First Sunday of Advent: Welcoming the Comings of Christ

our lady of millenium

JER 33:14-16; PS 45: 4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; 1 THES 3:12-4:2; LK 21:25-28, 34-36

Our end is our beginning. The dying of the liturgical year in November culminates with our first Sunday of Advent – and we continue to look to the end of time, preparing for Christ to come in glory as we prepare for Christ’s coming as a baby to renew all things.

As the world puts up Christmas trees and starts singing about Santa Claus, our Gospel has Jesus saying,

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

We recall the classic sermons about the three comings of Christ. Christ came in weakness long ago. He will come in power at the end of time. And he comes to us every day in between.


Ironic: compared to the frightening words of the Gospel, the words from the prophet Jeremiah make us nostalgic for a sweeter, more innocent time. “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah. . . . I will raise up for David a just shoot; he shall do what is right and just in the land. In those days Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall dwell secure.”

They looked forward to the coming Messiah, the king who would set everything right. They looked forward to Jesus, all sweetness.

But which coming were they looking forward to? In his first coming, he was swaddled in sweetness – and poverty and nakedness and cold, destined to be rejected and suffer death on a Cross.

In his final coming he will bring terror and destruction, “people will die of fright” – and finally peace will reign.

And in our everyday, he calls to us, stands at the door knocking. He begs to enter in, and we leave him like a homeless man, out in the cold.


Our Epistle is from 1 Thessalonians – one of Paul’s most apocalyptic letters (along with 2 Thessalonians).

The message is simple. We want “to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.” The apocalyptic message is simply that we should be prepared to meet him when he comes, however he comes.

We recall the most terrifying words of Scripture, the conclusion of all Jesus’s preaching, in Matthew 25:

“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels. . . .

They shall answer, saying, Lord, when did we see you hungry, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to you? . . . Inasmuch as you did it not unto one of these least you did it not unto me.”

To prepare for his final coming, we are to live every moment as if he is knocking at the door.


But who can  stand when he appeareth? In our Epistle, not only does Paul exhort us that, “as you received from us how you should conduct yourselves to please God . . . what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus” – not only does he teach us with Christ’s words. Better than that, he begins, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another . . . so as to strengthen your heart.” He sends us Christ’s Spirit, the power of his grace, to strengthen our hearts.

Only Christ can prepare us to stand before him.


Our Gospel concludes, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” St. Paul – and, here, St. Luke, a disciple of St. Paul – has this habit of building up terrible sins, and then sliding in normal things. I’m not a carouser; I’m not drunk –and yet, swallowed up by the anxieties of daily life, it is all the same.

“Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent – and to stand before the Son of Man.”

In Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the first coming, we are reminded to prepare for the final coming by watching for Christ in all his little daily comings. We ask him to come with his grace so that we may welcome him in his little ones and be prepared to stand before him in glory.

When did the anxieties of your daily life keep you from welcoming Christ today?

Thirty-Third Sunday: The Apocalyptic Now

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

DN 12:1-3; PS 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11; HEB 10:11-14, 18; MK 13:24-32

We come now to the end.  Next Sunday will be the last Sunday of the Church year, Christ the King.  This Sunday we read about the end of time.

Our Gospel, it must be said, is somewhat confusing.  Perhaps it is meant to be.  Jesus talks about “after the time of distress.”  He says, “the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven.”  Then the Son of Man will come “in the clouds with great power and glory.”  It is clear he will be the master of the end of time.  It is not so clear what exactly the end of time will be.

He tells us to “take the fig tree as a parable”: its leaves are a sign of summer.  So too there will be signs that Jesus is coming.  But he concludes “as for that day or hour, nobody knows it” – not even the Son.

He says “all these things will have taken place” “before this generation has passed away.”  But what are “all these things”?  What is “this generation”?  Was Jesus wrong?


A little context helps.  Before our reading, Jesus has already been talking about the end for some twenty verses.  He talks about horrible things that will happen – “but the end is not yet.”  There will be many “false Christs and false prophets.”

Here is one way to read all of this: the Apocalypse is not about a “then” separate from our “now.”  It is not that the world is “stable,” and then at some point something abnormal will happen.

Rather, it is that the world constantly teeters on the edge.  He is coming soon.  All the horrible things that happen – as Friday evening in Paris – are not a break from normal.  They are normal: a world teetering on the edge, and constantly reminding us that Christ alone is the End.

He will come one day.  But every day – both “that generation” and ours – are days of expectation.


As an example of this, consider how our first reading, from Daniel, frames our Psalm.  By “framing” I mean it puts a context “around” the Psalm so that we notice new things.

The Psalm is beautiful, but normal enough.  “And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad; even my body shall rest in safety.”  “O Lord, it is you who are my portion and cup.”

But the reading that precedes it is apocalyptic.  “There is going to be a time of great distress, unparalleled since nations first came into existence.”  Angels will war.  “Michael will stand up, the great prince who mounts guard over your people.”  Those who have learned virtue “will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven . . . as bright as stars for all eternity.”

After reading that, “even my body shall rest in safety” no longer sounds like a sleepy Saturday afternoon, but a promise of protection in a time of chaos far surpassing any terrorist attack.  “God, I take refuge in you” is no longer a sweet pat on the head, but a response to real terror – and a promise of divine intervention.  In the context of Daniel’s apocalypse, “You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence” changes from a saccharine hope that everything will be just fine to a heroic passage through the gates of hell.

But the best part is that we can – we should – read the Psalm that way now.  The terror is not yet upon us – but God’s protection and his promises are.  The apocalypse reminds us to see our every day on the brink of eternity.


Above all, it reminds us to see our life under God’s protection.  Daniel promises that “all those whose names are found written in the Book” will be protected.  It is not a matter of our awesome strength, but of God’s providence.  We are safe because we have been chosen – because of his action, not ours.  He will teach us – and so “those who have learned will shine brightly” – but our trust is in him, not ourselves.

As we come to the end of the Church year, we come too to the end of Hebrews.  And we see Jesus “forever at the right hand of God; now [now!] he waits until his enemies are made his footstool.”  Our hope is in him.  Our help is in the name of the Lord.  Jesus is the victor of the cosmic battle.

The Greek word “apocalypse,” and its Latin translation “revelation,” both mean that the veil that covers reality has been pulled away.  This week we get a glimpse of what’s really going on – not just at the end of time, but in our apocalyptic now.

How do you remind yourself that heaven is more real than earth?

Vocal Prayer and Verbal Prayer

lauds1When I was first learning about the Catholic Church I was taught about three kinds of prayer: vocal prayer, mental prayer, and contemplative prayer.  Whether or not you have learned these particular names, I think they name ideas that most Catholics today have about prayer.  And I think those ideas are very wrong.

I hope I don’t take too strong a stance here, but I’ll try to explain.


Vocal prayer is prayer with your voice.  Mental prayer is prayer with your mind.  Contemplative prayer is some sort of mystical prayer of union.  Those definitions I think are correct.

What is incorrect is that we tend to think of these as things we do at different times.

So someone who prays the Liturgy of the Hours might think that saying those words is vocal prayer.  But then he needs to set aside some time for mental prayer, by which he means some sort of spiritual exercise, probably using the imagination.  And then if he’s really serious, he’ll set aside some more time for contemplation.  I was taught about “the prayer of silence,” where you just sit and do nothing, and that’s contemplation.

Someone who prays the rosary might consider all the Hail Mary’s as vocal prayer, but then you have to add mental prayer.  The mental prayer might mean that before you say the Hail Mary’s, you spend some time imagining the mysteries.  It might also mean that while your mouth says the Hail Mary’s, your mind does a separate kind of prayer, imagining the mysteries while ignoring what the mouth is saying.  And then if you’re really spiritual, maybe when the rosary is over you can just be silent and “contemplate.”


Many serious Catholics today think this is how the life of prayer works.  I think they are missing the Catholic tradition’s deepest insights about prayer.

To the contrary, I think if you read the doctors of the Church and understand the traditional ways of prayer, these three things are supposed to happen at the same time.  St. Benedict’s adage is, “let your mind be in harmony with your voice.”  Mental prayer means that as you say your vocal prayers – the Liturgy of the Hours, the rosary, the Our Father, the Mass, whatever – you actually think about what you’re saying.  Not about something else, but about what you’re saying.

If you read traditional masters of prayer – for example, I’ve been reading St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila, who are doctors of the Church because of their teaching on prayer – when they say that mental prayer is necessary, they don’t mean, “after you say your vocal prayers, set aside time to do something else.”  What they mean, I think, is “pay attention to the words you’re saying.”

The words are there for a reason.  We don’t say all those Hail Mary’s, or all the prayers of the Mass, or the Psalms, so that we can ignore them.

I call this “verbal prayer.”  Words are something we say with our voice – and understand with our mind.  Mooing or screaming are “vocal” activities that are not words – but the Church teaches us to pray with words, which engage our mind.  Groaning is not the traditional Catholic way to pray.

Contemplation, it seems, is something that happens now and then while we are doing verbal prayer.  Now and then we catch glimpses, we feel stabs of love.  That’s something that happens while we are saying our vocal prayers with our minds attuned to our voices.


Teresa of Avila is insistent that contemplation is always a gift, “infused” not “acquired.”  What she means, I think, is that it is foolish to set aside time for contemplation.  Contemplation is something divine that happens while we are doing human kinds of prayer – verbal prayer.

She insists that we focus on the humanity of Christ.  I think what she means – please, read her at greater length – is that we have to pray in human ways.  Humans use words.  The Psalms are the divine made human.  The Gospels are the divine made human.  Jesus is the divine made human.

When we separate contemplation from vocal and mental prayer, we separate the divine from the human.  The whole point of Jesus – and of the Bible and the sacraments – is that we can come to God through human things.  Do not separate the humanity from the divinity!

And she insists that she never prays without a book.  That’s Teresa – but it’s even more in the rest of the tradition.  Catholic prayer is verbal prayer.


Finally, prayer is not merely an act of will.  The verbal prayer I am describing passes through our understanding: we catch contemplative glimpses when we understand the words that we say.

To make prayer into merely an act of will is to separate our intellect from our will.  Christ does not carve up the human person.  Our will and intellect are engaged together.  We pray with our will by also praying with our intellect – and vice versa.

And to make prayer into merely an act of will is to separate humanity from divinity.  At its root – historically, philosophically, and theologically – the idea that prayer is merely effort is really the idea that we encounter God by leaving our humanity behind, by leaving our understanding and our affections and just pushing.  That might sound very heroic, but it is not the Catholic tradition.  Human prayer – the prayer the saints describe – is humble; we attain God through the humanity of Christ, we do not leap into the heavens.


The Catholic tradition does lectio divina: reading and understanding and so contemplating.  The Catholic tradition does liturgy: the most sublime prayer is prayer using words – words that we can understand.  It is valuable – don’t get me wrong – to set aside time for silence and for various spiritual exercises.  But these are not the highest forms of prayer – they are only preparations to pray better with words.

Where do words fit in your prayer life?

All Saints and the Transformation of Halloween


REV 7:2-4, 9-14; PS 24:1bc-2, 3-4ab, 5-6; 1 JN 3:1-3; MT 5:1-12a

Every year my wife and I have a big discussion about how we should deal with Halloween.  I’ll let you know if we ever come up with a good answer.  We have five little kids.  We don’t want them embracing the world’s standards of good and evil, beautiful and ugly.  We’re not excited about lots of candy.  And – on the other hand – we think that somehow, somewhere, there’s a good insight in Halloween, and we’re not into just ignoring our culture.

Halloween is, of course, really All-Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saints.  The original insight is something along the lines of, All Saints (Nov 1) remembers those in heaven, All Souls (Nov 2) remembers those in Purgatory – and Hallow’s Eve (Oct 31) remembers the forces of Hell.  There’s something to that.

Our readings for the feast take us deeper.


The first reading is from Revelation.  All Saints is an apocalyptic feast.  It introduces November, the month of the dying of the year, by turning our gaze toward the end of time.

The reading from Revelation speaks of the great battle between the forces of heaven and the forces of hell.  It begins with “the four angels who were given power to damage the land and the sea” – the great destruction at the end of time.

The saints are gathered around the Lamb, singing his praises.  If we read more of Revelation, we know that its central image is “the Lamb who was slain,” a magnificent apocalyptic vision of Christ as victim.

The saints themselves are described here as “the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”  Already we are turning the gore of Halloween inside out: the ax murderers and the zombies are replaced with those bathed in the blood of the Victim.

The destroying angels stand for God’s condemnation of the standards of this world.  Or, to put it more positively, all things are passing, God alone remains.  It is not God who condemns this world, but this world that condemns itself, by clinging to what does not remain and forgetting the one thing necessary.  The blood-stained saints have held on to Jesus when all else collapsed.


We need to be in this apocalyptic frame of mind to appreciate fully our Gospel reading.  It is perhaps the most profound reading in all of Scripture, all of literature: the Beatitudes.

We can read them against Halloween.  Against pirates and princesses, Christ proclaims, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  The world dresses up as the powerful and the plunderers – and Christ calls us to imitate him, the powerless who was plundered.

While the world celebrates conquest, Christ celebrates those who mourn.

The closest the world can get to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, and the peacemakers is superheros.  But as the world decides whether to dress up as Batman or a zombie, we see that Christ calls us to a very different kind of heroism, our strength not in superpowers or high-tech weapons, but in the suffering of the Lamb.

bergognone-peter-the-martyrThe multitude of saints in Revelation have axes in their heads, not in their hands.


In this apocalyptic light we also read our epistle, from First John.

“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God.”  How fascinating that, as our children dress up as adults, Christ calls us adults to become as children.

Yet avoiding the worldliness that affects our children, too.  “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”  We are not called to become children in the sense that we mindlessly embrace the world’s standards of glory and go seeking after candy.  We are called to become children in the sense that we take God as our Father, Christ as our model, and the Holy Spirit as our soul and way of life.

Halloween reminds us of the world’s standards, the world’s mistaken views of good and evil, of glory and gory.  It reminds us that the saints live by an entirely different standard, one that turns worldly values inside out.

“Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.”  But part of that purity is seeing the foolishness of this world, associating ourselves with the victims, and the Victim, of this world’s crimes.

Like I said, I’ll let you know if I ever figure out how to turn these ideas into a children’s party.  But I think it means something deeper than just turning our backs on Halloween, or just embracing it.  To truly appreciate All Saints, and the fabulous new standards that it sets before us, we need to look Halloween in the face, and turn it on its head.

How does Halloween help you think about the Beatitudes, or the Apocalypse?

A Method for Praying the Eucharistic Prayer: the Outline

Corpus-Christi-Holy-Quotes-Sayings-Wallpapers-Messages-SMS-3The Eucharist and the liturgy are together the very heart of Catholic spirituality.  The Eucharistic Prayer is the liturgical prayer designed to help us enter into the Eucharist.  Very few of the words are technically required (“this is my Body, this is my Blood” would confect the sacrament), but the prayers are there so that we can enter in.

Entering in is no small thing.  The sacrament makes Christ present no matter what we do.  But it is only good for us to the extent that we let him into our hearts.  Let us try to enter more deeply into the Eucharist.  Let us better pray the liturgical prayers the Church gives us to do that.


Part of the challenge of praying the Eucharistic Prayer is that there are so many words – we can lose the forest for the trees.  We need to remind ourselves what each of those prayers is about.

One way we can do that is by adding our own very short little summary prayers.  While the priest says his many words, we can silently say a few, helping to guide our attention into his prayers.  In other words, we can create an outline: we can look at the big headings to remind us what all the more minute details are talking about.

(Here I will focus on Eucharistic Prayers II and III, the ones you most often hear.  But they are, in fact, based on the outline of Eucharistic Prayer I.  Everything I say here applies to that prayer too, and to any other more exotic prayers your priest might choose – though longer prayers like Eucharistic Prayer I include some other elements as well.)


The main four moments of the Eucharistic prayer are the epiclesis, the institution narrative, the anamnesis, and the doxology.

The epiclesis is when the priest puts his hands over the gifts and invokes the Holy Spirit.  We can help ourselves enter in by silently praying, “Come, Holy Spirit.”  (I’ll give you Latin too: Veni Sancte Spiritus.)

Eucharistic Prayer III leads up to the epiclesis by saying, “by the power and working of the Holy Spirit,you give life to all things and make them holy, and you never cease to gather a people to yourself.”  Already we can be praying, “Come Holy Spirit.”


Then comes the Institution Narrative, the story of the Last Supper.  When the priest has said, “this is my body,” it’s traditional to say “My Lord and my God” (Dominus meus et Deus meus).  You can enter into the prayer a little more by saying, “Body of the Lord, bread of life” (corpus Domini, panis vitae).

When the priest says “this is my blood,” you can enter into the rich words of Jesus that he repeats by saying, “Blood of the Lord, chalice of the covenant” (sanguis Domini, calix testamenti).


Immediately after we sing “the mystery of faith,” the priest says a very important but neglected prayer, the anamnesis.  “As we celebrate the memorial . . . we offer you this holy and living sacrifice.”  He lays the Body and Blood on the altar and says, essentially, “this is the sacrifice we offer.”  You can remind yourself of this by saying, “Our sacrifice” or “Our offering” (oblatio nostra), or “for you, o Lord” (tibi Domine).

And at the end, he prays, “through him, with him, in him,” the doxology.  This is another sacrifice prayer: it says that we use the Eucharist to give “glory and honor” to the Father.  You can say, “Glory to you, Father” (Gloria tibi Pater).


Between the anamnesis and the doxology are several especially underappreciated prayers.  They are less important than the four big ones (epiclesis, institution, anamnesis, doxology).  But they are important: they are the central petitions the Church makes, the ones she lays on the altar of the Eucharist.

They are petitions about the Church.  They remind us that the Church comes from the Eucharist; the Eucharist builds the Church.  There’s lots of silly things people say about the Eucharist and community, but this is the real substance of how the Eucharist builds the Church – the Body of Christ builds the Body of Christ.

These are in different order depending which Prayer the priest chooses.  You will have to pay a little attention to figure out which one is being prayed.  But you can do it – especially if you know what you’re listening for.

One set of prayers is about the Church in this world.  You can remind yourself how all these prayers are tied together by calling to mind, “the Church in the world” (Ecclesia in mundo).

Another set is about “our departed brothers and sisters” who are still awaiting “kind admittance to your kingdom.”  Here we recall, “the Church in purgatory” (Ecclesia in purgatorio).

And the third set asks “that we may obtain an inheritance with your elect, especially with the most Blessed Virgin Mary . . . and with all the saints.”  We recall “the Church in heaven” (Ecclesia in caelo).


These short little prayers can help us keep track of what’s going on in the Eucharistic Prayer, and so enter into that prayer.  And by entering into the prayer, we can more spiritually enter into the Eucharist, the Body of Christ.

How do you pray the Mass?  How could you do it better?



Come Holy Spirit (Veni Sancte Spiritus)

Body of the Lord, bread of life (corpus Domini, panis vitae)

Blood of the Lord, chalice of the covenant (sanguis Domini, calix testamenti)

Our sacrifice or offering (oblatio nostra) or, for you o Lord (tibi Domine)

Glory to you Father (gloria tibi Pater)


Once you have those, you can add the three petitions:

The Church in the world (Ecclesia in mundo)

The Church in purgatory (Ecclesia in purgatorio)

The Church in heaven (Ecclesia in caelo)


Thirtieth Sunday: The Remnant of the Poor

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JER 31:7-9; PS 126: 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; HEB 5:1-6; MK 10: 46-52

One of the most inspiring symbols in the Old Testament is “the remnant.”  It comes up in various contexts related to the exile.  The Assyrians and Babylonians have conquered Israel.  The leaders are all led into exile.  Both at home and in exile, the Israelites are giving up, blending in with their conquerors.  But a remnant remains, a small crew who are still faithful.

It’s an inspiring image because we often feel like a remnant.  It feels like so many have given up hope, given up faith.  In fact, we need to feel like a remnant, to try to be more faithful than the many.

But this Sunday’s readings teach us a little about what it really means to be part of the remnant.


Jeremiah is classic Exile literature.  Our reading this week is about the remnant: “Shout with joy for Jacob, exult at the head of the nations; proclaim your praise and say: the Lord has delivered his people, the remnant of Israel.”

We should rejoice to be among the chosen few, the band of brothers, the remnant.  But here’s the key, the part we sometimes forget: “the Lord has delivered.”

God says, “Behold, I will bring them back from the land of the north” (that is, from Assyria and Babylon).  But so often, in our heroism, we forget that he says, “I will,” and get a little too excited about our own heroism.

He continues: “I will gather them from the ends of the world, with the blind and the lame in their midst.”  The image is important: the remnant comes staggering home from exile to rebuild the kingdom – and they come limping.  It is not the strong who come.  The blind and the lame remind us that the battle belongs to the Lord.  They have been defeated.  But he is stronger.

With them come “the mothers and those with child.”  The image works on two levels.  First, they are another symbol of weakness.  Pregnant women are not warriors.  They have not conquered, God has.

And yet the new life they bring is the most perfect sign of restoration.


This is us, the remnant.  Not the strong and the heroic.  Merely those who are saved.

We come limping – and our limping is a sign of God’s strength, made perfect in our weakness.

We come as families.  But family makes us limp all the more.  We have no strength to conquer our enemies.  But the Lord is our strength, and in our children, in our pregnancies, in our weakness is the perfect sign of restoration.


This Sunday’s Psalm contains the line, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the torrents in the southern desert.”

I share this video.


It is a sign of resurrection, of strength not our own.


The Gospel is blind Bartimaeus.  It’s an interesting scene: there is “a sizable crowd.”  And there is a blind man who “sat by the roadside begging.”  He could not see Jesus; he had no resources for knowing about Jesus; and he could not make his way through the crowd.  And he is the one who is saved.

My friends, serious Catholics talk a lot about rebuilding the culture, or converting the culture.  That’s fine.

But I think too often we trust in kings.  We think that what we really need is impressive people converting impressive people, with lots of impressive resources.

Bartimaeus was not an impressive person.  Those who rebuilt Israel were not impressive.  Our impressive resource is the power of God.  Our impressive people are the meek and the humble and the poor: people like Mary and Joseph.  No ones.

The poor are so critical to rebuilding the culture, because it is by the poor that we measure whether we really believe in the power of God, or whether we talk a bit talk but are “practical atheists,” who think everything depends on our cleverness.

The only Christian civilization is the one built around people like Bartimaeus.


And, at the center, the Crucified.

In our reading from Hebrews, we see Jesus, our high priest.  “He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and the erring.”  He has taken on our sins, and comes among us.

And “it was not Christ who glorified himself,” but his glory is in “the one who said to him, You are my son: this day I have begotten you.”

Let us be the remnant not of the clever and amazing, but of those who put all our trust in the God of Jesus Christ.

In what ways are you tempted to think the most important Christians are the most impressive?


Twenty-Ninth Sunday: The Suffering Servant

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 53:10-11; PS 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; HEB 4:14-16; MK 10:35-45

Our Gospel for this week teaches, “Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”  The Lectionary gives us two very helpful readings to help us understand this Gospel.

First is one of the “suffering servant” prophecies from Isaiah.  It begins with a strange statement:

“The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.”

A word on the interpretation of prophecy.  A line like this refers both to a historical figure – Isaiah himself, in part – and to the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy, Jesus.  In other words, the Holy Spirit inspires Isaiah to speak about Jesus in terms of his own experience.

An important aspect of this is that this experience is not entirely unique to Jesus.  Isaiah’s sufferings are not redemptive in exactly the same way Jesus’s are.  But there is some connection between their experiences.  Jesus has entered into our experience.

Which is all just to return to the question: “whom is he talking about?”  Well, he’s talking about himself, and about Jesus – and also about us.


“The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.”  That is mighty strange.  Somehow God takes pleasure in our suffering.  Why?

Isaiah continues, “If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.”

“He gives his life.”  First of all, the Lord is pleased to give us suffering only when we ourselves embrace it.  The Lord’s pleasure is not in the suffering, but in the self-giving.

And yet self-giving is perfected in suffering.  Why?  “An offering for sin.”  These are rich words.  Let us only say, it has to do with sin.  It has to do with conversion.  Turning sin to righteousness is going to involve suffering.  Our own conversion is painful.  And our love for those who remain sinners is painful.

The Lord is “pleased to crush us” when we embrace the suffering of turning from sin to righteousness.


So “the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.”  The suffering servant embraces suffering as the deepest sign of embraced God’s will.  It’s about the will of the Lord, not about suffering – and yet suffering is where we see most clearly whether we embrace God’s will.

And so “he shall see his descendants”: because ultimately this is not about death, it is about life.  It is not about the Lord crushing us, it’s about welcoming the Lord into our lives, and receiving life from him, and from him alone.


The second reading, from our tour through Hebrews, focuses even more directly on Jesus.

“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”

His suffering is described as a test, a test he passes without sin.  Again, it is not about the suffering, but about holding fast no matter what – and yet it is in suffering that we discover whether we hold fast.

Jesus has come as our high priest.  Whatever else that may mean – we haven’t space to consider it here – it involves entering in our weaknesses, so that we can “approach the throne of grace to receive mercy.”

In short, Jesus is there.  Like the fourth son of man in Daniel’s fiery furnace, he walks beside us through the suffering.  He makes it a place of springs, a place of grace, a place of divine union.  He comes precisely to give us the grace to pass this test.

We must be purified of the dross of sin.  We must be converted.  It’s going to hurt, and it’s in suffering that we will discover what most needs to be purified.  But Jesus has come to console us, to give us strength, to give us union as we suffer for our sins and those of others.


In our Gospel, James and John seek the glory of Christ.  He calls them to drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism: to embrace his Cross.

Then he says, “to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it is prepared.”  At first glance, we’re tempted to separate this from the cup and the baptism, as if Jesus gives those, and someone else decides about glory.  To the contrary, the cup and the baptism are the preparation.

There is no entrance into glory except through fire, because there is no entrance except through conversion.

And though suffering helps us understand this teaching, Jesus’s words point even deeper: we must be “the slave of all,” purified of our self-worship and transformed into love.

How is suffering calling you to conversion today?

Twenty-Eighth Sunday: Sell what you have and follow me.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

WIS 7:7-11; PS 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17; HEB 4:12-13; MK 10:17-30

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing.  Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’”  In these words, this Sunday’s Gospel gives the heart of Catholic thinking about wealth and economics.

Jesus loves the man.  It is for his sake that he demands poverty.  So much of our political discourse is utilitarian: we focus on how best to accomplish goals out there, but we ignore what is happening in the human heart.  Jesus looks to the heart.  He calls the rich man to love the poor not for the poor man’s sake, but for the rich man’s.  He calls the rich man to give away his riches not because Jesus is worried about money, but because he is worried about the rich man’s heart.


The first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, highlights Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, where he says, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”  And, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  And, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and mammon.”  We might not “hate” the one outright, but we will “despise” it, treat it cheaply.

Our reading from Wisdom says, “I preferred her [wisdom, the knowledge of God] to scepter and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her . . . because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand, and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.”


The focus on Wisdom puts an important spin on our discussion of worldly goods.  Wisdom sees other things in light of our first love.  It sets things in order.

So “all good things together came to me in her company, and countless riches at her hands.”  Or at the end of our Gospel reading, Peter says, “We have given up everything and followed you,” and Jesus says he will “receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.”

Now, that doesn’t mean that Peter ended up with a lot of vacation homes, with a separate family in each.  I hope that’s clear, though there is a Prosperity Gospel, vigorously opposed by the Church, that turns the Gospel inside out and thinks we love God so we can get stuff.

To the contrary, the way we possess all those things is in God – or in divine Wisdom.  The love of God does not destroy our love of the world.  Rather, we rediscover the world in God.  But we rediscover the world the poverty of divine love.  The poor man can love the world in a new way, because he is no longer trying to grasp it.

The rich young man in our reading is called to discover love of neighbor in a new way.  Renouncing his possessions doesn’t turn him away from the world.  It turns him to deeper love of the poor.  But this passage is only through the way of poverty and renunciation.


As long as we value our riches more than Christ, we can never rediscover the world, can never receive all things in God.

Our second reading, from our end-of-the-year tour through Hebrews, puts a point on this by saying, “the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow.”

Our rich young man discovers this in the words of Jesus.  Jesus sees to his heart, sees the attachments that dwell there.  His words cut the man to the heart – and so “he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

And so we Americans rage against the Popes when they call us to love the poor.  On the surface, we say the Popes don’t know what they’re talking about.  Deep down, like the rich young man, we say, How could I live without my riches, without clinging to privilege and worldly success?  Because Francis – like Jesus, like so many words of Scripture, like the Tradition and the Popes before him – sees into our hearts, and sees that this is the one thing lacking.

The problem is not that the Popes are wrong about economics.  The problem is that they are right about the human heart.  Their words cut us to joint and marrow.  To abandon our worldly privilege, our “scepter and throne,” and to love the poor would mean making God alone our true treasure.

“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God,” to heed the call to the rich young man.  “For men it is impossible, but not for God.  All things are possible for God.”

What ruling-class attachments is Jesus calling you to renounce?

Love and Marriage

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

GN 2:18-24; PS 128: 1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; HEB 2:9-11; MK 10:2-16

This Sunday Pope Francis’s great synod on marriage begins.  The Gospel for the Mass is Scripture’s bluntest statement against divorce – and together, the readings give the most beautiful picture of why marriage is a central icon of Christian love.

In our passage from Mark’s Gospel, the Pharisees ask Jesus whether divorce is lawful.  He goes out of his way to contradict Moses: he allowed divorce only “because of the hardness of your hearts.”  But Jesus quotes Genesis – “from the beginning of creation” – emphasizing the words “they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together no human being must separate.”  And therefore remarriage, he says, is no remarriage, but adultery.  Strong words.

Mark slightly streamlines this dialogue compared to the almost exact same account in Matthew 19.  But he eliminates Matthew’s confusing words about how fornication effects the situation.  And at the end of the story, when the disciples ask Jesus to explain this teaching in private, Matthew has Jesus admit that it is hard (“All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given”), but Mark just has him repeat it (“Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.”)  In Mark we simply have the teaching in its starkness.


But Jesus points to the beginning, and the Lectionary gives us the passage he cites from Genesis.  Genesis, in fact, gives us some keys for appreciating this stark teaching in the Gospel.

Jesus quotes Gen 2:24.  Immediately before those words (“This is why a man will leave his father and mother”) come Adam’s words of admiration for his wife, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

(In many modern translations, the words, “That is why” belong to the narrator.  But the Tradition often assumes that Adam is still speaking: he prophesies – and, despite our translation, it is in the future tense – “That is why a man will leave his father and mother.”  In his admiration of Eve, Adam prophesies all marriages to come.)

The first note, then, is similarity and equality.  After the rhetoric of the Sexual Revolution we forget, but the Christian prohibition of divorce is one of the most pro-woman decisions in the history of mankind.  Alongside the right of women to choose celibacy, it is the original feminism.  Moses did not allow women to leave their husbands – like every other non-Christian society, he only allowed men to leave their wives.  Jesus’s prohibition of divorce was first of all a rejection of this inequality – the inequality expressed every time someone abandons their promises.  The man has no right to abandon his family, because God created man and woman equals.


A second note: the unity of body and soul.  He admires that she is from his body: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  But in the preceding story, the problem is one of soul.  He is alone (the Hebrew word is “separated” – already a word pointing toward divorce) and looking for a “suitable partner.”  He names the animals, but the animals cannot speak back to him.

In Eve’s bodily similarity to him he discovers her personality.  He knows that this one who has his flesh and bones will also be able to talk to him and so heal his loneliness.  Marriage, with all its fleshly privileges and obligations, points to a much deeper kind of unity.  Bodily union is an icon of spiritual friendship.  Jesus’s insistence on maintaining that fleshly union points deeper, to an abiding friendship.


We begin to see that the key words in what Jesus says are “hardness of heart.”  This is the true enemy of marriage.  And the deeper claim of Jesus is that this hardness of heart – which has reigned even through Moses – can now be conquered.

Our second reading begins a tour through the Letter to the Hebrews that will last the rest of the liturgical year.  It gives the theological key to this healing of our hard hearts.

In it, Jesus becomes “lower than the angels” – the Most High comes down – to taste death for us.  He consecrates us by suffering.  He becomes one of us, our brother – bone of our bones, flesh of our flesh.

Suffering among us, Jesus conquers hardness of heart.  It is by our union with him, and our willingness to suffer for others, that divine friendship becomes possible.  The heart of Jesus loving us even to the Cross is the icon of married love.


The long option for the Gospel brings us back, yet again, to the theme of children.  In Mark, it almost feels like this discussion of marriage is an interruption of a conversation about children.

Suddenly what we have learned about marriage floods out into how we see all people: we love them as we love ourselves; see their bodies as an icon of their souls; are called, even through suffering, to overcome our hardness of heart.  In marriage we have learned the grandeur of Christian love.

What does marriage teach you about loving your neighbor?