Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Καθολικός διάκονος: 2020 roundup

It's near. The end. Well, at east of the year 2020. A moment for which we've all been waiting: when 2020 truly becomes hindsight! It's a strange year to look back on. In previous years, I have generally exlcuded homilies and Friday traditio posts from consideration for my end-of-the-year best posts. This year, I am not making that exclusion.

Below you will find what I think are my best posts of 2020; one for each month. As always, I would be thrilled for readers to weigh-in concerning what posts from this year they might've liked, appreciated, or found timely. Far and away, the most popular post on Καθολικός διάκονος this year is my homily for the First Sunday of Lent.

On the whole, I think 2020 was good year here on the blog. It's interesting to me how blogging now is considered an "old" and even outmoded medium. Nonetheless, I persist.

January- Epiphany of the Lord

February- Winter, avoiding the extremes while looking for Aslan

March- Year A First Sunday of Lent

April- Wednesday in the Octave of Easter

May- Repentance requires an awareness that you are loved

June- It's past time to do the right thing

July- Year A Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

August- From apologetics to evangelization

September- Diakonia requires kenosis

October- Be more pro-life

November- Hope means investing in the future

December- Dickens, Thomas, Luke: St Stephen's Day mashup

While I started this blog in August 2005, I really did not become a blogger until July of 2006. 19 July 2021 will mark the fifteenth anniversary of Καθολικός διάκονος. Prior to that this blog was called Scott Dodge for Nobody. From 28 August 2005 to 18 July 2006 I only published six posts.

I am not going to lie, it amazes me I have kept at it for this long. I had no idea when I started that I'd still be doing it. How much longer will I continue to blog? Who knows?

In any case, that's a wrap for this strange year. I hope you have a great New Year's celebration. I'll catch both of my readers on the other side.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Saint Joseph on the Feast of the Holy Family

This year for the Feast of the Holy Family, which Roman Catholics celebrate on the Sunday following Christmas, I simply want to draw attention to and focus on Pope Francis's declaration that this year is dedicated to Saint Joseph.

Since the Holy Father promulgated his Apostolic Letter Patris Corde ("With a Father's Heart") on 8 December 2020, the observance of the Year of Saint Joseph goes from then until the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, which falls on 21 November 2021. Among the reasons the Holy Father is dedicating this year to Saint Joseph is that is was 150 years ago, 8 December 1870, that Pope Pius IX declared Saint Joseph to be Patron of the Universal Church.

It is well-known that Pope Francis keeps a statue of Saint Joseph sleeping on his desk. He's stated that it's his practice when there is an issue or question that presents him with uncertainty he writes it on a slip of paper and places it overnight under this statue. According to Saint Matthew's Gospel, it was while Joseph slept that an angel appeared to him and helped him concerning his uncertainty about what to do with his unexpectedly pregnant betrothed, Mary.

Saint Joseph asleep on Pope Francis's desk

Four times in the first to chapters of Matthew's Gospel Joseph directed by an angel through his dreams: he is told not to put Mary away but to take her for his wife because the child she is carrying is the Son of God (Matthew 1:20-24). I believe his response counts as Joseph's annunciation. His doing as the angel directed is his own fiat, his agreement to and active participation in God's plan. Next, Joseph is warned in a dream to leave Bethlehem and flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). It is in a dream that Joseph is given the all-clear to return to the land of Israel (Matthew 2:19-21). Rather than return to Bethlehem, due to a warning he received in a dream, Joseph relocated his family to Nazareth in Galilee (Matthew 2:22-23).

Prior to writing about any of Joseph's dreams, the inspired author of the Gospel According to Saint Matthew establishes that Joseph "was a righteous man" (Matthew 1:19). As with Mary's fiat, Joseph's consent to his role in God's plan was freely given. This is, no doubt, the result of his righteousness, which nothing other than a desire to do God's will. I think it's safe to say that in a manner similar to that of the Blessed Virgin, Saint Joseph found favor with God.

I highly recommend reading Patris Corde. In it you will find great wisdom under seven headings: A beloved father; A tender and loving father; An obedient father; An accepting father; A creatively courageous father; A working father; A father in the shadows.

In the Prologue to his new book, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future (an echo of Joseph in the title, n'est ce pas?), Pope Francis discusses how life's crises shape and form us. Crises, he insists, reveals our hearts. Living through, dealing with, learning from crises is how we grow. Even the little bit we know about Joseph from the first two chapters of Matthew indicate he is a model of precisely what the Holy Father is trying to convey.

I will end with the Prayer to Saint Joseph with which Pope Francis ends Patris Corde:
Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer,
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To you God entrusted his only Son;
in you Mary placed her trust;
with you Christ became man.

Blessed Joseph, to us too,
show yourself a father
and guide us in the path of life.
Obtain for us grace, mercy and courage,
and defend us from every evil. Amen.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Luke, Dickens, Thomas, Williams: St Stephen's Day mashup

What a convergence today! It's the Feast of Saint Stephen, my patron saint and the patron of this blog. It's the Second of the Twelve Days of Christmas. And, my heart and head are full this morning, which is a good thing, at least for me. It may not be for anyone reading this. Coherence may not be my strong suit this morning.

In years past, I have mostly offered some commentary on the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, whom the Church venerates as one of the first seven deacons (see Acts 7 & Acts 6:1-7 respectively). If you're so inclined, look back at some of those. They represent a lot of effort. Today, however, apart from mentioning that Saint Stephen, which is my late father's name and my middle name, along with Saint Martin of Tours, on whose feast day I was born, is my patron saint, I don't feel so inclined.

I do feel inclined to share the beautiful Collect for Saint Stephen's feast from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, a liturgical book I deeply cherish:
GRANT, O Lord, that in all our sufferings here upon earth, for the testimony of thy truth, we may steadfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those that suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.
Really, in imitatio Christi, like Stephen, we, too, must learn "to love and bless our persecutors," our accusers, our enemies, as well as pray for God to bless and not curse them. As G.K. Chesterton, whom I cite sparingly, pointed out: "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." It seems to me that what the witness ("martyr" means witness) of Stephen reveals is the difficulty and necessity of doing what seems for us, Eve's poor banished children, the hardest thing of all.

Last night I watched Moira Armstrong's wonderful adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Having just read about Malcolm X's assassination in Les and Tamara Payne's amazing biography, The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X (a book I heartily recommend) I was done reading and pretty exhausted. I gave some thought to re-reading Dickens's slim novella but opted to watch it on BritBox instead. I am glad I did. Armstrong's movie is also one I recommend.

I think adapting a book into a movie is a very difficult feat. One has to make trade-offs. In 1977, Armstrong, in my view made very few edits and the ones she made were the right ones. I am pretty sure all of the dialogue in the film is sraight-up Dickens. The line that struck me and stayed with me all night until this morning was when Scrooge says to the Ghost of Christmas Future: "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future."

One of the most striking features of the season of Advent is the deep way it deals with the complexity of time. This was brought home to me reading Rev. Dr. Carys Walsh's Frequencies of God: Walking Through Advent with R.S. Thomas (another book I recommend- obtain a copy and use it next year!). We are inescapably creatures of time and space. Time and space go hand in glove and require matter. This is the preamble to pointing out the obvious: we are not spirits trapped in dead matter.

Commenting on Thomas's poem "Emergence," Walsh points out that in his poetry in general and not merely in this specific poem, Thomas "pulls us away from away from the still-haunting idea that our souls and bodies are only temporarily shackled together in life, and destined to split again at death" (125). "It is not spirit that magics matter into life," she continues, "rather it is matter that provides the building blocks, and the depths, in which the holy lives" (125).

Gnosticism, which I am defining simply as the tendency to reject matter in favor of spirit, seems to be a deeply human thing. It probably arises from our apparently inherent desire for transcendence. As a result, Gnostic forms of Christianity sprang up before the New Testament canon was completely composed. Hebrew faith and theology, on which any healthy form of Christianity relies, at least until it, too, was infected by Platonism and Gnosticism, most notably by Philo of Alexandria, is nothing if not embodied and earthy. Gnosticism is a kind of mutable spiritual virus that tends to infect all religion. It is one of the deepest reasons why most religion, including forms of Christianity, are bad religion.

During Advent, time collapses, just as time collapsed around the vortex of the Bethlehem manger, which is captured beautifully by these words from "O Little Town of Bethlehem"
the hopes and fears of all the years/Are met in thee tonight
Hence, one of the surest signs Dickens gives us of the conversion of Ebeneezer Scrooge is when the heretofore greedy, cold-hearted, loveless, and joyless man says to the Ghost of Christmas Future: "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future."

The timelessness of the Incarnation, not to mention its cosmic significance, is captured well in the second and final stanza of R.S. Thomas's poem "Other Incarnations, of course"-
And his coming testified
to not only by star
arrested temporarily
over a Judaic manger,
but by constellations innumerable
as dew upon surfaces
he has passed over time
and again, taking to himself
the first-born of the imagination
but without the age-old requirement of blood.
Like witness of Saint Stephen, which shows us the breadth and depth to which Christ calls us to love others, which can only happen when we view reality sub specie aeternitatis (under the aspect of eternity), the point of A Christmas Carol is that love of your fellow man is not only the path to blessedness in the hereafter but the key to happiness in the here and now.

Our belated traditio for this Second Day of Christmas and the final one for this year, count it as your partridge from the First Day, is King's College Choir singing "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Mother partridges, like pelicans (another Christian symbol), are known for being willing to die to protect their young. So, the partridge in a pear tree is a symbol of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Urbi et Orbi- Christmas 2020


Christmas 2020

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Merry Christmas!

I would like to bring to everyone the message that the Church proclaims on this feast with the words of the prophet Isaiah: “To us a child is born, to us a son is given” (Is 9:6)

A child is born. A birth is always a source of hope; it is life that blossoms, a promise of the future. Moreover, this Child, Jesus, was born “to us”: an “us” without any borders, privileges or exclusions. The Child born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem was born for everyone: he is the “son” that God has given to the entire human family.

Thanks to this Child, all of us can speak to God and call him “Father”. Jesus is the only-begotten Son; no one but he knows the Father. Yet he came into the world for this very reason: to show us the face of the Father. Thanks to this Child, we can all call one another brothers and sisters, for so we truly are. We come from every continent, from every language and culture, with our own identities and differences, yet we are all brothers and sisters.

At this moment in history, marked by the ecological crisis and grave economic and social imbalances only worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, it is all the more important for us to acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters. God has made this fraternal unity possible, by giving us his Son Jesus. The fraternity he offers us has nothing to do with fine words, abstract ideals or vague sentiments. It is a fraternity grounded in genuine love, making it possible for me to encounter others different from myself, feeling com-passion for their sufferings, drawing near to them and caring for them even though they do not belong to my family, my ethnic group or my religion. For all their differences, they are still my brothers and sisters. The same thing is true of relationships between peoples and nations: brothers and sisters all!

Nativity of the Lord: At the Mass during the Night

Readings: Isa 9:1-6; Ps 96:1-3.11-13; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14

Given the sentimentality that often accompanies Christmas, it’s easy to see it only in the past tense, to view the Incarnation of God’s only begotten Son as history, as a quaint event that occurred a long time ago in a place far away. It is easy to make a sanitized memory a dreamy backdrop to your own cherished memories.

As a result of the pandemic sparked by the transmission of the sars-Cov-2 virus, this year has been a time of crisis. Like many words, “crisis” has several meanings: “time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger;” “a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.” In medical terms, a crisis “is a turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death.”

Much later in Saint Luke’s Gospel than our reading tonight, Jesus tells Peter “Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat.”1 Pope Francis begins his newly published book by noting that “To enter a crisis is to be sifted” in this way.2 During a crisis, the Holy Father notes, “Your categories and ways of thinking get shaken up; your priorities and lifestyles are challenged.” 3

You either come through a crisis better than you were before or worse but never the same. Enduring life’s crises is revelatory. A crisis reveals how merciful your heart is, how big or how small it is.4 It is by passing through life's crises that your heart grows bigger and more merciful or smaller and more resentful. Tonight, let’s recognize that the Incarnation of the Son of God is nothing if not a crisis.

Whether or not you recover from the dis-ease that afflicts all humanity- death and its by-product, sin- very much depends on making a difficult and important decision. Of necessity, this difficult and important decision is made during a “time of intense difficulty” – your own life. The important decision is whether to follow Christ. This is the crisis the Son's Incarnation provokes for each of us.

In an important sense, choosing to follow Christ does not end your difficulties. From a certain perspective, following Christ is just the beginning of difficulties. When looked at from the perspective of God’s Kingdom, however, what are these difficulties but signs of blessedness? This is why Jesus teaches:
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me5

The crises with which we are perpetually faced as followers of Jesus are perhaps best characterized by questions: Are you going to love your enemies, do good to them, and pray for them, or hate, seek revenge, and call down divine vengeance upon them, be bitter and resentful toward them, backbite against them? Are you going to help the widow, the orphan, and the stranger or remain indifferent to those in need? Are you going to reach out to the outcast or leave them to their fate?

Practicing these ways, even if imperfectly, is what trains us, to use the words of our New Testament reading from Paul's Letter to Titus, “to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age.”6

The decision to follow Christ is the decision to love like God when he so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son and to love like God’s Son when, for us and for our salvation he was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and, taking the form of a slave, came in human likeness.7

What this translates into, practically speaking, is loving your neighbor as you love yourself. Being a follower of Jesus means, like the Good Samaritan, actively seeking to make yourself a neighbor to others and recognizing your neighbor as the person in difficulty who needs your help.

Just as it is easy to reduce the Incarnation of God to a historical event, I can also reduce my own salvation and that of the world (these cannot and must not be separated) as a one-off, over-and-done event, a matter of history. But doing this is an effort, even if an unintentional one, to reduce the mystery of the Incarnation to my own measure, which means insisting that I am saved on my own terms, in my own way, singularly without reference or relation to others.

While it’s right and just that we “visit” the manger on Christmas, we must not sentimentally linger there. We cannot contemplate “the glories of the incarnation without being pointed to the Passion ahead.”8 Just as Christ must be born again in us, we must never forget that in baptism we died, were buried, and rose with Christ to new life. We live this new life
On earth, still as pilgrims in a strange land, tracing in trial and in oppression the paths [Jesus] trod, we are made one with His sufferings like the body is one with the Head, suffering with Him, that with Him we may be glorified9
Let’s not forget this soon that the overarching summons of the season of Advent, the purpose of which is not only to prepare us for this celebration, but to train us to remain awake, sober, and alert “as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”10 Or, in the words from the Prayer After Communion: "may [we] through an honorable way of life become worthy of union with [Christ]"11

1 Luke 22:31.
2 Pope Francis with Austin Inverleigh, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, 1.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Matthew 5:11.
6 Titus 2:12.
7 John 3:16; Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, sec. 18; Philippians 2:7.
8 Carys Walsh, Frequencies of God: Walking Through Advent with R.S. Thomas, 121.
9 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium], sec. 7.
10 Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” sec. 125.
11 Roman Missal, “The Nativity of the Lord: At the Mass during the Night.”

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Year B Fourth Sunday of Advent

Readings: 2 Sam 7:1-5.8a-12.14a.16; Ps 89:2-5.27.29; Rom 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

You or may or not have heard of the O Antiphons. For many Catholics, these antiphons form an integral part of Advent spirituality. Even though Advent is a relatively short season when compared to, say, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time, it is a multifaceted season.

On the Third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday, the season takes what can best be described as a turn. Before discussing this turn, it is important to note that the title Gaudete also comes from an antiphon. Each Mass has an Entrance Antiphon, formerly (and still sometimes) called the Introit. For example, the Entrance Antiphon for this Fourth Sunday of Advent is:
Drop down dew from above, you heavens
and let the clouds rain down the Just One;
let the earth be opened and bring forth a Savior1
Historically, the Fourth Sunday of Advent was known as Rorate Caeli, which is the Latin translation of the opening words of today’s Entrance Antiphon (“Drop down dew from above, you heavens”) that comes from Isaiah.

Antiphons are refrains that can be sung or simply said, which they often are. During the Liturgy of the Word, the refrain we sing before and after each verse of the Responsorial Psalm is an antiphon. In the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church’s official prayer, every Psalm has an accompanying antiphon, as do the Canticles for Morning, Evening, and Night Prayer.

The turn Advent makes on Gaudete Sunday is away from focusing almost exclusively on Christ’s glorious return, when “he will come to judge the living and the dead.”2 It’s not that we stop focusing on that altogether, we simply shift our perspective and look forward by looking back. In a sense, we look back to the future.

During Advent time collapses; the past, present, an future collide. This liturgically rich season urges us to step out of chronological time into God’s time. What this means in terms of our preparation for and celebration of the Incarnation of the Son of God was captured well by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s observation that Christ comes in three ways: his birth in the manger, his glorious return at the end of time, and his continual rebirth in us that makes him really present in his Body, the Church.

Perhaps this year more than most years, in light of the changes necessitated by the pandemic, not all of them bad, most of us are looking hopefully toward the future. If nothing else, many hope for a better, brighter 2021. Hope this year seems more concrete than the end of most years when we anticipate and perhaps even hope for a comfortable continuity.

Our readings today highlight how God accomplishes his purpose of completing creation in very unexpected, not to mention uncomfortable, ways. In our first reading, before promising David that he will make of him and his descendants a royal house over which they will rule forever, he reminds the greatest of all Israel’s kings: “It was I who took you from the pasture, from following the flock, to become ruler over my people Israel.”3 Paul, in our second reading, writes to the Christians in ancient Rome about “the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages” and revealed Christ Jesus.4 It is this secret that the itinerant rabbi set out to reveal to the nations.

Our Gospel today is that portion of Saint Luke’s Infancy Narrative that tells of the Annunciation and our Blessed Mother’s fiat: “May it be done to me according to your word.”5 Because God forces his will on no one, Mary’s fiat precedes her Magnificat.

The Blessed Virgin’s Magnificat is indicative of the turn Advent makes roughly half-way through. Looking at her canticle of praise bids us look even farther back: “he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.”6

This song glorifying God also bids us look beyond the present: “he has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit, he has cast down the mighty from their thrones, he has lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”7 What she exclaims is God’s reign with which she is wholly on-board.

It was with the Lord’s conception by this lowly girl in backwater Nazareth that the reign of God began inconspicuously. But God’s rule is not yet fully established. It is already but not quite yet. We are reminded, to borrow words from Rev. Carys Walsh:
of the ‘now and the ‘not yet’ of living as Christ’s people on our journey again towards His new life, but also of the greater ‘not yet’ of which are reminded in Advent: the ‘not yet’ of waiting for the whole of creation to be freed and restored, in God's kingdom which is both with us, and just over the horizon8
Christians are, indeed, a pilgrim people, a people of the way and on the way.

The O Antiphons, which are recited as the antiphon for the Magnificat during Evening Prayer from 17-23 December, the last week of Advent, look back from the present with an eye toward the glorious future God has in store for us.
O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation

O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free

O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid

O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom

O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death

O King of all nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone which makes all one, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust

O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free Lord our God
These antiphons cover all time, from the beginning when Wisdom ordered all things, to when God called and gave his chosen people the Law, to the Incarnation of God’s Son, who is God-with-us, to David’s key who unlocks heaven’s gate, to the dawning of God’s Kingdom, over which, Jesus, the Son of David, will rule forever.

For those who pray the Angelus, a prayer Catholics are urged to pray three times daily (morning, noon, and evening), our Collect for today will sound familiar. It is a slightly modified form of the prayer that ends the Angelus. This prayer certainly shows us that looking back to the future isn’t just some strange thing odd deacons urge you to do from the ambo during Advent, but how you live the tension between the already and the not yet of God’s kingdom every day. Living this tension can be described using one word: faith. Hope, of course, is the flower of faith, and charity is its fruit.

Poised in present, the intersection of the past and the future, recognizing that the wood of the manger becomes the wood of the cross and the wood of the cross the Tree of Life, again we pray:
Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord,
your grace into our hearts,
that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son
was made known by the message of an Angel,
may by his Passion and Cross
be brought to the glory of his resurrection9

1 Roman Missal, Fourth Sunday of Advent.
2 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, sec. 19.
3 2 Samuel 7:8.
4 Romans 16:25.
5 Luke 1:38.
6 Luke 1:54-55.
7 Luke 1:51-53.
8 Frequencies of God: Walking Through Advent with R.S. Thomas, 92.
9 Roman Missal, Fourth Sunday of Advent.

Friday, December 18, 2020

An anniversary

While I certainly don't consider myself a writer, I usually don't have a difficult time sitting down and writing about what's on my mind. I suppose that's what nearly 15 years of blogging will do for you. Lately, however, I have been finding it difficult to write because I am not sure what to write about. Last Friday, for example, I wrote about why I don't really care for what passes as "Christmastime." I tried not to be too disparaging because I know and not only like but love a lot of people who really get into this time of year.

While I can't remember a time in my life when I "liked" "Christmastime," my dislike of the season increased greatly when, on Saturday, 18 December 2010, I received a phone call from my Dad and Mom. The reason they called was to let me know that my Dad had been diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer. At that point, they weren't sure about the prognosis other than it didn't look good.

My Dad

As you might imagine, I was stunned. I made it through the call. As I was explaining to my curious wife what my parents just told me, I broke down into tears. While I have been known to get a little misty-eyed and perhaps get a lump in my throat on occasion, I had not cried like that since I was a child and haven't cried like that since. While I have experienced some traumatic things in my life, I was never more devastated than I was that Saturday evening ten years ago. To make a short story even shorter, my Dad made it through the holidays very well, enjoying each and every moment. He died on Monday, 17 January 2011.

Just as my Dad showed me how to live, he showed me how to die. He faced death with awe but also with courage. He was more worried about my Mom, my sisters, and me than he was about himself right to the very end. But, then, that's who he was. Ten years later all of this is still very fresh in my mind. I still my Dad every day. As painful as it can be at times, I certainly don't ever want to forget him.

After crying it out, I asked to be left alone. I immediately began praying but not in a petitionary way, more in a "Lord, speak to me" kind of way. After a few minutes, a word from a Rich Mullins song entered my mind: "Alrightokuhhuhamen." And so, I listened to this song three times back-to-back. I readily admit that there is more than a little desperation in this. I don't mind admitting that I need to believe that someone has this whole crazy thing within their remit and that, in the end, it will alright.

When I awoke this morning and looked out my kitchen window, it was gray and snowy. As the sun came up and I looked West out my bedroom window, there is blue sky out there on the horizon.

On this sobering anniversary, our Friday traditio is the late Rich Mullins singing "Alrightokuhhuhamen"-

Saturday, December 12, 2020

"Indeed, the Lord is near"

Readings: Isa 61:1-2a.10-11; Luke 1:46-50.53-54 ; 1 Thess 5:16-24; John 1:6-8.19-28

It is now the Third Sunday of Advent. With reference to the Entrance Antiphon, also known as the Introit, the Third Sunday of Advent is also known as Gaudete Sunday. In Latin, Gaudete means "rejoice." Hence, today is the Sunday we light the rose-colored candle and can wear the rose vestments. On Gaudete Sunday, the season of Advent makes what I like to describe as a turn. We turn from looking forward to Christ's glorious coming at the end of time to looking back at his first coming as an infant.

The Entrance Antiphon, which is typically not used in most U.S. parishes, bids us: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near."

This turn to looking back is made explicit up-front in the Collect, which begins: "O God, who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord's Nativity..." We look forward and behind, of course, from the standpoint of the present. What else but your life connects the past to the present and the present to the future. Now is always the intersection of the past and the future. Advent is about the collapse of time. This is translated poetically into lyrics by Michael Card in his song "Maranatha," which was yesterday's traditio: "We long for the time when all time is past."

Indeed, the incarnation of the Son of God marked a turning point not just in the history of the world but in the history of the cosmos. It ushered in the beginning of the end of time. As a result, every day is the end of the world until the end of the world. During the first two weeks of Advent, we are reminded of this daily.

With our singing the Mary's Magnificat as our responsorial on this Third Sunday of Advent, we are reminded of again of the power of Christ's coming, especially in the words of the third verse: "He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy." God's promise of mercy is nothing less than promise of himself. He gives himself to us in and through Christ by the power of the Spirit.

The first part of the Entrance Antiphon from which Gaudete Sunday takes its name converges with our reading from Saint Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians. It is very likely that this letter, probably written in around AD 50, is the first of the documents, collectively known as the "New Testament," to be written. And so, it is one of the seven letters the scholarly consensus assures us was written by the apostle himself.

What does the man from Tarsus enjoin the Christians of ancient Thessaloniki to do? "Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess 5:16-18). Context aside, I think this exhortation is timely for us as well. But without a doubt, it is a tall order.

It's no great secret that 2020 has been a challenging year for virtually everyone. It's been a devastating year for many people. What is there to rejoice about? We can rejoice in the reality, stated succinctly in the last line of today's Entrance Antiphon that "the Lord is near." After all, is Jesus not Emmanuel, God with us? He accompanies through life's difficulties. He walks with us through the shadow of the valley of death. While he does not abandon us, he is not a Deus ex machina that comes down and instantaneously resolves our difficulties. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he is in it with us to the end and beyond. Hence, he is not hovering over and above us indifferently.

He is with you to help you through whatever it is you're experiencing. He weeps with you, laughs with you, suffers with you, and celebrates with you. He's so close to you that he is often hard to see.

It's because he's so near and often hard to see that we need to pray without ceasing. Maybe it seems like sometimes your prayers "bounce off the ceiling" because the Lord is in the room with you. You are always in God's holy presence. A good rule of thumb for praying is to spend at least as much time listening as you speaking, perhaps more.

"It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord" (Preface I & II of Advent). According to this phrase, which we invoke weekly during the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, giving thanks is our salvation! In other words, giving thanks in every and all circumstances is the means of our salvation in and through Christ.

While I mentioned the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, it bears noting that there are two Prefaces for Advent. While either can be used on any Sunday of Advent, when one considers the season in terms of the other prayers and the lectionary, it makes sense to use Preface I for the first and second Sundays and Preface II on the third and fourth Sundays.

Preface II also bids us to look back:
For all the oracles of the prophets foretold him,
the Virgin Mother longed for him
with love beyond telling,
John the Baptist sang of his coming
and proclaimed his presence when he came.

It is by his gift that already we rejoice
at the mystery of his Nativity...
The word "Eucharist" means to give thanks. In its Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, the fifty-fifth anniversary of the end of which was last Tuesday, 8 December, taught:
the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord's supper (sec. 10)
In the Prayer after Communion, we pray that holy communion will "cleanse us of our faults and prepare us for the coming feasts." While this certainly refers to the feasts of the Lord's Nativity, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Epiphany, Presentation, and the Lord's Baptism, it also refers, perhaps even more specifically, to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. This should make our grateful hearts rejoice!

By our own baptism, like the Baptist, our vocation, our divine calling, no matter our state of life, is to "make straight the way of the Lord." To prepare for his coming but also to point out his nearness even as we await the glorious revelation of the Son of God and our revelation as the children of God during the beginning of the end of time.

Friday, December 11, 2020

"...sick with anticipating...

For this post, I am going to lay my cards on the table up-front. I don't like "Christmastime." The reason I don't like it is not because it displaces the potentially lovely season of Advent (though it does do this and I don't like it). So, my dislike is not rooted in some kind of aesthetic/theological finicky-ness. The reason I dislike "Christmastime" is that I would be hard-pressed to conceive of anything more antithetical to what we purport to celebrate.

This year being what it is, I was even willing to forego my grousing when Christmas decorations went up even earlier than usual. I felt that perhaps this year we all needed some cheer and Christmas cheer is as good as any cheer. But beyond that, I guess I hoped this year might be a little different. At least from where I stand, it doesn't seem to be much different. We've just made the necessary adjustments and carried on. The consumerist gluttony now begins in early October, which seems to usher in one long and increasingly undifferentiated "holiday" season.

Every year since I first read it five or six years ago, I re-read the late William McIlvanney's short article on Christmas he wrote nearly 20 years ago for The Scotsman, a Scottish national newspaper: "Religious ritual still has place in modern world." It amounts to a plea by an agnostic not to abandon completely the religious meaning of Christmas and even our need for God.

If you think about it, even if you are an ardent or uncertain non-believer, a skeptical quasi-believer, or a believing non-practitioner, without its religious meaning Christmas is very shallow. I mean, there is no deep mystery about Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, elves, and reindeer. Whatever resemblance Santa bore to Saint Nicholas has long-since vanished. This cast of characters is a bit like Brill Cream- "a little dab'll do ya." Honestly, I've more or less felt this way since I was very young.

Judging by the utterly weird menageries of blow-up figures that litter so many lawns, McIlvanney seems right to conclude: "Like so many other things now, Christmas has gone post-modern. It's all comparative. You take the concept like a rough length of cloth and cut it to suit your taste."

It's pointless to rail against the freedom that permits the cutting and tailoring. Nonetheless, the pattern that results has little bearing on Christmas and yields little fruit. I am not opposed to enjoyment. But we rush to it with no prelude. It's like initimate relations not only without foreplay but without any romantic prelude. We've moved the Twelve Days of Christmas to the 12 days before Christmas. It likely goes without saying that when life becomes only about enjoyment it turns into a denial of reality, avoidance of the inevitable, an exercise in distraction. In a word, hedonism. At root, the problem with hedonism is its inherent nihilism.

Some people insist that Advent is not a penitential season. It isn't, at least not exclusively. It certainly isn't just a shorter mid-winter Lent. Beginning this Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, Advent takes a turn. But the first two weeks of this season certainly have a penitential quality. Hence, the repeated calls, culminating last Sunday with our reading of the Baptist's preaching, to repent and prepare for Christ's return. This understanding of the penitential quality of the first half of Advent comes by taking the Missal and the Lectionary as your criteria.

The collapse of time during the season of Advent, which was summarized nicely long ago by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who stated that we simultaneously await Christ's glorious return, his being born again in our hearts, and our remembrance of his humble birth, leads us contemplatively to time-out-of-time. Thinking about the last-mentioned of these comings, these advents, our remembrance of the Nativity of the Son of God must include his being born in an animal shelter, wrapped in rags, and placed in a feeding trough.

Our calling to mind Jesus's Nativity, of course, is the Third Joyful Mystery of the Blessed Virgin's Rosary. The fruit of this musytery is poverty. It seems to me that "Christmastime" highlights the reality that we are rich in everything except spirit. The surest way to kill wonder is to try manufacturing it.

McIlvanney's article is actually positive in a characteristically Celtic way that many people can't recognize. He asserts that even though Christianity no longer shapes Scottish, or American, culture to the extent it formerly did, by-and-large, even now people maintain an awareness of its religious nature with many even taking the time to attend a religious service. "In such a situation," he goes on to observe, "it's not impossible to see Christmas as being for many people the intensive care unit of a dying faith kept dubiously alive on the life-support machine of commercialism." It is precisely the dubiousness of the life support system that concerns me.

The one concession I will make to "Christmastime" is that I love egg nog. I don't drink too much of it because I tend to overindulge. By overindulge, I mean go utterly crazy. My late friend, Michael Spencer, one of the first to claim the name "post-Evangelical," the original Internet Monk, wrote a piece on his love of egg nog, which, along with McILvanney's more sobering piece, I read every December: "True Confessions of an Egg Now Addict." My potential egg nog addiction is season agnostic. I would drink egg nog to excess on the Fourth of July.

I am happy that Easter seems to have more or less failed as a secular holiday.

As we near the end of the second week of Advent, headed for the "turn" that happens on Sunday, I think Michael Card's song "Maranatha" off his Present Reality album keeps the spirit of the penitential portion of this complex liturgical season:

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

"Immaculate Mary, your praises we sing..."

In Christian terms, the idea that the Virgin Mary is just a person who happened to conceive and give birth to the Son of God in the flesh is silly on the face of it. To be sure, Mary, or Miriam of Nazareth, was fully human and in no way divine. She was unique, exceptional among the human race.

In Catholic theology, one does not read too much about the concept of prevenient grace. In certain Protestant theologies, especially Calvinism and Arminianism, prevenient grace gets a workout. In certain Calvinistic renderings, prevenient grace is worked out to the point at which a deterministic world results. This, in turn, gives us such theological travesties as "double predestination," which is the idea that God creates certain people only to damn them.

What is prevenient grace? It is God's decision that precedes and overrides human decisions. According to certain modes of Calvinistic thinking, prevenient grace is often or even always irresistible. In other words, God's decrees his will and God's will cannot be overridden. Your cooperation, therefore, is not always, perhaps even usually, a conscious choice.

Any healthy theology cannot hold that God's will, at least concerning an individual's life and in specific circumstances, is irresistible. It is possible to resist God's will. In fact, we often resist it. We can say God's grace is tireless and inexhaustible. Think about the beauty of what Pope Francis said and repeated during the Jubilee of Mercy. You will tire of asking God for mercy long before God will tire of being merciful to you. His point was God will never tire of being merciful because the name of God is mercy (to use the title of a book by Pope Francis). No matter how far you might try to separate yourself from God, he is always there, not as a threatening or imposing presence but in a mode that you might most easily recognize him and respond.

In the Prayer over the Offerings for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the celebrant invokes these words: "... grant that, as we profess her, on account of your prevenient grace, to be untouched by any stain of sin, so, through her intercession, we may be delivered from all our faults" (Roman Missal).

Immaculate Conception, by Giuseppe Angeli, 1765

Citing an Apostolic Constitution promulgated by Pope Alexander VII in 1661, Pope Pius IX, in his encyclical Ineffabilius Deus, by which he dogmatically declared the immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1854, noted:
Concerning the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, ancient indeed is that devotion of the faithful based on the belief that her soul, in the first instant of its creation and in the first instant of the soul’s infusion into the body, was, by a special grace and privilege of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, her Son and the Redeemer of the human race, preserved free from all stain of original sin. And in this sense have the faithful ever solemnized and celebrated the Feast of the Conception
This preservation is what constitutes the prevenience of the grace. This also gets back into the collapsing of time that we're invited to experience during the season of Advent. Her preservation from sin was wrought through the merits of Christ's saving atonement, which is what makes it graciousness on God's part and not inherent to her being. Otherwise, we would have to revere Mary as divine.

The Gospel reading for today's solemnity is Luke's account of the Annunciation. It shows that grace, even prevenient grace, is not irresistible. After greeting this common young woman in an incomprehensibly grandiose manner, the Archangel Gabriel tells Mary that she is to conceive by the Holy Spirit and will give birth to the Son of God, Mary gives what Roman Catholics traditionally call her fiat. This comes from the Latin Vulgate (the Bible in Latin), which translates her words as fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum (i.e., "be it done to me according to your word"- Luke 1:38).

God does not force an unwanted pregnancy upon a young woman for whom such a condition might prove fatal. Her acceptance is vital.

This leads us into "Mary did you know" territory. It seems clear, if we take the Annunciation into account, that Mary perhaps grasped the what and the why of the life and mission of her son. Based on the presentation of Jesus in Temple, during which event she is said to have encountered Anna and Simeon, she may not have fully grasped precisely how he would accomplish his divine purposes in and for the world. Who knows, if she had known the precise manner in which her own heart would be pierced by a sword, it might've altered her decision? The decision to love, to really love, is always a risk. The choice between life and death.

Advent is about saying "Yes," saying to God either again or for the first time: "Be it done to me according to your word." Like our Blessed Mother, saying "Yes" to God entails a risk. I am convinced because choosing to love renders us vulnerable that God does not force our hand. God certainly never seeks to coerce your fiat. It is the nature of love that it cannot be forced. Love always requires a choice, a fiat. Love is the most courageous choice a person can ever make.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Attempting to turn as time collapses

Readings: Isa 40:1-5.9-11; Ps 85:9-14; 2 Pet 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

It's worth mentioning again that despite being a relatively short liturgical season, Advent is multi-layered. It is correct to note, as many insistently do, Advent is not merely a shorter Lent. In other words, it is not exclusively a season of penitence. But it is equally incorrect to insist that Advent does not have a penitential aspect.

Next Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, is Gaudete Sunday. The Sunday of pink (or "rose" as many insist) vestments and the lighting of the unique pink (or "rose") candle. Gaudete (meaning "Rejoice") Sunday marks a turning point in the season. We turn from anticipating the future coming of Christ toward what has already happened. In a sense, we turn toward Bethlehem. We do so in the realization that the birthing of Christ/the return of Christ is always happening in our midst.

But each year on the Second Sunday of Advent the readings issue a clear and unambiguous call: Repent!

In the fourth verse of the first chapter of the Gospel According to Saint Mark, the Greek word translated into English as "repentance" transliterates as metanoias. This is the proper variant of the word metanoia. Metanoia does not primarily mean being contrite for the things one has done wrong. Literally, meatnoia refers to both compunction for guilt that compels a reformation of one's life and the reversal of a decision.

As to the latter implication, the metaphor of turning and walking in a different direction is an apt one. In general usage in the New Testament, metanoia means to undergo a change of mind or of heart. This conversion leads to a new way of life- the life of God's kingdom. In a very real sense, every day is judgment day, which also means that each day is an opportunity to experience the grace of God anew.

The transformation we are invited to undergo begins inwardly and makes its way into how we relate to creation, others, and to God. The point of our reading from 2 Peter is that God is patient with me as I undergo conversion. In short, God waits. Doesn't this introduce an interesting twist into this season? God waiting on us, not us on waiting on God.

In light of the above, a question comes to mind: How much more proactive can I expect God to be? After all, keeping his promise, "...when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption" (Galatians 4:4-5). This adoption occurred as I was reborn through the waters of baptism. Who is waiting for whom? Us for God or God for us?

In our first reading, from deutero-Isaiah (second Isaiah, which comprises chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah), which was written during Israel's Babylonian exile, the prophet implores the captive people to "Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!" But these words remain relevant for God's people today. Both inspired authors of our uniquely Christian scriptures and the earliest Church fathers envisioned the Church as experiencing something of a Babylonian exile. No doubt this had to do with the illicitness of Christianity in the Roman empire. But the point in these readings is that human hearts are the milestones of the highway for our God.

The call to repentance is the call to be transformed in the manner Paul urges:
I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:1-2)
Getting back to the complex issue of time, of temporality, a complexity to which Advent bids us attend, commenting on a poem of R.S. Thomas, Carys Walsh observed: "Part of the mystery of Advent is that time collapses. We are waiting again for that which has happened, which also happens continually and will happen again at some unspecified time."

In the words of a wholly appropriate REM song: "I believe in... time as an abstract/Explain the change, the difference between/What you want and what you need" ("I Believe").

By invoking the distinction between what we want and what we need, I am not going to be so facile as to assert that we should settle for what we need. Satisfaction, fulfillment, completion are realized by pursuing what you want. Pursuing what you want entails a huge risk. But this risk is mitigated, even if only gradually, by ruthlessly interrogating reality and of your own heart: "What do I really long for?" "What is really and deeply satisfying?" At least for me, the "What" in both of these questions resolves into a "Who."

Friday, December 4, 2020

Waiting, hoping, longing

We're nearly a week into this Advent season, this season of hopeful watching and waiting. It is accentuated this year by the pandemic. We're all, whether your religious or not whether you believe in God or not, waiting for it to end, for life to return to some kind of normalcy. Key to the ending the pandemic is the distribution of an effective vaccine that inoculates a person against the Sars-Cov-2 virus, thus preventing COVID-19.

In terms of the pandemic, our waiting is hopeful because three vaccines have tested effective vice the novel coronavirus. It is no longer a matter of if but of when. While the anticipated time between now and the when of vaccination may still be discouraging to those who have been forced to isolate the past 8 months or so, there is a light, the end is in sight, even if still off in the distance.

My point with all this is simply to note that during this particular Advent we need look no further than our own experience for what this season is all about. It's about hope-filled waiting. Hopeful waiting is perhaps best described by the word longing. Longing is the result of desire. Desire, in turn, is what makes us human beings. Being human means to be made in the imago Dei, the image of God.

What is it we long for? We long for satisfaction and contentment. In a word, we desire to realize some form of completeness, wholeness, holiness. So many songs and poems are about this longing. These show us how many different forms this takes. It is wholly unsurprising that the desire-induced longing that constitutes our humanity is often expressed in terms of erotic desire.

"Erotic" is not synonmous with "sexual." What is erotic both transcends and goes deeper than sex. So, far from being inappropriate, such the assertion that our longing inherently possesses an erotic dimension is highly appropriate. Consider the power of the Song of Songs, an erotic text if ever there was one! This book is considereed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims as holy writ.

A close-up from Bernini's The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-1652

The pandemic experience, too, is about longing for connection, for sociality, to be able to once again gather in parks, pubs, concert halls, movie theaters, cafés and restaurants, churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. Our desire to celebrate birthdays, deaths, graduations, and the like.

For many and to some extent for most, this time of pandemic is a bit like an exile. Just as the ancient people of God longed to return from exile, we, too, long for the promised land, a place of light, joy, and happiness.

We sing "Come, O, come Emmanuel" in the awareness that God is already with us. Moreover, we sing it in the awareness that there is nowhere we can be that God is not already there. Nonetheless, he is often present by his absence.

For my personal Advent devotion this year I am reading a lovely book by Carys Walsh entitled Frequencies of God: Walking Through Advent with R.S. Thomas. Who is R.S. Thomas? He was a Welsh Anglican priest and a very gifted poet.

Each day, Walsh takes one of Thomas's poems and reflects on it in terms of Advent. In yesterday's devotion she reflected on the poem Suddenly, which came after, as a companion piece, to the poem Kneeling.

In her reflection, Walsh wrote what is perhaps the single best two-sentence insight on Advent I have ever read: "Part of the mystery of Advent is that time collapses. We are waiting again for that which has happened, which also happens continually and will happen again at some unspecified time."

Our Friday traditio for this First Friday of Advent is not a song. It is the poem Suddenly:
As I had always known
he would come, unannounced,
remarkable merely for the absence
of clamour. So truth must appear
to the thinker; so, at a stage
of the experiment, the answer
must quietly emerge. I looked
at him, not with the eye
only, but with the whole
of my being, overflowing with
him as a chalice would
with the sea. Yet was he
no more there than before,
his area occupied
by the unhaloed presences.
You could put your hand
in him without consciousness
of his wounds. The gamblers
at the foot of the unnoticed
cross went on with
their dicing; yet the invisible
garment for which they played
was no longer at stake, but worn
by him in this risen existence.

Saturday, November 28, 2020


Readings: Isa 63:16b-14; 64:2-7; Ps 80:2-3.15-16-18-19; 1 Cor 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37

Sundown today marks the beginning of a new year of grace. Today we begin another liturgical year. It feels nice to turn a temporal page right now.

Many of us, myself included, have joked about 2020 being apocalyptic, having the feel of the end of the world. Apokalupsis," in Greek, is a feminine noun that refers to "an unveiling." It is with reference to this unveiling that we translate the word into English as "revelation." What is revealed? God's Kingdom, which is ruled by Christ the King. God's Kingdom is not located up in the sky. Rather, the city of God, the new Jerusalem, will come "down out of heaven from God" (see Revelation 21:10-27).

It's easy to get caught up in all kinds of end-time nonsense. None of this has anything to do with the revelation of God in Christ Jesus. When I think about the things Jesus says will precede "the end," it is impossible for me not to think of any era of history in which those things did not occur. They are certainly happening now.

The new liturgical year marks a shift in the Sunday lectionary from Year A to Year B. During Year B we read primarily from Saint Mark's Gospel. According to the four-source hypothesis, Mark's is the first of the canonical Gospels to be written. Mark was used by the inspired authors of Matthew and Luke as a source. In chapter thirteen of the Gospel According to Saint Mark Jesus tells about events that will precede "the end" (Mark 13:4). This comes from the same chapter from whence our Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent is taken.

The first sign of the end is that the Jerusalem Temple would be thoroughly destroyed. Jesus says of its destruction "There will not be one stone left upon another that will not be thrown down" (Mark 13:2). He goes on to tell about the proliferation of false prophets, about persecutions his followers would endure, about wars, famines, and earthquakes (see Mark 13:1-8).

Of course, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. The nascent Christian community, however, fled from Jerusalem to avoid the brutal Roman siege of the holy city, which preceded the Temple's demise. Without a doubt, the destruction of the Temple must've seemed to many like the end of the world. It was certainly the end of the world as they knew it. Judaism as it is understood and practiced today is the result of this event.

My point is that it is always the end of the world until the end of the world. This is the point of at least the first two weeks of Advent. This is why, in the first Gospel reading of this liturgical year Jesus urges us to "Watch!" (Mark 13:37). In this same passage, the Lord uses an allegory. In this allegory we, his followers, are the servants the man who traveled abroad left in charge.

Identifying with the servants in Jesus's allegory, the question we should ask ourselves is "Am I being diligent in the building of God's kingdom or am I just lazing about?" Just what God's kingdom entails was spelled out beautifully in the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer for last Sunday's Solemnity of Christ the King: "a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace" (Roman Missal, "Solemnities of the Lord," Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe).

The Master, according to Saint Paul in our New Testament reading, has not left us without the resources necessary to carry out the tasks he's entrusted to us. This why Paul assures the Christians of ancient Corinth- "you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:7). Each of us possesses spiritual gifts, call them "talents," for the building up of God's kingdom. If you seek only to save yourself, you are already lost.

I am not suggesting something along the lines of "Look busy. Jesus is coming!" What I am saying is that each one of us needs to have a change of heart, a conversion. We need to repent, which means to turn around and walk in a different direction. Such a conversion makes seeking daily to build up God's kingdom your joy, your delight, your raison d'etre. As the witness of many martyrs have shown us, it is worth your very life. Having the necessary change of heart is what allows you with Saint Francis to keep tending your garden or with Martin Luther to plant that apple tree. You see, urgency be the agent of anxiety.

Perhaps the best way to express the shape of this hope is through the poetry of the Psalms:
How lovely is Thy dwelling place,
   O Lord of hosts to me.
My soul is longing and fainting
   the courts of the Lord to see.
My heart and flesh, they are singing
   for the joy of the living God.
How lovely is Thy dwelling-place,
   O Lord of hosts, to me
(Psalm 84, translation from Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbira Community, 69-70)
Anticipating God's kingdom, which end of liturgical year and the beginning of Advent bids us do, doesn't give us hope. Living the tension between the already and the not yet is our hope. Being a Christian means loving God with all your heart, might, mind, and strength by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. While love of God and love of neighbor can be distinguished in certain ways, they are inextricably bound together. Being a Christian is about loving in self-sacrificing ways, loving in the same manner that caused God's Only Begotten Son to become incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

With the psalmist, we implore God to "take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted" (Psalm 80:15-16). But can't just pray to be preserved. The Church of Christ is about mission, not maintenance. And so, we should not only pray to be preserved from the tribulation that marks every age but to shine as a light in the darkness. We pray that when the Lord comes he "might meet us doing right" and being "mindful of [him] in our ways" (Isaiah 64:4).

This reflection on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent brings the penultimate (a good time to use this word) month of 2020 to a close.

Friday, November 27, 2020

A Friday at the end of the world

And so, we arrive at the ultimate Friday of this Year of Grace. The end of time, as it were. It seems a good day to reflect on the Church. Needless to say, the Church, whether you conceive of it as the Catholic Church or, like me, much more broadly to include churches, denominations, and congregations of baptized Christians, is experiencing difficult days. Most, perhaps all, of the difficulties the Church is experiencing are self-inflicted. Rather than returning to our first love, Jesus Christ, much of the time we seem to want to double-down on what landed us here. Christendom is over and done. Thanks be to God!

Despite Christendom being a thing of the past, many Christians in the West, especially in the United States, confuse the loss of political hegemony as persecution. It surely is not. As I approach the end of Born From the Gaze of God: The Tibhirne Journal of a Martyr Monk (1993-1996), which is the published journal of Blessed Christoph LeBreton, OSCO, who is one of seven Cistercian martyrs of Tibhirine, Algeria, who were kidnapped and killed by Islamist forces in 1996, I read something that Bl. Christoph copied from another book.

The book from which he copied it was L'honneur de la liberté by one J. Sommet. Christoph copied these words into his journal by hand during Advent 1995, which proved to be his final Advent, his final period of waiting and preparation for the Lord. He even noted that the title of the chapter of the book: "Dachau...Typhus." Here are is the passage that I think relevant on this Friday at the end of the world:
There I assist at what I call the birth of the Church. It is more a matter of reconstituting a community that gives meaning to each individual's freedom, and that also remains an authentic source of that same freedom, because it does not accept being in a situation of power... This is what constitutes a true Church, a society of gratuity and powerlessness, a community without the means of physical or biological resistance, without hidden arms. These men jump in the fray with bare hands. Here we are before a Church that reinvents herself as a place of the heart and of the freedom of people together, each one existing by virtue of the others[...] Such a Church refuses to become a locus of power, of damnation, of constraint imposed on other groups (197)
I shudder to think where the Church would be today without the witness, ministry, and teaching of Pope Francis.

When Francis became pope, much was made of him perhaps being the first "post-secular" pontiff. What is meant by "post-secular"? Stated simply, maybe overly so, post-secular refers to the persistence or resurgence of religious beliefs or practices in the present. The "post" in post-secular, in this instance, refers to after the end of secularism. "Post-secular" goes hand-in-glove with "post-modern." For those who keep up with the magisterial teaching of the Holy Father, his body of teaching is a great guide for being Christian in our post-secular, post-modern world, a world in which institutions are in decline and held in suspicion by most people.

Being awake means not retreating into dreams of what once was intending to make it that way again. Kierkegaard was quite right in his unsparing criticism that insisted Christendom was the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity. Kirkegaard was adamant that Christendom was a betrayal of the Gospel because it robbed the teaching of Jesus of radicality.

Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino, who is best known as one of the leading lights of liberation theology, in an essay entitled "The Kingdom of God and the Theological Dimension of the Poor" insisted "Forgetting the poor has gone hand in hand with forgetting the Kingdom of God." Circling back to Christendom, specifically to its origin in the Church's early conciliar period, Sobrino rightly notes: "By the time of the fourth-century conciliar debates it is clear that the Kingdom of God plays no role whatsoever in Christology" (essay in Who Do You Say That I Am?: Confessing the Mystery of Christ, 109-145).

One of the things I am going to do this holiday weekend is set aside time to listen to my favorite U2 album, The Unforgettable Fire, in its entirety. Therefore, it seems fitting, at the expense of too much U2, that our traditio for this ultimate Friday of the liturgical year be a cut off that album. I am going with one of the less well-known tunes: "Promenade."

In the short entry, written on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, that is, 8 December 1995, Bl. Christoph simply noted: "Guileless MARY, born free" (196).

Thursday, November 26, 2020

A few thankful thoughts

Here we are. Thanksgiving 2020 in the U.S.A. What a long, strange, and perilous year it's been so far. I turned 55 a few weeks ago. It's safe to say that in all those years, I haven't experienced a year like this year.

I know for those of us who are relatively comfortable it's funny to joke about 2020 seeming like the end of the world. But for many people who aren't comfortable, life usually, perhaps always, feels unstable, precarious, scary. I think it is important to keep that in mind.

It's also sobering to consider that just in this country, more than a quarter of a million people have died as a result of being infected with the sars-cov-2 virus and contracting COVID-19. Many more people who contracted COVID-19 will suffer chronic effects from the disease. The question remains, how ready might we be when, not if, another novel virus infects the human population. Hopefully, we're much more ready than we were for this novel coronavirus, which caught the U.S. unawares and flatfooted. Of course, a lot of this has to do with responsible leadership.

Speaking of responsible leadership, here's a link to a video President-elect Biden and his wife, Jill, did to deliver a Thanksgiving message of hope to a greiving nation: click here.

Obviously, finding effective ways to get the spread of sars-cov-2 under control while keeping the economy afloat will be his first order of business once he takes office. An important part of his requires securing another stimulus package. In my view, any stimulus package needs to be aimed at putting money directly into the hands of people who need it and to help small business owners. Putting money directly into the hands of people, who will spend it for life's necessities, is the best way to stimulate the economy.

Despite my family being afflicted with COVID-19 back in March, I am grateful for many things this year. Even though my wife continues to suffer some lingering respiatory effects, which are the result of getting COVID-19 after having had a nasty case of pneumonia more than 10 years ago, I am thankful we all recovered intact.

I am also grateful for the gift of faith. I am thankful for my wife and 6 children. I am thankful for many friends and especially for a few close friends, people who know virtually everything about me and yet, by some miracle, still love me. I am thankful for my diaconate, which privileges me to serve others in various ways. I am grateful for the ministry of overseeing the deacons and the formation of new deacons with which my bishop entrusted me this year. I am grateful for a decent job and good work colleagues. I am thankful that I live in a beautiful city, a place called Bountiful.

Today I am not interested in tracing the history of the first Thanksgiving or even going back a revisiting President Roosevelt's designation of the penultimate (I get to use it again!) Thursday in November as the fixed of the holiday, which was later overruled by Congress several years later, putting it back on the ultimate Thursday of November. I am grateful that our nation sets a day aside specifically to give thanks to God Almighty. I am also grateful that nobody is compelled to give thanks to God or even to give thanks. But, as Brother David Steindl-Rast observed: "Look closely and you will find that people are happy because they are grateful. The opposite of gratefulness is just taking everything for granted."

So, today let's not take everything, or anything, for granted. Let us also be mindful of those who have not. Since today is a civic holiday, albeit one with religious overtones, as Americans, let's commit ourselves to forming an ever-more-perfect union. In light of the current divisions, this is going to take a lot of intentional work.

As a Christian, I am put in mind of these words from the Preface for the Eucharistic Prayer for last Sunday's celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King:
For you anointed your Only Begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, with the oil of gladness as eternal Priest and King of all creation, so that, by offering himself on the altar of the Cross as a spotless sacrifice to bring us peace, he might accomplish the mysteries of human redemption and, making all created things subject to his rule, he might present to the immensity of your majesty an eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace
I am also grateful for the opportunity the global pandemic has given nations to re-set their economies vis-à-vis human equity and the environment.

As Pope Francis has tirelessly pointed out, we have opportunities for positive change, to establish a new and better normal. On this Thanksgiving, I pray for our national, state, and local leaders that we can, to borrow the motto of President-elect Biden's Transition: "Build Back Better."

Friday, November 20, 2020

"I am going to make it through this year if it kills me"

Hey, I get to use "penultimate" again! Today is the penultimate Friday of November 2020. For Roman Catholics, this Sunday we celebrate the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, or Christ the King for short. On Christ the King, we celebrate the end of the world as we know it. This should make us feel fine, give us hope.

I've been writing a lot lately. As a result, I feel like I can kind of ease off today. I do want to note that President-elect Joe Biden turns 78 today. He will far-and-away be the oldest president ever to be inaugurated. In January 2017, President Trump was the oldest at 70. Today is also the birthday of Bobby Kennedy. He was born 95 years ago.

The United States has never really recovered from 1968. It was in 1968 that both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.and Robert Francis Kennedy were assassinated. It's interesting sometimes to think about what might've been had that pivotal year not proven so violent. Yes, it's easy to imagine things much better than they likely would've been in reality. As long as that caveat is kept in mind, such "what if" moments can be most useful.

The Sunday after Christ the King is the First Sunday of Advent. First Vespers (or First Evening Prayer) is the premier liturgical celebration of the new Year of Grace, that is, the new liturgical year. I suppose, in a sense, one can say 2020 is over. With good news regarding vaccines in the offing, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. In the meantime, I wonder how many will be infected, how many of those people will become ill and suffer lingering effects of COVID-19, and how many more people will die. This week, the U.S. passed 250,000 COVID deaths. A quarter of a million people!

Listening to a story about the National Book Awards, which were held virtually this year, I learned of a song by the band The Mountain Goats: "This Year." Recorded in 2005, it seems perfect for 2020. A kind of anthem, perhaps?

Another takeaway from the story on the National Book Awards is that there is a new biography of Malcolm X: The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X. I have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley and watched Spike Lee's very good movie Malcom X (see "Malcolm X: Spike Lee's biopic is still absolutely necessary"). I look forward to reading this book. Apparently, the book was begun by journalist Les Payne. Les died before finishing the book. So, his daughter, Tamara, finished it. The book won the 2020 National Book Award for non-fiction. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.

Sorry for the digression. Our traditio for this penultimate Friday of November and of this Year of Grace is The Mountain Goats singing "This Year"-

As a bonus, you can watch and listen to Stephen Colbert sing along here. Hang in there, the Lord is near. He is always near. Easter is always on the way.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Hope means investing in the future

Readings: Pvbs 31:10-13.19-20.30-31; Ps.128:1-5; 1 Thess 5:1-6; Matt 25:14-30

The end of one liturgical year shades gracefully into another. At the end of each liturgical year, we call to mind the end of time, the so-called eschaton or parousia. This culminates, of course, with the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

Even though it is a relatively short season, Advent begins in the same vein. It begins by reminding us that we are waiting for Christ's return. With the Third Sunday in Advent, the season takes a turn. We turn from looking ahead (toward the not-yet of Christ's return) to looking back (the already- the Incarnation of the Son of God).

On this penultimate (Sorry, I can't pass up the opportunity to use that word) Sunday of this Year of Grace, we hear Saint Paul, in what is likely the first book of the New Testament to be written, telling the Christians of ancient Thessaloniki that there is no way to know when Christ will return. He insists that it could happen at any time.

Indeed, the earliest Christians thought Jesus's return was imminent. One of the things that prompted Paul to write this letter was the fact that the Thessalonian Christians were growing anxious because the Lord had not yet returned. First Thessalonians was written in about 50 AD. Knowing the Lord could return at any time should prompt the believer to remain "alert and sober." To live after the manner of the Gospel and then simply trust in God.

Last week I used the story of Saint Francis of Assisi tending his garden. Martin Luther made a similar observation that is worth noting: "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree." Planting the apple tree, you see, is an act of hope.

This segues nicely into the point of our Gospel for this week. Our reading immediately precedes the sobering account of Jesus's return to judge the living and the dead as set forth by the inspired author of Matthew's Gospel. "Talents are equal to several years; wages" (The Jewish Annotated New Testament, footnote to Matthew 25:14-30, Aaron M. Gale, 57). So, even one talent was a relatively large sum of money. Apparently, it was not unusual in ancient times for people to bury money to keep it safe from thieves. Of course, putting money in the ground yields a poor return on investment.

To invest in anything, even in something as simple as planting an apple tree, is an act of hope. It is hopeful because one invests with the idea that the future bodes well for the investment. In other words, the investor deems her investment to be worth it. At the heart of the parable that constitutes our Sunday Gospel is a metaphor. Jesus is not speaking about money. He is speaking about our God-given gifts.

The homiletic point, therefore, is the exhortation to place your gifts and talents at the service of the Church and the world for the sake of God's Kingdom. Elsewhere in scripture we read: "As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace" (1 Peter 4:10).

As you can see, scripture assumes you have gifts, that is, resources and abilities to share and to give. So, it is not a question of whether or not you have anything to give. You do! How a gift is appreciated, enjoyed, developed is by using it. It has been said that your talents are given to you by God and that your use of these is your gift back to God.

In its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council had this to say about the laity:
by their very vocation, [they] seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven (sec. 31)
This is not some third-rate, knock-off, consolation prize vocation. In a very real sense, there is only one Christian vocation: follow Christ.

Through baptism, Christ calls you to follow him. You receive a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit at confirmation to heed this call. This call is renewed in every Eucharist, at the end of which you are sent to make the risen Lord present wherever you go- this is your mission. There is also the state of life through which you live out heed Christ's call to follow him: marriage, orders, religious life, being single. As indicated in Lumen Gentium, what you do for a living should also be a way of following Christ.

We must never forget that it is baptism, along with confirmation, which deepens and strengthens it, that is the fundamental sacrament of the Christian life, not the sacrament of orders. Those of us who are ordained are put at the service of the rest of the baptized. This is why all in orders are first ordained deacons.

Just as there is a priesthood of all the baptized, there is also a diaconate of all the baptized. Observing the commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself puts you at the service (i.e., diakonia) of your neighbor. By using your God-given gifts you engage in diakonia. Diakonia is kenotic, meaning it is something done sacrificially. It is a recognition that God's gift are not given to you solely, or even primarily, to benefit yourself. Using your gifts for the sake of God's Kingdom represents your investment in its full realization. It is an act of ultimate hope, especially when your efforts don't seem to yield much fruit.

This week's readings should prompt the question for each one of us- How can I better love and glorify God by serving my neighbor? Given that we're about to begin a new Year of Grace, it's an ideal time to ponder this question, to seek an answer, and commit or recommit to living in this peculiar way.

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 ...