Saturday, November 30, 2019

Advent: the season of waiting and preparing

Advent is upon us. Waiting is important. Waiting is not wasted time, or at least it need not be. Waiting can be fruitful.

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

The time is now

"It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine." It's a great line from a great song by a truly great band. I don't know about you, but as I look around the world at this moment in time it seems to me that humanity is experiencing a great crisis. I don't feel fine.

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."

By Patrick Chappatte, 21 December 2012

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

A thought or two about Thanksgiving

Perhaps I am sentimental but I still think it's a good thing that my country, the United States of America, which is beginning to look more and more disunited with each passing day, sets aside one day each year to give thanks. As initially conceived, our national thanks-giving had an object: God. After when someone says she's grateful, two questions arise: grateful for what? and grateful to whom?

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

Year C Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Readings: 2 Sam 5:1-3; Ps 122:1-; Col 1:12-20; Luke 23:35-43

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.

Saint Olaf Parish, Bountiful, Utah. Photo by author

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 anonymity9
In 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.
2 Ibid.
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.
10 Ibid.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Teacher, when will this happen?"

In our Gospel for the penultimate Sunday of the liturgical year, the Sunday before our commemoration of the end-of-the-world as we know it, Jesus reminds us of the third law of thermodynamics: entropy. In particular, he speaks about the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, an event that occurred in 70 AD.

To many of those to whom these words are addressed- by the inspired author of Luke after the Temple's destruction by the Roman army led by Titus- this event undoubtedly seemed like the end of the world. This is relevant for us today because, by extension, Jesus points to the passing away of all things.

Jesus also predicts the opposition his followers will face in living and proclaiming the Gospel. The reason Christ's disciples face fierce opposition in every age is that his message does not seem like such good news to the rich and powerful. In our day, especially in the United States, this opposition includes attempts to co-opt "Christianity," seeking to put it in the service of the worldly power. Such efforts merely amount to one more manifestation of anti-Christ.

The prospect of the current order passing away, either collapsing under the weight of its inherent contradictions and injustice or by other means, frightens those invested in maintaining and perpetuating the status quo. In the face of all this, Jesus urges his followers not to be afraid. On the contrary, the realization of the reign of God is something to which Christians not only eagerly look forward but seek every day to help bring about. We call this "looking forward" hope. Hope lies beyond optimism.

Reflecting on a Saturday morning

As both my readers know, I did not post a Friday traditio yesterday. My reason for not posting one is that it was a busy week and a busy day. Life trumps blogging. Nonetheless, I readily admit to feeling a twang of guilt late yesterday afternoon for not putting one up but by that time I had no energy left. I realize that may sound ridiculous to either person reading this but blogging, writing, thinking, engaging are disciplines I find important to maintain. You see, disciplines, which are means, not ends in themselves, need to be done. I am one of those people who is either all in or not in at all. In a word, I am passionate.

It's funny, I used to lay into myself for being so passionate, really let myself have it: "Why can't I be more cool and detached, more deliberative?" One grace of growing older is that it's nice not only to become more and more okay with who I am and how I am but to actually embrace myself for it. I have come to see that Stoicism is often mistaken for Christianity. This is a mistake, plain and simple, one that leads to disaster pretty often. This is not to say Stoicism is without value. It is to say it needs to be seen for what it is and not mistaken for something else.

Is my passion sometimes misplaced? Sure. But this is a risk inherent in life. Counter-intuitively, since I've lightened up on myself I find it easier to be prudent, a bit more measured. I have also learned that wearing my heart on my sleeve can result in a wounded heart. Even when I used to see being passionate as a vice, I would sometimes think how gray, flat, and two-dimensional life would be were I not so passionate. My passion is a God-given gift. I am not sure why it took me so long to realize this. Like all gifts, it needs to be channeled for the good.

Thursday evening I attended a Bruce Cockburn concert with a very dear friend. She took me to this concert for my birthday. Yes, I have the most wonderful friends imaginable. I don't have a lot of friends. I have many, many friendly acquaintances, something for which I am also most grateful, but not a lot of friends. Anyway, she's been listening to Cockburn for awhile now. Given my love for the music of the late Mark Heard, who was friends with Bruce, she reasoned I would like Cockburn's music. Besides, an important part of our friendship over the years is our mutual love of music.

Boy, was she right! I sat in the concert thinking to myself: "How could I have missed Brice Cockburn's music all these years?!" I could think of at least 5 songs to post for a very late traditio but I am going with "Night Train" because it is a song that struck me in a particular way:

At 54 I am still waiting to hit that magic age when everything will become clear. All in all, this past week was a good birthday week. Another thing that took me a long time to realize is there are people who actually like me, that is, there are people who have known me for a long time (i.e., years and decades), who have hung with me through thick and thin, seen me at my best, worst, and most mediocre, and who inexplicably still love me, want to talk to me, spend time with me, etc. It's a kind of a miracle, really.

Monday, November 11, 2019

54 and rambling on (and on)

Today I turn 54. It hardly seems possible. On our wedding anniversary next June, I will be married to my lovely wife for half my life. I was thinking this morning that from birth to 27 seemed like it took an eternity but from 27-54 went by in a flash. Mortality can be a heavy weight to bear, which is why I am glad I spent a lot of time last week preparing to preach and thinking about the resurrection. Faith and the hope to which it gives birth is a gift from God.

I thank God for the gift of faith every day. I also ask God to help me share this gift with others in a Spirit-led, that is, a useful way. By "useful way," I mean a way the matters to the person with whom I share. Evangelism is not an exercise in being obnoxious- that is proselytism. The latter has nothing to do with bearing witness to the Good News.

I find myself feeling very grateful this morning. My life is very interesting these, forcing me to stay very engaged, sometimes more engaged than I'd like to be, truth be told. In the big scheme of things, this is a small complaint. I am gratified by the fact that, even at my age, my life still seems full of possibilities. True to form lately, I seem to be somewhat challenged when it comes to writing in a free-form manner- an endeavor at which I used to be quite proficient and relish opportunities.

Lest anyone think my life is perfect or ideal in any way, I have my struggles, my doubts, my wounds. I have bad habits, most of which flow from being very hard on myself and hard on others, especially those closest to me. I am thankful for a gracious spouse, who freely forgives my 70x7 and then some. I am amazed at the wonderful adults our three oldest children have become. I have no trouble stating that this is largely due to their mother. Having me as their dad is probably more of a hindrance than a help. But I love all 6 of my children so much it sometimes feels like my heart will explode.

I don't think I really grasped the tremendous importance of friendship until about the time I turned 50. This isn't because I didn't think I needed friends, it was mostly because I thought I wasn't very good friend material. Like most adult men in contemporary U.S. society, I just didn't seem to have the time or energy to cultivate and sustain friendships. Being insecure, I have a difficult time believing anyone actually likes me. But some people do like me, which amazes me and makes me grateful.

I am not one of those people who obsess over growing older but turning 50 made a big impact on me (see "On Turning 50"). Before my 50th birthday in 2015, I had already made some pretty big adjustments in my life. My birthday really helped me to chart a new mid-life course. It hasn't been all smooth sailing. I did not expect it to be. But life is much better living it head-on by recognizing my need, yes, need to be more compassionate, kind, patient, understanding, and forgiving. This began with how I dealt with myself, to state the matter oddly.

I love that my birthday is on the Feast of Saint Martin of Tours. Armistice Day was chosen because it is the feast of the saint who left military life, a life for which he seemed to be born, and war-making to follow Christ. As not only a veteran but a combat veteran, I can think of no better way to honor those who have served in the military than by making peace. As Pope Saint John Paul II noted, war is always the result of human failure.

While I am on the subject of milestones (birthdays are life's mile markers), I am amazed that Καθολικός διάκονος has been going for 14 years, 13 years in earnest. Blogging, despite being overtaken by other forms of digital communication, remains something fruitful for me. When I no longer find it useful personally, I will find a graceful way of bringing this weblog (there's a term you seldom hear anymore) to a close. But for now, I am happy to plot along, posting a few thoughts and a song on Friday, reflecting on scriptural readings for Sunday and most Solemnities, and sharing a thought or two along the way.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Year C Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Macc.7:1-2.9-14; Ps 17:1.5-6.8.15; 2 Thess. 2:16-3:5; Luke 27-38

In our semi-continuous reading through Luke’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples, after passing through Jericho, where they encountered Zacchaeus, finally reach Jerusalem. True to form, Jesus starts stirring up trouble.

Jesus was teaching about the reality of the resurrection. This is what causes the Sadducees to challenge him with a legal, or, in Jewish terms, a halakhic, conundrum. This challenge provides him with the chance to drop not one but two knowledge bombs.

First, without denigrating the divine institution of marriage, Jesus shows that it is a sign and symbol of something greater. The ultimate wedding, of course, is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. In this marriage of divinity and humanity, Jesus is the groom and the Church is his bride. He is always faithful to his sometimes-straying spouse. Serving as both a sign and symbol of this eschatological reality, marriage, when lived as a God-given vocation, points beyond itself.1

As Saint John Chrysostom observed: “When a husband and wife are united in marriage, they no longer seem like something earthly, but rather like the image of God himself.”2 As the Catechism teaches- God “is neither man nor woman” because “God transcends the human distinction between the sexes.”3 Divine revelation confirms that it is woman and man together who constitute the image of God.4 Hence, it is not a coincidence that Sacred Scripture begins with the wedding in the Garden and culminates with the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.5

As Chrysostom further noted: “if a man and woman marry in order to be companions on the journey through earth to heaven, then their union will bring great joy to themselves and to others.”6 In the here and now, Christian marriage serves both salvific and evangelical purposes. While the bonds of affection we forge through the fires of life are not broken at death, they are thoroughly transformed by the love of God into something infinitely greater than we can imagine.

Second, Jesus turns to the Torah to demonstrate the reality of the resurrection. This is important because, unlike the Pharisees, who adhered to and taught both the written and oral law and who believed in the resurrection, the Sadducees, who made up the aristocratic priestly caste of Jerusalem, only accepted as scripture the first five books of the Old Testament, often referred to as the Torah.7

Sadducees explicitly rejected the oral law and held the prophets in low esteem. As a result, they were opposed to teachings not found in the Torah. They did not see the resurrection of the dead revealed in the Torah. Jesus, referring to Moses’s encounter with God in the burning bush, brilliantly demonstrates that resurrection is unmistakably found at the very heart of the Torah.8

Like many people, as a child, I learned to distinguish between Pharisees, who believed in the resurrection, and the Sadducees, who did not, by being taught that because they didn’t believe in the resurrection “they were sad, you see.”

Our first reading, taken from the Second Book of Maccabees, despite being composed before Christ, demonstrates precisely the fearlessness those who believe in the resurrection of the dead should have in the face of death. This reading put in me in mind of a scene from the French film Of Gods and Men.

Of Gods and Men is a biopic about the Cistercian martyrs of Algeria. These monks were abducted, tortured, and killed by Islamic extremists in the spring of 1996. In the scene, Brother Luc, who is a doctor as well as a monk providing medical services for the almost exclusively Muslim inhabitants of Tibhirine, tells his abbot that he is committed to remaining at the monastery despite the danger of being killed by Islamic extremists and by the Algerian army for helping Islamists wounded in the fighting.9

After noting that he helped wounded Nazis during World War II in France and would help even the devil were he to turn up in need of medical attention, Luc asserts: “I’m not scared of death. I am a free man.” A bit later in the film, Brother Luc is shown embracing a mural of Jesus on the cross, the true sign of his freedom.

In addition to Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Psalms provide us with the image of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, through which valley the Lord accompanies us.10 Taking its cue from Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the Letter to the Hebrews provides the image of the Church as God’s people on pilgrimage to the eternal city.11 These images give us the template, the meta-narrative for the Church and the life of every follower of Jesus.

Of course, the most intense expression of reality is the Lord’s passage from death to life via his passion. To be a Christian is to experience that, at least in worldly terms, you win by losing. Being a Christian means experiencing that exaltation is achieved through abasement. You can only save your life by losing it.

As the Christians of ancient Thessaloniki are assured in our second reading, “the Lord is faithful.”12 Because he is faithful, Christ “will strengthen you [against] and guard you from the evil one.”13 For your part, you must continually direct your heart to the love and God, no matter what you might be experiencing.

It is, therefore, important to pray for perseverance. As the lyrics to “Better Than a Hallelujah” insist: “We pour out our miseries/God just hears a melody.” There is a reason perseverance is the fruit of the fifth and final Sorrowful Mystery of the Blessed Virgin’s Rosary, which mystery is Christ’s crucifixion. Perseverance means pressing daily forward, in imitation of Jesus, to the city of God. God’s holy city is the destination for which you are created, redeemed, and for which you are being sanctified.

Bear in mind that Jesus goes to Jerusalem primarily to keep his appointment with the cross. Inescapably, the path to resurrection passes through the cross; without the cross, there is no resurrection. We gather each Sunday to celebrate Jesus’s rising from the dead. We give thanks to the Father that by the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising, we, too, shall live forever.

1 Ephesians 5:31-32.
2 Saint John Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life, trans. Catherine P. Ross and David Anderson.
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 238.
4 Genesis 1:27.
5 See Genesis 2:24 & Revelation 19:6-9.
6 On Marriage and Family Life.
7 See Note on Matthew 3:7 in The Catholic Study Bible, “The New Testament,” 10.
8 Luke 20:37 & Exodus 3:15.
9 Scene from Gods and Men.
10 Psalm 23:4.
11 Letter to the Hebrews 4.
12 2 Thessalonians 3:3.
13 2 Thessalonians 3:3.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Some unformed thoughts & questions concerning marriage

Preparing to preach this week allowed me to reflect on the sacrament of matrimony. My homily, as you will see tomorrow, is not primarily about marriage. It is about the centrality of the resurrection in the teaching of Jesus. Try as some might, it is not possible to make Jesus's teaching strictly existential, only about the here and now. His teaching has an undeniably transcendent dimension. In this sense, in the best Catholic tradition, Jesus's teaching is both/and; it is about making God's reign a present reality while waiting for it to be completely realized. This is often stated as "living the already in the midst of the not yet." Living in that way reflects the dialectical tension that makes faith, taking a cue from John Macquarrie, "a mode of existence."

From the perspective of Jesus's teaching and that subsequently found in the New Testament, particularly in the seven authentically Pauline letters, it is easy to make too much of marriage. At the same time, in light of some of the deutero-Pauline letters, the Book of Revelation, and the witness of the Hebrew Bible, it is also easy to make too little of marriage. From beginning to end, as it were, starting with the marriage in the Garden and culminating in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in the Book of Revelation, God's covenant with humanity has an unmistakably nuptial character. Jesus even speaks of himself as "bridegroom." The nuptial character of God's covenant with humanity is perhaps most explicitly articulated in the Book of Hosea.

Being a sacrament, marriage is both a sign and a symbol. What this means in context and as our Gospel reading for Year C, the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Luke 20:27-38, clearly shows, marriage points to a reality beyond itself. Hence, marriage is not an end in itself. When understood and lived properly, marriage is a means (by no means the only or even primary means) to the end of establishing God's reign. As John Paul II insisted in his Letter to Families, the home is indispensable for the creation of a civilization of love. As such, it is not only a way to salvation for spouses and their children but a way for Christian spouses to bear witness to Christ and to be Church. In addition to being salvific, Christian marriage is evangelical.

One of the best books I've read on marriage in recent years is by Anglican theologian Robert Song: Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships. While very short, Covenant and Calling is a very deep look at marriage and sexuality through the lens of the New Testament. In this work, Song makes some important distinctions. While he recognizes the need for the Church to provide a way for same-sex Christian couples to live their partnerships within the Church, he also recognizes, as a matter of fact, that same-sex relationships and inter-sex relationships have some important differences.

Among other notable people, James Alison recognizes the obvious differences between inter-sex and same-sex relationships. This is to say nothing other than the obvious: sexual relations between people of the same sex cannot be reproductive. Of course, this fact has been used not only to unfairly discriminate against but to denigrate homosexuals, much to the Church's shame. But no less than Humanae vitae, which document's progressive aspects are frequently overlooked, insists that sexual relations can have a value beyond (in addition to?) the potential for reproduction.

As per Humanae vitae, the so-called "unitive" aspect of sexual relations is not "beyond" or "over and above" the procreative but sits alongside it (perhaps in the passenger seat- see sec. 12). However, as Luke Timothy Johnson, critiquing John Paul II's Theology of the Body in Commonweal many years ago, observed: you can't really insist on the necessity of there being present in each and every act of intercourse a complete harmony of unitive and procreative intent. After all, he reasoned, two people can engage in a one-night stand that results in pregnancy. In such a scenario, while procreation occurred, it was likely not intended and presumably not desired. There was almost certainly nothing of the "unitive" aspect as described by Humane vitae. The relevant question then becomes, since the procreative aspect can be present in the absence of the unitive, can the unitive aspect be present in the absence of the procreative? This is a question on which hangs a lot of weight.

Equality of Man and Woman, by Shahram Soltani, 2012

Alison, for one, sees the non-reproductive aspect of same-sex relations as a reason for thinking differently about Christian sexual ethics for homosexual people. I don't want to go there in this post. Suffice it to say, it is an interesting and important question. One which I am predisposed to disagree with Alison.

One of the sources of crisis for the Church in our day, I think, is a kind of neurotic drive towards uniformity. Pope Francis's pushing against this creates a lot of consternation for uniformists on both sides of many issues. But the Holy Father's insistence that the Church must act in a more collaborative, co-responsible, that is, a synodal manner is bringing her back to her roots. It is a true ressourcement. After all, the Church is unity in diversity or it is not the Church.

The Church's nature flows from God, who, being a communion of divine persons, is also a diverse unity. Just as Catholics too easily lose sight of Jesus's humanity, we are also uncomfortable with the real distinction between the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This led Karl Rahner to lament in an essay, written way back in 1951 to mark the 1500th anniversary of the Council of Chalcedon, that most Christians are mere monotheists rather than Trinitarians.

Recognizing that the Church is an ordered community, which does not necessarily translate into being an orderly community, Song proposes an ordering of committed relationships that are recognized by the Church. His proposal recognizes that marriage between a woman and a man who embrace having children is different from other relationships. But this difference does not deny the goodness of other loving relationships be they homosexual or heterosexual. Song suggests that the Church find ways to embrace people by recognizing the value of these relationships by formally blessing them.

Similar to the question about the unitive and procreative aspects of sex, the question arises about married heterosexual couples who, though unable to naturally conceive children, choose either to adopt children or not raise children at all. How much of a qualitative difference is there between such a couple and a same-sex couple? Many same-sex couples choose to adopt children and no small number of partners in these relationships have children from a previous relationship. This question becomes acute because a growing number of heterosexual couples, it seems, are unable to naturally conceive children. But then there are those married couples, even Catholic couples, who marry with no intention of ever having children. If their marriage lasts a lifetime and its validity is never called into question, it never rises to the level of pastoral concern.

When one considers something like the idea that the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son personified, it is easy to see how the natural family can be viewed as an icon of the Trinity. This must be balanced with our adoption as God's children through the re-birth of baptism. This provides us with the basis for bringing "non-natural" families into the order of grace. One of the great beauties of Christian faith is its ability to embrace the complex whole of reality as it is. In other words, we don't have to try to build idols by hammering things into some imagined ideal shape. Life is messy, weird, strange, complex.

All of the above is offered in service of trying to recognizing that there is something characteristically unique in the union between a man and woman. This uniqueness is (literally) borne out by naturally conceiving and having children together. I realize this might be seen by some as just another variant of "heterosexism" or "heteronormativity." When viewed from a certain perspective, I suppose that's valid. But looking at the depth of the affinity between male/female through the dual lenses of nature and in revelation, it's the best I can do right now while maintaining my own integrity.

I am aware enough to grasp that there is a certain complexity in creation that departs from this, rendering, to employ the jargon, non-binary. Revelation, as I grasp it, holds this relation is high regard while also introducing variations and developments- the Bible is magnificent not only for its incorporation of complexity but its introduction of it. Perhaps no part of our humanity reflects our complexity more than our sexuality.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Of Fridays, dry spells, and resulting conundrums

I was off and running for several hours with realizing today is Friday. Holy smokes. Does time fly or what? Like last Sunday, I am lacking for words today. Yes, that sometimes happens. As far as a traditio there are many options. It's been a pretty musical week. This means a pretty good week, as things go.

The Contemporary Christian Music jag I've been on for awhile continues. This past week I purchased a CD of Amy Grant's How Mercy Looks From Here, her 2013 album. I am enjoying it immensely. Since it's autumn, I find myself re-connecting with other music as well. At least for now, I need to resist that darker shades of music I am drawn to and I love. I's a bit of a conundrum to be sure.

Well, the best way to break the logjam in my mind is to go for something a bit unusual, though not unheard of here: sacred choral music. Since it's Friday, meaning it is a day of penance, I am going with a choral version of Psalm 51. Known as the Miserere, Psalm 51 is the first Psalm for Morning Prayer during each week of the Psalter.

As the King James Version translates it, the Miserere begins:
Have mercy upon me, O God,

according to thy lovingkindness:

according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me (verses 1-3)

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Experiencing Jesus is life-changing

Since the beginning of November has been a flurry of activity here on Καθολικός διάκονος, I figured I would keep my reflection on the readings for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time brief. In addition to composing the Prayers of the Faithful, each week I write a little introduction to the readings. This intro. to the readings is read by the lector just prior to the beginning of Mass.

It may be a bit of an exaggeration to state that my brief intro. is for all the readings. What I try to do is distill the basic or most important point from the Gospel for each given Sunday. I hope the result is a very condensed homilette. Anyway, this is the intro. I wrote for today's Gospel, which is Luke 19:1-10:

Zacchaeus being called down from the tree, by William Hole, 1908
Zacchaeus was eager to meet Jesus. When the moment of encounter came, he was not disappointed. Meeting the Lord changed the trajectory of Zacchaeus’s life, causing him to repent, to make amends for his failings, and walk a new path. May our encounter with Jesus in this Eucharist have the same effect on us.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

All Souls Day

Today is All Souls, the final day of the Fall triduum that only begins with Halloween. Today we remember everyone who has died. We pray for them, seeking to help them on their way to the fullness of God's presence. In reality, All Souls is Catholic Memorial Day. In culturally Catholic countries, it is observed as Memorial Day.

While not a holy day of obligation, like All Saints, All Souls is an important feast. But like a lot of formerly "big" feasts, its significance is currently waning. It is a very complex set of factors that contribute to the lack of observance. It seems to me that one factor has to do with the rejection of any idea of ultimate judgment. Strangely, this does not flow from people being less judgmental. At least in the United States and other advanced countries, there has never been more judgment going on than there is now; this is not all bad just as it is not all good.

Divine judgment is not like human judgment. Unlike human judgment, divine judgment is not retributive. God doesn't seek to get revenge or to get even. God's judgment and whatever punishments might flow from it are corrective and purgative. I think perhaps the most painful part of divine judgment for many people will be submitting to Jesus as Lord. Submitting to Jesus's lordship means no longer being your own master. This dethroning is going to hurt. Was not original sin seeking to dethrone God and putting ourselves in God's place?

Someone suggested a few years back that rather than religion being the opiate of the masses the idea that life has no intrinsic meaning or purpose and that nobody will face any sort of judgment is the new drug. Perhaps the central idea of what might be called a Christian cosmology is the belief that how you live your life matters. Another key aspect is that you will always exist as yourself, a self-conscious being. This means how you live has consequences, not only for yourself but in the big scheme of things.

It seems fitting to mention indulgences on All Souls Day. Not many Catholics seek to obtain indulgences. Indulgences remain very much part of the Catholic faith. In essence, indulgences are obtained by intentionally engaging in good acts. This is done in the conviction that rather than further alienating the world from God, you seek to cooperate in bringing the world back that state of communion God intends for it. You can obtain indulgences on behalf of someone who has died.

If nothing else, take some time today and call to mind the people you know and love who have died. Once you have them in mind, say a prayer for them. Because it's an act of memory, I personally think it's important to say their names. Even if you don't go to Mass today, stop by a church, pay a few bucks, light some candles and say some prayers for the people you know who have died. Maybe consider doing this with some regularity, like one Friday a month. After all, one of the ways you can observe Friday as a day of penance is by performing an act of charity. I have taken to defining this to mean doing something kind for someone at some cost and/or inconvenience to yourself. Stopping by a church, paying for and lighting some votive candles and saying some prayers certainly fits that bill.

Christians have prayed for the dead from the beginning of the Church. Hence, praying for the dead is one of the most Christian things you can do. I certainly hope there is someone here praying for me when I am dead.

Friday, November 1, 2019

I need to stop trying so hard

Since I posted my homily for All Saints today, I was up-in-the-air about putting up a Friday traditio. Unless I felt inspired by something I decided not post one. In the interim, I went for a long walk. As I walked I listened to music. Even though I ordered the CD earlier this week (I still do that- weird, I know), I decided to give Amy Grant's 2013 album, How Mercy Looks From Here, a listen. I was not disappointed. The critics were right: How Mercy Looks From Here is a lovely album, a work that beautifully highlights the maturity of the artist.

Before I get to what inspired me to post a traditio today, I need to point out the obvious: It's November! The month begins with All Saints and All Souls, followed by my birthday, which falls on the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, before ending with the great Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, our annual celebration of the end of the world as we know it.

The beginning of November marks the time each year for me to reflect on the past year. In all honesty, I kind of lost the bubble on some important things towards the end of summer. This put me in some peril. As a result, some course corrections are in order. I need to pare back in certain areas and devote more time and energy to other people and activities. Above all, I must try to let go of what I find vexing, all that unnecessarily complicates my life, things that distract me from the things that really matter.

In doing so, I need to leave space for God to work. God is a God of surprises, n'est ce pas? Besides, life is what happens while you're making plans, right?

On the whole, I feel grateful as I look back on another year of life. I look forward to another year if God so wills it. One of the wonderful things about being a Christian is that Christ calls me ever forward, moves me along, seeking to make me ever more fit for the coming of the kingdom.

The Lord never lets me forget, at least not for long, that I am on a pilgrimage. I am often reminded that I need companions along the way. "Companion" literally refers to someone with whom you share bread. The Church, then, is necessary, not extraneous. Time to live more sub specie aeternitatus (i.e., under the aspect of eternity).

Back to our traditio- there was one song off How Mercy Looks From Here that particularly struck me today: "Don't Try So Hard." I was pleasantly surprised that none other than James Taylor is featured singing with Amy on this track! It is a reminder of God's grace, something on which I wholly rely and that I cannot earn.

In case you didn't know it, I am one of those people who strive and strive all the while feeling like I'll never measure up. Too often I place my entire worth in achieving. Hence, even when I perform well, I often still feel worthless. The song poses this question: "When did we start, trying to measure up?" I started so long ago I can't remember.

The chorus of "Don't Try So Hard" conveys a really beautiful message, one I needed to hear today:
Don't try so hard
God gives you grace and you can't earn it
Don't think that you're not worth it
Because you are
He gave you His love and He's not leaving
Gave you His Son so you'd believe it
You're lovely even with your scars
Don't try so hard

All Saints Day

Readings: Rev 7:2-4.9-14; Ps 24:1-6; 1 John 3:1-3; Matt 5:1-12a

What is “the seal” placed “on the foreheads of the servants of our God”?1 You received a seal with the oil of sacred chrism on your forehead when you were confirmed. What did your confirmation confirm? Or, stated another way, Who are you?

What is confirmed through the anointing of confirmation is nothing other than the identity given you at your baptism; your identity as a child of the Father, through the Son, by the power of their Holy Spirit, just as Jesus’ identity as the only begotten Son of the Father was confirmed by the descent of Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and, at the same time, by the voice of the Father: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” as he emerged from the waters of the Jordan after being baptized by John.2

You may well ask, “Who are the 144,000 we heard about in our first reading?” Let’s start by noting that one hundred forty-four thousand is 12,000 x 12. Of what symbolic significance is the number 12 in Sacred Scripture? Twelve were the tribes of Israel and twelve was the number of apostles called by Jesus. It was the apostles, the ones sent (apostle means one who is sent) by Christ to spread the Good News to the ends of the earth, around whom the Church was formed.

Twelve thousand is not, as some suppose, a literal number. Rather, it is symbolic; indicative of the “great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue,” who “stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.”3 Their white robes and palm branches are symbols of joy and victory.

Our reading from Revelation, also called The Apocalypse, both words mean to unveil, to show what was hidden, is fitting as we gather this evening to celebrate All Saints, or in older English, All Hallows. So we are gathered to rejoice in our participation in the communio sanctorum (the communion of holy people and things).

All Saints should remind each of us of our vocation, our divine call, to holiness. You received this call in baptism. It was confirmed in confirmation. Holiness, Christ-likeness, arising from your Christian initiation, is the primary vocation of every Christian. You heed this call by prayerfully discerning your state of life- lay or ordained, married or single- as well as the work you choose.

In our Gospel this evening, taken from our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount and familiar to us all as “the Beatitudes,” which constitute the core of Christian discipleship, we are taught in detail how we are to live our vocation, which is not an easy row to hoe.

Let’s be honest, the Beatitudes, for most of us, are a huge provocation. Observing them can throw your life into seeming chaos because how Christ calls you to live is so much at odds with how we are inclined to live, with how we are conditioned to live, and very often with how we want to live. But living in this way is evangelism!

French writer Léon Bloy observed in his novel The Woman Who Was Poor: “There is only one sadness, and that is for us not to be saints.”4 This is sad because, in the end, the Church is only the saints.

My dear friends because of the Father’s great love for us, “we are [his] children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.”5 It is the saints who not only show us who we are to become, they show us how we are to become who God created and redeemed us to be.

We need each other because holiness is never a solitary endeavor. Our sanctification and that of the whole world, which requires the grace we receive in and through the sacraments, is the Church’s mission. The Church, the assembly of God in Christ, exists solely for this purpose and no other.

Through this Eucharistic sacrifice, God unites us more fully with those who now live in his everlasting kingdom. It is by our frequent sharing in the body and blood of Christ that we are brought into the company of the eternal banquet.6

So, on this glorious feast with the psalmist let us say, “Lord WE are the people who long to see your face,” or, in the words of the song, played and sung so enthusiastically by the great Louis Armstrong: “O Lord, I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.”

1 Revelation 7:3.
2 Luke 3:21-22.
3 Revelation 7:9.
4 Alan Morris, OP. “Leon Bloy: A Man for the Modern World,” by Alan Morris, OP in Dominica Journal 33 no 2.
5 1 John 3:2.
6 The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 4, Intercessions for Morning Prayer, All Saints, 1380.

Monday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Hosea 2:16.17c.18.21-22; Ps 145:2-9; Matthew 9:18-26 Our Gospel today is Saint Matthew’s version of events first written about ...