Friday, January 31, 2020

Occupied, as in "busy"

Today is the last day of the first month of 2020. I've spent the week in southern Georgia. Most of the days this week have been sunny and relatively warm. Despite traveling for work and, therefore, being very busy, I have enjoyed the respite. In fact, I am writing this while on the road.

It's funny, I have really gotten out of practice with regard to blogging. It's the result of being so busy. Guess what? I am about to be much busier! I am not at liberty to divulge why just yet but I will share as soon as I am able. What does that mean for Καθολικός διάκονος? "We'll see" is the only answer I can give at present.

While I try to blog about blogging rarely, it seems fitting right now given the pace of my life and my lack of doing much here but posting on Fridays and my homilies and reflections on the Sunday reading. I am not ready to throw in the towel completely, at least not yet. Again, we'll see.

Dear Lord, I've become a responsible adult! As a result, the only Friday tradito I can think of the The Dead Milkman singing "Punk Rock Girl." Why? Because it is full of irony.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Year A Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 8:23-9:3; Ps 27:1.4.13-14; 1 Cor 10:13-17; Matt 4:12-23

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”1 The last time we heard these words from our first reading was during Mass at Night on Christmas.

If we take our Gospel reading from Matthew as the context for the rest of our readings, the context is the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, which, according to Matthew’s chronology, comes after his baptism by John in the Jordan and after his forty days of fasting, praying, and being tempted by the devil in the wilderness.

Upon emerging from his sojourn in the wilderness and returning to his native Nazareth, Jesus proclaims his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”2 After this, Matthew has Jesus leaving his hometown and going south to Capernaum, which is still in the province of Galilee. Capernaum is located on northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee. This “sea” is a large freshwater lake, to which the scriptures also refer as Lake Gennesaret.

Once there, Jesus sets about summoning followers. Being located on the shore of a large lake, Capernaum was no doubt home to a large number of fishermen. It is along the lakeshore that Jesus went in search of disciples. As a result, he called two sets of brothers: Simon, whom he will later rename Cephas, or Peter, and Andrew along with James and John, the sons of Zebedee. As this call is conveyed, both sets of brothers saw Jesus as the light because they dropped everything and walked toward the light.

That this kind of scriptural background is important to preaching is highlighted by the fact that last year, in his Apostolic Letter, Aperuit Illis (i.e., “He opened”), Pope Francis designated the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time as “Word of God Sunday.”3 Normally, a homily requires some exegesis of the readings that are proclaimed. By “exegesis” I mean some explanation about what the scriptures the mean in themselves and how the readings relate to one another before jumping to how what we’ve heard proclaimed applies to our lives. Failing to do this often results in a homily that has little or nothing to do with the scriptures proclaimed. he great Church father and Bible translator, Saint Jerome, asserted- “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”4

It is easy to see from the first encounter Peter, Andrew, James, and John have with Jesus that the Lord’s call to discipleship always carries a sense of urgency. To one who is called, nothing is more important or urgent than following the Lord. Anyone who has truly encountered Jesus has experienced this. Encountering Jesus is life-altering. You do not need to worry about whether or not you are called. If you are baptized, you are called. What needs to concern you is whether you’ve responded to the Lord’s call in all its urgency and totality.

For our young people preparing for confirmation as well as our Catechumens preparing for full Christian initiation at the Easter Vigil, you are answering the Lord’s call. While he will certainly impart grace to you through the sacrament(s) you will receive, Jesus will not take away your agency, your freedom. He will not unduly interfere with your response. After all, it is pointless to make somebody love you. Love always require freedom. Therefore, love always involves taking a risk.

In this regard, it bears noting that God has no grandchildren, only children. While Christian parents should certainly seek to impart the faith to our children- something we all solemnly promised God and the Church we would do when had our infant children baptized- only God can give the gift of faith.

Once again, it is not a question as to whether or not God desires to give the gift of faith to someone. He does! As scripture teaches: God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.”5 But it is the nature of a gift to be offered and not forced upon the recipient. In short, a gift can be refused.

You share your faith by demonstrating the difference knowing Christ makes in your life. By showing how being a Christian affects your actions, words, and thoughts along with the decisions you make in life. You share faith by showing the importance of giving thanks to God for what he has done for you in and through Christ. “Eucharist” is a Greek word that simply means “thanksgiving.” Rather than pretending to be perfect, the very idea of which undercuts the central thesis of Christianity (i.e., “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God”), you demonstrate the importance of faith by confessing your sins, thus showing both the importance and accessibility of God’s mercy.6

At the risk of sounding dramatic, choosing to follow Christ is the choice between life and death. In a short story, “Versio Occidente” (i.e., “Heading West”), Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi takes on the question, “Why live?” The story’s main characters start out by investigating why lemmings readily commit mass suicide. Walter, one of the characters, astoundingly asserts: “Life does not have purpose; pain always prevails over joy; we are all condemned to death,” even if the date of our passing is unknown; “we are condemned to watch the end of those dearest to us.”7

Later on in the story, the characters go in search of an Amazonian tribe that once inhabited a large territory but now, due largely to a high rate of suicide, live in a single village. In discussing the tribe’s plight with the tribal elder, Walter learns that this tribe has “never had metaphysical convictions.”8 As a result, they value survival very little, either personal or tribal. As we read in Proverbs: “Without a vision the people lose restraint.”9

As one of my favorite hymns puts it:
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart/
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art/
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night/
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light10
The land of gloom is the land over which the shadow of death hangs. By his resurrection, Christ is the light that illumines the valley of death. Apart from being one who remembers “that life is like a flower that blossoms in the morning, but withers in the evening,” a Christian is someone who notices and basks in the ray of eternal life: Jesus Christ.11 Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord tells his disciples “you are the light of the world.”12 Therefore, he continues, “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”13

In our reading from First Corinthians, we hear that being a Christian is an inherently communal endeavor. Jesus did call one follower but from the beginning of his ministry, he assembled a community. This community is the Church. Our faith aims at making us “one body, one spirit in Christ.”14 While the grace we receive by communing together is necessary to realize Christ’s prayerful desire that we become one with each other as he is one with the Father, it also requires that we desire this as well and work toward realizing it by sticking together through thick and thin.15 You can’t be an accidental of Jesus. Discipleship is intentional. It’s no great secret that the Church is passing through a perilous time, something largely due to her own failings. But we can be confident that Christ continues to lead us along even this difficult part of the path.

Following Jesus, you know your destination. But like those he called on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, you have no idea the path along which he will take you. But Jesus doesn’t just lead you to the cross, he takes you beyond it. Because, as Paul insists, you died and rose to new life with Christ in baptism, you need not fear the rocky, steep path. Because you have died and risen, “you… must think of yourselves as [being] dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.”16 This is the call Jesus issued to his first followers when he said, “Come after me.”17 Today Jesus calls you to walk the path of life everlasting.

1 Isaiah 9:1.
2 Matthew 4:17.
3 Pope Francis, Aperuit Illis, sec. 3; Luke 24:45.
4 Saint Jerome, Prologue of the commentary on Isaiah, n.1, CCL 73, 1.
5 1 Timothy 2:4.
6 Romans 3:23.
7 Primo Levi, “Heading West” in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, Vol. I [586-595], 589.
8 “Heading West,” 593.
9 Proverbs 29:18.
10 "Be Thou My Vision."
11 Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. III- Week II, Intercession for Wednesday, Evening Prayer, 815.
12 Matthew 5:14.
13 Matthew 5:16.
14 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, Eucharistic Prayer III, sec. 113.
15 John 17:21.
16 Romans 6:11.
17 Matthew 4:19.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Marking time, observing an anniversary

The penultimate Friday of January is upon us! Sorry, like juxtapose, I can't pass up the opportunity to use "penultimate." Today is not just any Friday. In addition to being a month down the road from Christmas Day and the Memorial of that great Doctor of the Church Saint Francis de Sales, 24 January 2020 marks the sixteenth anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate.

There were 24 of us who were ordained deacons by then-Bishop George Niederauer in the Cathedral of the Madeleine on that January day back in 2004. One of our number was ordained for the diocese of Knoxville- he was just in Utah for a few years. Seven of my classmates have since died. Another 7, all men now over 70, have retired from active ministry, thus leaving 9 of us who are still carrying the torch. I find these numbers rather sobering, not in an alarming way but simply as a reminder of something I comment on often in my Friday commentary: tempus fugit.

Nonetheless, it is a tremendous privilege to be called to serve the People of God. I count my call to the diaconate and my participation in the sacrament of holy orders as one of the greatest blessings in my life. I am just bold enough to ask that Christ grant me many more years in his service. As a great and mentor and teacher, who is a brilliant theologian and brother deacon, once said to me: "You're not worthy. Get over it!"

I am going with Sister Cristina Scuccia, everyone's favorite Ursuline sister, for today's traditio. Specifically, her inspiring rendition of "Blessed Be Your Name" performed at World Youth Day in 2016.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Jews, Jesus, and God's salvation

Readings: Isa 49:3.5-6; Ps 40:2.4.7-10; 1 Cor 1:1-3; John 1:29-34

Our first reading from Isaiah is one of those passages from the Hebrew Bible that indicate Israel is not chosen for itself but as the people through whom God will accomplish the salvation of the world. Of course, the Book of the Prophet Isaiah consists of three distinct sections, each written during a different period of time. The portion of Isaiah from which today's reading is taken is from deutero- or second Isaiah. Deutero-Isaiah was likely written during Israel's Babylonian Exile (BC 598/7-539). A major theme of deutero-Isaiah is a savior who will rescue them from exile. Historically, one can easily interpret this to be Cyrus, the king of Persia, who defeated Israel's oppressor and returned the Israelites to the Promised Land.

But it seems to me that deutero-Isaiah's predictions of a rescuing messiah or savior transcend, at least to some extent, these historical contingencies. What else can you make of this passage other than this transcendence:
It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth (Isa 49:6)?
The restoration of Israel to the Promised Land is a necessary condition for Israel to be a light to the nations so that God's salvation, which is to be accomplished through "the Jews," extends to the ends of the earth.

This shows the significance of our epistle reading for this Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, taken from the beginning of Saint Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, which can seem almost like a throwaway. Paul, of course, is the (Jewish) apostle to Gentiles. It is through Paul, Barnabas, and other Jewish Christians that the promises made in deutero-Isaiah start to be realized.

Finally, we can look at today's Gospel. Despite being in Year A of the Lectionary, during which the Church focuses on Saint Matthew's Gospel, our reading for this Sunday is taken from the Gospel According to Saint John. Last week Roman Catholics celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. It was during that celebration we considered Saint Matthew's account of Jesus's baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. Jesus's baptism is reckoned to be the beginning of the Lord's public ministry.

In today's Gospel, John the Baptist, who some were convinced was himself the Messiah, recognizes Jesus as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). In each account of Jesus's baptism, the Holy Spirit figure prominently. In John, it is the Baptist who sees the Spirit "come down and remain" on Jesus. Presumably, it is the Holy Spirit, then, who reveals Jesus to John as the Lamb of God. It is the Spirit's coming down and remaining on him that allows Jesus to baptize with the Holy Spirit.

"Messiah" means "Anointed One." Jesus, in each evangelist's account of his baptism, is anointed with the Holy Spirit, thus making him the Anointed One. It is by virtue of being God's Anointed that Jesus is the Lamb of God, whose sacrificial death takes away the world's sin.

Jesus baptizes with the same Spirit that breathed on the waters and, as a result, made life start to emerge, which is why we revere the Holy Spirit in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed as "the Lord, the Giver of life" (Gen 1:2; Roman Missal, "The Order of Mass, sec. 18). Let's never lose sight of the fact that when Jesus ascended he did not abandon us, did not leave his disciples orphans, but sent the Holy Spirit (see John 14:18). This is why Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, insists that "whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come" (2 Cor 5:17).

As disciples of Jesus, as people who have been baptized by water and the Spirit, we are to be heralds of this new creation, proclaimers of the kingdom of God in thought, word, and deed. In light of Jesus's teaching, maybe we should reverse order and say in deed, word, and thought. This is how we "see" the fulfillment of God's promise that his "salvation" reaches "the ends of the earth" (Isa 49:6). The Holy Spirit is Christ's resurrection presence in us, among us, and through us.

What Jesus told the Samaritan woman in his encounter with her at the well bears noting again, as I did on Epiphany: "salvation is from the Jews" ("Epiphany of the Lord;" John 4:22). This why what Lutheran theologian and likely martyr, Ernst Lohmeyer wrote in a letter of support to Martin Buber so very important: "the Christian faith is Christian only insofar as it bears the Jewish faith in its heart" (See "The Nazis Persecuted Him. The Soviets Killed Him. Today He’s Barely Known").

Friday, January 17, 2020

"If you choose not to decide/You still have made a choice"

Among the deep philosophical questions human beings perennially ask there is perhaps no question more vexing than that of free will. I'd say that in our day as we discover more and more about human neural functioning we understand more and more those factors that condition whatever free will we might have. These factors are both biological and developmental. To use language more familiar to people my age and older, we learn more and more about the influences of both "nature" and "nurture."

One thing that is for certain is that any free will we possess is neither unconditioned nor absolute, as many still mistakenly believe it is. On the other hand, by becoming aware of certain limitations, we can to some extent "re-program" our brains, thus making ourselves more free. But we will never, at least not during our mortal existence, be free in an absolute sense. Our choices are conditioned. I can hold that even as I affirm these lyrics by late, great Bob Marley: "none but ourselves can free our minds."

As a Christian free will, or lack thereof, is a major factor in considering the overarching issue of salvation. While I have not yet read David Bentley Hart's book on Christian universalism, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, I've read enough reviews and commentary on it to know that he wisely deals with the issue of free will at a rather deep philosophical level. Frankly, anything written about the last things that doesn't treat free will extensively is woefully incomplete.

The opposite of unconditioned/absolute free will is determinism. Hard determinism holds that while you may have the illusion of free will, every choice you make is the one you could not help but make. Determinism can be set forth on a naturalistic basis (i.e., if you knew the trajectory of all the quarks at the Big Bang, you would know everything that happened in the universe until its end and know that it could not happen in any other way).

Determinism can also have a theological basis: everything that happens is God's will and foreordained to happen that way it happened. Like most sensible people, I hold that the truth is in media res, that is, somewhere between these two extreme viewpoints. More optimistically, I hold that the more you become aware of what limits your choices, the freer your choices become within those given limits. And so, unsurprisingly, I affirm Jesus's insistence that "the truth will set you free" (John 8:32).

What free will impacts, of course, are your choices. This is huge. Fundamentally, your life consists of a series of choices and the consequences of those choices. As a result, how your life turns out at any point in time is determined by the consequences of choices. Now, some choices that impact the consequences of your life were not made by you and even precede you. For example, you can't be said to have chosen to exist. Who knows, maybe the act by which you were conceived was not intended to be fruitful!? But here you are nonetheless! Some choices are made by your refusal to decide.

One example of the kind of limits imposed by "nature," so-called, has to do with sexuality. This forces me to once again bring up the sensitive subject of homosexuality. It has become very evident that the vast majority of people who are homosexual have no choice in the matter. For whatever reason(s), they just are predominantly or exclusively attracted to other people of their own sex- not all members of their sex, as homophobic people sometimes assert, no more than a heterosexual person is attracted to all members of the opposite sex.

While I am always loath to make this comparison because I don't like equating people with non-human species and I think there's been enough offensive trash written about homosexuals comparing their sexual desires and behaviors to other unrelated deviant sexual practices (i.e., incest, pedophilia, bestiality), this phenomenon is observable among most species of non-human mammals. This is to observe nothing more than homosexuality seems to be a naturally occurring phenomenon. This is why the Church no longer views being homosexual as sinful. In other words, it is okay to be gay.

Given the largely (perhaps not exclusively) non-voluntary nature of homosexuality, how can it be okay to be homosexual but not act like a homosexual? This gets back to the contradiction inherent in separating being from act with regard to homosexuals. Not only does it not make sense, it is rather cruel. Now, what the status of committed same-sex relationships vis-à-vis traditional marriage is remains an important question. I think Durham University theologian Robert Song has provided a great starting point for this discussion in his book A Covenant Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships.

Making "big" choices always entails a risk. A lot of indecision results from understanding the risks of a particular choice and shrinking back from making the gamble because you fear you will lose. Lest I sound too fatalistic, I think for many of these "big" choices one can do "risk mitigation." By "risk mitigation," I mean understanding the risks and taking positive steps to reduce them even as you realize you don't control all the factors. Not controlling all the factors requires assessing these factors and knowing what they are to the extent you can. This is where prayer, faith, seeking the help and advice of others who have traveled a similar path come into play.

In this New Year, my morning spiritual reading, which I do immediately following Morning Prayer, is Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. It is proving to be a fantastic compendium of Kirkegaard's works. This brilliant compendium was compiled and edited by Charles E. Moore.

The second piece found in Provocations, taken from Kierkegaard's work Either/Or, Moore chose a section in which Søren Kirkegaard discusses the primacy of making a choice. Kierkegaard begins this passage by extolling what a "glorious" thing it is to be able to make choices. He goes on to insist that making a choice "is the pearl of great price... not intended to be buried and hidden away" (, 9). Refusing to make choices, according to Kierkegaard is how you remain a slave, an unfree person. Of course, what the Dane is discussing in his intense manner is the ultimate choice: choosing God contra the world. It is of the essence of his Existentialism, the philosophy whose "father" Kierkegaard is often reckoned to be, that he emphasizes integrity and authenticity.

In any case, an issue so multi-faceted, complex, and deep as free will is not going to be dealt with in a blog post. Nonetheless, I felt like addressing this morning.

Neil Peart, one of the best, if not the very best, rock n' roll drummers ever, died last week at age 67 from brain cancer. For those who do not know, Peart was the drummer for the band RUSH. The first concert I ever attended was a RUSH concert while they were touring to support their album Signals. It is an experience very much lodged in my memory. Since I have long been a RUSH fan, it seems fitting that this week's traditio be a RUSH song. It just so happens "Free Will" is a song off their Permanent Waves album. Without a doubt, of the many great albums RUSH recorded, Permanent Waves is my favorite, not far and away my favorite (I cherish Moving Pictures and Signals very highly).

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Readings: Isa 42:1-4.6-7; Ps 29:1-4.9-10; Acts 10:34-38; Matt 3:13-17

At least for Roman Catholics in the United States, with this Sunday's celebration of the Lord's Baptism, the liturgical season of Christmas is over. Beginning Monday morning, we move to a brief season of Ordinary Time prior to Lent. I think it is important to point things like this out because the liturgical year is, or at least ought to be, the heart of Christian life, that is, spirituality.

Ending Christmas with our celebration of Jesus's baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan makes a lot of sense. The season takes us from Jesus's birth in an animal shelter, through his childhood and youth, to the beginning of his public ministry. Each year we observe the Paschal Mystery precisely by observing the seasons and celebrations of the liturgical year. I apologize in advance for the disjointed nature of what is to follow. This week, as I have been thinking about posting this reflection, I have experienced a flood of thoughts that have prompted various connections and affinities. The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is an extremely important liturgical observance. As such, the message conveyed via the homily should be suitably prepared and well-delivered. When used properly, this feast can mark a very nice transition from our observance of Christmas to our call to mission.

It's important to point out that Jesus wasn't baptized by John merely to set a good example, showing his followers what to do in imitation. In Jesus's baptism the orders of grace and nature, once again, merge. This merging is the result of a collision. You see, when Jesus went down into the waters of the Jordan it was no so much that he got wet as it was that the waters got "Jesus'd."

Because the waters got Jesus'd, we can be reborn as God's children through the waters of baptism. Hearkening back to our participation in the Paschal Mystery through our celebration of the liturgies of the liturgical year, taking our cue from Saint Paul, in baptism we died, were buried, and rose with Christ to new life (see Romans 6:4-5; these verses constitute the heart of the epistle reading each year for the great Paschal/Easter Vigil). Paul goes on to note that in light of our dying, being buried, rising with Christ, "we believe that we shall also live with him" (Romans 6:8). Stated differently: eternal life is not the life that begins after mortal death, it starts at baptism!

Baptism is the fount of Christian life, not ordination. I am so happy Pope Francis grasps and teaches this so explicitly and so often. He is quite right to both come out against the clericialization of laity and to insist upon something that might be described as the "laicization" (of sorts) of the clergy. Those of us who are ordained are empowered by the sacrament of orders to serve our sisters and brothers and for no other reason. Our service is to facilitate their priestly vocation given in baptism, by means of which they, too, participate in Jesus's priestly, prophetic, and royal ministry. As Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution of the Church sets this forth:
the laity, by their very vocation, 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. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer (sec. 31)
This is why everyone who receives the sacrament of orders is ordained a deacon. Before there is sacrifice there must be service.

Like baptism and ordination, confirmation also imprints those who receive it with an indelible mark. It's easy to miss that in our Gospel reading today, Jesus is not only baptized but is confirmed too. His confirmation, according to Matthew, happens when the voice of the Father is heard to say- "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased"- and the Holy Spirit alights upon him in the form of a dove (see Matthew 3:16-17). What is confirmed? His divine Sonship. It's the same for you, my friend. When you were confirmed, in addition to receiving a fuller outpouring of the Holy Spirit, your baptismal identity as God's child through your rebirth in baptism was confirmed and strengthened. Just he does in his Only Begotten Son, the Father delights in you!

It was Nicholas Afanasiev, a Russian Orthodox theologian, in his still remarkable book The Church of the Holy Spirit, who insisted there are no unordained members of Christ's Church. Writing from an Eastern Christian perspective, for Afanasiev, this is true both infants and adults receive all three sacraments of initiation (i.e., baptism, confirmation, Eucharist) in succession during the same liturgy. In the Western Church, of course, unless there is a danger of death or other similarly expedient circumstance, people who are baptized as infants are not confirmed and do not receive the Eucharist until they've reached the age of reason. So, at least from the perspective of Latin Christianity, there are some unordained Church members- those who are baptized (perhaps even communed- communion before confirmation is utterly incoherent sacramentally- different subject) but not confirmed. Ideally, there remain no unordained Christians. It is important to complete one's Christian initiation.

In light of Afanasiev's observation that there are no unordained Church members, instead of referring to Christians who have not received the sacrament of orders as "the laity," he calls them "laics" (Church of the Holy Spirit, 25). As one can quickly see, this brings the appellation in line with the designation "clerics." It is interesting to point out that Afanasiev is the only Orthodox theologian cited in documents of the Second Vatican Council (See Ambrose Mong's Purification of Memory: A Study of Orthodox Theologians from a Catholic Perspective, 33).

It also bears noting there is a close affinity between confirmation and diaconal ordination. This affinity is clearly shown in the prayer over the confirmandi when compared to the prayer of diaconal ordination. Unlike priests and bishops, deacons are not anointed when ordained. Rather, the anointing deacons received in confirmation is further deepened and transformed, thus empowering deacons to serve others in Christ's name for the sake of God's kingdom. By way of a note, I explored the connection between confirmation and diaconal ordination at some depth in my recently-completed doctoral dissertation. As I am prone to write and say often: just there is a priesthood of all the baptized, there is a diaconate of all the baptized.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of our Christian faith because by pulling up your chair at the one table of word and sacrament, you are instructed and strengthened, in a word, equipped, to fulfill your priestly, prophetic, and royal ministry. This why observing the liturgical year is so vital. In our age, we run the risk of reducing Christian formation to mere information. We are awash in information, which is proving more of a challenge than a boon. Because Christian formation is mystagogical, the liturgy and the observance of the liturgical year are vitally important.

Far from dead ritualism, liturgy, at least when participated in fully and actively, is life in the Spirit. This Spirit-filled life spills over the walls and out the doors of the Church like a great wave of the water Christ sanctified when he Jesus'd it at his baptism. Through these life-giving waters, we, too, are Jesus'd. In turn, we are to Jesus the world. As someone stated recently, "There go the Christians Jesus'ing up the place!" May we "Jesus up the place" by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit so our witness is effective and not off-putting.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Politics, ideology, worship

I don't know about you, but 2020 seems like it's already been a long year! The thought of an ever-increasing focus on the general election here in the U.S. exhausts me. I have to say, since around my birthday, which is on Veteran's Day, I have never adhered more to Vaclav Havel's "antipolitical" politics. What we have today, as has been the case in modern world at every time of upheaval, is not politics per se but ideology. Recently, a friend described ideology very succinctly and accurately: "the rationalization of sentiments and prejudices."

This same friend went on to note that very often we
confuse prejudices with "ideology." What we take to be prejudices are the ones that have been ideologically hardened. A "real" prejudice is unconscious and unrationalized. A taken for granted belief. When such belief can no longer be taken for granted, you either relax and be humble, realizing that belief is not science and even doubting yourself a little, or you dig in and find your way back not so much to a certainty that never existed, but to a state where what questions the prejudice is dealt with. Ideology is the way to deal with what threatens your prejudice by way of arguments
Ideology, therefore, is very prevalent in both religion and politics. This, it seems to me, is one of the main reasons we often try to avoid discussing either one, at least with people we know don't agree with us.

Culture is the instrument of antipolitical politics. Again, this has to be dealt rather carefully because culture, too, can become a vehicle of ideology.

Well, in any case, I continue not to identify as Democrat or a Republican. I am certainly not a communist. When you get right down to it, while I might land somewhere on the far right of the socialist spectrum relative to politics in the United States, I am really not a socialist either. I simply insist on determining what is a public good and what is a private good and then not subjecting the former to markets. Education and healthcare, it seems to me, are clearly public goods. Both higher education and healthcare, which are currently left to market forces, as anyone paying the slightest bit of attention can see, at the current rate are unsustainable for much longer. I think there should be no unregulated markets.

Anyway, that's a lot to think about on a Friday morning. Perhaps it's too much.

Despite the fact that it's still Christmas, today is a penitential Friday. I am going with Greg LaFollette's "Hosanna" from his lovely album Songs of Common Prayer as our second traditio for 2020. May God bless you with an epiphany his presence today.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Epiphany of the Lord

Readings: Isa 60:1-6; Ps 72:1-2.7-8.10-11.12-13; Eph 3:2-3a.5-6; Matt 2:1-12

Epiphany may seem like a strange time to focus on Jesus’s Jewishness but it strikes me this year as the perfect occasion. In light of today’s Gospel reading, it seems important to draw attention to the fact that the magi came from the East looking not “for the universal savior, but only for the ‘king of the Jews.”1 Further, the Jewish priests explaining to Herod that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, cited the prophet Micah: “And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah … a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.”2 Note that this prophecy does not foresee the one born in Bethlehem as “the shepherd of all people,” but “for [God’s] people Israel.”3

It is no exaggeration to say that the Church is Israel-extended, not superseded. In and through Christ, by the Spirit’s power, God’s Covenant made initially with Israel, is open to everyone. In its essence, this Covenant, which is repeated no fewer than seven times in the Jewish Scriptures is “I will be your God and you will be my people.”4 In passing, it is worth pointing out that in the Bible, both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in our uniquely Christian Scriptures, seven is the number of perfection.

As Saint Paul makes clear in his Letter to the Romans, in their relationship to the Jews, Gentile (i.e., non-Jewish believers) “are like branches grafted on to the roots and the trunk of the tree of God’s Covenant.”5 God’s Covenant with the Jewish people is irrevocable.

As Christians, we view the New Testament as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. As the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation states: “God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New.”6

The great twentieth century theologian, Karl Barth, in his magisterial work, Church Dogmatics, pointed out:
The Word did not simply become any “flesh.” … It became Jewish flesh. … The Church’s whole doctrine of the incarnation and atonement becomes abstract and valueless and meaningless to the extent that [Jesus’ Jewishness] comes to be regarded as something accidental and incidental7
In Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus himself tells the woman at the well: “salvation is from the Jews.”8

Of course, Jesus is both the universal Savior and shepherd of all people. He is, in fact, King of the Universe. But he is only these things because he is first Israel’s Messiah, David’s descendant, the King of the Jews, as the inscription on his cross mockingly yet accurately noted.9

Every epiphany is an apocalypse. This is demonstrated by Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem after the departure of the magi and by Jesus being nailed to the cross. This is why it strikes me as strange that we reserve the word “apocalypse” for the end of the world. Jesus’s Incarnation is itself an apocalypse, an event “so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma” on the world, which "long lay... in sin and error pining."10

Essentially, “apocalypse” refers to an unveiling of something previously hidden. It was not intuitively obvious to the casual observer that Jesus of Nazareth was the Only Begotten Son, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, in the flesh. But those with eyes to see and ears to hear experience this Epiphany.

To experience an Epiphany is not only to see the of God in Christ but experience the revelation of yourself to yourself.11 Such an encounter cannot help but change you in a way similar to how the patriarch Jacob was changed. After his wrestling match with God, he walked away with both a permanent limp and a new name: Israel.12

“The Bible is very easy to understand,” observed Søren Kirkegaard.13 “But we Christians,” he continues, “… pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly.”14 If we permit ourselves to understand God’s word, to be challenged by it, our apocalypse, Kierkegaard continues, “is nothing else but faith right in the middle of actual life and weekdays.”15

What do I mean? Take something from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, found a few chapters on from our reading today in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, from the section known as the “Theses and antitheses.”16 In the example I have in mind, the Lord introduces the thesis and then gives the antithesis: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (thesis). “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (antithesis).17

It is by loving your enemies, Jesus insists, that you become “children of your heavenly father” who “makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”18 Failing to do this, Jesus likewise insists, makes you no different from everyone else. This gets back to the one Covenant God seeks to enter into with the whole of humanity, at least as it is expressed through the prophet Jeremiah: “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”19

Living in this apocalyptic way is how others can experience their own epiphany through you. This is what it means to be the “missionary disciples” we are all called to be in light of our baptism, in and through which we died, were buried, rose with Christ.20 According to Saint Paul, this happened so that “we too might live in newness of life.”21 This newness of life is the apocalypse, the unveiling of God’s kingdom in the world, that results from our encounter with, or epiphany of, he who died and rose again.

1 Mark Galli, “Killing Jesus’ Brothers and Sisters: Why did we turn on the Jews so quickly? And what do we do about it now?; Matthew 2:2.
2 Matthew 2:6; Micah 5:1.
3 “Killing Jesus’ Brothers and Sisters.
4 See Genesis 17:7; Exodus 6:7; Ezekiel 34:24; Ezekiel 36:28; Jeremiah 7:23; Jeremiah 30:22; Jeremiah 31:33.
5 Romans 11:17-18; “Killing Jesus’ Brothers and Sisters.
6 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation [Dei Verbum], sec. 16.
7 “Killing Jesus’ Brothers and Sisters.
8 John 4:22.
9 Matthew 27:37.
10 John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek, Creston Davis, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology, 7; “O Holy Night.”
11 Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes], sec. 22.
12 See Genesis 32:22-33.
13 Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, 201.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid., 279.
16 See Mathhew 5:21-48.
17 Matthew 5:43-44.
18 Matthew 5:45.
19 Jeremiah 7:23.
20 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, sec. 119.
21 Romans 6:4.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Time runs like a river

The liturgical memorial of the Most Holy Name of Jesus marks the first Friday of this New Year. Today's memorial was preceded yesterday by the Feast of Saints Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, two of the three great Cappadocian Fathers. Christmas is a rich season in terms of the liturgical year. Today is the first penitential day of 2020.

It's strange to think that as of 1 January 2020 I have been alive in 7 decades (1960s, 1970s, 1980s. 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s). I know, I know some people insist that decades run from 1-(1)0, like 2021-2030, but I think most of us are comfortable reckoning a decades from 0-9, as in 2020-2029. I know I am repetitive in this regard, but dear Lord does time fly! It seems to pick up speed the older I get. I also know this phenomenon is not unique to me.

Nonetheless, I paddle my canoe on the rapids of time's river. What I like about time markers is that they come whether I am ready or not. I take solace in the fact that every day, at least in a sense, is New Year's day. For example, in one year (366 days in this instance, due to this year being a Leap Year), it will be 3 January 2021. This is liberating thought, especially for those of us who make New Year's resolutions or set new goals.

Apparently, because I am a cleric, I am not supposed to share any of my emotional struggles. In the minds of such people I guess I am supposed to be a doctrinal automaton of some sort. Truth be told, apart from blogging once in awhile in general terms about how depression sometimes afflicts me, I don't write much about my interior struggles. I only write in general terms about depression because I know it helps other people who struggle as well. In terms of everything I post here on Καθολικός διάκονος, at the start of this New Year, I refer all readers to my "Integrity Notes" page. This has been on my blog for many years. In short, virtually everything about which I write here falls under the caveat "In my opinion..." Agree, disagree, don't give a tinker's dam as you please.

I any case, I would be remiss not to post a traditio for this first Friday of the New Year. Given the issue that prompts certain negative reactions, our traditio is Dido with a very lovely acoustic cover of Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy." It's a story that's sadly been repeated many, many times.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God

Readings: Num 6:22-27; Ps 67:2-3.5-6.8; Gal 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21

While today we stand on the threshold of the New Year we also find ourselves in the middle of the Christmas season. The Incarnation of God’s Only Begotten Son is too important to celebrate with only one day. Of course, during the latter part of Advent and throughout the Christmas season, Mary, the Mother of God, figures prominently.

The Blessed Virgin Mary occupies a very unique place in the divine economy of salvation. As Christians, we venerate the saints, those holy women and men who have gone before us, lighting the path along the Church’s pilgrim way. Our technical term for this is “veneration.” The Greek word for "veneration" is dulia. In accord with the first commandment, we worship only God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit, and God alone. “Worship” is denoted by the Greek word latreia.

Just as parents, even absent or dead parents, occupy a unique space in the lives of their children, between God and other people, the Blessed Virgin Mary occupies a unique space in the divine economy. As Catholics, the Church is our Mater et Magistra (i.e., our Mother and Teacher). At the very end of the speech with which he brought the Second Vatican Council to a close, Pope Saint Paul VI declared Mary Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church).1

It is important, especially in our day, to understand that “the Church” is not just the hierarchy, but the entire People of God. And so, because Mary is Mother of the Church, she is our Mother too. This is made clear in Scripture. In Saint John’s account of Jesus’s crucifixion, as he hung the cross, Jesus seeing his mother “and the disciple there whom he loved,” said to Mary: “Woman, behold, your son.”2 “Then he said to the disciple,” who stands for the Church, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.”3

In honor of her unique place in God’s plan of salvation, while we do not worship Mary, we more than venerate her, as Christians have from the Church’s beginning. Here’s another Greek word for you: hyperdulia. If dulia means “venerate,” then hyperdulia means just what it sounds like it means: hyper-, or super-veneration!

While immaculately conceived, Mary is a creature like us. While we do not worship her we do pray to her, trusting her intercession. In fact, the fruit of the fifth and final of the Glorious Mysteries- her Coronation as Queen of Heaven- is trust in her intercession. Precisely because Mary is our Mother, we can entrust our prayers and petitions to her in the confidence she will intercede for us.

Because Christ is the Prince of Peace, Mary, his Mother, is the Queen of Peace. In conjunction with today’s solemnity, the Catholic Church also observes the World Day of Peace. In his Sermon on the Mount, the Lord taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”4

In his message for this year’s World Day of Peace, Pope Francis stated:
The world does not need empty words but convinced witnesses, peacemakers who are open to a dialogue that rejects exclusion or manipulation. In fact, we cannot truly achieve peace without a convinced dialogue between men and women who seek the truth beyond ideologies and differing opinions5
It is Good News, my friends, that because “God sent his son” to ransom us from the law, by virtue of our rebirth in baptism, we have received adoption as God’s children.6 As a result, like Jesus, we can call God, “Abba, Father.”7 How blessed we are to call Mary our Mother, she who continually reflected on the glorious events of her son’s birth.8

I think the first homily of the New Year should contain some practical advice, which I will give by way of a challenge. From today through 31 December 2020, I urge you to pray the Rosary daily. Because 2020 is Leap Year, this means praying 366 Rosaries during this time. By “praying the Rosary,” I mean praying a full five decades, one complete set of mysteries. In addition to your own petitions, I ask you bring to our Blessed Mother petitions for our parish, our pastor, and those who are on our parish prayer list.

And so, as we begin not only a New Year but a new decade:
The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!9
Holy Mary, Mother of God, as we begin this New Year, pray for us.

1 Address of Pope Paul VI During the Last General Meeting of the Second Vatican Council, 7 December 1965.
2 John 19:26.
3 John 19:27.
4 Matthew 5:9.
5 Pope Francis, Message for the Celebration of the 53rd World Day of Peace.
6 Galatians 4:4-5.
7 Galatians 4:7.
8 Luke 2:19.
9 Numbers 6:24.26.

Year B Third Sunday of Easter

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