Monday, January 29, 2024

Monday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Sam 15:13-14.30; 16:5-13; Ps 3:2-7; Mark 5:1-20

Our readings today are well summed up in an unrelated verse of scripture, one from Job: “the LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.”1​ Another thought that arises from our first reading is how difficult and, therefore, how rare it is to bear wrongs patiently. How much more difficult it is even still to, like David, see God’s will in those things that require patience and forbearance.

Let’s not forget that, despite his major failings, David is a Christ-like figure. This only shows how short we all fall when compared to the Lord. This is why the Gospel is good news!

In our Gospel, Jesus receives much the same treatment from the unclean spirits tormenting the man to the point he was forced to live in the graveyard. Graveyards in the ancient world were not inside cities, towns, and villages. Instead, they were outside due to the potential for contagion from decaying corpses.

Like David, Jesus turns the taunting, the reviling, the abuse doled by “Legion” to God’s purpose. With his demonstration of power over “Legion,” Jesus leaves the Gentile Gerasenes more than a little uneasy. In fact, in the wake of this demonstration of divine power, they want him to leave.

Their wanting him to leave isn’t so different from the ancient Israelites, who, after beholding God’s awesome power, wanted Moses to intercede for them with God instead of God dealing with them directly. We live in a time when many seek to domesticate God, reducing him to our measure. But the Gerasenes, having experienced God’s might, react in an understandable way.

Yet, the man from whom Jesus cast out the unclean spirits very much wants to go with Jesus, to remain with him. This, too, is understandable. Who wouldn’t want to be with their Savior, the one who delivers from evil and certain death?

"Jesus and the Demoniac"- Woodcutting

Rather than consenting to the man accompanying him back across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus sends him on a mission, commissions him as an evangelist, urging him to tell others “all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.”2

There was a man in Scotland who regularly spent all his wages on drinking, leaving his wife and children destitute. His wife had to beg to support their family. Then, one day, he went to church with his wife. What he heard caused him to repent, to change his ways, to quit drinking.

Several months later, now in his right mind like the man in our Gospel- though this guy was plagued by different spirits- on payday, his buddies urged him to go drinking with them. He informed his friends that he no longer drank and that he had had a life-changing encounter with Christ.

The man's workmates chided him, asking him if really believed all the stuff in the Bible, like healing the sick and casting out demons, and if he believed Jesus turned water into wine. He replied, “I can’t speak to any of that firsthand, but if you come to my house, I can show you how he turned beer into furniture.”

Evangelization, my friends, is not apologetics. You will never argue anyone into God’s kingdom. A lot of apologetics consists of answering questions no one is asking. First and foremost, evangelizing is telling others “all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.”

1 Job 1:21.
2 Mark 5:19.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Year B Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Deut 18:15-20; Ps 95:1-2.6-9; 1 Cor 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28

It seems clear from our Gospel reading that Jesus is the prophet about whom Moses spoke in our first reading, taken from Deuteronomy. As the Son of God and as Messiah, Jesus is priest, prophet, and king. As such, he doesn’t just speak the words of God, he is himself the Word of God eternally spoken by the Father.

As the Word of God, Jesus doesn’t do anything but speak God’s words. As the founder of the French Oratorians, Pierre de Berulle observed: in and through Jesus,
God incomprehensible makes Himself comprehended…God ineffable makes Himself heard in the voice of His Word incarnate, and God invisible makes Himself seen in the flesh that he has united with the essence of eternity, and” above all, through Christ, “God terrible in the magnificence of his grandeur makes Himself felt in His gentleness, in His kindness and in his humanity1
In Jesus Christ, one might say, referencing our reading from 1 Corinthians, divinity and humanity are married, not only becoming flesh of one’s flesh and bone of one’s bone but united in the single person of Jesus, as we pray in one the Eucharistic Prayers, "become one body" and "one spirit.”2

What is interesting in our Gospel reading is that the inspired author of Mark does not describe what Jesus taught, only that “he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”3 His teaching did provoke an unclean spirit. This provocation allowed Jesus to cast this spirit from the man through whom it spoke. Hence, his authority and the power derived from it is manifested by what he does and not just by what he says- though the latter (speaking) preceded the former (casting out the unclean spirit) and flows from it.

According to Saint Mark’s chronology, our passage today is the first day of Jesus’ public ministry. Looking back a few verses, the Lord’s public ministry began when he emerged from forty days in the wilderness after his baptism by John. His message, as Mark hands it on is: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”4

In the section of the very dense first chapter of Saint Mark’s Gospel from which our reading is taken, we are familiarized with the kind of things that the proclamation of God’s kingdom consists of- teaching with authority, demonstrations of the power of this authority, which is “opposition to Satan,” a bit further on, physical healing, and fervent prayer.5

Because the world is complex and complicated, the coming of God’s kingdom is similarly so. How else can it be established? What this means for us, those who claim Christ’s name, is the recognition of our ongoing need to repent and believe the Gospel. By “repent,” I mean believing it to the point that it shapes, forms, and continually reforms how you live your life.

Though it is often reduced to contrition (i.e., being sorry for one’s sins), to repent is to change, to commit to changing or at least be open to change. Saint John Henry Newman, in his essay on how Christian doctrine develops, wrote: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”6 Commenting on this, Pope Francis accurately noted: “For Newman change was conversion, in other words, interior transformation. Christian life is a journey, a pilgrimage.”7

What is interesting in Mark’s Gospel is that this spirit who opposes Jesus recognizes him as “the Holy One of God,” while, despite his “new teaching with authority” accompanied by powerful deeds, his disciples do not, at least fully or finally.8

Companion is a compound word derived from two Latin words: com=with + panis= bread. Companions are, literally, those who share bread. By our gathering here together week after week, we are companions, fellow pilgrims, making our way together to what the Letter to the Hebrews calls our sabbath rest.9 At least during her earthly sojourn, a Christian is one who never completely arrives. Like the Israelites of old, she, too, is a pilgrim, a member of the pilgrim people of God.

The Eucharist is both our cloud by day and our pillar of fire by night.10 As the fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it:
On earth, still as pilgrims in a strange land, tracing in trial and in oppression the paths He trod, we are made one with His sufferings like the body is one with the Head, suffering with Him, that with Him we may be glorified11
Jesus invites us to journey with him. Following Christ does not mean nothing bad will ever happen to you. How could it? Following him means he is with you, accomanying you through life’s difficulties, hardships, and heartbreaks. To follow Jesus is not just to follow him to the cross (though it is that) but beyond the cross, from death into life, as the hymn goes. But the only way beyond is through.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

1 From Works of Berulle cited Hans Urs Von Balthasar in The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol V, “The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age.” Trans. Oliver Davies, Andrew Louth, Brian McNeil, CRV, John Saward, & Rowan Williams. 120-121.
2 Roman Missal. The Order of Mass. Eucharistic Prayer III, sec. 113.
3 Mark 1:22.
4 Mark 1:15.
5 Raymond E. Brown. An Introduction to the New Testament, 129.
6 John Henry Newman, “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” Chapter 1, Section 1, Part 7.
7 Pope Francis. Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia. 21 December 2019.
8 Mark 1:24.27.
9 See Hebrews 4:1-13.
10 Exodus 13:21-22.
11 Second Vatican Council. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium], sec. 7.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Responding to the word of God

Readings: Jonah 3:1-5.10; Ps 25:4-9; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Today is Word of God Sunday. So, as you might expect, our readings are about God's word.

What's funny, well one funny thing among many funny things in the Book of Jonah, from which our first reading is taken, is that the only one not to receive God's word was the one who was sent to proclaim it: Jonah. In this biblical novella, the reluctant prophet didn't like Ninevites. Their potential destruction sounded good to him but not good enough to go to Nineveh, at least not at first.

Once he was there, after trying to flee, he dutifully called Nineveh to repentance, no doubt hoping he would be ignored and they would be destroyed. Lo and behold! The people of Nineveh repented, thus avoiding God's wrath. This led Jonah to sit on a hill outside the city sulking.

Jonah did not receive the saving word that he himself proclaimed!

Contrast this with Andrew and Peter and James and John. Like the people of Nineveh, upon hearing the saving word, they responded immediately, dropping everything to Jesus, who is the Word.

One's response depends on one's heart. Is your heart open to God and to others? Or, like Jonah's, is your heart hard and closed either to God (and/)or to others?

Monday, January 15, 2024

A few resources for fasting

Here are a few helpful resources for fasting:

The Spirituality of Fasting: Rediscovering a Christian Practice

5 Benefits of Spiritual Fasting (With Examples From the Bible)

How to Prepare for Your Spiritual Fast

While it can certainly be beneficial to our physical health when practiced well, spiritual fasting is qualitatively different from dieting. Healthy fasting in some form done on a regular basis is certainly a holistic practice. This is a good thing.

Year II Monday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Sam 15:16-23; Ps 50:8-9.16-17.21.23; Mark 2:18-22

Setting aside the terrible thing the prophet Samuel admonished King Saul for not doing in our first reading, the message of our readings today can nonetheless be found in Samuel’s words: “Obedience is better than sacrifice.”1 It’s often easier to do anything than the what the Lord asks.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola identified three approaches to following Christ: postponement, compromise, and freedom. What we have in King Saul is a compromiser. I will do God’s will insofar as it conforms to my own will and desires. This may be a worse disobedience than putting off God’s will altogether.

This brings us to our Gospel passage, taken from Mark. It is important to recognize that we are those from whom the bridegroom, Christ, has been taken. Of course, not only is he not absent but he’s powerfully present through the Holy Spirit, who is the mode of his presence until he returns. But Jesus is not with us in the same way he was with his companions during his earthly ministry.

Therefore, as Jesus’ disciples, we are to fast as well as pray and give alms. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are three fundamental spiritual disciplines of a Christian life. These are taught by our Lord himself. Fasting is what links prayers to almsgiving just as hope joins faith to love.

Of course, there are those for whom fasting is not recommended and may even be dangerous for serious physical reasons or due to age. We are not asked to compromise our physical health. In fact, Saint Ignatius who, in the immediate aftermath of his conversion observed a very strict regimen of fasting for a long time, later warned others and forbade his Jesuits from taking fasting to an extreme.

Fasting can be done either for a whole day, drinking only water and other light beverages or by skipping a meal or not eating between meals. Historically, what you don’t eat or, in our society, what you save by not eating, is given to the poor. Abstinence, which, in our Roman Catholic context, means not eating the meat of warm-blooded animals, has a hand-in-glove relationship with fasting.

For those of us who can fast (I think virtually all of us can do this in some small way), it is an important discipline, one to be practiced at a minimum twice a year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We should also undertake to fast when the pope or our bishop calls for a day of fasting. Like any spiritual discipline, fasting in some form should be practiced regularly enough that it bears fruit.

Each Friday that is not a solemnity or in the octave of Christmas or Easter is still to be observed as a day of penance. Even now, the primary way we are supposed to observe Fridays as days of penance is by abstaining from meat. We do this not because eating meat is bad. Rather, it is because it is good, that is, enjoyable and permissible. Hence, we make a small sacrifice.

In his recent Wednesday catechesis series on vices and virtues, Pope Francis identified gluttony as the worst of the seven deadly sins. The Holy Father said, “Tell me how you eat, and I will tell you what kind of soul you possess. In the way we eat, we reveal our inner selves, our habits, our psychological attitudes.”2 Each of the seven deadly sins has a contrary virtue. Fasting is a practice that helps us to realize the virtue than runs contrary to gluttony- temperance, that is, moderation.

The practice of the spiritual disciplines is how we allow ourselves, open ourselves, to be conformed to the image of Christ. Yet, as James Kushiner, an Orthodox Christian noted: "A discipline won’t bring you closer to God. Only God can bring you closer to Himself. What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to His grace."3 Getting back to Saint Ignatius' three approaches to doing God's will, the truly free person is the one who discerns God's will and does it.

Fasting amplifies prayer, thus enhancing our love of God, and, when practiced properly, results in almsgiving, which is love of neighbor.

1 1 Samuel 15:22.
2 Pope Francis. Wednesday General Audience, 10 January 2024.
3 James Kushiner. Mere Orthodoxy blog post during Lent many years ago.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Year B Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Sam 3:3b-10.19; Ps 40:2.4.7-10; 1 Cor 6:13c-15a.17-20; John 1:35-42

Where does Jesus stay? Our Gospel today, taken from the first chapter of John’s Gospel, prompts this question. It is the same question asked by two of John the Baptist’s disciples: presumably John and certainly Andrew. It is the question they ask in response to the question Jesus asked them when he said, “What are you looking for?”

Could it be that these two men were looking for a place to stay, somewhere to live? Or, rather, was it the case they were seeking how to live and with whom to live the life they were longing for? After all, how you live is very much shaped by those with whom you live.

Where does Jesus stay, where does he live? By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus desires to live in you, to dwell in your heart. From your heart, which governs your actions and words, the Lord longs to be made known to others, to say to them too “Come, and you will see.”

Believe it or not, Jesus stays with and in his Church, which is the sacrament of salvation in and for the world. In its simplest formulation, a sacrament is a visible and tangible sign of Christ’s presence in and for the world. We even go so far as to say that one of the four “marks” of the Church, in addition to being one, catholic, and apostolic, is that it is “holy.”

In recent decades it seems to many almost a joke to insist that the Church is holy. Far from being hardhearted or ignorant, many who scoff at such a seemingly outlandish claim do so in light of the Church’s manifest unholiness. It is important, very important, that we understand the Church’s holiness, like any personal holiness we may attain, flows from Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the Mass, the Offertory ends with the celebrant inviting those assisting to pray that our meager offerings of bread and wine be accepted by God. In response, all say:
May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church1
Collectively, it is by, in, and through our participation in the Eucharist that we are made the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit. Our reception of this sacrament, especially when received intentionally and with preparation, is an outpouring of God’s grace. Christ is holy. He desires to make us holy. The main and most effective means for imbuing us with grace are the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

It has been noted, perhaps ad nauseam: the Eucharist makes the Church, and the Church makes the Eucharist. In his first letter to the Church in ancient Corinth, before writing what we call the “Institution Narrative,” Saint Paul tells these Christians- “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you.”2

Instituted by Christ himself, the Eucharist makes the Church. The Church’s perpetual observance of what Christ instituted is the Church making the Eucharist. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,” the apostle continues, “you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”3

This brings us to the very last part of our Gospel today, where Jesus tells Simon, son of Jonah, that henceforth he would be called “Cephas,” which is Aramaic for rock or stone. The inspired author translates that into the Greek “Petros,” which translates into Peter.

We know that Peter did not become perfect, that is, all holy in that moment when Jesus renamed him, thus choosing him. In fact, it is toward the end of John’s Gospel that the resurrected Jesus asks a dejected Peter three times with increasing intensity if he loves him. Why three times? Probably because during his Passion, Peter denied him three times.4 We can see this episode as something akin to the Sacrament of Penance, of confession.

This, my friends, is the pattern of holiness. The late Eugene Peterson beautifully described Christian discipleship by borrowing and baptizing something first written by Frederich Nietzsche: “a long obedience in the same direction.”5 Our direction is where the Lord is staying. Jesus doesn’t just point in that direction, he accompanies us on our journey, just as we are to be companions to one another. Etymologically, “companions” refers to those with whom we share bread. There is a reason we call the Eucharist "food for the journey."

Where and what the Lord wants each one of us to be is the kingdom of God. Our path is uneven, most of us at times waver, some wander off, and at times we regress or simply stop tired of the journey, which can sometimes seem futile. It is fashionable to quote Tolkein’s line “not all who wander are lost.”6

Citing this phrase strikes me as the new version of “My karma ran over your dogma.” I don’t know about you, but I’ll take grace over karma any day. Tolkien’s phrase contains an implication: some who wander do, indeed, get lost, while others remain content to merely wander. Being a Christian means being a pilgrim and a member of a pilgrim people. Being on pilgrimage is not to wander but to have a destination, a destiny.

Discouragement is not despair. We all get discouraged at times, discouraged with ourselves, with others, with “the Church,” by which we mean the hierarchy. There is a fundamental error in reducing the Church to the hierarchy. The Church of Christ is all of us. This is why it is good news to hear talk these days of “co-responsibility” in and for the Church. Besides, like Peter, our leaders, too, sometimes fail, just as we sometimes fail.

It is even the case that we can become discouraged with God. This is why we must bear in mind that God’s ways are not our ways. I realize that can be cold comfort at times. But why else would God allow his chosen people not once, but twice, to be conquered and led into exile? Why do the scriptures teach from beginning to end that it was “necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory.”7

That all have sinned is a fundamental statement of Christian belief, a dogma, a matter of divine revelation (and also of human and personal experience).8 Is there something, someone greater than our sins? The good news is the answer to this question is an emphatic “Yes!” Jesus Christ, the one who bids you to come and see for yourself and to experience what has been described as “a joy in the journey.”9

1 Roman Missal. The Order of Mass, sec. 29.
2 1 Corinthians 11:23-25.
3 1 Corinthians 11:26.
4 See John 21:15-19.
5 Frederich Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter V. “The Natural History of Morals;” Eugene Peterson (book title). A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
6 JRR Tokien. The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 10 "Strider" and Book 2, Chapter 2 "The Council of Elrond."
7 See Luke 24:13-35.
8 Romans 3:23.
9 Michael Card, "There is a Joy in the Journey."

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Stuff I've been watching: a belated Friday traditio

Given my schedule yesterday, it was impossible for me to post a Friday traditio. Even though today is Saturday, I am going with this as a belated Friday traditio. The main reason for this is that I was able to give some thought to what I might post.

Since the start of 2024, I haven't had much time to read. This is a situation that gets to me in short order. I have had the chance to watch a couple of docu-series on Hulu. The first one I watched was Daughters of the Cult. This tells the stories of some of the children of Ervil LeBaron. LeBaron was the violent leader of a break-way Mormon polygamist cult. He became prominent in the late 1970s after he orchestrated the murder of another polygamist leader, Rulon Allred. In addition to Anna and Celia, who are the main subjects of the series, their brother and one of the women involved in the cult also feature in this retelling of a chilling story.

For those who do not know, I am a convert to Catholicism from the LDS Church. I have no direct experience of polygamy, except that growing up LDS it was still taught as an eternal principle. It is still taught today though, like a lot of LDS distinctives, greatly deemphasized. Setting aside distinctives began when Gordon B. Hinckley was LDS president. Hinckley was prone not only downplay but outright deny certain teachings in an effort to make the Mormons appear more mainstream (see "'Then shall they be gods, because they have no end' (D&C 132:20").

One of my great-great grandmothers on my mom's mother's side was more or less forced into a polygamist union with my great-great grandfather, who ran away from a seminary in France where he was studying to be a priest, went to Switzerland where he met and married his first wife and converted to Mormonism before emigrating. She was very much younger than he was and, even by the accounts I heard, never very happy.

In the past on this blog, I wrote about some of these things (see for example "'Oh, Say What Is Truth?'- Joseph Smith, Jr and polygamy"). Therefore, I don't have much to add. No longer being Mormon and later becoming Catholic were two distinct phases in my life.

I also watched The Secrets of Hillsong. Watching this I was appalled all over by the use of corporate means and entertainment methods in contemporary U.S. evangelicalism. I also have to say that I was quite bothered by the generous use of Catholic visuals throughout the series. It's difficult for me to imagine a less Catholic group than Hillsong, who are not in any way sacramental or liturgical. I found myself thinking (again), who wants to go to church in a studio, a sound stage? Apparently, a lot of people! Quantitatively, this seems to often be successful. What is succeeding, however, is pretty much a faux Christianity.

The preaching and theology in these organizations are thin gruel, with a lot of emoting, and fake vulnerability. It strikes me as attenuated prosperity Gospel fluff and b.s. Success, wealth, and good health are God's blessing on the obedient, the chosen, the faithful. This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not even close. I mean, do these people even read the Bible beyond cherrypicking verses and employing them wildly out of context, using them as a launching pad for a TED talk or motivational speech?

As the late Joe Strummer said not long before unexpectedly passing away: "It's time to take humanity back into the center of the ring and follow that for a time." In the person of Jesus Christ, God became human, truly human, as human as you and I- this is what Christmas is (or should be) all about, not a sentimental timewarp adventure to a highly sanitized manger scene. This is the cornerstone AND foundation of Christian theology. Incarnation even comes before Trinity. Jesus of Nazareth was, in the words of the late Rich Mullins, "a man of no reputation, who loved the weak with relentless affection."

Therefore, our belated Friday traditio is Rich Mullins' "Man of No Reputation"-

Lord Jesus, make all those who follow you, especially those who lead those who follow you, want to be more like you in this regard. Give us the courage and the strength to want to be nobodies, servants in God's kingdom.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Readings: Acts 10:34-38; Ps 29:1-3.9-10; Mark 1:7-11

Christmas is about the Incarnation. It is about the only begotten Son of God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, becoming consubstantial with us through the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As with all liturgical observances, Christmas is not merely a remembrance of things past, of something that happened a long time ago in a land far, far way, in a culture we have difficulty understanding.

Really, the focus of Christmas is that Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is born in us. Our reading from Acts is what is usually called “the Pentecost of the Gentiles.” The first Christian Pentecost, if you remember, happened in Jerusalem as Jews from throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond gathered in the Temple for the festival of Shavuot.

Christ born in you and being baptized “with the Holy Spirit” are synonymous, they refer to the same reality. Stated another way, this reality is God sharing divine with us. God sharing divine life with us also serves as a great definition of grace.

Each of the Church’s sacramental rites features what is called an epiclesis. Put simply, an epiclesis is a “calling down.” What, or, better yet, who is called down is none other than the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit is called down to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

In baptism, there is an epiclesis that occurs in the exorcism that precedes the anointing with the oil of catechumens: “We pray for this child: set him (her)free from original sin, make him (her) a temple of your glory, and send your Holy Spirit to dwell with him (her).” Another one happens when the baptismal water is blessed, when the celebrant, be he bishop, priest, or deacon, puts his hand in the water and says, “We ask you, Father, with your Son to send the Holy Spirit upon the water of this font. May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with him to newness of life.”

In the baptism of Jesus, not just the waters but all of creation is blessed, sanctified, and reoriented toward God as Jesus goes down into the water, is immersed, and arises from the river Jordan. As he emerges, the Trinitarian theophany occurs as the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove and the voice of the Father is heard expressing his pleasure with his Son. This is the Incarnation. This is Emmanuel, God with us!

Jesus was the Son of God even prior to his baptism by John. There is an ancient heresy known as “adoptionism” that holds that it was through the event of his baptism Jesus became God’s Son. This is important for us too, as we think about our own baptism. Baptism makes explicit what is already implicit in us.

Human beings are made in God’s image and, at least originally, in his likeness as well. Our likeness to God is lost through sin and restored by grace through baptism. Baptism, not ordination, is the fundamental sacrament of Christian life.

Our life in Christ is nourished and strengthened by our participation in the Eucharist, which culminates with our reception of communion. This life is restored by grace through the sacrament of penance when have wounded it, weakened it, abused it through sin.

My dear friends, as we bring this Christmas season to a close, let us recommit ourselves to living the life of grace, the divine life into which you were plunged by baptism, was strengthened by confirmation, and is nourished through this Eucharist.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Seeking and finding the newborn king

Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-2.7-8.10-13; Ephesians 3:2-3a.5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

This year the Church in the U.S. almost celebrated Epiphany on 6 January. We did if you count last night's Vigil. Close enough, I guess.

Here in the U.S., we have one more day of the liturgical season of Christmas. We bring this season to a close with tomorrow's celebration of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. I've grown fairly fond of ending Christmas in this quiet way.

In Matthew's account of the visit of the magi, these magoi, as they are designated in koine Greek, symbolize the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah about people from every nation, not just Israel, "proclaiming the praises of the LORD." This, of course, fits nicely with what he heard in our second reading from the Letter to the Ephesians about the Gentiles being "coheirs" and "copartners," through Jesus Christ, in the one covenant God seeks to enter into with human beings- those he made in his own image.

In order to restore us to God's likeness, the Son, the second person of the Most Holy Trinity, took on our image, that is, entered space and time through the womb of the Blessed Virgin. He did this to reconcile all of creation with God.

It's interesting to pay attention to the journey of magi as Matthew sets it forth. Following a new star at its rising leads them to Jerusalem, to the court of King Herod. Their reason for following this particular star is that they believed it would not only lead them to "the king of the Jews," but to a "newborn" king.

It doesn't take much insight to realize a couple of things about their journey to that point. First, their search for the "newborn king of the Jews" had to be prompted by a familiarity with Jewish scriptures and they had to unferstand it rightly. Second, if you go all the way to the penultimate chapter of Saint Matthew's Gospel, after nailing Jesus to the cross, the Romans also nailed a sign with the charge that led to the Lord's crucifixion over his head: "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews" (Matthew 27:37). Rather than paying him homage, like the magi, the Romans were chiding the Jews. Unlike Herod, Caesar did not feel threatened by this nobody from Nazareth.

Following the star to find "the newborn king of the Jews," led the magi to Jerusalem, to the court of King Herod. It was because Herod inquired of the chief priests and scribes that he was able to direct these visitors from the East to Bethlehem. It's tempting to write "Bethlehem of Judea" to sound more biblical but as the oracle cited by Matthew from the prophet Micah indicates, Bethlehem is notable because it is the least of the cities of Judah. Jerusalem is the greatest.

This brings us to Herod's request that after finding the child and paying him homage, these astrologers would return to Jerusalem and let him know where to find the infant. Of course, far from desiring to pay homage to the newborn king, Herod wanted to kill a potential rival, thus nipping in the bud any potential challenge to his position and his power.

It was because the magi, apparently sensing something was amiss about Herod and his request, returned home another way, thus avoiding Jerusalem. If we stick with Matthew's narrative, this is what led to the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents. Because Herod did not know who this newborn king was or where to find him, except somewhere in Bethlehem, he ordered the slaughter of male children two years old and younger.

Herod had no desire to personally encounter this foretold king. In fact, he wanted to obliterate him.

In its ordinary meaning, an epiphany is a sudden revelation or insight. As such, genuine epiphanies cannot be manufactured or staged. However, like the magi we can attend to the manifest signs and seek the Lord. As Gerard Manley Hopkins insisted in his breathtaking poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire: "for Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his. To the Father through the features of men's faces." In other words, the world is full to overflowing with potential epiphanies.

This brings us back to the magi. They didn't just accidentally stumble upon the newborn king of the Jews. They searched the scriptures and discerned the signs of the times and then deliberately set out to find him. We employ this same intentionality by practicing certain spiritual disciplines, like lectio divina and the Examen. Let's not forget, the fruit of the fifth Joyful Mystery of the Blessed Virgin's Holy Rosary (i.e., finding Jesus in the temple). As scripture elsewhere teaches: "whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Hebrews 11:6).

Friday, January 5, 2024

"You do a lot of nothing much"

We're deep into the first week of 2024. I hope your New Year is going well so far. It's funny, as I grow older, a lot of things lose their luster, especially holidays. Well into my 50s, my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving. I like it because it is quiet and low-key, a little respite before the onslaught of commercial Kwazhaunakahmas.

This year, New Year's Day was a nice and quiet affair. My wife had to leave on New Year's Eve to be with he Dad in Ohio. So, my three teen boys and I had a nice, home-based New Year holiday together. Given how busy we are typically, we all really had a nice time playing games, talking, and doing some cooking. I hadn't had such a nice day for a long time. I am grateful for it.

Until my wife returned (with her Dad in tow) on Thursday, I was a bit busy single-parenting. I'd be lying to say anything other than I kind of enjoyed it. My Dad was a very home-focused and domestic man. These past few years, I have found myself enjoying that too. Left on my own, I tend towards a very monastic way of life.

Speaking of my Dad, it's always difficult this time of year because it was 19 December 2010 when my parents called to tell me my Dad had been diagnosed with late-stage cancer of the esophagus. He died on 17 January 2011. I will always remember staying the nights with him. sitting by his bed, praying, reading, thinking about the great mystery of life, of human existence. Of course, have some really great conversations with him, which will remain some of the most cherished moments of my life.

I don't mind saying that the transition into 2024 has been a little less smooth than I hoped. I am doing a 30-day course in spiritual resiliency. Today is day four. When I decide to do something like that I always wonder if it's right. It was validated today not once but twice. Once when I ran across verses from John's Gospel that is the focus of the first phase, "I am the vine; you are the branches" (John 15:5).

What I was struggling with became clear during the morning session of the resiliency course. In the same source that validated my doing the course (a book of Jesuit reflections), I ran across something that helped me with what I identified in the morning. Saint Ignatius was insistent that to desire something, like being more hospitable, is a start to becoming more hospitable. In other words, I recognize something, like a lack of hospitality, and desire to be more hospitable, and start there. It's a good desire but one that won't likely be realized in a single flash. Hey, you gotta start somewhere.

Anyway, it's time for the first Friday traditio of 2024. It's "Cloud 8" by Frazier Chorus:

Monday, January 1, 2024

At peace in all things

Beginning in January 2018 (hard to believe that was 6 years ago), after New Year's, the evening before we have to get back to what is usually called "real life," quite spontaneously I posted something from the spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ.

On 3 January 2018, I was up late, unable to sleep, due to anxiety and the restlessness that usually accompanies it. As I was eagerly seeking something to help relieve my anxiety, I found a website featuring Thomas á Kempis' classic spiritual text. After reading a fair amount of The Imitation of Christ that night. And then, compsoed a post of nothing but the passage I found helpful for me in that moment.

While I can't say I've done this every year since 2018, it is my intention to continue this tradition today. For many of us, "real life" after the Christmas respite starts tomorrow, 2 January. Not just the last day of holiday but very often the end of a weekend can be disconcerting. What we need is peace, to have peace, to cultivate peace, to maintain peace:
A good life makes a man wise according to God and gives him experience in many things, for the more humble he is and the more subject to God, the wiser and the more at peace he will be in all things (The Imitation of Christ, Book I Chapter 4)
Happiness, understood as joy, which is a fruit of hope, is what we all want and strive for. Peace is important, even a precondition, for joy. During the Last Supper Discourse in Saint John's Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples- "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid" (John 14:27).

And so, as you begin 2024 in earnest tommorrow, may the peace of Christ be with you.

Anno Domini MMXXIV

Since it's only 1 January, it's not too late to do something like a Καθολικός διάκονος Year in Review. It's a good opportunity to blog about blogging. In August of last year, my blog marked its 18th year. However, for those long-time readers, both of you, you'll remember (because I've written about it here before), that this cyberspace actually began in July 2005. Its original title was "Scott Dodge for Nobody." I did not really begin "blogging" in earnest until August 2006.

Either way, that's a long time. One thing about 2023, which was an incredibly difficult year for me, is that I posted fewer times than any year since I really started doing this, even fewer than the five months in late 2006. Of course, back then, being new to the medium and blogging being its heyday, I wrote about anything and everything. While there is a lot of what I wrote that isn't very good (i.e., not terribly insightful nor particularly well-written), as a result of this endeavor I am a better writer. That's just one-way blogging has helped me grow personally.

I don't mind divulging that there were a number of times last year I felt kind of bad, for my own sake, that I wasn't taking the time to compose more posts. Heaven knows there are enough things going on in the Church, in the world, and in my own life to keep supplied with matters with which to grapple.

While I still make New Year's resolutions, I am deliberative and careful about committing. Frankly, I don't need something else to beat myself about. I do plan to post more here in the New Year. I plan to get back to posting reflections on the Sunday readings for those weeks I do not preach. Of course, I plan to continue posting my homilies. I'd like to do a Friday traditio or something similar. I also want to post commentaries on events that strike me as warranting it.

I do not plan to get back to those days when I was posting close to 400 times a year. Rather, I am aiming for around 8-12 posts per month, somewhere around 120 posts this year. We'll see how it goes. In the last several weeks of 2023, I spent a huge amount of time planning and preparing for 2024. I did this in the hope of focusing solely on those things I need to do and spreading things out more than I have in the past. Hopefully, that will provide me with time to do things I enjoy. Among those activities are reading and writing.

I remain amazed by the medium of blogging. Way back in 2005, as I composed my first several posts, I was utterly blown away that someone, anyone, sitting at a computer connected to the world wide web could write and then make it available to anyone else on the web. Like all such things, it is a mixed bag. If nothing else, I hope my blog is a responsible and positive cyberspace. I also hope there are those who find value in what I post.

It's funny now that I serve as Director of Deacons and Director of Diaconal Formation for my diocese that I don't write more about the diaconate. But we'll see how that goes this year too.

There are two books I'd like to share that have impacted my spirituality very positively. These are not big, complicated theological tomes. Rather, they are small, very accessible books on the basics of Ignatian spirituality. Both books are by Christopher Collins, SJ. The first book I gave to those who are in diaconate formation: Habits of Freedom: 5 Ignatian Tools for Clearing Your Mind and Resting Daily in the Lord. The second, the one I am reading right now, which has helped me rediscover the importance of making the Morning Offering each day, is Three Moments of the Day: Praying With the Heart of Jesus. The latter book was published in 2014 and the former in 2022.

Because I can't let myself rest too easily, I am also reading the fifth volume of Hans Urs Von Balthasar's Glory of the Lord, which is his engagement with modern Western metaphysics.

Anyway, Happy New Year. May 2024 be a wonderful year for you and for yours. As our reading from the sixth chapter of Numbers for this Solemnity puts it:
The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon
you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and
give you peace!5

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God

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

Because New Year’s Day falls on a Monday this year, it is not a holy day of obligation. I think for most, if not all, of us here, we’re not present because we feel some burdensome sense of obligation. Rather, we’re here because we realize that time is the currency of life, and spending time worshipping God together is one of the best uses of our time.

What better way to start a new year than by gathering together for communion with God and with each other? I know there is nowhere else I would rather be this morning than here and nothing else I’d rather be doing than this. This implies that there are no other people I’d rather be with than all of you, God’s people. What a blessing!

I remember attending some sessions that Bishop Niederauer used to have with the youth of our diocese. He always liked to give the young men and women the opportunity to ask him questions. There were a handful of questions that seemed to always get asked.

One of these oft-asked questions went something like “Is it really true that I have to go to Mass every Sunday?” To which, Bishop George would respond by saying, “I like to think about this as I get to go to Mass.” He would continue by explaining that Mass doesn’t take that long and it gives everything else I do that day or that week meaning and purpose. If that’s true of Sunday Mass, how much truer is it of Mass on New Year’s Day?!

In the Nicene Creed we profess that Jesus Christ is “consubstantial with the Father.”1 Because he is also “incarnate of the Virgin Mary,” as Son of Mary, he is also consubstantial with us.2 This is the mystery of Christmas. It is through Christ, by our rebirth through waters of baptism, that we are children of God. This is why, as Saint Paul points out, we can call “Abba, Father!”3

Therefore, we can call the Blessed Virgin Mary “Imma, Mother!” As Abba is Aramaic for “Daddy” or “Papa,” so Imma is Aramaic for Mommy” or “Mama.” Because God is our Father and Mary is our Mother, Jesus is our brother. All of this is the work of the Holy Spirit, who is always at work in and through creation.

The “slavery” mentioned in our second reading from which are freed is not slavery to God. We don’t go from being God’s slaves to God’s children. No! We go from being slaves to sin and death to children of God who, through Christ, frees us from sin and death. This is the Good News!

Like a good Mother, Mary is here for us. As the opening of The Beatles’ song, Let It Be, goes:
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be

And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be4
Let's not forget, Paul McCartney is an Irish Catholic kid from Liverpool.

Never hesitate to seek our Blessed Mother’s help, her comfort, her consolation. Two ways to do this are by saying often the Memorare and by praying the Rosary. The Memorare is a great way to honor your commitment to pray for someone.

Each year on this Solemnity, I challenge everyone present to pray the Rosary, that is, one full set of mysteries (Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, Glorious), five decades, each day of this year starting today. You can pray the Rosary meditatively, sitting quietly, or you can pray the Rosary while walking, waiting, etc. I typically pray my daily Rosary while walking.

So, my dear friends, as we embark on a new year,
The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon
you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and
give you peace!5
As for peace, in addition to being the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, today is also World Day of Peace. And so, let us work for peace in the world always mindful that peace begins with me.

1 Roman Missal. The Order of Mass, sec. 18.
2 Ibid.
3 Galatians 4:6.
4 The Beatles. "Let It Be."
5 Numbers 6:24-26.

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 ...