Friday, April 29, 2022

The hidden mysteries of Divine Love humanly experienced

Today the Roman Catholic Church observes the Memorial of Saint Catherine of Siena. In 1970, along with Saint Teresa of Ávila, Saint Catherine was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI. Teresa and Catherine were the first two women Doctors of the Church.

On 14 April 1990, I was baptized, confirmed, and received my first Holy Communion in Saint Catherine of Siena Parish/University of Utah Newman Center. Fittingly, then as now, this parish and student center is run by the Dominicans. This great saint and mystic played a role in my conversion.

As I was free, this afternoon I went to my parish church at 3:00 PM to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy- a devotional practice I am trying to rekindle. Because I did not recite Morning Prayer this morning, I also went to pray the Office of Readings for Saint Catherine's Memorial. The first reading for the Office, taken from the Common of Virgins, was from the seventh chapter of Saint Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. In this passage, the apostle wrote: "If you marry, however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that."

Saint Catherine of Siena, at Blackfriars Oxford, England

On one level this is kind of funny, cohering as it does with the cultural way we joke about being married. This way of joking is surely rooted in the lived reality of most married people. On the other hand, if you think about marriage from a Catholic perspective, that is, as a sacrament, it makes sense that you experience affliction in and through being married. Keep in mind that at the beginning of the passage under consideration, Paul admits that what he is about to write about marriage is "no commandment from the Lord." Rather, he gives his opinion.

In my personal pastoral view, when lived properly, the afflictions of marriage help me overcome myself, my inherent selfishness. The afflictions of marriage help relieve me of my desire to always get my own way, my tendency to pursue my own interests and pleasures without regard for others. I am not sure why the apostles wants to spare Christians the afflictions of marriage.

The second reading for today's Memorial is taken from Saint Catherine's Dialogues, particularly her dialogue on Divine Providence. This dialogue points to the same reality towards which Christian marriage points: divine love. There is no earthly relationship, including marriage, that will fulfill your deepest desire. While there may be sublime moments here and there, it is placing way too much of a burden on any person, including your spouse, to expect her/him to fulfill you in the way you truly long to be fulfilled. At root, this is often a source of discontent and perhaps even conflict in a marriage, maybe a launching pad to serial monogamy.

"You are a mystery as deep as the sea," Saint Catherine says to God in this dialogue. "The more I search," she continues, "the more I find, and the more I find the more I search for you." She concludes this thought by admitting "But I can never be satisfied; what I receive will ever leave me desiring more."

Because God is love, love is infinite. Hence, you can never reach the end of love. This brings me back to that phrase that has resonated with me since last Saturday when I encountered it in the ninth day of the Novena- Divine Mercy is an "abyss." What is mercy but love in action? Infinity, with its negative prefix in, means unbounded. Love is an abyss, a fathomless depth.

The first stanza of the Responsory to this reading provided in the Office is:
My sister and my beloved, open yourself to me, you are a co-heir of my kingdom, and you have understood the hidden mysteries of my truth
What is love if not an opening to another? What is a wound if not an opening? This is indicated by the repeated verse of the Responsory:
You are enriched with the gift of my Spirit, cleansed of all sin by the shedding of my blood
If love, then, is opening yourself to another, and that opening is a wound, then how can married love not entail affliction. The affliction, it seems, is necessary for everyone.

For our traditio today, I am turning again to Colin Hay. This is a cover from his album of covers: "Ooh Lal La," by Ronnie Lane. First recorded on the eponymous 1973 album by Faces, a band whose members were Ian McLagan, Ronnie Lane, Kenney Jones, Ronnie Wood, and Rod Stewart.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Feast of Saint Mark

Readings: 1 Peter 5:5b-14; Ps 89:2-3.6-7.16-17; Mark 16:15-20

It is the long-held consensus among New Testament scholars that the Gospel According to Saint Mark was the first of the four canonical Gospels to be written. This first Gospel is believed to have come into being shortly after the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70. It is the backdrop of the Temple’s utter demolishment that contributes to Mark’s apocalyptic tone. For Jews in the final third of the first century of the Common Era, the destruction of the Temple seemed like the end of the world.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are together called the “synoptic” Gospels. They are designated as such because they are related to each other in various ways. According to the four-source hypothesis that seeks to explain the various relations between these texts, both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a source. But Luke and Matthew seem to have had another common source, which is often designated “Q.” “Q” refers to the German word Quelle, which simply means source. While thirty-five percent of Luke is unique to that text, only 20% of Matthew’s Gospel is unique material.

Together the Gospels of Matthew and Luke utilize 76% of Mark. Matthew uses another 3% that Luke does not employ, while the inspired author of the Gospel According Saint Luke uses an additional 18% that is left untouched by the compiler of Matthew. Hence, only 3% of the text that constitutes Mark’s Gospel is not utilized by the other synoptic writers. It is also the consensus among New Testament scholars that the oldest part of the Gospel According to Saint Mark is the passion narrative.

It is also bears noting that in its original form, Mark’s Gospel did not contain an account of anyone seeing Jesus risen. The original ending of the first Gospel ends with “Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome” going to Jesus’ tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.1 As they walk to the tomb, they wonder who is going to roll the stone away from its entrance so that they can perform the ritual anointing.

As the three women arrive, they see the stone is already rolled away. Upon entering the grave, they encounter a young man in a white robe sitting on the right-hand side of the cavern. He says to them- “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold, the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.’”

So, the original ending of the Gospel According to Saint Mark is 16:8. What does this verse say? “Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” So, our reading this evening, while certainly considered by the Church to be inspired, was not part of Mark in the Gospel’s original form.

This sits well with our Gospel from yesterday, the Second Sunday of Easter, especially the part where Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”2 It is notable, too, that the young man told them to tell the others that they should all return to their native Galilee. He even reminds them that Jesus himself had told them this.

You see, in light of the destruction of the Temple, God’s presence was no longer exclusively associated with the holy city, Jerusalem and the Temple. Returning home, as it were, was where they would encounter the Risen One.

It was there, presumably, that Jesus, risen from the dead, according to the Longer Ending of Mark (16:9-18), after rebuking them for their unbelief, sent them to proclaim the Good News to the whole world. While it was the end of the world as they knew it, it was only the beginning of proclaiming the Good News.

Maybe it is in service to this call to spread the Gospel that the symbol for Mark, the Evangelist, is a winged lion.

1 See Mark 16:18.
2 John 20:29.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

"...have mercy on us and on the whole world"

Rooted as it is in private revelation, some Catholics don't much care for observing the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday. I am glad that since 2000 the last day of the Octave of Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday. Each year, I also pray the Divine Mercy novena, which starts on Good Friday. I usually extend the novena to ten days by praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy on Divine Mercy Sunday.

Yes, I grasp that Saint Faustina's Diary contains some outdated as well as some controversial theological content. But I am comfortable with venerating her as the Apostle of Divine Mercy. I believe Christ sought to communicate something very deep about what, on the ninth day of the novena, is referred to as "the abyss" of Divine Mercy, to Saint Faustina.

An "abyss" is a deep or seemingly bottomless chasm, or, metaphysically, a bottomless chasm. Taking a cue from Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, if the abyss is Divine Mercy, you need to not worry that "the abyss will gaze back into you." Sticking with this same Nietzschean passage, the monster you need to see to it that you don't become is merciless.

One objection to Divine Mercy Sunday is the Easter octave is a time of rejoicing, not of penitence. According to this, Divine Mercy takes us back to Lent, even Good Friday. If we take the Sacrament of Penance as the sacrament of mercy, it depends on how you understand this sacrament.

I don't view going to confession as being about admitting my egregious failures. For me, the Sacrament of Penance is where I go to claim Christ's victory over sin, which is my victory. Of course, by making an Act of Contrition, I promise to do my best, with God's help, not to keep sinning, especially not in the same ways I just confessed. You know what? Despite myself, I often return to my old ways. Yes, I get discouraged by this at times.

As Pope Francis noted several times during the Jubilee of Mercy, you will tire of asking God's forgiveness before God grows weary of forgiving you. No, this is not an invitation to sin. It is reassurance for my weakness, my forgetfulness, my fascination with nothingness.

Neither do I go to confession to find out if God will forgive me my sins. In and through Christ, I am always already forgiven. So, why go to confession? Well, confession, which is a liturgy (i.e., something I do not merely something I think), is where I experience Divine Mercy for myself. Because confession is where I go to claim victory and where I experience Divine Mercy in reality, it is a cause for rejoicing, not lamentation. It is, after all, Divine Mercy Sunday, not Lamenting Over My Sins Sunday.

Beginning with Paschal Vigil, my time of penance and lamentation is over. This culminated with my veneration of the cross on Good Friday. As I deacon, I am privileged to show the cross and to hold it while others venerate it.

So, today, on this Second Sunday of Easter, on this Divine Mercy Sunday, let us celebrate Christ's Easter victory. His Easter victory is our Easter victory. Let us rejoice and be glad.

Those, like me, who have experienced Divine Mercy are sent to extend Divine Mercy to others, especially those who've trespassed against us.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Jesus "alive and at large in the world"

Friday in the Octave of Easter, not an ordinary Friday. For starters, I had bacon for breakfast. The Easter Octave is a feast, not a fast.

While I am interested in any and all thoughtful theological "takes" on Christ's resurrection, when you get right down to it, based on scripture (the Gospels and Saint Paul especially) I am inclined conceive of it quite literally. In other words, I believe in a physical resurrection, which I confess each time I say the Creed: "I believe in... the resurrection of the body and life everlasting." Obviously, the Gospel writers go to great lengths to explain that Jesus' immediate resurrection presence is a physical, bodily presence. Now, I realize this sounds pretty limited. Left at that it is pretty limited, too limited.

Christ's Resurrection, designed by Giulio Romano and woven under the guidance of Pieter van Aelst, ca. 1520s

For help in expanding this concept of resurrection, I turn to the first part of a lecture Rowan Williams gave to the clergy of the Anglican Diocese of Winchester in 2008 when he was still serving as the Archbishop of Canterbury. What follows is what Williams takes to be "the bottom line in belief in the New Testament about the resurrection"-
to believe in his resurrection is to believe in Jesus – in the great phrase of John Masefield, 'alive and at large in the world'; Jesus set free, he's not going to die, nothing prevents him acting, he is always going to be active and not passive, always at work. And so, to say he is risen, is to say he is now free to act eternally, unceasingly, without limit. Death and its effects cannot hold him back. It's not only, then, that we are brought into the new age, brought into this final phase of human history. That final phase is shaped, controlled by the liberty of Jesus. To say he is risen is to say he is free to act. Wherever we are now in human history, after the resurrection, Jesus is active
While this all sounds very nice, it isn't often easy to see that since his resurrection Jesus is active in history. I would offer Williams' book Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel as offering some deep insights into just how Jesus resurrected is active in the world.

One clue is given in the first chapter of Acts when walking with him to where he is going to ascend, the Lord is asked by his followers, "are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6) In other words, apart from its global, even cosmic scope, Jesus' modus operandi doesn't really change after his Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit- the Holy Spirit being the one through whom he acts post-resurrection. In other words, he does not become a superhero. To paraphrase from the Book of Isaiah, Jesus' ways are not our ways.

It is of the essence of being a Christian for me to make Jesus' ways my ways. Until that happens, I won't be able to see just how present and active he is that he is, in reality, "alive and at large in the world."

Our Friday traditio is a strange one- "Blessed Easter" by Holger Czukay.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Urbi et Orbi- Easter 2022


Easter 2022

Dear brothers and sisters, Happy Easter!

Jesus, the Crucified One, is risen! He stands in the midst of those who mourned him, locked behind closed doors and full of fear and anguish. He comes to them and says: “Peace be with you!” (Jn 20:19). He shows the wounds in his hands and feet, and the wound in his side. He is no ghost; it is truly Jesus, the same Jesus who died on the cross and was laid in the tomb. Before the incredulous eyes of the disciples, he repeats: “Peace be with you!” (v. 21).

Our eyes, too, are incredulous on this Easter of war. We have seen all too much blood, all too much violence. Our hearts, too, have been filled with fear and anguish, as so many of our brothers and sisters have had to lock themselves away in order to be safe from bombing. We struggle to believe that Jesus is truly risen, that he has truly triumphed over death. Could it be an illusion? A figment of our imagination?

No, it is not an illusion! Today, more than ever, we hear echoing the Easter proclamation so dear to the Christian East: “Christ is risen! He is truly risen!” Today, more than ever, we need him, at the end of a Lent that has seemed endless. We emerged from two years of pandemic, which took a heavy toll. It was time to come out of the tunnel together, hand in hand, pooling our strengths and resources... Instead, we are showing that we do not yet have within us the spirit of Jesus but the spirit of Cain, who saw Abel not as a brother, but as a rival, and thought about how to eliminate him. We need the crucified and risen Lord so that we can believe in the victory of love, and hope for reconciliation. Today, more than ever, we need him to stand in our midst and repeat to us: “Peace be with you!”

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Triduum: Easter Vigil

My dear sisters and brothers, Christ is risen. Alleluia!

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, and our fall. Most especially tonight, we celebrate our redemption. You might ask, “Celebrate our fall, the loss of our likeness to God through sin?” Yes, we celebrate even that. Listen again 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 redeemer1
Our sin, our most grievous 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 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 were 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- the life of grace.

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 God’s image is perhaps best described as a divorce between the orders of nature and grace. The result of this great divorce is death.

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 merely as strong as death, but stronger than death.

It is light of Christ’s triumphant resurrection that the apostle Paul taunts death:
Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?2

Just as God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bondage through the waters of the Red Sea, he delivers us from sin and death through the waters of baptism. Baptism is our own exodus from Egypt. This is exactly what St. Paul was getting at in our reading from Romans. “Are you unaware,” he asks the Christians of ancient Rome, “that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” You see, in baptism we die, are buried, and rise to new life, “so,” quoting Paul again, “that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”3

The new life you have in Christ does not begin when you die; it begins at baptism. Eternal life is now! For Christians there is one vocation: follow Christ. Each of us received this calling at baptism.

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 observed: “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.”4

The good news, my friends, as the ancient Christian greeting puts it is, Christo anesti. Alithos anestiChrist is risen! Truly he is risen! And so, we are not the most pitiable people of all. We are the most blessed people of all because, through Christ, we have conquered death.

Jesus is not merely a historical figure from the remote past, who lived a long time ago in a land far away, belonging to an ancient culture that’s difficult for us to understand. To view Jesus, either exclusively or primarily, as a historical figure is to “seek the living one among the dead.”5

My friends, Jesus is risen from the dead. He is alive and active through the Holy Spirit, who is the mode of his resurrection presence in, among, and through us until he comes again. In a few moments we will all witness resurrection, when our Elect are baptized. We will see, hear, and by their anointing with Sacred Chrism, even smell for ourselves the life-giving love of God generously poured out.

Since Thursday night, the Church has been in liturgy. At the end of our Mass this evening, you will be dismissed, that is, sent forth. You are sent out to tell others about what you have witnessed. It isn’t possible to keep truly Good News to yourself.

1 Roman Missal, Sunday of the Resurrection, The Easter Vigil, The Easter Proclamation (Exsultet), sec. 19.
2 1 Corinthians 15:54b-55.
3 Romans 6:3-5.
4 1 Corinthians 15:17.19.
5 Luke 24:5.

Interlude: Holy Saturday

Today is the strangest day of the liturgical year. Holy Saturday is a quiet day, a day of transition that point of balance between what has been and what will be. If you enter a Catholic Church today it should feel empty, dark, like a tomb. The tabernacle is empty, the altar is stripped, there are no flowers or extraneous decorations, no holy water, etc.

In the context of the sacred Triduum, the three days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, between our celebration of the Lord's Passion and tonight's Vigil, we've hit a pause.

In an essay entitled "Descent Into Hell" from the fourth volume of his Explorations in Theology, subtitled Spirit and Institution, Hans Urs Von Balthasar noted that "Holy Saturday is thus a kind of suspension, as it were, of the Incarnation, whose result is given back to the hands of the Father and which the Father will renew and definitively confirm by the Easter Resurrection."

This pause is not incidental. It is intentional. It is vital, that is, life-giving. For those whose lives permit, Holy Saturday can be a pause, a time for silence, recollection. A holy day, made sacred by silence.

As to the Paschal Mystery of Christ's death and resurrection, what is happening liturgically, mystagogically on Holy Saturday is liminal.

The second reading for today's Office of Readings is from a well-known ancient and anonymous homily for Holy Saturday. It is about Christ's descent into hell. In this dramatic telling, once in the netherworld, Christ's spirit seeks out that of Adam. Upon finding our first parent, tells him, referring to his body lying in the tomb- "My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell."

Iesvs Nazarenevs Rex Ivdaeorvm, by Henry Augustin Valentin, 19th cent.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Triduum: Good Friday

Readings: Isa 52:13-53:12; Ps 31:2.6.12-13.15-16.25; Heb 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

One of the most mysterious things about life is how closely sorrow and joy are connected. During the Triduum, these sacred days of which we right now find ourselves in the middle, are really about sorrow being transformed into joy.

Our high holy days started last evening with our celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Our celebration included singing the Gloria, which we abandoned at the beginning of Lent.

Today, on Good Friday, we remember the Lord’s betrayal, passion, death, and burial. So, our joy, liturgically at least, turns to sorrow. Given this, why do we call this Friday “Good”? I remember as a kid of 10 or 11 growing up as a non-Catholic in a not-very-religious home, seeing it on the calendar, asking “What is Good Friday? This was in the days before the internet, Siri, or Google. Despite asking a few years in a row, nobody could tell me.

But I think what makes the Friday before Easter “Good” comes back to the mysterious relationship between joy and sorrow. Something I’ve taken to calling the “inverse property of redemption,” which holds that without crucifixion there can be no resurrection and without resurrection Jesus’ humiliating execution at the hands of the Roman imperium is just another state killing of a possibly troublesome and marginal person belonging to a conquered and marginal people.

What good comes from Good Friday? While some may take issue with this, the greatest good flowing from Good Friday is the Church. Just as God formed Eve from Adam’s side, Christ’s bride, the Church, was shaped from his side as he hung on the cross. This happened when the Roman soldier pierced the Lord’s side with a lance. The water that poured from Jesus’ wound is baptism and his blood is the Eucharist.

This is why the apostle Paul, in our epistle reading for last night’s Mass, insists that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”1 Without proclaiming the Lord’s death, his resurrection doesn’t really make sense.

The Crucifixion, by Bartolomé Estebán Murillo, ca. 1675

For centuries in the Latin, or Western, Church the Veneration of the Cross- the fount of the Eucharist- took the place of Holy Communion. So, for centuries on Good Friday, the only day of the year on which the Latin Church does not celebrate Mass, Roman Catholics did not receive communion. It was not until later, with the influx of Christians from the East, that this changed. Taking place as it does after the Veneration of the Cross, the communion rite, even in our reformed liturgy, seems a little out-of-place in the unique liturgy of Good Friday.

Contemplating Baptism and Eucharist (Confirmation being closely linked to Baptism) flowing from the side of our crucified Lord should prompt us to look forward to tomorrow’s Paschal Vigil. Not only will our Elect and Candidates complete their Christian initiation and so be fully incorporated into Christ’s verum corpus- his true body, the Church, but those of us already baptized and members of Christ's Body will renew our baptismal promises.

Lent is a preparation for this renewal. Lent is an old English word meaning springtime. Spring is the time each year when we witness new life spring forth from what seemed dead. Lent is a time for us to die to ourselves, to seek, with the help of God’s grace, to rid ourselves of our own death-dealing tendencies and seek once again to fully live the new life we received when we died, were buried, and rose with Christ to new life through the waters of Baptism.

God is not a God of second chances. Being infinite, God is a God of countless chances. Each day, each moment presents you with a chance to turn to God.

When entered into with the proper disposition, Good Friday brings you face-to-face with yourself. It provides you with one more chance before Easter to confront those things that keep you from truly living and giving life to others. Good Friday also gives you the chance to bring your brokenness, your fears, your failures, your disappointments and your grief to Christ, and to lay these at the foot of his cross. This is like planting seeds that, once they die and germinate, watered by the fountain of grace that is Christ’s cross, will spring forth in new life.

Truly venerating the cross of Christ, for which you prepare by fasting and praying, is an act of hope, not of despair. After all, isn’t the most fundamental belief we have as Christians in the resurrection?

1 1 Corinthians 11:26.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Triduum: Holy Thursday

Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet (John 13:12b-14)

In his book, The Kingdom, a strange blend of memoir, history, and fiction, Emmanuel Carrère recalls an experience he had during a L'Arche retreat he went on. During the retreat, the participants washed each others' feet. He participated in this retreat after he had ceased being a fervent and practicing Catholic. He goes on to contrast Saint John's account of Jesus washing his disciples feet with the Synoptic (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke) accounts of the Last Supper, at the center of which is Jesus blessing bread and wine.

He recalls thinking to himself during the rite “that things could have happened differently: that the central sacrament of Christianity could be foot washing and not Communion.” He continues pondering this by noting that what those who participate in L’Arche retreats do for each other on occasion “could be what Christians do every day at Mass, and it wouldn’t be any more absurd – less, so in fact" (The Kingdom: A Novel, trans. John Lambert, pg 381).

This is how our Christian High Holy Days begin.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Monday of Holy Week

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

Our first reading this evening is the first of what Bible scholars have dubbed Deutero-Isaiah’s Servant Songs. For those who don’t know, the Book of Isaiah is really three books in one. First, or Proto-Isaiah, written before Israel’s Babylonian Exile, consists of the first thirty-nine chapters of the book. Second, or Deutero-Isaiah, which includes chapters 40-55, was composed during the Babylonian exile (seventh century BC). Third, or Trito-Isaiah was written after Israel’s return from exile.

Our Old Testament reading for Passion Sunday was also one of Deutero-Isaiah’s Servant Songs. Our first reading for tomorrow and for Wednesday of Holy Week are also taken from these Servant Songs. These passages from are so important because, as Christians, we see in them prophesies about Jesus Christ. Without a doubt, the inspired authors of the canonical Gospels were well aware of these prophesies and made use of them, seeking parallels between them and the life, passion, and death of Jesus.

Our first reading this evening surely speaks of what Israel’s eagerly-awaited Messiah would do: open the eyes of the blind, free prisoners (the Israelites themselves, in context, are prisoners), and bring those who live in darkness into the light.

By anointing Jesus, whom she clearly sees as Messiah (Messiah means “Anointed One”), with costly oil, Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, Jesus’ friends from Bethany, pays him proper homage. By this act she not only recognizes him as Messiah, but as Jesus himself indicates in his response to Judas’ rebuke, she anticipates his sacrificial death.

Jesus receives the anointing of his friend Mary without protestation. He defends her, telling Judas, “Leave her alone.” Jesus’ prediction of his death is confirmed when the inspired author notes that the chief priests, who were gathered with the crowd, desired to kill not only him but his friend Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. It was the man who was dead and now alive the crowd came to see. This miracle, according to John, was causing many others to believe in Jesus. This posed a threat.

Holy Week is a time for us, like Mary of Bethany, to recognize Jesus not only as Messiah but as Lord of all. His Lordship, as the Servant Song we heard notes at its beginning, is not loud, brash, or assertive, like those who seek worldly power. Rather, the servant of God, his chosen one, “shall bring forth justice to the nations” quietly in a manner barely detected, if noticed at all by many.

Unlike Mary, who, it seems, is the silent, contemplative one in her family, the one who Luke tells us sat at Jesus’ feet on an earlier visit, while her sister complained about her not helping out. On that occasion, Jesus gently reminded Martha that only one thing is necessary: to be with him. He tells her that by sitting at his feet, her sister had chosen the better part. Mary chose to do the one thing necessary. (see Luke 10:38-42). In other words, the response to Jesus' coming is not "look busy!"

During these holy days, let’s you and I chose the better part. Being here this evening is a good start.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Year C Passion Sunday

Readings: Luke 19:28-40; Isa 50:4-7; Ps 22:8-8.17-20.23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

We often use a lot of words trying to explain the mystery of faith. But the mystery of faith is really quite simple to articulate: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Today on Passion Sunday we not only contemplate, but seek to enter more deeply into one aspect of Christ’s Paschal Mystery: his passion and death. On Passion Sunday, we observe Holy Week in a compressed way.

Compression is the force used by nature to create diamonds. Hopefully, our compressed Holy Week today will crystallize and turn our observance of the sacred Triduum, which begins at sundown on Thursday with our celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, into something truly beautiful for God and conform us individually and together more into the image of Christ.

What is the image of Christ into which we are to be evermore conformed? St. Paul, in our reading from his Letter to the Philippians, gives us a deep insight into Christ’s image when, using an ancient Christian hymn, he tells us that Jesus, the Son of God in the flesh, did not deem equality with God something to be held onto.

Several weeks ago, at their First Scrutiny, our Elect (those who will be baptized next Saturday at the Easter Vigil) were presented with the Nicene Creed. It only takes reading through the Creed once to see that it is what we might call asymmetrical.

The only thing we say about God, the Father, that is not in relation to the Son and/or the Holy Spirit is very brief: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”

Jumping ahead in the Creed, we profess belief in “the Holy Spirit, the Lord the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.” And we end with the very compressed profession- “I believe one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

Between what we profess about God, the Father in and of himself and what we profess about the Holy Spirit, we find the majority of the Creed, which is all about Jesus, without whom we could not call God “Father” or have the Holy Spirit in full measure.

Pope Saint John Paul II began his first encyclical letter, Redemptor hominis, with these words: “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history.”1 From the beginning Christ, the only and eternally begotten Son of the Father, who is “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God” is, was, and always will be the center of the universe. As the scripture says, everything was created through, by, and for him.2

A better translation of the beginning of our passage from Philippians than the one usually rendered is Jesus Christ, “Who, being in the form of God…” It is God’s very nature to be self-giving, self-sacrificing. It is a debased theology, paganism, to view divinity in any other way than how God is revealed in Jesus Christ.

In order to be the center of history, eternity had to step into time and infinity had to enter space. Christ seeks to share his divinity with us. This is why he emptied himself, “taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance.”3 It is also why he “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”4

The Greek word for “emptied” in our reading from Philippians is a form of the verb kenosis. In context, kenosis can also mean “to make of no reputation” or to be reduced to nothing. Why does this parsing of words matter? It matters because Jesus not only emptied himself for love of you, for you and for your salvation he not only condescended to become human, he allowed himself to be humiliated and killed for love of you.

In the verse immediately preceding our reading from Philippians the apostle exhorted the church in Philippi to “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,” before going on to note that “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself,” etc.5

My dear sisters and brothers, this is the attitude we are to have among ourselves. It’s the only way others will know we are Christians. It is Christ who brings us together week after week, month after month, year after year. It is Christ who brings to the threshold of this Holy Week. Jesus Christ is the reason, the point and purpose, of St. Olaf Parish.

If the Eucharistic liturgy is truly theologia prima, that is, prime, or first, theology, then it is during Holy Week, especially the Triduum, which, as Christians, are our high holy days - the Easter Vigil being the main liturgy of the entire year - that we see the words that comprise the Creed are an -urgy, not an -ology.

The word “urge,” from which we derive the suffix -urgy, means to act, or, in the case of the liturgy, to enact. It means to do something. By contrast, an -ology is abstract. In English we usually define -ology as “the study of” something, as in biology, theology, psychology, etc. Without a doubt, following Christ is an -urgy, not an -ology. At the end of your life, you won't be given an exam in systematic theology.

Being a Christian isn’t about doing the right thing or even about doing the right thing for the right reason. It is about doing everything with the love of Christ. This does not mean doing what you do in a cloying or obnoxious way. Rather, it is about being patient, gentle, kind, and- this is important!- joyful.

Yesterday, praying Morning Prayer with those who aspire to become deacons and their wives, I was struck by this prayer in the Intercessions: “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, clothe us with compassion, kindness and humility – make us want to be patient with everyone.”6 This, friends, is Christian prayer!

May our observance of this Passion Sunday prepare us for the Easter Vigil. And may Jesus, the man of no reputation, who for our sake let himself be reduced to nothing and who, in the words of Rick Elias, “loves us all with relentless affection,” by his passion and cross, heal our hearts of darkness, our hearts of stone.7

1 Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Redemptor hominis, sec. 1.
2 Colossians 1:15-23.
3 Philippians 2:7.
4 Philippians 2:8.
5 Phillippians 2:5-7.
6 Liturgy of the Hours, Morning Prayer, Intercessions for Fifth Saturday of Lent.
7 Rick Elias off Rich Mullins’ The Jesus Record, “Man of No Reputation,” 1998.

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Evening Prayer I- Passion Sunday

Reading: 1 Peter 1:18-21

The futility Christ delivers us from has something to do with what we briefly discussed today in reference to practicing the spiritual disciplines. The futility of what, for Christians, should be our old way of life, is thinking we must earn whatever it is God has to give us. What delivers us from this futility is experiencing God’s love just as we are and just because we are.

What does God have to give us? Well, the easy answer is grace. What is grace? Grace is nothing other than God sharing divine life with us. Ultimately, what God has to give us is nothing other than God’s self. What is the nature of God’s “self”? Because God is triune, we know grace has something to do with others, that is, with community. Essentially, the life of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- is best- expressed in one word: agape.

We translate agape into English as “love.” This is fine and well, but as with most Western languages, in English, the word “love” has a vast range of meaning. For example, I can say, “I love my wife” and “I love pizza.” Hopefully, I am referring to two things. If not, I probably have issues.

By contrast, koine Greek, the language in which our uniquely Christian scriptures were originally written, has four words for love. Three of these words- philos, eros, and agape- are used in the New Testament. Agape means something like self-giving, self-sacrificing love. As we begin Holy Week with this liturgy of Evening Prayer, it is a good time to think about agape.

Our epistle reading for Mass this Passion Sunday, taken from Year C of the Sunday Lectionary, is the so-called “kenotic hymn” Paul uses in the second chapter of his Letter to the Philippians. You know, the one that begins with: “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped” or held onto.1 But neither is his divinity something to merely be relinquished. Rather, he shares it through his self-emptying, which is what kenosis means.

In the fourth chapter of the First Letter of John, twice within the space of eight verses, we hear theos agape estis- God is love.2 It is this understanding of God, shown to us so powerfully by Jesus in passion and death for sure, but most powerfully by his resurrection. It is by his resurrection he rescues us from the futility of our former way of life, even if, maybe especially if, that life has been a distorted Christian one.

Christus resurexit quia Deus caritas est- Christ is risen because God is love. Because of the reality of this life, only someone who has experienced the love of God given us in Christ by the power of their Holy Spirit is able to center her faith and the hope that flowers from it in God. If hope is faith’s flower, kenotic love, agape, is their fruit.

1 Philippians 2:6-11.
2 1 John 4:8.16.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Above us only sky?

I somehow came to learn about Colin Heber-Percy's Tales of a Country Parish: From the Vicar of Savernacke Forest just in time to use download it on Audible for listening during a weekend getaway with my wife. Written during the first pandemic year, 2020, it is a remarkable book. One of my favorite features of the book, which is organized according to season, beginning with Spring, when the pandemic started, are the suggested musical compositions to listen to at the end of each section. These have been nothing short of revelatory for me.

Having taken today off because I didn't want to rush back to work after a weekend away, I listened to Tales of a Country Parish during my long walk this morning. Here along the Wasatch Front of the Rocky Mountains, it's a lovely Spring day. It now looks like rain, which we very much need. Predictably, my walk and listening were interrupted by a phone call I had to take. Boy, do I look forward to the day when, apart from people near and dear to me, family and friends, I won't have any urgent calls to take.

My reason for posting this, apart from the fact that I rarely just sit and write anything in my little cyberspace anymore- a stark contrast to my blogging of yesteryear!- is because in listening to his book, I heard Heber-Percy (he is the narrator of his audiobook) read something that threw me back to last Friday, writing about there being no heaven.

Commenting on "John Lennon's atheistical urging in his song 'Imagine' to abandon the notion of heaven" the author states this has never bugged him. This resonated with me. Besides, concocting such a place is a case-in-point of many critiques of Christianity, opening Christians to the charge of not really being concerned about the here-and-now or with what we now refer to as social justice. I agree with the good vicar when states that abandoning such a notion "might even be a good idea."

The lyric that bothers Heber-Percy is Lennon's assertion that above is only sky. He asks if Lennon ever bothered to look up. "The sky is an endless wonder," he continues, "our canopy and our context, a far-off boundary, and as close as our breath." Only sky, indeed!

Thinking about the here-and-now in this context, Saint Paul's Letter to Philemon comes to mind. Philemon, as I think at least one of my two readers will know, was an individual, not a community. Philemon, a Christian, owned slaves. Well, he owned at least one slave. The one slave we know he owned was named Onesimus. Onesimus, also a Christian, left Philemon to travel with Paul.

What occasioned Paul's Letter to Philemon was the need he felt to send Onesimus back to his master. Understandably, the idea of this hits our 21st-century consciences very hard. This makes it all the more important to read what Paul writes most carefully. Basically, his appeal to Philemon is that through Christ, he (Paul), Philemon, and Onesimus enjoy equality.

Paul begins this missive by calling himself "a prisoner for Jesus Christ." He refers to himself in this way another time in the short letter. He asks Philemon to receive Onesimus, who Paul calls "my own heart," not "as a slave but more than a slave, a brother."

Rather than being "pro-slavery," Paul here is pro-fraternity. He's being subversive in an affective and effective way. For Christians, the revolution looks more like an evolution. Being an evolution, there are mutations. While it certainly has political implications, the Christian revolution is not essentially political. Activism not only has its limits but reaches and seems to quickly spill over reasonable limits.

Being loved is true freedom. It is by loving the concrete, real person, the one whom we encounter, as opposed to the abstraction of humanity, that we set them free. Love is always revolutionary. Love is what makes God's kingdom a present reality as we await its fullness.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

"Neither do I condemn you"

Readings: Isa 43:16-21; Ps 126:1-6; Phil 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

It is difficult to comment on the pericope of the woman caught in adultery without commenting on the history of this text. Even though it now appears in all printed versions of the Bible as John 8:1-11, it does not appear in the most ancient manuscripts of any of the canonical Gospels. In some manuscripts of Saint John’s Gospel, in addition to its settled location, it also appears, depending on the manuscript, in two other places. In some manuscripts, it is found in what many scholars argue is its more natural place, in the Gospel of St. Luke. But, again, even in Luke it is found in two different places.

Don't worry! The story of the woman forgiven for adultery by Jesus has sufficient apostolic credentials to be included in Scripture. Eusebius, the early church historian, writes that Papias, an early second-century bishop, told the story “of a woman who was accused of many sins before the Lord.” More insight is gleaned about the story by its appearance in a third-century book, The Apostolic Constitutions, where it is used to warn bishops who are too strict. St. Augustine speculates that the story was omitted from the Gospel text "to avoid giving scandal." It seems he feared that conveying the story of such mercy towards an adulteress would cause the faithful to take the grave sin of adultery too lightly. So, in an ironic twist, certain church hierarchs constitute the judgmental crowd, judging even our Lord by finding him too forgiving.

Of course, the whole point of this episode is to demonstrate how deep and wide is God’s mercy given us in Christ. After asking the woman where her accusers were and if there was no one left to condemn her, hearing her negative reply, "No one sir," Jesus says these words: "Neither do I condemn you." Since we are in Saint John's Gospel, let's call to mind something from this book's most famous passage: "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn* the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17).

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565

After refusing to condemn her, Jesus says to her- "Go, and from now on do not sin any more" (John 8:11). I think this brings us to the relevant or homiletic point, which is made in our reading from Saint Paul's Letter to the Philippians:
forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus
(Phil 3:13b-14)
In forgetting what lies behind, we must never forget God's mercy. What Paul notes earlier in the passage about himself also applies to us, as it does to the woman caught in adultery: "not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ"(Phil 3:9).

You see, in one way or another, you and I are the woman caught in adultery. This is clearly shown by Jesus' words to the crowd of men who were so eager to stone her death: "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7). Jesus cannot be referring here to what we might call "venial" sins. He can no doubt be referring to sins, violations of the Law, that also might warrant death. Standing before what they had to recognize as a kind of divine judgment, these men, heeding their consciences, could do nothing but drop their stones and walk away.

Like the woman they humiliated, these men, "beginning with the elders," had been somewhat humiliated, not by Jesus, but by their hypocrisy. It's difficult to imagine that did not walk away with some awareness, vague as it may have been, that they, too, were recipients of Divine Mercy: a withholding of judgment, a call to repent.

This alone is enough to show that the handing on of this story is divinely inspired and so is "scriptural."

Friday, April 1, 2022

Heaven on earth

I am about as sure as I am about anything that there is no heaven. By "heaven," I mean some inchoate place up in the sky where "good" or "saved" people go when they die. To contradict T-Rex: we're not going up to the "Spirit in the sky." It's because I believe in the bodily resurrection that I don't believe in heaven, at least not as I've briefly described it.

You see, if we are made to be and will forever be corporeal beings, then we have to be somewhere. It is also because we're corporeal beings that we don't become angels, who are, by definition, incorporeal. This raises the question- what happens to us during the time between death and resurrection?

One way to answer the question about our situation between death and resurrection is that because we presumably are temporarily something like disembodied spirits or consciousnesses, that is, immaterial, we are outside of time. This is not how are meant to be. Hence, rather than experiencing the burden of time, the time between death and resurrection may seem to us near-instantaneous. There is no reason this intense experience cannot be purgatorial, hellacious, or blissful.

It is an ancient Christian teaching that God will establish "heaven" on earth, not somewhere up in the sky, the place of disembodied spirits. This teaching is largely based on Revelation 21:2- "I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband." Like the Incarnation, this is wholly incarnational, like us.

It's also important to point out that, according to this line of theo-logic, the city of God (a city, a completed human and completely human [in the best sense of the word] civilization, not a garden or a wilderness) comes down, meaning we don't "go up." The passage continues: "I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race.c He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]'" (Revelation 21:3).

Conceiving heaven as a disembodied realm of the spirits has theological implications, few, if any, of which are good. It seems to me that Lent is a good time to reckon with ultimate things, seeking to purify our faith by the grace of God in the light of revelation. Besides, I think we've reached the end of the long epoch during which faith became a fantasy, leading many reasonable and sane people to reject it. Locating heaven on earth also speaks to us deeply about the vastly overlapping domains of the sacred and the secular, a dichtoomy Christ came to abolish. Separating the sacred from the secular at the expense of the secular is to live as a pagans.

Our traditio for today is a repeat: the Psychedelic Furs' "Heaven."

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 ...