Monday, March 28, 2022

Fourth Monday of Lent

Readings: Isa 65:17-21; Ps 30:2.4.5-6.11-13b; John 4:43-54

Jesus’s attitude toward his own miracles throughout all four Gospels is perhaps best described as ambivalent. This is highlighted in today’s Gospel. It is important for the sacred author to note that Cana is where Jesus performed his first “sign” (turning water into wine at the wedding) because, in John’s Gospel, this event marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.

Jesus’ attitude toward his miracles is demonstrated very well in his response to the royal official from Capernaum. Upon hearing the man's request to heal his son, the Lord replies: “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.”1 But the worried father persists, pleading with Jesus to come with him to Capernaum before his son dies.

Rather than accompany the man back home to heal his son, Jesus, no doubt seeing not only the man’s desperation but his faith, dismisses him, telling him: “You may go; your son will live.”2 Unlike the dramatic way in which Jesus restored the sight of the man born blind a bit later on in John's Gospel (i.e., spitting in the dirt and then rubbing the mud on the man’s eyes), in this passage Jesus heals the royal official’s son in a very undramatic way and from a distance.3

Hearing Jesus’ assurance, the royal official returns home to find that his son is better. Inquiring about the timing of the boy’s recovery, he finds that it occurred about the same time as his encounter with Jesus. He shares this with his household. His plea was answered. Members of his household, hearing this and only seeing the son’s recovery, not having directly encountered Jesus themselves, come to believe.

It seems we have a hard time believing in Jesus until he does something for us or proves himself in some way. In the end, such belief is built on sand. What happens when Jesus does not answer your desperate plea in the way you want him to?

Staying in John’s Gospel, let’s move forward to after Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection and consider the episode featuring the so-called “doubting” Thomas.4 Unlike the members of the royal official's household, Thomas would not believe his close associates who told him they had seen the risen Jesus. Thomas insists that he must see for himself. Otherwise, he won’t believe it.

A week later, Jesus gives Thomas the proof he seeks. The resurrected Lord has his unbelieving follower put his finger in the wounds left by the nails. He has him place his hand in the wound the centurion’s sword left in his side. As Thomas worships him, the risen Lord tells him: “do not be unbelieving, but believe.”5

In the form of a rhetorical question, Jesus says that Thomas believes only because he has seen. He then says what he leaves unsaid in his initial reply to the royal official’s plea: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”6 Believing without seeing seems to be the greatest miracle of all!

Take the Eucharist. It is not obvious to a casual observer that anything happens when the words of consecration are spoken over the bread and the wine. In fact, physically and so in appearance, nothing changes. Nonetheless, as Catholics, we believe that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, ex opere operato, as it were. But where’s the proof?

Well, my friends, the only convincing proof is the lives of those of us who receive Christ in communion. Just like Jesus didn't want to be known as a "miracle worker," a magician, we must not conceive of the Eucharist as a magic trick but as a calling to serve others in his name.

1 John 4:48.
2 John 4:50.
3 See John 9.
4 See John 20:24-29.
5 John 20:27.
6 John 20:29.

Morning Prayer: Fourth Monday of Lent

Below is my short reflection for Prayer with my fellow members of our Diocesan Staff this Monday morning.


Reading: Isaiah 25:7-9

The Book of Isaiah is really three books in one. First Isaiah was written prior to Israel’s exile in Babylon. Second Isaiah was composed during their Babylonian exile. And, as you might’ve guessed, Third Isaiah was produced after Israel’s return from exile. So, instead of the words and oracles of one prophet, we have texts that together are from what might be called “the Prophetic School of Isaiah.”

Our reading this morning is from First Isaiah, in which the prophet seeks to bring Israel back to fidelity to their covenant with God. As the first chapter of Isaiah shows us, he does this by warning them of the consequences of failing to build a just a society, one in which the least among them are cared for: the widow, the orphan, the stranger. But in our passage today, we see beyond the present moment, beyond the exile, even beyond death, to the good things God will do, despite their unfaithfulness. This is precisely where this passage becomes relevant to us.

This is the Good News: in and through Christ Jesus, God is faithful to us not even when we are unfaithful but in a weird way through our infidelities. Like ancient Israel, God does not necessarily protect us from the natural consequences of our infidelities. These consequences should never be mistaken for God’s punishment. To use a contemporary phrase, when it comes to the consequences of our actions, “It is what it is.” But, as Christ shows us, God draws near to us especially through our suffering.

Each of us, notes Trevor Hudson, “sits next to a pool of our own tears.”1 Some of our tears result from what has been done to us and some result from our own actions. Either way, these pools “remind us of the grief and losses we have suffered throughout our lives.”2

Especially during Lent, the Lord Jesus gives us the consolation of his tears. Jesus’ “tears remind us that God weeps with us, grieves with us, and suffers with us.”3 Those who fully enter into this holy season experience the intimate company of Jesus. Such a person can experience for herself that Jesus’ “tears represent the empathy of God.”4 We still have a few weeks of Lent before us. And so, I encourage you to take some time to meet Jesus by the pool of your tears.

Our pools are filled with the tears shed over the death of a loved one, the pain of a divorce, the abuse of a child,” our multiple unmet longings, the rejection by a close friend, etc.

What Friedrich Nietzsche observed is true: “only where there are graves are there resurrections.”5

1 Trevor Hudson. Pauses for Lent: 40 Words for 40 Days, pg 40). Upper Room Books. Kindle Edition.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, XXVI “The Priests,” trans. Thomas Commo.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Year C Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: Josh 5:9a.10-12; Ps 34:2-7; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3.11-32

Our Gospel reading today, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is one of Jesus’ best-known parables. In many ways, it is a largely allegorical story that seems, in many ways, to speak for itself. It is the last of three parables in the fifteenth chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel about losing and finding.

Jesus’ parable begins with three striking elements. First, the younger son dares to ask his father for his inheritance before his father’s death. Such a request would be outrageous even in our time and culture. Second, instead of responding to this request with an angry or indignant refusal, the father goes ahead and divides his wealth, giving his younger son his inheritance. Finally, the younger son liquidates his inheritance, turning it into cash, which he then squanders by living in an extremely self-indulgent manner.1

After rapidly spending his entire inheritance, this “prodigal” son is forced to hire himself out as a swineherd. For someone who is Jewish, it’s difficult to think of anything more humiliating. It doesn’t seem to take long working with pigs, longing to eat what the swine ate, for this young man to come to his senses. Thinking about how well his father, whom he has gravely insulted and humiliated, treats his servants, this wayward young man decides to go home and ask his dad to take him back as a servant, not a son.

In Jesus Christ, we have something of a twist to this story. Jesus is a beloved, obedient, and only begotten Son, “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be” held onto, but, rather, as something to let go of and even shared; who, for us and for our salvation, “came down from heaven and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of Virgin Mary.”2 He also “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried,” and “descended into hell.”3

One thing Christ and the younger son in our Gospel have in common is that they both grew through suffering. The inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews notes: “it was fitting that he, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the leader to their salvation perfect through suffering.”4

The major difference between the two lies in the fact that the son in today’s Gospel suffered the consequences of his own sinful behavior, while the Only Begotten Son of the Father, suffered as the result of his loving obedience. This tells us something important about suffering.

The most compelling figure in this parable is the father. Approaching it allegorically, it’s clear that the father is an image of God the Father. As he “caught sight” of his younger son, for whose return he no doubt yearned daily, we hear that “he was filled with compassion.”5 The Greek word used here for the father’s response to seeing his lost son return, literally means to yearn deep in one’s bowels, to be moved in the very core of one's being, deep in your gut.

This word is only used two other times in Luke’s Gospel: when Jesus, seeing the grief of a widow in Nain due to the death of her only son, “was moved with pity for her” before raising her son from the dead; the word is also used in Luke when, encountering the man robbed and left for dead on the side of the road, the Good Samaritan “was moved with compassion.”6 The Samaritan's compassion plays out by his elaborate response to the plight of the robbed and beaten man.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt Van Rijn, ca, 1661-1669

It is easy to miss that in this parable the loving, compassionate father has two prodigal sons: one who repented and another one who, at end of the parable, is left with a choice.

It is also easy to overlook that, in this parable, it is the father who suffers. He watched his youngest son leave. In light of his son’s impatience and eagerness to live it up, the father was all too aware of the dangers his son faced, a good many of which his son sadly realized. After his repentant son returned, he also endured the anger and resentment of his older son, whom he tried to persuade to rejoice and join the party celebrating the return of his brother.

This loving father was unable to make his younger son return home and then didn't seem to make much headway in convincing his oldest son to let go of his resentment. In truth, only the sons themselves could take the initiative and decide. Just as God does through Christ, the father in the parable shows us that to love is to make yourself vulnerable. Choosing to love is to take a risk.

You see, repentance and the conversion it kickstarts can’t be forced. By design, God’s grace, his mercy, his lovingkindness is never irresistible. You can resist by living in a manifestly self-destructive way, like the younger son during his time away. But you can also resist by holding onto your grudges and resentments, refusing to forgive, and seeing no need to be forgiven, as well as avoiding or refusing reconciliation, which was the temptation faced by the older son.

Like the older brother, not living a manifestly sinful life may produce just enough self-righteousness to justify living with a hard, cold heart, one full of bitterness and resentment. Later in her life, my grandma, speaking about her mother-in-law, my great-grandma, who had then been dead for over fifty years and with whom she’d had a terrible relationship, said “If I have to forgive her, I guess I won’t go to heaven.” I was shocked. As I told my grandma, “That’s work you have to do.” My grandma lived quite a few years after this. I hope and pray she did that work.

As you can tell from the pink vestments, today is Laetare or “Rejoice” Sunday. It is called this because the first words of the Introit, sung at the beginning of Mass, and taken from the Book of Isaiah, are: “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful all who were in mourning.”7 If we can’t rejoice in God, who because of Jesus Christ we can call “our Father,” whose mercy offers all of us a fresh start in every moment, then what is there to rejoice about?

To come to Mass week after week and pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” and then receive communion with no intention to forgive others for slights real or imagined, is deeply problematic and not the recipe for joy. Lent means "springtime." Springtime, as we see outside right now, is when new life springs forth. Lent is an invitation to turn over a new leaf, to let go of everything that prevents us from loving God and our neighbor. To take the risk of love, which, in its essence, is what it means to follow Christ.

Like the father in today’s parable, God, our Father, invites us to experience the joy of his unconditional love and to rejoice in his love for others. I don’t know about you, but I often find experiencing joy much harder than experiencing sadness, frustration, self-contempt, which easily spills out in contempt for others, maybe onto no one more than the person trying to “cheer me up.”

Like gratitude, which we heard last week during our parish retreat, is essential for living a Eucharistic life (“Eucharist” means thanksgiving), for the most part, joy is a choice. As Henri Nouwen noted, choosing joy is an act of hope that “requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness…, choosing for life even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded by lies.”8

I think the passage from the Book of Nehemiah, which serves as the scripture reading for Morning Prayer for the first four Sundays of Lent, captures the spirit of Rejoice Sunday:
Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep;
for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day,
for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength9

1 The Paulist Biblical Commentary, “Luke,” M. Dennis Hamm, SJ, 1077.
2 Philippians 2:6; Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” sec. 19.
3 Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” sec. 19.
4 Hebrews 2:10.
5 Luke 15:20.
6 See Luke 7:11-17 and Luke 10:29-37.
7 Roman Missal, Fourth Sunday of Lent.
8 Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 115-116.
9 Nehmeiah 8:9b.10b.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Feeling hopeful on Annunciation

Today, on what would be the Third Friday of Lent, Roman Catholics and other Christians celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation. Yes, this comes nine months to the day before Christmas. Because today is a Solemnity, you may eat meat should you choose to do so.

Annunciation, by Spring Dumitrescu

Moreover, today is the day chosen by the Holy Father for the Act of Consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary for Russia and Ukraine. Today, I contemplated the Rosary's Joyful Mysteries! Of course, the first of these is the Annunciation. The fruit of the Annunciation is humility. Re-reading the scriptural account of the Annunciation this morning (see Luke 1:26-38), I was struck by this sentence: "But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be." Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death."

It seems wonderful to me that during this particular Lent today's Solemnity kicks off the weekend during which we celebrate Laetare Sunday! Of course, on this Sunday of Lent, we are exhorted to Rejoice and be glad!

As Trevor Hudson notes in his very good little book Pauses for Lent: 40 Words for 40 Days: God's peace "is a lasting peace that cannot be taken be away from us. It does not depend on our lives running smoothly. God’s peace provides an inner assurance that, ultimately, all will be well. This peace occurs in the presence—not the absence—of upheaval and turmoil." Emerging now from a few very dark weeks, I can see this.

While can and often is used trivially and to excess, what appears in Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love is a comfort: all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Trust me, friend, I understand all too well that is very difficult to believe and even harder to verify in reality. This is why we call it hope. As a friend reminded me in a letter a few years ago: "Easter is coming. Easter is always coming."

Since I've been on a jag with Tom Jones' Praise & Blame album, I am going with the decidedly upbeat and, yes, hopeful "Don't Knock."

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Jesus Christ: the Sacrament of God

John 4:5-42

The Samaritan woman meeting Jesus at the well is one of the richest pericopes in the New Testament. There is so much to unpack in this episode: Jesus walking through Samaria, talking not just to a woman (gasp!), not just to a Samaritan woman (double gasp!), but to a Samaritan woman who is very likely considered to be the village hussy (does anyone still use that word?). It has been speculated that her reason for going to the well at noon, instead of early in the morning, is to avoid contact with others, which may have been shaming for her. Without a doubt, this woman's relationship history is troubled, to make an understatement.

There are two deep misunderstandings: the woman misunderstands the "water" Jesus offers and his disciples misunderstand the food to which he refers. His disciples are not only puzzled but slightly scandalized that he is talking to an unaccompanied woman.

It is important to point out that Jesus, despite knowing "everything" that woman had done, does not condemn her. In fact, he mildly praises for her telling him the truth about not having a husband, even though any interested reader can easily see, in light of what Jesus says about her being married five times and currently living with a man to whom she is not married, that she's being just a bit misleading. Again, Jesus does not condemn, rebuke, upbraid, seek to set her straight, or give her unsolicited relationship advice. He doesn't even see fit to give her some kind of "absolution" for her alleged sins.

It is precisely through her odd relationship history that she begins to recognize who Jesus is. Jesus doesn't let her sit and spin. She calls him a prophet and makes the connection to the Messiah. Then Jesus, making himself vulnerable, tells her that he is the Messiah, the one for whom she and her people are waiting and who will tell them "everything."

Upon her encounter with the Christ, she becomes an evangelist to the other inhabitants of her village. Talk about being saved by grace through faith! She invites her fellow villagers to come and see for themselves. Like her, after their own close encounter with Jesus, many of them come to see for themselves who he is.

Only water will slake a terrible thirst. If you've ever been really thirsty, you don't want anything but water. Thirst in this passage is metaphorically equated with what today we might call our existential angst, our desire for meaning and purpose, our dissatisfaction, even in the wake of something good and enjoyable. That dissatisfaction is like thirst and keeps coming back no matter how many ways you try to satisfy it, just like the woman had to keep coming back to the well to draw water.

Water in this passage is a metaphor for God. And, as Edward Schillebeeckx noted in the title of his first major theological work, Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God. If Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God, the Eucharist is the sacrament of Christ. In and through this sacrament Christ becomes the food that satisfies our hunger and the drink that quenches our thirst.

Given the centrality of food and drink, of water and grain, it is easy to see that this passage is deeply Eucharistic. Like the woman misunderstanding Jesus about water and his disciples not grasping what he said about food, our understanding of the Eucharistic is often highly reductive. This is to our detriment and that of the world.

This passage also brings into bold relief something Pope Francis pointed out in his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: "The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak" (sec. 47).

While "tradition," in all its manifest humanity, has given the Samaritan woman at the well a name ("Photine," meaning "the luminous one"), she is not named in the Gospel. Why? Because you and I are her.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Making peace is not a passive endeavor

Pope Francis' Apostolic Letter on Saint Joseph, Patris Corde, is very beautiful. Here's something from its second section for today's Solemnity of Saint Joseph:
Even through Joseph’s fears, God’s will, his history and his plan were at work. Joseph, then, teaches us that faith in God includes believing that he can work even through our fears, our frailties and our weaknesses. He also teaches us that amid the tempests of life, we must never be afraid to let the Lord steer our course. At times, we want to be in complete control, yet God always sees the bigger picture

On a slightly different note, I meant to post a traditio yesterday. Obviously, I did not. What I was going to write was prompted by the book I am using this Lent: Trevor Hudson's Pauses for Lent: 40 Words for 40 Days. The scripture verse for Day 15 (yesterday) was Matthew 5:9' "Blessed are the peacemakers."

With Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the world seemingly on the brink of a large scale war, peace seems far away and perhaps even unachievable. I think this gets back to trusting "the Lord to steer of course," especially in light of the reality that these events are not in my control or yours.

As Trevor notes:
Despite constant talk of the value of peace, we find very little in this world. Both our public and personal lives reflect our tragic lack of peace—spiraling cycles of violence, unhealthy addictions, and destructive tensions that divide families, communities, and countries. We are far better at loving the idea of peace than at making peace within the realities of our lives (28)
Ironically, obtaining peace requires a struggle, what Saint Paul referred to as an agon.

How to be a peacemaker? Well, in the words of the hymn: "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." For Lent, I broke out my CD (remember those?) of Tom Jones' album Praise & Blame. Our traditio, albeit late for this week, is Sir Tom Jones singing a song written by Bob Dylan: "What Good Am I?" It's from Praise & Blame. I think this song is about how to be a peacemaker, which is what it means to be a Christian.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Second Monday of Lent

Readings: Daniel 9:4b-10; Ps 79:8-9.11.13; Luke 6:36-38

Could the message of today’s Gospel possibly be any clearer? As a Christian, the way you should always hear Jesus’ teachings is in the first person singular. When received in that way, you quickly realize you have enough to take care of in your relationship with the Lord that you don’t need to go on a search for even the beam in our brother’s or sister’s eye, let alone any hard-to-see splinters.

Among ourselves as Christians, it’s safe to say that on judgment day that none of us wants to receive what we deserve. Rather, you and I want God to be merciful. This brings to mind the tax collector in Luke’s Gospel, whom Jesus contrasts with the self-righteous Pharisee, the latter of whom is so proud of the meticulous manner in which he keeps all the rules.

Unable to go in or even look up while praying the precincts of the Temple, the tax collector could only beg, saying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”1 These words constitute the core of the ancient and venerable Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is of this tax collector that Jesus says, “I tell you, this man, rather than the Pharisee, went home justified.”2

Because of Jesus Christ, you can count on God being merciful but on only one condition: that you are merciful. God will forgive you but, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, only insofar as you are willing to forgive those who have trespassed against you. Being merciful only toward those who ask for mercy is no mercy at all.

You will not be condemned to the extent that you don’t condemn anyone else. It's interesting that the Church canonizes various women and men, declaring them saints and models of Christlikeness. The Church also teaches both the reality of hell and that hell will not be empty. But the Church has never officially, let alone infallibly, declared any individual person to be in hell.

In terms of not judging others, Saint Paul puts this very well in his First Letter to the Corinthians, no doubt referring to those who made a habit of denigrating him in the very Christian communities he founded, the so-called Judaizers or, as the apostle mockingly refers to them, “superapostles”- “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.”3

Examining your conscience before going to confession is how you judge yourself. Having honestly judged yourself, like the tax collector, you confess your sins and, in the Act of Contrition, ask for mercy and pledge that, by God’s grace, you will endeavor not to keep sinning. It is often the case, nonetheless, that you not only keep sinning but often continue doing so in the same ways.

To quote the title of a book by Pope Francis, The Name of God Is Mercy.4 Extrapolating from this just a bit: the name of mercy is Jesus Christ. In this book, the Holy Father relates the story of a priest who heard a lot of confessions. He writes that sometimes the “priest said he would go to the tabernacle and say to Jesus, ‘I'm sorry I forgive too much, but it was you who set the bad example.’” Of the course, the point of the story is that he didn’t forgive too much.

As we begin this Second Week of Lent, let’s ask “for the grace not to tire of asking forgiveness,” because the Lord never tires of forgiving us. Then, having received the mercy of God, let us, in turn, ask for the grace to never tire of forgiving those who trespass against us.

You make something of a mockery of Christ, however, if your relationship with him is only about what he can do for you. Referring back to the Act of Contrition, it's not just important but necessary that we say, "I firmly intend with your help to do penance, to sin no more and avoid whatever leads me to sin." It is crucial that you mean these words when you say them, especially in the context of the sacrament.

There is perhaps no greater temptations than to withhold forgiveness, to render judgment on a another, or to condemn someone. These are wrong because all of them are recapitulations of the first sin: seeking to make yourself God.

1 See Luke 18:9-14.
2 Luke 18:14.
3 1 Corinthians 4:3.
4 Pope Francis with Andrea Tornielli, The Name of God is Mercy. Trans. Oonagh Stransky. New York: Random House, 2016

Sunday, March 13, 2022

In Christ alone

Readings: Gen 15:5-12.17-18: Ps 27:1.7-9.13-14; Phil 3:17-4-1; Luke 9:28b-36

I'm going to approach today's readings elliptically. This approach seems fitting to me for two reasons. First, each of these three integrated passages lends themselves nicely to the practice of lectio divina. Second, I am too tired to attempt something that requires a great deal of integration.

From the reading from Genesis, this clause stood out:

"a trance fell upon Abram" (Gen 15:12):
The translation in the Lectionary is quite misleading. A better translation of this can be found in virtually any English version of the Bible. For example, the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE), which features an updated translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, rather than "a trance fell upon Abram," reads- "a great, dark dread descended upon him." Robert Alter, in his noteworthy translation, renders this: "and now [after he had fallen asleep] a great dark dread came falling upon him." To encounter the living God is no easy thing, even if "only" in a dream. Of course, what God promises Abram is exodus from Ur of the Chaldees to the promised land.

From Paul's Letter to the Philippians:

"He will change our lowly body" (Phil 3:21):
Transfiguration isn't only a way for Jesus to give his closest disciples of preview of his resurrected glory. The point and purpose of the Christian life, the point and purpose of Lent, which calls us back to the path of following Jesus, is to allow Christ, by the power of his Holy Spirit, to conform our lowly bodies to his glorified body. More specifically, our participation in the Eucharist is aimed at making us his true body, his verum corpus, conformed to his glorified body. You are then sent forth to glorify him by your life. If our lives are not transformed/transfigured by our partaking of Christ's body and blood, there hardly seems any point or purpose in it. It becomes a largely unconvincing magic trick, ex opere operato notwithstanding.

Jesus Alone Engraving by Unknown, 1907

From our Gospel reading, which is Luke's account of Jesus' Transfiguration, there are several things that stood out to me.

"spoke of his exodus" (Luke 9:31):
Jesus' "exodus" didn't have Jerusalem, the holy city, as its destination but as its point of departure. The exodus of his passion, death, and resurrection began in Jerusalem and moved out from there not only to the whole world but to the entire cosmos. "Dying you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life. Lord Jesus, come in glory!" This is the true exodus, the one prefigured by Abram's call out of Ur and also the one to which the exodus of Israel out of Egypt points.

"Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep" (Luke 9:32):
Like Abram, Peter, John, and James fell asleep. Unlike Abram, their sleep was not revelatory. It was only upon awakening that the saw and heard Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah. It was only after they were fully awake that they heard the voice of the Father confirming Jesus' divine Sonship. For the most part, in Christian terms, certainly in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) to be asleep is to be blind to what God is doing right in front of your face. In light of this, how often do you "sleepwalk" through your days, utterly oblivious to what God is doing?

"he did not know what he was saying" (Luke 9:33):
Baffled by what he has just seen and heard, Peter makes a feeble proposal to "memorialize" the event of Jesus' Transfiguration. But this event does not require a memorial. It demands transformation on the part of the one who has seen or heard. As noted in my commentary on the clause from our reading Genesis, encountering the living God is terrific/terrible awful/awesome thing.

"This is my chosen Son; listen to him" (Luke 9:35):
Like Abram, their father in faith, the three disciples were frightened when they found themselves in the immediate presence of "God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth."
In John 2:5, which occurs during the Wedding Feast at Cana and, for John, marks the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, Mary, Jesus' mother, after requesting her Son do something about the fact that the party had run out of wine, speaking to the servants who are in the room with the sixth large water jars, tells them "Do whatever he tells you." In short, "listen to him." This episode is the second Luminous mystery of Our Lady's Rosary. The Transfiguration is the fourth Luminous mystery. There is a parallel between the two: Jesus' mother exhorting us to listen to her Son and Jesus' Father also directing us to listen to His Son. The fruit of the second Luminous mystery is To Jesus through Mary. While the fruit of the fourth is Desire for holiness (i.e., desire for transfiguration/transformation/conversion). My point in bringing the Rosary in this is that, far from being some pious little prayer for beginners or for those who don't really want to pray, the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary provides us a most useful means for contemplating the Paschal Mystery.

"Jesus was found alone" (Luke 9:36):
Seeing him conversing with Moses and Elijah, the latter of whom is considered the greatest Hebrew prophet and who, rather than dying, ascended above in a chariot of fire, about the "exodus he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem," shows that Jesus "alone" is the fulfillment, the full realization, of the Law and the Prophets. After being momentarily "transfigured," at least in the eyes of Peter, John, and James (for a fleeting moment the scales fell from their eyes, as it were, and they saw Jesus as he really is/was/and always has been) and conversing with Israel's two major figures, they hear the voice of the Father indicating that Jesus is his Son and, therefore, they should listen to and heed him.

When it was all said and done, when Moses and Elijah had disappeared and the frightening cloud of God's all-enveloping presence lifted, "Jesus was found alone."

I can't keep from sharing the lovely song "Christ Alone."

Friday, March 11, 2022

Suffering and the means of our salvation

In his commentary on the ninth chapter of Job, Robert Alter, writing specifically on the second independent clause of the second verse- "how can [a] man be right before God?"- notes that these words refer to "being vindicated in a court of law." The essence of Job's complaint at the beginning of this chapter is that because God and human beings are equal, "he bitterly recognizes that he will never have his day in court." Even so, Job could never win. My whole point in fleshing this out is to get to a wonderful comparison Alter makes: "One detects a fundamental idea that will lead to Kafka's The Trial."

Josef K., the main character in Kafka's work, is arrested but, despite the cloud of suspicion hanging over him, he is never brought to trial. The salient moment, the one to which I believe Alter refers, is a story told to Josef by a priest in the cathedral of the city in which he lives and to which he has accompanied an Italian client. The story is Before the Law.

In Before the Law, a man from a rural area tries to gain access to "the law." He wants to gain entry through an open door. The doorkeeper informs the man he cannot go through the door now. So the man waits, not just a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks. He waits for years to be admitted. Over that time, the man uses everything he has to bribe the doorkeeper to let him through. While the doorkeeper takes all the man's bribes so that the man can be assured has not "left anything undone." Just before he dies, the man asks the doorkeeper why, in all the years he has waited, has no one else sought access to the law. The doorkeeper replies by saying, "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."

There are reasons that authors like Kafka and Samuel Beckett were fascinated by the Book of Job. Believers should be as well. Job demonstrates that, even for those of us who believe in the God of the Bible, there is no "good" or acceptable answer to the problem of evil. This is even true for Christians in light of Christ's death.

In Waiting for Godot, Beckett has Vladimir worrying about why Jesus assuring the "good thief," whom Tradition has named "Saint" Dismas, is only found in Saint Luke's Gospel, despite the fact that one of two being saved seems to him "a reasonable percentage." It was Saint Augustine who asserted that just because Jesus only assured Dismas one should not assume that the other, less convinced thief was damned.

Redemption, justification, salvation are serious. I think, at least to some extent, Lent is a time to take these things with more seriousness. We tend to think and speak of these things, if we think or speak of them at all, lightly and live our lives until the moment of suffering sets in. Suffering, in case you haven't noticed, is, to use a common business phrase, "baked into" human existence. This captured well in Preface III of the Sundays in Ordinary Time when we pray:
For we know that it belongs to your boundless glory,
that you came to the aid of mortal beings with your divinity
and even fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself,
that the cause of our downfall
might become the means of our salvation...
Our traditio for this First Friday of Lent is Tom Jones singing a Gospel classic, which is a track on his Praise & Blame album, "Did Trouble Me."

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

First Monday of Lent

Readings: Lev 19:1-2.11-18; Ps 19:8-10.15; Matt 25:31-46

Being holy as God is holy is not easy. As the late Rich Mullins sang: "It's hard to be like Jesus." Our long first reading, taken from the “Holiness Code” found in the Book of Leviticus, is something of a commentary on the Ten Commandments. The first three of the Ten Commandments are about loving God, which is distinct from, though inextricably tied to, the final six commandments about loving your neighbor.

What about the fourth commandment, you might ask? Well, the fourth commandment, about honoring your parents, is unique, just like the space parents or, you as a parent, occupy is unique- between God and other people. But that is a homily for another day.

Our reading from Leviticus ends with the exhortation to love your neighbor as you love yourself.1 Hence, our Gospel, taken from Matthew, the most Hebraic of the Gospels, reads like an extension of our first reading.

Taken together, today’s readings are about what it means to be holy: doing right, being good, being kind, compassionate, and caring. Being holy, in a word, is to love. Being holy means loving perfectly. Loving perfectly is to love like Jesus loves: without measure and without counting the cost.

Love, in a Christian sense, is not in the first or the last instance about affectivity, about how you feel either about what you do (you don’t do good so you can feel good about yourself- the amount of good you’re capable of doing is dwarfed by one person’s needs, let alone those of the whole world) or who you do it for. After all, if you’re a Christian, you love and do good even to your enemies. Honestly, how do you feel about them?

Christians strive to be neighbors to everyone they meet, even as they recognize that, concretely, their neighbor is the person they encounter who needs their help. Thomas Merton stated this clearly: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”2

In our Gospel for this First Monday of Lent, one all of us have heard many times before, Jesus identifies himself with the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned. To serve them is to recognize Jesus Christ in what Saint Teresa of Kolkata frequently referred to as “his most distressing disguise.”

Genuine holiness doesn’t seek or even desire credit for righteous deeds. For the holy person, her righteous deeds are merely an extension of the love of God she herself has received and experienced. By performing righteous deeds, a holy person recognizes that he remains an “unprofitable” servant because he has only done what he was “obliged to do.”3

Starting this first full week of Lent, seek out opportunities to help someone in need. Prudentially assist that person. Let your only criterion be that they need some help. And then follow Jesus’ advice from our Ash Wednesday Gospel: “do not let your left hand know what your right is doing.”4

In a verse of his song “Distressing Disguise,” which title he took from Mother Teresa’s description of Jesus, Christian singer/songwriter Michael Card gets it quite right:
Every time a faithful servant serves
A brother that's in need
What happens at that moment is a miracle indeed
As they look to one another in an instant it is clear
Only Jesus is visible for they've both disappeared 5

1 Leviticus 19:18.
2 Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions, 143. New York: Macmillan, 1976.
3 Luke 17:10.
4 Matthew 6:3.
5 Michael Card, "Distressing Disguise."

Sunday, March 6, 2022

"the joy of the Lord must be your strength"

As we do each year on the First Sunday of Lent, today we hear about Jesus' three temptations during his time of fasting and prayer in the desert. It's significant that in the Synoptics (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke) this happens immediately after his baptism:

1) Turn stones into bread- make it all about you, become self-focused

2) Worshipping power- forcibly make others do your bidding instead of selflessly serving them

3) Testing God- instead of trusting God; undermining trust in God is the work of the evil one

12th Century Mosaic, Saint Mark's Cathedral, Venice

These temptations are perennial and common to all human beings in every age. That Jesus was tempted like this is a sure sign of his actual humanity. He was tempted in every way that we are tempted, but, unlike us, he did not yield to temptation (Hebrews 4:15). I don't know about you, but I can resist anything but temptation. This is what makes our Responsorial today to so very meaningful: Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble. When am I not in trouble?

In terms of Jesus not giving in to temptation, there is always the "What if,..." In this regard, never loose sight of the fact that God is a risk-taker. If creating was a risk, then why wouldn't redemption be a risk as well?

In rides Saint Paul with an important reminder, especially during Lent, that you are not saved by your own good works, by your ability to resist temptation, by your determination not to live by bread alone. Rather, you are saved by believing in your heart (even if, maybe particularly if, your head finds this incredible) that Jesus is Lord because he rose from the dead and by confessing this with your mouth. Each Sunday, in the context of Mass, you confess with your mouth that on "On the third day he rose again from the dead." It is obvious that there is an irresolvable tension between resisting temptation (avoiding evil and doing good) and not being able to save yourself. Like all such tensions inherent to Christian faith, it is imprudent to try definitively resolving it.

Even during Lent, Sundays are always a celebration of Christ's resurrection. So, today we can heed the words from the Book of Nehemiah that constitute the Church's reading for Morning Prayer on this First Sunday of Lent:
Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep;
for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength! (Neh 8:9-10)

Friday, March 4, 2022

"I hid my face from the saints and the angels..."

So, have your Lenten disciplines survived contact with your day-to-day life? I hope so. If not, don't be discouraged. Maybe it would help you to know that Ash Wednesday to the Saturday after is kind of like Lenten prep. time. Maybe you took on too much? Maybe you didn't take on enough. Perhaps you need to make a little adjustment. I did just that this morning. I jettisoned something good but something that would've constituted too much for me.

I am on day three of reading the Book of Job. Job is one of the most fascinating books in the Hebrew Scriptures. As Robert Alter, whose translation and commentary I am using, repeatedly points out, Job is not an Israelite. Alter, by contrast, is Jewish.

Job is most certainly not and has never been considered a historical book. Catholic scholars group it among the Wisdom books. For Jews, it is grouped among the Ketuvim, "The Writings." Chapters 1-2, along with chapter 42, serve as the framing story in the canonical text. Many, not all, especially not the interpolations of Elihu, which are likely interpolations (i.e., later additions to the text), which make up six chapters, are very impressive poetically.

The Book of Job is about the age-old problem of evil, or, using the fancy philosophical/theological term- theodicy. What's refreshing is that it offers no real answer to the problem of evil-induced suffering. Why? Because it's honest about the fact that there is no satisfactory answer. The first two chapters are about God allowing the satan (i.e., Adversary) to afflict Job in such a way that he curses God. Indeed, the third chapter begins after all Job's children are killed and after all his wealth is taken away and after he is afflicted with a pernicious skin disease from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. Alter calls the third chapter of the book "Job's harrowing death-wish poem." It is a breathtaking piece of ancient poetry.

Re-reading Job's death wish poem reminded me of something I noted in a doctoral term paper I wrote on Samuel Beckett:
It seems that as he grew older, Beckett grew increasingly fond of Job 3:3: “Let the day perish in which I was born and the night in which it was said, there is a man child conceived.” In addition to four Bibles, each one in a different language (English, French, the Old Testament in Italian, and Luther’s German Bible), and a concordance, he kept a copy of the Book of Common Prayer in his working library
What really struck me today was the penultimate verss of the death wish poem:
For I feared a thing- it befell me,
   what I dreaded came upon me (Job 3:25)
For day three in his book Pauses for Lent, writing about the ancient Israelites in the desert (one of the guiding images of Lent, along with Jesus' forty days of fasting and praying in the desert), Trevor Hudson writes:
While they are not in control of what happens to them, they do have control of how they will respond to the events of their lives
This is true, no doubt. But there's suffering and then there's suffering the likes of which Job was subjected, likes of which the people of Ukraine and Yemen are being subjected (the former far longer than the latter at the hands of Saudi Arabia, aided and abetted by...).

So, I might get a little hangry while fasting. How I deal with that is part of my purpose for fasting in the first place. But the other part of fasting, which is to be in solidarity with those who suffer involuntarily and to pray for their deliverance and give alms for their relief, is just as important. While praying and giving alms are necessary, the suffering is so great that fasting and other penitential actions take on more the shade what is found in the final verse of Job's death wish poem:
I was not quiet, I was not still,
   I had no repose, and trouble came
Kyrie eleison/Christi eleison/Kyrie eleison.

Our Friday traditio for this First Friday of Lent is Jennifer Knapp's "A Little More." It's been our traditio before, but not for a long time. I listened to this song several times over on Ash Wednesday. It spoke deeply to me. In light of the suffering from which I am spared and quite different, it turns out to be infinitely more than I can give, especially as I realize nobody deserves to suffer in those ways.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Ash Wednesday: Lent begins

I have no desire to expound on today's Mass readings, except to urge anyone reading this to quietly consider how you might engage in the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Even if you're not a believer, spend some quiet time, go without in solidarity with those who do so involuntarily, and serve others in helpful and kind ways.

I was struck today by three things in the Church's liturgy. The first two arose from Morning Prayer. One of the Intercessions cuts to the heart of what Lent is all about:
Teach us to be loving not only in great and exceptional moments,
- but above all in the ordinary events of daily life
The second also gets to the heart of the reason for this sanctifying season. It is from the Prayer that concluded this morning's office:
As we begin the discipline of Lent, make this day holy by our self-denial
What struck me about this is something that I "knew." But this prayer helped it penetrate my too often hardened heart.

What I did realize (again)? That I will never become holy simply by performing acts of self-denial. Only God can, by his grace, make me holy, or even make this day holy to me.

There is also the sense that not only is every day holy but that I am holy. Like the golden ring that gets dropped on the ground and covered with dirt, my holiness, buried beneath detritus of all my striving and distractions, needs to be "unearthed." I think the spiritual disciplines help in this regard. There's a line in the chorus of Jennifer Knapp's beautiful song "A Little More" that articulates this in such a heartfelt way: "Unearth this holiness I can't earn."

As to this seemingly audacious idea that I am already, in some sense, at some level, holy (and so are you!), Pater Tom (Merton), in his still amazing and eclectic book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, noted:
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us
As to how practicing spiritual disciplines is an aid, and only an aid- means, not an end, I invoke something James Kushiner wrote more than a decade ago on the old Touchstone blog, "Mere Comments," continues to resonate with me, which is why I probably overuse it:
A discipline won’t bring you closer to God. Only God can bring you closer to Himself. What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to His grace
Thirdly, I was struck by the Collect for Mass referring to Lent as "this campaign of Christian service."

Of course, these three things are connected, even if inversely to the order in which I presented them. Laying it way too cleanly: the purpose of Lent to better love God and neighbor - and the way we do this is through a more intentional and perhaps more intensive practice of the fundamental spiritual disciplines - almsgiving, which constitutes "this campaign of Christian service," is the fruit of prayer and fasting.

Blessings and peace. May you be ready to celebrate the Glory of Christ's Resurrection at Easter and renew your baptismal promises from your heart.

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 ...