Sunday, October 21, 2018

Year B Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 53:10-11; Ps 33:4-5.19-20.22; Heb 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

Our first reading today is again taken from one of the so-called Servant Songs in Isaiah. The Servant in these passages suffers on behalf of others. While in their authorial intention, the Servant Songs are about Israel being delivered from its captivity in Babylon, in their deepest meaning, they are about Jesus Christ and his redemptive suffering and death for us. In the Lord’s passion and death, evil did its worst and was defeated.

Our epistle reading, taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, tells us explicitly what our first reading only hints at. This is not surprising given that Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, asserts: “God… wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New.” (sec. 16).

What is it that our reading from Hebrews makes explicit? As this brilliant letter does in a number of places, our passage for today sets forth in very practical terms why it is important for Jesus to be truly human and truly divine. As a human being, he experienced everything we experience but did so sinlessly. Because he became human, now that he is “seated at the right hand of the Power,” (to borrow his own phrase- Mark 14:62), Jesus is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb 4:16).

What the inspired author of Hebrews likely means by using the word “sympathize,” which is Greek in origin, is probably closer to our word commiserate, which, stated simply, means to share someone else’s misery. In her novel Absolute Truths, Susan Howatch’s character Martin Darrow says to another of her characters, Bishop Charles Ashworth:
It makes all the difference to know there's someone else screaming alongside you - and that's the point of the Incarnation, I can see that so clearly now. God came into the world and screamed alongside us (New York, Fawcett Crest, 341)
Surely, the Incarnation conceived of as God entering into the world to scream alongside us is not too far from what the inspired author of Hebrews had in mind when composing this passage. Prior to his excursus on the Incarnation, Martin said, “God, isn’t life bloody sometimes?” To which the circumspect Bishop Ashworth simply replies, “Yes.” (Ibid.) Because Jesus came to share our sorrows we can approach the throne of grace boldly in prayer for timely help (Heb 4:16).

Our Gospel reading for today is still in the section of Mark’s Gospel often called “On the Way” (See Mark 8:14-10:52). It is called this because these lessons occur as Jesus and the Twelve make their way from their native Galilee to Jerusalem, a trip they make only once in St Mark’s Gospel. Jesus teaches these lessons in discipleship as he makes his way to the cross. While it occurs a few verses before the beginning of today’s reading, this lesson begins, as do the other two, with Jesus predicting his passion and death (Mark 10:33). Without a doubt, these lessons are provocative and challenging. Our response upon reading or hearing them is to domesticate them, water them down, reduce them to our measure. But it's good to let ourselves be provoked by Jesus, who loves us and wants us to be saved.

Each of the three discipleship lessons follows a three-fold pattern: Jesus predicts his passion and death, the Twelve demonstrate they don’t understand by faltering or failing in some way, after they falter, Jesus teaches the Twelve what it means to be his disciples. How the Twelve fail to grasp the fundamentals of Christian discipleship in our Gospel today is that the brothers, the sons of Zebedee, James and John, ask Jesus to let them sit on his right and on his left when he attains his glory. Jesus quickly points out, before the glory it gets pretty gory. Note: even before they tell Jesus what they want, the brothers tell the Lord they want him to do whatever they ask. Isn't that the way with us sometimes? Knowing best, we want God to carry out our demands?

In no uncertain terms, Jesus tells James and John have no have no idea what they are asking (Mark 10:38). He asks, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Ibid.). Demonstrating that they have no clue, they respond: “We can” (Mark 10:39). Jesus then tells them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Ibid.) But the Lord still insists that whoever sits on either side of him in glory is not his to determine (Mark 10:40).

The martyrdom of James, known as James the Greater, to distinguish him from James, Jesus’s relative, known as James the Just, and James the son of Alphaeus, called James the Lesser, is written about in the Acts of the Apostles, which tells of Herod having him “killed by the sword” (Acts 12:2). While Tradition tells us John did not die a martyr, it hands on two attempts to take his life. First, he was boiled in oil in Rome, but emerged from the cauldron not only alive but seemingly renewed in strength, a kind of baptism. It is also handed on that John drank from a chalice that was poisoned and survived. Given their response to Jesus’s prediction of his passion, they likely would have protested any prediction of their own martyrdom with even greater vehemence. This is why Jesus speaks vaguely about what will befall them both.

The heart of today’s lesson is the same as the heart of the previous lesson: “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant” (Mark 10:43-44). The Greek word for “servant” in this passage is diakonos, which, translates into English as “deacon.” Jesus tells them that he, who is the greatest, is great because he came not to be served but to serve, to be a deacon, and like Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, to give his life for others.

According to Jesus, at least for the Twleve, it is not enough to be a servant. He tells them that to be the greatest in God's kingdom they must become the slave (in Greek doulos) of all. This is made very clear in the Kenotic Hymn, found in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, which, referring to Jesus, begins:
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:6-8)
I read recently that among the early Mennonites, who suffered persecution and death, the least useful person was chosen to be the pastor because the pastor was most likely to be martyred, and you didn't want your one cobbler or blacksmith to get killed. Whether this is wholly true or not I don’t know and neither did the Mennonite pastor who shared it. However, she did say she carried this anecdote close to her heart. By doing so, I think she is serving in the manner of Jesus. While this lesson is relevant to all who seek to follow Jesus, I think it is especially applicable to those of us called to holy orders. We are ordained, not to be served but to serve our sisters and brothers. This explains why the first ordained office is that of deacon. To do otherwise is to be guilty of clericalism, which has proven catastrophic for the Church’s witness.

As last week’s Gospel demonstrated, far from being a blessing, riches and material comfort are perhaps the greatest obstacles to entering God’s kingdom. According to Jesus, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for someone who is well-off to enter into the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25). The Lord is not exaggerating when he says it takes an extraordinary act of God for someone who is rich to be saved. It was just such an act that Jesus tried to perform in his encounter with the rich young man, whom Jesus loved (Mark 10:21). Nonetheless, the young man rebuffed Jesus because he “had many possessions” (Mark 10:22), which he apparently valued more than eternal life. For a rich person to enter God’s kingdom, s/he must have the change of heart the rich young man failed to have as a result of his encounter with Jesus.

Like James and the many other Christian martyrs, the cost of following Jesus is your life. According to Jesus, the only way to save your life is to lose for his sake and the sake of God's kingdom. This is true whether you are killed for your faith or whether you pour out your life in service to others. In this and every Eucharist there is an exchange of gifts. Just as Jesus offers himself to us body, blood, soul, and divinity, in exchange, we offer ourselves to the Father, through him, by the power of their Spirit, body, blood, soul, and humanity. It is by offering ourselves as a living sacrifice through Christ that we are able to go forth and bear witness by selflessly serving others in his name for the sake of God’s kingdom (Rom 12:1-2).

Sunday, October 7, 2018

I get by with the help of some friends

These days I try to be more judicious about what I post on social media about my life. Keeping that in mind, I don't think I am over-sharing by stating that prior to yesterday's breakthrough the past two weeks or so I have been in one of my dark, depressive funks. These episodes come upon me unpredictably and sporadically. Typically, they are not prompted by seasonal change. In the early fall, I usually feel quite energized. I suppose the fact that this is my third post today here on Καθολικός διάκονος is evidence of the uptick, or somewhat "manic" side of my mental equation.

There are 6 things that helped pull me through: 1- the love of God, especially given me in the Sacrament of Penance; 2- the intercession of our Blessed Mother (I was able to pray the Rosary daily excepting one day- the nadir- these episodes make it difficult, sometimes impossible to pray); 3- the selfless patience-to-the-point-of-heroic-virtue of my wife; 4- the intercession of my dear heavenly friends Gianni Molla, Matt Talbot, and Cora Evans; 5- my Guardian angel; 6- the music of Amy Grant.

As to the significance of Amy Grant's music in this latest bout with the metaphorical "Black Dog," this past Tuesday, 2 October, Roman Catholics observed liturgical Memorial of the Guardian Angels. As I was reflecting on this observance, Amy's song "Angels" just popped, unbidden, into my mind. This, in turn, prompted me to retrieve her album The Collection, which I have on CD, so I could listen to it in my car. Who knows perhaps the unbidden remembrance of "Angels," which also took me back to my early days a Christian. It wasn't just a sentimental trip but a calling-to-mind that has really helped me.

Perhaps all-too predictably, our late traditio is Amy Grant singing "Thy Word." Now that it is October, a new month, I will endeavor to be more diligent about putting up tradio post and making a few observations along the way.

I will not forget
Your love for me and yet
My heart forever is wandering.
Jesus be my guide,
And hold me to your side,
I will love you to the end

How do two become one?

Readings: Gen 2:18-24; Ps 128:1-6; Heb 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16

Given how contentious the subject of marriage has become, I am tempted to avoid our reading from Genesis and the Gospel and focus instead on the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. It is not a surprise to both my readers that, apart from the Gospel of Mark, Hebrews is perhaps my favorite of all books found in the Bible.

It is useful to note that during the long season of Ordinary Time that runs from Corpus Christi to the Feast of the Christ the King, we read from the featured Gospel (we're in Year B of the three-year Lectionary cycle and so that Gospel is Mark's) in a semi-continuous manner. In the Lectionary during this time, the first reading, taken from the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, is harmonized with the Gospel reading. The Epistle readings, on the other hand, are also presented in a semi-continuous manner. And so, we spend several weeks reading from one of the New Testament letters. Last week we finished our time in the Letter of St. James. The Epistle reading may or may not be harmonized with the first reading and the Gospel. It would seem, at first glance, that our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews this week is not harmonized.

Someone may protest - "Wait a minute! The first reading and the Gospel speak about marriage and the Epistle reading tells us how we are made perfect through suffering. How much more harmony could you ask for, dim-witted deacon?" Okay, okay! There is both a mildly humorous, if very clichéd, and a serious sense in which these readings are in harmony or can be meaningfully harmonized. I know from the experience of being married for 25 years that two being made one flesh is a painful becoming. Anyone who has been married for awhile, even if "happily," can also attest to this reality. The secret to remaining married, as far as I can tell, is just not to give up. You're never beaten until you quit.

If the existential realization of becoming one flesh is having children together, then, like marriage, the difficulties and pains, the joys and sorrows, of raising children is a means of sanctification, a way to become holy together. You must become holy together. Nobody is sanctified all by herself. If, as the Buddha asserted, to live is to suffer, to love, which always requires us to take a risk, is not only to endure suffering but to do so by choice. It's not a one-time choice but one you need to make over and over. If we're honest, in marriage and as parents, suffering is not only that which we endure, but is something we inflict on others due to our weakness, our forgetfulness, our tendency to be very self-centered. So, despite the apparent lack of harmony, there is, in fact, a deep harmony between our reading from Hebrews and our readings from Genesis and Mark concerning marriage and not merely a trivial, clichéd, and mildly humorous one.

As the our reading from Hebrews tells us, Christ is our leader on the way to salvation. Therefore, it becomes necessary as we make our way to the Sabbath rest that the inspired author of this letter, which was probably a long sermon, articulates so beautifully, to unite our sufferings to the Lord's so that they might have salvific value not only for us but for the whole world.

Lest I strike too depressing a note, for most of us, marriage and parenting are not only sources of suffering but sources of life's greatest joys. This seems to be a law of human of life: those relationships that cause us the most pain are also, at least potentially, the source of life's greatest joy.

Of course, as Catholics, we believe that marriage is a sacramental sign of Christ's relationship with his Bride, the Church. We believe that the Church is the sacrament of salvation in and for the world. Being not just a sign, but a sacramental one, which means that it is what it signifies (this is what makes it a mystery), married couples mediate Christ's presence to the world and for it. By making their homes a domestic church, married couples give deep meaning to the Church as the sacrament of salvation. Home is a place where everyone belongs. A place where you come as you are, as who are, and are assured of a warm, hospitable welcome.

In what is known as Jesus's High Priestly Prayer, which is St John's account of Christ's prayer in the garden, after which his excruciating Passion began to unfold, the Lord prayed that those who believe in him would "all be one" (John 17:21). In addition to praying that we all be one, as he one with Father, he intimated how this unity is achieved. Praying to the Father in the Spirit, Jesus prayed: "I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one..." (John 17:23). The relevant question this prompts is: How does Jesus come to be in us? The top-level answer is, Jesus comes to be in us by the Holy Spirit. More specifically, that is, more concretely, Christ comes to be present in by means of the sacraments. More precisely still, Christ comes to be present among us, in us, and through us in the Eucharist. It is the Eucharist that makes e pluribus unum - out of many, one.

It is through his self-emptying in the Eucharist that Christ makes manifest his love for his Bride, which is nothing other than love for the world and everyone in it. Among the expressions of the unity wrought by the Eucharist, marriage might just be the premiere expression, if married couples seek to intentionally live their marriage as the sacrament it intended to be. I am hard-pressed to imagine anything in the world designed to make us less selfish, to make us more self-emptying and self-sacrificial than marriage and parenting. Of course, this doesn't happen through mere sentiment, through affectivity- though it would be impossible without any. It happens by engaging daily circumstances, facing life's ups and downs, all of those possibilities mentioned when we make our vows: for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, etc. Like most vows and religious stuff, this much easier sad than done.

While not brought about exclusively through suffering, two becoming one requires endurance through thick and thin. Our Sunday readings these past several weeks have been teaching us about what I like to call the inverse property of salvation: without the cross there is no resurrection and with the resurrection the cross is pointless cruelty. Today's lesson is a powerful one.

Ushering in God's Reign is not primarily a political project

Several years ago I gave up blogging about current events for the most part. In short, I am too busy to keep up with the onslaught of what happens everyday enough to provide commentary on it. Heaven knows, there is enough news commentary without me pitching in my two cents. I cannot imagine attempting to keep up during this made-for-Reality-television presidency. This does not mean I have given up staying abreast of what's happening in my community, state, country, and in the world.

Like a lot of people, I have found the Kavanaugh hearings very hard to take. The outcome (i.e. Kavanaugh being confirmed) is most disheartening. I think the legitimacy of the Supreme Court has been very tenuous for most Americans for decades. Kavanaugh's confirmation, in my view, will only serve to further de-legitimize the court.

As someone who has blogged for 12 years and counting it's difficult not to be somewhat self-referential. With that confession, I will assert again: the Supreme Court, like the presidency, currently plays a role in our republic it was never envisioned to play. This is the result of Congress, both houses, largely abdicating their role. Kavanaugh's confirmation, topped off by what I can only describe as Sen. Susan Collins's very disappointing speech on Friday, is but the latest case in point of this abdication. Don't worry, what follows is not a detailed account of what has transpired these in Washington, D.C. these past two weeks. I haven't the time or energy to produce such a post.

Writing for, Simone Stolzoff asserts that there is a horrendous downside of great perks at the office (see "Cushy office perks are a trap"). Indeed, there are. Her article runs deeper than the title indicates (this is refreshing, in the age of "content" it is usually the opposite). Stolzoff cites Neil Postman, a most prescient observer: "Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history ... As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think."

I think Orwell and Huxley were both right. On an even more fundamental matter Dostoevsky was correct. This is powerfully demonstrated in a section of his great novel The Brothers Karamazov entitled "The Grand Inquisitor." In "The Grand Inquisitor," Dostovesky powerfully demonstrated that we don't really want to be free. Our resistance to the liberation Christ came to bring has been detrimental for the Church. Instead of standing prophetically against our ultimately nihilistic human impulses made respectable by politics, with rare exceptions here and there (Oscar Romero, pray for us), the Church has often caved into these and, hence, very much become a distortion of what she is supposed to be. Ah, the Casta Meretrix, or Chaste Whore.

Soon-to-be-saint Oscar Romero

Midterm elections are approaching. Obviously, the political stakes in this particular election are high. There are a lot of impassioned pleas to vote, including ones from Christians. I read an article in a Catholic publication this past week that asserted it is by voting that we help bring about the Kingdom of God. This is false. Voting in an election, no matter who you vote for or how well-informed and conscientious your vote, will not usher in the reign of God (i.e., the kingdom of God). This is not an anti-voting screed. Though I think, when one looks at viable candidates, there is a case to be made for conscientiously choosing not to vote. Voting is not a moral requirement. If you conscientiously choose not to vote, you have committed no sin. Not voting doesn't mean you must remain silent, what a bunch of crap that assertion is. I write this as someone who votes and who plans to vote in the upcoming election, despite it largely being an exercise in futility. I am slow to shed the vestiges of moralism.

While politics matter, they are provisional, not ultimate. This is why, as Catholics, voting requires no little prudential judgment. Things like not voting for a candidate because s/he supports abortion-on-demand but being able, morally, to vote for such a candidate despite her/his pro-abortion stance based on other factors is one example of what I mean by using prudential judgment when voting. After all, there are certain social policies that can empirically be shown to reduce abortions. Sadly, most, if not all, of these policies are opposed by many people who also oppose abortion. While opposing abortion is necessary for being pro-life, it is not sufficient. Our bishops in the U.S. have given us fairly good guidance on the prudential judgment voting requires: Faithful Citizenship.

The revolution required for God's reign cannot and will not be primarily a matter of worldly power-seeking, that is, politics. This is where the witness of Bl. (soon to be saint) Oscar Romero can inform us in a very detailed and contemporary manner. As is asserted in Ephesians: "our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness..." (6:12). Romero grasped and articulated this very well:
Don't become fanatics because you don't look from within this one organization, of this one project, at the whole political panorama of the common good of our people. You have to be a citizen who, from the perspective of Christian hope, understands another who has a different political project, and work together to seek the kingdom of God so that it might be made flesh...
This is also demonstrated by an observation made by the late and saintly Don Hélder Câmara, a Brazilian prelate who served as archbishop of Olinda and Recife from 1964-1985: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."

Year B Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 3:13-15.17-19; Ps 4:2.4.7-9; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:25-48 “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his incredulous...