Sunday, June 30, 2019

Year C Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kings 19:16b.19-31; Ps 16:1-2.5.7-11; Gal 5:1.13-18; Luke 9:51-62

Our readings today both pose and answer the question, What does it mean to follow Jesus? We are given a vivid foreshadowing of the answer to this question in our first reading, taken from 1 Kings. Obeying God’s command, the prophet Elijah seeks out the much younger Elisha. When he finds him, Elisha is plowing his field. In an unmistakable gesture, Elijah confers the prophetic mantle on Elisha. He does this by literally placing his cloak, or mantle, over the younger man’s shoulders, thus designating him as his successor.

Quickly discerning what this meant for his life, Elisha asks Elijah if he can go and kiss his Mom and Dad goodbye. This certainly seems like a reasonable request, does it not? Nevertheless, Elisha’s request provokes a strong rebuke from the old prophet, who, apart from Moses, figures as the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. It was Elijah who appeared along with Moses at Jesus’s Transfiguration. His appearance at the Transfiguration can be taken as the fulfillment of the prophecy given by Malachi that before the Messiah appeared, Elijah, who was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, would return.1

Once again, quickly discerning Elijah’s meaning, Elisha leaves the prophet, slaughters his twelve oxen, chops his plow to bits and uses the wood to roast the oxen meat and hosts an impromptu farewell barbecue, to which he invites his entire village. After the grand meal, which can be seen as having eucharistic overtones, the inspired author conveys that “Elisha left and followed Elijah as his attendant.”2 This begins a period of discipleship, Elisha’s prophetic apprenticeship.

I am tempted to simply leave matters there because it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a better illustration of what Christ calls upon those who would follow him to do in today’s Gospel. However, I think it is useful to look at our second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. The insight gleaned from this with regard to following Jesus is that in following him there can be no compulsion. The decision to follow Jesus is the supreme act of human freedom.

The Christian conception of freedom sees it primarily as freedom for, not freedom from. We define it positively, not negatively. In short, because Christ freed us from death, we are free for what St. Augustine, in a letter to the Roman widow Proba, referred to as the life that is truly life.3 Among other things, this means that freedom is not an end in itself. Neither is freedom merely the multiplication of choices. Authentic freedom is oriented toward the truth. Freedom misconceived as the maximization of choice enslaves us and may ultimately damn us.

Paul confirms that by your baptism “you were called for freedom.”4 “But,” he continues, “do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.”5 Indeed, the “law” of Christ is the law of love: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”6 Living according to the Spirit does not mean doing whatever you want.7 For the most part, following your own inclinations and desires is what it means to live according to the flesh.

Understandably, we have a difficult time letting go of Easter. Proof of this is that the two Sundays following Pentecost, which celebration brings the season of Easter to a close, Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi, are solemnities that trump the respective Sundays in Ordinary Time. So, it isn’t until the Sunday following Corpus Christi that we really begin the long stretch of Ordinary Time that will take us to the end of the liturgical year.

Our Gospel for this Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time is a great way to begin this long stretch, during which we will read through St. Luke’s Gospel semi-continuously. In all the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke), Jesus and his disciples journey to Jerusalem only once. In Luke’s account, the beginning of the long section that chronicles this journey is marked by this dramatic phrase: “When the days for Jesus' being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”8 It is significant that his turn toward Jerusalem took Jesus and his companions through Samaria. Demonstrating that he came to save and not destroy, Jesus rebuked his followers when they wanted to “call down fire from heaven to consume” the unwelcoming Samaritan village.9

By journeying to Jerusalem, Jesus is journeying to the cross. Earlier in the same chapter from which our Gospel reading for today is taken, Jesus tells his would-be disciples: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”10

As he sets his face toward Jerusalem, Jesus encounters more would-be followers. He tells one that following him means hardship.11 To another who wants to bury his dead father, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”12 His answer to the would-be disciple who wants to go home and bid his family goodbye may well be a direct reference to our first reading: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”13

My friends in Christ, over the ensuing months let us journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. May this journey be for us, individually and as a parish, a school of discipleship, consisting of lessons on life in the Spirit. It is by apprenticing ourselves to the Lord that we learn to live lives of sacrificial service for God’s kingdom in imitation of him, the One we call “Master” and “Teacher.”

1 2 Kings 2:8-14; Malachi 3:23-24.
2 1 Kings 19:21.
3 St. Augustine, Letter 130, 2.5.
4 Galatians 5:13.
5 Galatians 5:13.
6 Luke 10:27.
7 Galatians 5:17.
8 Luke 9:51.
9 Luke 9:54-55.
10 Luke 9:23-24.
11 Luke 9:57-58.
12 Luke 9:59-60.
13 Luke 9:62.

Friday, June 28, 2019

"He taught me how to watch, fight and pray"

This is one of those times that I find it difficult to be a Catholic blogger. For the first several years of my efforts here, I posted daily and opined about everything. Frankly, after a few years I grew exhausted. But I don't think I can call myself a Catholic blogger without posting something about what is happening along the southern border of the United States. Our government is effectively placing immigrants in concentration camps, detaining them in overcrowded conditions and all that goes along with that, heat, noise, filth, etc. Family unity remains imperiled. I am abhorred by what is happening. No matter what one thinks about immigration across our southern border, which, since 2008 has dropped rather sharply, I would hope we all agree that people, families, including women and children, should be treated humanely.

When you consider the risk people who try to cross into the United States take by so doing, you gain some insight into how awful the conditions they are fleeing must be. People immigrating from Central America, like the young father and his daughter from El Salvador, Oscar Alberto & Angie Valeria Martínez, who drowned, are fleeing horrific conditions. Moreover, the conditions Central American refugees/immigrants are fleeing are the result of political and societal circumstances that are the result of U.S. policy toward that region dating back well over a century or more. Let's not forget that the Salvadoran gang MS13, members of which our president has called "animals," was borne on the means streets of L.A., not San Salvador.

Today the Church throughout the world observes the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Appropos to the crisis on our border, which is not brought about by a high influx of immigrants but our government's treatment of those apprehended, the Gospel for today's Solemnity, taken from the fifteenth chapter of St. Luke's Gospel, is Jesus's parable of the good shepherd (Luke 15:3-7). The good shepherd is the one who leaves the 99 and goes after the one who is lost. Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso is demonstrating what this means in a very concrete. Bishop Seitz is personally escorting asylum-seekers across the U.S. border. Bishop Seitz has described this country's treatment of immigrants as "an affront to human rights and human dignity." Like widow of Zarephath, who took the prophet Elijah under her roof during a time of drought and famine on the promise she would continue to have enough food to feed her and her son, there is just enough good news in the Church these days to keep me from despair (see 1 Kings 17:7-16).

I know Mavis Staples singing Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" was our traditio just two weeks ago. Nonetheless, our traditio for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart is Mavis sing the Gospel tune "O Happy Day" with late, great Aretha Franklin. Jesus is One who taught me to watch, fight, and pray. I should do this rejoicing everyday. Well, I am working on the rejoicing bit. Jesus is gentle, kind, and patient with me. I live in the hope that someday rejoicing will be my whole existence. For now, I am a work in progress.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The true and the mystical body of Christ

Readings: Gen 14:18-20; Ps 110:1-4; 1 Cor 11:23-26; Luke 9:11b-17

The best laid plans of mice and men. Beginning yesterday morning, I planned to post a reflection for this great solemnity. Here it is Sunday evening and I just getting started.

Last week, as I was preparing to preach on Trinity Sunday, I thought "We have a hard time letting go of Easter." What do I mean? I mean that Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi, which fall on successive Sundays after Pentecost, at least where I live, seem to me like Easter extended. Yes, I know that in most parts of the world Corpus Christi was last Thursday. Don't forget, I live in a part of the United States within which we observe Jesus's Ascension, not forty day after Easter, but in lieu of the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

Biblical arithmetic is interesting. I make this observation with regard to our Gospel reading for today, which is from Luke's Gospel. After Jesus invited them to give those who gathered to listen to him something to eat, all his closest followers could come up with were five loaves of bread and two fishes (Luke 9:13). Added together (5+2), they equal seven. In Biblical terms, seven is the number of completeness of and/or achievement. So, there is significance to the number. That significance is brought to the fore when Luke writes "all ate and were satisfied" (Luke 9:17).

Our Gospel reading begins with the sacred author writing that Jesus spoke to those who followed him to Bethsaida "about the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:11b). The same author goes on to point out that Jesus "healed those who needed to be cured" (Luke 9:11b). In the twentieth chapter his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius of Antioch refers to the Eucharist as "the medicine of immortality." You see, healing and Eucharist go together. All of Eve's poor banished children need the healing that Jesus brings about through his death, resurrection, and sending the Spirit.

Whenever the lectionary features a Sunday Gospel reading of a synoptic account of the multiplication of loaves, the red herring as to whether that small amount of food was miraculously multiplied or whether other people, following the lead of Jesus's close disciples, brought forth and shared that which they had been withholding. At least for Luke's account, which begins by relating that Jesus was speaking to them about the kingdom of God, the latter seems very congruent with Jesus's teaching about God's kingdom. Of course, it does not rule out the other possibility.

In reality, this false dilemma is the result of too literal a reading of these pericopes. Just like too literal a reading of the story of the fall in Genesis 3 might cause someone to ask, "What kind of fruit tree was it?," or reading the Book of Jonah may cause one to ask about the plausibility of staying alive for several days inside a large fish, reading this account too literally results in this false dilemma. All of these are exercises in missing the point. Because it points to the Eucharist (the Gospel According St. Luke is thoroughly eucharistic throughout), the point is the abundance with which Christ gives himself to us whole and entire. He is able to give himself in and through the Eucharist throughout the world. In short, Christ's presence in the Eucharist, which is the work of the Holy Spirit, is not bound by time and space. This is what it means to say that Jesus ascended in order to draw closer.

Our second reading from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians is the earliest written account of the Last Supper that has been handed down. Written 7-10 years before the Gospel According to St. Mark, which is the first of the Gospels to be written, Paul tells the first Christians of ancient Corinth about the traditio (i.e., something that is handed on) of the Eucharist. The apostle says he hands on what he received from the Lord. Jesus's disciples, according to Paul, are to continue doing this until Christ returns.

Then there is the mysterious figure of Melchizedek from our first reading. The only other place Melchizedek is mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e., Old Testament) is in Psalm 110, which is our responsorial. Melchizedek is introduced as the king of Salem. "Salem" means "peace." Appearing out of nowhere, offering an unbloody sacrifice of bread and wine, Melchizedek, after accepting Abram's tithe, vanishes again. From a Christian perspective, Melchizedek is assuredly a Christ-figure.

Like the mystery of the Trinity, the mystery of the Eucharist is inexhaustible. But it is not something primarily to be pondered. The Eucharist is a mystery into which we are immersed each time we participate in Mass. The mystery into which we are immersed is the very life of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

By receiving him in the Eucharist, Christ comes to be present in us just as much as he remains in the unconsumed bread we reserve in the tabernacle. Hence, it your mission to make him present wherever you go. 

It was Henri de Lubac, S.J. who observed that over time there was reversal of mysticum and verum with regard to the Body of Christ. This reversal has been most detrimental for the Church's witness. What am I talking about? You see, the mystical Body of Christ (corpus mysticum) formerly referred to the consecrated species (i.e., the transformed bread and wine) and the real Body of Christ (corpus verum) to the Church. Putting things back, the right way around, makes a world of difference. The mystical makes the true.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Moving, change, longing: thoughts from an airport

Have you ever felt as though you were going through a transition but had no idea what it might be? Perhaps it's just a desire for a change on my part. Middle age is tougher than it looks. You know, when you hit that age at which, when you were younger, you thought you'd have life pretty well worked out, the time you imagined you could start enjoying the fruits of your years of toil, personal and professional development? At least in advanced late capitalist societies, life is disruption, to use a term with a lot of currency Disruption is the norm- don't get comfortable and if you do, disrupt yourself. As a result, like a lot of Gen Xers, I often feel a little disoriented. I am not old enough to ignore a lot of things that might best be ignored. Yet, I am old enough to remember when things were quite different- in some ways better in other ways worse. It isn't simply black and white. I have to say, for someone who never really deliberately planned a career, I've done alright, I suppose, at least by external indicators. It's just difficult not to have a passion and conviction about what I do. In other words, as I grow older I circle back to the convictions of my youth: it's not the external things that matter but my heart.

Anyway, I've been traveling for work this week. I can remember when I was very young thinking how cool it would be to travel for work. Nearly 30 years in, whatever luster that idea had has more than disappeared. Work trips these days make me anxious. Being away from home and family is lonely after a day or two. At least with the benefit of internet television in most hotel rooms these days, I was finally able to watch the Coen Brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I enjoyed it immensely. It's been a long time since I relaxed and watched something. Too long, in fact (note to self). I am excited to watch the Bob Dylan documentary!

My lovely wife and I celebrated 26 years of marriage back on 12 June. I have to say, when I travel, even just from Monday-Friday, which is most of my business travel these days (the days of extended trips is pretty well over), after 3-4 days I start to miss my wife like a lovesick teenager. Of course, this has mostly upsides but a few down sides too. Lovesick teen boys are moody. To state it frankly, I can become more than a little needy and demanding when I am in this mode. My wonderful wife takes it all in stride and knows how to manage me for the most part, even if I don't always appreciate it in the moment.

In and of itself, this week was draggiest of drags. Long days in a dark basement conference room, heat and humidity, a social event every evening (I bailed on the one for the final night, which was optional- I optioned). The social aspect is usually difficult for me because, while I am not shy, I am introverted. I suffer from social anxiety at the prospect of attending virtually any event. In an unfamiliar environment with people I don't know well or at all, this anxiety can be pretty intense. Since I don't deal with things by consuming alcoholic beverages, having given that up entirely (except for Holy Communion, of course- new wine of the kingdom?), I have to manage this. Managing social anxiety involves a process I find excruciating. Dealing with people pastorally or professionally, that is, personally presents no such issues. Dealing with people often leaves me feeling a tired, sometimes exhausted. This can be a good sort of tiredness or a frustrated exhaustion depending on circumstances.

Back to the perceived/desired transition, we'll see. I have some ideas for a change. It isn't up to me exclusively. I have a number of people who rely on me for material support (i.e., my wife and children). It's fine to leave things to God as long as I am doing my due diligence. My desire for change is not a big secret. Having just completed my DMin (Doctor of Ministry degree), I would really like to transition into full-time ministry, even if by way of doing something part-time for starters. I have a particular desire to work in the area of clergy formation, especially diaconal formation, both initial and continuing. I think it is something that is needed so very badly in the Church right now, both my local Church and the Church throughout the U.S. Who knows, like so many aspirations, perhaps it's just the vapor of a wish? Hey, it's good to have dreams, even if they're pipe dreams.

Anyway, I am looking forward to being back in the arms of my baby tonight. To that end, as I stood in line in the airport this morning headed home, I heard Jimmy Buffett singing "Come Monday." In my case, it's "Come Friday. "I spent four lonely days in a humid north Florida haze/And I just want you back by my side."

On my way.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Year C Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Readings: Prov 8:22-31; Ps 8:4-9; Rom 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

Before there was anything there was only God. One insight we can glean from this statement is that God, qua God, is not a “thing” or “object” somewhere in the universe. God, therefore, is no-thing. As such God is the reason there is anything and everything. This is the point of our first reading from the Book of Proverbs as well as our responsorial Psalm. I grasp that this can be more than a little confusing, especially if you believe that faith should never require you to think.

In reality, nothing should cause you to think more deeply or critically than faith. St. Anselm of Canterbury was quite right to conceive of theology as faith seeking understanding. Faith that does not seek understanding is not faith because it will either disappear or not grow, thus not realizing its full purpose, which is to love perfectly after the manner of Christ. Perfect love consists of knowing as you are known by God, who called you by name.1

Faith matures into knowledge by means of hope. This knowledge is learned through experience, especially through relationships. The kind of experience through which we come to know as we are known is gained by our relationship with God through Christ which is both made possible and fully realized by the power of their Holy Spirit. A few questions provide examples. How do you know your parents love you? How do you know your spouse loves you? How do they know you love them? Not a bad question to ask on Father’s Day. To a large extent, your happiness depends on whether you know you are loved and how well you know it.

The Church teaches us that truth is hierarchical. This simply means that some truths are more important than others. The most important truths we call dogmas of the faith. Atop the hierarchy of truth, we find dogmas concerning the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Most Holy Trinity. Of course, it is Jesus who explicitly revealed the Trinity, which is only implied in the Old Testament. We call these truths “mysteries.”

In theological terms, a mystery does not refer either to an unsolvable puzzle or an intellectual conundrum that is difficult to figure out. Theological mysteries refer to something known only because God has revealed it. Some truths of revelation complement what we know by means of human reason. These are not mysteries, strictly speaking. For example, the Church “holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.”2 What cannot be discerned apart from revelation is that God is a “trinity” of persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The most succinct way to describe the Most Holy Trinity is one God in three divine persons. What is potentially confusing about this is that in the same sentence we use “one” and “three” in reference to God. As a result, many Christians mistakenly believe that the “mystery” of the Trinity consists of somehow wrapping your mind around the idea that 3=1. We know that 3≠1. Three and one differ by two every time. You’ll be relieved to know that at the heart of our faith is not a gross arithmetical error.

Central Panel from the High Altar of the Trinity Church, Mosóc, ca. 1400-1500, artist unknown

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is perhaps best expounded in a phrase used twice in the course of eight verses in the fourth chapter of St. John’s First Letter: “God is love.”3 At a minimum, love that is truly love and not narcissism requires a lover and a beloved. Because love is profuse, because love is abundant to the point of overflowing, love gives life. What is the Holy Spirit if not the love between the Father and the Son personified?

Accepting Jesus’s invitation to pick-up the cross and follow him, the way God makes his love manifest, according to St. Paul in our second reading from his Letter to the Romans, is not by preserving us from affliction but precisely through our passing through various afflictions. It is very important to point out that God is not the immediate or even the remote cause of our suffering. But perhaps more than anything else, God uses our suffering to draw us to himself. This is why the apostle writes that “we even boast of our afflictions.”4

Christians are people who understand that hope lies beyond optimism. Optimism would have the Father spare his Son the cross. Hope is what led Jesus to the cross. This hope is borne out in the Jesus’s resurrection; Christus resurrexit quia Deus caritas est (i.e., Christ is resurrected because God is love)! It is this same self-emptying, sacrificial, other-centered love that Paul says is poured into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.5 This is the “grace in which we stand” and on the basis of which “we boast in hope of the glory of God.”6

Realizing that hope lies beyond optimism is nothing other than our recognition “that eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.”7 What God has in store for us is much greater than anything we can imagine because presently “we see indistinctly, as in a mirror.”8 St. Paul tells us love “bears all things” and “endures all things.”9

Jesus ascended to be closer to us, not to disappear. He is more present by his seeming absence than he would be otherwise. Earlier in the same chapter from which our Gospel reading for today is taken, Jesus tells his disciples “if I do not go, the [Holy Spirit] will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”10 That the Holy Spirit is the way the risen Christ remains present among us, in us, and through us is witnessed by what the Lord tells his disciples in today’s Gospel. He tells them his Spirit will guide them into all truth. Jesus says the Spirit will not speak of himself but will take from what Jesus teaches “and declare it to you.”11

In a way analogous to the Son revealing the Father, the Holy Spirit reveals the Son. The difference is that the Spirit does not merely reveal the Son to us. The Spirit reveals the Son in us and through us. Grace is nothing other than God sharing divine life with us. Because the Holy Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life,” he is the way God shares life with us.12 Because the essence of divine life is self-emptying love, in turn, we are to share what receive, which why at the end of Mass each of us are sent forth to “announce the Gospel of the Lord,” to glorify “the Lord by your life.”13 God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit, sharing divine life with us cannot mean anything apart from God giving himself to us entirely.

It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that our humble gifts of bread of wine are transformed into Christ’s body and blood. In Eucharistic Prayer III, the celebrant implores the Father: “grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son, and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.”14 This is the way you experience the love of God, to know as are known, to love as you are loved. Loving God by loving your neighbor as you love yourself is how faith leads you to perfect knowledge through hope, which has little to do with optimism. This, my dear friends, is how you grasp the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.

1 1 Corinthians 13:12.
2 Vatican Council I, Dei Filius, sec. 2.
3 1 John 4:8.16
4 Romans 5:3.
5 Romans 5:5.
6 Romans 5:2.
7 1 Corinthians 2:9.
8 1 Corinthians 13:12.
9 1 Corinthians 13:7.
10 John 16:7.
11 John 16:15.
12 1 Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” sec. 18.
13 Ibid., sec. 144.
14 Ibid., sec. 113.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Who do you serve? You gotta serve somebody

It's funny, I don't think I appreciate R & B or Gospel very much. In reality, I like both more than I can say. While I pondered what I might put up as our traditio this afternoon I listened to Marc Maron's WTF podcast. In the episode I heard he interviewed Mavis Staples. Mavis started singing Gospel with her family, the famous Staples Family, when she was very young, like 11 or 12.

Mavis met Bob Dylan when they were both very young. Mavis & Bob were an item in the mid-60s for a while. He is two years younger than her. They've remained close ever since. Man, I love Mavis's voice and I love her cover of this classic from Dylan's Gospel era.

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple by Rembrandt

If you ever want to listen to some amazing Gospel, you can do no better than the Staples Family. If you don't believe me listen to them sing "Uncloudy Day." Mavis is still going strong at 80. God bless her.

Our tradito for this first First Friday in Ordinary Time is Mavis Staples singing a Dylan song written during Bobby Z.'s Gospel period: "Gotta Serve Somebody." This is probably his most well-known song from that time of his long career. I love that Dylan always insists that he is "a song and dance man." I don't think he ever wanted to be anything else.

One of the beautiful things about Gospel music is that at its best it beautifully distills the good news. Since we entered Ordinary Time on Monday, I went back to my normal order of praying the Mystery of the Blessed Virgin's Rosary. This means that on Monday I contemplated the Joyful Mysteries. I was struck as I meditated on the third Joyful Mystery, which is Mary and Joseph presenting baby Jesus in the Temple (see Luke 2:22-28). While in the Temple the couple encounter Anna and Simeon. Both of these elderly Israelites recognized in this child their hope, the hope of Israel, and the hope of the whole world. In doing so, they gain insight into how painful the realization of their hope was going to be. In short, they grasped that hope lies beyond optimism.

The message of Dylan's song could not be clearer or truer: you inevitably wind up serving somebody. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

You serve the Lord by serving your neighbor. You serve the devil by putting yourself first. It's almost always easier to serve yourself, even when you consider that you don't know what you want most of the time. In short, serving yourself is convenient; you're always right there. Putting yourself first gives rise to optimism. The optimism to which it gives rise is the optimism that finds its roots in believing that happiness is earned and you can achieve it. By contrast, serving others is almost always inconvenient. Very often, one's service to others doesn't seem to accomplish much of anything. If nothing else, it relieves of yourself for a little while. Therein lies hope.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Bridge building spans the chasm

I understand the alarm many people feel in hearing/reading about a recent document from the Congregation for Catholic Education. The document, entitled Male and Female He created them: Towards a path of dialogue on the question of gender theory in education, was sent to the president's of all national bishops' coneferences (see "Vatican issues new document criticizing 'gender theory'"). But if we want to build bridges and not expand chasms. it is important for people with differing viewpoints to speak and/or write from knowledge, not ignorance. Sadly, when it comes to informing us about this document, neither the secular nor the Catholic media have done us any favors.

In the context of various documents produced by various Congregations, Councils, and Commissions, "Vatican" is an ambiguous word. It usually refers to the church's magisterium. Magisterium, in turn, refers to official and authoritative church teaching. It is important to note that not every document that comes from the Vatican is magisterial. Beyond that it is important to point out that even every magisterial teaching is not of the same weight or importance. The document that created such a buzz today, which calls into question some aspects of "gender theory" (another ambiguous term), specifically questioning transgenderism, is one that is not magisterial.

My claim that Male and Female He created them is not magisterial is buttressed by no less than Dr. Richard Galliardetz, professor of theology at Boston College. I have benefited enormously from Dr. Galliardetz's work throughout my graduate theological education. I relied on his work quite heavily in a particular chapter of my recently completed dissertation. On Facebook thread today, in his calm, measured, and generous way, he responded to a post that seemed to exaggerate the importance of this document:
it might be worth noting that this particular document was issued “in forma commune” and not “in forma specifica.” In the latter instance, the curial document must be received as authoritative papal teaching. In the former instance, which applies to this document, it does not carry papal authority and therefore is not to be considered magisterial teaching

Does this insight remove all suspicion? I seriously doubt it. But I think it provides some much-needed perspective for people on both sides- those who will say, "See! The Magisterium rejects transgenderism!" as well as those who see an article and say, "There they go again!" Precisely, Because it is not magisterial, nobody need feel compelled to agree with it.

In terms of church teaching, the issue of transgenderism is not completely closed. I think it bears noting that in recent years there has been no little tension between various lesbian and gay groups and individuals, as well as certain feminists, and transgender people and those who advocates. It's a complex , multi-faceted issue. Because it involves people, we need to lead care and concern for people who, through medical science, have transitioned. Loving and caring for people comes first always. I'd venture to say that few things are more complex than human sexuality. Let's take up the challenge issued by the document's subtitle and walk a path of dialogue.

Along with Francis A, Sullivan, S.J.'s Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, Galliardetz's By What Authority?: Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful is indispensable for anyone who cares to know how church teaching works, its various levels, the authority any given document, teaching, or assertion carries, etc. If you care enough to know, it's that not that difficult to find it.

In other direction, I found "The Church & Transgender Identity Some Cautions, Some Possibilities," by Luke Timothy Johnson and David Cloutier quite informative. I know I need to learn more.

In short, what the document expresses is nothing new. It sets forth a long-held view rooted in a theological anthropology derived from a certain fairly narrow conception of natural law. From a philosophical perspective, I find this view to be based on an outdated metaphysics of substance rooted in a certain articulation of Aristotle. Jumping from philosophy to theology, it has been pretty rare for the Church to apply kingdom ethics to sexual morality. It is his doing just this that makes Robert Song's little book A Covenant Calling (mentioned and linked to a previous post) such valuable reading.

Sunday, June 9, 2019


And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim
(Acts 2:1-4)

Come Holy Spirit and renew the face of the Church.

I wanted to keep it simple today. After Easter, Pentecost is the most important day on the liturgical calendar. The Holy Spirit is the mode of Christ's resurrected presence among us, in us, and through us.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Becoming affirming: mileposts along the way

My earliest memory of seeing homosexuals dates to the early 1970s. We were driving from our home in Utah to San Francisco. We stopped and spent the night in Reno, Nevada. The next morning we ate breakfast at an International House of Pancakes. As we sat in our both, two men came in holding hands and sat in the both next to the one in which my family sat. One of the men carried a purse. The man with the purse had longer hair than his companion and was dressed more neatly. I could not have been older than 6 or 7.

Without the least bit of guile and certainly not in a mocking way, I said out loud, "Look, Dad, that man has a purse." I don't mind admitting that it seemed to strange to me, not wrong necessarily, just something that was clearly outside the very narrow range of my young (in)experience. Of course, my parents both shushed me while they apologetically glanced at the same-sex couple. Typical of that time, my parents were simply intent on me shutting up to avoid embarrassment. But nobody explained anything to me. As a result, an important teaching moment was missed. Some things were just not discussed. Of course, this story was shared numerous times over the years for comic effect.

My next direct experience with someone was who was homosexual did not occur until my junior year of high school. My best friend and I walked in to a guys' restroom on campus, When we entered we encountered two guys hassling a third guy. They were taunting and threatening him. My friend and I intervened, chasing the two would-be badasses away. Predictably, the guy they bullied was gay. That day began my friendship with David. He and I became good friends after that. He was always very straightforward about being gay. Prior that episode in the restroom, David and I were in drama together, performing in plays, taking classes, etc. While friendly, we were not friends prior to that day's incident.

When I was in the Marines, David wrote me letters. He wrote things on the outside of the envelope that he knew would cause me to be razzed or even mildly punished. These were mostly song lyrics. I remember on one he used these lyrics from Culture Club song: "War is stupid and people are stupid." He also used Springsteen's "War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing." I didn't mind. I was happy to have a friend who actually took the time to write to me. The ridicule and mild punishments were no big deal. For the most part, I endured them while smiling.

Eventually, David and I went our own ways. But crossed paths again when we were in college at the University of Utah. He worked at the Kinko's Copies nearest to campus while taking classes. In those days- late 80s/early 90s- Kinko's was a busy place near any college campus. By that time, I was married and had a child. But I would stop in to see him a lot because Kinko's was located on the same corner as my bus stop and across the street from the Newman Center, where I went to church. I stopped in to pray for a few minutes several times a week or attend mid-day Mass. We went for coffee once or twice. It was always nice to see him. Several years ago, we reconnected on Facebook. He was living in San Francisco with his partner. He left social media because he found it infuriating.

Since my friendship with David, I have made friends with gay men and women. Recently, one of those friends married the love of his life. There is a lot to his story but it is his story, not mine. Yesterday, this friend, who is Christian and Roman Catholic, shared a blog post by Sarah Bessey: "Penny in the Air: My Story of Becoming Affirming." Reading this made me think about my own turn on this issue, a turn that it took me a decade or more to make.

Like many Christians, while I harbored no personal animus toward gay people and went out of my way to say that, I continued to adhere to what is taken to be traditional Christian doctrine on this matter, seeing genital expressions of gay love as sinful without exception, forbidden by God and expressed in revelation. Both of these assertions, I now know, are highly questionable (as an example see "Adriano Oliva's Amours: L'Église, les divorcés remariés, les couples homosexuels — On the Pastoral Implications of Aquinas' Recognition That Homosexuality Is Natural"). Like many Catholics, I bought into the incoherent and unsustainable stance of separating person from act. Unlike many Catholics, I worked very hard for quite a few years to maintain this point-of-view because, as a "faithful" Catholic, later as a cleric, a deacon, someone who teaches and preaches, I wanted to be in perfect harmony with Church teaching. This desire remained even after I became pretty affirming in my pastoral practice.

I readily admit to publicly expressing my disappointment of and disagreement with the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which was handed down four years ago this month. I have to say, the reality of that decision resulted in a regression for me, a turning back. In retrospect I can see that I was fearful about the alleged chaos that would result from gay people marrying. After a year or so, noticing the world had not ended and that civiilzation had not collapsed as the result of Obergefell, as many predicted it would, my regression ended.

Looking back, I sometimes enjoyed playing the smart-ass by pointing out that technically-speaking "homophobia" means something like "fear of the same." I was just in denial about being homophobic, if only mildly by comparison. Homophobia is not a mental disease, as I used to assert those who employed the term implied. Like all phobias, however, homophobia is an irrational fear. Homophobia is an irrational fear of both homosexuality and homosexual people. This meant that up to this point I had learned nothing from my experience. I had utterly failed to pay attention to my own life, preferring instead a disembodied and atemporal approach to reality, a ready-made metaphysics I could impose on people, which cut against my otherwise fairly existentialist philosophy of life.

Separating person from act with regard to homosexual people means affirming that while their homosexuality in and of itself is not sinful, engaging in homosexual acts is. This cognitively dissonant view leads to many insulting (i.e., homophobic) comparisons, like being homosexual is akin to being predisposed to alcoholism. Just as the person pre-disposed to alcoholism should avoid imbibing alcohol, a person pre-disposed to homosexual behavior should refrain from gay sex. The flaw in this logic is readily apparent: human sexuality is not a disease. At least from a Christian perspective, sexuality is a gift. Even according to Humanae Vitae, the gift of sexuality isn't only given to us to procreate but for enjoyment and affective unity (sec. 12). Following this line of thought, because one's sexual desire is predominantly or even exclusively for members of his/her own gender, that person is condemned to a life of celibacy and sexual continence. On the view I formerly held, this is simply the cross homosexual women and men who wished to follow Jesus must bear. It is not uncommon to encounter the argument that, according to this stance, homosexual people are in the same boat as single heterosexual Christians, who are also morally forbidden sexual relations. The problem with this, of course, is that, at least theoretically, a single Christian can meet and marry someone. According to this same view, a homosexual person cannot. I have come to see that forbidding someone to be who s/he is is, in a word, cruel.

Extending my metaphor, which starts with making a turn that leads to setting off in a new direction (metanoia), I do not intend to provide a detail of every step of my journey. So, as I have done thus far, I will simply write about a few milestones. The first major milestone was reading Rowan Williams's now quite old lecture, "The Body's Grace." Williams began this lecture by looking at homosexuality from the broader perspective of human sexuality. What Williams showed me initially was that no Catholic who has been appointed to preach and/or teach has any business railing against gay people from the ambo (i.e., pulpit) unless he is willing to be equally hard, or perhaps even harder, on everyone whose sexual lives do not conform to Church teaching, not only including but especially married couples who use contraception. Given that this is going to constitute, in any given parish, close to 100% of married people, it's not a very effective pastoral strategy. In fact, it is a self-defeating one. Why would it be more effective for other groups of people, gay or straight? They can ignore you just as well, perhaps even better.

I make the above observation as a father of 6 who endeavors, along with my beautiful wife, of course, to live according to the Church's teachings on sexuality. Personally, I wouldn't do it any differently, even though I know how damn difficult and vexing it can be. As Simcha Fisher noted a few years back, far from solving marital problems, starting to practice NFP will bring the issues you have into stark relief. For my wife and I, there was no start except our wedding day. I am a big believer in witness, honest witness, which means not blowing smoke up the proverbial orifice by overselling its benefits to the detriment of its difficulties. To jump ahead quite a ways, along with Sarah Bessey, I "hold to a deeply Christian sexual ethic, an understanding of fidelity, faithfulness, purity, constancy, love, honour, concern, etc. far beyond mere consent. In my understanding and experience, it’s a path of flourishing. It’s just that I believe we’re all welcome to that ethic, it’s not just straight folks like myself."

Another milestone was reading Fr. Timothy Radcliffe's still excellent book What Is the Point of Being a Christian?. While this does not deal specifically with homosexuality, Radcliffe insists
The Church has nothing to say about morality until our listeners have glimpsed God’s delight in their existence. People often come to us carrying heavy burdens, with lives not in accord with the Church’s teaching, the fruit of complex histories. We have nothing to say at all until people know that God rejoices in their very existence, which is why they exist at all
Far too many homosexual people have grown-up Christian and never experienced what Radcliffe describes. What they have experienced is quite the opposite, in the name of Jesus and for the sake of their soul, no less.

When we reduce the Gospel to sexual ethics and to morality in general we can be sure we've lost the thread. This is not to say morality or sexual morality don't matter. They do. But morality, including sexual morality, are not first order theological or pastoral concerns. If you're still jonesing for a morality fix, here's one courtesy of Bessey:
So remember to sit down at the feet of those who have suffered, those for whom this isn’t theory or theology, those for whom this isn’t an exercise in thought or opinion but their real lived life, the ones who, as Broderick Greer says, "engage in theology as a matter of survival" and I say, "I’m here to learn from you. Lead me. I will listen to you. I will respect your story. I will submit myself to the margins"
Continuing to mine this moral vein I return to "The Body's Grace," in which Williams, in the second paragraph, points out what any discussion of sexuality needs to begin with:
Most people know that sexual intimacy is in some ways frightening for them; most know that it is quite simply the place where they begin to be taught whatever maturity they have. Most of us know that the whole business is irredeemably comic, surrounded by so many odd chances and so many opportunities for making a fool of yourself; plenty know that it is the place where they are liable to be most profoundly damaged or helpless. Culture in general and religion in particular have devoted enormous energy to the doomed task of getting it right
What we should see in this citation is the phrase "doomed task of getting it right." I take this to mean that you should only speak about sexuality with great humility, fully aware of your own fears, frailty, insecurities, and failings in this aspect of your own life. In speaking about sexuality you need to be careful not to project your experience onto others, especially in the service of some disembodied and atemporal "truth" of which you are not yourself completely sure. How can be you be sure if it's not part of your experience?

Another milestone on my path, one I first passed quite a few years ago, is the work of James Alison. Because I am conscious of the lengthiness of this post, I cannot do Alison's work any justice. It will have to suffice for me to point you to his book Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, along with Rowan Williams's review of this book (see here). I would also encourage you check our Fr. Alison's website: James Alison. Theology. Alison possesses the best insight on the internal dynamics of the Church's seemingly endless sexual abuse crisis. Alison's work also demonstrates how third order concerns about sexuality have displaced first order things in a manner similar to the way credal formulae displaced the reign of God, the latter constituting nothing less than the center of Jesus's teaching.

I passed another milestone on my journey to affirmation when I read a short book by theologian Robert Song: A Covenant Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-sex Relationships. Particularly, I think Song's exposition of New Testament sexual ethics is a great antidote to the heavily-laden sexuality derived from natural law, which, like so much theology post-Nicea, seems to ignore the radicality of Kingdom-based ethics as they apply to sex. What Alison and Song did for me was enable me to situate homosexuality into a Catholic theological context. This means that I no longer felt I was dissenting but delving ever deeper into my faith seeking understanding. The importance of this for me cannot be underestimated.

Along the way, I undertook no little Bible study via commentaries and books. One book that touches on what the Bible, particularly the New Testament, has to say about homosexuality stands out. Sara Ruden's Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. In summary fashion, Paul didn't address mutually loving, reciprocal, or even consensual homosexual relationships. There are other books, but keep in mind I am only marking mileposts, not chronicling my journey in detail. There is an indispensable interior aspect to this journey about which I am utterly incapable of writing about presently.

In addition to rejecting the untenable separation between person and act, my conscience bids me to no longer say one thing publicly while thinking something different. This is now unacceptably hypocritical to me. I am no longer willing to live with that level of cognitive dissonance. I grieve those times I pastorally tried to impose a preconception on someone else, failing to listen to them or to accept them. In addition to a couple of homilies and some blog posts from years gone by, which are still available, I can think of two particular people who were affected (afflicted?) by my pastoral ineptitude. Maybe by God's grace I will some day be able to ask their forgiveness in person.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I do not want to even be tangentially responsible for or remotely complicit in violence against gay people. Such violence is still far more prevalent that most of us would care to admit. A terrible incident that occurred in London this past week made international news (see "Lesbian couple beaten on London bus after refusing to kiss for men"). In our current social and political climate, I think we can expect more of this kind of violence. It was strange how compelled I felt to write this today. I can honestly say that I needed to compose this. It is Pentecost and Pride month after all. Maybe I just needed a catharsis. God knows.

I passed the milestone that marked the end of my journey to being affirming when a few years ago my oldest daughter came out as gay. While I was a little surprised I was neither shocked nor disappointed. She had a steady girlfriend for awhile. It was this relationship that occasioned her disclosure. We made it a point to welcome them, to include them, to love them. When they split up last summer, my wife and I helped her through her first broken heart. She's doing fine now, moving forward in her driven way. She's a wonderful person. I am very proud of her. What matters is to be honest and to live with integrity knowing not only that you are loved but that you are free to love.

Even though the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that sexuality "affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul" (sec. 2332), it is important to not reduce anyone, including yourself, to her/his sexuality. "Chastity," the Catechism goes on to teach, "means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being" (sec. 2337). Now, both sections of the Catechism I have cited go on to say other things having to do with gender complementarity and procreation. I find it interesting that when not "clarified" these pronouncements are more descriptive of reality and quite wholistic on their own.

Where does that leave me? Well, in the same place I've been for several years now. I have just gone public with it. I am not an activist by nature. I do, however, have a low tolerance for what I perceive as being unjust. I am not going to start being defiant in homilies. I will continue to be non-condemnatory and try to focus on the essence of the Gospel, things having to do with loving my neighbor as I love myself and giving my life in service to others.

Something else I have utterly changed my mind about the past several years: women deacons. Don't worry. I don't feel compelled to compose an apologia for that, at least not yet. This post is long enough to make up for no traditio yesterday.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Jesus ascended in order to draw closer, not to disappear

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3.6-9; Heb 9:24-28.10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53

It constantly amazes me how individualistic many Catholics, including clergy, maybe especially clergy, have become. The Ascension is a perfect example of this. What do I mean? I mean that, like tent revivalists, Catholic preachers sometimes get hung up on "going to heaven." They insist heaven is up there somewhere in the sky. Hence, reaching heaven becomes a matter of personal effort, which mostly consists of rejecting "the world" and living what I can only describe as a kind of spiritualized life.

By "the world" they mean something different than what is meant when that term is employed in the New Testament, especially in the Johannine corpus. Instead, they mean everything on earth, they mean life and what is required to live it, everything pertaining to God's good creation, which tells of God's work through Christ by the power of their Spirit bringing to its beautiful completion, a work in which God, in his goodness and through grace, invites us to participate.

In one of his early works, The Wound of Knowledge, Rowan Williams explored the bizarre dichotomy some Christians make between what he terms "compromising activities" and "pure realities." Such people insist that engaging in every day activities, rather than being the very stuff of salvation, compromises us somehow before God. In reality, it is the other way around; focusing on "heaven" disconnects us from the world and those things through which our salvation is brought about. All one needs to do to see that this is antithetical to Christianity properly understood and lived is to read one of the four Gospels. It is in the Gospels that we read about Jesus engaging fully in the everyday life of the world.

Because the Incarnation of the Son of God is its point of origin, Christianity in its essence is incarnational, something that happens not only in the world but through the world, in space and time. This is what distinguishes Christianity from Gnosticism and the Eastern religions. Our salvation is worked out precisely in and through our day-to-day activities, not somehow over and above them.

Each year on Ascension I am struck by what one of the men dressed in white says to the astonished apostles as they stand there looking up at Jesus as he disappears into the cloud: "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven" (Acts 1:11). Notice the word "men." It is a translation of the Greek word Ἄνδρες, which transliterates as andres. Andres is plural for people of the male gender. My point? The women who followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, who did not abandon him during his passion and death, and who were the first ones to experience his resurrection, were probably already getting on with Christ's mission.

In Luke's account of this as written in the Acts of the Apostles two key things happen prior to Jesus's Ascension: he promises to send the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5) and the apostles inquire about the final establishment of God's kingdom (Acts 1:6-9). As to the latter, Jesus tells them God's reign will be fully established at some indeterminate point in the future. He doesn't bother correcting their mistaken notion about what the establishment of God's kingdom will consist of. It is something they will come realize over time as they carry out the mission entrusted to them. As to the first, it is the Holy Spirit who will empower them to bear witness to Jesus and begin making God's kingdom present throughout the world. It is by means of the Holy Spirit that Jesus remains present in us, among us, and through us until he returns. The Holy Spirit is nothing other than Jesus's resurrected presence.

The Ascension, by Hans von Kulmbach, ca. 1508

Jesus sends the Holy Spirit so that those who are called and sent (an apostle is one who is sent) can carry out the mission of establishing God's reign in advance of his return, when God's kingdom will be fully established on the earth, not in some inchoate heaven somewhere up in the sky. Here's the crux of this: the heaven-centered life is easily disconnected from real life, it is "spiritual" in that weirdly persistent Gnostic sense to which human beings are so prone. Gnosticism is a spiritual virus. Gnosticism, which preceded Christianity by centuries, is a religious parasite. It is Gnosticism that causes people to divorce nature from grace, spirit from body, heaven from earth. Holiness is wholistic, not dualistic. In terms of Jesus's Ascension, he ascended in order to be more present to us by means of the Holy Spirit, not absent or somehow less present.

If you were to encounter Jesus in person, as did many people during his mortal life, it would be no different than encountering any other person. Most people who encountered Jesus were not immediately, or even eventually, convinced he was the Son of God in the flesh, the Savior of the world. In such person-to-person encounters we remain "outside" each other. What makes sexual intercourse so sacred is that by engaging in it two people enter each other. We sometimes call this "knowing" in the "Biblical sense."

At end of his amazingly beautiful reflection on the love members of Christ's body are to have for one another, St. Paul states what it is each of us most desires: to know "as I am fully known" (1 Cor 13:12). The relationship the risen Lord desires to have with each of us and all us together in order to make us his body, the kingdom of God already present in the world, is even deeper and more intimate than that of a lover. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.

How the Holy Spirit comes to be in us most powerfully, most efficaciously, is through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, the sacrament of sacraments, the sacramentum caritatis (i.e., the sacrament of love). It is by sharing Christ's body and blood together that we become Christ's body. The effect this is to have is to link us together in a profound way, in the way of divine love. It is the relationship the Spirit establishes between us and among us, a love that is so effusive it spills into the world beyond our parish, or eucharistic community, that constitutes our witness to the world. "This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).

The words addressed to the apostles by the man dressed in white had the effect of leveling their gaze. It is not the essence of Christianity to stand around looking up at the sky. Culturally we're exposed to a lot of well-meaning things that constitute an anti-Gospel. In this regard, the words of a song, an evengelical hymn, come to mind: "This world is not my home/I'm just-a' passin' through/My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue..." This is Gnosticism, not Christianity. For Christians, the kingdom of God is not a dream deferred but a present reality, one we are called to witness to as we await the joyful hope and the coming of Savior, Jesus Christ. Meanwhile we fulfill the mission Christ gave to his Church, which is to be co-workers in bringing about the completion of God's good creation.

The alternative prayer (i.e., Collect) for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord in the Liturgy of the Hours begins: "Father in heaven, our minds were prepared for the coming of your kingdom when you took Christ beyond our sight..." With prepared minds and a leveled gaze, let's set about our mission of ushering in God's kingdom in anticipation of Christ's return.

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...