Monday, August 31, 2020

Year II Twenty-second Monday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Cor 2:1-5; Ps 119:97-102; Luke 4:16-30

Human wisdom differs from divine wisdom. Theo-logic defies human logic. This is most evident in God’s relation to power. While all-powerful (“omnipotent” is the relevant word), God exercises supreme power by becoming powerless. To make this more concrete, consider the Incarnation of God’s Son.

God did not become incarnate as Caesar in Rome, as the Emperor of Persia, or even as part of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt. God became incarnate as a marginal person among a conquered, oppressed, and marginal people. Even as a Jew, Jesus was not born into the high priestly family, or even into the priestly caste. Jesus was a member of the tribe of Judah, not the priestly tribe of Levi. As the passion narratives make clear, he was from a small village in backwards Galilee. Perhaps the local equivalent would be Panguitch.

Nothing demonstrates the power of powerless better than the cross. One cannot articulate the fathomless mystery of the cross using words. This is Paul’s message in our first reading. As in the famous passage from his Second Letter to the Corinthians,1 Paul here insists that he bears apostolic witness to Christ through his weakness. It is not in spite of but precisely through his inadequacy that he goes about the work God gave him. This is how God’s power is manifest.

The same dynamic is at work in today’s Gospel. Of all the passages from the TaNaK the inspired author of Luke could’ve chosen, he placed the passages from Isaiah we just heard on the lips of Jesus.2 Any decently catechized Jew of the late-Second Temple period (the era in which Jesus lived) or the immediate post-Temple period (the time this Gospel was written) would’ve recognized this as a Messianic prophecy.

Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre, James Tissot, 1886-1894

This prophecy tells of the works the Messiah, the Christ, would do. It tells how the Messiah ushers in God’s reign, that is, how he will bring God’s saving power to bear on the world. The congregation understood what Jesus said. This is what led them to react with murderous anger. It is the not unbelieving pagans who grow enraged, but observant Jews.

In our day, Christians who seek to carry out the Messianic mission, who are not in the thrall of ideology, often experience similar anger from fellow Christians when they reach out to and advocate for the weak, the poor, and the imprisoned. When they stand-up for the inherent dignity of those on the margins: people whose countries are devastated by war, immigrants and refugees, the unborn, the elderly, the severely ill, the disabled, those on death row, racial minorities, as well as homosexual and transgender people.

As Pope Francis consistently insists, reaching out to the margins is what it means to evangelize. It is our failure to grasp this that leads to our puzzlement as to why too often what passes for evangelization fails. Let’s face it, it’s easier to engage in “apologetics” than it is to serve those in need.

Hear again: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor…to proclaim liberty to captives”…help the blind see…to free the oppressed.3 Like Saint Paul, our mission is the Messiah’s mission. It’s what participating in this Eucharist empowers us for and commits us to.

1 2 Corinthians 12:9-11.
2 Isaiah 61:1-2; 58:6.
3 Luke 4:18.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Christianity's central paradox

Readings: Jer 20:7-9; Ps 63:2-6.8-9; Rom 12:1-2; Matt 16:21-27

This week, again, I am going to adhere to the five-minute rule. In terms of a blog post, this means no more than 500 words. Parenthetical citations don’t count.

It seems fitting that I write this reflection on this Sunday's readings on the Memorial of the Beheading of John the Baptist. Our Gospel for this Sunday is one of those about which endless words have been written and spoken (including these words of mine). I daresay a lot of those words don't amount to much more than ways to evade the cross.

By teaching the necessity of losing your life to save it, Jesus sets forth the fundamental paradox of Christianity. When properly grasped, Christianity is a religion of paradox: one in three, human and divine, virgin and mother, bread and body, success through failure, etc. The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel saw the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as an outright contradiction, thus making it the cornerstone of his dialectical philosophy.

In this passage, Jesus isn’t teaching about life's woes, those things that happen to virtually everyone at some time or another- the suffering that is an inevitable part of life. Rather, he is talking about the suffering that occurs as a result of following him, of living as if God's kingdom is already fully established, what results from loving God by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. According to Terry Eagleton, citing Fr. Herbert McCabe, OP, the "central doctrine of Christianity... is... that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky and opium of the people" (see "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching").

Souffrances de Jérémie (The Suffering of Jeremiah), by Marc Chagall, 1956

This is the prophet Jeremiah's experience. It’s important not to lose the plain sense of the passage that constitutes our first reading. Jeremiah complains that he does God's will, suffers the consequences of so doing, swears he will never listen to God again, and then feels compelled to do God's will despite knowing the outcome. This, too, is what the John the Baptist, the seal of the prophets, experienced even to the point of being martyred.

In urging the Christians of ancient Rome and, by extension, Christians in all times and places, to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice to God through Christ, Paul is urging them/us to live Jesus’s teaching. Doing this requires a transformation of one’s mind. This renewal is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Blessed Christoph LeBreton, OCSO, one of the Cistercian martyrs of Algeria, wrote this as his journal entry for 20 April 1994:
We are actually afraid of what the Gospel says to us, afraid of the anguish it can lead us to, and that’s why we reduce it to a banal “religious language” that does not touch reality at all. But the Gospel is an infinitely difficult book, for the person who reads it with open eyes, who has achieved the second naïveté and become “like a child” (Born From the Gaze of God: The Tibhirine Journal of a Martyr Monk, 76)
What Père Christoph describes, I believe, is the renewal of mind about which Paul wrote.

Friday, August 28, 2020

"She is selling faith on the Go Tell crusade"

Friday, time for a traditio. What to choose? There is so much great music from which to choose. Sadly, I haven't been listening to as much music as I usually do. I always feel it when there is not enough music in my life.

Earlier in the summer, I did go through something of a REM revival. This consisted mostly of listening to their earlier stuff. Two REM songs have always stuck with me: "Don't Go Back to Rockville," off their Reckoning album, and "Driver 8." The latter song is off the band's Fables of the Reconstruction LP.

The Southern Crescent locomotive

Since I posted "Don't Go Back to Rockville" as a traditio back in 2014 (see "Going Where Nobody Says Hello"- the video I linked to has been removed), "Driver 8" becomes our late summer traditio by default.

"Driver 8" is about an actual train: the Southern Crescent. This was a Southern Railroad train until 1979. The route is still run today by Amtrak and is still called "Crescent." It's a haunting song, which is even now when I hear it, it resonates deeply within me. It evokes for me something of a Southern gothic atmosphere.

Maybe I'm thinking about trains because I need a vacation. In any case, today is just about the music. Enjoy.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Jesus is Messiah and Lord

Readings: Isa 22:19-23; Ps 138:1-3.6.8; Rom 11:33-36; Matt 16:13-20

John Wester, my former bishop and now the archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, has insisted that for the duration of the pandemic, his clergy keep their homilies to five minutes or less. His reason for this is to decrease the possibility for the novel coronavirus to spread. This accomplishes the purpose in two ways. First, less speaking reduces the risk. Second, less time gathered together also decreases the risk.

A good meter for counting time is word count. The pace of about 100 words per minute is pretty accurate. Even when preaching, I speak at a slightly faster clip. But my goal in this reflection is to keep it under 500 words. As another of my former bishops, the late George Niederauer, once quipped: "I've never had anyone complain that my homily was too short." Anyone who preaches can verify this by their own experience.

By my reckoning, the main takeaway from today's readings is that Jesus is Lord. A secondary point is that coming to the realization that Jesus is Lord is what it means to have faith. Third, faith is a gift from God, which is what I take these words the inspired author placed in Jesus's mouth to mean: "flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father" (Matt 16:17).

It should not be missed that what is revealed to Peter is that this flesh and blood person (i.e., Jesus) is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. It is not intuitively obvious to the casual observer that Jesus is Messiah and Lord. Not only is Jesus one in being (i.e., "consubstantial") with the Father ("God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God"), he is also one in being with us. The Lord is consubstantial with us through the Blessed Virgin, in whose womb he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit.

To experience Jesus as Lord is to experience God's lovingkindness, his hesed. To experience divine hesed is to be changed, to be marked, like Jacob was marked as a result of his wrestling match with the angel (see Gen 32:22-32).

God's hesed shines forth when Jesus hangs on the cross. The all-powerful God exercises divine power by becoming powerless. This is why flesh and blood cannot reveal to you that Jesus is Lord and Messiah. His blood-shedding is the revelation.

What does this mean for how you live your life? This is a good question for each of us to ponder this week in light of God's revelation in and through Christ Jesus. It is also something for the Church, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, to constantly reflect upon "in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

Queenship of Mary

One week after the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Roman Catholics celebrate the Memorial of the Queenship of Mary. From a Catholic perspective, there are four major Church teachings about the Blessed Virgin: Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity, Assumption, Queenship. As the Virgin's Assumption is the fourth Glorious Mystery of the Rosary, Mary's Coronation as Queen of Heaven is the fifth and final Glorious mystery. The fruit of that mystery is trust in the Blessed Mother's intercession.

It's nice that this year that both Mary's Assumption and her Queenship fall on Saturdays. Traditionally, Saturdays are a day of the week devoted to Mary. And so, when not superseded by a mandatory memorial, feast, or solemnity, the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary can be prayed on Saturdays.

When one considers the multitude of factors that contribute to the decline of faith and religious practice, it's reasonable to see the decline in devotion to Mary as one factor. Practices like praying the Rosary daily and making frequent recourse to Mary by praying the Memorare are two of the most widespread Marian devotions.

Far from being a meek and unobtrusive figure, Mary should be seen as brave and bold, perhaps a bit brash. I am puzzled that whenever her Magnificat is the Gospel reading, the preaching rarely focuses on its prophetic message:
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
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and the rich he has sent away empty
Mary is on the side of the lowly, the poor, the oppressed, the outcast. As a Jewish woman, one who turned up unexpectedly pregnant, in a conquered society, she understands, experientially, what this means.

Pope Francis's devotion to the Blessed Virgin reflects all this. Before and after each of his Apostolic trips, the Holy Father goes to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major. There before Our Lady, Salus Populi Romani (i.e., Protectress of the Roman People), he asks her intercession for the success of his journey. After his trip, he returns to thank her, usually bringing her flowers. All Roman Catholics, along with all Christians in communion with Rome, constitute the Roman people.

So, beginning today, make recourse to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, trust her with your concerns and petitions. The easiest way to do this by praying the Rosary- start with the Glorious mysteries. Learn the Angelus and the Memorare.

Friday, August 21, 2020

"There'll be days/When I'll stray"

The connections my mind makes when I pay attention kind of astound me. I mean "astound" both in the sense of thinking "That's weird" and in the sense of being amazed at gaining some insight.

Last Sunday, as I drove home from church listening to the radio, Depeche Mode's "Strangelove" came across the airwaves. It was struck by the song's opening verse:
There'll be times
When my crimes
Will seem almost unforgivable
I give in to sin
Because you have to make this life livable
"I give in to sin because you have to make this life livable." I sort of meditated on this the rest of the day. When it comes to sin, it almost goes without saying that there are sins and then there are sins. This at the heart of the mortal/venial distinction. I like the distinction Dietrich Bonhöffer made: "It is not the sins of weakness, but the sins of strength that matter." I take "matter" in this context to mean those sins about which one should be concerned, contrite, and strive, with God's help, not to commit again, very grave failure to love one's neighbor.

In my extended lectio on this short sentence from "Strangelove," I was thinking about sins of weakness. It is perhaps through certain sins of weakness one might seek some solace and comfort, even as one recognizes that the comfort and solace will be short-lived.

Depiction of the Holy of Holies in the Second Temple

On Monday I read this excerpt from Pope Francis's Sunday Angelus:
Each one of us has our own story and it is not always a clean story…Many times it is a difficult story, with a lot of pain, many misfortunes and many sins. What do I do with my story? Do I hide it? No! We must bring it before the Lord
And, again, on Monday in a book of essays that look at the Jewish Bible through the lens psychoanalysis, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in an essay on Abraham, "The Vale of Soul-Making," I read something about the rabbinic commentators' insistence that Abraham, during his years of inquiry and movement toward the one, true, God while living in Ur of Chaldees, participated in pagan worship, that is, the worship of idols.

Commenting on God's disposition towards Abraham's early idolatry, Gottlieb Zornberg summarizes it nicely:
So God reassures Abraham: "Yours is the dew of youth: your youthful sins acted like dew- they roused you to search for God. They spoke to you through promise and frustration, they suggested love and beauty. Having done this work they vanished (165)
This caused me to realize that those youthful sins may not have yet done their work in rousing me to search for God.

Later in the same essay, Gottlieb Zornberg discusses what it might mean for Abraham to be a blessing to God, something God asks of him (Gen 12:2). She makes the observation, which I think wholly accurate- something I addressed in great detail in my doctoral dissertation- "God, it seems, needs human blessing" (167). But what does it mean to bless God?

" realize the godly in the world is to bless God" (italics mine- 167). What is it to realize the godly in the world? "The blessing of God," Gottlieb Zornberg continues "is that God should rejoice in his work (ibid). She then turns to a passage of the Talmud she calls "haunting," in which God asks the high priest Ishmael, one of the last high priests of the Second Temple period, to bless him. Ishmael replies: "May it be Your will that Your compassion prevail over Your other attributes" (167). She then concludes" "To be a source of blessing to God comes to mean to help God achieve His compassionate self" (167).

To say that Jews are older siblings to us Christians is more than just a throw-away line uttered at a time of violent antisemitism.

As you might guess, this week's traditio is Depeche Mode's "Strangelove."

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Year A Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 56:1.6-7; Ps 67:2-3.5-6.8; Rom 11:13-15.29-32; Matt 15:21-28

Today’s readings have a singular theme: welcoming the stranger. It is no exaggeration to state that nothing is more biblical than welcoming the stranger. This injunction appears from the opening pages of the Sacred Scriptures to the last pages.

It was Jesus himself who said: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”1 The inspired author of the Letter the Hebrews urged early Christians “not to neglect hospitality” because by extending hospitality to all “some have unknowingly entertained angels.”2 In his Regula, or Rule, Saint Benedict instructs the brothers: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ…”3

God often reminded his Chosen People, Israel, to welcome the stranger among them and to treat foreigners in their midst justly: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.”4

In our uniquely Christian scriptures, we are reminded that before putting on Christ we “were ‘no people’ but now you are God’s people; you “had not received mercy” but now you have received mercy.”5 In other words, as Gentiles on whom God has taken mercy through Christ, the Canaanite woman is us. Who are we, then, not to extend the mercy we have received to others?

God has only ever extended one covenant to humanity: “You will be my people and I will be your God.”6 Through Jesus Christ, this covenant is open to all. What it means to be God’s people is to keep God’s commandments.

What does God command? “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.”7 This prompts the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’s most famous answer to this question, found in Saint Luke’s Gospel, is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In its essence, the Law is but the means to the end of loving God with your whole being by loving your neighbor as you love yourself.

“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother,” we read elsewhere in the New Testament, “he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”8

Christ and the Woman of Canaan, by Peter Lastman, 1617

The Samaritan’s neighbor was the robbed and beaten Jew who likely despised him and of whom the Samaritan was likely not a priori very fond. Your neighbor is the one who needs your help. As Christians, we are to “make” ourselves a neighbor to those in need.

We cannot succumb to what Pope Francis has identified as a culture of indifference. Indifference to the plight of those who flee war, persecution, corruption, lack of education, etc. Nor can we participate in what the Holy Father has dubbed a throw-away culture, one in which even human beings are expendable.

In our American context, we must distinguish patriotism from nationalism. Because U.S. citizenship is not rooted in blood and soil, ours is a nation of immigrants, the proverbial melting pot. This diversity contributes to our country’s greatness. Nationalism, which often manifests as racism and xenophobia, is, therefore, antithetical to U.S. patriotism.

Our commitment to follow Christ trumps all other loyalties. Christianity is either universal or it is nothing. In free societies, Christians are to pursue the common good of everyone. It has been observed that a nation’s greatness is best measured by how it treats its weakest members. If we take the scriptures seriously, let alone claim to be a Christian nation, our greatness is also measured by how, not whether, we welcome those who seek entry.

This is beautifully expressed in words from Emma Lazarus’s poem, The New Colossus. This poem was engraved on a bronze plaque and attached to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903. The poet places these words on the lips of “A mighty woman with a torch”-
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”9
Monsignor Luigi Giussani, in a passionate speech delivered in Saint Peter’s Square, perhaps taking his cue from today’s Gospel, insisted: “The true protagonist of history is the beggar: Christ who begs for man’s heart, and man’s heart that begs for Christ.” Christ begs for your heart through the person in need, through the immigrant and the refugee, many of whom are our sisters and brothers in Christ.

1 Matthew 25:35.
2 Hebrews 13:2.
3 Rule of Saint Benedict, 53:1.
4 Exodus 23:9.
5 1 Peter 2:10.
6 Jeremiah 30:22..
7 Matthew 27:37.39; Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18.
8 1 John 4:20-21.
9 The New Colossus.

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

It would seem strange not to post something for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Like yesterday, I don't have a distinct idea to communicate. So, this is a sort of free-form post- gonzo diaconal blogging.

Again, without bragging, I am one of those Catholics who prays the Rosary every day. I usually pray it during my morning walk. Since my wife often accompanies me on this morning excursions, we frequently pray it together, out loud, as we walk. Of course, living in Utah, this sometimes prompts odd glances from our fellow walkers.

Whenever someone asks me prayers, most often I immediately offer a Memorare for the specific intention. When warranted, I incorporate this intention into my Rosary intentions. In short, I find that entrusting these things to our Blessed Mother is a good way to go.

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Guido Reni, 1637

I have my own order in which I pray the mysteries of the Blessed Virgin's Rosary throughout the week: Monday- Joyful; Tuesday- Luminous; Wednesday- Sorrowful; Thursday- Glorious; Friday- Sorrowful; Saturday- mysteries of my choosing; Sunday- Glorious. During the Octaves of Easter & Christmas, I pray the Glorious & Joyful mysteries respectively each day. On Saturdays of Advent & Christmas, I pray the Joyful mysteries. On the Saturdays of Lent, I go with the Sorrowful mysteries. Saturdays of Easter, I pray the Glorious mysteries. I also alter my routine to pray mysteries most suited to a particular solemnity or feast.

Today, for example, I will pray the Glorious mysteries. The fourth Glorious mystery is Mary's bodily assumption into heaven. The fruit of this mystery is the grace of a happy death.

When praying the Sorrowful mysteries by myself, I pray an Act Contrition before each Our Father. When praying the Glorious mysteries, I add a Memorare before the Our Father after the fifth mystery, which is the Blessed Virgin's coronation as Queen of Heaven, the fruit of which is trust in her intercession.

Mary's assumption is a glimpse of the glory God has in store for us, a result of Christ's resurrection. The Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary- known as her "Dormition" among many Eastern Christians- is one of those observances that pre-dates the Church's fracture. This makes it a day of Christian unity. As Mater ecclesiae, I am certain this makes her very happy.

Those Christians who do not hyper-venerate Mary are, well, peculiar. Even the major reformers (i.e., Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer) venerated the Blessed Virgin even while seeking t curb what they viewed as excesses in Marian devotion. Hyper-veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a hallmark of an Apostolic Church.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Late summer ennui

You don't have to read my blog to know that 2020 is a strange year. For me, one of the strangest aspects of this strange year is the flow of time. By that, I mean how my days and weeks are now divided up. Like many people, the flow of my life has changed. Unlike most people, I have managed to actually become busier. I don't say this to brag. On the contrary, I am kind of ashamed to admit it. As a result, I am frequently struck by waves of tiredness. My fatigue is off-set by my restlessness. In other words, I find it hard to take a nap, sit still, focus, read, etc. My ennui does not flow from doing nothing to do but having too much to do.

Saint Maximilian Kolbe, OFM Conv

In this same vein, while I am loath to blog about blogging, I found it difficult to post something today. But I am not doing it out of a sense of obligation (if you could see the number of readers these daze, you'd grasp this easily). I am doing it because, as I have often stated, blogging has proven a useful vehicle for me over the past fifteen years.

Yes, fifteen years! Actually, Monday, 16 August, will mark the date when, sixteen years ago, I first posted on this blog. I initially dubbed this endeavor Scott Dodge for Nobody. It wasn't until the following July that I began blogging regularly. From that time and for the next several years, I blogged compulsively about anything and everything. If I had any shame, I'd go back a delete a lot of posts that I now find embarrassing. But I like seeing where I came from. Maybe this is because it isn't possible to see where I am going. The present is always that point of tension between the past and the future.

No sooner do I set aside a day to just rest than I am hit with a raft of new things to do. In the middle of all this, I remain aware of how much suffering is happening. Of that fact that so many people lost their jobs as the result of government-ordered shutdowns. I am highly aware that with the Senate now on break while unemployment is slated to run-out for many people and local and state governments proving largely indifferent to their plight that we're in a bad place. As do so many, I feel very helpless in the face of all this. Don't get me wrong. The pandemic is real and doing what is necessary to keep people safe is hugely important. But... anyway... a little venting is good, I suppose. I worry about the future, not my future so much but the future. I'm afraid we're on the doorstep of dystopia.

I nearly always feel this way in mid-August, which is the hottest time of the year where I live. I must have reverse seasonal affective disorder because I feel more down in the heat than I do during the cold, dark months of winter. If sunlight and heat act as natural disinfectants they also seem to strip away the dirt from the lens of my heart.

Far from being hopeless, I think now more than ever the Gospel matters. I think Pope Francis was correct when he asserted that revolutionary ideologies succeed in many majority Christian countries because the Church has not served, cared for, or acted in solidarity with the poor. At the end of the day, the Gospel, too, is revolutionary- but only if we live it. Living the Gospel is no easy task. The Gospel calls for solidarity, not acquiescence to what is self-evidently unjust.

By solidarity, I mean something along the lines of what Saint Maximilian Kolbe, whose feast day is today, did in the concentration camp. He offered his life to spare the life of a Jewish man who had a family. Like Saint Oscar Romero before he became Archbishop of San Salvador, there wasn't much in Kolbe's background that would lead one to predict this astounding act of selflessness. This gives me hope both for myself and for the world.

This is one of those posts that doesn't have neat, tidy conclusion. Since it is Friday, I offer as our traditio School of Fish singing "Three Strange Days" for these strange times.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Saint Lawrence, deacon and martyr

I can hardly lay claim to the blog title "Catholic Deacon" and fail to post something on today's Feast of Saint Lawrence. Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of the Church of Rome in the mid-third century. During this time, the Church lived under the relatively constant threat of persecution by the empire (how far we've come but how far we've regressed!). It appears that Lawrence was the chief deacon of Rome, something like the archdeacon- an office that does not exist today in the Roman Catholic Church.

Like his bishop, Pope Saint Sixtus II, and his six fellow deacons, Lawrence was martyred by the imperial power under the Emperor Valerian. Like many early martyrs, there are several stories told about Lawrence's martyrdom. Some of them might even be true. True or not, the purpose of such stories is not necessarily to accurately convey what happened but to focus our attention on what it means to follow Christ. According to these accounts, the manner of his death was being roasted alive on an iron grill.

As chief deacon, he was steward of the Church's worldly goods. Along with his fellow deacons, he had charge of the poor and the infirm. The immediate cause of Lawrence's arrest was his refusal to turn over what wealth the Church had to the imperial authorities. Instead, as one story goes, when asked to take agents of the state to the treasures of the Church, Lawrence brought them to a group of the poor and the infirm, insisting these men, women, and children were the Church's treasure.

The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, by Hipólito de Rioja, 17th century

Over the centuries of the Church, Lawrence has had a large cultus. One of Rome's Papal Basilicas in San Lorenzo fuori le mura (i.e., Saint Lawrence outside the Walls). Interred in this basilica in addition to Lawrence are Pope Pius IX, Pope Hilarius, Alcide de Gaspari, along with relics of Saint Stephen, one of the first deacons and Christian proto-martyr.
Father, you called Saint Lawrence to serve you by love
and crowned his life with glorious martyrdom.
Help us to be like him in loving you and doing your work.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Year A Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kgs 19:9a.11-13a; Ps 85:9-14; Rom 9:1-5; Mt 14:22-23

As we endure life’s storms and waves, trying to “be good,” to be kind to others, to do the right thing, often at personal cost, it can seem that the harder we try the more difficult life becomes. Because of this, all of us, at one time or another, ask: Just what does God expect of me? Today’s readings suggest that this is perhaps the wrong question. Instead, maybe we should ask, Just what do I expect of God?

Today’s readings challenge our expectations of God. In our first reading, the fact that Elijah goes to Mount Horeb, the mountain on which God gave Israel the Torah in Deuteronomy, likely indicates the prophet presumed his experience of God would be similarly extraordinary.1 But no! It was in the “tiny whispering” that God spoke to the prophet.

This reading from 1 Kings stands in stark contrast to our reading from Matthew, which features several extraordinary things. In considering today's Gospel, however, we must be cautious not to trivialize this narrative.

One way to trivialize this episode is by viewing Peter’s apparent lack of faith with a smug sense of our own superiority. After all, one would think that after seeing Jesus perform so many miracles, Peter would have trusted Jesus’s power to support him across the water. I would not have doubted!

It is one thing to observe divine power from a safe distance, it is quite another to experience it first-hand by stepping out into the storm. If we are honest, most of us would prefer to remain in the boat and have Jesus tow us safely onto the nearest shore.

A more compassionate reading of this story reveals that Peter is courageous by asking Jesus for the ability to walk across the stormy sea and having the faith to leave the boat. What is most important and what we run the risk of missing is Peter, even as he falters, does not lack faith. As he sinks, Peter cries, “Lord, save me!” This is an act of faith. And “immediately” Jesus stretches out his hand and catches Peter.2

One of the worst aspects of our contemporary American culture is our literal-mindedness. When it comes to the Scriptures, this means we often lack the imagination to interrogate the text in a way that matters. For example, if you read the Book of Jonah and come away asking whether a person can survive for three days inside a large fish, it’s safe to say you have missed the point entirely.

The question that today’s Gospel prompts is not “Did this really happen?” The salient query is, “What does this mean in terms of my Christian life?” The best way to derive meaning from this passage is by reading it metaphorically. Otherwise, there is nothing more to the story than what Jesus may have done a long time ago in far-off Galilee. We must never reduce faith to a historical curiosity.

Often it can seem like Jesus is off on some mountain or way up in the sky when you are in the thick of a storm. Notably, Jesus does not appear until “the fourth watch.” The fourth watch is just before dawn. Hence, the disciples had been struggling all night in the stormy sea. It is natural, as we go through the storms of life, to ask Jesus: “What took you so long?”

It seems pretty clear that the message from this deeply visual incident is not another demonstration of Jesus’s power. Instead, it shows us how God works. Peter represents each of us. Maybe Peter's faltering walk that is not the lesson. If we listen closely, we can hear Jesus tell Peter- and us- with a gentle smile, as he brings him to the safety of the boat- an image of the Church: “You are not yet what you will be. I love you and will never allow you to sink. Trust in me.”

Another insight is that it is not Jesus’s purpose to be “Mr. Fix It.” After all, it is Peter who sets out across a stormy sea. His intended destination is Jesus, who beckons him, just as he calls each one of us. Take note: Jesus does not beckon from the safety of the shore or from up above the stormy sea. He is in the storm with us to the end, which proves to be the beginning. Jesus is God-made-human, not a Deus ex machina. As a friend reminded me recently after a rough day: “Holiness is in the struggle.”

Jesus gains power by going off to pray. There is a link between Jesus’s prayer and his power to overcome the storm. And so, we might well ask ourselves, would some of the storms I experience rage less if I put time aside for prayer? When life comes at you fast and hard prayer may seem like a waste of time. We hear voices shouting from the gales: “Don't just stand there! Do something!” But, as Elijah learned, there is another voice, a tiny whispering one, that tells us, “Do not be afraid.”4

Having considered the question, “What can we expect of God?,” let’s return to the question, “What does God expect of us?” God expects us to realize that it is through life’s storms that Jesus summons us and draws close to us. When we heed this call, we move beyond our too often closed-in selves into the chaos we fear will overwhelm us. My dear friends in Christ, especially in these perilous times, let us venture forth to Jesus across the stormy waters of life, over the waves of our fear and self-doubt. In this Eucharist Jesus calls us to himself, saying “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”5

1 Deuteronomy 1:6.
2 Matthew 14:30-31.
3 Matthew 14:25.
4 Matthew 14:27.
5 Matthew 14:27.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Penance is freedom

Amid summer's dog days, I offer the first Καθολικός διάκονος Friday traditio in awhile. For this I am sticking with tradition by going with a beautiful choral verse of Psalm 51, known in Latin by its opening line: Miserere Mei Deus, or simply Miserere. Usually, Psalm 51 is first Psalm of Morning Prayer (Lauds) on Fridays. At least for Roman Catholics, Fridays are days of penance. Normatively, this day of penance is observed by not eating meat combined with some sort of fasting (sacrifice) and perhaps some devotion, like praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Blessed Virgin's Rosary, reciting the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, or walking the Stations of the Cross.

This is a beautiful tradition, one that Catholics should not lose. Just as every Sunday is a "little" Easter, each Friday is a "little" Good Friday. Such practices, I believe, help draw us more deeply into the Paschal Mystery, which is the very heart of reality.

Blessed Christoph LeBreton, OCSO

For my morning spiritual reading, I have been making my way through a remarkable book. This book is the journal kept by Fr. Christoph LeBreton, OCSO, between late 1993 and early 1996. Père Christoph is one of the 7 monks martyred in Algerian during that country's civil war, which raged throughout most of the 1990s. The cause for the canonization of 19 Algerian martyrs is underway.

The title of the book is Born from the Gaze of God: The Tibhirine Journal of a Martyr Monk (1993-1996). It is a remarkable testament as to how Christ conforms willing hearts to his own Sacred Heart. I have to say, Père Christoph's writing is helping to me cooperate in the renovation of my heart. As I also contemplated the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, I need to not become discouraged by my lack of love. In the end, it is God's love given us in and through Christ, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, that matters. To this end, I have been seeking Père Christoph's intercession daily.

In the wake of reading Etty Hillesum, Christoph records:
"Do you know that I have the power of killing you?" says the executioner. And the martyr replies: "Do you know that I have the power of being killed?" Christian [De Chergé- the Abbot] reminded us of these words of Etty, stressing that in Arabic, "to choose" and "good" have the same root- when the leader affirmed: "You have no choice."

What's at stake here is your freedom
Because they can only be freely chosen, acts of penance are fundamental for freedom. Acts of penance are acts of love.

Foregoing sacred choral music is a great deprivation during this pandemic. I accept it penitentially.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

From apologetics to evangelization

Last week Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in the context of making a point about the predominance of white and male statutes in the statuary of the United States Capitol, took issue with the presence of a statue of Saint Damien of Molokai. She used Saint Damien as her case-in-point. I agree that "[AOC] picked the wrong statue to criticize." Besides being a witness to Christ-like love, De Veuster (i.e., Damien) stands in stark contrast to the brutal colonialism Belgium unleashed in the Congo under King Leopold II.

Frankly, I am more disheartened by the Catholic response, beginning with Bishop Barron's hastily posted video (see "Catholic bishop fires back at AOC for disparaging Catholic saint who gave life serving people with leprosy"). I have to admit that in the heat of the initial moment, I expressed approval of Bishop Barron's reply. So, I understand the urge to react. In and of itself, Bishop Barron's video did not really castigate Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. In true apologetic fashion, it struck me as being targeted to others who were also offended.

Since I am trying to be honest, I don't mind admitting that I sometimes agree with AOC but not always. I would be hard-pressed to think of anyone I agree with all the time. I certainly disagree with her on the issue of abortion. On balance, I do not find the GOP much, if any more, pro-life than the DNC. While opposition to abortion is necessary, in and of itself it is insufficient for considering one's self pro-life. This why, adhering to Church teaching, I use prudential judgment and proportional reasoning when voting.

AOC is young and a bit inexperienced. Therefore, her rhetoric is sometimes over-heated. As a result, the good points she tries to make can be lost in the ensuing dust-up. This episode puts that very much on display. I would also add that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is Roman Catholic.

As a Catholic, as a deacon, as a Christian, it is becoming obvious to me that until the Church in the U.S. moves from maintenance to mission, from apologetics, which is mostly preaching to the choir, to evangelization, we're stuck. By its nature, apologetics is defensive and backward-looking. Evangelization, by contrast, is about now and looking to the future. Among other things, evangelization requires humility and the ability to listen. Otherwise, we'll keep answering questions nobody asks.

Saint Damien of Molokai

Appearing thin-skinned and sensitive is not a mode of Christian witness. It is anti-witness. I am willing to bet that most Catholics who reacted negatively to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez's remarks about Saint Damien could not articulate her overarching point. They were too busy being offended by her poor choice of an example. Somehow, I don't think Saint Damien is very bothered by any of this.

Isn't bearing wrongs patiently one of the spiritual works of mercy? This is not to say it is wrong to draw attention to Damien's witness in the wake of AOC's remarks. But I think recognizing the validity of what she was trying to communicate comprises a necessary part of any Catholic response.

Even though it's only been a few months less than seven years, it seems to me that U.S. Catholics either need to reread or read Pope Francis's inaugural Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. Perhaps we should also revisit Pope Saint Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi, along with Populorum Progesso and Laudato Si'.

As Paul VI pointed out: "for the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one's neighbor with limitless zeal. As we said recently to a group of lay people, 'Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses'" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, sec. 41).

Personally, I don't care if there isn't one statue of a Catholic saint in the nation's Capitol. If we're going to have such statues, I suggest Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini.

Saint Damien of Molokai, pray for us!

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Blogging, Ignatius, and readings for an August Sunday

I will begin this week's very brief reflection on the Sunday readings with a program note. I miss blogging. Therefore, I am going to try to post more and get back into some kind of flow. I definitely intend to revive the Friday traditio, to put something up on solemnities and major feasts, offer a little commentary on matters of interest, etc. This will result in posting 3-4 times per week- this includes homilies, Sunday reflections (I offer these on weeks I don't preach), Friday traditio, and everything else.

This past week, on Friday, 31 July, we celebrated the feast of that great saint Ignatius of Loyola. It was this romantic wanna be knight errant who founded the Society of Jesus, popularly known as the Jesuits. Ignatius, as his Spiritual Exercises show, is a spiritual master. Anyone who is the process of discerning anything can learn something from Ignatius. I recently came across a secular article that discusses his process of discernment: "What a 16th-century mystic can teach us about making good decisions."

Instead of Morning Prayer, which, along with Evening Prayer, I pray every day, on Friday I prayed the Office of Readings. The second reading for the Feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola was by Luís Gonzalez, one of Ignatius's early companions. Writing about the soldier from Loyola's conversion, which happened while he was convalescing from a serious leg wound sustained in battle, Gonzalez noted: "Ignatius was passionately fond of reading worldly books of fiction and tales of knight-errantry."

After reading the excerpt from Gonzalez's biography of Ignatius, I did a short homilette on Facebook:
Perhaps the fact that no such books [books on knights errant] could be found in the house during his convalescence but only a life of Christ and the lives of saints rescued him from being Don Quixote! Either route, he was committed to asceticism, something we sorely lack today.

Following Christ can seem Quixotic. But the windmill, it turns out, is a cross- real and the key to understanding reality

It is my routine to practice lectio divina with the Sunday readings Monday-Wednesday each week. After meditating on the word or short phrase that strikes me and composing a prayer, I write it in a journal. I then spend some time in quiet contemplation before making a few notes in the same journal. I use a cheap composition notebook.

This week, as a change of pace, I am going to share the fruit of my practice of lectio. I was surprised, looking back at my journal on Thursday, that there was a definite theme this week. While this doesn't always happen, it often does. It goes to show how lectio moves the scriptures from being God's word in some abstract sense to being an inspired word for me.

From Isaiah 55:1-3: "listen, that you may have life" (verse 3). From the marvelous eighth chapter of Paul's Letter to the Romans (8:35.37-39): "him who loved us" (verse 37). Finally, from Matthew 14:13-21, which is almost too long for lectio: "moved with pity" (verse 14).

Contemplating the phrase "listen, that you may have life," brought to mind the opening sentence of Saint Benedict's Regula:
Obsculta, o fili, praecepta magistri, et inclina aurem cordis tui, et admonitionem pii patris libenter excipe et efficaciter comple, ut ad eum per oboedientiae laborem redeas, a quo per inoboedientiae desidiam recesseras- Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience thou mayest return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away
It is not our love for God but God's love for us that ultimately matters. Jesus is God's love for us not made manifest but made flesh. Like those who followed him to the deserted place, Jesus sees us in our need and has pity on us because he loves us. Because he loves us, he gives us bread to eat, which turns out to be himself.

I pray that today is a good beginning of an even better week. Peace to you, dear reader.

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 ...