Sunday, August 28, 2022

Be humble and give

More out of habit than anything, at the beginning of a week following one of the busiest and worst weeks I've had in a while, I want to post a little thought about today's Gospel. The thought that came to me when reading Luke 14:1.7-14 was: Jesus certainly wasn't the most polite dinner guest.

I suppose a second thought is that this pericope (a "pericope" is an extract from a text, but particularly an extract from a book of the Bible) does not require much by way of exegetical clarification to understand what the Lord is saying in either of his two utterances.

In this passage, he does not use parables. Rather, he speaks directly about what he is experiencing at the dinner. Concerning the points he seeks to make, not only can we say plus ça change plus c'est la même chose, it seems, at least to me, that the tendencies he address have become even more pronounced.

Mindful that what used to be satire is now real, in our day and cultural milieu what Jesus denounces regularly occurs it what would perhaps seem to him an exaggerated manner. We talk a lot about humility and remain not just prideful but downright arrogant. We're always careful to ensure that any definition of humility we set forth preserves not only our pride but often our vanity.

One of the great things about the virtue of genuine humility is that helps you get beyond self-deception and exaggerated self-images. Often, we to distinguish between humility and humiliation. More often than not, only the proud can be humiliated. The truly humble person cannot be humiliated in most instances. This is not because the genuinely humble person necessarily thinks that s/he is deserving of the humiliation. It's because that person has rid her/himself of the vice of pride. So, s/he can chalk up to the insecurity of the person or people responsible for the humiliation.

Just as prudence governs the virtues, pride can be said to govern the vices. The main point of Jesus' first teaching in today's Gospel is that a humble person often (by no means always) avoids humiliation because, not being prideful, s/he is not prone to acting in presumptive ways.

As to the second teaching, we do not understand the Gift Economy. We only understand the Exchange Economy. The latter makes life a perennial quid pro quo, which, in turn, makes us all users and the used. The economy of the kingdom of God is the Gift Economy. Such an economy is "a system of exchange where valuables are not sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards."

How many birthday and Christmas presents have you bought for people you wouldn't otherwise buy them for but, because they gifted you, you feel obligated to return the gift. To bring home how deeply ingrained the economy of exchange is in us, think of how easily and badly feelings are hurt when you buy someone a birthday, Christmas, or present for another occasion and then on the same or similar occasion they don't get you one. To cure this, Jesus tecahes that it's only when you gift something and expect nothing in return that you've truly given. So, give to those who are utterly incapable of paying you back.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Year C Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 66:18-21; Ps 117:1-2; Heb 12:5-7.11-13; Luke 13:22-30

As the beginning of our Gospel reading reminds us, we are still journeying with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. In Luke’s Gospel, as in Matthew and Mark, he makes this trip only once. Jerusalem is his destination, but he is making his way to the cross. If we follow Jesus this is where he leads us. But he does not lead us to the cross to leave us there. He leads us there to bring us to our destiny, which is eternal life.

It's always difficult to talk about the narrowness of the road to life eternal. Responding to the very pointed question, “will only a few be saved?,” Jesus certainly speaks to this in our Gospel.1 In order to understand his answer better, it is important to give it some context.

Jesus lived his entire life in Israel, in what was then known as Roman Palestine. Virtually his entire life and ministry occurred among his fellow Jews. We know that rather than taking the long route normally used by Galilean Jews when traveling to Jerusalem, he took the shortcut through Samaria. Jesus also journeyed slightly outside of Jewish areas to the east and to the west.

The salient question in our Gospel is posed by a fellow Jew. At the end of his answer, Jesus says
people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last2
He is talking about the salvation of non-Jews. In our first reading from Isaiah prophetically foretells that God will make himself known to other nations and “gather” those, non-Israelite people, to himself. Some of these gentiles he “will take as priests and Levites.3

To add insult to injury, the “you” to whom he refers when saying, using the third person, “you yourselves will be cast out” is his fellow Jews.4 He is talking to and about those who considered themselves the most righteous, the most observant, who thought they’d earned God’s good favor by stringent observance of the 613 mitzvot- the dos and donts that determined whether you were observant. In many cases, they felt their meticulous observance was their ticket to criticize the perceived laxity and sinfulness of others.

Jesus never had much time for or patience with those who did not recognize their own need for God’s mercy. As he said earlier in Luke’s Gospel, during his ministry in Galilee before setting out for Jerusalem: “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.”5

The word “hypocrite,” which, in Greek, refers to a stage actor, is bandied about quite a bit. Sometimes accurately, often inaccurately. It is part and parcel of Christian belief and should come as no surprise that even a committed Christian still sins. A fundamental aspect of Christian belief is summed up well by Saint Paul: “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.”6

In his first lengthy interview, given about six months after becoming Pope, Pope Francis was asked: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” The Holy Father responded with- “I do not know what might be the most fitting description... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”7 As someone who preaches to others, I am conscious that I am a sinner who needs a Savior as much as anyone and perhaps more than most.

It is our reading from Hebrews, written for and to Jewish Christians who, due to persecution by fellow Jews, were tempted to renounce their faith in Christ, that helps us apply what Jesus teaches in our Gospel. It’s important to point out that “disciple” and “discipline” are closely related. A disciple is one who practices the disciplines of a master. A disciple is like an apprentice, or in our day, a player. Sticking with that metaphor, a master is like a coach. A player has to have confidence that it is by listening to, learning from, and applying what her/his coach teaches s/he will be a successful player and the team will be a winning team.

The inspired author refers to an experience that is common even now: fathers, at least good ones, seek to teach their children what they need to succeed in life. Disciplines like going to bed and getting up at regular times, exercising regularly, eating healthily, keeping your living space tidy, being reliable and keeping your word, and treating others with respect.

While I think all of us who are fathers want to have good, close relationships with our children, a good father recognizes that being a father sometimes comes first. This holds true even when it leads, as it almost inevitably does, to conflicts rooted in a failure to see beyond “Dad, you’re mean” or "Dad, you don't understand"(on a good day). Especially as your children get older, parents have to carefully discern when to intervene and when not to get involved.

Due to sometimes traumatic experiences, it is understandably difficult for some people to accept or even comprehend God as Father. Nonetheless, this is how God reveals himself through Christ. But God isn’t just any father; he is the best possible Father- the Mother of all Fathers! Unlike our own dads or those of us who are dads, even our Holy Father, the Pope, God is not a sinner. Our Father in heaven is perfect because he has revealed: God is love.8 Jesus is proof of this:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him9
In a conversation with her when I was a young adult, my mom, who had a very complex relationship with her own mother, said to me: “I think at some point we all have to forgive our parents.” You know what? Our relationship with God can be complicated, too!

A few days ago, I texted a friend who is experiencing some difficulties and trying to help her brother, who is also going through a rough time. Her reply to my chipper inquiry took me back a bit: “I’ve given up praying. I’m mad at God and, quite honestly, I wonder if he even exists.” My friends, this happens. It's okay. Because God is a good Father, he understands and his love for you remains always undiminished.

Maybe the most perfect image of God as Father given in the whole of the Bible is the father in the story of the Prodigal Son. We can only call God our Father because of Jesus Christ, who suffered, died, and rose for us. Our Father, using his own (often difficult to understand or even endure) ways and means, urges us on our way to Jerusalem and beyond, along the narrow path back to himself. As the inspired author of Hebrews so accurately perceived:
At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it. So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed10

1 Luke 13:23.
2 Luke 13:29-30.
3 Isaiah 66:18.21.
4 Luke 13:28.
5 Luke 5:32.
6 Romans 3:23.
7 Antonio Spadaro, S.J. “A Big Heart Open to God: An interview with Pope Francis.” America magazine 30 September 2013
8 1 John 4:8.16.
9 John 3:16-17.
10 Hebrews 12:11-13.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Readings: Rev 11:19a.12:1-6a.10ab; Ps 45:10-12.16; 1 Cor 15:20-27; Luke 1:39-56

We sometimes lose sight of just how audacious it is to be a Christian. For example, going with the flow, we’ll say or agree to things like: “Death is natural.” Christians should have the audacity to insist “There’s nothing natural about death!” We were not born to die. We were created and redeemed to live forever.

As philosopher Heidegger explored in his magnum opus Being and Time, death is the horizon over which we cannot see. I am deeply suspicious of claims to know the afterlife in the vivid detail in which some describe it. Besides, most such claims amount to an idealized continuation of earthly life.

Contrast claims of detailed knowledge about life after death with Saint Paul who, quoting third Isaiah, insists: “’no eye has seen… no ear has heard, and… no human mind has conceived’ -- the things God has prepared for those who love him.”1 But revelation, handed on by means of both scripture and tradition, gives us some glimpses over the horizon of death. Maybe just enough to whet our appetite, to channel our desire.

This is the point Saint Paul makes so explicitly in our reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians when he writes- “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”2 One way to understand the read, seven-headed dragon in our second reading is as death. By his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ destroyed death. This is what the Solemnity of our Blessed Mother’s Assumption is all about.

Christians have celebrated the Holy Mother of God being bodily assumed into heaven practically from the beginning of the Church. 15 August is the day Christians both East and West, including many Protestant communions that follow the liturgical calendar, have celebrated this wondrous event. Rather than being a divisive factor among Christians, our Blessed Mother, as mothers tend to do, brings us together.

Mary, Jesus’ Mother, is the model disciple because in her fiat, her “Yes!,” to what God asked of her. By saying to the archangel, “May it be done to me according to your word,” she committed herself wholly and completely to God, with all that meant. She was given a glimpse of what this meant when old man Simeon, whom she encountered in the Temple when her son was but eight days old, predicted what Jesus himself understood:
Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed3
Jesus’s Presentation in the Temple is the third Glorious Mystery of the Rosary. The fruit of this mystery is obedience to God, which means, what Mary understood through her experience: hope is realized through suffering. Ultimate hope is realized through death. As probably all of us know from our own experience, this is a painful realization. This is why we pray to Mary with these words from the Salve Regina:
To thee do we cry,
Poor banished children of Eve;
To thee do we send up our sighs,
Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears
We are not here this evening to worship the Virgin Mary. While we do not worship her, we do recognize the special place she occupies in God’s economy of salvation. This humble “nobody” from backwards Nazareth indicates this herself in our Gospel reading for today’s solemnity.

In response to her kinswoman Elizabeth’s Spirit-filled greeting, Miriam of Nazareth sings the canticle we now call her Magnificat. This lovely song begins:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed4
Again, while we do not gather to worship Mary, we do gather, as have nearly all generations of Christians, to call her blessed. It is clear Christian teaching, rooted in the first commandment and reiterated in our Lord’s two great commandments that we worship God- Father, Son, and Spirit- and God alone. We venerate the saints, those holy women and men who show what following Christ looks like in every age, including our own.

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, by Guido Reni, ca. 1642

Between worship, the Greek name for which is latria, and veneration, technically called dulia, is the category of hyperdulia. Latria is due to God. Dulia is due the saints. Hyperdulia, which means what it sounds like, super- or turbocharged dulia or veneration, which does not rise to the level of worship. To Mary, the Mother of God, and her alone, do we super-venerate.

Mary’s Bodily Assumption into heaven is the fourth Glorious Mystery of her Most Holy Rosary. The fruit of this mystery is the grace of a happy death. Getting back to my first point, what can a “happy death” possibly be?

As no doubt our Blessed Mother, along with Saint Paul, understood, the grace of a happy death is dying knowing that because of Jesus Christ death is not the end. Hence, death is a transitus, meaning a passage or a crossing over, not from life to death, but from death into life eternal. The resurrection will be the completion of this transitus.

We should meditate on the great mysteries of our faith often, even daily. So, use the Rosary as the great instrument of grace that it is. By means of it, bring your intercessions before your Mother, confident she will intercede for you.

Once again, I urge you to memorize the Memorare. Pray this prayer often. When someone asks you to pray for them or for an intention they have, commit it to the Blessed Virgin through her Memorare. Use it to entrust her with your own prayers and intentions.

Let’s end our reflection on this great mystery of our faith with the Memorare. If you know it, pray it along with me:
Remember, O most blessed Virgin Mary,
that never was it known
that anyone who fled to thy protection,
implored thy help,
or sought thy intercession,
was left unaided.
Inspired by this confidence
I fly unto thee,
O Virgin of virgins, my Mother.
To thee I come,
before thee I stand,
sinful and sorrowful.
O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
despise not my petitions,
but in thy mercy hear and answer me.
To this, let’s add:
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death

1 1 Corinthians 2:9.
2 1 Corinthians 15:26.
3 Luke 2:34-35.
4 Luke 1:46-48.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

The consolation of Jesus

Readings: Jer 38:4-6.8-10; Ps 40:2-4.18; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53

Faith that is faith kindles a fire. The source and origin of this fire is divine love. While we are made out of love to love, love doesn't seem to come naturally to us.

Last night I watched a few episodes of the wonderful comedy Derry Girls. In one episode, a new student arrives at the girls' Catholic school in Derry from Donegal. While ethnically Chinese, the new student is culturally and linguistically Irish. Some of the members of the group consisting of the series' main characters are eager to "recruit" the new "exotic" student into their cohort. A few others are not so sure. Michelle, the most outrageous member of the group, says "I hate people I don't know."

Once you put following Jesus first in your life sooner or later, almost inevitably, you will find yourself at odds with others. Why? This gets back to how unnatural it is for us to love others. Jesus calls us to radical love. Yes, we are to love even the people we don't know, especially the ones we meet. This gets back to the whole idea that being a Christian means making yourself a neighbor.

According to Jesus, your neighbor is not necessarily the person who lives nearby. Rather, your neighbor is the person you encounter who needs your assistance, like the robbed and beaten man needed the assistance provided by the Good Samaritan.

It has been observed that no good deed goes unpunished. While I don't believe most good deeds are punished, it seems to be the case that most go unnoticed and unrewarded. For the Christian, this is more than okay. It is best. In a very real sense, doing the right thing is its own reward.

Does that sound discouraging? It probably does. I don't know about you, but I often find life quite discouraging. I'll be really honest. I am suspicious of people who never seem to get discouraged, especially those who seem to think discouragement is anything other than the dissonance created by the clash of our expectations with reality. Such an attitude strikes me as inhuman and, when it is imposed on those who are discouraged, inhumane.

It seems important to briefly note that I think there is an important distinction to be made between dicouragement and despair.

Our reading from Hebrews provides us with a source of encouragement. When you find yourself discouraged, the sacred author urges you consider what Jesus endured in his passion and death. I realize that what the author of Hebrews urges his readers, who were originally Jewish converts to Christianity who were experiencing persecution for being Christian and, as a result, were tempted to abandon the faith, is somewhat presumptuous in our context.

I recently finished Marilynne Robinson's novel Jack. It is a brilliantly theological story. One question that Jack, the ne'er do well white son of a respectable Presbyterian minister from smalltown Iowa, asks the pastor of the black Baptist Church he winds up attending for a time in Saint Louis, is what's the difference between faith and presumption?

Robinson is too good a writer and theologian to answer that question directly. But she doesn't exactly leave this question hanging. Rather, she answers it through the story. Her answer, if my reading is correct, is that it is often, even usually, difficult to tell the difference.

Not only do my challenges pale in comparison to Jesus', they pale when compared to those faced by most people. This doesn't make my challenges nothing. It doesn't render them unimportant or silly. After all, I can only live my own life., facing what my circumstances cause me to experience.

I often write about the challenges of following Jesus. I rarely write about the consolations. I take consolation from what Jesus endured. Didn't he endure this for me? Am I not one of the sinners who oppose him but for whom he endured the humiliation of the cross, despising its shame? I believe I am. I believe you are, whoever you are.

If I am serious about following Jesus, it's the fire of divine love that fuels my pilgrimage as I walk with him to the cross. Isn't this the same fire that sustained Jeremiah as he languished in the dark, muddy cistern without food?

Jeremiah was thrown in the cistern for doing nothing other than saying what God inspired him to say. It was the fire to Jesus refers that emboldened Jeremiah to once again, after he is rescued and assured he wouldn't come to harm, say what God told him to say. What did God tell Jeremiah to say to the king and to Israel? To surrender to the Babylonians, seeking terms of peace, instead of fighting in the presumption that God would save them.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

What do you hope for?

Readings: Wisdom 18:6-9; Ps 33:1.12.18-22; Heb 11:1-2.8-19; Luke 12:32-48

"Faith is the realization of what is hoped for..."

What do you hope for?

In accordance with God's promise, Abraham hoped for a son. Eventually, he and Sarah had Isaac. Of course, they waited a long time. They waited so long that they were both well past childbearing and childrearing age when Isaac was conceived and then born. This often seems to be God's way.

One reason for my insistence that not only should hope never be confused with optimism but that hope kicks in when optimism runs out is my experience. It seems to be the case that very often what I work hard at remaining optimistic about never comes to pass. Sometimes it's a big thing and sometimes not. Sometimes it seems like a big thing but in retrospect, the magnitude of its importance diminishes. If the magnitude of importance does not diminish and it still doesn't seem to happen, then perhaps it becomes a hope. Making something a hope means to put it into God's hands, trusting God. Hope is trust, not wishing. This why faith is hope realized. Abraham and Sarah show us this quite clearly.

Something can only become a matter of hope when judged in the light of ultimate things and found deserving. I don't know about you, but I spend a lot of time worrying about and working for things that don't bear up under the light of the ultimate.

Saint by the Sea Parish, Rockaway Beach, Oregon- where I went to Mass today- photo mine

Our Gospel today is about ultimate things. What we are given is to be used appropriately. As out of style as such a belief may be, I believe there will be an ultimate accounting. I can't evade or avoid the fact that I have been given much. How much of what I have been given have I, in turn, given, put to good use, or at least kept in proper perspective?

As belief in anything beyond death fades, our perspectives change. The ephemeral can become the ultimate. As today's Gospel demonstrates, Jesus came to free us from our fascination with nothingness. While it is a horizon over which I cannot see, I don't believe death is the ultimate.

Fascination with nothingness, not religious faith, strikes me as the opiate of the masses now.

Faith poses a lot of questions, more questions than it answers. Maybe the most basic question is Does life have a transcendent meaning? Stated slightly less philosophically- Does your life have a meaning beyond itself? There are two equally silly answers to this question- This world is not my home/I'm justa passin' through/My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue and This world is my home/But I'm still just passin' through/Like everyone else I'll wind up buried in the goo. Worse yet, preserved, hermetically sealed and placed in the ground. These are not Christian eschatologies, that is, Christian views of human destiny.

In accordance with God's promise, what do you hope for?

Friday, August 5, 2022

Lifting burdens; lightening loads

It's August. Wow. This post finds me on the beautiful Oregon coast. I am enjoying a rare vacation with my family. The beauty of this place almost overwhelms me.

I awoke this morning with this on my mind as a full-formed sentence: Being a Christian is not about toeing some imaginary line. It's about realizing that you are loved and, in light of that reality, to love in like manner.

Like all genuine spiritual truths, this is simple to grasp and hard to actually live. I can call these "spiritual truths" because they don't originate with me.

I was struck by this, taken from the reading for Morning Prayer Week II of Psalter:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it (Ephesians 2:13-16)
It strikes me as a very human thing to place burdens on others. Jesus speaks often about people who lay heavy burdens on others and do nothing to lighten their load.

Not big thoughts but big enough for this vacation Friday.

Because it's summer. Because I am on vacation. Because I love the Go-Go's. Our traditio today is "Vacation." Yeah, I know it's a song about being on vacation away from your crush or whatever. But, hey, I like it.

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 ...