Sunday, April 18, 2021

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 disciples at the end of today’s Gospel reading.1 What things are they witnesses to? Initially and perhaps primarily, they are witnesses to his death. Even if not yet fully convinced, they are also witnessing his resurrection.2

After the risen Lord opens “their minds to understand the scriptures,” they are witnesses that his death and resurrection are the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.3 This is something the risen and disguised Christ also makes clear to his two disciples as walks the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus with them. Hence, it is not just very important, it is crucial for our faith and so for our witness to understand what the scriptures convey on a deep level.

It’s too bad that we often engage the scriptures superficially, if at all. Or, worse yet, we read the scriptures through the lens of our preconceptions, imposing on them a narrow field of meaning in attempt to reduce God to our measure. And so, instead of letting God’s word shape and form us, expand and broaden us, we attempt to keep revelation, which “is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword,” within the safe boundaries we establish4 We read scripture instead of letting the scriptures read us. Let yourself be challenged, changed, converted. This is what it means to repent.

None of us saw Jesus die on the cross or have seen for ourselves the wounds in his hands and feet. None of us witnessed him eat the baked fish.5 Yet, we are convinced he rose. Your participation in this Mass is proof you believe. Would there be any reason to be here doing what we’re doing if Christ is not risen from the dead?

It is only because Jesus is risen that he can be present here, effecting what we Roman Catholics call his “Real Presence.” Just as we tend to reduce the Church’s apostolicity only to apostolic succession, we tend to reduce the risen Lord’s real presence to the consecrated bread and wine. It is because both apostolic succession and the understanding that by the power of the holy Spirit the bread and wine become for us Christ’s body and blood are necessary aspects of Catholic faith that we must not reduce them to one aspect.

According to the Second Vatican Council, the risen Christ’s real presence in the Mass happens in four distinct but interrelated ways. All of these together make the Mass what it is. First, Christ is present in the assembly, in the gathering of the baptized. The assembly, therefore, acts in persona corporis Christi, in the person of the body of Christ. Second, he is present in the person of the priest, who acts in persona Christi captis, in the person of Christ the head. The deacon acts in persona Christi servi, in the person of Christ the servant.6

When gathered around the altar, the Church constitutes what Saint Augustine called the totus Christus, the total or complete Christ. This is necessary for Christ to be really present in the proclamation of the scriptures and in the breaking of the bread. No Church, no Christ.

As in the episode of the disciples walking seven miles with Jesus, whom they did not recognize, in today’s Gospel the risen One expounds the scriptures and then eats. In both instances, as we might expect from Luke’s Gospel, which is very centered on the Eucharist, what we hear about is a Liturgy of the Word and a Liturgy of the Eucharist.

This is not just an exegetical/theological digression. Something that’s kind of neat to know. Grasping this is vital if we are to understand what we not only witness but participate in. We must understand so that we can bear witness. Our Gospel today is about how Christ remains present not merely to us, or even among us, but in us and through us. He is made present in us not merely by receiving communion but by hearing his word, that is, the scriptures. Hearing is a different mode than reading.

While it is a great practice to spend time with the Sunday readings before coming to Mass when we’re gathered and the scriptures are proclaimed they enter us through our ears. The scriptures are proclaimed orally and received aurally. Of course, the readings need to be proclaimed in such a way that it is not necessary for those who can hear to read along. As Saint Paul wrote to the Christian community in ancient Rome: “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”7

Doubt is necessary for faith, especially a vibrant faith, one worth sharing and one that can be shared. Faith is not shared when it pretends to a certainty it cannot possess. Apologetics is not evangelization. Something easy to miss in our Gospel for this Third Sunday of Easter is that despite being “incredulous,” Jesus’s disciples, on seeing him, were filled with joy.8

Being “incredulous” means being unwilling and/or unable to believe something. While we might, at times, find it difficult to believe, we, who have experienced the mysteries we are celebrating, should never be unwilling to believe.

Jesus ‘s resurrection often seems too good to be true. Like his disciples immediately after the Transfiguration, upon hearing Jesus tell them he must die and rise on the third day, we’re still interrogating the meaning of his rising from the dead.9 Our questioning of just what Christ’s rising means intensifies in the face of suffering. But it is by persisting through suffering that we experience what it means to die and rise.

And so, we should heed Saint Paul’s exhortation and “Rejoice always,” especially when the chips are down.10 Our joy is perhaps the most powerful witness to what we see, hear, touch, and taste at Mass. And so, “I shall say it again, rejoice.”11 My dear friends in Christ, the Lord is not only near, he is now here.

1 Luke 24:48.
2 Luke 24:41.
3 Luke 24:45.
4 Hebrews 4:12.
5 John Martens, The Word on the Street: Sunday Lectionary Reflections, Year B, 42.
6 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Sacrosanctum Concilium], sec. 7.
7 Romans 10:17.
8 Luke 24:41.
9 Mark 9:10.
10 Philippians 4:4.
11 Philippians 4:4.

Friday, April 16, 2021

"Upon the desert slope is so impeded..."

One of the temptations I frequently have to resist is to blog about blogging. Suffice it to say, this past week was another doozy. I will spare you the details. One thing is clear that next week, while I am gone away from home and work, I have more serious discernment to do. I hate to seem wishy-washy, especially to myself, but I hate to consistently go through what I've been going through weekly. As usual, I have nobody but myself to blame.

So, how is your Easter going? Yes, it is still Easter. It will be Easter until 23 May! I had a lovely Triduum, a beautiful Easter, and a superb Easter Monday. In all honesty, it's been downhill since then. Nothing utterly horrible- though a fear, but mostly just too much to do.

On Easter afternoon, was able to spend a little time listening to some music. I listened to the Psychedelic Furs. The Furs are one of those bands everyone my age has heard of and even knows some of their songs. In retrospect, it's amazing how consistently good their songs are. I was able to see the Furs live, along with The Fixx, and X on 31 July 2018, which seems like a lifetime ago. I wrote a bit about that but more about Pope Francis on the death penalty (see "State your piece tonight").

The song that has stuck with me since Easter Sunday is "Until She Comes." An underrated song by an underrated and sometimes overlooked band. So, "Until She Comes" is our traditio for this Second Friday of Easter. It's kind of a dreamy song.

I plan to write a bit more about Dante in light of Pope Francis's Apostolic Letter written for the 700th anniversary of the poet's death, Candor Lucis Aeternae. This is not as unrelated as it might seem. Given the dreaminess of the song, it makes me think...but maybe everyone doesn't have a Beatrice. The relevant lyric from the song is: "And with her need, I find I'm saved."

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Divine Mercy Sunday

Similar to Friday, I do not have a lot to write or say on the Second Sunday of Easter. Among Roman Catholics, the Second Sunday of Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday. Of course, in today's Gospel, taken from the Gospel According to Saint John, the resurrected Jesus breathes on his disciples, thus infusing them with the holy Spirit (John 20:19-31). He tells them they have the power to forgive and retain sins. This passage is taken as Jesus's institution of the Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation/confession).

Retain sins? Well, theologically, it can't be the power to retain sins that a person recognizes as wrong, feels sorrow for having done, and that s/he is committed to trying not to repeat. In other words, granting divine authority is different from granting arbitary power! The determination to turn over a leaf, as it were, is repentance, which is distinct from contrition, or being sorry- though, it seems, one often stems from the other.

The point is that the first gift the resurrected Lord gives to his Church, which, at this point, consists of not many followers, is mercy. He forgives them of their betrayal- this is brought home very powerfully in the next chapter of John's Gospel in the risen Lord's threefold forgiveness and reconciliation with Peter (see John 21:15-18). Being forgiven and reconciled, they are now empowered to forgive and reconcile, they are made ministers of reconciliation.

Mercy means to be compassionate toward and forgiving of someone who it is within your power to harm or to punish. God is merciful. As the title of a book by Pope Francis states: The Name of God is Mercy. It doesn't seem too much to say that if the name of God is Mercy then the name of Mercy is Jesus.

Jesus, I trust in You.

Being a Christian means being a person who recognizes and gratefully receives God's mercy given in Christ Jesus. One's ability to recognize God's mercy in Christ is itself work of Divine Mercy, that is, of the holy Spirit. But it is not enough to receive God's mercy. Being a Christian means being merciful- full of mercy. As you freely receive so must you freely give. Clearly, as Christians, we don't seem to be very good at this.

Why do we fail to be merciful? Because even though we're Christians, we remain human beings. Hence, it is all too natural for us to default to the lex talonis, which demands an eye-for-an-eye and a-tooth-for-a-tooth. As Tevye notes in Fiddler on the Roof, the result of this is that everyone ends up blind and toothless. As Christians, we must be dedicated to a world inhabited by people with eyes and teeth so they can taste and see God's goodness (Psalm 34:9).

While not opposed to justice, grace stands in contrast to karma. It seems to me that karma is a dogma. Karma is a destructive dogma in the way it is usually invoked; hoping someone who has wronged you gets what s/he has deserves. I realize that karma also holds that good is the return for good, which, while a nice idea. This idea seems to fly in the face of experience and to be somewhat incongruent with the Christian view of reality. Briefly digressing, I will say that the Christian teaching on indulgences, in its unperverted form, has something in common with the positive aspect of karma (see Pope Saint Paul VI's Indulgentarium Doctrina, especially Chapter 4).

As the late Rich Mullins sang:
Let mercy lead
Let love be the strength in your legs
And in every footprint that you leave
There'll be a drop of grace
For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Talk About the Resurrection- but what to say?

Easter Friday. Today is the sixth day of the Easter Octave. What to say? He is risen! He is resurrected. To say this is at one and the same time to say too much and too little. What is resurrection? It can't be merely be dying and physically coming back to life, the body of a dead person being revived. There's more going on in Christ's resurrection than just the revival of his body.

What is the connection between Christ's resurrection and his ascension? What is the connection between his ascension and the holy Spirit's powerful coming? What is the holy Spirit if not the mode of Christ's resurrection presence? Isn't this presence a "closer," more intimate, one than if Christ had remained present in his body?

Resurrection, by Matthius Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece

In the Gospel accounts, what's up with virtually nobody recognizing or at least having a hard time recognizing Jesus after his resurrection? Is this lack of recognition a way of denoting his new way of being present? It's too glib to say "He's present by his absence." What is the difference between "present to" and "present in," and/or "present among"? How does this relate to Eucharist and the other sacraments? Well, epiclesis certainly has something to do with it.

Just like God does not exist if by "exist" you mean as an entity in the universe, Christ's resurrection is not just an event that happened at a certain time, on a specific day, during a particular month, in a given year- no matter which clock or calendar you use. It's something more, much more, must be.

Anyway, while it's longer than the ideal, I urge you to listen to today's traditio in its entirety- all thirteen minutes. It is the final part of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, known as the Resurrection Symphony:

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Urbi et Orbi- Easter 2021


Easter 2021

Dear Brothers and Sisters, a good, happy and peaceful Easter!

Today, throughout the world, the Church’s proclamation resounds: “Jesus, who was crucified, has risen as he said. Alleluia!”

The Easter message does not offer us a mirage or reveal a magic formula. It does not point to an escape from the difficult situation we are experiencing. The pandemic is still spreading, while the social and economic crisis remains severe, especially for the poor. Nonetheless – and this is scandalous – armed conflicts have not ended and military arsenals are being strengthened. That is today’s scandal.

In the face of, or better, in the midst of this complex reality, the Easter message speaks concisely of the event that gives us the hope that does not disappoint: “Jesus who was crucified has risen”. It speaks to us not about angels or ghosts, but about a man, a man of flesh and bone, with a face and a name: Jesus. The Gospel testifies that this Jesus, crucified under Pontius Pilate for claiming he was the Christ, the Son of God, rose on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, just as he had foretold to his disciples.

The crucified Jesus, none other, has risen from the dead. God the Father raised Jesus, his Son, because he fully accomplished his saving will. Jesus took upon himself our weakness, our infirmities, even our death. He endured our sufferings and bore the weight of our sins. Because of this, God the Father exalted him and now Jesus Christ lives forever; he is the Lord.

Triduum: Easter Vigil

Tonight, our celebration of the great mystery of faith reaches its culmination as we celebrate with great joy the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. Tonight, we celebrate our creation in God’s image and likeness, our fall, and, above all, our redemption. You might ask, “Celebrate our fall, are you serious?" I am serious. To support this bold assertion, I appeal to these stunning words of the great Exsultet, sung at the beginning of this Vigil:
O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ/
O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a redeemer
Think about it, it’s mind blowing: Our sin, our fault, our rejection of God, did not earn us God’s wrath, but earned us Divine Mercy. How good is God? Only God can take our rejection of him, our attempt to displace him and establish ourselves on his throne and turn us back to himself through love and not by punishing us.

The orders of nature and grace go together, the one, nature, being brought into existence by the other, grace. Created in the image and, at least initially, in the likeness, of God, human beings are created for communion with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation. Being created for communion means being made to participate in God’s divine life - the life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Stated simply, we are made for eternal life.

Life eternal is that longing you feel when you find that even your satisfaction has a limit. When your satisfaction reaches that limit, it dissolves into dissatisfaction.

While the image of God is ineradicable and can never be lost, our likeness to God is lost through sin. Losing our likeness to God through sin while retaining the imago Dei, the image of God, is perhaps best described as a divorce between the orders of nature and grace. The best proof of this great divorce is sin, which results in the punishment of humanity by humanity and ultimately death.

According to St. Paul, sin results from death. You see, death threatens to make everything seem futile, worthless, ephemeral, and passing, lacking in ultimate meaning. It is through this crack that sin seeps in. Death is a sign that something is deeply wrong with us and with the world.

While death is a part of nature, and so, natural, it is only “natural” because the order of nature has been disconnected from the order of grace. Christ came to restore this vital connection. He did it by his passion, death, and resurrection, thus proving that love is not only as strong as death, but stronger than death.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, considering Christ’s triumph, the apostle Paul taunts death:
Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting? (15:54b-55)

Just as God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bondage through the waters of the Red Sea, he delivers us, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, from sin and death through the waters of baptism. This is exactly what St. Paul was getting at in our reading from Romans. “Are you unaware,” the apostles asked his readers, “that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” In baptism we die, are buried, and rise to new life, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-5).

The new life we have in Christ does not begin at mortal death; it begins at baptism with our paschal death and resurrection. Eternal life begins with our re-birth, with our dying, being buried, and rising with Christ to new life in baptism. Life eternal is not a dream deferred, let alone just a nice idea. Eternal life is now!

Our baptismal vocation is to make God’s reign a present reality. It is not an easy call to fulfill. Heeding your vocation can even mean being killed, which is why it is the only way to be truly alive. Our Lord told his followers, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more” (Luke 12:4). Because you died and rose with Christ in baptism, you cannot be killed.

If Christ was not raised from the dead, then, taking a cue from Monty Python, baptism is a farcical aquatic ceremony signifying nothing at all. As St. Paul wrote to the church in ancient Corinth, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins,” before concluding, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Cor 15:17.19).

Christos anesti. Alithos anesti – Christ is risen! Truly he is risen! And so, we are not the most pitiable people of all. Through Christ, we have conquered death. Christ’s Easter victory is our Easter victory! To view Jesus as an historical figure is to “seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified” still in the tomb, instead of the Son of God who “has been raised” from the dead and who is now present in a more powerful way, by means of the holy Spirit (Mark 16:5-6).

My friends, Jesus Christ is alive. He remains present in us and among us by the power of his holy Spirit, who is also the Spirit of the Father. We will witness this for ourselves when the holy Spirit is called down upon the waters of the font, when the Spirit is sealed on the foreheads of the newly baptized, empowering them to live for Christ, and when this same Spirit, who is the mode of Christ’s resurrection presence in us and among us, transforms the bread and wine and, in turn, us into Christ’s very body- the holy Church of God in Christ, established and perpetuated by the power of the holy Spirit.

But the surest proof that someone has encountered the risen Lord is that s/he feels impelled to become a witness. The Greek word for witness is martyr. And so, like the two Marys in our Gospel, you are sent to tell others, to bear witness to your encounter with the risen Christ.

So, sisters and brothers, let us go forth from this place, filled with joy, bearing witness to Christ’s death and resurrection by loving our neighbors and our enemies, demonstrating our faith by our works, bearing good fruit. This is the mission Christ entrusts to his Church until he comes again. This is the mission on which we are sent at the end of this sacred Triduum, when we are finally dismissed after two solid days of prayer and fasting, by which we have been preparing to renew our baptismal covenant, to renew our acceptance of God’s call.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Triduum: Good Friday

Readings: Isa 52:13-53:12; Ps 31:2.6.12-13.15-16.17.25; Heb 4:4-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

Apart from Holy Saturday, Good Friday is the strangest day of the year. For Christians, it is a day that naturally lends itself to quiet contemplation. Ideally, quietly contemplating Christ’s crucifixion is the best way to spend Good Friday.

The perennial question of whether or not it was necessary for Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God made-man-for-us to die in this horrible way cannot be answered simply. Love and death seem to go together. In sacred scripture a verse from the Song of Songs makes this clear:
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
For Love is strong as Death,
longing is fierce as Sheol.
Its arrows are arrows of fire,
flames of the divine1
His passion and descent into hell demonstrate Jesus Christ’s fierce longing for us. Because of his death, we can be assured that he is with us even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.2

“In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.”3 It is because we are loved that we can, in turn, fulfill God’s command to love God by loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Otherwise, love is too great a risk for us most of the time.

In the theology of the Letter to the Hebrews, one of the lengthier books of our uniquely Christian scriptures, we do not find a doctrine of merit by good works. “Nor is there any suggestion of a recompense for services rendered.”4 Rather, we find love “which must issue in good works if it is real love. Love brings its own reward, both now and in the future.”5 Love is the end in itself.

Failure to love, too, brings its own reward or, rather, its own punishment. It is really both a non-Christian and un-Christian idea to think each person’s suffering is somehow divine justice for their sins. But, in reality, “the punishment for sin is a self-inflicted punishment by humanity on humanity.”6 While karma is real, it has nothing to do with love and so nothing of grace about it.

What is karma but the cosmic projection of the lex talonis, which demands an-eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth? Let’s face it, nothing seems more natural to us than this. Jesus came to abolish the lex talonis and to establish divine order, the order of grace. How does this happen? It happens by doing God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven, to quote a prayer we pray together frequently.

In a book-length interview published some years ago, discussing his faith, Bono of U2 stated:
Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts… the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff7
Love interrupts karma, interrupts humanity’s punishment of humanity, which piles sin on top of sin. When contemplated, the Cross of Christ interrupts and disrupts our normal ways of thinking and acting.

Establishing the divine order, ushering in God’s reign, is the mission of the Church. We sometimes fail in our mission quite catastrophically, as history clearly shows. Hence, it is by grace that Christ does not abandon his Bride. Bono, in the same interview, also said,
Let's not get too hard on the Holy Roman Church…The Church has its problems, but the older I get, the more comfort I find there8
Indeed, we have a high priest who sympathizes with our weakness and who is indulgent of our forgetfulness, who forgives our trespasses, thus enabling us to forgive others when they trespass against us. We have a high priest who continues to be really present among us and, if we let him, is present in us, helping us to live gracefully, that is, in a non-punishing way.

God’s Son, while in the flesh, learned obedience from what he suffered. This is to state the matter too abstractly. Putting into some context requires us to remember that in the garden Jesus pleaded with the Father to spare him what he suffered. Nonetheless, “For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God."9

What was the joy that lay before Christ Jesus? Nothing other than love of God and love of neighbor. But Christ was not content to merely makes us his neighbors. Through Baptism he makes us children of the Father, his sisters and brothers, thus joining us together in a bond of profound love.

Through Christ’s passion and death, we begin to see that love is not merely as strong as death but that love is stronger than death.

1 Song of Songs 8:6.
2 Psalm 23:4.
3 1 John 4:10.
4 Hugh Montefiore, A Commentary on The Epistle to the Hebrews, 111.
5 Ibid.
6 James P. Mackey, Christianity and Creation: The Essence of the Christian Faith and Its Future among Religions, 115.
7 “Bono: Grace Over Karma,” Christianity Today, 1 August 2005, accessed 2 April 2021.
8 Ibid.
9 Hebrews 12:2.

On a weird Good Friday

Growing up I did not know what Good Friday was. For some reason, I did not correlate it at all with Easter. But then, Easter was a rather low-key affair that mostly revolved around receiving candy. Since, unlike today, candy was then a relatively rare thing, it was enough for me. I remember that we always had ham on Easter. Yes, I knew that Easter was the day Christ's resurrection is celebrated.

I still remember a few years after becoming Catholic, while still an undergraduate, going home to my parents' house late on Good Friday. I used to drive back home from Salt Lake on some weekends for the quiet to study. I think I had been fasting all day. I didn't arrive at my parents' house until around 9:00 PM.

About ten o'clock, I went in search of food. They'd had spare ribs for supper with rice and saved me some. And so, I ate. It's odd that remember this. I think the year was 1992. I also remember feeling a bit guilty, not only for eating but eating meat!. Hey, what's religion without a little neurosis? Maybe that's why the ribs tasted so damn good. And maybe the flavor of the ribs is what causes me to remember- that or the guilt.

Crucifixion, by Matthias Grünewald, from the Isenheim Altarpiece

Usually, the Triduum is pretty profound for me. This year, given the hectic pace of my life, not so much. Reflecting on it, that's okay. It's good news that we celebrate it no matter what. We even observed the Triduum last year when virtually nobody could participate, at least not in person. Perhaps a year that seemed like a long Lent also tamps down my fervor a bit.

This week, praying the psalmody for the Office of Readings on Wednesday, I was struck by verse fourteen of Psalm 39: "Turn your gaze from me, that I may smile before I depart to be no more."

This verse is preceded by
O Lord, turn your ear to my cry.
Do not be deaf to my tears.
In your house I am a passing guest,
a pilgrim, like all my fathers
One of the things I cherish about the Psalms is that they deal in reality. Reality is what makes them hopeful as opposed to merely optimistic- Psalm 39 has not one note of optimism in it!

Praying the Psalms day-after-day in the Liturgy of the Hours shapes and forms me. This is a great help when I am not "feeling it," as it were. This Good Friday, I am certainly not feeling it. That's okay. In fac, more than okay. Today I will fast, pray, and prepare for today's observance, which we're holding in the evening. I can say, I need resurrection. Well, at least I desire to be resurrected. That's a start, right?

Our traditio for this Good Friday is King's College (Cambridge) Choir & congregation singing "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Year I: Wednesday of Holy Week

Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 69:8-10.21-22.31.33-34; Matthew 26:14-25

In the days of Holy Week leading up to the Paschal Triduum, that is, during the final few days of Lent, Judas Iscariot is a central figure in the Church’s Gospel readings. This evening, we heard Matthew’s account of the same episode we heard about last evening from John’s Gospel.

According to Matthew, Judas had made a deal with chief priests prior to the Last Supper to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Based on this, the Wednesday of Holy Week is sometimes called “Spy Wednesday.” Judas is dubbed a “spy” because by his betrayal he became something of an inside informer for the authorities- the powers that opposed Jesus.

His betrayal, which, according to Matthew, was already a done deal, makes Judas’s reply to Jesus’s prediction that one of those at the Last Supper would betray home quite disingenuous. It was no mystery to Judas who would betray Jesus. It doesn’t appear that it was a mystery to Jesus either. But the rest of Twelve did not know who was going to betray their Master.

It’s tempting to ask the question, Have you ever been betrayed? And then to follow this up with the question, How did being betrayed make you feel? The answers would be hurt, angry, bitter, resentful, etc. What is important is what is signified by Jesus dipping a morsel and handing it to Judas: Jesus kept on loving Judas despite knowing about and then experiencing his betrayal.

The better question for today, I think, is Have you ever betrayed anyone? How did did you feel afterwards, when you realized what you had done? Ashamed? Remorseful? Embarrassed? Weak? If we follow the thread concerning Judas in Matthew’s Gospel to the end, we learn that Judas “deeply regretted what he had done.”1 As a result, threw the thirty pieces of silver into the temple and then hanged himself.2

IN Monday's Gospel reading, calling to mind Judas’s rebuke of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, for anointing Jesus’s feet with costly oil, it seems clear that either Judas didn’t believe or simply did not grasp who Jesus was. And this despite his experiences as one of the Lord’s closest followers. Given the complexity of human motivations perhaps he didn’t believe Jesus is the resurrection and life because he didn’t grasp the Lord’s teaching and was unable to make sense of his experiences in the light of that teaching.

The Thirty Pieces of Silver, by János Pentelei Molnár, 1909

In Matthew’s account, Judas clearly knows that Jesus is innocent of that which he stands accused. Hence, he is horrified when he witnesses how brutally Jesus is treated. In other words, whatever else Judas might’ve thought or believed, he knew he was responsible for the death of an innocent person.

Because we grasp who Jesus is and believe him to be Lord, we can be pretty sure that Jesus, who was never angry with, bitter toward, or resentful of Judas or any of those who treated him cruelly and killed him, would gladly have extended him mercy and forgiven him. These words from 1 Peter amplify and clarify the message of our first reading, taken from the second of deutero-Isaiah’s four Servant Songs: Jesus
committed no sin, no deceit was found in his mouth.
When he was insulted,
He returned no insult.

When he was made to suffer,
he did not counter with threats.
Instead he delivered himself up
to the One who judges justly.

In his own body he brought your sins to the cross3
In suffering like this, the sacred writer insists, Christ “left you an example to have you follow in his footsteps.”4

Can there be any doubt that Jesus would have forgiven Judas despite his repentance coming too late to save him from an agonizing death? After all, he lavishly forgave Peter for his betrayal. But it is not Jesus who needs Judas’s salvation but Judas who needs Jesus’s salvation.

Like Judas, we need Jesus to save us, most especially from ourselves, given our propensity to inflict what we mistakenly believe to be divine punishment upon ourselves, as did Judas. The name of God is Mercy because the name of his Son is Jesus.

1 Matthew 27:3.
2 Matthew 27:5.
3 1 Peter 2:22-24a.
4 1 Peter 2:21.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Year I: Monday of Holy Week

Readings: Isa 42:1-7; Ps 27:1-3; 13-14; John 12:1-11

According to John, Jesus went to Bethany, to the house of his dear friends, the siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, six days before Passover. Of course, it was during Passover that Jesus underwent his passion and death.

John makes a point of telling us, twice, that Jesus’s visit to Bethany occurs after he raised Lazarus from the dead. We heard about this on the Fifth Sunday of Lent during the Mass at which we celebrated the Third Scrutiny. Jesus’s bringing Lazarus back from the dead is perhaps best described as a resuscitation rather than a resurrection. But it is no less marvelous for that distinction.

As a result of having been resuscitated after being dead for several days, long enough for his body to begin to decay, Lazarus was no doubt something of a curiosity to many people. Because many began to believe that Jesus was Messiah and perhaps even Lord because he raised Lazarus, many of the Jewish leaders (not all, at least not Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea) wanted to kill him as well as Jesus.

We see in our reading tonight the stirrings of Judas’s betrayal when he says about Mary anointing Jesus’s feet with costly oil, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?”1 His silence in response to Jesus’s words about the poor always being present but he would not be seem to indicate that Judas did not believe Jesus’s claim to be Messiah and Lord, despite what he had witnessed.

This brings us to the relevant question: Who do you think Jesus is? If you remember, before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus tells Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. He then asks her, “Do you believe this?”2

It’s clear that Mary, the one who sat and listened at Jesus’s feet while her sister, Martha, hurried about getting everything ready and complaining to Jesus about Mary just sitting there, believed Jesus to be the resurrection and the life.3 Messiah, in Greek Christos, means Anointed One. Mary anoints Jesus, taking no heed of the cost, because, unlike Judas, she believes.

Last week in a conversation about very brief homilies, Fr. Andrzej told me that a priest in Poland on Easter once gave a very short homily: “Christ is risen! But you don’t believe it.” The question early in this Holy Week, then, is, Do you believe that Christ is risen and alive? It is a question you can only credibly answer with your life. In other words, you can’t really believe this and remain unchanged. To repent is to convert and to convert means to change.

Our reading from Isaiah insists that the one to whom it refers, for us this is Jesus, was “formed and set… as a covenant of the people, a light to the nations.”4 “The people,” of course, refers to Israel, while “the nations” refers you, me, and the rest of the human race. More relevant to the point, he came to bring sight to the blind. The blindness Jesus seeks to cure, as we learned in the Gospel reading for the Second Scrutiny, is not physical. As he says to those who doubt him: “If you were blind you have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ and so your sins remain.”5 Despite it happening right in front of their eyes, they remained blind to God’s salvation and so they remained unchanged.

It makes all the difference in the world whether you believe Jesus is a remote figure who lived some 2,000 years ago or believe that he is alive and present in a way more powerful than if he had remained on earth.

The way Christ is present not just to us but among us and even in us is none other than the holy Spirit. As Paul insisted: “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the holy Spirit.”6 How else if not by the holy Spirit did the centurion in yesterday’s Passion, who stood watch at Jesus’s crucifixion, whose job it was to ensure he died, upon seeing him expire proclaim, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”?7

1 John 12:5.
2 John 11:25-26.
3 See Luke 10:38-42.
4 Isaiah 42:6-7.
5 John 9:12.
6 1 Corinthians 12:3.
7 Mark 15:39.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

"Talk About the Passion"

Here we are, on the threshold of Holy Week. Passion Sunday is upon us. Ah, "Talk About the Passion," to borrow words from Michael Stipe. According to most New Testament scholars, the passion narrative, specifically Mark's, is the oldest part of the Gospels. In other words, fittingly, the story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth begins at the end.

I am excited that we will read Saint Mark's account of the Lord's Passion. Mark's narrative is not as smooth or stylistic as the accounts of the other two synoptic writers (i.e., Matthew and Luke), both of whom used the Gospel According to Saint Mark as a source. Surprisingly, for Mark, whose narrative can often seem a bit abrupt, this passion narrative is quite long.

Reading Mark's Passion account what we are hearing is very likely the oldest part of the first-written Gospel, making it, textually-speaking, the cornerstone of our uniquely Christian scriptures, which we call the New Testament.

Much is made of Jesus reciting the words of Psalm 22 as he hung on the cross: Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? ("My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"). In other words, like most of what Jesus says, his utterance is rooted in Israel's scriptures, not dredged up from some void or spoken off the cuff, as it were. It is more than a prayer or a plea. These words express hope.

The relevant passage from the twenty-second Psalm consists of the second and third verses:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help,
from my cries of anguish?
My God, I call by day, but you do not answer;
by night, but I have no relief
But beginning in verse four it is easy to see hope arising from beyond the horizon of optimism. Consider verses 4-5:
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the glory of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted and you rescued them
Hence, God is not a Deus ex machina, swooping in at the last minute, as all our superheroes do, and saving His Son before he dies. Rather, God meets us in our despair and accompanies us through it. This is made clear in the very next psalm, the much loved Psalm 23, which is only six verses long: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me" (v. 4).

Being truly human, Jesus really died. This is the whole point of chapter 9 of the Letter to the Hebrews. Given our human propensities, it is hardly surprising that docetism ("seemingism") emerged early on. Docetism holds that Jesus only seemed to die, or, in what is perhaps its most extreme form, it was body double who died in Jesus's place. It's difficult to get our minds around the idea that Jesus did not deem equality to God something to be grasped at, clung to, insisted upon, etc. Instead, acting out of the deepest depths of divine nature, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, subjecting himself not only death but death on the cross (see Philippians 2:5-11).

In the days of the Roman empire, among subjugated peoples, like the Jews, death on a cross was a shameful, humiliating death. Instead, on the cross the Lord despoiled "the principalities and the powers," making "a public spectacle of them," and "leading them away in triumph by it" (Colossians 2:15). You see, as a Christian you add by subtracting, you win by losing, you gain everything by claiming nothing but Christ and him crucified.

Being Christian means being kenotic- self-emptying- or it means nothing. Trinune life is kenosis, creation is kenosis, the Incarnation is kenosis, Christ's ministry, passion, death, and resurrection are kenosis. In not clinging to divine prerogatives that humanity too often attributes to God, acting instead perfectly in accord with divine nature, which is self-emptying self-giving, Jesus shows us what he means when he bids those who would follow him to take up our cross. As a friend once said in response to my assertion that God uses all things, especially our suffering, to draw us to himself: "Well, I don't like his methods." Who can blame her?

Perhaps the most telling sign of our fallenness is our tendency to think that God can and often does whatever he damn well pleases. Well, God does what he pleases, which is not for divine self-pleasure. The Father didn't kill his Son. I did. This is a difference between Abraham and Isaac and the Father and Jesus: in the latter case, the Father did not raise his hand against his Son. It is beyond idle to ask "Could God have prevented this from happening?" Asking why God "let" it happen, on the other hand, is the most human of questions, albeit one to which there is no truly satisfactory answer. Perhaps here as no place else we are confronted with mystery that cannot be explained away.

This past Thursday, the Church observed the Solemnity of the Annunciation. Rather than the Sorrowful Mysteries, which I pray virtually every day during Lent, I meditated on the Joyful Mysteries. The fourth Joyful Mystery is Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the Temple. Once in the Temple, according to Luke's account, the Holy Family encountered two elderly people, a man and a woman: the prophetess Anna and Simeon. Recognizing who this infant is, Simeon tells his Mother "and you yourself a sword will pierce" (Luke 2:35). Indeed, the Blessed Virgin is our Mater Dolorosa, our Mother of Sorrows. This is why we, Eve's poor banished children, cry to her.

Jesus leads you to the cross so that he can lead you beyond it. But the only way beyond the cross is through it. Nowhere does Jesus say that material wealth, comfort, hands-in-your waistband, lip-smacking, lazy ease is what he has in store for those who follow him. As a result, wealth is not a sign of divine favor- this is a pretty pagan, that is to say, very human notion. There is a lot to ponder as we enter the week Christians call "Holy."

As the lengthy introduction to the Mass for Passion Sunday bids:
with all faith and devotion,
let us commemorate
the Lord’s entry into the city of our salvation,
following in his footsteps,
so that, being made by his grace partakers of the Cross,
we may have a share also in his Resurrection and in his life

Friday, March 26, 2021

"And when the night is cloudy..."

Today is the Friday before Good Friday. It is the fifth and final Friday of Lent. I admit I am at a bit of a loss. I want to write about the role of faith in the novels of John Cheever, especially in Bullet Park and Falconer. During my silence this morning, as I looked at the candle I lit, it struck me that faith endures because the light shines in the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness because the darkness has not overcome it. Once this though came into my mind, prompted as it was by the chapter in Falconer in which the cardinal visits the prison, I immediately inserted the pronoun "my"- The light shines my darkness and my darkness has not overcome it. Jesus, [resent through the power his Spirit, is the inexhaustible candle shining in my darkness.

I don't think I could ever come close to describing my darkness. It's indescribable. I know there are some reading this who can relate. It's not a competition, Whose darkness it darker. We can agree that those of us who experience the darkness of depression experience more than enough darkness.

As typed the above, once again, my favorite song by The Beatles came to mind: Let It Be. When I was in diaconate formation, I wrote a short paper on what that song means to me. I am not sure I still have the paper but I remember writing it. I am fascinated by the various ways the three theological virtues pertain to each other. I am particularly interested in the various relationships that attain between faith and hope. It is never enough to view theological matters in a straight linear manner: faith-to hope-to love.

By now both of my readers are familiar with my tireless assertion that hope lies beyond optimism. One aspect of this is seeing that Jesus didn't die to "bless" me with a comfortable life of material abundance. Especially among Christians of all stripes in the U.S., this seems to be a core belief. "I am so blessed." On the contrary, Jesus constantly reminds us that wealth and material abundance are often the greatest obstacles to God's Kingdom!

What comes first, faith or hope? Does faith lead to/reinforce hope or does hope lead to/reinforce faith? The answer of course is both yes and no.

Given the above, it shouldn't be a great surprise that "Let It Be" is our last traditio for this Lent. I found this version by Alicia Keyes and John Legend that I found lovely to share. Besides, it's the day after the Solemnity of the Annunciation, which comes nine months to the day before the Lord's Nativity at Christmas:

Monday, March 22, 2021

Reflection for Morning Prayer with Diocesan Staff

Reading: Isaiah 54:10.14-15

“You are our sure defense, O God!”1 As believers, how can we doubt this? But once in a while, when this reassurance runs into unyielding reality, we can tend to doubt if God is on our side.

Taken as it is from deutero- (or second) Isaiah, which was composed during Israel’s Babylonian exile, this confident statement is uttered in the midst of what was likely for many exiled Israelites a hopeless situation. In context, then, it can be taken more as an aspiration, as hope. Knowing the end of the story (that Israel returned from exile), we can take it as a true and reassuring statement.

Genuine hope begins where optimism ends. This what Saint Paul meant when he wrote about Abraham’s hope in God’s promise that he would be “the father of many nations.” At the time of God’s promise, Abraham was already an old man. He and his wife Sarah, who was also past child-bearing age, remained childless. Hence, the apostle wrote that “hoping against hope,” Abraham believed God’s promise.2

We all know through our experience that God does not typically function as a Deus ex machina, that is, as an unexpected power swooping in from nowhere to save a seemingly hopeless situation. There is a reason we find novels, stories, and plays that feature this plot device unsatisfying. The scriptures abundantly reaffirm that God works through, not over, above, around or under the sometime desperate circumstances in which we find ourselves.

The opening words of this morning’s hymn provides us a clue as to how God defends us, how God saves and heals us: Christ bore the weight of human need through humble service.3

As Jesus made his way from Roman praetorium to Calvary it was not intuitively obvious to the casual observer that he bore the weight of human need. Without a doubt, to most who witnessed this, he appeared to be just another unfortunate Jew who ran afoul of the Roman imperium.

Crucifixion, by El Greco, 1600

It is not so much that God accomplishes his purposes in hidden ways- though he does sometimes. Rather, it is that God accomplishes them in the most counterintuitive way. In other words, it’s not how I would’ve done it. Once I see and experience Christ’s humble service, I quickly grasp that his is not just a counterintuitive way but the only way given his purpose.

Leave it to the Director of the Office of Deacons to point out that the original Christian word for “service” is the Greek word diakonia. It’s easy to see how the word deacon, or servant, is derived from diakonia.

In Saint Luke’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus asks his companion a rhetorical question: “who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves?” Of course, as the Lord goes on to note, the correct answer is the one seated at table. Jesus then tells them, “I am among you as the one who serves.”4 Translated more literally, he tells them "I among you as a deacon." The service to which our hymn refers- his crucifixion- is the height of diakonia.

Just as there is a priesthood of all the baptized, there is also a diaconate of all the baptized. As Jesus shows us, service precedes sacrifice. Our call is both to receive the humble service Jesus renders and to serve others in his name for the sake of God’s kingdom. Believe it or not, especially when you are experiencing difficulties, this how you come to know that God is on your side. Saint Paul captures our diaconal vocation very well:
Called from worship into service/
Forth in your great name we go/
To the child, the youth, aged/
Love in living deeds to show/
Hope and health, good will and comfort/
Counsel, aide, and peace we give/
That your children, Lord, in freedom/
May your mercy know and live

1 Isaiah 54:15.
2 Romans 4:18.
3 "Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service."
4 Luke 22:27.
5 "Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service," verse 4.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Fifth Sunday of Lent: Third Scrutiny

Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Ps 130:1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

In the seemingly hectic swirl that ensued upon the Lord learning of the death of his friend Lazarus, at which news “Jesus wept,” he told Martha, Lazarus' sister, the most fundamental truth of the Christian faith: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” He follows this revelation by asking her, “Do you believe this?”1 My dear Elect, this is the question Jesus asks you today.

Beliefs are strange things. We all have well-founded beliefs and we all have unfounded beliefs. Belief does not preclude doubt. In fact, dealing with doubts is indispensable for clarifying what you believe. We probably face no greater uncertainty than contemplating resurrection and life eternal in the wake of the death of someone dear to us. This is why engaging in momento mori- remembering your own death- is a fruitful spiritual practice.

Sure, living forever sounds great, but is it true? Can it be possible, or is it merely a desperate wish? Woody Allen expressed this deepest of human longings well when he said, “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

“Do you believe this?” This is the same question posed in our first reading from Ezekiel, the immediate context for which is Israel's return from exile. But how anyone and everyone comes to know that God is LORD is through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. God's Lordship is made manifest by Christ's victory over death, which is the power that opens graves and has us rise from them, both metaphorically and truly.2

It is easy, as Christians, to become so numb to this reality, this truth, that we lose sight of its audaciousness. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul fleshes this out more fully:
If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you3
My dear Elect, you are preparing for Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. These are the means Christ has instituted to impart to you, his Holy Spirit, who is also the Spirit of the Father. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the way Jesus remains present, not just to you, but in you and through you. But for this to happen, you must die.

Being infused with the Holy Spirit means being filled with new life, which is life eternal. Eternal life is not that life that begins after mortal death. Rather, eternal life begins when we die, are buried, and rise in Christ to new life through Baptism. A few chapters earlier in Romans, in the midst of a rather complicated exposition on sin and grace, the apostle makes an important point, one you will hear again at the upcoming Easter Vigil:
are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life4
Don't drive the Spirit out by continuing to live according to the flesh, which does not mean a rejection of the body but a rejection of sin: living according to the Spirit is something we are called to do now and, as the result of Christ's resurrection, forever with our bodies. This determination to cooperate with God's grace, which builds on our nature, is sung about by Old Crow Medicine Show in their song “Darius Rucker,” which is about a deep longing for home:
Oh, north country winters keep a-getting me down
Lost my money playing poker so I had to leave town
But I ain't turning back to live that old life no more5
How a wish turns into hope, an unfounded belief into a well-founded one, is through experience. Experience is how an event becomes an encounter. What does this mean? Pope Benedict, with his characteristic clarity, did about as good a job describing this with words as anyone: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”6

The “person” whom the Christian encounters who changes her, makes her a Christian, is none other than Jesus Christ. It is Christ who asks you today, as you come nearer to the waters of Baptism: "Do you believe this?” This evening, in preparation for being dying and being buried with Christ in Baptism, Jesus directs you: “Take away the stone” from your heart so that he can raise you to new life.

1 John 11:25-26a.35.
2 Ezekiel 37:13.
3 Romans 8:11.
4 Romans 6:2-3.
5 Old Crow Medicine Show, "Darius Rucker."
6 Pope Benedict, Encyclical Letter, Deus caritas est, sec. 1.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Solemnity of Saint Joseph in the Year of Saint Joseph

Readings: 2 Sam 7:4-5a.12-14a.16; Ps 89:2-5.27-29; Rom 4:13.16-18.22; Matt 1:16.18-21.24a

In many countries, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph is a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics. The Church almost always celebrates Saint Joseph’s feast during Lent. The earliest Easter can possibly be is 22 March. On the extremely rare occasion Easter falls that early, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph is “bumped” by Holy Thursday. To give you an idea as to how rare this, the last time Easter was on 22 March was in 1818 and the next time it is celebrated that early will be in 2285.1

It’s nice to have these celebrations in the midst of this holy season of penance. When either of these solemnities falls on a Friday of Lent, as Saint Joseph’s does today, there is no obligation to observe abstinence. So, tonight have steak for supper and thank Saint Joseph.

What these solemnities do is remind us to rejoice, to celebrate what God has done for us in and through Christ. Occurring when they do and so close together, these celebrations should deepen our appreciation of the beauty of the Paschal Mystery we are called to embody as Christ’s verum corpus, his true body.

In our Gospel, the inspired author of Matthew’s Gospel does not just tell us that Joseph was “a righteous man.”2 He illustrates how he is righteous. Upon learning that his betrothed, which entails a deeper commitment than simply being engaged, was pregnant, knowing how these things happen and that he was not the father of this child, he was determined to shield Mary from the harsh prescription of the law, which, when applied strictly, held that she should be stoned to death.

It is important to note that Joseph did not have the dream informing him of Mary's child’s divine paternity until after his righteousness was made manifest. This also demonstrates what Saint Paul, in our reading from Romans, meant when he wrote “it was not through the law” that God kept his promise to Abraham, our father in faith, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.3

According to the chronology of the Torah- the first five books of the Bible- God made his promise to Abraham well before he gave the law to Moses. It is to this same promise that the prophet Nathan alludes in our first reading; a promise that has advanced concretely, even if unevenly and unexpectedly, through history. It is crucial to grasp that God does not ultimately accomplish his purposes through the law. Saint Paul held that the law served as our teacher until Christ came.4

It is through Jesus Christ, a descendant of Abraham in the flesh, that God accomplishes his purposes. It is through Christ, by faith, that we are the children of Abraham- the fulfillment of God’s promise. Jesus is not a new Moses. And so, Joseph’s righteousness is not demonstrated by his strict adherence to the law but believing in and obeying God, who spoke to him through angels and in dreams.

Paul boldly asserted that the letter of the law kills, while the spirit of the law gives life.5 The spirit of the law is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Indeed, if Joseph had invoked the letter of law, the Son of God would have been killed in utero. People who scoff at Pope Francis’s insistence that God is a God of surprises have no deep grasp of scripture and they certainly cannot make sense of Saint Joseph's experience. As the late Rich Mullins observed: “God is a wild man.”

In the Hebrew Bible, it was Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham, according to biblical genealogy, who was famed for interpreting dreams. In fact, it was his interpretation of Pharaoh's dream that saved Egypt from famine and led him to becoming something like the prime minister of Egypt.

Staying in Matthew’s Gospel, it was Saint Joseph who took Mary and the child Jesus to Egypt. He did not go as leader, as a V.I.P. The Holy Family went to the land of the pharaohs as refugees, fleeing Herod’s murderous wrath. Presumably, while in the land of the Nile, Joseph plied his trade as carpenter, tekton in Greek.

In his Apostolic Letter, Patris Corde (“With a father’s heart”), promulgated last 8 December, the Solemnity of Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis declared this year the Year of Saint Joseph.

Saint Joseph Icon by Br. Claude, OSB, of Mount Angel Abbey]

In the opening sentence of Patris Corde, the Holy Father points out that in each of the four Gospels Jesus is referred to “the son of Joseph.”6 Later on, towards the end of the letter, he affirms that “Fathers are not born, but made.” Pope Francis insists that a “man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the responsibility for the life of another.” By doing this, the pope insists, a man “becomes a father to” the person for whom he takes up responsibility.7

Because he was fully human, it would be ridiculous not to believe that for Jesus, as for all of us, who we become as people is both the result of nature and nurture. Sure, given that Jesus was also divine, this interaction is more complex- it is complex with us, too. But surely the kind of righteousness Joseph exhibited in the wake of discovering his betrothed was pregnant with child that was not his, gives us insight in how Jesus was raised.

In his lovely letter, Pope Francis discusses Saint Joseph under five headings: A tender and loving father; An obedient father; An accepting father; A creatively courageous father, A working father.

In the first section, pointing to the enormity of the task with which God entrusted Saint Joseph- raising the Son of God- the Holy Father notes, quoting Saint Paul, which quote is included in our second reading, that “The history of salvation is worked out ‘in hope against hope' (Rom 4:18).” Most of God’s plans, he asserts, “are realized in and despite our frailty.” “Even through Joseph’s fears, God’s will, his history and his plan were at work.” And so, Joseph “teaches us that faith in God includes believing that he can work even through our fears, frailties and our weaknesses.”8

As an obedient father, in each situation, “Joseph declared his own ‘fiat,’ his own “be it done unto me according to your will,” like those of Mary at the Annunciation and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.”9

Joseph accepted God’s will, even when it was not likely what he would have willed for himself. When he was told by the angel not be afraid and to bring the pregnant Mary into his home as his wife, Joseph set aside anger and disappointment and accepted his circumstances. He did not resign himself to some vague fate. Rather, he accepted God’s will with courage and hope.10

In addition to facing the situations in which he found himself with courage and obedience, Joseph was creative. He turned “problems into possibilities,” always remaining open to divine providence, allways discerning God's will for his life. Taking his family to Egypt is an example of this.11

Of course, Saint Joseph was a worker. On 1 May, we celebrate the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker. This ties back into the environment of Jesus’s upbringing. Like Joseph, Jesus, too, was a tekton, someone who earned his living, at least up until the beginning of his public ministry, with his hands.12

Alluding to the fact that in many of her prayers, the Church refers to Saint Joseph as the Blessed Virgin’s chaste spouse, Pope Francis notes that, in the first instance, chastity is the “summation of an attitude that is opposite of possessiveness.”13

He goes on to state that “Chastity is freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life.” Hence, only when love is chaste, is it true love. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom. So, there is something to the saying “If you love someone, set them free.” Love that is love can only be freely chosen. In either time or eternity, it can never be imposed.

God is love. And so, God is freedom. Jesus came to liberate us. The answer to the question “Does God love me?” is always and emphatically “Yes!” Proof of this is Jesus on the cross: “God so loved the world…”14 The more important question is, “Do I love God?” Saint Joseph shows us what an affirmative answer to that question looks like.

1, “You’ve already experienced the earliest Easter you’ll ever know.”
2 Matthew 1:19.
3 Genesis 5:15.
4 Galatians 3:23-26.
5 2 Corinthians 3:6.
6 Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter, Patris Corde; Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; Luke 4:22; John 6:42.
7 Ibid- all citations in this paragraph.
8 Patris Corde, “A tender loving father.”
9 Patris Corde, “An obedient father.”
10 Patris Corde, “An accepting father.”
11 Patris Corde, “A creatively courageous father.”
12 Patris Corde, “A working father.”
13 Patris Corde- this and next paragraph.
14 John 3:16.

Faith is decisive

One of the biggest and most dangerous lies is that of racial purity. There is no such thing. We're all way more closely related than racists would have us believe. Humanity, like the triune God, should strive for unity in diversity.

Myths of racial purity/superiority, in the service of which religion is often misappropriated, at least in the modern era, are responsible for a lot of war, death, and devastation. If you consider yourself a Christian, one of our religion's central theses is that race doesn't matter, genealogy doesn't matter, etc.

You're not a Christian because you're Italian, Irish, Venezuelan... Faith in Christ is the decisive factor. Having faith means recognizing that God did not become human merely to make you easy in your comfort but challenge you at the deepest level of your being, urging you to forsake your idols.

Anyone can have faith in Christ- it's not exclusive but universally inclusive. If you miss this, you miss Christianity. As Jesus insisted: "God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones" (Matthew 3:9).

Jesus, Crucifixion & the Latin Tree of Sin, by Sandra Silberzweig

If you pay close attention to the exodus narrative, you will find this: "The Israelites set out from Rameses for Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, not counting the children. A crowd of mixed ancestry also went up with them, with livestock in great abundance, both flocks and herds" (Exodus 12:37-38)

Nonetheless, some continue to insist that white males are the most endangered group of people. What laugh! Generally speaking, at least in the U.S., we're the problem.

Given Saint Patrick's history of being captured and initially brought to Eire as a slave, I've always found a lot of resonance and correspondence in the collaboration between Ziggy Marley (one of Bob's sons) and The Chieftans on Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." As a result, this collaborative version of this great song is our traditio for the Solemnity of Saint Joseph:

At least to my mind, "our prophets," the ones we kill, are those who point us toward overcoming our murderous tribalism: MLK, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, and many others, chief among whom is Jesus, God's Son. God did not kill his Son, we did- you and me. Saint Joseph, pray for us.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Fourth Sunday of Lent: Second Scrutiny

Readings: 1 Sam 16:1b.6-7.10-13a;- Ps 23:1-6; Eph 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

A prophet, a king, two anointings, the LORD as a shepherd, light, darkness, awakening, Jesus, a blind man, a washing, a healing, a warning of judgment- our readings for the Second Scrutiny of our Elect contain enough material to write a good-sized book! Maybe it will be an international best-seller. Perhaps we’ll call it “the Bible.”

Looking at Samuel's response to the LORD's prompting to head to Bethlehem to the house of Jesse to find and anoint Israel's new king, which was necessitated by the current king’s disobedience, we see that it was only after Samuel considered six of Jesse's seven sons that he found God's anointed in the seventh, that is, the least among them- even though, biblically-speaking, seven is the number of completeness.

This episode dramatically highlights the fact that God often (as in almost-always) chooses the least likely person to accomplish his purposes. Of course, Jesus himself, the only begotten Son of the Father, is the ultimate proof of this divine tendency. Why does God work this way? I think it's so that there is no doubt that it is God who is at work reconciling the world to himself and, while requiring our cooperation, is not accomplished by human effort.

You don't have to take my word to verify that God chooses the least likely people to accomplish his purposes, or even that of Sacred Scripture, just look around, not only at the Elect, but at the rest of us, at the ekklesia, that is, the Church, and not just in the pews, but up here on the chancel, too. I believe that what St Paul wrote to the ancient Church in Corinth still applies today:
consider your own calling... Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God. It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption1
The people of God remain the original motley crew. According to the upside-down nature of God's Kingdom, being the least and lowly is the surest sign of election.

My dear Elect, you have been called by the Lord from darkness to live in the glory of his magnificent light, which illumines you from within and is the very power of the Holy Spirit. It is by means of the Holy Spirit that our risen Lord remains present, not just to us, but in and through us until he comes again. And so, heed the apostle's exhortation: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”2

It has been observed that “original sin is the one verifiable Christian dogma.”3 Accordingly, in the most real sense, we are all born blind. Like the man Jesus heals by restoring his sight in today’s Gospel, without doing all the required theological parsing, there is a scriptural sense in which our blindness is not necessarily the result of either our sin or that of our parents. St Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, noted:
creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God4
This is wonderfully and gloriously sung about at the beginning of the upcoming Easter Vigil in that great and ancient hymn, the Exsultet:
O happy fault, that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!5
My dear Elect, Christ has elected you, which election we confirmed a few weeks ago at the Rite of Election. Like the blind man in today's Gospel, you are chosen so “that the works of God might be made visible through [you].”6

Always bear in mind that you have done nothing to earn your election. Your chosen-ness, like David's, is a bit of a mystery. Keep in mind that God's glory shines forth much more through your faults, failures, and weaknesses than through your gifts, talents, and things you are good at. But you are chosen to bear witness to others about what Jesus has done for you and to invite them to meet the Savior that they, too, might see.

Again, like the blind man in today's Gospel, who immediately began to pay a price for being chosen (another of those great mysteries- that of the cross), you will be washed in baptism, anointed in confirmation, and further drawn into the very life of God. In communion you will be fully incorporated into Christ’s verum corpus, his true Body. Then you can truly say, “I was blind and now I see.”7

1 1 Corinthians 1:26-30.
2 Ephesians 5:14.
3 James Martin, S.J., Jesus: A Pigrimage, 100.
4 Romans 8:20-21.
5 Roman Missal, “The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night,” sec. 19.
6 John 9:3.
7 John 9:25.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Jesus on the Cross: facing our fear of death

As useful as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be in helping someone initialize change when it comes to problematic behavior, studies show that over time this fades. CBT is not concerned with the whys of what needs to change. It provides practical ways of dealing with the "what"- with behavior. I am not a psychologist and I am not going to provide proof of what I am going to assert in the form of empirical data derived from studies. But I think not dealing with the why may be one reason why CBT techniques tend to fade.

At risk of gross oversimplification, by contrast, psychonanalytic approaches deal almost exclusively with the why. Psychanalysis seeks to delve deeply into the psyche. Why am I writing about this? I am writing about this because the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B, is John 3:14-21. This passage begins with these words, placed in Jesus's mouth: "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."

The reference to the serpent points to an episode in the Book of Numbers (21:4-9). In this passage, the Israelites are set upon by poisonous serpents. Those who were bitten died. God commanded Moses to make a bronze replica of the serpent and mount it on a pole. All those who were bitten had to do to be healed was to look at the bronze serpent. Yet, some still perished because they would not look.

The thought that prompted this post came to me in the form of a question: Why a serpent? Referring back to wrote I wrote about psychotherapy, I think it helps us to face what we fear. The Israelites clearly feared the poisonous serpents who were killing them. If bitten, they could be healed by looking at a replica of a serpent. It may also be useful to know that in the ancient world of the Middle East, the serpent was a symbol of wisdom. Comimg to my point, they were saved by facing what they feared.

Still appearing on medical insigna, the serpent on a pole remains, even in our day, a symbol of healing.

In the Gospel for this Sunday, Jesus's use of the phrase "lifted up" is a reference to his crucifixion. The Greek word used for "lifted" means simply to be heightened. It can also mean to be exalted.

This brings me to the overall point: Our greatest fear is death. As Paul notes in Romans 5:12- sin is the result of death, not vice-versa (see "Following Jesus requires ruthless trust" second, third, and fourth paragraphs). And so, when we look at Jesus hanging on the cross, we encounter our greatest fear: death.

Like the serpent raised up in what the inspired author of Saint John's Gospel calls, in Greek, the ἐρήμῳ, which literally means "the desolate," facing what we fear heals us. Being "saved" means being "salved," which means being healed. Jesus not only faced but overcame not only death but hell for us.

This is one more way of seeing how hope lies beyond optimism.

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...