with me deeply. I love that her Irish accent is ever-present in her music. It's one of the many things that makes her music her present to us:

Back in 2012, the Cranberries did one of NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts. It is 19 minutes and 31 seconds and worth every second of your time. This up-close performance crackles with the requisite Celtic spirit. You can watch and listen to it here.

The Sacrament of Penance

The Scripture reading for Friday in Week II of the Liturgy of the Hours is Ephesians 2:13-16:
But now in the Anointed One Jesus you who were once far away have come to be near, through the blood of the Anointed. For he is himself our peace, who has made the two into one and shattered the interposing wall of partition - the enmity - in his flesh, Having abolished the Law consisting in commandments and ordinances, that in himself he might fashion the two into a single new human being, making peace, And might by the cross reconcile the two to God in one body, killing enmity in himself 1
This is a Scripture passage well-suited for Friday, which, unless a solemnity falls on that day of the week or we are within one of the celebratory octaves, is a day of penance. Being reconciled to God through Christ by the power of their Spirit is fundamental to Christianity. Of course, there is no shortage of atonement theories that seek to explain just how Christ's atonement works.

This week I was asked to provide a relatively brief overview of the Roman Catholic "take" on confession. What I provided is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive. In fact, it does not go into the Sacrament of Penance very deeply at all, but that was not what I was requested to provide. I don't mind saying that I am a regular penitent most of the time. But now and again I experience periods when, for any variety of reasons, not least among which is my on-going struggle with depression and the resultant spiritual affliction of acedia, I find it difficult to go to confession. In fact, I have not been to confession since the beginning of the new liturgical year.

Writing about confession this week was a grace because it convicted me that it is time for me to g. So this coming Tuesday afternoon I have an appointment with my regular confessor. As I have done for all my years of blogging, as well as in my preaching and teaching, I urge you, dear reader, to have regular and fairly frequent recourse to this wonderful, life-giving, sacrament. The Sacrament of Penance, through which we are time again reconciled to God and each other, was the first gift our resurrected Lord gave to his Bride, the Church.

Below is what I provided about the Sacrament of Penance:


The Sacrament of Penance, more popularly known as "confession," is how Catholics receive forgiveness for post-baptismal sins, especially so-called mortal, grave, or serious sins [the terms "mortal," "grave," and "serious" are used synonymously]. The Sacrament of Penance, in a sense, is an extension of the Sacrament of Baptism. This is depicted beautifully in The Cathedral of the Madeleine. When you enter the Cathedral through the main doors, you encounter the baptismal font. The font consists of an upper basin and a lower font. If you look down into the lower font, where adults are baptized at the Easter Vigil, you will see the floor of the font is shaped like a cross. If you visually follow the cross to the East and West walls, you see it is aligned with the confessionals.

Under normal circumstances (i.e., the person has regular access to the Sacrament of Penance), a Catholic who is conscious of having committed a serious sin(s) should refrain from receiving Holy Communion until the sin(s) has been confessed, absolved and the penance completed. Prior to going to confession, Catholics are urged to prayerfully examine their consciences. There are many aids available to assist Catholics in their examination. A so-called “good confession” is one in which the penitent confesses all the sins he has committed since his last confession.

It is important to note that confession is just that, confession, or self-accusation. It is not an interrogation. In asking questions of a penitent during confession, priests are to act with prudence and discretion.2

Christ atoned for our sins. Hence, penances are not assigned in order to do what Christ has done for you. Penances are not punishments but are given in order to help one grow in love of God and neighbor. While a penance may be related to the sin, like being told to do something nice for your spouse to whom you said ugly things in a fit of anger, very often it consists of saying prayers, like three Hail Marys and an Our Father. I don’t mind saying that at end of a confession I made shortly after last Easter, my penance was to reflect on a particular passage of the Exsultet, an ancient hymn sung by a deacon at the beginning of the Easter Vigil.

Catholics are no longer required to go to confession prior to each Holy Communion. At a minimum, Catholics are obligated to go confession at least once a year. If it’s been longer than a year since one’s last confession that should be confessed. I think most of us in ministry encourage people to go with more frequently than once a year and with some regularity. The sacrament is initiated by the penitent, who usually says while crossing himself- "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been [however long] since my last confession."

For Roman Catholics, the Scripture passage the constitutes the basis of the Sacrament of Penance more than James 5:16, which urges Christian to confess their sins to each other, is John 20:21-23. In this passage Jesus, appearing to his disciples after his resurrection, breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit, and tells them, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained."

A priest may never violate the seal of the confessional. "The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason."3 Further, "A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded" and "A person who has been placed in authority cannot use in any manner for external governance the knowledge about sins which he has received in confession at any time."4

If someone confesses a crime during a sacramental confession, the priest hearing the confession may encourage the person to turn himself in. The priest may even make turning himself in the penance. If someone confesses an intention to commit a crime, the priest may and probably should try to dissuade the penitent from carrying out the crime, but he may not divulge what he was told during a confession. If a priest divulges what he heard in a confession, he incurs automatic excommunication.5

One does not go to confession to find out whether or not God will forgive him. Christians are always already forgiven by virtue of Christ’s atonement. So why go to confession? If nothing else, confessing one’s sins, receiving absolution, and making satisfaction (i.e., completing one’s assigned penance) is something you experience firsthand, not just a mental transaction that leaves you wondering whether or not you’re forgiven. In essence, we don’t go to confession to admit our failures. We go to confession to claim our victory in Christ.

1 Ephesians 2:13-16 from David Bentley Hart's The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press), 382.
2 Code of Canon Law, Canon 979.
3 Code of Canon Law, Canon 983 §1
4 Code of Canon Law, Canon 984 §1-§2
5 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1388 §1

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Jesus calling. Are you listening?

Readings: 1 Sam 3:3b-10.19; Ps 40:2.4-10; 1 Cor 6:13c-15a.17-20; John 1:35-42

"Vocation" and "discernment" are two words that as Catholics we say/hear and write/read a lot. We also use "community" quite a bit. But in advanced Western societies, where the atomic individual reigns supreme, we invoke "community" as more of an aspiration than a lived reality. I think this is true, too, for vocation and discernment as well as for vocational discernment. Since we just entered Ordinary Time for the first time this liturgical year, it bears noting that during Ordinary Time our lectionary readings from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel readings are harmonized. In our reading from 1 Samuel this week, the Church provides us with a great parallel to the seminal pericope from St. John's Gospel, which provides us with a paradigm for discipleship because it includes evangelization, making Jesus's followers missionary disciples.

Hearing God's call (vocation from Latin vocare= "to call") requires discernment. Discernment is nothing other than being able to hear and heed God's voice. We live in noisy times. Even when it comes to those who claim to speak in some way for God, we are barraged with a cacophony of voices, which sometimes consist of someone generalizing from his/her own experience. Being able to hear God is something we have to learn, just like the young Samuel did. Notice that it is not until the end of the episode in our first reading that we learn what God said to the young man Samuel each time he fell asleep. What did God say? He said, "Samuel, Samuel" (1 Sam 3:10). This explains why, in the narrative, Samuel keeps going to his formator, his mentor, Eli, upon being awakened. He thought Eli was calling him. The final time Samuel fell asleep, knowing that it was not Eli who was summoning him, was when he discerned it was the voice of the LORD. Once he recognized the voice of the LORD, the young prophet-in-training said, "Speak, for your servant is listening" (1 Sam 3:10).

In my preaching, I often make the distinction between hearing and listening. Hearing, on this view, is simply a matter of sound waves vibrating your sensitive aural apparatus. Listening means attending carefully to what someone else is saying. While it is possible to hear without shutting up, it is impossible to listen without doing so. We listen to God in silence. In prayer, we need to spend at least as much time listening as we do speaking. The more we pray, the more time we spend in silence. As the wise old spiritual axiom states it: God's first language is silence.

I am convinced that God speaks to each one of us practically all the time and in a variety of ways. Like the young Samuel, however, we are often unable to recognize the Lord's voice. The reason for our inability to recognize the Master's voice is because we are not in the habit of listening, of shutting up. One major reason for this was spelled out very well by the late Karl Rahner towards the beginning of his little book simply entitled On Prayer: we let the important be overcome by urgent. Nothing is more important than listening for and then to the voice of the Lord. In an interview near the end of his life, when asked which of his many works he liked the best, without hesitation, Rahner pointed to his "little book on prayer." Jokes about Rahner's incomprehensibility abound, one even made his brother Otto, who was also a Jesuit scholar (a Church historian). This book is Rahner at his most is accessible. What he liked about his little book on prayer is that he felt it was a good synthesis of his theology. It was Rahner who observed: "In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all."

Vocation de Saint Jean et de Saint André, by James Tissot, 1886-1894

One's vocation, or call, no matter what it is, is to build up the Body of Christ. This is to say, to build up a community, which is nothing other than building up the kingdom of God, ushering in God's reign, becoming the people of God in Christ by the power of the Spirit. The kingdom of God, as Jesus taught us when compared to how the world typically works, is an upside down, or inverted, reality. Hence, being a Christian will always entail being counter-cultural.

To give some idea of what being counter-cultural means, I point you to an article by Douglas Campbell, which provides a very good overview of St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, the letter from which our second reading for today is taken. The article is featured in The Christian Century: "Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to a community in the middle of a culture war." In it Campbell describes how Christianity is counter-cultural, which has nothing to do with changing with the times:
Paul’s ethic of Christian love was deeply countercultural and highly demanding. Homogeneous and idealized communities mask how tough it is to practice this kindness and consideration across social divisions where it needs to bridge and heal and not merely to fit into a group that already gets along quite well
In short, it is necessary for the Body of Christ to include everyone, especially people from places that far too many of Christians deem to be shitholes. At least in the United States, we run the risk of making the Church almost exclusively bourgeois. This is true, too, in Western Europe. This is something theologian Johan Baptist Metz addressed more than thirty years ago in his book The Emergent Church: The Future of Christianity in a Post-Bourgeois World. It's this perhaps more than anything that has led to the Church's decline in age of late capitalism during which more and more wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and the bourgeois is shrinking dramatically.

In our Gospel today, John and Andrew listened, not once, but twice. First, they listened to the one they had been following, the one whose disciples they were- John the Baptist, who, upon seeing Jesus, proclaimed: "Behold, the Lamb of God" (John 1:36). As a result, they set off after Jesus. Noticing them following him, the Lord asked them the most human of all questions, "What are you looking for?" They asked him where was staying. They heeded his call, "Come, and you will see." They listened a second time.

Notice the inspired author does not describe "where" Jesus led them in geographical terms. He merely wrote: "So they went and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day" (John 1:39). You see, Jesus is the who, what, why, where, and when. Or as the old hymn puts it: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. What Jesus gives those who follow him is nothing other than himself. By giving us himself body, blood, soul and divinity, he allows us to share in divine life, the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This life, as we read elsewhere in the Johannine corpus, is love (1 John 4:8.16). By its nature, love is profuse, that is, turned toward the other, not kept to one's self.

I don't think it's overly simplistic to say there is only one Christian vocation: to follow Christ. In baptism, Jesus bid each of us, "Come, and you will see." He reissued this call in confirmation. Like the young Samuel, in baptism and confirmation, God called you by name. Jesus calls you to follow him in each Eucharist and then sends you forth to heed his call. Every specific vocation, whether you're married or single, whether you're a priest and/or a vowed religious, even (gasp!) a deacon, is about heeding Jesus's call. I think it's important for clerics, of which I am one, to remind ourselves as we vest to serve Christ and his people in liturgical celebrations that the alb, over which our stoles dalmatics, chasubles, copes, etc. go, are baptismal garments. Without baptism, without having heard and responded to Christ's call, the rest of it is impossible.

It's still early in the new year, but it's already late enough to begin waning on your New Year's resolutions. Our resolution each year, each Advent, each Lent, each Sunday should be to hear, listen to, and heed Christ's call. Once you have experienced Jesus, it is impossible not to tell others about him, to extend the same invitation Andrew extended to his brother Simon.

Friday, January 12, 2018

"Try imagining a place where it's always safe and warm"

I am on the road this week. I am in lovely Norfolk, Virginia. Actually, I was supposed to be on an airplane home right now, but weather caused a delay. Hopefully, I will head home tomorrow. Travel delays are never fun, but this gives me a little time, at least enough to put up a Friday traditio. I am not feeling inspiration bubbling up this afternoon like I usually do when posting on Friday. In fact, I feel a little flat and slightly out-of-joint. Nonetheless, I am fine.

Eric Gill

Today I am putting up Bob Dylan with a twist. It is from the end of the film St. Vincent, starring Bill Murray. As the caption of the video denotes, St. Vincent was produced by The Weinstein Company, the film production company owned by the Weinstein brothers, one of whom is the now infamous and notorious Harvey. The question has been asked more than once in the wake of revelations about Harvey Weinstein's sexual harassment, assault, and perhaps even rapes: Can such an immoral person produce great art? The short, if maybe not simple, answer is "Yes." One need only consider the art of Eric Gill and his life.

In the age of Google, you don't need a discourse from me on Eric Gill. And nobody needs to waste more words on Harvey Weinstein's transgressions. The Hollywood hypocrites are all over that like hyenas on a wounded wildebeest. Many of them trying to deflect attention away from their own indiscretions. Am I saying the movies of Harvey Weinstein or the beautiful creations of Eric Gill atone for their sins? No. Only Christ atoned for their sins, as well as for mine and yours. On Fridays, which are days of penance, I try to remind myself of this. Praying Psalm 51, known as the Memorare, the first Psalm for Morning Prayer nearly every Friday helps:
Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love;
    in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions.
Thoroughly wash away my guilt;
    and from my sin cleanse me.
For I know my transgressions;
    my sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone have I sinned;
    I have done what is evil in your eyes (Ps 51:3-6)
Anyway, our traditio for this second Friday of 2018 is something of a collaboration between Bill Murray and Bobby Z.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Epiphany: a deeper look

Since I have already posted on the Lord's Epiphany, his revelation to the nations, I feel free to compose something free-form about the Gospel reading for today's solemnity. As I was preparing to proclaim and as I was proclaiming today's Gospel (Matt 2:1-12) in the Eucharistic liturgy, I was struck - lectio-style - by a phrase I had previously just read over without giving it much thought. The phrase occurs in the third verse of the second chapter of the Gospel According to St. Matthew. The immediate context is the magi telling King Herod learning that they were seeking "the newborn king of the Jews" (v. 2): "When King Herod heard this," the inspired author conveyed, "he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him."

The phrase that caught my attention this Epiphany, thus making it an epiphany for me, is the last phrase of verse 3: and all Jerusalem with him. Why would all of Jerusalem be troubled by the news that a king, perhaps the long-awaited Messiah, was born in Bethlehem of Judea as Isaiah foretold? One way to make sense of this is to think about how few Christians either think about and/or look forward to Christ's return in glory, however that might happen (i.e., cataclysm vs. continuity). This thought took me back to something I included in my homily for Midnight Mass: the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity "is so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma" on the world.1

If his birth in the cave in Bethlehem had this effect, how much more "traumatic" will be his return "in glory," which will be his final and undeniable Epiphany? Try as we might, Christians can't escape eschatology nor should we want to. In other words, like "all Jerusalem" we, too, are often "greatly troubled" at the prospect of Christ' arrival.

The Adoration by the Magi ... an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Looking at this phrase more exegetically (if I may employ an awkward adverb), it is pretty certain that St. Matthew's Gospel was written in the midst of and for a Jewish Christian community (a Christian synagogue), albeit one that was beginning to receive more and more Gentiles. Receiving more Gentiles certainly makes the pericope that is our Gospel reading each year for Epiphany (i.e., Matt. 2:1-12) very important. It is important because it explains to the Jewish Christians of Matthew's communities how these Gentile converts fit into God's plan of salvation through Christ.

According to the Dominican New Testament scholar Benedict Viviano, the magi "were a caste of wise men, variously associated with interpretation of dreams, Zorastrianism, astrology, and magic."2 Later, the magi became kings and later still their number was fixed at 3, which is likely arrived by their three gifts. In the Western Church, Viviano noted, the three kings "were named: Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, and Caspar became black."3 The three magi turned into "representatives of the Gentile world in all its racial diversity..."4

It was Raymond Brown who noted that "all Jerusalem," along with Herod and including the scribes and the chief priests, being so troubled by the news of the birth of the "king of the Jews" that they sought to take Jesus's life are an anticipation of "Pilate, 'all the people,' the chief priests, and the elders of Matt's passion narrative."5 Brown made the key point: "In both instances God frustrates the plans of these hostile adversaries (through Jesus' return Egypt, and through the resurrection)."6

What's the point? I think it is something like being determined not be God's hostile adversary and to cooperate in ushering in God's reign. How do you cooperate with instead of oppose God? The answer to this is very clear in St. Matthew's Gospel: "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.7 Until his return, it is by loving our neighbor (our neighbor being anyone we encounter who needs our help) through selfless acts of service that we reveal Christ to the nations.

1 Creston Davis, John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press), 7.
2 Benedict T. Viviano, O.P., "The Gospel According to Matthew," in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall), 635.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Raymond E. Brown, O.P., An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday), 176.
6 Ibid.
7 Matthew 22:37-40.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Thoughts on the Lord's Epiphany

A few weeks back I was asked to provide some thoughts on Epiphany for a newspaper article from a contemporary Roman Catholic perspective. A surprising number of my thoughts made it into the piece: "Utah Christians still have one more Christmas gift to unwrap: Epiphany is this weekend." I liked the article very much. I did try to make it clear that making an Epiphany a moveable feast was not something done universally in the Roman Catholic Church.

Since today, 6 January, is the traditional date of Epiphany, the day after the Twelfth Day of Christ (Twelfth Night celebrations are making a bit of a comeback), I am sharing the entirety of what I provided for the piece.

The feast of the Lord’s Epiphany is the ancient Christian celebration of the visit of the gift-bearing [and distinctly Gentile] Magi to the Christ child, an event recounted in St. Matthew's Gospel (Matt. 2:1-12). In revealing himself to the Magi the Lord first manifested himself to the Gentile nations.

Historically, Epiphany has been of far more significance than it is today for Roman Catholics. But even now in many European and Latin American countries and among a number of Catholic émigré communities in the United States, Epiphany still carries far more significance than it does for most Roman Catholics in this country. In many cultures, Epiphany, not Christmas, remains the main day for exchanging gifts.

The primary reason that the Epiphany is not such a big deal among most U.S. Catholics is that since the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council, in this country, Epiphany no longer marks the end of the liturgical season of Christmas. For Roman Catholics outside the U.S., Epiphany remains a feast fixed on 6 January that brings the season of Christmas to a close.

Traditionally and today among most Roman Catholics, as well as among Western Protestants who follow the liturgical calendar, the Twelve Days of Christmas began on 25 December and concluded on 5 January. 6 January was the Epiphany of the Lord. In other words, like Christmas, Epiphany has historically been and remains in most places a fixed feast. But for the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S., Epiphany is observed on the second Sunday after Christmas.

In the U.S., Christmas ends on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. During this liturgical year, which began on the First Sunday of Advent (3 December), the feast of the Lord’s Baptism occurs on Monday, 8 January 2018. Epiphany will be observed on Sunday, 7 January.

As a result of making Epiphany a moveable feast, apart from perhaps completing the Christmas creche by including the Magi and their camels in it, in most Roman Catholic churches and homes in the U.S., Epiphany tends to be a fairly low-key affair, as does the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which is not a holy day obligation, or a day of any particular celebrations.

For most of the years of our marriage, my wife and I have hosted an Epiphany party for our friends. During this celebration we incorporate a number Catholic Epiphany traditions: we have a King’s Cake that contains 3 coins, whoever receives a coin in their piece of cake gets to wear a crown bearing one of the traditional names of the Magi- Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar; we ceremonially remove our tree from our house, which includes carol-singing; with the help of our friends, we bless our house for the coming year.

My friend, the fine young theologian Brandon Peterson, reminded me that for the people of Puerto Rico Epiphany remains a huge holiday, bigger than Christmas, which I think is great. When one thinks that at the heart of the Epiphany is God extending his Covenant from Israel to all of humanity in Christ, the Epiphany of the Christ child should be huge for us Gentile Christians. In the wake of last year, we can also stand being reminded that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

Friday, January 5, 2018

"Mercy bend and bring me back to life"

Today was longer and a bit more challenging than anticipated. Nonetheless, I want to post a traditio for the first Friday of the New Year. Because it's been awhile, there were a lot of options running through my mind as I pondered what to post. Then, on the way to the Funeral Vigil for a dear friend who passed away from cancer on the second of this New Year, I listened to my CD of Audrey Assad's album The House You're Building.

Assad's album is wonderful. I hadn't listened to it in awhile. I put my car CD-player (yes- I still have a car CD-player) on that random mode so the songs did not play in order. After a couple of songs, it went to the eleventh and final track on the album: "Show Me."

I mentioned in my New Year's post that the last couple of years have been kind of tough going. It's alright for life to be difficult. It is okay to admit that sometimes I find life difficult. Nobody needs to fix that or attempt to fix it. My hope is in Christ. A finite world will never satisfy a heart that yearns for the infinite.

Anyway, "Show Me" captures well, in the way that poetry and songs, or the poetry of songs, what I am trying to say. Oddly, it makes my heart glad that this is the first traditio:

The chorus of the song is simply lovely:

Bind up these broken bones
Mercy bend and bring me back to life
But not before you show me how to die

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Cultivating Inner Peace

"The passionate man often thinks evil of a good man and easily believes the worst; a good and peaceful man turns all things to good.

"A man who lives at peace suspects no one. But a man who is tense and agitated by evil is troubled with all kinds of suspicions; he is never at peace with himself, nor does he permit others to be at peace.

"He often speaks when he should be silent, and he fails to say what would be truly useful. He is well aware of the obligations of others but neglects his own . . .

"You are good at excusing and justifying your own deeds, and yet you will not listen to the excuses of others. It would be more just to accuse yourself and to excuse your brother.

"If you wish others to put up with you, first you must put up with them."

Thomas á Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Book II, cap 2-3).

It is my prayer that these words speak as clearly to somebody else today as they have to me.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Happy New Year

Today, 1 January, Roman Catholics the world over celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. Additionally, for the fifty-first year, Catholics also observe the World Day of Peace.

Despite 2017 being a light year for blogging, I ended the year in a flurry of activity. As a dedicated Catholic blogger, I felt not posting something on New Year's day would be too much of an oversight. Despite not having anything really profound to convey in this post, I wanted to say to both my readers, Happy New Year!

I don't mind admitting that the past two years have been a little difficult for me. I often reflect on how easy it is to convey a false image online. But I assure you, my life is filled with its challenges, failures, disappointments, arguments, and frustrations. I often grow frustrated with others, with circumstances, and, most of all, with myself. I also must admit that I find maintaining this weblog quite therapeutic. So much so that I would say this past year would've been easier had I taken more to time to reflect on things the way this blog causes me to reflect, which is by helping me to see the bigger picture. I hope that by trying to see and write about the bigger picture without losing touch with reality you find reading what I have to write helpful. I would be the first to say, don't feel obligated to spend time here. Time is the currency of existence spend it wisely. Whether you read what I write or not my pay ($0) remains the same.

In order to have more peace in my life and to enhance the quality of my life, 2018 is the year I am going to significantly alter my relationship to the digital, or cyber, world. Besides having a lot to do, I just want to be happier and less encumbered by the constant assault of social media. What this will entail remains to be seen. I am planning how to manage things. Most of all, I need to spend more time in silence and more time praying. This is not a matter of getting back to any period of time during which I felt closer to the Lord, but a matter of moving forward.

It is easy in our current circumstances to see nothing but dark clouds gathering over the world. In his Urbi et orbi Christmas message, Pope Francis noted that "the winds of war are blowing in our world." Being less connected online is not an attempt to ignore reality. Rather, I want to connect more deeply. In the words of the song, "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me." For peace to begin with me, peace must begin within me. I need to be more at peace in order to live more peaceably with others and be a force for peace in the world, in my community, in my workplace, in my parish, and in my family.

All of this makes me chuckle a bit because writing about it makes it seem so easy. Paradoxically, peace requires a struggle. 2018 is a year for me to really engage in that struggle. One of the means I will use to engage in the struggle for peace is the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I pray the Rosary now almost daily. But I usually pray it on-the-go, not meditatively. Among my goals is to pray the Rosary in a meditative manner at least a few times a week. There are other contemplative practices I need to either resume or begin.

In any case, I do not plan to stop posting here. On the contrary, I plan to continue because blogging, believe it or not, is a source of peace for me. How regularly, as I mentioned yesterday, remains to be seen. One Rosary intention for the New Year is for everyone who reads this blog- that they may be blessed by so doing. Whether being blessed by reading what I post means being consoled, encouraged, or challenged I leave up to the Holy Spirit.

May the peace of God, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, be with you as you embark upon this New Year.

On loving like Jesus loves

Readings: Acts 10:25-26.34-35.44-48; Ps 98:1-4; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17 In the first reading for today, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, t...