Monday, December 30, 2019
I must tell you, dear reader, the later into the year we went the more difficult blogging became. This is due primarily to the pace of my life. It bears noting, yet again, life trumps blogging. But it's good to look back. So, below you find a list of posts, one from each month, that I think represents the best of 2019. I kind of shy away from using either my Friday traditio, my Sunday reflections on the readings, or homilies on this list. However, I don't preclude them outright.
I would be happy for anyone to share a post or posts they read here this year that they found meaningful and a brief note as to why you found meaningful.
January:- "Books and the world; Catholicism versus Catholisilly"
February:- "The humanity inherent in Christian monasticism"
March:- "We fast to 'fill the emptiness of our hearts'"
April:- "Hope in desolation: the burning of Notre Dame"
May:- "Quiet revolutions bring lasting change"
June:- "Becoming affirming: mileposts along the way"
July:- "The (temporarily?) disrupted quest for a more perfect union"
August:- "Depression and hope through faith"
September:- "But to stand there it takes some grace"
October:- "Another 'take' for Evening Prayer I- Sunday, Week III"
November:- "A thought or two about Thanksgiving"
December:- "Looking past Christmas gives me hope "
Hopefully, I will see you "here" in the New Year, the beginning of a new decade. It's hard to believe that the 2020s will be the third decade in which this little, independent blogging effort, which began so oddly, continues.
Sunday, December 29, 2019
At first glance, the Holy Family appears to be a traditional family. But it is not, at least not if we believe what we profess in the Creed: “by the Holy Spirit [Jesus] was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”1 While Jesus is God’s Only Begotten Son, he is the adopted son of Saint Joseph. On the other hand, we are God’s adopted children through Christ.
One effect of our rebirth in baptism is that we become members of God’s family, the Church. God is our Father and the Church is our Mother and Mary is Mater Ecclesiae, Mother of the Church and so our mother. Therefore, God’s family is not a traditional family but an eschatological one.
What does it mean to say that God’s family is eschatological? Perhaps it’s best to let Jesus answer. Later in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, when his Mother and brothers turn up unexpectedly, he asks: “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”2 He then answers his own question: “whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.”3
Is this to say that blood family is not important? Of course not! But it does give us the divine perspective and helps us to grasp that because of baptism our identity is found in Christ, who “by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”4
As to family, the section of the Book of Sirach from which our first reading is taken is a commentary of sorts on the Ten Commandments. In light of Jesus’s teaching that “The whole law and the prophets depend on” the two great commandments: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind… You shall love your neighbor as yourself”- it is easy to extrapolate that the first three commandments have to do with loving God and the final seven are how you love your neighbor.5
But the fourth commandment, the placement of which is not random, “Honor your father and your mother," occupies a unique place between the first three, which are about loving God, and the final six about love of neighbor.6 Parents, even missing, absent, or deceased parents, occupy a unique space between God and other people.
You may not be aware of it, but your perception of God, at least in part, was formed by your parents. For those of us who are parents, this realization should frighten us a bit. Do you see God as an angry judge, a cosmic cop, a galactic killjoy? Or do you see God as the loving, caring, merciful, and kind Father he is, like the father of the prodigal?7
Pope Francis, in his Christmas homily, spoke beautifully about God’s fatherhood:
God does not love you because you think and act the right way. He loves you, plain and simple. His love is unconditional; it does not depend on you. You may have mistaken ideas, you may have made a complete mess of things, but the Lord continues to love you. How often do we think that God is good if we are good and punishes us if we are bad. Yet that is not how he is. For all our sins, he continues to love us. His love does not change. It is not fickle; it is faithful. It is patient8This, my sisters and brothers, is parenthood, fatherhood, and motherhood, whether biological, adoptive, or spiritual.
God, whom we can call “Our Father” because of Christ, delights in the very fact you exist. God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it! It is this unconditional, unfeigned, self-sacrificing love that sanctifies family life, no matter what form the family might take, traditional or non-traditional. The genuine love of parents for their children and, for partnered parents, real love for one another expressed as affection can make any family a holy family.
Praying Morning Prayer this morning, I was struck by the last verse of the hymn, which is about Saint Joseph:
Guardian and foster-father of the Christ,It was just this kind of love that led Joseph to take Jesus and Mary depart home and head for Egypt, thus making his family migrating refugees. It cannot be an easy choice to take your family, packing only what you can carry, leave your home and set out. But this is what Joseph did, just as many parents do in our day. Let’s not forget, a Nativity scene lacking immigrants, Jews, and Arabs, is just a barn scene featuring animals.
Honour to you, so chosen by our God!
Husband of the Virgin Mary, you are first
To show us Christian love9
Spouses, whose marriage is a partnership of the whole life, love and honor each other by selflessly serving each other.10 Marriage between Christians is never a 50/50 proposition. Rather, it calls on spouses to give 100%, especially when you feel you’re not being met half-way. Of course, this is way easier said than done. Fathers do not provoke your children to bitterness. Remember, how they see you shapes their image of God the Father.
Catholic homes are the domestic Church. If your home is to be constitutive of Christ’s Church, then you need to exhibit “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”11 Because there are no perfect families, we must patiently learn to apologize, to bear “with one another.. forgiving one another.”12 We must do this because it is what God our loving Father has done for us through his Son.13
1 Roman Missal, “The Ordinary of the Mass,” sec. 18.↩
2 Matthew 12:48.↩
3 Matthew 12:50.↩
4 Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church], sec. 22.↩
5 Matthew 22:37-40.↩
6 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three, Section Two: The Ten Commandments.↩
7 See Luke 15:11-32.↩
8 Pope Francis, Homily for the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, Midnight Mass.↩
9 The Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. I, Morning Prayer for Holy Family, 397.↩
10 Code of Canon Law, canon 1055 §1.↩
11 Colossians 3:12.↩
12 Colossians 3:13.↩
13 Colossians 3:13.↩
Friday, December 27, 2019
During days 2-4 of the Christmas octave, Mother Church gives us three important feasts: Saint Stephen, which is a day for deacons, Saint John, a day for priests, and the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which traditionally is a day for altar servers. It bears noting, yet again, the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Christian faith. Hence, liturgical ministry, what we do around the Lord’s table of word and sacrament, is important.
Liturgical ministry, which is not limited to the ordained, is not only important but is what makes us who and what are: Christians. The Mass is our destiny. Participating in the Eucharist is participation in the not-yet, which helps us concretely live the already of God’s kingdom. What it means to live this tension between the already and the not-yet is to live as if God’s reign was already fully established.
In addition to the liturgical service of the ordained, there is the ministry of altar service, lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, usher, cantor and/or chorister, musician, etc. Being a member of the assembly is itself a form of service. It would be good in this instance to revive our old language about assisting at Mass.
Because the priest acts in persona Christi captis, that is, in the person of Christ the head, his ministry is essential. A vocation to the priesthood is a rare and very precious thing in the Church. Like deacons, priests, who are ordained deacons before priestly consecration, thus ever remaining deacons, are ordained for service to the People of God. While their vocation encompasses a lot of areas, the primary focal point of a priest’s ministry is to celebrate the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.
Our Gospel today has a remarkable affinity with yesterday's readings. This affinity consists of “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” whom tradition affirms as the Apostle John, upon entering the empty tomb and seeing the burial cloths, “saw and believed.”1 What he believed is that Jesus rose from the dead. Yesterday, if you remember, as he was being stoned to death, the deacon, Stephen, “saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”2
The Church views Christmas, well, everything really, through the lens of Easter, even as she acknowledges through the liturgical year that it’s a long road from the stable through the cross to the resurrection. In our first reading, from the First Letter of John, in which we hear the word “proclaim” twice and “testify” once, the essence of the Good News is conveyed: for the sake of our salvation “the Word of life” took on flesh.3
Since Jesus’s Ascension, which was shortly followed by the descent of the Holy Spirit, which event marked the beginning of the Church, the best testimony and proclamation of God-made-man in the person of Jesus Christ is the Eucharist. Indeed, it is the Holy Spirit, whom the priest calls down during the Eucharistic Prayer, who transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
Because of this transformation, we can not only hear, see, and touch the risen Christ, we can eat and drink him. At Mass, we, too become witnesses of the Incarnation. Hence, we are called to testify and proclaim the Good News. Another name for our testimony and proclamation is evangelization.
By our eating and drinking, the Lord incorporates us ever more into his Body, the Church. By our communion, Christ strengthens the bond between us and fills us with his life-giving Spirit. At the end of Mass, we are sent to make Christ present wherever we go.
Today, let’s give thanks for priests. Let’s give particular thanks to our pastor, Father Andrzej. Through his nearly forty years as a priest, he can tell you that it’s a long way from ordination to resurrection. Yet, by his tireless efforts and pastoral care, he bears witness to the risen Christ.
Thursday, December 26, 2019
On the second day of Christmas, Mother Church gives us the first Christian martyr: Saint Stephen. Stephen was selected by the earliest Church in Jerusalem as one of what we now recognize as the first deacons. Along with six other men, the Apostles laid hands on Stephen, thus consecrating him for the sacred ministry.1
The criteria used to determine who was chosen to assist the Apostles by attending to the needs of the community while they devoted themselves to prayer and preaching was that those selected should be men of good repute who were “filled with the Spirit and wisdom.”2 As the history of the earliest Christian community as conveyed in the Acts of the Apostles unfolds, we subsequently hear about only two of the seven: Stephen and Philip.
As our reading this morning shows, Stephen entered into a dispute with some of his fellow Greek-speaking Jews and his “wisdom and spirit” was unmatchable.3 Without a doubt, the essence of this dispute was about whether Jesus is Messiah and Lord. Because they could not refute him, those disputing with Stephen drug him before the Sanhedrin. This is the same Jewish religious court, authorized by the Romans to settle religious disputes among the Jews, before which Jesus himself appeared, before being sent to Herod and then on to Pilate.
It was not only the seeming blasphemy of proclaiming Jesus not only as Messiah but as Lord that concerned his fellow Jews. What concerned them was if what Stephen asserted so convincingly were true this would mean big changes. This brings us to the crux of the message for today: to encounter Jesus means to change, repent, convert. The Incarnation of God’s Only Begotten Son, which is what we celebrate at Christmas, has implications for our lives. We make a grave error when we seek to reduce Christmas to the sentimental celebration of a one-off event in human history.
To follow Jesus means to be willing to change until you attain the fullness of his stature.4 As Saint John Henry Newman observed regarding the Christian doctrinal tradition: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”5
But following Christ is never a matter of change for change’s sake. To be a follower of Christ is to open yourself to the transformative power of sanctifying grace and commit yourself to on-going conversion. Stephen serves as a model for this. One of the most difficult things to do is to forgive and love your enemies. This is so difficult, in fact, that it may well be impossible to do without the grace of God.
Stephen precisely demonstrates what Jesus teaches in today’s Gospel about not worrying what you might say when pressed as a Christian. You see, Stephen’s words were not calculated to save his own life. His life was already saved by Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection. Hence, Stephen was a free man. As such, he wanted those persecuting him to experience the same freedom.
This freedom is what allowed to Stephen to take heed of Jesus’s words that appear several verses later in the same chapter of Matthew from which today’s Gospel reading is taken: “do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”6
The Lord desires you to have the same freedom Stephen enjoyed: freedom from the fear of death. Like our tendency to hate and despise our enemies, our fear of death is very human, all too human. Without delving into it, let me just note that note in passing that these two things are closely related.
Sadly, what is not included in the account of Stephen’s martyrdom in the lectionary, which ends with the next-to-last verse of Acts 7, is verse 60: “Then [Stephen] fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them”; and when he said this, he fell asleep.”7
Echoing the words of his Lord as he was being nailed to the cross, Stephen’s final words are an expression of the freedom knowing Christ Jesus brings. That the Lord came into the world to set us free from sin and death is the message of Christmas. It is also the message of Easter and Advent, Ordinary Time and Lent. It is the Gospel, which is Good News. It is this good news that, like Stephen, we are called to proclaim.
Wednesday, December 25, 2019
OF THE SUPREME PONTIFF
Dear Brothers and Sisters, Happy Christmas!
From the womb of Mother Church, the incarnate Son of God is born anew this night. His name is Jesus, which means: “God saves”. The Father, eternal and infinite Love, has sent him into the world not to condemn the world but to save it (cf. Jn 3:17). The Father has given him to us with great mercy. He has given him to everyone. He has given him forever. The Son is born, like a small light flickering in the cold and darkness of the night.
That Child, born of the Virgin Mary, is the Word of God made flesh. The Word who guided Abraham’s heart and steps towards the promised land, and who continues to draw to himself all those who trust in God’s promises. The Word who led the Hebrews on the journey from slavery to freedom and who continues to call the enslaved in every age, including our own, to come forth from their prisons. He is the Word brighter than the sun, made incarnate in a tiny son of man: Jesus the light of the world.
This is why the prophet cries out: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1). There is darkness in human hearts, yet the light of Christ is greater still. There is darkness in personal, family and social relationships, but the light of Christ is greater. There is darkness in economic, geopolitical and ecological conflicts, yet greater still is the light of Christ.
May Christ bring his light to the many children suffering from war and conflicts in the Middle East and in various countries of the world. May he bring comfort to the beloved Syrian people who still see no end to the hostilities that have rent their country over the last decade. Today may he stir the consciences of men and women of good will. May he inspire governments and the international community to find solutions to allow the peoples of that region to live together in peace and security, and put an end to their unspeakable sufferings. May he sustain the Lebanese people and enable them to overcome the current crisis and rediscover their vocation to be a message of freedom and harmonious coexistence for all.
Tuesday, December 24, 2019
“O holy night! The stars are brightly shining, It is the night of our dear Savior's birth.” So begins my favorite Christmas Carol. But brighter than the brightest star is the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
For us and our salvation God's Son was incarnate of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus is “consubstantial” with the Father, which makes him “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God,” being born of the woman Miriam of Nazareth, he is also consubstantial with us, making him truly human, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.
The circumstances of the Father’s Only Begotten Son becoming human are certainly not what we, in our disfigured human imaginations, would deem the proper way for the Deity to enter his creation. I hope over the last month, during the season of Advent, you took the opportunity to reflect deeply on the Joyful Mysteries of the Blessed Virgin’s Most Holy Rosary.
It is the third of the Joyful Mysteries that we contemplate Jesus’s birth, his nativity. The fruit of this mystery is poverty. Our use of old-fashioned words like, “manger” and “swaddling clothes,” can obscure what the evangelist wants to convey in the Gospel we just heard: the Creator of the Universe chose to enter his creation in a cave that housed animals with all that entails in terms of filth and waste, was wrapped in unclean rags, and placed in a feeding trough.
If you have not yet taken the opportunity to reflect on the mysteries of our Lord’s conception and birth, I urge you to do so over these days of Christmas. For Roman Catholics in the United States, Christmas lasts until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which falls this year on Sunday, 12 January. Christmas is a season, not a day. This gives you plenty of time, especially now that Christmas is practically over for many people, who observe it as one largely anti-climactic day.
Tonight, like the shepherds, we keep watch. Rather than watching over our flocks, we are watching for the Good Shepherd. Sometimes this can feel like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin or like Vladimir and Estragon, who are still Waiting for Godot. But like the shepherds, we have to know where to look to find him.
Just as the Lord of the Universe was born as a marginal person, among a marginal people, in a remote part of the Roman Empire, in an out-of-the-way place in southern Judah, today he is still found on the margins. Jesus is found in the homeless, hungry, lonely, sick, and imprisoned. When you consider the circumstances of his birth, how can you not be reminded of refugee and immigrant families fleeing violence, instability, and debilitating poverty? In short, each of us is an innkeeper who must decide if there is room for Jesus, who comes to us as impoverished child.
Is it any wonder that many Christians who never travel to the margins spend a lot of time wondering where in the world Jesus is? The shepherds knew where to find him because they were themselves people on the margins, not deemed fit for polite company. Unlike Waldo, Jesus is easy to find if you know where to look: among the poor and the outcasts.
As our first reading from Isaiah makes clear, the Lord comes to give light to those who’ve been walking in darkness. He comes to be a light for those who dwell in the land of gloom. Jesus comes to put an end to violence and free the oppressed. Rather than throwing lightning bolts from the sky like a pagan deity, who conforms better to our human ideal of what a god should be and do, the Lord comes to bring change both from below and within.
By his condescension and his self-sacrificing life, which culminated with his being lifted up on the cross, Jesus came to inaugurate a revolution of love. This looks like foolishness to a lot of people, even to many who profess Christianity. How do you win a revolution not only by forgiving but loving your enemies and doing good to them? Being a Christian means experiencing how you add by subtraction and win by losing.
In light of what our cultural observance of Christmas often becomes, these words from our epistle reading, taken from the Letter to Titus, can seem like a rebuke:
The grace of God has appeared, saving allThis passage helps us grasp that Christian faith is a mode of existence that places those to whom God has gifted it in the crucible between the already and the not-yet.
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God (Letter to Titus 2:11-13)
But tonight, my dear friends, we celebrate the already, the birth of Jesus Christ our Savior, even as we look forward to the not-yet of his return, which await in joyful hope. This is stated beautifully at the end of the first verse of O Holy Night:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,Speaking of a “new and glorious morn,” it bears repeating something a friend wrote to me in a letter at a time when I was struggling: “Easter is coming. Easter is always on its way.” Merry Christmas.
Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
I have to say, 2019 has been a good year on the whole. Probably my best year since 2015, which was magical.
I must admit, I kind of lost the bubble about 2/3rds through this year, which has made the last quarter tough. But I daresay, I am happier and healthier this year than I was a year ago. I made a momentous decision on 26 December last year that has stuck. It's a decision I'd made before and then wavered on. Apart from my daily walking routine, it's the best decision I've made in a long time.
2019 has been a year of change. Frankly, despite my wariness of change, I needed some. Another notable thing is that, quite unexpectedly, literally out-of-the-blue one afternoon in August, I reconnected profoundly with someone I care about deeply.
As always, there are some changes I want to make and a few I need to make. There's a big commitment I've been asked to consider undertaking. On the one hand, it's something I really want to do. On the other hand, it's a big job and a great opportunity, which kind of makes me shudder when I think what it might mean in terms of stress and time commitment. If I do it, I will need to continue honing my time-management skills, which, if I may say, have gotten pretty good over the last few years. Time-management, however, is one of those areas you never master completely. The reason is, like budgeting money, you have to maintain the discipline to follow your plan, especially when it starts to feel like a grind.
Among my goals in 2020 are to see my doctoral dissertation published as a book, which looks promising at this point. A second goal is to develop, submit, and have approved a proposal for a second book, which would be collaboratively written. I want to lose more weight and strengthen my core. After my spiral late this year, I want to get back to healthy eating. As I now know from experience, eating healthily is necessary not only for my physical health but also for my mental and emotional well-being, too.
In 2020, I want to resume my practice of centering prayer, spending more time in silence and doing so daily. I want to continue praying a complete Rosary (five decades) daily, as well as maintain my commitment to Morning and Evening Prayer, something I vowed to do at my ordination. I also would like to resume my practice of the Examen each evening. I also need to return more whole-heartedly to the spiritual discipline of fasting and to monthly confession (I was probably about quarterly in 2019.
I have a goal to lead three Bible studies: one on Ruth and Jonah over Easter, one on the Letter to the Hebrews during the summer, and, next Advent, on the Servant Songs of Isaiah. I also want to get back to family picnics and relaxing days in different parks after Mass on Sundays once the weather is warmer.
All of this are just things I am pondering, It remains to prayerfully nail-down what goals I am actually going to set and pursue. Sharing these here makes them a bit more real and to see what would need to change to set and set to achieve these goals.
Sunday, December 22, 2019
We’ve reached the Fourth Sunday of Advent. And so, we still have a few days of waiting left before the season of Christmas begins. Hence, it becomes urgent amid our busy preparations to take some time to reflect on the great mystery of our salvation.
One way to do this is to spend some quiet time contemplating your Nativity set. At the beginning of Advent this year, Pope Francis gave the Church a very nice gift. He issued an Apostolic Letter on the importance of Nativity sets.1 The Nativity scene arouses wonder, the Holy Father insists,
because it shows God’s tender love: the Creator of the universe lowered himself to take up our littleness. The gift of life, in all its mystery, becomes all the more wondrous as we realize that the Son of Mary is the source and sustenance of all life. In Jesus, the Father has given us a brother who comes to seek us out whenever we are confused or lost, a loyal friend ever at our side. He gave us his Son who forgives us and frees us from our sins2It's easy to overlook the ordinary way in which the extraordinary conception of the Son of God came about. In today’s Gospel, we hear about Saint Joseph, who is identified as a righteous, or just, man. Betrothed to the young woman, Miriam, he learns the troubling news that she is pregnant. Since he has not yet taken her into his home, Joseph knows the child is not his. The inspired author of Matthew does not reveal how Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant. Did she tell him? Did someone else tell him? Did he learn it through the rumor mill of small-town Nazareth? No matter how he learned it, it’s easy to imagine his distress.
Wise to the ways of the world, Joseph ponders how he might extricate himself from what was no doubt a humiliating, if perhaps heartbreaking, situation. Being righteous, his desire to do the right thing is tempered by mercy. All that is truly just is tempered by mercy. Justice without mercy is revenge.
Specifically, Joseph is concerned that the penalty under the Law- death by stoning- not be imposed on the young pregnant woman. It is important, I think, to note that the angel appears to Joseph and explains the situation to him, urging him, “do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home,” only after he determined his course of action.3 In other words, the angel did not come down immediately after Joseph learned the embarrassing news that his intended wife was pregnant and explain everything to him, thus instructing him what to do. No, he had to wrestle with the conundrum, examine his conscience and his heart, and determine his course of action first.
It is also important to point out that, even while seemingly well-discerned, what Joseph intended to do on his own was not the right thing. The right thing was to take Mary as his wife, as indicated by the angel. I wonder, would the right answer have been different if the circumstances of his intended wife’s pregnancy had been ordinary?
As Christians, we must not fail to realize that not only is justice tempered by mercy, but in Christ mercy triumphs over judgment. Do not our uniquely Christian Scriptures teach- “For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment”?4
At the heart of the wonder provoked by contemplating Nativity scenes is the grace and mercy the Father gives us through his Son by the power of their Spirit. The Father did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save it from sin and death.5
In considering the ordinariness of the Lord’s birth, the late theologian, Herbert McCabe, commenting in a Christmas homily on Jesus’s genealogy as outlined in Matthew, noted that the moral of this genealogy “is too obvious to labour.”6 What is too obvious is that Jesus does not belong to the nice clean world of so much popular imagination. He does not even belong “to the honest, reasonable, sincere world of the [New York Times] or [The Salt Lake Tribune].”7
Jesus “belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars.”8 In short, he belongs to us. Because he belongs to us he can save us, which he does by loving us, being merciful and compassionate towards us, taking pity on us. In so doing, he hopes we, in turn, will be merciful, compassionate, and have pity for each other until at last we attain the fullness of his stature.9
With regard to responding in kind to Christ’s love, McCabe noted, “if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you.”10 This is very much in tune with our Collect, or opening prayer for Mass on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. In this prayer, we implored the Father that by Jesus’s “Passion and Cross” we “be brought to the glory of his Resurrection.”11 This belongs to the prayer we are encouraged to say three-times daily: the Angelus.
Indeed, the wood of the manger becomes the wood of the cross. But do not be afraid. By his cross and resurrection, Love, who comes to us as an impoverished child, has conquered death. Alleluia!
1 Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter Admirabile Signum [On the Meaning and Importance of the Nativity Scene].↩
2 Ibid., sec. 3.↩
3 Matthew 1:20.↩
4 James 2:13.↩
5 John 3:17.↩
6 Herbert McCabe. OP, God Matters, 249.↩
9 Ephesians 4:13.↩
10 From Terry Eagleton’s “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching.”↩
11 Roman Missal, “Fourth Sunday of Advent.”↩
Saturday, December 21, 2019
I must admit, to hear Sodano praised grates on me; glad the Holy Father is a gracious man. Pope Francis, in his address, looks forward to him being replaced at the end of his praise- a pretty Latin way of dealing with these things. Update: Cardinal Sodano resigned as Dean of the College of Cardinals the same day the Holy Father gave his Christmas address to Roman Curia. Sodano is one the last highly problematic figures who occupied high places during the pontificate of John Paul II.
In this year's address, Pope Francis focused on both the inevitable reality of and the need for change. Time moves on. We can either move with it or simply choose to occupy space. He succinctly points out how both Scripture and Tradition are all about change and adaptation. One take-away from this is that the Deposit of Faith does not contain as many things as some like to imagine it does, like all of the second and third order issues on which so many become too focused and grow rigid.
It is by changing and adapting that we come to an ever deeper understanding of Divine Revelation. Of course, no event in the history of the world is more revelatory than the Incarnation of the Son of God. To discuss change, Pope Francis turned to St. John Henry Newman, particularly his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which, while dated, still transmits the dynamism that is the beating heart of Christian Tradition:
For Newman change was conversion, in other words, interior transformation. Christian life is a journey, a pilgrimage. The history of the Bible is a journey, marked by constantly new beginnings. So it was with Abraham. So it was too with those Galileans who two thousand years ago set out to follow Jesus: "When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him" (Lk 5:11). From that time forward, the history of God’s people – the history of the Church – has always been marked by new beginnings, displacements and changes. This journey, of course, is not just geographical, but above all symbolic: it is a summons to discover the movement of the heart, which, paradoxically, has to set out in order to remain, to change in order to be faithfulAfter discussing change in the context of Tradition, Pope Francis went on to discuss the primacy and priority of evangelization, noting that it is the Church's raison d'être.
Pope Francis blessing members of the Roman Curia at the end of his Christmas address (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
All of this has particular importance for our time, because what we are experiencing is not simply an epoch of changes, but an epochal change. We find ourselves living at a time when change is no longer linear, but epochal. It entails decisions that rapidly transform our ways of living, of relating to one another, of communicating and thinking, of how different generations relate to one another and how we understand and experience faith and science. Often we approach change as if were a matter of simply putting on new clothes, but remaining exactly as we were before. I think of the enigmatic expression found in a famous Italian novel: "If we want everything to stay the same, then everything has to change" (The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa)
Papa Bergoglio explained how his reform of the Curia, which is yet to be promulgated, gives priority to evangelization. He points out:
Christendom no longer exists! Today we are no longer the only ones who create culture, nor are we in the forefront or those most listened to. We need a change in our pastoral mindset, which does not mean moving towards a relativistic pastoral care. We are no longer living in a Christian world, because faith – especially in Europe, but also in a large part of the West – is no longer an evident presupposition of social life; indeed, faith is often rejected, derided, marginalized and ridiculedThe Holy Father returned to the theme of change toward the end of his speech, saying,
A rigidity born of the fear of change, which ends up erecting fences and obstacles on the terrain of the common good, turning it into a minefield of incomprehension and hatred. Let us always remember that behind every form of rigidity lies some kind of imbalance. Rigidity and imbalance feed one another in a vicious circle. And today this temptation to rigidity has become very realHere, I believe, he is addressing those who oppose him, both inside and outside the Curia.
I love the fact that he quoted from the last interview given by the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who, like Francis, was a Jesuit: "The Church is two hundred years behind the times. Why is she not shaken up? Are we afraid? Fear, instead of courage? Yet faith is the Church’s foundation. Faith, confidence, courage… Only love conquers weariness."
Speaking of weariness, there is an image the Holy Father invokes in this speech, albiet quite subtly: the People of God, which is a people on pilgrimage. To refuse change, authentic reform and renewal, is nothing less than plopping down on the path and refusing to move. Such an attitude prevents one from entering into the Sabbath rest God has in store for his People.
I thank the Holy Father for his wonderful reflection. I think we need to be challenged and not merely comforted, that is, lulled into a sentimentally-induced nap at Christmastime. The Incarnation and joyfully awaited return of Christ should provoke us, spur us to action preparing the way of the Lord, making straight his path.
Friday, December 20, 2019
I try to resist by observing Advent, perhaps the most neglected liturgical season, quietly and meditatively. I try to push Christmas off until Christmas. Once Christmas begins at sundown on Christmas Eve, I try to observe this season in a quiet way too. It's funny, because with the anti-climax of Christmas Day over and everyone worn out, Christmas, at least as a season, is neglected too. However, rather being characterized by an excess of activity, it's quiet.
As of Tuesday, we're into the days of the O Antiphons. In the Church's liturgy, these antiphons are recited before and after the Magnificat, which is recited or sung each day as part of Evening Prayer. This week, the week following the Feast of Saint Lucy, is the Advent Ember Week, too. I have to admit, I like these things very much. I also like egg nog, which I only drink this time of the year. In fact, yesterday, I had egg nog for the first time since this time last year. So, I suppose it's not all bad. These things, along with the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, make it possible for me to survive.
Our Friday traditio is King's College Choir singing "The Angel Gabriel." Another thing that helps me through this season is meditating on how ordinary seeming the Lord's birth must've been. I mean, the greatest event in the history of the world happening so quietly and unobtrusively. This gives me hope, unlike this overly festive season, which has the effect of producing dread and making me fervently wish is was over already:
Sunday, December 15, 2019
In the first part, John the Baptist, who is languishing in prison, appears to have doubts about whether Jesus is the Messiah. Because of his doubts, he has some of his disciples approach Jesus and ask him if he is the one or should he look for another. Jesus tells them to report to John that the blind see, the deaf hear, lepers are cured, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. Of course, Jesus here is quoting a messianic prophecy from Isaiah. By citing this prophecy, his answer is a resounding- "Yes, I am the One!"
I wonder what was at the root of the Baptist's doubt. Maybe it was the fact that he found himself imprisoned by Herod and in danger of death for his prophetic activity. He was not in trouble for recognizing and proclaiming Jesus as the one who is to come. Rather, he was in trouble for publicly castigating Herod Antipas and his wife Herodias for living together in an adulterous way. Herodias left her first husband to marry Herod Antipas- this was forbidden under the Law. A husband could divorce his wife but not vice-versa. To licitly re-marry, a woman had to be widowed. It was Herod Antipas who arrested, imprisoned, and later executed the Baptist at behest of Herodias. One can forgive John the Baptist for wondering if this was the result of obeying God's will. Once you start down that road, you begin to call everything into question. But then, doubt is not the opposite of faith, certainty is. Doubt is an inherent part of faith.
Second, turning to the crowd, Jesus asks them what they expected to see when they went out to the desert to see and hear John the Baptist. "A reed swayed by the wind?;" "Someone dressed in fine clothing?"; "a prophet?" While the Baptist was certainly neither of first two, he was the third and then some: Yes, a prophet, "and more than a prophet." John the Baptist is the seal of the Old Testament prophets. Turning to Isaiah once again, Jesus makes clear that the Baptist was the one sent by God to prepare his way. So, the question is not only was the Baptist expecting that made him doubt Jesus's Messiahship but about what our expectations are in professing Jesus as Lord.
Third, in explaining how the Baptist was not only a prophet but the greatest "among those born of women," Jesus also says that the least in the kingdom is greater than the one who is the greatest among those born of women. This ties back to Jesus announcing that the good news is proclaimed to the poor. What is the good news? The good news for the poor is not pie-in-the-sky in the bye-and-bye but the inauguration of God's kingdom. In God's kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first. The greatest will be the least and the least the greatest. This brings us some distance to an answer about our expectations. Jesus did not come to make you prosperous, wise, good-looking, or a high-achiever. He came to inaugurate the reign of God on earth and to call others to bring about its full realization. For most of us, this call is a call to repentance, a call to change ourselves and then the world.
The kingdom of God is the world turned upside down. This why in the Letter of Saint James Christians are urged to be patient and know that the realization of God's kingdom will not only be slow but painful too.
For Advent, I am re-reading Pope Francis's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. This document, the Holy Father has insisted several times, is the charter for his pontificate. In this charter, the Pontiff notes:
The Gospel is about the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 4:43); it is about loving God who reigns in our world. To the extent that he reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity. Both Christian preaching and life, then, are meant to have an impact on society. We are seeking God’s kingdom: “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:33). Jesus’ mission is to inaugurate the kingdom of his Father; he commands his disciples to proclaim the good news that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 10:7)We pray often, perhaps we pray it so often that it no longer moves us: "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Either we pray it and mean it or we pray it in a mindless, meaningless manner. How fervently we pray this is a good gauge of what we expect to see.
Friday, December 13, 2019
For many, myself included, the end of this year seems like the end of the world. The coup in Bolivia, the election results in the United Kingdom, the unsettling political situation here in the United States, the latest installment of which is a very troubling Executive Order concerning the nature of Judaism, something the state should never address, especially after the horror that occurred in Germany in the twentieth century.
While political engagement is not to be eschewed, it bears remembering that as Christians we should remain thankful in all circumstances, return good for evil, love and pray for those whom we perceive as our enemies. This does not for one moment mean we should give up resisting and opposing what what is clearly evil. Our resistance primarily consists of continuing to do good in the midst of evil, to appeal for justice in the face of injustice, etc. I can't help but think what powerful witnesses the Cistercian martyrs of Tibhirine, Algeria remain for us today. They demonstrate for us how to follow Christ in the midst of violent chaos; how to resist evil through non-violence. Non-violence is not passivity. Non-violence has nothing to do with fatalism. Non-violence, especially in the face of violence, is perhaps the ultimate witness to hope.
In addition to this week's heavily Marian character, today is the Feast of Saint Lucy. She is a martyr, one of the many who are mentioned in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I). She was likely killed during the Diocletian persecution, which took place in the early fourth century (AD 302-304). In addition to it being Friday, next week, the week following Saint Lucy's feast, is traditionally an Ember Week. This means observing next Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday as days of fasting and abstinence. Heaven knows, we have plenty for which to fast and pray!
Like witness of the martyrs, Advent shows us that hope lies beyond optimism. When things look dire and it seems you've run out of options the situation is ripe for God to step in and do what only God can do: create, bring life from death, bring justice for the oppressed, sight for the blind, hearing for the deaf, liberation for captives. Again, this does not mean sit back and wait. But it does mean never forgetting that our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. This should give us the strength we need to keep striving.
This Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, is Gaudete Sunday. Advent pivots on the Third Sunday from considering Jesus's return to commemorating, celebrating, and thinking about the meaning of his birth in the most humble of circumstances. In other words, the Church pivots from the "not yet" to the "already."
It has been noted that the Incarnation of God's only begotten Son is "is so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma" on the world (John Milbank, Slavoj Zizek, Creston Davis, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press), 7). Those who refuse to be traumatized by the Incarnation are those who lack faith. It is particularly troubling and all the more difficult that so much that is contrary to the Gospel is done according to clearly misbegotten "Christian" principles. The beating that the poor and downtrodden of the world are taking right now is stunning, to say the least.
Michael Card singing the lovely Celtic hymn "Be Thou My Vision" is our traditio for this Second Friday of Advent:
Hope is not only on the way but is right here in our midst, a light in this darkness. Saint Lucy, pray for us.
Sunday, December 8, 2019
“I am baptizing you with water, for repentance…,” these are the words of the Baptist in our Gospel reading.1 All of us here have been baptized with water. If, like me, you were baptized after reaching the age of reason, your sins were washed away by the grace of God through the merits of Jesus Christ at baptism. If, like me, you have not remained sinless since your baptism, you need the Sacrament of Penance.
Even if you were baptized as an infant, God, in his mercy, restored you to the state of original grace, which is the state God created us in the divine image and likeness to live. If you remember, the original sin was seeking to displace God and to put ourselves in God’s place. The serpent asked Eve if she knew why God forbade them to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She said apart from God telling her that if she if ate from it she would die, she did not know. The serpent told her, “You certainly will not die!”2
Rather, the serpent insisted, she would become like God and be able to determine for herself what is good and what is evil. Of course, this fruit looked tasty, indeed. So, the original sin, which is recapitulated in every sin, is a rejection of God, a rejection of your creatureliness. Of course, sin requires that you know what you are tempted to do wrong. Knowing it is wrong requires some understanding as to why it is wrong, why it is a failure to love God and/or your neighbor, even to love yourself in the right way.
From the beginning, God had a plan for our salvation: Jesus Christ. Christ is not God’s Plan B. Christ is not even God’s Plan A. Christ is God’s only plan to complete creation by reconciling all things to himself. This is why in the Exsultet, sung at the Easter Vigil, the Church acknowledges and proclaims concerning original sin: O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer! Saint Paul confirms this in his Letter to the Romans when he writes:
creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God3The Sacrament of Penance, also called “reconciliation” and “confession,” is an extension of the Sacrament of Baptism. To say God is the God second chances is to sell God, whose name is mercy, short. In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis declared:
How good it feels to come back to [Jesus] whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love4We are given this dignity in baptism. It is ineradicable, nobody or nothing can take it away from us. You do not go to confession to find out whether or not God will forgive you. You are always already forgiven in Christ. Then why go, you might ask? You go to have a real encounter, to say your sins out aloud and, in your Act of Contrition, to say you are sorry. This brings closure, confidence, and assurance.
My dear friends in Christ, confession is not where you go to admit defeat. It is where you go to claim the victory that is already yours, the victory Christ won for you by his cross and resurrection. This afternoon, as we prepare for the Lord’s coming, let us return to the Lord that he will return to us and make his dwelling in us.5
Giles Fraser, an Anglican priest who is rather famous in England, always asks members of the clergy whom he interviews on his podcast, fittingly called Confessions with Giles Fraser, what is the main thrust of their preaching. Since I will likely never be interviewed by Giles, I posed this question to myself. My answer would have to be: “The main point of my preaching is hope lies beyond optimism.”
In our epistle reading, Saint Paul addresses this directly when he writes: “that we might have hope through endurance.”1 Indeed, you can develop hope in no other way than through endurance. Hope is born from the labor of enduring life's ups and downs, but especially life’s downs. According to Theo-logic, crucifixion always precedes resurrection. After all, the wood of the manger becomes the wood of the cross.
When we think about this with reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary, her fiat, her yes, expressed in the words, “May it be done to me according to your word,” far from making us sentimental should help us understand the risk she took by saying “Yes” to God.2 Under the law, the penalty for an unmarried woman turning up pregnant was death by stoning.
Eugene Peterson expressed the idea of hope lies beyond optimism very well: “When nothing we can do makes any difference and we are left standing around empty-handed and clueless, we are ready for God to create. When the conditions in which we live seem totally alien to life and salvation, we are reduced to waiting for God to do what only God can do, create.”3
What is the difference between hope and optimism? Optimism convinces you that you’ll figure it out and get everything under control. Hope steps in when you realize you don’t have a clue and you’ve no idea what’s going to happen. Hope is trust in God and not mere wishing. As such, hope is the flower of faith.
Our first reading from Isaiah is an expression of hope. It is likely passages like this Saint Paul had in mind when he wrote that hope not only comes from endurance but “through the scriptures’ consolations.”4 By prophesying that “on that day the root of Jesse… shall become a banner to the nations” and that “Nations shall seek him out and his resting place shall be glory,” the Scriptures Paul references bring hope not only to Israel but to the whole world.5
In his commentary on the tenth verse of the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, Robert Alter asserts that the phrase “his resting place” is typically “used for a place of settlement that is safe from enemies.”6 He goes on to say that its use at the end of this passage is likely “to resonate with the spirit of the LORD that ‘shall rest’ on the ideal king.”7 It is on the ideal king that this passage is focused. Of course, from a Christian perspective, Jesus of Nazareth is the ideal king whose Advent, or coming, Isaiah is predicting.
Of course, it is the kingdom of which Jesus is the king, which, in the end, will be the only kingdom, that John the Baptist seeks to usher in with his words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”8 The word “repent” in this passage is the Greek word metanoeite. It comes from the word metanoia and means “to have a change of heart.”9
As we look forward to Jesus’s return at the end of time, which is something the first two weeks of Advent, extending from the Solemnity of Christ the King, bid us do, we are called upon to have a change of heart, to conform our hearts more to Jesus’s Sacred Heart and his Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Heart. This is why this afternoon we’re celebrating our annual Advent penance service. This provides you with the opportunity to examine your heart, asking the Lord how you need change, and receiving the grace you need to make these changes through the Sacrament of Penance.
Beginning next Sunday, which is Gaudete Sunday, the relatively short season of Advent takes a turn. We turn our focus from the “not yet” to the “already.” Looking at it from the perspective of this Sunday, it’s important to point out that when Jesus came as a babe in Bethlehem he inaugurated the kingdom of God. “Kingdom” in Greek, the word John uses for it in today’s Gospel, is basileia. Jesus, to use a word coined by the great Church Father, Origen, is autobasileia- the kingdom-in-person.
In his work, On Prayer, Origen noted that people
who pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God pray without any doubt for the Kingdom of God that they contain in themselves, and they pray that this Kingdom might bear fruit and attain its fullness. For in every holy [person] it is God who reigns10If you want God to reign in you and bring his kingdom to completion through you, then you must not allow sin to reign over you.11 Indeed, at Baptism, you rejected “sin so as to live in the freedom of God's children.”12
The Sacrament of Penance is an extension of the Sacrament of Baptism. What better time to be reminded of this than on the Second Sunday of Advent when, each year, we hear the words of the Baptist, the seal of the prophets, which are as relevant now as when he first proclaimed them? Over the remainder of this Advent prepare the Lord’s way by making your heart a straight pathway. It is the Lord himself who helps you do this by the grace he wants to impart to you through confession. I hope that each of us and all of us together receive baptism “with the holy Spirit and fire.”13 And being so transformed, may we seek to usher in God’s kingdom.
1 Romans 15:4 in The New Testament: A Translation, trans. David Bentley Hart, 315.↩
2 Luke 1:38.↩
3 Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, 64.↩
4 Romans 15:4 in The New Testament, 315.↩
5 Isaiah 11:10 in The Hebrew Bible: A Translation With Commentary: The Prophets, trans. Robert Alter, 660.↩
8 Matthew 3:1.↩
9 Matthew 3:1 in The New Testament.↩
10 Cited in Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism of John to the Transfiguration, trans. Adrian J. Walker, 50.↩
11 Romans 6:12.↩
12 Roman Missal, “The Easter Vigil,” sec. 55.↩
13 Matthew 3:11.↩
Friday, December 6, 2019
For those of us who strive to follow Jesus, the time between his departure and return is a time of what might be called dialectical tension.
Dialectical tension arises from living the already of God's kingdom, which was inaugurated by Jesus when he came, lived, suffered, died, rose from the dead, ascended, and sent his Holy Spirit, as we await what is not yet: the full realization of God's reign, which will be established when Jesus returns.
"Advent" means "coming" or even "arrival." Hence, we look forward to Jesus's arrival even as we celebrate and commemorate his coming as a babe in Bethlehem.
Aware of his return, the time of which is utterly unknown to anyone, we are to live in such a way that we are ready. This means not putting off making those important changes we all know we need to make. These changes consist both in ceasing doing things we know are wrong, that is, detrimental to ourselves and to others, as well as doing those things we know are right- like helping those in need, being good stewards of the earth, being kind, forgiving, worshiping and giving thanks to God in accord with the first commandment, etc. In short, we need to repent. Yes, you. Yes, me.
Let's face it, the only shot you have at changing the world is changing yourself. Even changing yourself requires God's grace, which is why the prayer that ends Morning Prayer for this First Friday of Advent implores:
Jesus, our Lord, save us from our sins. Come, protect us from all dangers and lead us to salavationWith that lengthy explanation, our Friday traditio is Johnny Cash, very much in the mode of his namesake, John the Baptist, singing "The Wanderer"-
It also occurred to me that this is the first post of the last month of 2019. It's Saint Nicholas day, to boot, or to shoe, as the case may be. Enjoy your gingerbread and gifties.
Saturday, November 30, 2019
As I am sure I point out each year, when looked from a Christian perspective, history is mostly an Advent. First, there was the preparation and waiting for birth of God's Son. Second, after the brief interlude of his mortal existence, there is the preparation and waiting for the Son of God's glorious return.
While we "await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ," we should be busy preparing, making a straight path for him to return. Maybe anticipating is a better word than waiting. We anticipate Christ's return by living the reality that God's kingdom is already here, present in our midst, even if in the form of a mustard seed. Living this way is what should make Christians peculiar.
Time is short. Time is limited. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to put off important things, especially making those changes we know deep in our hearts we need to make. Whether we're talking about the end-of-the-world, whatever that might entail, or about the short span of our own lives, in the words of Saint Paul: "the night is advanced, the day is at hand" (Rom 13:12).
The first two weeks of Advent are not about Christmas at all. Extending from the Solemnity of Christ the King, Advent begins by urging us to consider ultimate things and, in light of our consideration, to set our lives aright by the grace of God. In short, Advent starts with a call to repentance. There are important reasons we celebrate Advent Penance services.
For centuries, even in Western, or Latin, Christianity Advent was a season of penance, very much akin to Lent. Most Eastern Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, still observe what is called the "Nativity Fast." As a result, Advent was a time fasting and abstinence, not feasting and merriment. Fasting followed by feasting has been the rhythm of Christian life for a long time. Sadly, it's rhythm in danger of being forgotten. Among the practices that help us maintain our rhythm are observing Ember and Rogation Days.
Speaking of Ember Days, there is an Advent Embertide. Embertides are "little Lents" that happen four times a year. The Advent Embertide is the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the Memorial of Saint Lucy. Saint Lucy's liturgical memorial is on 13 December. This year Santa Lucia falls on Friday the 13th! Hence, the Ember Days are Wednesday, 18 December, Friday, 20 December, and Saturday, 21 December.
How do you observe an Ember Day? You observe Friday like you do Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which means you may eat two small and one full meal but with no meat. Wednesday and Saturday are the same, except for the full meal you may have meat. Traditionally, Christmas Eve, 24 December, is also a day of fasting and abstinence. Keep in mind, the liturgical day ends at sundown with the celebration of the first Christmas Mass. So, from bedtime on 23 December to sundown on 24 December, you observe it like you do Wednesday and Saturday of an Embertide. It is important to point out that none of this is obligatory any more. To my mind, this makes voluntarily observing the Advent Embertide, or any, Embertide, all the more meaningful.
Of course, fasting can become perfunctory, legalistic, a form of rigid, joyless self-denial, an occasion for spiritual arrogance, etc. If this is the case, you're better off doing none of it. Like all spiritual disciplines, to have the desired effect, fasting and abstaining must be undertaken freely and joyfully. Really, it should be kept to yourself. And fasting goes hand-in-glove with alms-giving, which should also be done quietly.
In any case, the Lord's coming requires preparation, especially if at Christmas we desire Christ to be born again anew in our hearts. But our preparation should be constant so that we are ready to greet the Lord when he comes or when he calls us to himself. This does not amount to doing a bunch of extra stuff. It is more about doing less and making what we do matter more.
Friday, November 29, 2019
I can't ignore the rise of right-wing nationalist populism because I see it is as a great threat both to humanity and to the planet. Too many people long for the kind of certainty and stability that is simply not achievable. Maturity enables you to live with a fair amount of ambiguity. Living with ambiguity requires humility. It requires you to admit that you don't have it all figured and that the answers to many complex questions are elusive and must be provisional. Freedom, as Dostoevsky showed us, is a frightening prospect. Hence, we shrink back from it, seeking refuge, like children, in the grips of those who claim to possess the kind of certainty we desperately seek.
Anyway, here we are, the final Friday of another Church year. Probably because I am now in my mid-50s I often mention how quickly time passes. Several weeks ago I bought a CD (yeah, I know) of Amy Grant's 2013 album How Mercy Looks from Here. Released when Grant was 52, in more than one song How Mercy Looks from Here takes up the theme of how quickly time passes. It's difficult to fathom that this post is the last post of the penultimate month of 2019. While purists are quick to point out that a decade goes from year one to year zero (i.e., 2011-2020), for the rest of us 2020 marks the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century. Besides, I can't pass up opportunities to use "penultimate."
I read where many of Grant's lyrics for this album were inspired by her mother's passing, which happened after an extended bout with dementia. For myself, I can remember sitting with my Dad on a very cold January day as he lay dying. He asked me how the weather was. I said, "You wouldn't like it, Dad. It's dry, windy, and cold." Indeed, he despised the cold. He loved warmth. This led him to share with me some memories he had from his childhood hanging out with his many cousins in the summertime. All of these cousins remained close and affectionate throughout their lives. He ended by telling me, "Life goes by fast."
A lot of the things we tend to invest our time, effort, and energy in are not things that have any ultimate meaning. Too easily we get caught up in the ephemera of existence. If anything, Advent bids us to step back, to avoid the soul-crushing pre-Christmas hoopla, and focus on the Light that shines in the darkness of this world. To think about the rapidly fleeting nature of life and recommit to living as children of the Light. This cannot be done without silence and solitude.
Silence and solitude cannot happen without making time for them. But you can't "make" time. You have only so much time in a day, a week, a month, a year, decade, a lifetime. Unlike an hour, a day, a week, a month, you have no idea when your time will run out. Unless Jesus returns in glory beforehand, your death is the end of the world for you, at least the end of the world as you know it. How do you feel about that? What time is it? The time is always now.
Our final traditio of this Year of Grace is, you guessed it, Amy Grant, with an assist from Carol King, singing "Our Time is Now"-
The chorus of this song is well-worth sharing:
Time is illusion
Time is a curse
Time is all these things and worse
But our time is now, oh
Yes, our time is now, oh
Let us sing before our time runs out
Thursday, November 28, 2019
Our national goal, as outlined in the preamble of our Constitution is to create an ever- "more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." For our health, security, and survival, we need to regain this vision.
Gratitude is so important that I think it can be classified as a virtue. To point out the obvious, "Eucharist" means "to give thanks." So, an act of thanksgiving to God is the central act of Christian faith. Everything else, all action, should flow from this central act of gratitude. Tying this back to today being a national holiday, being Christians should form and inform our citizenship in all countries in which Christians live, not the other way around. This is dealt with nicely by Saint Justin Martyr, all the way back in the mid-second century:
And everywhere we, more readily than all men, endeavour to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Him; for at that time some came to Him and asked Him, if one ought to pay tribute to Cæsar; and He answered, Tell Me, whose image does the coin bear?" And they said, "Cæsar's." And again He answered them, "Render therefore to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's, and to God the things that are God's." Whence to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men, and praying that with your kingly power you be found to possess also sound judgment. But if you pay no regard to our prayers and frank explanations, we shall suffer no loss... (First Apology, Chap. 17)In short, Christians do not and cannot subscribe to any form of civil religion, especially any form of civil religion that makes claims to be Christian. In some ways, it is easier and, dare I say, healthier for the Church to live in circumstances in which there is a clear line of demarcation as opposed to situations in which the lines grow blurry. "Christian" comes first in "Christian citizenship."
After the Solemnity of Christ the King at the beginning of this week, it struck me that perhaps Christianity was tailor-made to be a minority religion. When one thinks of Jesus's exhortation to be salt, light, "good" leaven, as opposed to the leaven of the Pharisees, I think a good case can be made for this. You see, as much as anything, being a Christian means learning to let go of what seems to be instinctive human religious ideas, like "If I am good, God will materially bless me." "I am prosperous. Therefore, God is pleased with me." Or, "I am not prosperous. Hence, God is displeased with me." One thing is clear in Jesus's teaching: material and financial prosperity constitute perhaps the biggest obstacles to entering God's kingdom. In almost every way Christianity runs against the grain of our natural, human (all-too-human), religious inclinations.
All that being said, it's much easier to exhort and talk about giving thanks in all circumstances than to do it. It's easy to give thanks when life is going your way and difficult when life has left you stranded at the deserted desert bus stop. But St. Paul exhorted the Christians in ancient Thessaloniki: "In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess 5:18). Giving thanks in all circumstances helps me to focus in on those aspects of life that truly matter and let other things go. It helps me sift the wheat from the chaff.
If Christ's Cross shows us anything it is that hope lies beyond optimism.
Sunday, November 24, 2019
In Samuel Beckett’s most famous work, the play Waiting for Godot, one of the two main characters, Vladimir, asks the other main character, Estragon, if he’s ever read the Bible. Estragon says: “I must’ve taken a look at it.”1 Then Vladimir asks him if he remembers the Gospels. Specifically, he asks if he remembers the story of the two thieves. Estragon replies that he does not remember this story.2
My friends, we live in a time of forgetting. But one of the most important aspects of Christian faith is remembering. For example, throughout this month, the final month of the liturgical year, we’ve been remembering our beloved dead whose names are written in our Book of Remembrance at the foot of the chancel. Part of our remembering includes praying for them in the hope that God will remember and have mercy on them.
There is a part of each Eucharistic Prayer known as the anamnesis. Anamnesis, as you might’ve guessed, is a Greek word. In the account of the Last Supper found in Luke, when Jesus breaks the bread and gives it to his companions, he commands them “do this in memory of me.”3 In this verse, the word “memory” is the English translation of the appropriate form of the word anamnesis.
Not just in a certain section of the Eucharistic Prayer but throughout its entirety, the Mass is an exercise in anamnesis. For Christians, this means calling to mind God’s saving deeds. But anamnesis means more than simply remembering, is not passive. Rather, in each Eucharist, we call to mind in-order-to-make-present. By our active participation in Mass, we enter into the Paschal mystery of Christ’s birth, passion, death, and resurrection.
Today, the last Sunday of this liturgical year, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. This prompts the question, What kind of king is Jesus?
Jesus is not a tyrannical king. How could he be when his throne is the cross? To quote words from a contemporary worship song: “To see You high and lifted up/shining in the light of your glory/pour out your power and love/as we sing holy, holy, holy.”4 This is what we see each time we enter our parish Church. Seeing Jesus high and lifted up should fill us with awe, gratitude and love for such a marvelous Savior.
Jesus was not the Messiah the Jews of the Second Temple period expected. What they expected was a new King David, who would rally Israel, route the occupying Romans, and establish independent Jewish rule in the promised land with the law of God as the law of the land. This is not only an inaccurate understanding of Messiahship but one that is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Like the prophet Samuel, through whom God castigated ancient Israel for demanding a king, Jesus explicitly rejected becoming an earthly ruler.5 Nothing could make this rejection clearer than the Lord enduring the taunts as he hung on the cross. The taunts mocked him for his powerlessness after claiming to be the Messiah. This seemed proof enough that this Jesus, this rabble-rouser from a Galilean backwater, was a fraud, an imposter, a pretender- his followers fools.
Jesus’s clear, persistent, and adamant rejection of worldly power began when, just prior to the start of his public ministry, he resisted the temptation to be made ruler over “all the kingdoms of the world.”6 This is an important lesson for the Church in every age. The lowest ebbs in Church history are when we have forgotten this lesson. It is relevant now for those who pine away for the restoration of a lost Christendom. This is not to say that Christianity doesn’t have a political dimension. It does. What is important is not to compromise the Church’s prophetic call to speak truth to power, especially on behalf of the poor and marginalized.
To answer the question “What kind of king is Jesus?” in a positive way, we need to look no further than today’s Gospel. After rebuking the other thief, who makes the same demand of Jesus I suppose I might make in that situation, the so-called “good” thief, turns to the Lord and says: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”7
There’s that word “remember” again! The Greek word the inspired author of Luke puts in the mouth of the “good” thief is not anamnesis but it has pretty much the same meaning. The “good” thief, who recognizes the nature of Jesus’s kingship, makes his plea for the King not to forget him. Jesus demonstrates the kind of king he is- a gracious king, who is full of grace and truth- by promising this criminal eternal life.
The Church reveres the “good” thief, upon whom tradition has conferred the name Dismas, as a saint. Yes, a saint! By the grace of God, expressed as Jesus’s promise to remember and not forget him, this self-admitted criminal becomes a saint! My dear sisters and brothers, Dismas’s plea is our plea.
Returning to Waiting for Godot, Vladimir wonders why Jesus’s promise to save one of the thieves is found only in one of the four Gospels. This bothers him. His inference that because Jesus only explicitly “saves” one of the two thieves the other is damned also bothers him a great deal. The relevant question becomes, Is this an accurate inference?
Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot in 1948. In an interview he gave in 1956, he shared this line from Saint Augustine: “Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.”8
Two weeks ago, I mentioned the Cistercian monks who were made martyrs in Algeria in 1996. As danger closed in on them, the youngest of the monks, who also served as abbot, Father Christian de Chergé, wrote a letter to his family in France. He told them to open it in the event of his death. After the Islamists announced they had killed the seven monks, Father Christian’s family publicly released the letter. The first paragraph demonstrates what it means to acknowledge Jesus Christ as King:
If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country…I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity9In imitation of his King, Abbot Christian understood how important, how salvific, this act of remembering is.
The final two paragraphs of Father Christian's letter are addressed to his murderer. His final line expresses his faith in Jesus’s promise of life eternal: “And may we find each other, happy ‘good thieves,’ in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen.”10
1 Waiting for Godot, Act I, in I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On: A Samuel Beckett Reader, Ed. Richard W. Seaver, 374.↩
3 Luke 22:19.↩
4 Michael W. Smith, “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord.” ↩
5 1 Samuel 8:1-9; John 6:15. ↩
6 See Luke 4:5-8..↩
7 Luke 23:43.↩
8 Dirk Van Hulle and Pim Verhulst, “Happy Birthday, Samuel Beckett,” on Bloomsbury Literary Studies blog, 13 April 2019.↩
9 “Last Testament: A Letter from the Monk Tibhirine,” Trans. Monks of Mt. St. Bernard Abbey, in First Things.↩
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