Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Beatitudes: Jesus' perennial provocation

Readings: Zeph 2:3; 3:12-13; Ps 146:6-10; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12a

Ah, the Beatitudes. Those fundamental teachings of Jesus that we wax eloquently about and then work hard to avoid. The truth of the matter is, the Beatitudes, not the Decalogue (i.e., Ten Commandments), constitute the charter of Christianity. This alone points to the atomic fact that Christianity is not essentially a set of morals, a list of rules, or a set of prescriptions and proscriptions to be meticulously followed. It's kind of interesting to consider that there is one less Beatitude than there are commandments in the Decalogue.

In his commentary on Matthew, written for the recently published The Paulist Biblical Commentary, New Testament scholar Brendan Byrne, SJ, observes, "the Beatitudes are not then, even in Matthew's formulation, primarily prescriptive in an ethical sense" (pg 918).

Author Kurt Vonnegut, who was not a Christian, once observed:
For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. 'Blessed are the merciful' in a courtroom? 'Blessed are the peacemakers' in the Pentagon? Give me a break!
In fact, Vonnegut's wife's embrace of Christianity was a contributing factor to their separation and eventual divorce. It was Martin Luther who explicitly noted that Jesus is not a new Moses.

I think considering these kinds of observations from non-Christians is very important. Emmanuel Falque, in his book The Wedding Feast of the Lamb, shows how valuable Nietzsche's various critiques of Christianity are. These should not be invoked to engage in apologetical rebuttals, but to examine our individual and collective conscience.

Returning to Byrne's fine commentary, what Jesus sets forth in the Beatitudes is an attitude indicative of a "way of life." With the Beatitudes, the Lord does not make "a stark moral demand." Rather, he sets forth "a vision of God that he shares with those called to be the community of the kingdom." This is where Vonnegut gets it so very, deeply right! Conversely, it's where Christians so frequently get it so very, deeply wrong.



Presently, at least in the United States of America, the Beatitudes taught by Jesus stand in stark contrast to what too many believe it means "to be a Christian." Instead of being meek, we are often arrogant. Rather than being poor in spirit, we are loud and proud. We hunger for power and thirst for privilege instead of for righteousness. Too often in a misguided quest for justice, we seek revenge instead of choosing to be merciful. Our hearts need to be transformed by Jesus' Sacred Heart. We are usually content to be belligerents in culture wars rather than peacemakers and we are often far too fine with actual wars and military actions of various kinds. As to Jesus' declaration about the blessedness of those who endure calumny and persecution for his sake, we rarely bear wrongs patiently and are often quick to take offense. And we are also prone to mistake criticism, like Vonnegut's, for persecution. Being a Christian, to put it in a comprehensible way, means not being thin-skinned. In this, Pope Francis, who has endured much both from within and outside the Church, sets a great example for us.

We talk incessantly about "evangelization." We need to grasp that genuine Christian evangelization is nothing other than endeavoring to live the Beatitudes. In this way, we make God's kingdom a present reality. It certainly sets those who live this way apart, not just in our society, but in any society. This is what it truly means to insist that Christianity is always countercultural. This, I believe, gets to the essence of what Chesterton wrote about Christianity not having been tried and found wanting but being found difficult, it has been left untried.

Saint Paul, in our reading from First Corinthians, notes that God doesn't choose the rich, the powerful, the prominent, society's movers and shakers. No! God calls the "foolish," the "weak," and the "lowly." Think no further than our Blessed Mother, Saint Bernadette Soubrious, or Saint Benedict Joseph Labré, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Charles de Foucault, or the recently deceased Br. Biagio Conte, etc. God does this, according to the apostle, precisely "to reduce to nothing those who are something." Again, this is not by violence, by using the coercive powers of the state, or by spending huge amounts of cash. What Jesus teaches is divine wisdom, saving wisdom.

It is interesting, too, to point out that in our first reading from Zephaniah, the listener is urged to seek humility and to seek justice. Is it too much of an exegetical leap to take away seek justice with humility? This is the witness of many of the saints, including our Blessed Mother, listed above.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Year A Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Word of God Sunday)

Readings: Isa 8:23-9:3; Ps 27:1.4.13-14; 1 Corinthians 1:1-13.17; Matthew 4:12-23

Along with Roman Catholics throughout the world, today we observe the Word of God Sunday. Sunday is the day we gather around the one table of the Lord’s word and sacrament. It is true that “the liturgy of the word and the eucharistic liturgy, are so closely connected with each other that they form but one single act of worship.”1

Holy Mass is where the word becomes flesh, not just the bread and wine becoming Christ’s body and blood through the Spirit-empowered words of the Eucharistic Prayer, but by means of these, the word becoming flesh in each one of us, thus making us together, Christ’s true body, the Church. “Indeed,” the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, inspired by the Holy Spirit, writes: “the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.”2

Mass is the privileged place to proclaim and to hear the scriptures proclaimed. Reading is different from listening. Listening requires a different, deeper kind of attention. In our time, this is difficult. Doing it requires discipline. Because the liturgy is the primer venue for the scriptures, they need to be proclaimed well. Proclaiming the scriptures to the gathered assembly is not just reading out loud in front of people. Neither is it the performance of a dramatic reading. It is a proper ministry, a service to the People of God, a sacred responsibility. One who lectors should be immersed in the scriptures and thoroughly familiar with their meaning if s/he is to proclaim God’s word and not just read it.

In its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council insisted that “Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.” Because “the word of God should be accessible at all times,” the Council fathers continue, “the Church by her authority and with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books.” GIven that we are currently observing the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Council urges Catholics to work with our separated sisters and brothers in publishing translations of the Bible that “all Christians” can use.3

Billy Graham was once asked by someone which translation of the Bible he should get. Graham’s response was “The one you’re going to read.” While there might be some translations to avoid, there are many very good translations suitable for reading, meditating on, and praying with the scriptures. There are fourteen English-language Bibles approved for use by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.4

There are several good translations of the Bible that do not contain the Deutero-Canonical books, which Catholics from the Church’s beginnings have recognized as inspired, thus constituting part of the Old Testament, that are suitable for reading. Keep in mind, there is no disparity among Christians about which books constitute our uniquely Christian scriptures, the New Testament.

Rather than dividing us in the manner indicated by our reading from Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the scriptures should unite Christians, helping to bring about the unity of all who believe, the unity explicitly willed by Christ himself when he prayed to the Father:
that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me5
For Catholics, as for all Christians, the scriptures as gathered together by the Church, within the Church, and for the Church, in a book we simply call “the book” (i.e., the Bible) remain the primary rule of faith.



Saint Jerome, the Church Father who translated the books of the Bible from their original languages (i.e., Hebrew and Greek) insisted “ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” “It is common knowledge” Dei Verbum teaches, “that among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament, the Gospels have a special preeminence, and rightly so, for they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our savior.”6

I am often asked by people what books they should read. I am not being dismissive when I make the same recommendation made by the late Dallas Willard, a philosopher and Christian teacher: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Since we are in Year A of the Sunday cycle of readings, I recommend reading the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Read it more than once. Because, along with Mark, Luke, and John, it is an inspired account of the life of the Son God, who for us and “for our salvation came down from heaven,” it is inexhaustible.7

There is also the simple and fruitful practice of lectio divina, a proven method of praying with, from, and through Sacred Scripture. Lectio divina, which means “sacred” or “divine” reading is, without doubt one of the best ways to hear God’s word. It follows a four-step pattern: reading (lectio), meditating (meditatio), praying (oratio), and contemplating (contemplatio). There are many good resources available on lectio divina.

While the practice of lectio divina is required for monks in the Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the sixth century, it is referred to as if everyone knew what it was and how to do it.8 This remains an ancient and time-tested form of Christian prayer. Following Christ commits the disciple to ongoing spiritual formation. Spiritual maturity is the goal of such formation.

Spiritual and emotional maturity, while not the same thing, go hand in glove to the point that you can only be as emotionally mature as you are spiritually mature and vice-versa. Spiritual formation is a lifelong process. Frequent and fruitful engagement with Sacred Scripture is central to realizing spiritual growth. Let's face it, we live in a society and culture that seems intent on keeping everyone in a state of perpetual adolescence. I dare say, most of the disunity the Church experiences is due a lack of spiritual and emotional maturity.

Our reading from Isaiah and our Gospel from Matthew demonstrate something else the Council is eager to teach in Dei Verbum, namely, how “God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New.”9

One of the major objectives of the inspired author of Matthew, not just in this passage, but throughout his narrative, is to show how Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. In fact, our reading from Isaiah overlaps with the first reading for the Christmas Mass at night. Of course, what this is meant to teach us is that Jesus Christ is the “great light” that dispels our gloom.

Just as in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, those who receive the Light of Christ are impelled to bring this Good News to those who dwell in darkness and gloom. In today’s Gospel Jesus calls his first disciples, whom he later makes his apostles. An apostle is one who is sent. This is an important aspect of what we mean when, in the Creed, we confess the Church to be “apostolic.” And so, at the end of each Mass, you and I are sent to “announce the Gospel of the Lord.”10

It is not enough to hear the word of God. Because it is “living and effective,” God’s word provokes a response in the one who has ears and a heart to hear it.11 And so, to cite the Letter to the Hebrews, which, in turns, echoes or resounds Psalm 95, which typically serves as the first Psalm of each day in the Church’s liturgical prayer: “Oh, that today you would hear [God’s] voice: ‘Harden not your hearts.’”12


1 Second Vatican Council. Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Sacrosanctum Concilium], sec. 56.
2 Hebrews 4:12.
3 Second Vatican Council. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation [Dei Verbum], sec. 22.
4 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “USCCB Approved Translations of the Sacred Scriptures for Private Use and Study by Catholics.”
5 John 17:22-23.
6 Dei Verbum, sec. 18.
7 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, sec. 18.
8 Rule of Saint Benedict. 48.1.
9 Dei Verbum, sec. 16.
10 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, sec. 144.
11 Hebrews 4:12.
12 Hebrews 3:15.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Year I Second Monday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Hebrews 5:1-10; Ps 110:1-4; Mark 2:18-22

According to Mark’s Gospel, as Jesus emerged from his baptism, his identity as God’s Son was confirmed by a voice from the heavens: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”1 Because he is the only begotten Son of the Father, Jesus is called as high priest of the new covenant. Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews indicates this when it insists that Jesus, far from taking this honor upon himself, like Aaron, Moses’ brother, is called by God.2

Jesus can be the high priest of the new covenant because he is the only begotten Son of the Father. Hence, he is “God from God” and “true God from true God.”3 Because of this, as we read a few chapters on in Hebrews, “he has obtained so much more excellent a ministry as he is mediator of a better covenant, enacted on better promises.”4

Despite being God, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”5 And so, he learned obedience to the will of the Father “from what he suffered.”6

Note that the inspired author of Hebrews writes that he is “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”7 You see, to obey Jesus is to obey the Father. This “obedience of faith,” as Paul calls it in his Letter to the Romans, is the work of the Holy Spirit in and through believers.8

We encounter in our first reading the mysterious figure of Melchizedek. King of Salem, Melchizedek came to Abraham out of nowhere. He offered to God an acceptable sacrifice of bread and wine.9 This is referred to in Eucharistic Prayer I, also known as the Roman Canon.

Asking the Father to look upon our offering of bread and wine “with a serene and kindly countenance and asking him to accept our gifts, the priest refers to the sacrifices of Abel and Abraham and then says,
…and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek,
a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim10


Now, Melchizedek, contrary to local belief, is a one-off. From a Christian perspective, he is a prefiguration of Christ. He is not mentioned much in the canon of scripture. Only in Genesis 14, Psalm 110, and in the Letter the Hebrews. It is the latter that provides the hermeneutical key by comparing him explicitly to Christ.

Only Jesus Christ is “a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek.”11 Jesus' offering of bread and wine, which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is transformed into his very self, that is pleasing to the Father. In the Holy Mass, even a daily Mass in Ordinary Time, the entire Paschal Mystery is made present.

Our Gospel happens early on in Mark’s chronology. Jesus has made Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee his home. It is from there, after calling the Twelve, that he initiates his public ministry in earnest. Our Gospel is one of five encounters with the Pharisees handed on in Mark. The issue is why Jesus’ disciples don’t fast according to the prescripts expected of observant Jews. Jesus makes clear that while he is with them, his followers should feast and not fast.

In each of these five encounters with the Pharisees in Capernaum, Jesus is presented as one who has higher authority, the authority of a great high priest, the authority of “a priest… in the line of Melchizedek.” Keep in mind that it was to Melchizedek that Abraham our father in faith gave a tenth of all he owned.

It becomes equally clear that Jesus’ authority is at odds with the religious expectations of most of his contemporaries. This remains true even now. Jesus does not exert his authority by seizing or asking his followers to seize the levers of worldly power, which is coercive and even violent. Rather, he was content to take the form of a slave. A slave is powerless. A slave serves. He is slave by choice, not by coercion. Returning to his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul describes himself as "slave of Jesus Christ."12 If we are obedient to Jesus, our salvation lies in our obedience to him, our following his Way of service. Like the Lord, we must choose this freely, everyday.

Unassuming, self-sacrificing service is the essence of being a Christian. This is easy to forget. The lowest ebbs in Church history are when the Church has forgotten this. Just as the object determines the method, the end determines the means. Hence, the kingdom of God cannot and will be fully realized by forceful, coercive, or manipulative means. Rather, it will be realized through humble, unassuming, self-emptying means that take the form of worship, service, and witness.

Perhaps the best witness we can give is, like Jesus, how we endure the suffering with which life inevitably confronts us. This is the power of the witness of Pope Saint John Paul II. He didn’t just write, talk, and preach about the dignity and worthiness of human life, by suffering so publicly he gave eloquent witness. Such a witness was also given by the non-violent and deeply Christian witness of Dr. King and all who sacrificed for civil rights in our country. Through non-violence and even love of enemy, they sought to realize the Christian tenet that all human beings, as bearers of the divine image, are created equal in dignity.


1 Mark 1:11.
2 Hebrews 5:5.
3 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, sec. 18.
4 Hebrews 8:6.
5 Philippians 2:7-8.
6 Hebrews 5:8.
7 Hebrews 5:9.
8 Romans 1:5.
9 Genesis 14:18-20.
10 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, Eucharistic Prayer I, sec. 93.
11 Psalm 110:4.
12 Romans 1:1.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

"Come and see"

John 1:29-39

My reflection for today's readings is taken from Hans Urs Von Balthasar on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises: An Anthology. I am expanding the Gospel reading to include John 1:35-39.
What is supposed to happen [as a result of the Spiritual Exercises] is the same thing that happened long ago on the bank of the Jordan. "As Jesus was passing by (and Ignatius emphasizes that Jesus is not stationed somewhere but rather is always passing by [Spiritual Exercises, 280, etc.], "John looked at and said, 'Behold the Lamb of God.' The two disciples [Andrew, Peter's brother, and John] heard what he said and followed Jesus. But Jesus turned around and, seeing them following him, asked them, 'What are you seeking?' When they reply, 'Rabbi, where are you staying?' he answers, 'Come and see'" (Jn 1:36-39). Make up your mind to come (which means "drop everything" [Lk 5:11]). and you shall see. "And they went along and saw... and stayed." What happened back then is not merely a model but is exactly the same thing that happens today, in the here and now, just as the sacrifice of the Cross is present in the Holy Mass, just as Resurrection Day's remission of sins takes place in each true confession" (page 6-70.)
Annotation 280 of Ignatius' Spiritual Excercises is the nineteenth of "The Mysteries of the Life of Our Lord." Like all the mysteries set forth in the Excercises. It is a three-point summary of what happens in Matthew 14:22-33. Peter wants to go to the Lord. Jesus bids him come. Peter begins to walk on the water toward him but falters, doubts, and begins to sink. Jesus saves him without hesitation. According to Balthasar,
The ship is Jesus' community, which recognizes Peter as its head; the fact that he [Peter] wants to go to the Lord is all in order. But one does not idolize Peter.; one knows he is a fallible man (the Passion will demonstrate this). Peter must not for one moment reflect on himself as if his faith, his ministry belonged to him; he is what he is only within his mission, which can only be lived in faith and whose origin always lies in the Lord
Getting back to Jesus always passing by, always on the move, and the impetus Andrew and John felt to follow him and that Peter felt to go across the water to him, we hear his summons: "Come and see."

This enthusiasm can be diminished and the impetus thwarted in so many ways. This is why for Christians not only does this experience, as Balthasar insists, happen today, it has to happen over and again. We follow Jesus, we slow down, we lose sight of him and wander off the dizzying variety of paths. Not all of these are self-evident paths of destruction. Some paths look quite pious and good.

Maybe it isn't even a case of wandering off the path. Maybe it is stopping and staying. This, for many who believe, is the worst temptation. When Eugene Peterson described Christian discipleship as "a long obedience in the same direction," he understood that to follow Christ is to remain on the move. We are pilgrims and the Church is the Pilgrim People of God, always on our Way. When we grow weary, the Lord says again, "Come and see." This is how we reach our sabbath rest.

San Giovanni che indica il Cristo a Sant'Andrea, Ottavio Vannini, 17th Century


I am going to be audacious now and cite my own work. Since it isn't published except to gather dust on a shelf in the Mount Angel Library, it's okay. Otherwise, who would read it? The following is rooted in John 5:1-30.
At the end of the first creation narrative, Genesis clearly states that after completing his work creating, God “rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken.” [Genesis 2:2] Further, we learn that “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation.” [Genesis 2:3] As a result, keeping the Sabbath day holy is encoded in the Decalogue. [See Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15]. [Theologian James] Alison observes with no disputation whatsoever, the commandment to rest on the Sabbath “is a strict injunction to imitate God.” [Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, 9] This commandment is taken so seriously by the observant men who accuse Jesus that anyone who does not observe it disobeys God by failing to imitate him. [Ibid] Jesus’s retort to the accusation that it is sinful to heal on the Sabbath is mind-blowing: “My Father is at work until now, so I am at work.” [John 5:7]. According to Alison, Jesus’s reply contains two astonishing assertions: Jesus’s denial that God is resting on the Sabbath and, implied by this denial, stretching back to Genesis, the reason God is not resting on the Sabbath is because creation is not yet complete. [Faith Beyond Resentment, 9]

Alison’s two assertions find further grounding in the fourth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, in which the earthly pilgrimage of God’s people ends with their entering into the Sabbath. Citing Psalm 95, the author of Hebrews notes that entering into Sabbath rest was denied to the children of Israel because of their disobedience. [Hebrews 4:1-11] In addition to resonating with this section of Hebrews, Alison’s insight also provides it with a hermeneutical key that lends the overarching point the inspired author is trying to make some theological coherence. “The cure on a Sabbath,” Alison continues, “has as its purpose to show God’s continued creative power mediated by Jesus.” [Faith Beyond Resentment, 10] Jesus’s point in this dispute, according to Alison, is that God is not done creating and so there is not yet a Sabbath rest into which anyone can enter (Scott S. Dodge. Diaconal Spirituality: A Systematic Exploration, Mount Angel Seminary, 2019. 101-102)
And so, he says to us today "Come and see."

Friday, January 13, 2023

In the end, contemplation

Instead of being the first Friday of this new year, today is the second Friday. As I continue, not so much to ponder as to wait and see, how my posting here will go this year, I initially determined not to post something today. But, since I have time and something prompted me, I've decided to write.

Discernment is not a straightforward affair. As I once again make my way through Saint Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, studying them, not "making" them, as it were, this becomes clear. What initially caused me to decide against blogging today was the thought of taking on the revival of the Friday traditio. It kind of exhausted me. As I was thinking quietly today about certain self-imposed commitments, I realized that once I make such commitments I put a lot of internal pressure on myself to keep them.

Now, keeping commitments is the right and good thing to do. But making commitments is where prudence and discernment need to be exercised. So, I am going to write it (for my own benefit): this is not in for a penny in for a pound. I am still going to wait and see how this goes. Okay, so much for blogging about blogging!

________________________________________________



My prompt for today came from Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Specifically from his book entitled in English simply Prayer. Even more precisely from the final part of the book's fourth section of Part One. This fourth section of Part One is called "The Reality of Contemplation" and the fifth and final part of this section is entitled "Eschatology."

In my Advent preaching over the years, I have often pointed out that salvation history, which is part and parcel of history and not something over or above it, can be viewed as two long Advents, that is, periods of waiting for the Lord to appear- his parousia. It is with this that Balthasar begins his section on contemplation as it pertains to eschatology or last things. Our contemplation, he notes, takes place in the age of the Church, which is "the 'end of time.'"

"Thus," our contemplation Balthasar states, "is situated between the two parousias of the Lord." This end time, he insists, is particularly suited to contemplation. This needs pointing out more now than when Balthasar wrote this in 1955 because we very often think and act as if this time calls for immediate and ceaseless action. Consider two responses to a question like "What would you do if the world were to end tomorrow?" The story has it that Saint Francis of Assisi was asked something like this by another friar as they worked in the communal garden. Francis replied by saying he would just keep working in the garden. Martin Luther once quipped: "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree." Contrast those to responses to the funny but often sincerely meant quip: "Look busy. Jesus is coming!"

"There is no greater humility," Simone Weil observed, "than to wait in silence and patience."

Frankly, nothing gets more tiresome than all the things, as a Christian, I'm supposed to be doing. Von Balthasar posits something different: "So this 'waiting' means that our life in the Church is emphatically contemplative." It's not as if God is waiting for me or even for us. Rather, we wait for Christ.

He does not insist on contemplation to the exclusion of action. Because the world has not yet fully realized its redemption in and through Christ, any fruitful activity "is an activity in the strength of the grace, already bestowed, of the New Covenant" and this is nothing apart from "the strength of contemplation."

Our first traditio for this year is the Anima Christi prayer:

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Return to Ordinary Time- "I'm not sleeping"

At least for Roman Catholics in the United States, today marks our return of Ordinary Time. We'll persist in Ordinary Time until Ash Wednesday, which we'll observe on 22 February. The "ordinary" in Ordinary Time is not contrasted with extraordinary. Rather, it means ordinal. What ordinal relates to is position in a series. For example, today is the First Tuesday in Ordinary Time (note we don't say/write of Ordinary Time, but in). The series that positions the days in Ordinary Time is the numbered Sundays. This coming Sunday is the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time.

What prompted this post was Morning Prayer for today, which is taken from Week I of the Psalter. It is the same passage used by the Church for Morning Prayer on the First Sunday of Advent, the first day of the new Year of Grace or Liturgical Year:
it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness [and] put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day (Romans 13:11-13)
This somehow strikes me as a fitting way to begin this season of Ordinary Time. In verse 14, Saint Paul exhorted: "put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh."



The Greek word the ends the fourteenth verse of Saint Paul's Letter to the Romans is not sarx, which needs to be distinguished from soma, or body, in the apostles' writings. Rather, it is ἐπιθυμίας, which, transliterated, is epithumia. It refers to "passionate longing" or "lust." Our passionate longing, our erotic desire, should be for the Lord.

As for using the word "erotic" in a spiritual context, I just started reading Emanuel Falque's book of the Eucharist. I am not far into the book yet. In his treatment of what is central to Christian faith and life, Falque insists
God in his agape does not imitate the amorous lovemaking of humankind. Rather, it is humankind that learns precisely from the agape of God, in eros, how to love a body that is offered in difference: “‘This is my body, which is given for you’” (Luke 22:19). I am not suggesting here that eros and agape are the same (univocal). But we shall see later (§10) how the eucharistic act can serve as a model, a place of integration as much as of transformation, where our human eros becomes the divine agape. That is the true meaning of the erotic scene, to be taken and included with the eucharistic Last Supper (Falque, Emmanuel. The Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Eros, the Body, and the Eucharist [Perspectives in Continental Philosophy], p. 29. Fordham University Press. Kindle Edition)
One thing is for sure, love requires you not just to be awake but to be awakened, to be alert, and attentive. Each day is an Advent. Each day we don't just wait for but eagerly anticipate the Lord.

As the final verse of end of U2's song "Bad" has it:
I'm wide awake, I'm wide awake
Wide awake, I'm not sleeping
Oh no, no, no

Monday, January 9, 2023

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Readings: Acts 10:34-38; Psalm 29:1-4.9-10; Matthew 3:13-17

As you’ve heard several times over the past few weeks, for Roman Catholics in the United States, today marks the formal and liturgical end of the Christmas season. This follows the narrative trajectory of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke feature Infancy Narratives. By contrast, the Gospel of Mark practically begins with Jesus’ baptism by John in the river Jordan.

And so, in our cyclically annual celebration of the Paschal Mystery, which is the liturgical year, the Christmas season brings us up to the beginning of the Lord’s public ministry. In the Synoptic Gospels, his public ministry is inaugurated by his baptism and his confirmation.

His confirmation, you might ask. Yes, this is made especially clear in Saint Matthew’s account, which we just heard. As he came up out of the water the heavens were opened, and the voice of Father “confirmed” Jesus’ identity as his “beloved son.” Unlike Jesus, we are not eternally begotten of the Father. We are made children of God by our rebirth through baptism. This identity is confirmed, strengthened, and secured by another epiclesis of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of confirmation.

Fourteen or fifteen years ago, in Jersey City, New Jersey, I attended a Mass on this feast. It was presided over by Archbishop Celestino Migliore, who was then the Holy See’s delegate to the United Nations. His Excellency gave a very short homily. I have remembered exactly how he started it: “You’re not really born until you’re baptized.”

While Jesus is the only begotten Son of the Father even before his baptism, we are “made,” not “begotten.” This is true both in terms of our existence and our status as God's children. We are made children of God through the baptism of rebirth. Essentially, what baptism does is make explicit what is implicit in each and every person. It’s kind of like finding a Spanish galleon in the ground. At first, you have something metallic covered in dirt. You have to wash it off to see what it is.

The event described in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles is often called “the Pentecost of the Gentiles.” It takes place at the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. All those who were baptized on that occasion were Gentiles. This reading can be seen as the fulfillment of what the visit of the magi indicates obliquely: through Christ, everyone is invited into God’s covenant, his singular covenant, with humanity.

We are reborn, regenerated in and through baptism. Baptism washes away our sins and restores us to the state of original grace. It makes us members of the household of God, the Church.



Jesus’ baptism is also a regenerative event. But it is not the only begotten Son of the Father who is regenerated. As Pope Benedict XVI insisted: “It is not the eucharistic food that is changed into us, but rather we who are mysteriously transformed by it” (Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 70). Much the same can be said for baptism- baptism confers on us a new identity, our true identity: child of God.

The Lord is not changed by his baptism. He is the Son of God, “born of the Father before all ages.” Rather, his going down into the water begins the redemption of all creation. It can be seen as something akin to a new act of creation, a definitive act of recreation. In the first chapter of Genesis, the Spirit moving across the water causes life to emerge from its simplest to its most complex form- human beings, man and woman, created in the image and likeness of God. While the divine image is ineradicable, our likeness to God is lost through sin and is restored by grace.

The universal and cosmic nature of Jesus’ baptism is indicated by the theophany it prompts. A theophany is something like God fully revealing himself. Hence, a theophany is a Trinitarian manifestation. There is the Son upon whom the Spirit descends and about whom the voice of the Father speaks.

Of course, the Baptism of the Lord is the first of the Luminous Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. These mysteries were given to the Church by Pope Saint John Paul II in his 2002 Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae. These mysteries fill what was previously a noticeable gap between the Joyful Mysteries, in which we meditate on the events surrounding Jesus’ birth and his life before his public ministry, and the Sorrowful Mysteries, by means of which we meditate on his Passion and death. It is important not to ignore Jesus’ life and ministry.

The fruit of the first Luminous Mystery is openness to the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism was given to you in baptism and confirmation. It is this same Spirit who is at work in and through baptism and the Eucharist, indeed all the sacraments. The work of the Spirit is to restore us to the divine likeness, to make us like Christ.

The sacraments are the Holy Spirit’s “masterworks.” Our baptism should mark the beginning of our public ministry, the ministry of evangelization. As Pope Saint Paul VI taught: the Church “exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ's sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 14).

For those of us who are ordained, the first vestment we put on is the alb. An alb is a baptismal garment. Our stole, which is a sign of ordination, goes on top of the alb.

Baptism is a call, a vocation. It is the primary vocation of all Christians. As one of the Intercessions for Morning Prayer for tomorrow, the first day of Ordinary Time for this liturgical year implores:
Almighty King, through baptism you conferred on us a royal priesthood,
   - inspire us to offer you a continual sacrifice of praise

Sunday, January 8, 2023

"...to love God, and Him only to serve"

Beginning in January 2018, on the Sunday after New Year's Day, the day before you have to get back to what we like to call "real" life, I posted something from the spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ. On 3 January 2018, I was up late due to anxiety about returning to my regular routine. As I read a few things seeking help to relieve my anxiety, I found a website featuring Thomas á Kempis' classic spiritual text. After reading it, I composed a post that consisted of nothing but what I read because what I read helped me: a post. Afterward, I was able to go to bed and go to sleep.

Herein lies the problem: that we consider the daily grind "real" to exclusion of virtually everything else.

I've been thinking a lot about humility lately. Specifically, about my own need to cultivate this essential virtue. I need to get over myself and stop acting as if I am the center. Especially as a deacon, which is my vocation, the way Christ has called me through his Church to live out my baptism, it really needs to be about others at home, at work, in ministry.



Last January, I was reflecting back on 2021, which in many ways was a more difficult year for me than 2020. I was also (predictably) worrying about 2022. While still a demanding and challenging year, 2022 proved to be a bit less daunting. But last week, the first week of 2023, was incredibly busy and, well, bad. It exhausted mea. After a 12-hour day yesterday, a Saturday, I thought- "I can't sustain this pace."

This realization brought me back to those posts. So, tonight, as I ready myself for the second week of the new year, I find myself feeling a bit anxious again. More than that, angry, disheartened, dispirited, bordering on depression.

Tonight, as I pray for the strength, the hope, this second week, to begin a new year, again. I know I am not alone in feeling anxious about what lies ahead.

And so, this Sunday night, as darkness descends, albeit with a lovely sunset here, I pray for the humility necessary to trust God and move ahead with hope, trusting Christ.

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What doth it profit thee to enter into deep discussion concerning the Holy Trinity, if thou lack humility, and be thus displeasing to the Trinity? For verily it is not deep words that make a man holy and upright; it is a good life which maketh a man dear to God. I had rather feel contrition than be skilful in the definition thereof. If thou knewest the whole Bible, and the sayings of all the philosophers, what should all this profit thee without the love and grace of God? Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, save to love God, and Him only to serve. That is the highest wisdom, to cast the world behind us, and to reach forward to the heavenly kingdom (Imitation of Christ, Book I Chapter 3)

Epiphany

Ephesians 3:2-3a.5-6

Over the years, I have intentionally become less vocal about certain things. One of those things is the liturgical end of the Christmas season here in the United States. I would like to see Epiphany moved back to its fixed date of 6 January, thirteen days after Christmas, from its current observance on the second Sunday after Christmas. Rather than Christmas ending on the Feast of the Lord's Baptism, I would like for 6 January to bring the liturgical season of Christmas to a close. This year is a prime case in point: Epiphany is today and the Feast of the Lord's Baptism is tomorrow. As a result, the season of Christmas will end, liturgically, with a clunk instead of a bang.

But, oh well. So much for that. I certainly defer to our bishops and enjoy the Christmas season a lot.

On another side note, I realize that this is only my second post of this year. I am still trying to figure out a good flow. At the same time, I am not putting any pressure on myself about posting. I am busy, very busy and life must come first. Be assured that I will continue here. It's difficult for me at this point to conceive of life without at least some blogging.



This brings me to Epiphany. Epiphany, which is Greek in origin, refers to an unveiling, a manifestation. Before the last Mass for today's solemnity at my parish, I had a wonderful discussion with one of our best lectors. He is one of those who understands the ministry of lector in its totality, which is refreshing. He was telling me about going over today's New Testament reading this week, which is a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians. He described to me how worked on it so he could proclaim it correctly, thus bringing forth its meaning. I must say, both in understanding and execution, he nailed it.

What is the mystery made known by revelation and entrusted to the inspired author? Before we get to that, let's recall that theologically speaking, a "mystery" is not something unknown but something made known through revelation. Divinely revealed mysteries cannot be known in their entirety- they are fathomless. But we can grasp them and, over time, not just understand them ever more deeply but appropriate them, thus letting God's grace transform and reform us. The mystery is this: "That the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel."

Being a member of God's People is a matter of faith, not of blood. Hence, anyone can join! This is good news! It is what the magi dramatically show us. These magi also symbolize humanity's search for God. It is what our prophetic oracle from the Book of Isaiah foretells. This is what we "tell... on the mountains, over the hills, and everywhere- that Jesus Christ is born." Jesus Christ is the new and everlasting covenant. It is he who opens the one covenant up to everyone.

We're accustomed to mixing and matching Matthew's nativity narrative with Luke's. But, sticking with Matthew, it is the magi, all of whom are Gentiles, who first pay homage to "the newborn king of the Jews." Jesus Christ, by the power and working of the Holy Spirit, is how God transcends all that divides broken humanity. We live out of and live out this mystery. Living out this mystery is how we continue to make God manifest to all people.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God

NB: Before beginning my homily I shared a few extemporaneous remarks about how much what Josef Ratzinger set forth in his book Dogma and Preaching: Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life has shaped and formed my own approach to preaching since the time I started to preach. It is important to communicate the faith handed on to us and to do so in a way that doesn't dumb it down, water it down, make it static or too mundane

Readings: Numbers 6:22-27; Ps 67:2-3.5-6.8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21

Today is the Eighth Day of Christmas. This is the eight-maids-a-milking day. Today we bring the Octave of Christmas to its conclusion. For a week after Christmas, we observe each day, liturgically, as Christmas day.

I don't know about you, but I find Christmas much more satisfying after observing Advent and then celebrating the entirety of this season. At least here in the United States, Christmas lasts until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Because this feast is on 9 January, we still have slightly more than a week of Christmas to go. But if you’re really into Christmas, an argument can be made for extending the celebration of Jesus’ Nativity until 2 February, the Feast of the Lord’s Presentation in the Temple, something alluded to at the end of our Gospel today. Traditionally, this feast is known as Candlemas. This is the date when the Vatican’s Christmas trees come down.

A big event, like the Incarnation of the Son God, who is “true God from true God” as well as "incarnate" as man "of the Virgin Mary," deserves a big celebration. It is fitting that today’s solemnity ends the Christmas Octave and falls somewhere near the middle of this festive season. It is also fitting that at the beginning of a New Year we turn to Mary, whose Son gave her to us as our Mother as he hung on the cross. So, if it is by the Spirit, as Saint Paul indicates in our reading from Galatians, we call God "Abba, Father," by the same Spirit we can call Mary Mama, Mother.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta, after speaking to a group of Christians here in the United States, many of whom were not Catholics, was told by a woman that she didn’t understand the Catholic veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In her beautifully simple way, Mother Teresa replied: “No Mary, no Jesus.” Hence, when we ponder the second Luminous Mystery of the Blessed Virgin’s Rosary, which is the Miracle at the Wedding Feast of Cana, the fruit of that mystery is “To Jesus through Mary,” we see how integral this humble woman from nowheresville is to God's plan.

Restating Mother Teresa’s simple reply using a homophone, we can also say: Know Mary, (k-n-o-w) know Jesus. Mary is the model Christian disciple. As Pope Benedict XVI stated in his homily for this solmenity ten years ago: “Mary is the mother and model of the Church, who receives the divine Word in faith and offers herself to God as the ‘good soil’ in which he can continue to accomplish his mystery of salvation.” Since the Holy Spirit is the mode, or way, that the Lord remains present in, among, and through us until he returns in glory, we should also not shy away from and, in fact, often say the venerable Latin prayer: Veni Sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam- "Come Holy Spirit, come through Mary."

Pray for the Holy Spirit to come through Mary so that you, too, can offer yourself as good soil for God's word to grow, putting yourself at the service of the great mystery of salvation, which began with Christ's birth in Bethlehem of Judea more than 2,00 years ago.

It’s important to understand the liturgical year in order to appropriate the mystery of salvation more deeply, it’s good to mention that during Advent and Christmas we celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary quite often. On 8 December we observed the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and on 12 December we celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Under the title Immaculate Conception, our Blessed Mother is patroness of the United States of America and as Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, she is the patroness of the Americas, north and south.



It is important to understand that we do not worship Blessed Mary, ever Virgin. According to the first commandment, we worship God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- and God alone. In Greek the word for “worship” is latria. By contrast, we venerate the saints, those holy women and men who have, by the grace of God, attained holiness through their lives and, as a result, have reached beatitude.

Over the course of the Christmas octave, we observe the feasts of Stephen, deacon and first Christian martyr, Saint John the Evangelist, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, who were killed by Herod’s order in an attempt to murder the king this jealous ruler was told about by the magi. It is in the Octave of Christmas that the Church remembers Saint Thomas Becket, who was also a martyr, who gace eloquent witness to the faith by choosing God over the king, even though he deeply believed in the divine right of kings. Even kings, Becket knew, are subject to the King of Kings. Theologically, this “veneration” is also called by its Greek name- dulia.

Between the worship of God and our veneration of the saints, between latria and dulia, is a special category, a category that consists of one member This category is called hyperdulia. This is the category of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is just what sounds like- super, or hyper, veneration. While more the mere dulia, it still falls short of worship. Mary, while fully human, is unique among all human beings. It is no small thing to bear God’s only begotten Son, giving birth to him in the flesh.

Jesus, as we profess in the Creed, is “consubstantial” with the Father as it pertains to his divinity, through the Blessed Virgin Mary he is consubstantial with us, in our humanity. And so, indeed, all generations call Mary blessed. Christians have hypervenerated, prayed to, and relied on the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary practically from the Church's beginning. While they certainly sought to correct excessive medieval Marian devotion, none of the major Protestant reformers (Luther, Calvin, Cranmer) ever repudiated Marian devotion entirely.

Not to venerate our Blessed Mother as "full of grace" and not to call her "blessed" is to ignore the injunction of Sacred Scripture. Failure to venerate Mary is not only a failure to recognize and even adore Jesus' true humanity, something we do as contemplate of Christmas creche each year, it is also a failure to fall before the great mystery of God-made-man-for-us. You see, divine nature was not human nature until the Son, by her consent, was conceived in the Virgin's womb. He was not conceived in the natural way but in a supernatural way, a wholly unique way. By this dramatic act, God seeks to unite us to himself. This dynamic is captured well in the words the deacon says, sotto voce, when pouring water into the wine at the altar: "By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity."

And so, my dear friends, as we begin a New Year by celebrating today's beautiful solemnity, New Year being a time for resolutions and new beginnings, I once again urge you to make the resolution to seek our Blessed Mother's intercession each day of 2023. I exhort you to do so in at least two of three ways.

First, consider taking the time to pray the Rosary daily, that is, to pray one full set of mysteries (Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious) each day. You can do this while sitting quietly and contemplatively or while walking or perhaps even while driving. Second, pray the Angelus morning, noon, and evening (during Easter the Regina Caeli). Third, when you have a concern or a concern, or someone asks you to pray for a specific person or intention, respond by praying the Memorare.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, on this your Solemnity, and at the beginning of a New Year, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Veni Sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam. Amen.

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 ...