Second Sunday of Lent: Called Out of this World

Genesis 15:5–12, 17–18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17–4:1, Luke 9:28-36

The first Sunday of Lent, we battled the temptations of the flesh (bread), the eye (miracles), and pride (the kingdoms of the earth). The second Sunday, we see the goal of this battle: Jesus transfigured.  Jesus shows us God’s power by leading us in the fight against temptation, and he shows us God’s glory in the Transfiguration.  And so the reading concludes, “Jesus was found alone,” or “there was found Jesus only.”  Only Jesus.

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Our readings rise to the theme.  In the first, Abraham walks by faith.  God promises him descendants as numerous as the stars; Abraham’s believes; and it is credited to him as righteousness.  It all begins with trusting in the Lord.

Already this reading develops things a step further.  Abraham believes the promise about children, but when God promises him a land for them, he questions.  That question drives him to sacrifice—the strange sacrifice of animals split in two, with the appearance of a flaming torch passing between them. 

There are two levels of faith.  One is pure faith in God’s plan for his people.  But then that faith has to take flesh: to believe that God will actually give us a place for those children requires trusting God with our stuff, and so Abraham’s sacrifice.  The highest faith sees Jesus alone—but for that faith to take flesh, we must set aside other things, so that Jesus is alone.

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Our reading from Philippians raises the stakes.  For the enemies of the cross, Paul says, “their end is destruction.”  That’s ironic: the Cross seems like destruction.  We say, “God wants me to be joyful!”  And Jesus says, “only through the Cross.”

So too those who make their stomach their God and shameful things their glory.  If we live for this life alone, we live for destruction.  If we live beyond this life—and offer this life in sacrifice, even embracing the Cross—than beyond destruction we find God.

But only because he is our savior, who can “change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.”  Only Jesus can carry us through.  That’s what we profess in our Lenten fasting.

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I’m sorry this is the first reflection I’ve been able to publish this year of Luke, because I’ve been trying to watch Luke’s themes.  His Gospel is the most complicated of the four.  Somehow it focuses on the power of grace, the power of God’s mercy, the change God brings about in the worldly order.

In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, he adds some details.  Moses and Elijah were talking to him—about “his exodus,” Luke adds, “that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”  In fact, Luke’s Gospel quickly moves to that final journey to Jerusalem.  Jesus heads for Jerusalem in chapter twenty of Matthew, six chapters before the Cross; and chapter ten of Mark, four chapters before the Cross; but in Luke it’s in chapter nine, thirteen chapters before the Cross.  (In John he heads for Jerusalem in chapter 12, but John skips right over the journey, and spends 13-17 at the Last Supper.)  Luke is all about that exodus up to, and through, Jerusalem.  And the Transfiguration is just a few verses before that.

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In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, he adds some details.  Moses and Elijah were talking to him—about “his exodus,” Luke adds, “that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”  In fact, Luke’s Gospel quickly moves to that final journey to Jerusalem.  Jesus heads for Jerusalem in chapter twenty of Matthew, six chapters before the Cross; and chapter ten of Mark, four chapters before the Cross; but in Luke it’s in chapter nine, thirteen chapters before the Cross.  (In John he heads for Jerusalem in chapter 12, but John skips right over the journey, and spends 13-17 at the Last Supper.)  Luke is all about that exodus up to, and through, Jerusalem.  And the Transfiguration is just a few verses before that.

In Luke alone, the disciples are falling asleep.  Jesus must escape out of a world where the flesh triumphs over the Spirit.  And though Matthew calls the cloud bright, and Mark only says there is a cloud, Luke says the cloud causes fear.  The disciples are being called beyond themselves.

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And so Luke frames a little differently the words from the cloud: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”  (Many translations say “chosen,” but the Greek is “agapatos”: agape-d, beloved.) 

We are called to a profound conversion.  We follow the ways of the world.  Peter wants to build by his own strength and initiative, instead of listening to Jesus and being filled with the divine light.  And Peter’s plans are to stay put: he wants to build tents, but Luke adds that he says this that Moses and Eijah “were about to part from him,” and that Jesus is beginning his exodus.  Luke emphasizes the contrast.

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Jesus is leading us upward.  The Transfiguration is a funny mix, because on the one hand, we need to look at nothing but him, a kind of contemplative stillness.  But to look to him is to be called out of ourselves, to follow him in his exodus, into the Cross, out of the ways of this world, out of our comfortable tents. 

Thus the traditional Lectionary gives us the Transfiguration this second Sunday of Lent, a sign of the glorious culmination, almost more glorious than Easter itself—but in a key that calls us to conversion, out of our comfortable worldly calculations, up the mountain of the Cross to the heavenly Jerusalem.  For, says our epistle, “Our citizenship is in heaven,” not in earthly tents.

How are your calculations too worldly?

Thomas on Scripture

Dear readers, a little update, since I’ve been away so much.

I’ve already written a Christmas reflection, on how sometimes the Word takes flesh more in the chaos of family life than in brilliant meditations on Scripture. That’s been continuing in my life: I finally finished a comedy-of-errors plumbing fiasco. As I was finishing, two weeks ago, we got the flu.

I was standing inside a wall, taking a Sawzall to a thick iron pipe through the flooring way above me–a ridiculous position–and found myself quaking. Gosh, I thought, either I’m working harder than I thought, or I’m really getting stressed out about the magnitude of this project. But as soon as I had the pipe cut–and before I had the chance to replace it–I swooned on the couch, my fever spiked, and I was flat on my back for a couple of days, with the worst flu we can remember. Maybe it wasn’t the project that made me tremble, but the oncoming fever!

But such is life. And there’s so much richness just in being able to smile and count suffering and various forms of “passive diminishment” as part of living the Gospel. Just as there is so much joy, such richness in our faith, in being able to face financial frustration and rejoice to meet Lady Poverty, to find the joy of Holy Obedience in frustration at work, (even a taste of Holy Celibacy in times of separation) and abandonment to divine providence when life is too much for us. The Gospel of suffering is good news.

And that’s why I didn’t write two weeks ago.

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But last weekend, it was a much different challenge. I want to share with you readers, just briefly, about a wonderful conference I attended, on Thomas Aquinas and the Bible. (It’s worth clicking through, just to see the titles of the talks.)

So many things I could say, but I just want to say something simple: there were I think sixty-nine papers given, by people who really know their stuff, on Thomas Aquinas’s love of the Bible.

Okay, a couple details: Maybe my favorite paper was by Brant Pitre, a Bible scholar and friend of Scott Hahn’s. He got into some very technical questions about the dating of the Last Supper: in short, John’s Gospel seems to say Passover didn’t start till the next night, Friday night, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to say Passover started Thursday night, and it’s pretty hard to figure out how to fit them together. Most Bible scholars just throw up their hands and say obviously the Gospels don’t care much about historical details, they contradict one another, they must be wrong.

Well, here’s what we learned about Thomas Aquinas in that paper: a) He believes the Gospels are accurate history, and that the history of the Gospels is really important to our faith, b) he thought really hard even about these very technical questions of Biblical interpretation, not because they have big philosophical significance, but because he loves the page of the Gospel, c) he read both the New Testament and some pretty obscure passages of the Old Testament a lot more carefully than any modern scholar, and found ways to solve this problem based just on knowing the Bible really really well.

There were lots of other papers that talked about, for example, Thomas’s deep insights into the theology of St. Paul, the interpretation of the Psalms (where he finds Christ on every page), and John’s Gospel, which he reads with exquisite depth.

The point of all these examples is simply this: Thomas Aquinas loved the Bible. You should know that.

I’m sorry I missed writing a post while I was at that conference. But it affirmed the most basic insight of this web page, which is that the deepest Catholic theology comes from meditation on Scripture, and the best preparation for reading Scripture is a deep understanding of Catholic theology. I’m proud to have a small place in that project: on this page, at the conference, and I hope in all my teaching and research–and my life. Thomas Aquinas and Scripture!

Third Sunday: We Need the Gospel

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Luke gives his version of how Jesus began his preaching: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

To bring glad tidings to the poor.  I’m going to be harsh: everyone I talk to, even people vowed to poverty, seems to think the poor are someone else’s vocation.  Jesus’s way is not for us.

Everyone I see seems to say of their own vocation, “The Spirit of the WORLD is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the RICH.  Maybe Jesus went to the poor, but He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the powerful and self-importance to those with worldly abilities, to absolve oppressors of responsibility, and to proclaim a year acceptable to . . . the world.”

(Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia, the top sociologist of marriage today, pointed out this week that, for example, though every college has a campus ministry, the Church has zero outreach to the 60% of American young people who do not go to college.  No wonder the poor have trouble with marriage.  Please let me know if you know of any ministries to those without degrees!)

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The Lectionary gives us a strange Gospel this week.  We finally begin in earnest our Year of Luke.  Luke spends a couple chapters showing that Jesus was born poor, so the beginning of Jesus’s preaching isn’t until Chapter 4.  But Luke has a prologue about his Gospel, so this week we read Luke 1:1-4 (theprologue) and then 4:14-21 (the first preaching).  It sounds a little odd because it is odd.

But Luke’s prologue is important.  What he says is that others have written Gospels before him, but now Luke wants to give sort of a more scholarly account.  He is not an “eyewitness” (like Matthew and John, and Peter, who maybe helped Mark) but he is talking to them, “investigating everything accurately anew.”  And his goal is “to write it down in an orderly sequence . . . so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received,” or “that you may have a solid grasp on the words that are being thrown around.”

In some ways, Luke’s is the most sophisticated Gospel.  Whereas Matthew (the accountant) just gives a straightforward accounting of what Jesus said and did, and Peter’s Mark makes sure we see that nothing makes sense apart from the Cross, Luke, friend of St. Paul, doctor, and most distant from the actual events, wants to get the theology clear. 

And Luke makes sure we start with the poor Jesus preaching the Gospel to the poor. 

Worldly wisdom tells us to start with the rich.  It’s not such a crazy idea tosay we should start at the Ivy Leagues, and the media centers, and lawyers and businessmen.  (Living in the outskirts of New York City, I call it the “Midtown strategy.”)  What’s crazy is that Jesus went to his equivalent of the Bronx.  What’s crazy is that St. Lawrence—and every other saint—called the poor the true riches of the Church.

Why?  Because grace can do what man cannot.  And Jesus teaches us to live by grace, not by human power.  To live by earthly power is to renounce the Gospel—even if you pretend to preach the Gospel, while chasing worldly standing. 

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St. Jerome

Our reading from Nehemiah is thrilling, if you know the context.  The Israelites have returned from exile in Babylon.  Nehemiah and Ezra have rediscovered the book of the Law—the Bible.  And now, for the first time in a long time, they are actually reading it, aloud, in public.  The people weep, recognizing how far they have strayed from God’s ways.  But Ezra tells them to rejoice.

The accent is important here.  The last words are not “REJOICING in the Lord must be your strength”: the point is not that joy is our strength.  The point is, “rejoicing IN THE LORD must be your strength.”  Don’t weep: God’s words shows us the way, and that’s Good News.  God gives us the strength to live in his way: that’s good news.  And the way leads to God: good news. 

When Christ calls us to renounce our worldly ways, to go to the poor instead of seeking worldly power, he’s not telling us our life should be miserable.  He’s showing us the path to joy—but joy is only in him.

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And joy is in his body, the Church.  Our second reading, from First Corinthians 12, spends a lot of time on the body metaphor.  But let us not miss the conclusion: “Those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. . . . If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.” 

Now, no one in the Church is really a “little toe,” or a back of the knee, or whatever part of our natural body we think is unglamorous.  But the point is that even the unglamorous parts of the Church—even the poor and the disabled, even the crazy—are just as essential to the Church as the media stars, cultural icons, and Masters of the Universe that the world fawns over, and that even we in the Church tend to give so much of our attention.

To love Christ, to find ourselves in his body, is to love all those he has redeemed, not just the ones we would fawn over even if he we didn’t love Christ.  Christ’s “preferential option for the poor” is precisely a recognition that it’s in our treatment of those whom the world ignores that we signal our belief in the Gospel.

Thank you, Luke, for making sure we hear the message.  We need it.  We need to listen more carefully to Christ’s way, and less to the world’s.

Where do you find yourself practicing a preferential option for the rich and powerful?  Where is Jesus calling you to love him in his poverty?

Second Sunday of Ordinary Time: Fix me, Jesus

There are two reasons I’m only now writing last Sunday’s post.  The first is because the plumber made us replace all the cabinets in our tenant’s apartment.  It’s been a hassle, though kinda fun, and I hope it’s been good for me.

The other reason is that when I did sit down to write last week, I was overwhelmed by the readings.  John’s Gospel is ridiculously deep, too many things to say: it’s overwhelming in that way. 

But first I was overwhelmed by the reading from the end of Isaiah: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent . . . . As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you.”  It too is rich just as a text.  For example, who is speaking?  These words are the Prophet Isaiah’s, but they are also Christ’s—and they should be ours, too.  We should be unable to keep silent (and my silence here is a sign of my inability to live up to that call). 

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Richest of all, though, is the promise, the Lord’s love for us.  I’ve been sinking into the depression of this time in the Church.  As a seminary professor, I see and hear too much.  I can believe that “people call you ‘Forsaken’ or your land ‘Desolate.’”  But my heart breaks at the claim that “you shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused.’”  It is too much to believe that “the Lord delights in you” so that “nations shall behold your vindication, and all the kings your glory,” that “You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord.”

That, in fact, is the real reason for the textual richness of John and Isaiah.  The Bible and the liturgy over-abound with richness, because the God of Jesus Christ loves us, and offers us so much more than we can imagine.  He takes our water and turns it to wine. 

Seeing that promise on the page of Scripture the other day, I just closed my computer and gave up.  Given all my sins and weaknesses, given all the sin and weakness I see around me, can these promises be true?  That is the absurdity of the Gospel.

Yet our reading from First Corinthians claims the Spirit is at work, giving each of us the gifts the Church needs, so that all together, if we do not withdraw, do not give up, Jesus can work his miracles of rebirth through us.

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“There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee. . . .”

I offer just two thoughts.

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First, look at the jars.  “Six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons.”  Literally “six stony water things”—and big ones.  In the Gospel, stone is the cheerless stuff that the Father will not give us when we ask for bread, and the way he describes ground where seed cannot grow. 

But there is also a chosen stone, which the builders rejected, a corner stone.  And that One who entered into our stony world changes our stony hearts.  Those stony water jars signify our world, which seems so unchangeable and set in its ways—and which Jesus can fill with wine.

The water is “for Jewish ceremonial washings.”  But the Jewish ceremonies, like the Baptism of John, cannot take away our sin—not even the blood of bulls and goats, which is only a shadow of the good things to come (Hebrew 10).  It could only tell us there is a problem.  Without Christ, our natural perspectives, and even the Law, can only show us what a disaster this world is, how badly we need to be changed.

But there are six jugs.  That is the number of creation, of nature, and of natural law: complete in itself, yet waiting for the newness of the seventh day, when God’s love will come down.

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We need to step beyond this stony natural world.  And when we do, the water of John’s Baptism becomes the wine of the Eucharist, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, of the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. 

Wine is inebriating and celebratory, it is disorienting, both bitter and sweet, and unveils the joys of the wedding feast.  “For the creation waits with eager longing for the unveiling of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8). 

Come Lord Jesus!

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One more thought: “The mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples were also invited [no, ‘called’] to the wedding.” 

Mary shares in our flesh, and above all in our weakness.  She can do nothing.  And yet in his union with Mary, Jesus comes down into our dryness, to our weddings without wine.  All she can do is open her heart to him, show him the agony of this longing world, and trust that if we do whatever he tells us, all will be made new.

In union with Mary, let us adopt that heart.  Come Lord Jesus!

What problems are you trying to fix without Jesus?

Becoming Flesh at Christmas

I’ve been away from this site for awhile, since I half-completed my post for the fourth Sunday of Christmas, December 23.

I have written in the past about the irony I find singing “Silent Night” at church on Christmas Eve—with a baby crying and kids jumping up and down in the pew.  Christmas is rarely a silent night for families.

But this year I’m thinking about how that affects the whole season. 

As I have said before, my main audience in these reflections is myself: writing these things is a good spiritual discipline, a good way for me to contemplate the face of Christ and try to say something positive, amidst all the negative thoughts that often fill my mind.

But during Christmas, I haven’t been able to do this spiritual discipline, or many others.  I go to daily Mass most of the year; I pray morning prayer more days than not, in the midst of my sloppiness, and my family often prays evening prayer; but Christmas week, my favorite liturgical week of the year, there’s hardly time for all that.  Instead, this year as many years, we were travelling to see family—and the next week we had family visit us.  The week after that, we had a huge plumbing mess to deal with, and some work deadlines. 

I’d like to say I’m the kind of spiritual superman who stays on top of my spiritual life through all of that—and I do try to pray, at least my rosary—but this time of year is often a mess.

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One of the things I hoped to post here during the Christmas season was TS Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi.”  The Wise Man in the poem says of their journey, “I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death,” because the Birth of Christ calls them to conversion, turns their worlds upside down and inside out.

Christmas is like that. 

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I’ve been trying to meditate this last month on how all these family events, some of them my choices (like visiting relatives, mostly), some of them imposed on me (like the plumbing), draw me to Christ. 

Follow me!

At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Peter, “when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”  When I was young, I could go to Mass and take prayer times whenever I wanted.  It’s a lot harder now, with six kids, and a wife, and a job, and a tired old house. 

Of course that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to pray.  Prayer is our source, where we discover the meaning of all those things.  And prayer is our summit, where they all come to fruition.

But there is something rich in those challenges themselves.  I had been thinking already about how much easier it is for me (at least as an intellectual, and a theologian) to feel like a great Christian when I’m praying than when I’m dealing with other people.  I had a lovely retreat in November—and then I came back and discovered that loving the people around me, actually being drawn out of my selfishness, is a lot harder.  It’s the measure of true prayer: if prayer is easy and service is hard, the Bible reminds us a thousand different ways, it’s because our prayer isn’t as real as we think it is.

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This Christmas I’ve been realizing that this is the truth of Christmas, too.  God becomes man.  In fact, long before Peter is an old man, it is the baby Jesus who stretches out his hands, and another dresses him, and carries him where he might not want to go.  At Christmas he takes the form of a slave for us.  God can do anything—the only thing he gains from becoming man is the ability to suffer, the ability to not be able, the ability to be weak and bound and frustrated.  Like me.

For the Christian, that is the path.  In fact, even real prayer is more about being captured and bound and turned from selfishness to service, from ego to love.  But the measure of that prayer is whether we are servants outside of prayer, whether our love can take on suffering flesh, as Christ’s love does.

I haven’t done a very good job of that this Christmas season.  But I hope that somehow, amidst all the time with family, and plumbing and deadlines, the Lord is not hiding from me, but calling me to himself.

What’s the hardest part of your Christian life?

The Death of a Child

This morning my older children and I attended the funeral of a sixteen-year-old girl.  We knew Ailish from my son’s disabled-sports league.  She had some horrible breathing impairment; she could barely speak, but always smiled.  I don’t know what happened, but her mother spoke of her getting sick last week, and they just couldn’t beat this one.

The priest gave a beautiful homily about making our wounds the source of our healing.  Ailish was a beatiful example of that.

But I was struck too about how many times he spoke of her sixteen-year-old life as brief (my children are all younger, but it feels like they’ve been with me forever) and of the special circumstances of her disability.  True enough.  But I was struck by how we try to put death away from us.

Last week someone commented on this web site that she didn’t feel like the words “Pray for us, now and at the hour of our death” are the Word of God for her.  I understand the fear of death—we shouldn’t want to die.  But the Word of God is clear on this one: life only comes through death.

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I don’t know what to think of Leon Tolstoy, but I highly recommend his short novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  The story is about a man facing death when he isn’t ready for it.  Two images stand out to me.

One is at his funeral.  One man winks to another as if to say, “Ivan Ilyich has made a mess of

things—not like you and me.”  I would never do such a foolish thing as dying.  Ailish had some unique malady, but she was different from the rest of us.

The other is as he dies.  “What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction.”  Maybe the path of life isn’t in the direction we think.

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Death is all around us.  When the bell tolls (as it did when Ailish’s body arrived at the church this morning), it tolls for all of us.

As one way to get a random sample of ordinary people, I think about my wedding party.  One of my six children is severely disabled—but I’m the lucky one.  Two of my six groomsmen had babies die at birth; a third had premature twins, one of whom died after a couple months; a fourth has had two babies die halfway through pregnancy, when they were almost viable; and the other two guys were just unable to have children.  Depending how high you set your bar for tragedy, that’s six for six, or two thirds, or one half: half of these guys have held their dead babies in their arms.

Of my wife’s six bridesmaids, one had seven miscarriages, another had multiple very bloody miscarriages that required the horrible “dilation and curretage” procedure, a third had a bloody miscarriage that landed her in the hospital, a fourth’s husband had a genetic anomaly that gave them a 50/50 chance of their children dying before adulthood, a fifth was infertile and it ended in divorce (infertility is more horrible than you think), and the sixth had been a single teenage mother.  Not so much death as my groomsmen, but an awful lot of tragedy.

Of our two altar boys one is too young to have faced much yet, the other has had lung cancer.

And of our two readers, one had a baby who, last I heard (we haven’t stayed in touch) was not very likely to live, and the other lost a baby brother when she was little, and grew up with her mother depressed.

For that matter, my grandmother grew up in a household like that, under the dark shadow of a baby who had died, and so did my mother-in-law.  We try to sweep these things under the rug, but death is all around us.

And it is right in front of us.  One of my grandfathers died a beautiful death at a ripe old age.  The other one died while he still had teenagers in the house, after decades of horrible depression.  My two grandmothers both lived too long: we like to think that death is no problem if you’re old, but both of them lived into pain and disability that they didn’t know how to face, and spent their last years wishing they could die.

Death is not unique to Ailish.  It’s a fact of life.  We all have to figure out how to find healing in our wounds.  We all have to pass through the way of the cross.

***

 

Two images.

The Byzantine Liturgy contains a line, “By death he trampled death.”

The Russian Orthodox author Alexander Schmemann says those words mean that Jesus shows death is not the end.  If we flee from death, death is the ultimate horror, something we can never face.  But if we embrace the Cross, we find out that death is not death after all.  He is there, leading us through.

Another non-Catholic author I revere is the very strange nineteenth century Scottish Protestant preacher George MacDonald.  His theology, I guess, was heretical, but he makes some pretty Catholic stuff out of the Protestant problems he was handed.

MacDonald wrote strange fairy stories for children.  My favorite is At the Back of the North Wind.  The image comes from a sort of silly riddle in Greek mythology.  If the North Wind brings chill, what would it like to be on the other side, so that the North Wind is always blowing away from you instead of on you?

In the story, the North Wind is a beautiful fairy woman, who befriends a poor child in London.  In the end, you find that this wonderful friend is Suffering and Death, whom the little boy has discovered in an entirely new way, as a friend and adventure.  What if we saw suffering as a wind to ride, instead of to hide from?  What if the train is going the other direction?

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One of the Eucharistic prayers speaks of those who have died “in the hope of the resurrection.”  This gets deep into the Eucharist itself, where death and the memory of death becomes a feast and the embrace of God.

Here’s the irony.  Without the hope of the resurrection, non-Christians think the blessing of death is to be free from the body and from pain, to be put out of our misery.  Fearing death, death is the only thing they long for.  That is not a view that sees heaven and earth as full of God’s glory.  It’s one that thinks the only good is to escape.

The hope of the resurrection means that we face death—and all the suffering, the little deaths, of our lives—not as the ultimate evil, not even as the end of our bodily life, but as a passage through.  To die with only the hope that you’ll be free of the body—which, after all, is an essential part of your person, and of your relationship with God—is to enter into eternal death.

To die with the hope of the resurrection means not detachment, but love of life.  “Her grip on a handburger had once been so strong that she had fallen through the back of a chair without dropping it,” as Flannery O’Connor says, in one of the greatest essays on this topic.  It means being sad to die, but glad to keep living.  It means losing our self-sufficiency and finding ourselves in the sufficiency of Christ.

That’s the only way forward.

Eternal light grant unto her, oh Lord, and to all of us.

Gaudete Sunday: A Consuming Fire

I’ve been thinking about the Alleluia.  It is is something we say to celebrate, and what we celebrate with it is that, even among the greatness of the other Biblical readings, this one, the Gospel, is good news.  When we say Alleluia, we should pray, “Hurrah!”

But it’s almost funny how that hurrah clashes with what usually follows: because almost always, the Gospel punches us in the nose.  Those who haven’t read the Gospel think it’s full of Jesus telling us how nice he is and how much he likes us just as we are.  But open the Gospel and read it, and you feel yourself almost under seige.

In the last week’s daily Masses, for example, the paralyzed man lowered through the roof got healed, but only after he was reminded that he needs forgiveness, which Jesus alone can give; and the condition of his healing was extraordinarily hard work.  Mary’s life and plans were hijacked to make place for a kind of king none of us is looking for.  We were pointed to the bizarre and frightening John the Baptist, and told that the violent take the kingdom of heaven by force—which could mean a lot of things, but none of them pleasant.  We heard that Elijah—another fearsome prophet—must come, and that we fail to recognize him when he does.  We heard that John calls us to fast, and Jesus calls us, not to feast, but to pursue sinners—and on another day, to seek the lost one instead of just rejoicing over the ninety-nine—and I know I neither fast for seek the lost.  Good news?  Hurrah?

***

This Sunday’s “Guadete” Gospel, “rejoice,” has three parts.  In the first paragraph, John the Baptist demands conversion.  In the second, he says his call to repentance is only water, but Jesus will bring fire.  And in the third—ah, that Gospel sense of humor—Luke tells us that somehow this is “good news.”

File:Spas v silach from Vasilyevskiy chin (15th c., GTG).jpgJesus is fire.  “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  John the Baptist baptizes with water: for all his terrifying austerity, he can only rinse off the outside.  But fire purifies all the way through.

And the Gospel is fire.  The good news is strange good news: not that we’re fine the way we are, but that Jesus changes everything.  The Beatitudes are the same way: “Blessed,” they begin, “Happy,”—and then they tell us that the path to happiness points what seems to exactly the wrong direction—to the Cross.

I was with a friend recently who was worrying that someone in his life would be a lot happier if she could just focus more on herself.  That makes sense.  The Gospel’s answer makes a lot less sense: but it’s true.

When we sing “Alleluia,” we don’t say, “this will be nice, I’m going to be confirmed in what I already thought,” but “thank God, Jesus comes to shake me out of my complacency, to lead me in new ways—and to purify me with unquenchable fire.”  Thank God I am not left to my own devices.  Hurrah!

(Incidentally, that’s why we should read and preach Scripture, not just our own stupid ideas.)

***

Thus our reading from Zephaniah promises that the coming King will “renew you in his love” and “turn away your enemies.”  There’s a lot of joy in that—and a lot of purifying fire, since our enemies are within.

And Philippians tells us that a peace that surpasses all understanding—that is, not the peace that makes sense to the world—will guard your hearts and minds, and only “in Christ Jesus.”  “No anxiety,” because “by prayer and petition” we trust God to do what we cannot.

***

And rejoicing, St. Paul tells us, goes hand in hand with “kindness.”  Sounds kinda hokey.  But John the Baptist says something similar.

“What should we do?”  “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none”: pretty reasonable, actually.  Jesus, who is fire, not water, will go much further, and tell us to give our tunic to the one who takes our cloak (Lk 6:29) and, “Sell all you have and give to the poor” (Lk 18:22).

John just tells us not to be jerks: share our excess with those who have none, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed,” “Do not practice extortion,” “Do not falsely accuse anyone,” “Be satisfied with your wages.”  All of those things, of course, apply far beyond tax collectors and soldiers: plenty of extortion and false accusations in our homes and workplaces.

But though what John says is reasonable, it is also radical.  A strange thing happened in twentieth century Catholicism, where “liberals” told us to be nice to people and “conservatives” said that’s just silly.  In fact, kindness and basic justice are far too demanding for our tastes, which is why we try to explain them away, and they end up demanding the whole moral law, because there’s no justice or kindness in adultery, theft, lying, or skipping Sunday Mass.  (“Conservative” and “liberal” Catholicism both water down the Gospel.)

And that’s just getting started, because where John rinses our outsides, Jesus comes with the Holy Spirit and fire, the winnowing fan to blow away the chaff with which we cover the Eucharistic wheat of the Gospel, and the fire of love to burn it all away.

Good news.  But the good news of the cross, and the poverty of Bethlehem.

How do you encounter the call to repentance?

Second Sunday of Advent: Under Pontius Pilate

Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126: Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6

File:Isenmann, Colmar Altarpiece (Flagellation, Crowning with Thorns).jpgAfter a first Sunday that looked forward to the final coming of Christ, our second Sunday of Advent introduces John the Baptist, calling us to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths,” and clarifying that the real preparation is “repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” which is the true meaning of baptism.

The reading, from Luke 3, starts, sort of like Luke 1 (“In the days of Herod”) and Luke 2 (“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus”) with a statement that locates the reading historically: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.”

That statement dates the appearance of John the Baptist in the desert, and the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry: the year 29-30.  Scholars think partly Luke is trying to be fancy.  Certainly he’s trying to state that the events he relates are historical.  When in the Creed we say, “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate,” one thing we mean is, “this is not myth, this is history.”

***

But Luke goes on, with a lot of details that aren’t necessary for historical dating.  He is telling us more than that this is the year 30.  He is telling us what that year was like—as if, after saying, “in 2018,” we went on to say, “in the age of Hillary and Trump.”

File:Melker Altar - Dornenkrönung.JPGTo say “Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea” is to say that Jerusalem is occupied by pagans, by the rulers of this world.

He names only three “tetrarchs” (literally, “the four rulers”); the one he is leaving out he is the tetrarch of Judea, as if to say the so-called Jewish king of Judea (where Jerusalem is) is a non-entity.

“Herod was tetrarch of Galilee” reminds us how far the Herod’s have fallen: this is the son of Herod the Great; now he only gets the backwaters.  It also points forward, as does Pontius Pilate, to the crucifixion: the not-quite-king who will take part in the death of our Lord is introduced as a no one.

“His brother Philip [was] tetrarch of the regions of Ituraea and Trachonitis”: we are introduced to another nobody, for whose wife Herod will call John the Baptist.  Ituraea is “the land of Jetur’s people”: Ishmaelites, whom David battled.  Some kingdom.  Trachonitis means “rugged stony land.”  Some kings, these miserable tetrarchs.

And then “Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,” way up to the northeast, as if to underline that the Herodians who claim to be kings of the Jews are puppet of the pagan caesar, ruling over pagan lands.  “Tetrarch” is a lousy claim to authority.

Then comes, “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.”  Caiaphas, of course, again points forward to the crucifixion.  Annas was his father-in-law, yet another puppet of the Romans.  By this time Annas was not high priest, Caiaphas was; Luke is mocking the son-in-law, the puppet of a puppet.

***

File:Giuseppe Arcimboldo Herod.jpgAnd into this morass comes John: “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”

Zechariah himself was introduced, in chapter one, in the same kind of juxtaposition: “In the days of Herod [the Great, the father], king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.”

Scholars cites this “days of Herod” as if it proves Jesus wasn’t born in the year 0: Herod died in 4 BC.  But whereas Luke 2 (“. . . This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria”) and Luke 3 (“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar”) are both specific, Luke 1 is not.  It doesn’t sound to me like Luke is trying to date the annunciations to Zechariah and then to Mary so much as to situate them.  Herod was king—and Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous.

So too, in Luke 3, Herod Jr and the rest of them claim power: and John, in the desert, son of the righteous ones, hears the Word of the Lord.  John calls us to repentance—but Luke is calling us to repentance, too, asking us whether we’d rather be in the palaces of kings, or in the desert, or the stable, whether we’d rather sit with these stupid puppets who do what they’re told by filthy pagan Romans, or whether we want to follow the Word of the Lord.

File:Masolino - Banquet of Herod - WGA14245.jpgOur Psalm again cites the torrents in the southern desert.  Into the dry land of Roman power comes pouring the power of God’s Word, the power of repentance, and of the Holy Spirit, and of Jesus.  Which do we cling to?

***

It puts a shattering spin on the mild words of our reading from Philippians: “I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you.”  With joy, because the Word has come to us.  But praying, because we have chosen darkness.

“And this is my prayer that your love may increase ever more and more.”  That is the torrent in the desert, the rush of new life: God’s love, poured into our hearts, “with knowledge and every kind of perception,” to see truly, to make crooked ways straight, to prepare the way of the Lord.

What miserable puppet kings do we follow?

Immaculate Conception: The Praise of the Glory of His Grace

The Immaculate Conception is not well understood.

File:ალავერდი (მონასტერი) - Alaverdi Theotokos, Georgia.jpgIn fact, that’s why it took until 1854 for the Church to declare it a dogma.  Christians believed that Mary was sinless from the very first, and from pretty early on, the faith of the people had an intuition of something like the Immaculate Conception.  But what was it?  What did it mean?

Just as the Immaculate Conception backs up from Jesus to his mother, some people who tried to articulate this intuition of faith backed up yet another generation, and proclaimed that Mary’s parents, Sts. Joachim and Anne, had a special sexual experience.  “Conception” can refer to what the parents do, and some people thought maybe what we believe about Mary is that Joachim and Anne had an act of Immaculate Conception.  But that’s kinda weird, and not right, and the Church could not “define” the Immaculate Conception until theologians made a clear distinction that we are only saying something about Mary, not something about her parents and their sex life.

File:Gottesmutter von Wladimir.jpgAnother way of articulating the intuition of faith was that somehow Mary didn’t need Jesus, or his redemptive act on the Cross.  Sometimes when people are trying to say superlative things about Mary, they get carried away.  But to say that Mary doesn’t need Jesus is to turn the whole point of Mary upside down.  The Church said, if that’s what you mean by “Immaculate Conception,” if you’re trying to minimize the work of Jesus Christ, then no, we absolutely don’t believe that.  The Church could only define the Immaculate Conception when it was clear that this was the greatest redemptive act of Christ on the Cross, not an exception from it.

In fact, a saint like Louis de Montfort, in the early eighteenth century, maybe the greatest Marian preacher of all, is brilliant precisely at showing that when we’re talking about Mary, we’re always talking about the awesomeness of Jesus.  It’s not zero-sum, as if you have to choose either Mary or Jesus.  Rather, it’s a package deal: the more we appreciate Jesus, the more we appreciate Mary, and vice versa.

***

File:Bonaventura Berlinghieri. Crusifixion. Madonna and Child with Saints. Diptych. c. 1255. 103x123cm. Uffizi, Florence..jpgThere are other misunderstandings that still get preached, even after 1854.  Some people try to make the Immaculate Conception a constraint on God’s freedom.  Sometimes they say that Mary had to be immaculately conceived in order for her to bear Jesus.  Others, appealing to an extraordinarily bad metaphysics, say that since God could exempt Mary from original sin, he had to do it.  Poppycock.

It can be hard to get the intuitions of faith into clear theological statements, and we can have mercy on those whose statements are poor.  But those are poor statements.  The holiness of Mary is an expression of God’s freedom, not an exception to it.

***

The last misunderstanding of the Immaculate Conception, and perhaps most important, is that it makes Mary fundamentally different from the rest of us.  Sure, too many Catholics say, Mary could be holy, and avoid sin.  But Mary was immaculately conceived, and I’m not!  She’s hardly even the same species as I am!

To the contrary, the second reading for our feast, from the beginning of Ephesians, makes it all clear.  The key phrase is “for the praise of the glory of his grace.”  If you haven’t gotten to know St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, you really should.  Her letters are out of this world.  She’s a young French Carmelite nun, a lot like St. Thérèse.  And she takes this as her nickname.  I want to be Laudem Gloriae, she says, quoting Ephesians 1: nothing but “the praise of his glory,” or “the praise of the glory of his grace.”

File:Duccio di Buoninsegna 005.jpgWhat we are talking about with the Immaculate Conception is “the praise of the glory of his grace.”  It’s not about how great Mary is on her own, apart from Jesus.  In fact, the wonderful thing about pushing her “immaculate-ness” back to her conception is that it emphasizes that she did absolutely nothing to earn it.  When we call Mary “full of grace,” we don’t mean that she tried really hard, and after enough of a spiritual workout, she got to be great.  We mean that God worked his miracle in her soul, the greatest miracle of all: holiness.  The reason we talk about the Immaculate Conception—the only reason—is to praise the glory of his grace.

***

But Ephesians says too that the Father “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens.”  What happens to Mary is not unique to Mary.  In Christ, he has blessed all of us, “to be holy and without blemish before him.”  Do you want to guess what the Latin is for “without blemish”?  “Immaculati.”  That’s “immaculate” (“immaculata” is the feminine singular, and thus a name for Mary), but the “-i” makes it plural, because we are all called to be “immaculate.”  (Protestants who have a problem with us calling Mary immaculate need to start reading St. Paul.)

Or rather, not “called,” that is not the language of grace.  What Ephesians says is that we are “chosen”—“he has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world,” it is his eternal plan, in and through Christ—so that his grace can make us, too, immaculate.  “In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will”—that is, in the freedom of his love, because he can but he doesn’t have to—“for the praise of the glory of his grace, that he granted us in the beloved.”

St. Paul is amazing for his ability constantly to tie things to Jesus.

The Immaculate Conception is something we say about God’s grace: his free acts of love, transforming Mary just as he promises to transform all of us, to bring us to the glories of heaven.  The feast of the Immaculate Conception is nothing but a celebration of his grace, the praise of the glory of his grace, which he granted us in the beloved, Jesus Christ.

Are there ways you push away Mary’s “full of grace” too distant from yourself?

File:Lippo Memmi - Maestà - WGA15012.jpg

First Sunday of Advent: Anticipation

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25, 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2, Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

For the beginning of Advent, our first Sunday’ readings have us prepare for the end.

Ambrosius Francken (I) Triumph des Christuskindes c1605-10.jpgOur Gospel, in the new year of Luke, warns of final tribulations; we’re reading the parallel to the passage we read two weeks ago, from Mark.  “People will die of fright in anticipation. . . . The powers of the heavens will be shaken.  And they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”

Reading this Sunday’s Gospel (and the one from two weeks ago) with my children, I did not know quite what to tell them—this is surreal stuff—but I was glad that the Lectionary reminds me, and teaches them, to think beyond this world.  We need an “apocalyptic imagination,” to see beyond the everyday.  I read the Book of Revelation with them a few years ago: they loved it, it’s so strange and mysterious and exciting.  Our spiritual life should have that note.

***

That said, I also want to emphasize the normality of this Gospel.  “On earth nations will be in dismay,” it says, “perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”  But that roaring, though it does have an apocalyptic sound, is also normal.  The Psalms are full of this roaring: “we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea.”  “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.”  “Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the LORD on high is mighty!”

The Apostles were amazed to see Jesus still the sea.  But they were not amazed to hear the sea roar.  It roared last week in Anchorage, Alaska.

***

File:Christ entering Jerusalem icon.jpgIf you go to daily Mass, you heard this whole apocalyptic chapter of Luke last week.  Just before our Sunday Gospel we hear about the destruction of Jerusalem: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.  Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it.”

Now, as I’ve said before, I’m not a Bible scholar, and maybe I’m missing something, but: scholars think these predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem prove that Luke’s Gospel must have been written after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD.  I have no idea what year Luke’s Gospel was written.  But I do know that what happened in 70 AD was not unique.  Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians (587 BC I think, though I’m not great at these dates), after it had watched in terror as the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians (722).  Not long after they returned from exile (537) the Greeks desecrated the Temple again (168), and though the Maccabees fought back, the Judean kings themselves turned Herodian around 120 BC, and the Romans, like Pilate, took charge by 6 AD.

In short, the destruction of Jerusalem isn’t a weird thing, a unique occurance in 70 AD.  Jerusalem is always being destroyed.

The earth is always being shattered.  The Church is always being persecuted, and self-destructing.  The end will come, yes—but the surprising thing is that we are constantly shocked that the world is falling apart.

***

Mystic Marriage.jpgNo, the miracle is not destruction, the miracle is healing.  Our reading from Jeremiah might be more helpful in that regard.

“The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise.”  Justice—in our short reading, he speaks of justice four times, plus security twice—will come at last.

Now, that’s good news and bad news.  Finally the righteous will be rewarded, the Church will triumph as she should.

But would that I were righteous.  Would that I hungered and thirsted for justice as I ought.  Would that I could receive the king of love, the king of justice and of mercy, as one who longed for those things and not for their opposites.  (Mercy and justice, of course, are not opposites: the opposite of justice is injustice, and the opposite of mercy is indifference to others’ sufferings.  If only those were not such good descriptions of me.)

***

So our reading from First Thessalonians—one of Paul’s most apocalyptic letters, alongside our other apocalpytic readings—is wonderfully humdrum.  “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another.”  That’s how we can be ready to meet the Lord when he comes.

Bjc.jpgAnd how can we get ready for his return in power?  By entering into his first coming, in humility.  “We earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus . . . .  You know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.”

That’s a funny line: he gave instructions “through” the Lord?  What it means is that it is only in union with Christ that we can be ready for Christ to come.  It is only “the Lord” who can “make you increase and abound in love.”

Therefore, our Gospel concludes, “Be vigilant and pray”—pray!—“that you have the strength . . .to stand before the Son of Man.”

What would need to change for you to be able to stand without shame before the humble Lord Jesus?