Seventeenth Sunday: Pray for the World

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

GN 18:20-32; PS 138: 1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8;  COL 2:12-14; LK 11:1-13

There’s a discussion in some parts of the Catholic sub-culture about “the Benedict Option.” I have my own eccentric take on this question, but here’s the general idea:

In 1981, the great Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre published a book on the collapse of moral discourse in the modern world. He ended the book by talking about another collapse, the Dark Ages, when the Roman Empire collapsed. St. Benedict arose, he says, as an alternative, building a new, Christian society instead of clinging to the failures of old Rome. We need a Benedict today, he said.

The Benedict Option, then, can refer to a question: what would today’s St. Benedict look like? How should Christians rebuild among the collapse of our moral order?

But more often – if I may caricaturize a little – the Benedict Option refers to an answer to that question, in which Catholics say we should retreat from society, forget the pagans, and do our own thing. At its worst, this version of “the Benedict Option” seems to say, to hell with the world. Maybe I’m being unfair, but sometimes it feels to me like some of my fellow Catholics are gleeful about the collapse of our society. Hurrah, we have no responsibility! Damn the world!

***

Reading Scripture is important because Scripture presents us ways to think about things that we wouldn’t think of. Above all, Scripture portrays a God far more alive than we expect. We cage him up, box him in, think he can’t do it. Scripture presents him as living and acting.

Our first reading this past Sunday showed Abraham’s take on the Benedict Option. His world, too, was in moral collapse. Sodom and Gomorrah is the epitome of moral collapse. And it was all going to hell.

Abraham did not retreat, did not head for the hills, did not gleefully rub his hands together and think about how superior he was and how glad he was to see Sodom go.

Abraham knew the living God. I don’t need to walk you through the story, except to say that Abraham begged God’s mercy, not on the innocent but on the guilty. He didn’t pray that the righteous could escape. He prayed that the whole city might be saved on account of the righteous.

And so the second Benedict-Option lesson from Abraham, after praying for society, is that we can save it. We are called to be the yeast, the light, the salt. God did destroy Sodom, because not even ten righteous people could be found. But we are called to be the ten, the remnant, right in the middle of our fallen world, begging for mercy. We are called to be the ones for whom God saves the world.

***

In our Gospel, the disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” He teaches them to be persistent. Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, know and the door will be opened to you.

If we think God is gone, we should absolutely give up on our society. But God is not gone. He tells us he is here – without Scripture we would never think this way. He says, keep begging for God’s mercy, just like Abraham prayed for Sodom.

I might be wrong, but I have often argued here that Luke’s Gospel is like a commentary on Matthew’s, a reworking of the basic facts. Matthew gives us the full Lord’s Prayer, all the words – and they’re great. (And I’ve written more than one commentary on them all.)

But Luke pairs it down to the essentials, to make it stand out. Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us this day. We forgive everyone. Save us from the final test. Beg.

***

Luke concludes his account of Jesus’s words about prayer with something suprising. We’ve been begging for bread. But the last words say, “How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit.”

How important it is to read St. Paul, so that we may not forget the Holy Spirit! Let us turn to our second reading, from Colossians.

Through faith alone, we know that Christ is risen from the dead – that God can make life where there is death, for us just as for Christ – and for a culture that is dead around us. We are called to pray because the resurrection is real.

And not only physical resurrection. The death of Christ is a sign of our death in sin – and his physical resurrection is a sign of our moral resurrection. To repent of our sins, for the unholy to become holy, is no easier for us than is physically rising from the dead. But God can do it. He can send the Holy Spirit to make us holy.

Let our Benedict Option, then, not be a retreat from a dying society, but persistent prayer that God will bring moral and spiritual life to those who are dead in sin. Let us pray.

Where have you lost hope for moral regeneration? How can you restore the faith that enlivens that hope?

Character and Politics

fightingdonkeyelephantThis week, during the Republican National Convention that has nominated Donald Trump, there’s been a big discussion on my wife’s Facebook page about a post I wrote back in February on the Republican primaries.

I think my key lines then were these:

“The question is: what does that say about our culture – and what does it do to our culture, if we elect someone with such positions to be the figurehead of our nation?”

“Who are we as a nation? What do we aspire to? This is the deeper importance of politics. These are the questions our faith helps us answer – and the questions our faith demands that we involve ourselves in.”

I would like to say a little more about these questions as we head into the general election.

***

Let me first say, I have not decided whom I will vote for. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian, seems to be trying harder to get my vote than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton; I’m surprised to say, I like his positions on the issues much better. But I don’t know. Politics is about prudential decisions; it can be hard to decide about means and ends.

But this isn’t a blog about politics; I’m trying to offer perspectives from the Tradition about our spiritual life.

There are two reasons that I think the ultimate question should be about character.

First, politics is about both means and ends – our goal, and how we think we can best get there. Many of our discussions are about means: pretty much everyone agrees that our policing should be fair, our social policy should help people be happy, our economy should create opportunities, our foreign policy should keep us safe. But how can we get there?

Character affects how we see even the means. It affects what we think is fair, what kind of opportunities we want, what counts as safe. The Church and the Tradition warn us, for example, that people who support terror – carpet bombing cities, killing family members of terrorists, torture (these issues are discussed in the Summa, too) – are not creating a “safer” world, because they are creating an even more immoral world. They warn us that fairness must extend to neighbors who are different from us, including, for example, people who have escaped to our country from terrible situations in their own. Character affects how we pursue our goals.

But even more, character affects what we think our goals are. A classic dictum of St. Thomas Aquinas says, “as a man is, so does the end appear to him.” A lustful man imagines happiness to be something different from what a chaste man seeks. One of the questions we must be asking – maybe the central question – is what each candidate wants the world to be like. What is their goal? What kind of society do they want to create? What do they consider tolerable and intolerable, good and bad? Do they even want a just society?

I know, I know, it’s popular these days to say that all politicians are corrupt. And in a sense, yes they are: they’re human, and our culture doesn’t help. On the other hand, in my personal opinion – you can disagree, this isn’t a politics blog – people like Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George Bush, and yes Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Al Gore may have been wrong about many things, even deep-down things, but they had a kind of decency, or at least propriety, that not all candidates share.

For Catholic Americans, abortion is often a litmus test. I think it should be. But like a literal litmus test, the question is not merely whether it turns the paper red or blue, but what it reveals about the substance being tested. Abortion is a single issue because it is not a single issue, it reveals something about a candidate’s character – about their vision of the good life for society. A candidate who thinks that the right to kill life in the womb is somehow fundamental to the good society is a candidate with a warped idea of what makes a society good. Abortion matters because of what it reveals about character.

Character is the question.

***

Now, it is difficult, across a nation of over 300 million people, to know the character of any public figure. Sometimes we are wrong. But appearances matter too.

The president is above all a figurehead – both for the country and for the party he or she leads. Someone might be a crook on the inside and very pleasant on the outside – or, as some have argued this cycle, a person might be very pleasant on the inside but just act like a horrible person in public. But that public image matters. It says something about the country – and the party – that they lead.

Our votes help create the culture we live in.

What elements of the candidates’ characters do you think matter most to us as a nation?

 

Sixteenth Sunday: Christ the Guest

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

GN 18:1-10a; PS 15:2-3, 3-4, 5; COL 1:24-28; LK 10:38-42

This past Sunday’s readings take us deep into the theology of hospitality.

It’s hard not to write a whole book on Abraham’s encounter with the three angels. It is a classic example of how Scripture deeper and wider the farther you wade into it.

The Bible’s own main commentary on this passage is in Hebrews: “Let brotherly love continue. Forget not hospitality, for by this some have entertained angels in a hidden way” (Heb 13:1-2). But the New Testament writer expects you to read deeper, to know the depth of the waters to which he is pointing. Three points:

First: Abraham “sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot.” He was not at work, but he was not asleep. He was on the lookout. When the visitors came, “He ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them.” Then he “hastened into the tent and told Sarah,” and “he ran to the herd.” He made a big, elaborate meal – he “picked out a tender, choice steer” and “quickly dressed it”: a big project – and then, well, our translation says “he waited on them,” but the Hebrew says the same in a more vivid way: “he stood by them.”

Abraham was not lazy. Like Mary after the Annunciation – “she went into the hill country with haste” – he wastes no time leaping up to serve.

***

Second: there are a lot of rich details here. I won’t try to explain, I’ll just offer them for your pondering.

The story begins, “The LORD appeared to Abraham.” “The LORD” is how Catholics and Jews avoid pronouncing the divine name, YHWH. Abraham addresses him “Sir” – in Hebrew it’s Adonai, the word they substitute for YHWH.

The number of visitors is strange, jumping between one and three. “Abraham saw three men,” but he says, “Sir [singular] please do not go on [singular] past your [singular] servant. [You, singular] let some water be brought so that you [plural] may wash your [plural] feet.” Etc. Abraham sees the one in the three, the divine visitor in the midst of the three guests.

And though our translation simplifies and says he killed a “steer,” most translations point out that it was a “young” steer – and the Hebrew calls it a steer’s “son.” This is “ben,” maybe the most important word in the Abraham stories. Sons, animals, rams, cattle – all the elements of Old Testament sacrifice, which Abraham offers up to the Lord through these guests.

***

Third: this story is seamlessly tied to the Sodom narrative. Next week we’ll get the story of Abraham interceding for divine mercy on Sodom. And that ties into the theme of divine intimacy: the Lord comes very close to Abraham.

But the Sunday Lectionary won’t show us all the hospitality connections. The end of our story this week says, “And the men rose up from there, and looked toward Sodom. And Abraham was going with them to bring them on the way. And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham the thing which I do?”

Then comes the mercy narrative. Then it ends, “the Lord went His way as soon as He had left off talking with Abraham. And Abraham returned to his place. And there came two angels to Sodom at evening.” These stories – Abraham’s hospitality and the destruction of Sodom – are not just nearby. They’re two halves of the same story.

The story is horrific, worth reading and being shaken by. In short, Lot takes in the strangers, just like Abraham did. But the people of Sodom demand to rape them, the antithesis of hospitality. 

The Catechism tells us, “The catechetical tradition also recalls that there are ‘sins that cry to heaven’: the blood of Abel (Gen 4:10), The sin of the Sodomites (Gen 18:20; 19:13), The cry of the people oppressed in Egypt (Ex 3:7-10), The cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan (Ex 20:20-22), injustice to the wage earner (Deut 24:14-15; Jas 5:4).” In each case, the Bible says that the sin cries out to heaven.

Now, the Bible is clear about the sinfulness of homosexuality. But my friends, I think it’s hard to read this passage of Genesis, or its context among the other sins that cry out to heaven, and not see that “the sin of the Sodomites” is the antithesis of Abraham’s hospitality. Sodom is not destroyed for being gay. Sodom is destroyed for its horrific hostility to the foreigners. Hospitality is not a minor issue.

***

Genesis frames the New Testament readings.

Colossians, so rich, speaks of the unity of Christ in his people. Our acts of charity, says Augustine, are “Christ loving Christ”: it is Christ whom we love in others, it is Christ who loves through us.

So just read the main words of our Epistle with Abraham’s hospitality in mind: “In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.” “It is Christ in you, the hope for glory.” “That we may present everyone perfect in Christ.”

***

The Gospel was Mary and Martha. Martha welcomed Christ, the guest. And this story follows immediately on the Good Samaritan, who did the same. But this Gospel urges us to see Christ in the guest.

The Greek is pretty amazing. “You are anxious,” Christ tells Martha. In Greek, she is “divided into parts.” When he says Mary has chosen “the better part,” it’s the same word. And when Martha is “worried,” the Greek word-image is that she is a “clamoring crowd.

When we welcome Christ, when we are good Samaritans, let our heart not be divided.

How do you struggle to welcome Christ the guest – in your children, or colleagues, or strangers?

The Good Samaritan

Jan_Wijnants_-_Parable_of_the_Good_SamaritanJesus is the Good Samaritan. We can only be Good Samaritans if we share in his divine nature. This is the key medieval reading of the parable, and really the key to all theology.

We are “a certain man” who “went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among robbers, who stripped him of his clothing and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.”

We have turned our back on the city of God, the place of worship, the center of God’s people, and are headed back – down – to the city of man, surrounded by man-made walls and not the mountains of God. Jericho lies just Jerusalem’s side of the River Jordan, and we are on our way to renouncing our Baptism – so different from the days of Joshua, who crossed in the other direction and conquered the city of man on his way up to Jerusalem.

The robbers are the demons, literal and figurative, who have stripped us of the glory we put on when we put on Christ and have left us half dead in the ditch of our sin. How foolish we were to go down that road. But there we are, the race of Adam, poor banished children of Eve, in this valley of tears.

Down come the priests and Levites, who cling to their religious self-importance but turn their back (not their face) to Jerusalem, to the love of God and the love of his people that defines that city. There is no help in religion without love.

***

But then along comes the Samaritan, the outcast, rejected of men, rejected by those religious folks who turn their backs to Jerusalem. He is a wayfarer – and he sees us and is moved with pity. Splagchnon: his bowels, his viscera, his deepest guts, tremble with mercy for us.

He binds our wounds, pours the oil and wine of the sacraments on us, his healing balms, his grace. He sets us on his own animal, carries us with the beast of his own flesh, bends down under the weight of our sin and our halfdead souls.

And he carries us to the inn – the Church – sets us already in the image of the Jerusalem above, that place where people care for one another. And the first one to care for us there – the Greek means something about looking on us with attention – is Jesus himself. It is Jesus himself who makes the Church, the inn, a place of healing.

The next day he leaves us, always he is on his way, and after a glimpse and a taste of his healing touch, he is gone. But he gives two denarii to the innkeeper, tells him, “Take care of him” (it’s that same word about looking attentively), and adds, “Whatever more you spend, when I come again I will repay you.”

***

This is the key to the whole parable, what sets it up as a repetition. For we who have been half dead on the side of the road become the innkeepers; the Good Samaritan makes us Good Samaritans, other Christs. Actually, the Greek for innkeeper, pandocheus, means “the one who receives all. The innkeeper receives all guests – and he receives all payment. And that is what we become.

First we received health, received life when we were dead, were taken to the inn when it was impossible for us to get there ourselves. Then we received the two denarii, a superabundance, far too much, to care for those who come to us. And we receive the wounded the Good Samaritan brings us, because the Good Samaritan himself has given us provision.

And we will never run out. He will be back. He comes back every day, in every sacrament, in every glance at Holy Scripture or his image, every time we call on his name, and says “whatever more you spend, when I come again I will repay you.” We couldn’t afford to receive all these bleeding needy wayfarers, except that his generosity overflows, pays us more than we need, makes us rich in our receiving. We sit down to balance our books, and we say it’s too much, we can’t afford to be merciful, can’t be Good Samaritans – until we remember him, who gives us everything, who gives us far too much.

And he will come again and repay our every good deed. He gives us the strength to do it in the first place and he will repay us when he comes again in glory: “Then the King shall say to those on His right hand, Come, blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you took Me in.”

***

The parable began with a question. We know Scripture says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” But who is my neighbor? “Which of these three, do you think, was neighbor to him who fell among the robbers? And he said, He that showed mercy to him.

Mercy is the way. Because he has been merciful to us, we can be merciful to others. Because he is the Good Samaritan, we can be.

Where does the call of mercy seem too costly for you?

Fifteenth Sunday: The Grace to Love

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

DT 30:10-14; PS 69: 14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37; COL 1:15-20; LK 10:25-37

The readings for this Sunday are overwhelming, three of the richest passages in Scripture. We cannot possibly do them justice. But we can try to pick out a thread that ties them together.

The first reading is from the end of Deuteronomy, the end of Moses giving the law. He says, “if only you would heed . . . . Keep his commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the law.”

He then says the command is not up in the sky or across the sea, but “very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts.”

Now, as with everything in the Old Testament, there is a double meaning here. What Moses meant was, the law has been given. God has spoken through the Old Law. Once it’s written down, there’s no need to be confused: just do what God has told you.

But Christians believe in the New Law, written not on stone but on our hearts. For us, it is even more “near to you,” because now the Holy Spirit, the very love of God, the supreme law of God, is poured into our hearts. We don’t even have to look it up in a book.

We need only add: as the “scholar of the law” in our Gospel will say, even the Old Law, the Jewish Law, the Old Testament, is summed up in love of God and love of neighbor. It’s that simple. The Old Law spells it out: if you love God, come to the Temple and worship; if you love your neighbor, don’t steal his donkey, etc. But what the Old Law is spelling out is simple: it is no more than the love of God.

***

In our Epistle, we begin Colossians, with the canticle for Wednesday Evening Prayer: “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation . . . . He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” The riches are overwhelming. But we can get a little help from the context.

Colossians is one of the “captivity epistles,” written after Paul was taken prisoner. In the very last verse of the letter, he says, “Remember my bonds.” Scholars notice a change in these letters – so much that some of them claim they must be written by someone else, later. But the change is this: Paul’s Christology gets very “high.” Jesus is God. (Interesting: all the scholars agree that the Gospels, which portray Jesus in a more human way, were written well after Paul’s letters, which speak of him as God. His humanity is really interesting once you discover he is God.)

Why would Paul emphasize Jesus’s divinity more once in captivity? Well, it makes sense, doesn’t it? The weaker Paul gets, the closer to death, the more he gazes into the divinity of Christ. His earlier letters are mystical enough – but it seems like prison wrought a real deepening of his faith in, and devotion to, the divinity of Christ.

And he shares the same idea with his friends. The context of our high-Christology canticle this Sunday is his greeting to them. He is praying for them, underlining their love for one another and their faith in Christ, that they may be “empowered with all power, according to the might of his glory.” It is in this context, of talking about how Christ strengthens us, that he launches into his praise of Christ’s divinity.

***

The Gospel is the Good Samaritan. As in Deuteronomy, which this parable begins by summarizing, the message is very simple and very powerful: love your neighbor. “Which one of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’s victim,” Jesus asks at the end. “The one who treated him with mercy.” “Go and do likewise.”

In fact, it’s even simpler. The failures in the story are a priest and a Levite, the hero is a Samaritan.

We’re in the midst of a debate. Priests and Levites are heroes of people (the Sadduccees) who think it’s all about the fancy things we do at worship. The Samaritans – not exactly Jesus’s friends – are the bad guys, because they don’t hang out in Jerusalem.

Now, Jesus loves Jerusalem – his face is set on it. But here he says, look, it all comes down to love. This is Luke’s expansion of Matthew’s line in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you offer your gift on the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” First, love.

***

What does this have to do with Colossians? It’s the same thing as the Christian rereading of Deuteronomy. We can love, love all the way to the end, because Christ has given us his Holy Spirit; the love of God is poured into our hearts. We can be Good Samaritans because he was the Good Samaritan, who found us bleeding in a ditch and had mercy and healed us. We can love to the end because he does. Only the power of Christ, the love of Christ, makes us able to fulfill the law and the prophets.

Where do you need to ask for the grace to love?

Fourteenth Sunday: The Power of His Grace

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 66:10-14c; PS 66: 1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20; GAL 6:14-18; LK 10:1-12, 17-20

This Sunday our Gospel tells of the sending of the apostles. The other two readings set us up to understand the power of God’s grace in and through the Church.

St. Paul always gives us a wealth of theology, the deepest teachings about grace. This is the last week of our reading of Galatians, and we read from the last chapter.

Throughout the letter he has been arguing against those who over-emphasize ritual observances. He concludes, “Neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.” God is the Creator. Grace – that is, the transformation of our soul – is his new creation. Since he made us in the first place, his grace does not unmake us: it does not destroy our nature. But grace is as powerful as creation itself: he makes us new, a new creation.

“Peace and mercy be to all who follow this rule.” The last word is interesting. He is battling a mindset – still so very much alive today, on all sides – that wants to figure out which human activity, which “rule,” will triumph. Paul says, instead of following this “rule” or that one, make your rule of life the new creation, the grace of Christ. Let his grace be your peace, let his grace be your mercy, let his grace be your rule of life. Stake everything on the power of Christ working within you.

And so, he says, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” All I want is in him. All my strength is in him. And I gladly go even to die with him, knowing that everything, everything, is there, pouring forth from his heart on the Cross. Nothing else matters but the power of Christ, the new creation, his grace working within me.

***

Our first reading, from Isaiah, gives a different picture of the same theological truth. Jerusalem is presented as a mother. We are her children, dandled on her lap, nursing from her breasts, carried on her hip.

Our translation uses “comfort” several times. It is a good translation. But the Hebrew root of the word is “sigh.” Our mother sighs for us. This is Isaiah’s image of compassion: she yearns for us, pines for us, sighs over us. How happy we are, how at peace, in our mother’s arms.

Our mother, of course, is Mary. And also the Church. Wherever you read Jerusalem, you can imagine Mary – but the more direct reference is the Church. The two go together. Isaiah takes us into this imagery of our mother caring for us – and says, ah, that is Jerusalem, the Church. We find ourselves in the joy of being part of God’s people.

It says we will be “fondled in her lap” – but the root of the word is simply the mother gazing at her child. What peace!

It is a little scandalous to find such consolation in Mary or the Church. Shouldn’t we find our consolation in God alone? But that is the extra richness of this reading: it moves back and forth between God enriching Jerusalem and Jerusalem enriching us. God, whose grace makes a new creation, can make a Jerusalem in which we find our comfort. If his grace were weak, there could be no Church. But his grace is strong, and he saves us through the Church.

“I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river” – “that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort.” “I will comfort you” – “in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort.”

And again, we rejoice in the Cross, but the Cross in the Church. “Exult with her, all you who were mourning over her!” Jerusalem, the Church, has been destroyed and wounded and crucified a thousand times – but “may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” for in our weakness we find his strength. No, we are not strong – but he is.

***

All this teaching about grace gives the context for the sending of the apostles in our Gospel reading.

Jesus begins with two statements that seem to contradict. “The harvest is abundant,” he says – they are just waiting to embrace the Gospel! But “I am sending you like lambs among wolves”: they will hate you.

In fact, the two come together when we understand grace. The harvest is abundant not because everyone’s basically Christian already, but because God has created us for his grace, and his grace is a new creation that can convert the hardest hearts – that can convert even the wolves. Our hope is not in how easy the mission is for us – but how easy the mission is for him.

And so he tells them to carry nothing, no human strength – rely totally on the power of his grace. And say, “peace to this household,” not because everyone is peaceful, but because Christ will be your peace.

“Even the demons are subject to us,” they tell him – and he says, yes, “I have given you the power to tread upon serpents and scorpions.” Not the strength of men, but the miraculous strength of God’s grace, given to his apostles and his Church.

What conversion seems impossible to you?

Feast of the Precious Blood

jesus-precious-bloodJuly 1 used to be the Feast of the Most Precious Blood. It’s a good day for us to think about the Blood of Christ.

First, a word about liturgical reform. This feast was extended to the universal Church only in 1849. Until sometime in the twentieth century, it was the first Sunday of July; by 1920 it was July 1. It had also sometimes been celebrated on Friday of the fourth week of Lent. In other words, though July 1 is nice – I like to make it a special day of remembrance – it’s not hallowed by any long universal tradition.

From time to time in her history, the Church has pruned the liturgical calendar. Over the years, more and more feasts get added – and from time to time, you have to pare them back. Today, for example, the readings at Mass were a rousing call from Amos and the calling of Matthew. When you have too many feasts, you miss your chance for “ordinary” readings like these.

If it were up to me, maybe I’d take some of the Italian saints out of the calendar and put this one back in. But it’s not up to me. And one of the splendors of being Catholic is participating in a life that transcends our personal preference.

So let’s remember the Precious Blood, but not get too worried about the prudential judgments that, for the time being, have supressed this fairly recent feast.

***

We can appreciate the Precious Blood by considering some ways it is distinct from the Body of Christ.

First, it brings out his suffering. When Christ says, “this is my body,” he says something marital. Every spouse gives his body to his bride, and vice versa. That’s nice and happy.

But when he says, “this is my blood,” things take a more frightening turn. We don’t want to see our spouse bleed. I like to imagine how wonder turned to shock when, after Christ gave them his body, he then began to speak of his blood – parallel to when Peter professes Jesus as Christ, and then Jesus starts talking about the Cross.

Devotion to Christ’s blood is devotion to his suffering.

***

Second, the blood is the completion of the Eucharist. In the consecration, the prayers are unequal. First he says just, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body” – after Vatican II, they added a stronger sacrificial angle, “which will be given up for you,” but the prayer remains simple.

The consecration of the Blood is not simple. “For this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

The post-Conciliar reform restored the Scriptural order of the prayer, so it next says, “Do this in memory of me,” and only after the elevation and genuflection does the priest add, “the mystery of faith” – but in the traditional order of the prayer, even those words were in the middle of the consecration of the Blood: “the blood of the new and eternal covenant, the mystery of faith, which will be poured out.”

There’s a sense, in these prayers, in which the Body is only a prologue for the Blood. The prayers suggest that the Blood is the exciting part: the new and eternal covenant, the mystery of faith, for the forgiveness of sins.

***

We can only begin to unpack these words here – we’ll have to leave the rest to our devotion and meditation. But we could start with two senses of “covenant.”

The Greek word can be translated two different ways, yielding two complementary theologies. These days, it’s popular to talk about a “covenant,” which is a two-way agreement. In this angle, attention is brought to the Chalice – and the prayers of the Mass do emphasize the container as well as what it contains, down to the mysterious words in the institution narrative of the Roman Canon, “he took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands.” This one?

The sharing of the chalice is a sign of union, concord, like a peace pipe. It is the reverse of the traditional poison cup: we share the cup, acknowledging that what happens to you (in this case, down to the Cross) happens to me, too. He drinks our cup, we drink his.

The Precious Blood is a covenant. This covenantal cup-sharing is “the mystery of faith.”

***

But another translation of that covenant word, with a lot of Scripture to support it, is testament. A testament is a one-way decision: a decision that when I die, you will get what I leave behind.

And the Precious Blood is that, too. It is a pointer to his death. And it is a promise of inheritance, an inheritance of life. In Scripture, wine and blood are both double signs: signs of disorientation and death, but also signs of joy and life. With the Blood, he also says, I die, and I give you life: I pour out my blood for you.

How do you reverence the Blood of Christ?

Thirteenth Sunday: The Freedom to Love

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

1 KGS 19:16b, 19-21; PS 16: 1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11; GAL 5:1, 13-18; LK 9:51-62

Our readings for this coming Sunday are about true freedom – and truly being ruled by love.

And so they are also about turning points.

The first reading is about the great prophet Elisha, successor to Elijah. He will have a great career, through the books of First and Second Kings, as a healer, above all of Naaman the Syrian leper, but also fighting poison, restoring wells, recovering what was lost – and battling and anointing kings.

But this prophetic career begins in our reading today. Elijah has just heard the still small voice, and he has been sent with three tasks: to anoint a King of the foreign nation of Syria and a new king of Israel, to scourge the wicked house of King Ahab – and also to anoint this great prophet Elisha. These are men on a mission. We are not fooling around.

He finds Elisha plowing. Notice in the reading how it emphasizes that Elisha had twelve yoke of oxen. That’s a lot! He was a rich man.

But the central point of our reading is that Elijah casts his spirit on Elisha, and Elisha is driven.

There is one strange line. Elisha asks to say goodbye to his parents. In the translation at Mass, Elijah will respond, “Go back! Have I done anything to you?” But the original is simpler. Elijah says (he does not ask): “Go, return, I have made” – that is, Elisha is free to go, because Elijah has done something to him, changed him.

There is no rebuke, and Elisha’s actions indicate no hesitance: he slaughters all those oxen, gives them to the people, and follows. Elisha is not hesitating, he is going. Elijah has cast the spirit on him, and he is driven.

***

Our Gospel reading is the turning point of Luke. Again, our translation is weak. It says, “He resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” But the Greek, here and through the rest of the Gospel, is more vivid: he sets his face toward Jerusalem. He is focused. He knows exactly where he’s going.

He passes through Samaria. Now, the Samaritan religion is precisely a Judaism that thinks that Jerusalem is unnecessary. Can’t we just stay here? It’s the perfect foil for Jesus’s determination.

But it’s interesting: the disciples are too focused on Samaria, too. “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them.” Our translation says, “Jesus turned and rebuked them.” The Greek is stronger: Jesus twists around. He has to twist because his face is set on Jerusalem, and the disciples are stuck behind him, focused on Samaria. Our anger, too, prevents us from journeying on. But Jesus is focused, driven.

There follow three more short stories about being driven. First: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The head is a nice juxtaposition to the face: Jesus does not rest, because his face is set on Jerusalem. Forward!

Second: “Let the dead bury their dead.” Ah, the Greek is so tight in this week’s readings. The real tension is not between burying our father or not – again, Elisha is not condemned for burning his oxen and feeding the people in preparation to follow Elijah. The question is how we do it.

Jesus says, “Send away the dead to bury the dead, but you, going, proclaim the kingdom.” The dead are those who merely go away. The living are those who, going, proclaim. Do what you need to do – but as you go, proclaim the kingdom, be ruled by the kingdom. As you bury your father, keep your face set on Jerusalem.

Third: “Let me say farewell to my family”; “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom.” (The references to Elisha are clear – but what is the lesson of Elisha?)

With the plow, you have to keep looking straight ahead or your furrows are crooked – if you look back, you will see that you are not plowing straight. With the kingdom, you have to keep your eye on the prize, your face set toward Jerusalem. In fact, it doesn’t say, “no one who looks behind is fit,” as in, worthy. It says, “no one who looks behind is set, or fixed, on the kingdom.”

We have to have our faces set. We have to be ruled by the kingdom, driven.

Jesus doesn’t scold any of these three. The first says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” That’s a good thing. But Jesus says to each one, do what you need to do, but with your face set toward the kingdom. Be driven, ruled.

***

Our reading from Galatians reminds us that the key is grace, the Holy Spirit living within us.

The Spirit is both freedom (“you were called for freedom”) but also service (“serve one another through love”). If we love, if we are driven, if our face is set toward Jerusalem, we are set free from all that would distract us (“for the flesh has desires against the Spirit”), and the obligations of our faith don’t feel like obligations at all (“if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law”) but the desires of our heart.

The Spirit reigning within us is the freedom to love. Jesus and Elisha are not constrained by the kingdom, they are on fire for it.

What makes your heart wander from our true love?

The Sins of Fathers and the Hope of Fatherhood

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_ProjectFor Father’s Day, I’d like to spend a little more time on a phrase I’ve mentioned here a few times.  At the end of the First Commandment, God says, “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me” (Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 5:9).  

The idea is repeated when God walks before Moses: “who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgressions and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:7).  

Almost the same idea is repeated in Numbers: “The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Numbers 14:18).

Now, one way to interpret these verses is the standard old heresy of Marcionism: to pretend that what God says in the first commandment or in his self-revelation to Moses is some evil revelation that Jesus undoes.  But I think – and the Church teaches – that the God of Moses was a good God, our God.  And I think there’s a lot we can learn about fatherhood, and Father’s Day, from these strange verses.

***

In the song, “I’ll Carry On,” Rich Mullins says,

“I’ll carry the songs we learned when we were kids

I’ll carry the scars of generations gone by.”

The first line is positive: we carry on the beautiful things we learned from our parents.  But the second line is painful: we also carry the scars.

My children bear the scars of my father and my step-father, because I carry them.  My father carries the wounds and dysfunctions of his father and grandfather; beyond three or four generations, I don’t know the stories anymore.  I hope my children will be better than I am, in part because I hope I will give them better than my father gave me – but I know my dysfunction will carry on.  

This is a hard topic to talk about.  I don’t want to talk about my father’s failings.  Like the sons of Noah, we are all called to cover our fathers’ nakedness.  But we cover our fathers, and we bear their scars (and songs), because fathers are important.  

All of this can be said, of course, about mothers, too.  But as you think about the scars you carry from generations gone by – and the scars you are passing on to your children, if you are a parent – I would guess you’ll see that fathers and mothers have their own unique ways of wounding their children.  We are scarred by our mothers and fathers, but in different ways.

And that’s what is meant, in these key passages from the books of Moses, about third and fourth generations.  Whatever we believe about the forgiveness of sins, we all know how we have been hurt, and how we hurt.

***

Now, that’s a pretty negative way to think about Father’s Day: our fathers are the ones who screwed us up.  But that suffering is the reverse side of the awesome mission God has given to parents.

We carry the scars of generations gone by because parents matter.  It is not hard to argue against infant Baptism.  It seems wrong that we should get grace from sacraments we didn’t even know were happening.  But the heart of infant Baptism is the bizarre importance of parents: we are of our parents before we are of ourselves.  We carry their songs before we make any of our own.  We learn the fundamentals of our faith, for good or for ill, whether it is the True Faith or all the alternate things we are brought up to believe, from them.  

Grace is stronger than nature.  All of those Bible verses also say that God sends away our sins.  He can set us free from the wounds of our parents, and he can set our children free from our wounds.  And so another key theme in the Bible, even in that frightening Old Testament, is that we mustn’t judge others based on the sins of their parents.  But those sins do affect us, they are the raw material on which grace works.  We are wounded by their sins, but we must also carry their pain, and be healed by accepting its reality.

This is the mystery of fatherhood.  God has not set us in the world as radical individuals, but as members of families.  And this is the mystery of mission: other people, especially our children, are affected by our actions.  It’s crazy, but it’s true.  We really do have fathers, and some of us really are fathers.

Let us thank God the Father for bestowing such an awesome mission on mere men – and beg his grace to live it well.

And let us reveal to the Father the scars we bear from our fathers and grandfathers.  How can acknowledging those scars make you more open to his healing grace?

 

Twelfth Sunday: Conversion

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

ZEC 12:10-11, 13:1; PS 63: 2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; GAL 3:26-29; LK 9:18-24

This past Sunday, our readings taught about the connection between turning to God and lamenting our sin.

The first reading was from the prophet Zechariah. The prophets are a hard read, and this reading is typical.

At first glance it seems a jumble of unconnected ideas. “I will pour out on the house of David . . . a spirit of grace and petition.” “They shall look on him whom they have pierced.” “The mourning of Hadadrimmon in the plain of Meggido.” “A fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness.”

Four, or more, heavy ideas. Sometimes we need a moment to let them come into focus and fit together.

First, we see the connection between grace and petition. Our asking is itself God’s gift. It is his pouring out on us that leads us to ask and we ask him to pour out more of that same spirit.

Next, we look to the Cross. The spirit of grace turns our eyes to Jesus, the one whom we have pierced. In the Cross we see both our misery and his love for us. From this vision comes our spirit of petition.

In the third line, we get a “type,” an Old Testament partial image, of Jesus. Hadadrimmon in the plain of Meggido is where the good king Josiah lost his life to the Egyptians. Josiah was a reformer; he restored the Temple and the observance of Old Testament ritual, and put an end to idols. (The modern scholars who like such claims even say that he invented much of the ritual because he was such a great Restorer.)

Like Jesus, he brought people back to God. And like Jesus, he was slain (by the Egyptians). He is the original one whom they have pierced, this is the original lamentation for the destruction of the Restorer. He gives more shape to our mourning at the Cross: here was the one who brought us back to God, and our sin has attacked him.

And from the pierced side of Christ – and from the ground where Josiah was slain – springs forth “a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness.” In our mourning is our conversion.

***

The Gospel was Luke’s version of Peter’s confession: “But who do you say that I am?” “The Christ of God.” Luke does not give us Peter’s denial. He just gives us the juxtaposition in all its horror:

As soon as Peter identifies Jesus, Jesus tells them he “must suffer greatly . . . and be killed and on the third day be raised.” There is consolation in the Resurrection – but it comes only through the Crucifixion.

And lest that seem too easy, Jesus then applies it to us: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

The key is in our reading from Zechariah. We have to deny ourselves because our desires are not right; we are sinners. We have to deny ourselves because we have pierced the Redeemer.

Peter has recognized Jesus as the Christ, the Savior. But to know him as Savior he must know his own need for salvation. We must look on him whom we by our sins have pierced, and lament.

***

The second reading, from Galatians, like Zechariah, is challenging. It’s at first hard to see what it is saying and even harder to see how it fits with the others. I point out this difficulty to encourage us to undertake a kind of liturgical lectio divina by juxtaposition. Sometimes the richest insights come from putting two seemingly unrelated passages next to one another, and gazing on them until their connection comes into focus.

In this reading, Paul says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

It is the classic passage where grace seems to destroy nature. It works from extrinsic to intrinsic. Jew or Greek is a matter of nationality; so frivolous to think that one nation is holier than another. Slave or free at least hints at individual differences – the ancient world, well aware that slavery was mostly based on unjust historical accidents, debated whether there at least might in theory be some reason that one man would be lord over another.

And then comes gender itself. We follow the same debate today: if racism is wrong, shouldn’t we outlaw gender, too? If grace transcends nationality, doesn’t it also eliminate sexual differences?

Paul’s answer is subtle.

He does not think nature, or biology, is irrelevant. Less than two chapters later in Galatians, he will put “sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality” alongside “idolatry, strife, and jealousies” as exemplary rejections of the Spirit. God’s Spirit does not make us forget that we are woman and man – God teaches us to live our identities more truly.

And yet in this week’s passage, Paul warns us against mentalities of privilege. Yes, nationality and gender remain – but they are no reason to look down on one another, no reason not to love. Deeper than our natural differences, we are all “heirs according to the promise,” “children of God through faith.”

Paired with our other readings, this passage in Galatians reminds us to beware our tendency to fall into earthly ways of thinking – the ways of thinking that crucify Christ and deny our own crosses. Instead, let us lament our lack of love and cry out again to him who loves us.

How does your sense of privilege stand in the way of true conversion?