Sunday, September 30, 2018

Year B Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Num 11:25-29; Ps 19:8.10.12-14; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-43.45.47-48

Nearly fifty years ago, theologian Karl Rahner observed: “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all” (Karl Rahner, “Christian Living Formerly and Today,” in Theological Investigations VII, trans. David Bourke, New York: Herder and Herder, 1971, 15, as quoted by Mary Steinmetz in her article “Thoughts on the Experience of God in the Theology of Karl Rahner: Gifts and Implications,” 1). From a Christian perspective, a mystic, at least for Rahner, as well as in the Church’s tradition, is not someone with her head in the clouds all the time, who lives a life disconnected from the world, its people and their concerns. A mystic is a person in whom God’s transcendence and God’s immanence intersect. Because it flows from the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, Christian spirituality is always incarnational. For the genuine mystic, love of neighbor is the result of experiencing divine love.

Mysticism is the fruit of contemplation. Contemplation, in turn, is the root of Christian action. Thomas Merton put this simply: “Action is the stream and contemplation is the spring” (No Man Is an Island, 73- First Shambala Library edition).

In light of our first reading, we may well ask, “What does it mean to be a prophet?” As Moses’s response indicates, a prophet is a person filled with the Spirit. As we learn elsewhere in Scripture, like the wind, the Spirit “blows where it wills” (John 3:8). As a result, while the Church, being the sacrament of salvation in and for the world (Lumen Gentium, sec. 48), remains indispensable (albeit not in the way we are inclined to think it so), no group or person has a monopoly on God. As the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World stated:
since Christ died for all [people], and since the ultimate vocation of [every human being] is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every[one] the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery (Gaudium et Spes, sec. 22)
If there’s one thing we should learn from Jesus’s life and ministry it is that God is made manifest to us in the most unpredictable ways. Because God is always at work in the world in the most unexpected people and situations, overcoming the idolatry to which we are all naturally quite prone, means recognizing that we can’t manufacture an encounter with the Mystery. Finding God, as it were, is very often counter-intuitive. The most profound proof of this assertion is that the Son of God, Jesus, whom we revere as the Christ, became one of us, not as the emperor Rome, but as a marginal member of a marginal people. From a worldly perspective, Jesus was born a nobody.

In the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus and the Twelve journey to Jerusalem from their native Galilee only once. We are currently reading from the section of St. Mark’s Gospel that is referred to by some scholars as “On the Way” (“On the Way” section Mark 8:14-10:52). It begins with the restoration of the blind man’s sight in Bethsaida and ends with Jesus’s restoration of Bartimaeus’s sight in Jericho just before heading up the mountain to Jerusalem, where he will undergo his thrice-predicted passion and death.

From Bethsaida, Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages in the region of Caesarea-Philippi. It is while making their way to Caesarea-Philippi that Peter, speaking for the Twelve, confesses Jesus as “the Christ” (Mark 8:29). With the first prediction of his passion and death that follows Peter’s confession, the Lord inaugurates what might be called a school of discipleship, which he teaches as he makes his way to the cross (Mark 8:31).

This school of discipleship consists of three lessons, each of which begins with Jesus predicting his passion and death. These lessons follow a three-fold pedagogy: Jesus predicts his passion and death, the Twelve demur, Jesus teaches his reluctant followers what it means to be his disciple. Our Gospel reading for today is part of the second lesson. Last week’s Gospel, which was the beginning of the second lesson in Christian discipleship, ended with the Lord’s insistence that whoever would be greatest must become the least, by which he means becoming childlike (Mark 8:33-37).

In the first section of today’s Gospel, Jesus expands what it means to be the least, to be childlike, which is infinitely different from being childish. The difference between the two primarily consists of the difference between being selfless and selfish.

The first part of today's Gospel is about not being jealous and narrow-minded in a childish way. One of the Twelve, John, becomes upset when he encounters someone driving out demons in Jesus’s name. He was so upset, in fact, that he tried to stop the man from doing it because he did not belong to Jesus’s traveling band of disciples. Jesus challenges John’s indignation directly by stating that “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). Being much like John, we often reverse this by insisting that “whoever is not for us is against us.”

Of course, in St. Matthew’s Gospel we find Jesus saying, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (See Matthew 12:26-30). It is important to notice the difference in context between these two utterances. The one John encounters healing in Jesus’s name is gathering with Jesus, cooperating in his ministry of liberating people from their demons. In the context of Matthew’s quote, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of the devil. Those who oppose him in that instance are not interested in the liberation Christ brings, they remain intent to lay heavy burdens on themselves and on others (Matthew 23:4).

All of this allows us to conclude by considering our very challenging Epistle reading, taken from the Letter of James. After the manner of Jesus, the inspired author reminds us that far from being a blessing from God, riches and/or focusing your life on obtaining them is a curse and a path to damnation. This flies in the face of a lot of what passes for Christianity in the U.S. Inexplicably, many U.S. Catholics have adopted this very un-Catholic view. Such a view holds either explicitly or implicitly that wealth and prosperity are God's blessing on the righteous and God-fearing. The Gospel insists on the opposite; riches and material comfort are obstacles to salvation, not assurances of it in the here and now.

Today, my friends, we need to take Jesus's insistence that the greatest in God's kingdom is the least with the utmost seriousness. This means investing your time, efforts and resources in ushering in God's reign. In the end, investing in others, especially in those who lack life's necessities, is the only investment worth making. Orthodoxy means correct confession, or, more simply, right belief. Orthopraxy, on the other hand, refers to correct practice or doing the right thing. As would-be disciples of Jesus, we need to recognize that “there is no orthodoxy without orthopraxy” (Vladimir Lossky cited by Jonathan Warren in “Lancelot Andrewes, the Star of Preachers”).

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Year B Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 50:5-9a; Ps 116:1-6.8-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35

What does it mean to have faith? Too often we reduce faith to mere belief, to affirming the truth of certain propositions. Defined this way, faith doesn’t require anything other than holding certain beliefs. From a Christian perspective, this way of defining faith is utterly inadequate. This is made clear in our challenging reading from the Letter of James, which tells us not only that faith without works is dead but insists that faith without works is no faith at all.

The flower of faith is hope and its fruit is love. Just as faith does not consist of intellectually affirming a bunch of stuff, love does not exclusively, or even primarily, consist of having positive feelings for others. While love usually has an affective dimension, at its core, it isn’t a feeling, but an act of your will. Love means making the choice to put the interests of someone else before your own. Love, then, is often a very difficult choice.

As Christians, living our faith is not easy. Following Christ doesn’t just cost you something, it costs you everything. Faith that is true brings the person of faith to the realization that the glory of the resurrection only comes after the cross. Hence, it is important not to try to evade or avoid the cross. Besides, in the end, you can’t.

If the Buddha was right about anything, he was right in his assertion that to live is to suffer. Suffering, in some form or another, will afflict you if it has not already. Anyone with any experience of life can attest to this. Hence, you do not need to find ways to make yourself suffer. Spiritualities that bid you inflict suffering on yourself should be avoided. Neither is God the cause of your suffering.

It is difficult if not impossible to preach or write about suffering without sounding glib. As I prepared this homily I thought of many people who have suffered greatly, much more than I have, saying “If you experienced what I have experienced you couldn’t say what you’re trying to say.” In all honesty, these people may be correct. I have no great counter-argument to this.

In a soon-to-be-published book, Cistercian monk Erik Varden wrote: “The anguish of the world… is embraced by an infinite benevolence investing it with purpose” (see “Spirituality without platitudes”- The Tablet Interview: Erik Varden, 12 September 2018, by Maggie Fergusson). When questioned in an interview how you might communicate this to someone experiencing intense suffering without angering that person or at least making her roll her eyes, Varden said, “One can only try to communicate it by trying to embody the benevolence without naming it” (Ibid). Where words fail, works prevail.

How you respond to suffering is a good gauge of faith. Suffering provides you with the opportunity to experience faith. In and of itself, suffering has no redemptive value. What gives suffering redemptive value is the work wrought by having faith, by which you can unite your suffering to Christ’s (Col 1:24). Suffering presents you with an opportunity to experience not only that God is with you when you suffer but shows you just how God works in and through your suffering to accomplish his purposes in you and through you, if you let him. After all, Jesus himself, as we learn in the Letter to the Hebrews, was made “perfect through suffering” (Heb 2:10).

Our first reading today is a passage from one of four so-called Servant Songs found in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The central figure in these texts is the Suffering Servant, which, as Christians, we view as prophecies about Christ. The Servant Songs were written during Israel’s exile in Babylon, a time when Israel was suffering greatly. Ancient Israelites believed themselves to be God’s chosen people and Israel was their promised land. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to imagine the cognitive dissonance that resulted from Israel being conquered by a foreign power, having the Temple desecrated, their land occupied, and many Israelites led away into captivity. Is this what God lets happen to his chosen people? Is this how God keeps his promises?

While walking to the villages in the region of Caesarea Philippi, the Lord asks his disciples what people were saying about him, who they thought he was. Keep in mind, they are still in their native Galilee and have not yet ventured to Jerusalem where Jesus will encounter fierce opposition, much fiercer than what he encountered in our Gospel reading two weeks ago when certain Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem were questioning him about his disciples’ lax observance of Jewish law. This is why the responses to his question about what people were saying about him were positive: John the Baptist, Elijah or another of the prophets.

When Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, Peter, speaking on behalf of the Twelve, confesses him as “the Anointed.” Christos, or “Christ,” is a Greek word meaning “Anointed.” At this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is still keeping what some New Testament scholars call “the Messianic Secret.” In other words, despite his teaching, healing, and performing miracles, he is not yet ready to fully reveal himself as the Messiah, the Christ. This is why “he warned them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8:30).

Grasping that his disciples knew he was the Christ, “He began to teach them that [he] must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days” (Mark 8:31). His disciples not only found this incomprehensible but unacceptable. This is what prompted Peter to pull him aside and rebuke him. In reply, Jesus told him frankly that he was thinking in a very human way, a way in which the Lord, being human, was also tempted think. This human way of thinking stands in stark contrast to the ways of God. Christ was glorified not just through his suffering and death but by his suffering and death.

The Lord is not content to leave the matter by only referring to his own rejection, “great” suffering, and death. Gathering his disciples around him, Jesus tells them what it means to follow him. Following Jesus means denying yourself and taking up your cross. The ultimate denial of one’s self is the willingness to lose one’s life for Christ’s sake and the sake of the Good News. This could refer to martyrdom or to simply living in a sacrificial manner for Christ.

It bears noting that traditionally the Gospel of Mark is held to originate from the seventh decade of the first century in Rome. The milieu in which this Gospel was written, then, was one in which Christians were being persecuted and even killed by the Roman authorities. One way to save your life in such circumstances is to deny your faith. If we jump ahead three verses beyond where our reading for this Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time ends, to the last verse of the eighth chapter of St. Mark, Jesus says something very sobering: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words… the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). To know the Lord and to be ashamed of him, to renounce him, is worse than never knowing him at all.

As Jesus showed us by his passion and death, the road to glory is not glorious. Denying yourself to serve others as well as bearing your own suffering for Christ’s sake is the work genuine faith produces. This is captured well by St. Paul at the beginning of the second chapter of his Second Letter to the Corinthians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God (2 Cor 1:3-4)
The point here is summed up very nicely by the first line of the final stanza of the Prayer of St. Francis: "O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console." The final line of this prayer is relevant for us today as well: "it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."

What Peter does not like about what Jesus tells him after confessing him as “the Christ” is the same thing we don't like, namely, without exception, the cross precedes the resurrection. This reveals that, like Peter, we often think in an all-too-human way. This means we need to repent. Metanoia is the word found in the New Testament that is usually translated into English as “repent” (see Mark 1:14). Metanoia does not mean showing contrition, or sorrow, for your sins . It means having your mind transformed by the Spirit so that you can have what St. Paul calls “the mind of Christ” (see 1 Cor 2:11-16). This transformation is a lifelong process, a process in which suffering plays a key role.

Having the mind of Christ means understanding you gain through loss, you win by losing, you live by dying. Far from sparing you trouble, choosing to follow Jesus may be the source of worldly troubles. Faith certainly will not spare you all suffering. Surely, conquering in the paradoxical manner of Jesus is precisely what the inspired author of 1 John refers to when he writes: “And the victory that conquers the world is our faith” (1 John 5:4).

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Ephphatha! Open our hearts

Readings: Isa 3:4-7a; Ps 146:6-10; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37

This past week, Wednesday in fact, the Church observed the liturgical memorial of St Teresa of Calcutta. St Teresa is more familiarly known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, a religious order that serves the poorest of the poor. I point to Mother Teresa because her life exemplified the overarching point of our readings today, which is that we best perceive Jesus in the poor. It was Mother Teresa who, speaking of the poor she spent her life serving, said: "Each one of them is Jesus in disguise." Michael Card wrote and recorded a lovely song about this: "Distressing Disguise."

It is so obvious that we don't notice it most of the time, but Christianity, the Church, at least in the United States and most advanced Western countries, is largely a middle-to-upper class affair. Our churches are comfortable places, which, while theoretically open to everyone, practically have become places in which a person of the kind described in our second reading would likely never set foot. Look around your church this weekend. How many poor people, people on the margins, people who are down-and-out do you see? Chances are none-to-very few. Looking around we probably see people very much like ourselves. Of course, there's probably ethnic and cultural diversity, there are men and women, girls and boys. If you look closer, there may even be some gay or lesbian folks. No doubt, it is good that there is (hopefully) a fairly diverse assembly gathering together to praise and worship God in Christ by the power of the Spirit. A good thing for us to consider today before being sent forth to proclaim the Good News, however, is how committed is your congregation, your parish, to serving the poor and inviting them to the Eucharistic banquet. It's important that our parish's main mission is not serving ourselves. This is just the kind of self-referential sickness Pope Francis is calling on the Church to diagnose and treat.

Our very challenging reading from the Letter of St James ends with the inspired author posing rhetorical question: "Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?" The answer to this question is, "Yes, God chose the poor." This is not some metaphor, it is meant quite literally. Most of the earliest Christian assemblies consisted, to a large degree, of the urban poor. This should be a perennial challenge to each of us individually and to our local assemblies.

That God reaches out to all is profoundly demonstrated in our Gospel today, which finds Jesus in a non-Jewish area, the Decapolis. The man who was brought to Jesus was almost certainly a Gentile, as were the people who brought him. At that time, to be deaf and mute was a much worse handicap than it is now. There was no such thing as universal sign language, which meant those who could not hear or speak could not communicate or be communicated with very easily. They were outcasts who were often reduced to begging in order survive. Jesus's healing of the man is a sure sign that he is the Messiah foretold by our first reading in Isaiah.

Something to which we need to attend in these readings is the prophecy and its fulfillment. Isaiah's prophecy is given in very flowery and exalted language. It is given in a way that makes the hearer think "When this happens, I will perceive it." But the prophecy's fulfillment happens in the real-world and in real-time. It consists of Jesus agreeing to lay his hand on a deaf and if not mute then inarticulate deaf Gentile who was brought to him. Look at what Jesus does: he takes the man off by himself, sticks his fingers in his ears, spits, then touching the man's tongue, looks up to heaven while groaning and utters the Aramaic word Ephphatha!, which means "Be opened!" I can only read this as being indicative of Jesus, the Messiah and Lord, laboring to bring about the Messianic kingdom, which is a new creation. This Kingdom is open to anyone and everyone, Gentiles as well as Jews. In God's Kingdom there is no us and them, there is only an us. In short, everything that Isaiah mentions is happening but you can perceive it only if you're paying attention and have idea as to what you're looking for.

All who witnessed the miracle Jesus performed could not keep quiet about it, despite the Lord imploring them not to tell anyone. In fact, the more he implored them to keep quiet the more compelled they were to tell others what they had seen him do. While most if not all of the witnesses were Gentiles, simply proclaiming what Jesus had done (i.e., "He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak"), they hail him as the Messiah. Even if only to his Jewish disciples, who no doubt were with him, it became a matter of Gentiles evangelizing the Jews: "Look! Here is your Messiah!"

How we hear and see Jesus is in the poor, the destitute, the outcast, the victim, which in our current situation is vitally important. There's a reason Jesus proclaimed that tax collectors and prostitutes were closer to God's Kingdom than many who considered themselves righteous. If we fail to see Jesus in these least then we remain deaf and blind. If deaf, then mute, not literally mute, but because our deeds do not match our words they are rendered, not unintelligible, incredible, that is, lacking any credibility. If we remain in this state, instead of being heralds of the Good News, we become purveyors of pious piffle. Today let us pray, "Lord, open our eyes, our ears, and hearts that we might recognize you in all your disguises, many of which are distressing to us."

To flesh this out more, I invite you to read as article by Dr. John M. Perkins that appears in the current issue of Plough, a quarterly to which you should subscribe: "Beyond Racial Reconciliation."

Saturday, September 8, 2018

"There will be an answer, let it be"

I did not forget to post a traditio yesterday. I was simply busy with many things, good things. Unlike my early days as a blogger, blogging is way down on my list of priorities. I have been thinking all week about the Viganò "testimony," which is turning out be mostly false. I have been rather vocal about it o social media. On my blog and henceforth on other social media platforms I am taking Pope Francis's high road, confident that what the testimony declares as it bears on Francis's conduct as pope is simply not true. His story unravels more each day.

I will point to a statement by my former bishop, John Wester, who now serves as archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in support of Pope Francis. More than his public support for the Holy Father, I think he hit the nail on the head when he denounces that smear campaign against the pope as vile in that it detracts from the victims. Exploiting the crisis in this way is cynical in the extreme. In many ways, as a Church, we still do not get it.

On a brighter note, today is the Nativity of the Blessed Mary. Yes, today we celebrate the birthday of the Mother of God, Mary most holy. We need our Blessed Mother's intercession very badly in our present moment. So, pray the Rosary today. May I suggest the Glorious Mysteries, which include the Virgin's bodily Assumption into heaven and her coronation as Queen of Heaven?

A photo I took of a page from a book on the Rosary's Glorious Mysteries we use with our young sons

I can't claim to be a great fan of The Beatles. By no means does this indicate I don't like the band. My ambivalence toward The Beatles is more generational than anything. One Beatles' song I have always loved, even prior to becoming Roman Catholic in my 20s is "Let It Be." In fact, when I was diaconate formation I wrote a reflection on this song for an assignment. In college, towards the beginning of the time I started to think seriously about becoming Catholic, I had a powerful experience with this song. This experience was the focus of the reflection I wrote in formation. It also coheres with Pope Francis's serene approach to the falsehoods.

Unsurprisingly, our weekly traditio is The Beatles' "Let It Be." I am posting it with a twist- the recently departed Aretha Franklin singing it. Yes, I grasp that this twice in just a few weeks I have made recourse to Aretha singing Marian songs. I am weird like that, deal with it.

All in all, another pretty distressing week. Be assured I am working hard on not reducing my blog to a catalogue of woes. I don't mind saying I am finding that pretty difficult right now, which is a reason I have not posted much lately. You see, as a Roman Catholic clergyman in the United States right now it is difficult to write or say anything that doesn't relate to the abuse crisis, lest you be seen as ignoring the elephant in the room. On the other hand, what else is there to say, really? Words fail, get old, begin to make matters worse, not better.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Year B Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Deut 4:1-2.6-8; Ps 15:2-5; James 1:17-18.21b-22.27; Mark 7:1-8.14-15.21.23

The end or purpose of God’s Law, known by Jews as the Torah, is to “love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Deut 6:5) and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). Hence, the Torah itself was given to Israel, God’s chosen people, as the means to achieve this end. This is why, in our first reading from Deuteronomy, the Israelites are sternly warned against adding to or subtracting from the Torah. Truth be told, over the centuries, they both added to and subtracted from it.

The result of adding and subtracting was that many in Israel, including the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’s day, undoubtedly with the best of intentions, became very hung up on the minute details of the Law. For many observant Jews, adhering to the Torah meant obeying the 613 mitzvot. Mitzvot is a Hebrew word that means “words.” The 613 words, then, are rules, that is, prescriptions and proscriptions, dos and donts.

The scribes and Pharisees in our Gospel today criticized Jesus’s followers for eating without first ritually washing their hands. Lest we read back into the Gospel in an anachronistic way, it is important to point out that this ritual had nothing to do with hygiene- nothing was then known about germs and microbes. According to St Mark, the ritual of washing one’s hands up to the elbows before eating was a “tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3). Stated simply, not only is Jesus saying whether or not you wash your hands before eating has no bearing on whether you are righteous (to the delight of children everywhere), he contends that what you eat doesn’t matter either. In other words, eating non-kosher foods does not defile you. According to Jesus, what defiles are the long list of things he enumerates. These, he states in no uncertain terms, come from within, not from without.

The essence of Jesus’s criticism of the hand-washing ritual was that the scribes and Pharisees with whom he was disputing were substituting man-made rules for divine commandments. We need to always keep in mind, as truly observant Jews then and now certainly do, that the Torah was given as a means to the end of loving God and neighbor. God’s Law has no other purpose. This is why Jesus calls them hypocrites. Hypokrites is a Greek word for an actor whose face is hidden behind a mask. In this context, Jesus is telling the scribes and Pharisees who are criticizing his disciples that because they mistake the means for the end they are phonies, play actors, observing the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit and purpose.

Never once did Jesus denigrate the Torah. How could he? Who the Lord is critical of are those who add to and/or subtract from it. He is critical of those who seek to make the means the end, who think righteousness is simply a matter of rule-keeping, not love. Jesus always teaches from the heart of the Torah. The commandment to love God with your whole being is given in the Torah- Deuteronomy 6:5- as is the command to love your neighbor as you love yourself- Leviticus 19:18. What is sin after all if not my failure to love? That sin is a failure to love is indicated in the Act of Contrition, which we say after confessing our sins and before receiving absolution: “in choosing to do wrong and failing to good I have sinned against you, whom I should love above all things.” We all know first-hand that it is easy to honor God with our lips while keeping our hearts far from him. A big part of what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).

Heaven knows, as Catholics we have plenty of rules: fasting one hour before receiving communion, observing Fridays as days of penance, abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals on Fridays of Lent, fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, coming to Mass each Sunday and on holy days, going to confession at least once a year, materially supporting the Church, etc. As disciples of Jesus, all of us should routinely practice the spiritual disciplines taught us by the Lord himself: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Far from disparaging any of this, I think they are important enough to find out why we are obligated to do them and then to do them in the proper spirit, which means doing them in order to learn to love like Jesus loves.

In light of what’s recently been revealed recently, about which we have spoken the previous two Sundays, this Friday, 7 September, the first Friday of this new month, Bishop Oscar has called for a day of prayer, penance and reparation in all parishes and schools throughout our diocese. Apart from giving us the specific intention of penance, healing and reparation, our bishop has only asked of us what our pastor, Fr Rene, asks of us the first Friday of each month going back several years: to set aside a time on First Fridays for a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, to celebrate Benediction and assist at Mass. I think it is important to point out that this is not an obligation. It is not something you must do. You are free to participate or not. If not an obligation, this Friday certainly presents us with the opportunity to come together as a community formed by the Eucharist and together turn to the Lord, who is Mercy. Coming together around the Eucharist also gives us the chance to resist the temptation to divide into “us” and “them,” the “goodies” and the “baddies.” Christ became human, became our brother, became one of us in order to make of humanity only an us without a them. His means of doing this is the Church, which is made by the Eucharist.

Our reading from the Letter of St James challenges us not to just be hearers of God’s word but to be doers of it. To receive God’s word and not act on it, James tells us, is to deceive yourself. Much religion, I think we can safely say, is bad religion. Even Christianity can be twisted, distorted and put to evil use. Such forms of Christianity, of course, are not genuine. Too often we are content to worship a God of our own making, which is idolatry, the first thing the Ten Commandments forbid. By contrast, being a Christian means constantly having your understanding of God challenged and so deepened. Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has challenged the Church repeatedly on this point.

True religion, James reminds us, demands that we care for the afflicted and keep ourselves “unstained by the world.” These are not two separate things; they are integrally related. Grasping that caring for the afflicted and keeping ourselves unstained by the world are inextricably linked enables us to do away with the false distinction between “compromising activities” and “pure realities.” Compromising activities are activities we must engage to some extent simply as a matter of being alive and human, things like “the family, the state, the individual body, psyche” (Rowan Williams The Wound of Knowledge, 11). “Pure realities,” on the other hand are those things held by people who adopt this kind of dualism as being “really real,” “the soul, the intelligible world,” etc (Ibid).

Christianity is easily co-opted by various kinds of reality-denying Gnosticism, which quickly turns into spiritual solipsism. When this happens, a person becomes completely concerned with something called individual holiness. If holiness consists of loving God and neighbor after the manner of Jesus, then it is impossible to attain holiness all on your own, without other people. After all, one person is no person. Proof of this is that God is a communion of persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. Far from keeping our distance from the world, in order to remain unstained by it we must engage with the world precisely as Christians. Doing this requires a community, which is why we have a parish and why our parish is not merely some kind of spiritual fill-up station. Rather, being formed by the Eucharist, we strive to be an authentic community.

At the end of Mass, we are not sent forth to hideout until we gather together again next Sunday. Rather, we are sent forth to “glorify the Lord by our [lives]” (Roman Missal, sec. 144). We do this by living our daily circumstances through Christ, with Christ, in Christ and for Christ. We do this, in turn, by loving God with all that we are by loving our neighbor in all that we do.

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...