Friday, February 28, 2020

First Friday of Lent

During Lent, I hope to take some time to re-think what happens in this cyber-space, when it happens, as well as how often it happens. I realize that blogging is now an old from of new media, which is fine. At least to me and for now, it seems like something worth doing. I will still post my homilies and reflections on the Sunday readings on those weeks I don't preach. I may add a note here or there on spirituality, theology, politics, philosophy, or any number of topics. I am thinking about posting something mid-week instead of on Fridays. The traditio may go.

I was slated to spend most of the next two weeks in Rome. But I am not going due to concerns over the worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus. With children still at home, the possibility of being quarantined for two weeks beyond the time we were going to gone was not a risk we felt we could take. Keep in mind, Italy is one of the countries that is dealing with this disease, which I expect to be declared a pandemic. While I was a little anxious about the trip, I was starting to get excited. Hopefully, we can recoup some of our loss and make it another time in the not-too-distant future.

I am giving up going to Rome for Lent. So, apart from fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as well as abstaining from meat on Lenten Fridays (I abstain from meat on Fridays year around, except on solemnities and during the octaves of Easter and Christmas) and contributing to the Lenten Rice Bowl, I don't plan to give up anything else or, frankly, take up much else this year for Lent.

At least to some extent and relative to past years, I am giving up Lent for Lent. Besides, given the start we're off to in 2020, life has a kind of Lenten feel for me right now.

While I've used it before, albeit years ago, I think U2's "Walk On" is a good, very good, traditio for this First Friday of Lent.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Ash Wednesday

Readings: Joel 2:12-18; Ps 51:1-6b.12-13-14.17; 2 Cor 5:20-6:2: Matt 6:1-6.16-18

In light of what we just heard from Matthew’s Gospel, the irony of coming forward and having ashes smeared on your forehead should not be lost on you. Is it a contradiction? Is it a contravention of Jesus’s command? While it is good and right to begin the holy season of Lent by participating in Mass, it might surprise you to learn that Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation.

Something else that bears noting is that the ashes you receive as a mark of your desire to “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” while blessed last Palm Sunday, have no magical powers.1 It is also important to point out something Jason Micheli, a Methodist minister noted this week: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” isn’t “a verse from 'Circle of Life.’ It’s not an observation about your mortality. It’s a recitation of God’s curse.”2

As a result of their disobedience, God tells Adam and Eve- “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”3 You see, there is no circle of life in God’s creative plan. “Death is not natural. Death is a consequence.”4 As a result, Ash Wednesday is not about what all can know apart from revelation, the fact of our mortality, but what only Christians can know by revelation, that death is the wage owed to the Pharaoh called Sin.”5

In addition to being a mark of our desire to repent, receiving ashes is an act of hope. You see, we don’t enter into Lent pretending that Easter has not already happened. We begin Lent in the knowledge and with the assurance that Christ suffered, died, and rose from the dead to pay the debt we owe.

We are not just marked with ashes. We are marked with the sign of the cross. This tells us that “we are infinitely more than dust. We are God’s beloved, and nothing—not even death—can separate us from God’s love through Jesus Christ.”6

In an Ash Wednesday homily delivered many years ago, Passionist Father Harry Williams insisted that
It is a pity that we think of Lent as a time when we try to make ourselves uncomfortable in some fiddling but irritating way. And it’s more than a pity, it’s a tragic disaster, that we also think of it as a time to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee in each of us we call God and who despises the rest of what we are
Far from despising you, God, who reveals himself as Father through Jesus Christ, loves you. He couldn’t love you more than he loves you right now, just as you are. “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.”7

Have you ever had a teacher, a coach, a boss, a friend who inspires you to be a better person not by goading you or urging you to be better, let alone criticizing you in the hope you will take her criticisms to heart and change, but by loving you because you’re you, encouraging you, rooting for you? This is how friendship with Jesus works. As Saint Paul wrote to the Christian community in ancient Rome:
For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us8
This is why I suggest that you subject any Lenten discipline you undertake to a threefold criteria:

1) “Is this practice going to bring me to a place of deeper preparedness for Good Friday, for Easter Sunday, for the mystery of Easter? Is it going to help me enter into this mystery a little more deeply?”
2) “Is it going bring a helpful intensity to my relationship with Christ?”
3) “will it deepen the quality of my relationships with other people, particularly those closest to me and those perhaps in pain.”9

Lent, as our readings indicate, is about intensifying practices in which we should be engaged all the time: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. What about fasting? While today is not a holy day of obligation in terms of participating in Mass, Catholics are obligated to fast. Are you fasting today? If so, Why? If not, Why not?

The best reasons for fasting during Lent is to pray better and to serve others more. Hence, you should fast from those things that stand in the way of doing those things, foregoing that which inhibits your relationship with Christ and with other people, especially those closest to you and those who are suffering.

The point of Lent is not just to “be good” for six weeks or so and then return to your old way of life. The purpose of Lent is to repent in anticipation of renewing your baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil when you will be asked: “Do you renounce Satan? And all his works? And all his empty show?”10

To repent, then, means to live the new life Christ gave you in baptism when you died, were buried and rose with him to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.11 As we prepare to receive ashes as a sign of hope, may we, by the power of that same Spirit, convey that hope by walking in newness of life.

1 Roman Missal, “Ash Wednesday.”
2 Jason Micheli, “Chocolate? Fuggedaboutit – This Lent Choose Failure”; Roman Missal, “Ash Wednesday.”
3 Genesis 3:19.
4 “Chocolate? Fuggedaboutit.”
5 Ibid.
6 Trevor Hudson, Pauses for Lent: 40 Word for 40 Days, “Day 1- Ash Wednesday”; Romans 8:38.
7 1 John 4:10.
8 Romans 5:6-8.
9 Renovaré podcast, Trevor Hudson- “The Litmus Test for Lent.”
10 Roman Missal, “The Easter Vigil,” sec. 55.
11 Romans 6:4- part of the epistle reading at The Easter Vigil.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Year A Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Lev. 19:1-2.17-18; Ps 103:1-; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Matt 5:38-48

When it comes to dealing with the difficult teachings of Jesus often our first move is to tame them, water them down. This is often done under the euphemism of contextualizing them. In other words, despite no evidence of this in the sacred text, we insist that terms and conditions apply.

The provocative truth, dear friends, is that terms and conditions usually do not apply. In other words, Jesus meant what he said. Sure, he sometimes used both irony and, in the case of last week’s Gospel concerning plucking out your eye and cutting of your hand, hyperbole, typically his “Yes’ means “Yes” and his “No” means “No.”1

As his followers, Jesus challenges us more often than he comforts us. It is by taking up his challenge, which requires a radical act of trust in him, that we find the comfort only Jesus can give, the peace that passes all understanding. Otherwise, we are simply seeking what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

Cheap grace, according to Bonhoeffer, “means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.”2 Seeking to clarify what he means by cheap grace, Bonhoeffer, writing in a more sarcastic tone, employs a reductio ad absurdum:
Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin3
Bonhoeffer’s point is that while God’s grace given us in Christ is truly free (i.e., you don’t deserve it and you can’t earn it), it requires something of the one who accepts it. What is required of the one who has received grace? To extend that same grace to others. We acknowledge this each time we utter this phrase from the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”4 But for the person who has truly accepted the grace offered her in Christ Jesus, this is not so much an obligation as it is a deep desire.

There is nothing cheap about the grace God offers us through the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation, which are made possible by Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection. Saint Paul, a few chapters on from our second reading, told the Christians in ancient Corinth: “you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.”5 The price with which you were purchased was the crucifixion of the sinless Son of God.

The exhortation to “glorify God in your body” means nothing other than what you say and do matter. At the end of Mass you are dismissed: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”6 Jesus says that you glorify the Father not only by forgiving your enemies but by loving and praying for them.7 As the one who has done the hard work of forgiving and loving someone who has wronged him knows, this comes at a cost. There is nothing cheap about it.

Our first reading, taken from Leviticus, comes from the heart of what is known as the “Holiness Code.” Across the five major discourses around which his Gospel is structured, Matthew presents Jesus as a lawgiver, like Moses. No doubt a passage from Deuteronomy undergirds Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus. In this passage, Moses tells the Israelites: “A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kindred; that is the one to whom you shall listen.”8

The words Jesus speaks in our Gospel today echo the words of the Torah, which reveal that to be holy as God is holy means nothing less than loving your neighbor as you love yourself.9 Too often, when we think of holiness, we think like the pagans or those still living under the law. In other words, holiness becomes about theories and abstractions or, worse yet, some kind of implied magic- “If I do x, then y will result.” But as the Torah and Jesus himself make clear, holiness subverts the retaliation that, in our self-deception, we often disguise as justice.

This subversion consists of breaking the lex talionis, the law of retaliation, which urges an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. In the movie Fiddler on the Roof, when a fellow villager urges Tevye to seek an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the milkman responds: “Very well. That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.”10

What this comes down to is choosing grace over karma. In an interview some years ago, Bono of U2, after acknowledging the reality of karma, which holds that you get what you deserve, asserted, “along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that ‘As you reap, so will you sow’ stuff.” He goes on to state that “Grace defies reason and logic.” "Love," he continues, "interrupts… the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff… I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge… It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own [righteousness].”11

It stands to reason that if I want grace for myself, I had better want it for others too. “To be a Christian” C.S. Lewis observed, “means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”12

As he aged, I used to tease a friend who was a priest from Ireland, not to contract Irish Alzheimer’s. The result of this spiritual disease is forgetting everything except your grudges. Let’s face it, it is human, all too human, not only hold onto and nurse our grudges, but we sometimes, as alluded to in our first reading, "cherish" them. As we do this, it very often happens that we become more and more convinced of our own righteousness and the wickedness of the one who wronged us. Of course, this blinds us to the ways we have wronged others, or leads to the rationalization that, “Well, that’s different.” But the only real difference is that when it comes to your own wrongdoing, it’s not you who was harmed, offended, or belittled.

What Jesus asks of his followers in today’s Gospel is not easy to do. In fact, left to our own devices and without God’s grace we are probably not capable, or even inclined, to do what the Lord asks. But Jesus is clear, refusing to do this renders you a non-Christian. He asks: “if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?”13 Of course, the answer to the first question is “None.” And the answer to the second question is “Yes.”

I’d be a liar if I left you with the impression that this any easier for me than it is for you. It’s not. If you don’t believe me, ask Holly, she can give you the dirt on the Deacon. My point, sisters and brothers, is that we need each other so that we can help each other. If our parish is not a community in which forgiveness and reconciliation are regularly put into practice- this only begins in the little room at the back of our Church- then whatever else we might be, we’re not a Christian community. This is why the early Christian communities were frequently exhorted
to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace…14

1 Matthew 5:37.
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R.H. Fuller, Touchstone: New York, 43.
3 Ibid., 44.
4 Roman Missal, "The Order of Mass," sec. 124.
5 1 Corinthians 6:20.
6 Roman Missal, "The Order of Mass," sec. 144.
7 Matthew 5:44.
8 Deuteronomy 18:15.
9 Leviticus 19:18.
10 Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Norman Jewison, 1971.
11 All quotes in this paragraph from “10 Brilliant Things Bono has said about God.”
12 From The Weight of Glory.
13 Matthew 5:46.
14 Ephesians 4:1b-3.

Friday, February 21, 2020

"And grace my fears relieved..."

Forty years I endured that generation.
I said, "They are a people whose hearts go astray
and they do not know my ways."
So I swore in my anger,
"They shall not enter into my rest"- Psalm 95:10-11)
This is closing strophe of the Psalm that normatively is used as the Invitatory for the Liturgy of the Hours. In the Roman Catholic Liturgy, one may substitute several other Psalms for this but Psalm 95 is usually the one. Personally, I use Psalm 95 most of the year. I typically choose another Invitatory for Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter.

The other morning, which followed a difficult evening, I was reflecting on the final lines of Psalm 95. After a few minutes, I applied it myself. "Fifty-four years I endured Scott. I said, 'He is a person whose heart goes astray and he does not know my ways." So I swore in my anger, 'He shall not enter into my rest.'" By "difficult evening," I mean I did and said somethings I should not have said or done. So, I was feeling guilty. Guess what? Guilt is good if it helps me to repent.

No sooner did I finish that mercifully short but rather sobering reflection than another passage from Sacred Scripture entered my mind:
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light- Matthew 11:28-30
As if that wasn't enough, I am currently reading as part of my morning devotional Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. After connecting Jesus's invitation to give me rest when I was feeling burdened, I read the 42nd selection in this compilation of Kierkegaard's writings, edited by Charles E. Moore. It is titled "When the Burden Is Light." This selection is taken from Kierkegaard's Upbuilding Discourse in Various Spirits. Here's the main passage I underlined: "It is to this meekness, to this gentle courage that Christ calls us. And what else is meekness except, as it was for Christ on the cross, to carry the heavy burden lightly, just as impatience and sullenness carry the the light burden so heavily."

And so, with Saint Paul:
I am not all I should be, but I am bringing all my energies to bear on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us up to heaven because of what Christ Jesus did for us (Phil 3:13-14- The Living Bible)
Suffice for me to write that I am glad Christ carried the burden I could never bear. Nonetheless, I still find the going heavy at times and I long for a rest. Jesus is always willing to give me rest. How come I keep forgetting this? Because I am weak and forgetful. Jesus never forgets me and, when I condemn myself, he gives me reprieve. This is grace.

What else can our Friday traditio be? Jesus, thank you for helping me see your goodness, your love, your care. Help me to extend all of these to others.

Lest this all sounds too perfect- it was a lovely, radiant morning- all my troubles have not disappeared. The rest of this week has been a slog. I still seem intent on carrying around my light burden heavily. As Van Morrison asked, "When Will I Ever Learn?" And so it goes.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

God's love is unimaginable

Readings: Sir 15:15-20; Ps 119:12.4-5.17-18.33-34; 1 Cor 2:6-10; Matt 5:17-37

The Church's readings for this Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time can easily lead to an unhelpful moralism. Sadly, as explicated in homilies, they very often do. Keeping the commandments will, indeed, save you. In making this assertionyou must keep two things in mind. First, you have not kept God's commandments. As Saint Paul states it in his Letter to the Romans: "all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). This ought to alert you to the fact that you cannot save yourself.

Keeping God's commandments, as Jesus demonstrates in today's Gospel reading, is not simply a matter of doing this and not doing that. No! What motivates your doing or not doing matters as much, or perhaps more than what you do or do not. Stated simply, it is always a matter of your heart. Why? is the most human of all questions. When it comes to following Jesus, why always matters more than what.

It is important to be clear: God's commandments are not ends in themselves but means to the end of loving God with all your being by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. At least on my reading, this seems to be the fundamental point of dispute between Jesus and his interlocutors most of the time. I think this is particularly true in Matthew's Gospel.

In his insightful book, Matthew's Christian-Jewish Community, Anthony Saldarini insists that "Matthew presents Jesus as an observant Jew who teaches others by word and example to observe faithfully the will and law of God" (177). What I think is important about Saldarini's statement is that God's will is not necessarily intuitively found in God's law. In other words, it's pretty easy to do the right thing for the wrong reason(s).

It is in his first (of five) major discourse- the so-called "Sermon on the Mount"- that Jesus both "affirms (5:17-19) and reinterprets (5:21-6:18) the law" (Matthew's Christian-Jewish Community, 177). Our Gospel today contains both the Lord's affirmation of the law and a significant portion of his reinterpretation of it. Part of his reinterpretation consists of what are called the "theses and antitheses." The thesis is "You have heard that it was said..." The antithesis is "But I say to you..." It's pretty noticeable that far from watering down the law, Jesus significantly ramps it up by pulling in the why, thus making it a matter of the heart, an interior disposition.

By Marc Chagall

About the matter of divorce, under the law it was permissible for a man to divorce his wife. Depending on which school of Jewish jurisprudence one adhered to it was easier or more difficult to do this. In anticipation of what he will teach later on concerning divorce (see Matthew 19:1-12), in this part of his first major discourse, Jesus teaches that divorce, at least by-and-large, is not permissible. An example of an "unlawful" marriage would be one that violates the degrees of consanguinity or affinity (i.e., one could not marry someone who was married to a close relative. An example of unlawful marriage can be found in Matthew: Herod the tetrarch's marriage to Herodias, who had been married to his brother Philip (see Matthew 14:3-5).

In each of these instances, Jesus considerably ups the ante, as it were.

The second thing to keep in mind- this is the good news- Jesus Christ is the one who has kept all of God's commandments, the blessed one who follows the law of the Lord. Hence, he is the one who can save you. He is the one in whom you can place your trust and live. Presumably, it is to place your trust in Jesus, who is true God of true God, that you go to Mass and receive communion. It is the grace so imparted that strengthens you to follow God's law, to love others as the Father has loved you by sending his Son.

It is Jesus, by his passion, death, and resurrection, who overcomes evil and death (Sir 15:17). Therefore, trust in God by choosing Christ and live.

"In this is love," the Sacred Scriptures tell us: "not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins" (1 John 1:10). While striving to observe God's law in your less-than-perfect way cannot save you, seeking to love your neighbor as you love yourself out of gratitude for the love the Father lavishes on you through his Son by the power of their Spirit is what it means to be converted by love into one who loves.

As Saint Paul insists, what God has prepared for those who love him is beyond human imagining.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Valentine's Day: a reflection on choosing (to) love

To state that Valentine's Day is a minor holiday for me is to overstate the importance I attach to the day. I suppose taking a day to celebrate romantic love is not necessarily a bad thing. That said, I don't mind admitting I have a very complicated relationship with romantic love. You see, as a young man, most of my "love" was unrequited or even flat-out rejected. Let's just say I was never a ladies man of any sort. That's alright because, frankly, I never wanted to be one.

Oddly, these experiences, painful as they were during my adolescence, enabled me to be friends with women. Frankly, some of my best friends, even now, are women. I am always puzzled by people who insist that men and women cannot or, more importantly, should not be personal friends. I disagree heartily. Besides, I am not so vain as to think all women are magnetically attracted to me, not by a long shot! Of course, this also holds true for my male friends who are gay. Nonetheless, as I moved into my twenties, began my university studies, and became Catholic, I more or less gave up on "love."

Then, just as I was on the verge of entering the Dominican House of Studies in Oakland, California, I met someone. This someone, oddly enough, was interested in me. Yes, me. It was a very disorienting experience. Like all important things in my life, this conundrum was not resolved quickly. For the next two-plus years I teetered between joining a religious order and entering into the sacrament of matrimony. At one point, I broke off my relationship, determined to pursue the former.

The difficulty I had discerning arose from the fact that I was faced with the choice between two very good things. I remember how the answer came. Late one night, as I studied, my mind drifted. It dawned on me that I was free to decide. It was my choice. In retrospect, I am not sure why I thought there is one choice right for me and the other one wrong. Even slightly more whacky was the thought I had that somehow, someway, God would make clear to me, crystal clear, which was right and which was wrong for me.

Looking back at it all nearly thirty years later, there was no wrong choice, even for me. I must say that being married and being a parent, neither of which comes very naturally to me, making me mediocre at either when I am at my very best, have probably been a better school of love for me than religious would've been. I think I would've taken to life as a member of a religious order with an active apostolate like a duck to water. My relationship to married life, on the other hand, is more like that of a fish to dry land.

I am glad I chose what for me is the more difficult path. I have no doubt that Christ has been with me, especially in my self-recognized failures. Helping me with the aid of his Holy Spirit to love others, my wife, my children, like he loves me.

My diaconal vocation is not a consolation prize for not choosing priesthood and religious life. On the contrary, my vocation as a deacon arose organically from my prior participation in the sacrament of matrimony. I was pretty far into diaconal formation before I committed to being ordained a deacon. I am a much better deacon for being a husband and a father than I would otherwise be (not that I am a great deacon- but I do take my vocation seriously).

Anyway, I wish you all a happy liturgical memorial of Saints Cyril & Methodius (Saint Valentine did not make it onto the liturgical calendar after the Second Vatican Council).

What else would our Friday traditio for today be but Ol' Blue Eyes singing "Love and Marriage"?

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Year A Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 58:7-10; Ps 112:4-9; 1 Cor 1:26-31; Matt 5:13-16

In our Gospel readings for the past two Sundays, the theme of light has featured prominently. Two Sundays ago, we heard from Isaiah via Matthew, that “the people who sit darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has risen.”1 Then, last week, on the Feast of the Presentation, also known as "Candlemas," from Luke’s Gospel we heard the infant Jesus proclaimed by the old man Simeon as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”2

The theme of light seems fitting today as the days slowly grow longer but are still rather short. About now I suppose we all feel like we could use a little more light. The good news, my friends, is that there is a light that shines in darkness: Jesus Christ.

In today’s Gospel not only does Jesus tell us to shine his light on others, he tells us how to do it: by performing good deeds.3 As to which good deeds we are to perform, we can turn to our first reading from Isaiah: feeding the hungry, providing shelter to both the homeless and the oppressed, and clothing the naked.4

Giving shelter to the oppressed and downtrodden speaks directly to treating those who migrate, often fleeing dangerous and violent circumstances, not only with dignity but with compassion. Nothing is more “biblical” than welcoming the stranger from beginning to end. It is by performing such deeds that, according to the scripture, “your light shall break forth like the dawn.”5

Followers of Jesus can have no truck with the kind of unwelcoming nationalism that is growing more and more prevalent in our own country and throughout the world. This is not a political assertion. It is an assertion that arises from the heart of the Gospel as expressed in both the Scriptures and the Church’s magisterium.

For Christians, there is no “us” and “them.” There is only “us.” Where there remains a “them,” followers of Jesus seek to overcome the division by building fraternity in order to establish a civilization of love. Time and again Pope Francis has called on us to create a “culture of encounter.”

In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), which he insists is the charter of his pontificate, Pope Francis tells us that to truly encounter an Other means “to accept and esteem them as companions along the way, without interior resistance.”6 Moreover, the Holy Father continues, encountering the other “means learning to find Jesus in [their] faces…, in their voices, in their pleas.”7 If necessary, he asserts, we must be prepared to suffer “in the embrace of the crucified Jesus whenever we are unjustly attacked or meet with ingratitude, never tiring of our decision to live in fraternity.”8

Our responsorial today, taken from Psalm 112, sets forth what it means to be a righteous or just person, the kind of person we learn earlier in Saint Matthew’s Gospel Saint Joseph was.9 The righteous person is “merciful and just” and gives lavishly to the poor.10 This is why the just person “is a light in darkness.”11

Oftentimes we make the Gospel about many things. Like barnacles on a seaborne vessel, the Gospel sometimes is bogged down with many accretions, things that are secondary, tertiary, or beside the point altogether. We elevate secondary things while ignoring what is primary. Fundamentally, the Gospel of Jesus Christ consists of Two Great Commandments: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”12 According to Jesus in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”13

In fact, you love God with your entire being by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. Who is your neighbor? According to Søren Kierkegaard’s reading of the Gospel, you “neighbor is not your beloved, for whom you have passionate preference” or “the learned person with whom you have cultural affinity.” Your neighbor is not someone “who is of higher social status” than you neither is your neighbor your social inferior. Your neighbor is the one you encounter towards whom you have a duty, like the Good Samaritan who saw his duty in caring for the (presumably Jewish) man who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead.14

This, dear friends, is how you preach the Gospel. This is how the light of Christ shines in the darkness. This is how life stays savory instead of becoming bland and tasteless. The shortest route to dissatisfaction and unhappiness is living solely for yourself. To be a Christian, therefore, is to be a person oriented to the Other.

Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who was a friend of Pope John Paul II, insists that you only become human in and through encountering the Other. This “Other,” according to Levinas, is “the one who is helpless, destitute and needy.”15 Being moved by the neediness of this Other causes [you] to transcend [yourself], or, as Levinas states it: “The Other’s destitution makes me capable of a response, so ‘response-ability’ [for the Other] becomes the key what we call human existence.”16 In the end, Levinas insists: “I come to realize in taking care of others that I am experiencing the Infinite, the Other beyond all others, who is God.”17 This is just a way saying, again, you love God by loving your neighbor.

In a lovely song, “Distressing Disguise,” Michael Card sings about this very simply:
Every time a faithful servant serves
A [an Other] that's in need
What happens at that moment is a miracle indeed
As they look to one another in an instant it is clear
Only Jesus is visible, for they've both disappeared18
When you’re dismissed from this Mass, go and make Jesus visible.

1 Matthew 4:16; Isaiah 9:1.
2 Luke 2:32.
3 Matthew 5:16.
4 Isaiah 58:7.
5 Isaiah 58:8
6 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [The Joy of the Gospel], sec. 153..
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Matthew 1:19.
10 Psalm 112:4.9.
11 Psalm 112:4.
12 Matthew 22:37.39..
13 Matthew 22:40.
14 Søren Kierkegaard, “Neighbor Love,” trans. Howard and Edna Hong, in Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, ed. Charles E. Moore, 95-99.
15 William Donovan, Sacrament of Service: Understanding Diaconal Spirituality, 24.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
18 Michael Card, "Distressing Disguise."

Friday, February 7, 2020

Winter, avoiding the extremes while looking for Aslan

Right now, "dead of winter" best describes where I live. Predictably, we are receiving some heavy late-season snow. I find the snow refreshing even if cumbersome to remove and drive in. Yesterday was one of those days that looked like it would snow forever. Early yesterday evening I was out walking that very thought crossed my mind. No sooner did I wonder "Where is Aslan" than I looked to the West and saw a lovely sunset. This made me smile.

Seasons come and go. Each season has its beauties and perils. I have to say that I like the transitional seasons of Spring and Fall more than I like Winter and Summer. Winter and Summer "get old," to borrow a phrase. Maybe that is a sign that I am growing more temperate. If this is true regarding the weather, I hope it is also true regarding politics. As we make our way through life, most people learn that extremes should be avoided. The perspective from an extreme position is a distorted point-of-view.

Photograph from my evening walk yesterday

Yesterday, I read a column by Martin Kettle in the Guardian- "The Labour leadership election only matters if the party breaks with the past." What Kettle asserts certainly holds true for the United States. For this part of his editorial, Kettle relies on Chris Clarke's book on the Labour Party: Warring Factions. In order to win, Clarke insists that the U.K.'s Labour Party must overcome three obstacles: the "dark knight" myth, which "claims that politics is a Manichean struggle between the morally good in-group (in this case the Labour left) and the wicked and selfish centre and right (the Tories and all those who can be tarred with the neoliberal or Tory-lite labels that have become Labour’s curse). This, says Clarke, leads to a destructive exclusivist allure of identity, moral self-regard and complacency." Many supporters of Senator Sanders- though not the candidate himself- fall for this. In terms of practical politics, it is a losing approach. Someone can disagree you without being evil or morally deficient.

The next obstacle is the "puppetmaster" myth that insists "everything is ultimately a conspiracy against the public. In this view, the country is run by an elite of (sometimes foreign) magnates, media and deep-state agencies bent on crushing the public into submission to the status quo. As a result, incremental and reformist politics can be dismissed as hopeless." This, too, is a loser because most people fear rapid, radical change. By all means, support the candidate who most aligns with your own views, try to convince others to do so as well. If your candidate is way out ahead of public consensus, you may need to support a candidate who is on the same track but a slower train, one that makes more stops.

The third myth is that of a supposed "golden age." The "golden age" myth," which is prevalent in politics and religion is a loser because it is never possible to go backwards in time.

Extremism, as we see every day these days, is divisive and destructive. To give just one example: President Trump took the opportunity while speaking to the National Prayer Breakfast to criticize one of my senators, Mitt Romney, for using his faith as a "crutch" to justify voting to remove him from office on one of the two counts brought against him. I understand that any president might not be happy with the decision of a member of his own party to vote that way, politics being what they are. It seems that respect for the conscience of another person is very important. Under no circumstances should the National Prayer Breakfast be a venue in which someone's faith is attacked, especially when someone is seeking to apply his/her faith to carrying the duties of elected office.

C.S. Lewis himself, despite being forthright about certain of his views, was always very moderate. It seems to be hallmark of 21st century U.S. society to be extreme and to denigrate people who seek to practice moderation.

Our Friday, traditio for this first Friday in February is "Lead Me On," a song written by Michael W. Smith for Amy Grant. I've recently been reading a fantastic book, Between the Swastika and the Sickle: The Life, Disappearance, and Execution of Ernst Lohmeyer, by James R. Edwards.

Lohmeyer is a fascinating figure. He was a theologian and Lutheran pastor who drew the contempt of both the Nazis and the Soviets, the latter of whom executed him 1946. After the Nazis seized control of Germany in 1933 and began to ramp their persecution of the Jews, Lohmeyer wrote a letter of support to Martin Buber. In his letter, Lohmeyer insisted that "the Christian faith is only Christian as long as it retains in its heart the Jewish faith." I think he was correct.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

Today's feast is so important that it trumps the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Traditionally, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord was also known as Candlemas. One practice that has pertained to this day, no matter which day of the week it falls on, is the blessing of candles. This is to highlight what the old man Simeon, in his canticle, said of the infant Jesus: "a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel" (Luke 2:32).

The introduction to the Rite of Blessing Candles found in the Roman Missal, provides this as part its explanation of Jesus's Presentation in the Temple: "Outwardly he was fulfilling the Law, but in reality he was coming to meet his believing people" (Roman Missal, Proper of Seasons, 2 February, The Presentation of the Lord, sec. 4).

At least for me, this prompts the question, who did Jesus meet on this occasion? He met Simeon, but he also met Anna. The inspired author of Luke's Gospel identifies Anna as "a prophetess" (Luke 2:36). It seems to me that she often is often short-shrifted or, more accurately, ignored altogether. It bears noting that Luke has Anna as the person who "spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem" (Luke 2:38). Unlike Simeon, what Anna said is not provided by the author.

I think there is a parallel between Anna and the women Luke has telling Jesus's other followers that he was risen (see Luke 24:1-12). In short, Anna was an evangelist. According to Luke's Gospel, she was the first one to tell others that Jesus is the Messiah and Savior.

Of course, Jesus's Presentation in the Temple is the third of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. The fruit of this mystery is obedience. Judging from its Latin root obdeire, obedience means to listen. It does not mean "unquestioningly do what you're told." The opening words of Saint Benedict's Rule enjoin: "Listen carefully, my child, to your master's precepts, and incline the ear of your heart" (Prov. 4:20).

The Light, Jesus Christ, shines through the one who has received it. At baptism, a candle, which is lit off the Paschal Candle, is handed to the newly baptized. In the case of infants, the lit candle is handed to a parent or godparent. The lit candle is given with these word: "Receive the light of Christ." In turn, these words are followed by an exhortation:
You have been enlightened by Christ.
Walk always as a child of the light
and keep the flame of faith
alive in your heart.
When the Lord comes,
may you go out to meet him
with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom
You are not enlightened merely for yourself. Christ enlightens you to go forth and love and serve others as he does. Anna grasped this and quickly! On this holy feast, I pray each of us might understand this too. You know, it's not that difficult most days to shine a little light wherever you go and on whomever might need it. It could be something as simple as a smile and friendly hello, to a phone call or text message to someone you know who is struggling a bit. On the other hand, maybe you can assist someone stranded alongside the roadside or buy someone who is hungry lunch. You know what? When you do this the light of Christ reflects right back on you. As Michael Card put it in his song "Distressing Disguise"-
Every time a faithful servant serves
A brother that's in need
What happens at that moment is a miracle indeed
As they look to one another in an instant it is clear
Only Jesus is visible, for they've both disappeared
So, go and tell others about Jesus, using words only when necessary and avoiding arguments.

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...