Learning to Read (Aloud)

jeromeI’m not an expert on many things, but in one area I can count myself proficient: reading aloud.

I have five children (and another on the way).  My oldest is twelve now, and for various reasons has always been above average at listening to books.  From the time he was three continuing until now, he has loved to listen to chapter books.  So for almost ten years, with an ever growing audience, with always diverse ability levels, I have been reading halfway serious children’s literature (Arthur Ransome, Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, Laura Ingalls Wilder, etc.) aloud to my children.

That’s not to mention, of course, the myriad picture books.  But here’s the thing: pictures carry much of the weight in picture books, and the easier story lines and great repetition don’t require as much from the reader.  Whereas getting kids of all ages to understand and stay engaged in a semi-complicated story without pictures means you have to make the words come alive.

I hope you’re seeing where I’m going with this: the same is true of the liturgy.

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Now, I know there are readers famous for their fun voices for different characters, but I don’t think that’s the key to reading literature aloud.  In fact, my children get angry with me when I do voices – partly, to be sure, because I’m not much good at them, but partly because voices get in the way of the story.  What makes a great story great is not the voices, which aren’t on the page anyway.  What makes it great are the words.

vespersMy insight, at this point, is that the real key to reading is pauses and, even more, emphasis, at the right places.  You have to understand what you’re reading, you have to see how the words come together to form small and big units, and you have to make that come across to someone who is listening, half distracted, not as experienced as you, and unable to look back to the page if she missed something.

Consider the following:

“He ran until he nearly reached the hedge by the footpath, then turned and ran until he nearly reached the hedge on the other side of the field.  Then he turned and crossed the field again.”

Now, in these two sentences, at the beginning of a great series of books on sailing, we are introduced to the pivotal concept of tacking.  But at this point, the listener knows nothing about the topic and doesn’t yet know if the book is interesting or understandable – and meanwhile, we’re also learning about hedges and footpaths and fields, all of which are also foreign (at least to my non-British, city kids) and which are painting a background.

The key, again, is pauses and especially emphasis:

“He ran .. until he nearly reached the hedge by the footpath, … then turned … and ran until he nearly reached the hedge .. on the OTHER side of the field….  Then he turned and crossed the field AGAIN.”

It’s an art.  I find that in order to emphasize a phrase, you emphasize not the most important word of the phrase, but the word that kind of ties the phrase together: it’s not, for example, that “nearly” is that important of a word, so much as that “nearly-reached” is the key to seeing him use the maximum of the space.  Then somehow you have to make clear that the-hedge-by-the-footpath is not a series of details, but one key part of his path.

***

A few months ago I was discussing Gregorian chant with an uncommonly excellent group of students.  Graduale_Aboense_2They said what’s great about Gregorian chant is that it creates a kind of monotone, so that you don’t have to pay attention to the speaker.  I was shocked that they’d get it so wrong, but I think it’s a common misconception.

What’s great about Gregorian chant (Leila Lawler’s lovely book The Little Oratory has a nice section on this) is precisely that it cares about the text.  Chant – when it’s done right – is all about loving the text, discovering the text, saying the text like you mean it.  And the same thing must happen with the readings and prayers of the Mass, whether chanted or spoken: like a father reading to his five-year-old, you’ve got to make the text come alive, both for your own sake and for theirs.  If there aren’t pauses in the right places, you’re doing it wrong.

We have a lot to learn about this.  There seem to be methods of teaching people to “read well” that involve hand gestures and voices and eye contact – but not the text.  That’s wrong.  And there are various forms of music, even common interpretations of chant, that are just as bad, monotones that obliterate the text instead of discovering it.

We need to learn to read aloud.  Which means we first need to learn to read.

How are you growing in your understanding of Scripture?

Second Sunday of Ordinary Time: The Lord the Giver of Life

This Sunday we enter Ordinary Time.  With Christmas on a Sunday, Epiphany ended up bumping the Baptism of the Lord, normally the first Sunday of Ordinary Time, to Monday of this past week.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

Each year of the three-year cycle, the reading for Baptism of the Lord is from the year’s Gospel – this year, Matthew.  But the second Sunday lingers a little longer on the beginning of Jesus’s ministry by giving us a reading from the beginning of John.  The third Sunday then goes back to the year’s Gospel, with whatever story immediately follows Jesus’s temptation in the desert.  (The desert, of course, is saved for Lent.)

Meanwhile, the Epistle at the beginning of each year is First Corinthians, Paul’s letter on the sacramentality of the Church.  This year we’ll get selections from chapters 1-4, next year 5-10, and in year C, 12-15.

***

Let’s focus on the Gospel reading.

John’s Gospel is like a theological commentary on the others, a deeper insight into what’s going on.  On Monday, we read that (the other) John baptized Jesus.  Here, John gives Jesus three titles:

“The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

“Who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.”

“On whom the Spirit comes down and remains, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

***

Jesus is the Lamb of God.  Now, John came with a baptism of repentance, a symbolic pledge that we want to leave behind our sins.  But Jesus really takes away our sins.  And he takes away our sins not as a Baptizer but as a Lamb.  Jesus will make the perfect sacrifice.  Jesus’s baptism sets us free from sin because it plunges us into that perfect sacrifice; it is a union with the Cross of Christ.

The Lamb is a figure not of Baptism but of the Eucharist.  The Baptism of Jesus “washes away” our sins because it is our initiation into the Eucharistic Church.  Only Jesus can open the sacramental door that gives us access to the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Sin is an absence, a lack of love.  He takes away the sin of the world by filling us with his love.

***

Jesus is greater than John because he existed before John.  Jesus is the I AM, the eternal, God from God, light from light.  John’s Gospel doesn’t mess around: at the beginning, he professes that Jesus is “in the beginning.”Divine-Mercy

John – both Johns – always remind us that our union with God is not by our own effort, not by our blood (that is, by birthright), nor by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man – and not because in Baptism we make a pledge that we’ll try harder.  Union with God is a gift from God.  Only he who was in the beginning can fulfill this pledge.

When John says Jesus is the Lamb, he speaks about Jesus himself.  When he says he was “before me,” he speaks about Jesus’s union with the Father.

***

And then he tells us about his union with the Holy Spirit: The Spirit descends on him, remains on him, and so he baptizes with the Spirit.

Only the one who has the Spirit can give us the Spirit.  And the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives us, the Spirit that fills all seven sacraments, is the Spirit of Jesus himself, and of the Father.  We receive the Spirit of the Lamb, the heart of the Crucified.  We receive the Spirit of union, the love between Father and Son.

John’s Gospel takes us deep into theology.  Jesus is no mere preacher.  John the Baptist is there, in fact, largely as a contrast, to remind us of the difference between someone who can only talk and offer symbols, and Jesus who is very God.

***

Dwelling in this Gospel, then, we see the meaning of the other two readings.  In the brief introductory verses of First Corinthians, we read that we are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy” – called to be holy only because we have been made holy by Christ, who pours his life into us in the sacraments.

good-shepherd-2And in our first reading, from Isaiah, we see on many levels what it means to be God’s servant.  Jesus is God’s servant, John is Jesus’s servant, and so too are we.  The servant is the one “through whom I show my glory”: it is the glory of God that shines on the face of Christ, and it is only Christ’s glory that can shine on the face of the saints.

We become a light to the nations, who can call back God’s beloved people – “to raise up the tribes of Jacob” – only when first we let Jesus, crucified Lamb of God, in the beginning with the Father, giver of the Holy Spirit, pour his life into us through the sacraments.

What do you need to do to more fully draw your life from Jesus?

Epiphany and the City of God

Next Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord.  At Christmas we talked about Jesus appearing; in the East, this feast of Christ appearing to the Magi is the main celebration of Christmas.

As it happens, I am writing from the mountains of North Carolina, where I am on vacation with my extended family – and where, at the Tractor Supply and elsewhere, I’ve heard a lot more couAll-Saintsntry music than one finds in urban north New Jersey.  

I heard a song that helps (by contrast) to illustrate the meaning of our feast.  The chorus says, “Lord, when I die, I wanna live on the outskirts of heaven.”  He explicitly contrasts the “streets of gold” in the Biblical vision of heaven with his own vision: “there’s dirt roads for miles, hay in the fields, and fish in the river.”  It’s country-music fun, but it’s also an attractive image.

Now, before I say why it’s wrong, let me acknowledge: we should long for a world in harmony with nature, unstained by human destructiveness, and a cozier home, where everyone knows and loves one another, and no one is treated like a statistic.  There’s something right about this vision of heaven.

***

But it’s not the Biblical vision, which is the heart of our feast’s first reading.  “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! . . . Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.  Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you.”

When the kings come to see the king of kings in Bethlehem, the Liturgy turns to the image of Jerusalem as capital city of the world.  God began his heavenly city in Jerusalem, and gradually calls all nations into that city.  The Church is a city.  Heaven is a city, the new Jerusalem: yes, with gates and streets (pearly gates and streets of gold) – and throngs of people.  Heaven ain’t in the country.

When Jerusalem is filled with throngs, “then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overthrow” – not because of the gold and pearls, but because of the beauty of humanity, gathered together into the great kingdom.

That country song concludes, “the good Lord knows me, he knows I need blue skies and green grass forever.”  But that’s not the way the good Lord works.  He doesn’t change heaven to fit our earthly desires.  He changes our hearts to love the true heaven.  That’s what grace means.

***

The reading from Ephesians focuses on the gentiles coming in.  At Epiphany we see that Jesus is king not just of the Jews but of all the nations, which the kings personify.  “It has now been revealed . . . that the Gentiles are coheirs.”

The reading has two heavenly-city themes.  The first is immigration.  The Gentiles are “coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise.”  In the Greek the parallels are stronger: co-heirs, co-body, co-participants.  

The first image here is of family: heirs.  It insults our sensibilities to think of new people joining “our” family.  And it’s even more insulting when we think about inheritance: if we share, there won’t be enough!  But that’s just the point: God’s family is unlimited, because God’s riches are unlimited.  I lose nothing by sharing.  Country roads are ruined by too many neighbors, but the city of God is not.  

The second image is “body” – both the physical body and the “body politic”.  The city is a body, where we find ourselves as “parts.”  We rebel against the earthly city, because it always abuses its parts – but the heavenly city is one where we want to be parts.11_1_3_saints  

And the third image is general, metaphysical: “participant.”  We all fully enjoy our place, participating in the heavenly city.

***

The second city theme in our reading from Ephesians is of leadership.  Paul has been given “the stewardship of God’s grace, that was given to me for your benefit.”  “The mystery was made known to me for revelation” – we hear it through him.  Grace and revelation are given “to his holy prophets and apostles.”

We don’t come to God just as individuals, each on our own path.  Authority in the Church is precisely an indicator that we come as members of one body.  Knowing God and coming to Jerusalem are one and the same.  Deeper than sacramental authority, deeper than infallibility, Church authority is a sign of the unity of the body of Christ.

***

The Gospel plays it all out dramatically.

The earthly Bethlehem and Jerusalem, quite near one another, were the two cities of David, the king who was born in Bethlehem and would Jerusalem.  For both the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly, Bethlehem is a little town and the seed of the big city.

ascensionWhen the kings came, “They saw the child with Mary his mother.”  Here is the beginning of the city: Mary and Jesus cheek to cheek.  Yes, it is a cozy, homey image.  But in that image of human closeness begins the streams of all nations, gathered together by closeness to God incarnate.

How does your vision of heaven correspond – or not – to the Biblical one?  And how does that affect your life?  

Our Lady and a “Prosperous New Year”

You could say that the reforms after Vatican II made for a kind of “remedial liturgy.”  One of the basic principles was that the meaning of the liturgy should be accessible to those who are faithful but lack a deep symbolic formation.

The Liturgy of the Hours, for example, was simplified, and the hardest verses were removed from the Hail Mary ImagePsalms.  For example, they removed from Psalm 110, which we have recited every Evening of the Christmas octave, verse 6: “He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.”  It’s not that this verse is wrong, once you know how to read the spiritual meaning of the Psalms.  It’s just that it’s not the best way to introduce people to the liturgy.

(Some other time perhaps I’ll explain how necessary I think this “remedial liturgy” is.)

So too, the Marian liturgies are greatly simplified.  It can be annoying.  The tradition has some awesome Biblical symbolism for Mary.  (For example, Sirach 24:9-18, in the old Little Office.)  Now the readings are all on the literal level – and since Mary (perhaps by her choice) was hidden in Scripture, that means we don’t get much.

Even the feasts themselves are simplified.  The octave of Christmas, January 1, used to be the feast of the Circumcision (which the people of the Old Testament do on the eighth day after birth), but in the remedial liturgy, that’s simplified to just, “Mary, Mother of God.”  Forget the details, focus on the big stuff.  And the readings for the feast are strangely generic.

***

The first reading is the blessing of Aaron: “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.”  There’s nothing Marian, on the literal or symbolic levels, in this first reading for Mary’s main feast day.  It’s a lovely blessing for the New Year, but not specifically Marian.

And yet the reading is strangely insightful about Mary.

A strange parallel, from my December reading: One of St. John Paul II’s synods was on Confession.  Out of that synod came his post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia.  Now, on first glance, that document is all over the place.  Here we’re supposed to be talking about the sacrament of Confession, and instead JPII gives us musings on world peace, human rights, terrorism, racial discrimination, and “an unfair distribution of the world’s resources.”  Confession doesn’t show up until the last of seven chapters.  Was he avoiding the subject?  Getting distracted?  (Imagine if Pope Francis did that!)

Well, of course JPII knew what he was doing.  He was showing what Confession is really about.  It’s not about waving a magic wand.  It’s not about a ticket out of earthly responsibility.  To the contrary, it’s about how wildly practical God’s grace is, how the sacraments work to restore our humanity, to restore society, to bring about “reconciliation.”

To understand and appreciate grace, we have to understand and appreciate the natural order that it heals and elevates.

***

So too with Mary.  Yes, the Circumcision is significant.  But if we get lost in the details, we can come up with a Mary who is marginal, a Mary who is just a matter of theological obscurity, a Mary who has nothing to do with our real lives – and a God who has nothing to do with our real lives.

But Mary is not a theological obscurity.  Like Confession, she has everything to do with the true meaning of a happy new year, and even the true meaning of politics.  We can’t let our faith become a fun little dress up game we play in Church.  Mary is everything.

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And so in our first reading, Mary reveals the true Happy New Year: “May the Lord bless you and keep you, let his face shine upoin you, look upon you kindly and give you peace.”

our lady of milleniumIn our second reading, Mary is the transition from the Law – a law that, as a faithful Jewish girl, she lived to the hilt – to the discovery of God as Father.  She looked on her Son and knew, as no one had ever known before, God as Father.

And in our Gospel, Mary is inseparably there when we discover Christ himself, as she was for the shepherds, who “went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the infant.”  With Mary, with the shepherds, may we “keep all these things, reflecting on them in our hearts,” dwelling in the amazement of the Word made flesh.

(And let us go, too, to his very human circumcision, which also makes it into our Gospel reading.)

Mary isn’t a matter of obscure details.  Mary is about the heart of the Gospel.  Mary is everything.

How do you keep your faith – and your devotion to Mary – from becoming marginal to your real desires for the New Year?

At Christmas He Appears

What are we celebrating on Christmas?  What happened on that day?

swaddlingOn a certain level, nothing.  As we rightly point out when talking about abortion, nothing metaphysical happens at birth.  The day before and the day after, the child is the same.  Life begins at conception – and the great metaphysical moment for Christians is the Annunciation, not the Nativitiy.  March 25 is the feast of the Incarnation.  That’s when he empties himself and takes the form of a slave.

Nor does Christ do anything great on Christmas.  His great actions are still thirty years away.  His greatest action is on the Cross, another mystery of March.

But something great does happen at birth: the mother sees her child.  Birth is no small moment for ordinary mothers, including the mothers we counsel about abortion.  And the birth of Christ is no small moment for Our Lady and the Church of which she is the first member.  She sees him.

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The Liturgy for Christmas is full of this theme.  This year (for various reasons – Christmas is all about interrupted plans) my family attended the noon Mass – there are, you know, different readings for Christmas Eve evening, midnight, “dawn,” and “during the day,” so that we can read about the angels, the shepherds, and the Prologue of John, and remember that before midnight, Christ is not yet born.

At the daytime Mass, the reading from Isaiah begins, “how beautiful,” talks about him “announcing good news,” and says, “they see directly.”   The reading from the beginning of Hebrews compares Jesus to the angels, but sets the tone for the rest of that letter by saying, “he has spoken to us through the Son.”  And though the Prologue of John talks about who Jesus is (the Incarnation, a mystery of March), it concludes, “No one has ever seen God.  The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.”

Like every birth, Christmas is about the revelation of the child, the appearance of the mystery that was hidden in the mother’s womb.  And so too the readings tell of hearing him speak: though the child does not speak, that first look at him on Christmas reminds us how fortunate we are to have a God who is no longer hidden, but revealed, a God who speaks to us.

So too at midnight, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9), “the grace of God has appeared” (Titus 2), and the angels “proclaim to you good news . . . and this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant” (Luke 2).   And at dawn,  “The Lord proclaims . . . say to daughter Zion, your savior comes” (Is 62), “the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared” (Titus 3), and “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see” (Luke 2).

Seeing, joined with hearing the good news: revelation.

***

I have been thinking this Advent about the Canticle of Simeon, which we pray every night in Night Prayer:

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, according to your word,

For my own eyes have the seen the salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of every people

A light to reveal you to the nations

And the glory of your people Israel.

I am not like Simeon.  Simeon “goes in peace” because he was an old man, “being instructed by the Holy Spirit, he was not to see death before he would see the Christ of the Lord.”  Simeon is ready to die – but surely I am not?

And Simeon’s “own eyes have seen”: Jesus appears before him.  I have not seen.

But I have heard, in Scripture, and I have touched, in the Sacraments.  (John says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled – 1 John 1:1.)

At Christmas I am reminded how close Jesus has come, so close that we could see him, touch him, hear him.  Like Simeon before the Presentation, I still long to see him face to face.  But he is not altogether hidden, and every day I rejoice at how much I have seen, in the Word and Sacraments of his Church, and so I long to see him fully.

And so I too can go in peace, can even contemplate, as we do throughout Night Prayer, leaving this life behind.  Because we have seen him, and we go to see him, and that is all that matters.

After this exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb. Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_Project

And we can hope already to be like Stephen, “full of the Holy Spirit, looking up intently into Heaven, he saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  And he said, Behold, I see.”

 

How different is your life because Jesus because you have heard the Word of Jesus?  What difference does it make that you have not yet seen his face?

 

 

Meek and Mild: Preparing the Way

caravaggio nativityI haven’t gotten to write much this Advent, and now I’m going to write about dealing with anger.  Please don’t draw any connections – it’s just been a busy time.

Advent is a time of preparation, a reminder that our whole life is preparation for the coming of Christ.  We prepare for our annual celebration of his first coming: by decorating and making cookies, by prayer and perhaps some fasting, by meditating on the mystery we will celebrate in the busy whirl that is Christmas.

We recall, perhaps in the Jesse tree, certainly in the readings from Isaiah and about John the Baptist and Mary, how through all of history God prepared for that first coming.

And we remind ourselves, by our annual observance, that our whole life is a preparation for his final coming, when at last we too shall meet Jesus face to face.  Every time we prepare for communion, we prepare for that ultimate communion, on our last day and on the Last Day.

***

A voice is calling,

“Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness;

Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.

 

“Let every valley be lifted up,

And every mountain and hill be made low;

And let the rough ground become a plain,

And the rugged terrain a broad valley;

 

Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed,

And all flesh will see it together;

For the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40).

 

But a hymn reminds us, “make straight the way for God within.”

All the external preparations point to our internal.  How do we prepare the way within?

***

This Advent I’ve been thinking about meekness.  I’ve been thinking about the beatitudes in general for a couple years.  A traditional reading notices three kinds:

The first three are about emptying ourselves of obstacles (the purgative way):

Poverty of spirit

Weeping

Meekness

The next two are about discovering who God is (the illuminative way):

Justice

Mercy

And the next two (or three) are about becoming one with him (the unitive way):

Pure in heart (who see God)

Peacemakers (called children of God)

(Those who are persecuted for him)

The illuminative way prepares the way for God within – but I’m thinking now especially of clearing the path.  Like Mary, we have to become poor with him, to set aside all our earthly distractions.  We have to weep with him, setting aside our worldly pleasures and embracing the pain of a fallen world, refusing to flee or cover them up.  And we have to become meek with him.

***

I’m thinking about meekness partly because I recently, finally, discovered Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of meekness.

One way to understand the beatitudes is by their rewards.  Blessed are the meek | for they shall inherit the earth.  What are the meek?  Those who inherit: those who don’t fight for riches, but receive everything from their Father.

Still, what does meekness mean?  Thomas points out that Aristotle, that great observer of humanity, discuses the same word used in the Greek text of Matthew: praüs.  Aristotle says (in IV Ethics) that   praüs, meekness, is moderation of our anger.  Thomas sees it as a kind of self-restraint: just as we have to control our desire for food and alcohol and sex, so too our anger.

We can go a step further: clemency is self-restraint in regard to punishment.  It is closely related to meekness, but it’s worth noting the difference.  Clemency is about our external actions: we need to control ourselves when it comes to acting on our anger.  But meekness isn’t just about lashing out.  It’s about our interior life.  It’s the virtue that moderates our anger itself.

Mercy, we should note, goes a step further: mercy is the desire to help another person in distress.  Clemency just doesn’t hurt him; meekness doesn’t feel angry with him; but mercy goes out to help him.

our lady of millenium

***

And meekness too is a beatitude, a way of clearing the paths for God to enter into our hearts.  I have been pondering Mary’s meekness in the beatitudes.  Meekness isn’t everything, but Mary has room in her heart because she is not full of anger, even as they scourge her beloved.

How do we cultivate this meekness?  It’s interesting that it’s a virtue, not an action.  These days we talk a lot about forgiveness, but two problems.  First, forgiveness is darned hard to do.  We can say the words, even repeat them internally – but have we really let go of our anger?  Second, it’s interesting that forgiveness isn’t in the Summa.  Thomas doesn’t think it’s the most helpful category.  I think he might be right.

Meekness is a virtue: not a single act, like forgiveness, but a way of being.  Virtues are cultivated by practice, by continually restraining our anger – just as you cultivate sobriety by not getting drunk, over and over again.

Meekness is also a fruit of the Spirit, in Galatians 5.  (In English, this spot in the list is “humility,” which is of course even greater.  But in the Greek and Latin of Galatians, and in the Latin Catechism, it’s meekness.  Letting go of our anger, of course, has a lot to do with letting go of our pride: meekness and humility go hand in hand.)

How do we cultivate meekness?  By not acting on our anger.  And by asking the Holy Spirit to pour his fruits and his gifts into our hearts – by asking, that is, Jesus to take our heart and make it like unto his, by begging Mary, full of grace, to pray for us sinners, that we may be holy as she is, including meek and mild as she is, and so make room in the inn.

our lady of vladimir

How does anger keep Jesus out of your heart?  What do you do about it?

 

Second Sunday: Come O Wisdom from on High

I have been feeling down.  In my country there is Trump, in the Church there is Cardinal Burke.  In both cases, I am distressed at the opinions being voiced, but I am even more distressed at the bitter conflict, the inability for people to see eye to eye.  Jesus prayed that they may be one, but the world is full of such bitter division.

swaddlingI feel the darkness of December.  But Christ comes in the bleak midwinter, a little child, a tiny flame in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  The darkness is our reminder to look for the dawn from on high.

***

Our first reading this Sunday is a long one from Isaiah.  We might know it best for the animal imagery: “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,” etc.  There is an image of peace.

The tradition knows the reading better for its first part: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,” etc.  Here are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.  (The ancient Greek translation finds different shades of meaning in the two lines about “fear of the Lord,” and thus the Latin tradition discovers a gift of “pietas,” or reverence for the Father.)

The key is in the union of these two themes: the wisdom on high is the way – the only way – to peace.

After it tells of the gifts that will rest on the Messiah – and on all of us who are in Christ – it tells of what kind of ruler he will be: “Not by appearance shall he judge . . . but he shall judge the poor with justice . . . . He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth. . . . Justice shall be the band around his waist.”

Christ the King, the king of kings and the only one who can make kings good, will bring peace because he will see rightly.  Only the wisdom from on high can make peace.

The animal imagery that follows gives symbols of nations.  We need not have particular nations in mind.  The point is, “the root of Jesse” – that is, Jesus, who is not only the son of David, but the source of David – will be “set up as a signal for the nations.”  All nations shall come streaming to Jerusalem, to be ruled by the one Good King.

Nations which could never be at peace – wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, calf and young lion, cow and bear – will be at peace, will be one, when Christ is King, when all are ruled by the wisdom from on high.

***

The reading from Romans teaches the same thing in a different way.  “Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction,” it says, and, “Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness.”  The New Testament is confirming the Old Testament, and thus making a deeper point about the Bible as a whole: “by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

By faith we will live – faith in God’s word, faith in the wisdom of Jesus.  And when we live by God’s word, we will, “Welcome one another, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  In his wisdom is our peace.

***

The Gospel pushes us deeper into the heart of that wisdom.  As we prepare the way for Christmas, we have John the Baptist preparing the way by crying out, “Prepare the way!”

Again, the New Testament quotes the Old (“a voice of one crying out the desert” is Matthew quoting Isaiah), and the Old points to the new: “It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken.”

Hail Mary ImageGod speaks.  He is not silent.  In Scripture we can hear his voice, and it transforms us.

There are two parts of the message.  First is John’s call to repentance.  It is a hard call: he calls those who think they are righteous “you brood of vipers,” and warns that we cannot rest on our merits, calling ourselves children of Abraham as if that excuses our failure to repent.

But second, John points to the source of that repentance.  To be baptized by John is only to embrace his message that we must change.  But he tells of one coming after him, who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Jesus is coming.  He speaks to us, and his word transforms us.  Through the sacraments, he acts on us, and gives us natural hearts, loving hearts, in place of his stony heart.

In the darkness of this December, this bleak midwinter of our world, we look to the dawn from on high, to the wisdom who alone can be our peace.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Do you feel the despair of human wisdom?  How do you look to Christ as our only Savior?

Christ the King

Christ the King

Dear readers, I am sorry I have been away.  Like many others, I have been absorbed by the presidential ChristTheKingIconelection, not to mention some craziness at work.  Yesterday’s feast day, Christ the King, calls us back to a higher and nobler kingdom.

This year, the first reading for the feast turned our eyes to King David, in the Old Testament.  It recalls the words of the Angel to Mary at the Annunciation: “He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord God shall give Him the throne of His father David.  And He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).

Earthly kingship and Jesus’s kingship reflect on one another.  He is all that is great about earthly kings – and heals all that is wrong.

So the Liturgy gives us a brief image of what is attractive about the kingship of David.  As the Israelites proclaim their new king, they say, “Here we are, your bone and your flesh.”  The king is one of us, from us and for us, our perfect leader because truly our brother.

“It was you who led the Israelites out and brought them back.”  He leads them in battle, fighting to defend his people.  Leading means he goes first, puts himself in harm’s way.  And he brings them back: the good king saves them from harm.

good-shepherd-2“You shall shepherd my people Israel.”  The king preserves them, guides them, feeds them, enriches them and keeps them safe.

“And they anointed him.”  Christ is Greek, and Messiah is Hebrew, for the anointed one.  Jesus Christ means Jesus the king.  All that is noble and admirable about a true king: that is our king Jesus.

***

The Psalm recalls Jerusalem, built as a city with compact unity.  The king makes a glorious kingdom, a true community.  “Jesus come” and “thy kingdom come” go together.  To love the king is to love the kingdom he makes – and the kingdom arises from the goodness of his kingship.  Only Jesus makes the glorious kingdom of his Church.

***

But while the Old Testament readings give us some idea of how Jesus is like earthly kings, the New Testament readings tell us how he is different.  The epistle is the glorious Christ-hymn of Colossians 1.

He has brought us “to the kingdom of his beloved Son” from “the power of darkness.”  Jesus saves us from a darker enemy.

In him “we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”  Redemption means ransom.  Every king ransoms back his hostages.  But Jesus ransoms us from the power of sin, sets us free from our true enemies, the sins that bind us.

“In him were created all things in heaven and on earth.”  Our king is the creator of all earthly and heavenly goods.  His kingdom is infinitely more glorious, more beautiful, more splendid, than the kingdoms of this world.

In him were created “thrones, dominions, principalities, powers”: he is the king of kings, through whom all good kings come to us, and who conquers all the evils of earthly kings.

“All things,” all powers, all earthly splendors, all things that we are and desire, “were created through him and for him.”

***

And he is the king of the cross.  He is the firstborn even of the dead: as he goes before us in splendor, so he goes before us in suffering.  He leads our armies not just to earthly victories but to Resurrection and heaven.

He has “made peace” – like every earthly king, but – “by the blood of his cross.”

So every year for Christ the King the Gospel takes us to the Cross.

The earthly “rulers sneered at Jesus.”  His kingdom is not of this earth.  His ways and power are not of this world.  “The rulers” and the bad thief repeat, “Save!”  The salvation he brings is not the salvation they expect.  The cross is not the throne from which they expect the king to reign.

But the good thief begins to have the right insight: “We have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes.”  Our king is just and innocent.  Our king saves us not from earthly enemies but from the power of darkness, by the forgiveness of our sins.

Exaltation-CrossHe saves us by going forth with us through the battle of suffering.  He redeems us not by denying the evil of sin, but by redeeming our suffering.

The good thief says to our king, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He sees, dimly, in his awareness of the evil of sin, the true kingdom.  And Jesus says, to those who embrace his cross, to those who accept his kingdom, not of this world, “today,” with your acceptance of me, with your embrace of the cross, “you will be with me in Paradise,” the true Paradise, beyond all earthly promises.

Do we love the kingdom of righteousness?  Do we love the true king?  What would that mean for our view of all this earthly sordidness?

Thirty-First Sunday: Come, Lord Jesus!

It is cold.  We are coming to the end of the year.  And the Lectionary takes a turn toward the end of the world.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

The place it happens most clearly is in the Epistle.  The Gospels we read in order (hence “ordinary” time); there we are reaching the end, approaching Jerusalem.  The Old Testament reading complements the main theme of the Gospel.

But the Epistles are chosen for the end of the year.  In Year B it’s the end of Hebrews, which looks toward the saints in heaven.  But in Years A and C it’s First and Second Thessalonians, which may be some of the earliest writings in the New Testament, and speak particularly of persecution, which they read in light of the final coming of Jesus.

***

The Lectionary is gentle with us, giving a taste of the End for those who read no further, and much deeper references toward the End for those of us who open our Bibles.

Thus our reading this Sunday, from the end of the first chapter of Second Thessalonians, begins, “We always pray for you” – but if you open your Bible, you’ll see that the sentence (and the verse) begins “Therefore.”  Wherefore?

Paul has been commending “your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations which you endure.”  He looks forward to “when He shall come to be glorified in His saints and to be admired in all those who believe . . . in that Day.”  And he warns of “flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“Therefore, we always pray for you,” as our reading says – that God may make us worthy to stand when Jesus comes.

The second paragraph of our reading says “not to be shaken” by any false claims “to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand.”  If you keep reading, St. Paul warns of the coming of “the lawless one,” the rebellion that comes before the End.  Don’t believe it’s already happened – look forward to his coming.

At the end of the year we face the end of time, and we pray for the grace to stand before the face of Jesus.

***

In that light, we have the reading from Wisdom, which helps us to focus on God’s mercy.

Wisdom is a philosophical book.  The argument this week is in three straightforward steps:

God can.  The universe is itty-bitty to him.  We are weak but he is strong.

God wants to.  All things exist because he made them.  “And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it?”  And he is especially, such beautiful words, “lover of souls.”  Among all created realities, nothing is so beautiful to him as our souls – in the words of Gaudium et Spes, “man is the only creature on earth [alongside the angels] which God created for its own sake,” to live forever with him.

And so – God rebukes us.  His mercy doesn’t leave us wallowing in our sin.  His mercy “rebukes offenders little by little,” gently leading us out of the coming darkness and into his own glorious light, “that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O Lord!”

Jesus saves sinners.  Come, Lord Jesus!  Thy kingdom come!

***

As always, the Gospel makes it all incarnate.

Jesus is approaching Jerusalem, coming near to his cross.  In today’s reading, he gets to Jericho, the next big town over, to the northeast.  The end is near.

And we see a scene of mercy.  Zacchaeus is one of the most loveable figures in the Gospel: a tax collector, therefore a bad guy, but so short, and so shaken by the Holy Spirit moving him within, that he climbs a tree to see Jesus.  When Jesus comes to his house – “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner” – Zacchaeus repents: “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”  Which is a lot.

But the punchline comes at the end: “Today salvation has come to this house . . . .  For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

***

The liturgical year has us facing the end.  But as we face the end, we come to a greater encounter with the mercy of Jesus, who calls us out of this present darkness and into his glorious light.

What does “Come Lord Jesus” mean to you?

Thirtieth Sunday – Not Our Goodness, but His

Over the summer, at a marvelous summer camp, a wise old grandfather was telling me of his experience

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

praying for his descendents.  He said he keeps finding himself tempted to think, if I just pray x many rosaries, maybe I can get the upper hand, and force God to do what I want him to do – or at least earn it from him.

But to the contrary, we pray not to get power over God, but precisely because we know that’s not how it works.  We pray because we know all good things come from his hands, and all we have to do is ask.

There’s a similar lesson in many of our prayers.  The Memorare focuses, of course, on Mary’s faithfulness in responding to our prayers.  But this faithfulness is put in focus by the line, “sinful and sorrowful.”  See, the point is that in praying I renounce my merits.  I don’t say, “hey, I deserve this.”  I say, in your mercy, hear and answer.  The same thing happens in all the Psalms that say, “for thy name’s sake, O Lord.”  Not because I am good, but because you are.

(That, of course, is the point of a novena – or even the defined length of the liturgy of the hours, and the intercessory power of the Mass.  Not that I do so much that God has to listen, but that I say my prayers and then stop, trusting not in my goodness, but in his.  That’s why we pray to the saints, too – not my goodness, but his, in them who are close to him and full of him.  I don’t think myself worthy to storm into the throne room on my own.)

***

Our Sunday readings all talk about the power of prayer, and the power of our weakness in prayer.

The first reading, from Sirach, is about God’s preferential option for the poor – sort of.  “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds . . . and the Lord will not delay.”  Pretty effective!

But there’s a spin.  The reading begins not by saying the poor are God’s favorites, but by saying, “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.”  He is “not unduly partial toward the weak – yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.”

It isn’t that they win because they are poor.  It’s that they win because they trust in his goodness, not theirs.

***

So too in our reading from Second Timothy, one of the “prison epistles,” written from Paul’s captivity.

“Beloved: I am already being poured out like a libation” – that is, like one of the “drink offerings” of the Temple, where the wine was a sacrificial victim, poured out on the altar.  Pretty good!  Paul himself is the sacrifice!  “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.  From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me.”  He’s got his act together, huh?

Then (the reading skips several verses), he talks about his trial.  “At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me.”  It starts out sounding like he’s the hero, he alone is the deserving one.

“But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.”  Nope.  The whole point is that he boasts of his weakness.  I didn’t stand a chance.  I couldn’t do it.  He did it.  His goodness, not mine.  So Paul talks about being “rescued from the lion’s mouth” – like Daniel, who is not the one who shut up the lion’s mouth.  “The Lord will rescue me . . . .  To him” – not me – “be glory forever and ever.  Amen.”

That’s the meaning of being a libation.  Not that I was so strong that I made myself a sacrificial victim – but that I was so weak that the only thing I could do was be broken down, and trust in the goodness and the strength of God.  It is good to be weak, for then we know that he, he alone, is strong.

***

And so the Gospel is obvious.  We pray not like the Pharisees, “convinced of their own righteousness,” who say, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity.”  Our prayer is not, “I fast twice a week,” look at me!

No, our prayer is like the tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

How do you find yourself trying to coerce God, instead of depend on his mercy?  How could your prayer be more focused on his goodness, and less on yours?