Palm Sunday: The Perfection of Preaching

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

MK 11:1-10; IS 50:4-7; PS 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; PHIL 2:6-11; MK 14:1-15:47

Our second reading this Palm Sunday, from the Christ hymn in Philippians, says, “he humbled himself, becoming obedient.”  The Letter to the Hebrews says it more boldly: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8).  He, the all-knowing, learned obedience . . . .

What exactly does Christ accomplish in Holy Week?  He is already God – what more can the work of the Cross add to that?

***

Our first reading tells us first about the development of Isaiah the prophet himself – but also about what happens to Christ.

First he says, “The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.”  The prophet must know – must learn – how to speak to those who need his message.

Next he emphasizes the learning: “Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear.”  The prophet has to listen – and even that listening is itself a gift from God.  Lord, teach me how to speak to the weary!

But then we hear what method he learned: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.”  This method was suffering.  To speak to the suffering, the weary, the beleaguered, the prophet had to become like them, to enter into their darkness.  Perhaps, even, he had to let those who were beaten beat him – then they could hear him.

Finally, he tells how he can do this: “The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint.”  Isaiah “learns” to “speak” more than words.  He learns how to suffer for the people, because he learns – and so can teach – that God is all-sufficient.

***

What does Jesus “learn” through suffering?  He has nothing to learn, he knows all.  But he learns how to preach, how to bring his Gospel to the people.  He learns, even, how to call them in, to let them share with him.  He enters into their suffering to be near them.  He brings his nearness to God into their darkness to enlighten them and raise them up.

***

Jesus, then, says the hymn in Philippians, “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death.”  He who knew all joy learned to say in the Garden, “my soul is sorrowful even to death.”  He whose very existence was joyful obedience to the Father learned to say, “Take this cup away from me – but not what I will but what you will.”

He who was revelation itself learned to speak the words of the Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  What Christ our light “gained” through the Cross was union with us who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

“Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.”  Already he was Son, God from God, light from light: above every name.

But now he achieves a new name: Jesus.  Right there at the beginning of the Gospel, the angel told Joseph, “you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” and “they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Mt. 1:21 and :23).  He gained nothing – but closeness to us.

On the Cross, he who as God had everything “adds” to that possession the name “God with us.”  He who is fulness itself “adds” the title “he will save his people from their sins,” the name of that “name above all names,” Jesus.

***

How can we comment on the endless fullness of the Gospel of the Passion?  He learned how to preach – and there is no commentary we can add to match the nearness of that preaching through suffering.

In the spikenard and the ransom to Judas we see the inversion of our relation to money.  We see the inversion of Judas’ greed and the gentle generosity of Jesus giving bread.  We see Jesus turn politics upside down as he lets Pilate condemn him to being named King.

In the stories of Peter we see Jesus “learn” what it means to be abandoned.  But most marvelously, we see that Peter too learns – learns that Jesus knows abandonment, and so learns Jesus’s nearness to him in his sin.  What Jesus “learns” is the perfection of preaching, by emptying himself and taking the form a slave.  And so we, with Peter, learn to enter into his divinity by entering into his humility.

Where do we need to empty ourselves to let Jesus draw near?

St. Joseph

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_ProjectMarch 19, the feast of St. Joseph: deep in Lent.  But more to the point, a week before the Annunciation.  Recall what we said at the beginning of Lent: the real deepest mystery here is not the Cross, but the Incarnation, God-with-us.  God has entered into our life, with all its sufferings.  The Cross is the fulfillment, but the Incarnation is the beginning – and indeed, if God does not fill man with his presence, the suffering of the Cross is meaningless.

In short, it is right, here, deep in Lent, leading up to Good Friday, to have a little reminder of Christmas.  Emmanuel: God is with us.!

So a few Biblical reflections on St. Joseph, largely culled from a Christmas sermon by Msgr. Ronald Knox.

***

“Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”  At first glance, and in most of our translations, the picture we get is this: Joseph is law-abiding.  He finds out his betrothed is pregnant, presumably by another man.  He wants none of her – but fortunately the angel convinces him it’s okay.

Did Joseph really distrust Mary?  Was Joseph, the “just man,” that obtuse?  Was Mary’s goodness so unclear that he thought she was sleeping around?

As happens surprisingly often, the King James is a more literal, better, translation: “not willing to make her a publick example, he was minded to put her away privily.”

First: the word is not necessarily “divorce.”  (How could he divorce someone he hadn’t married?)  The Greek is more like “let her loose,” send her away.

His reasoning – not willing to “put her to shame” or “make her a publick example” – is a Greek word that just means he doesn’t want everyone looking at her.  Far from publicly rejecting her (which a divorce would surely have done), to the contrary, he wants to get her out of sight, to preserve her dignity.  This is from Matthew, but it’s interesting that in Luke, she runs away to her cousin’s house for six months.

The just man knows the dignity of Mary, and wants to preserve it.  The just man wants to do it all right.

***

The angel tells Joseph, “you shall call his name Jesus.”  Joseph has a task.  Joseph is the namer.  He is not the biological father, but he does need to act as foster father.  The genealogy of Jesus, which Matthew has just given, traces his descent from King David through Joseph.

Msgr. Knox points out something funny about the census that drove Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.  Today, a census determines how many people are in each house on a given day.  But back then, the census was done genealogically.  What Joseph needed to do was to go at some point to Bethlehem – to City Hall, as it were – and say, “I am Joseph, the son of Jacob son of Matthan; I live in Nazareth with my wife Miriam and one child.”

But that picture of the census changes the story a bit.  It’s not clear Mary even needed to go to Bethlehem with him.  There’s no indication in the text – and lots of indications to the contrary in the history – that Joseph needed to be there on a particular day.  In short, it was not Caeasar’s fault that they were in Bethlehem when Mary gave birth.  It was Joseph’s choice.

But Joseph is the namer, and the descendent of David – how proud a lineage!  How much he might have considered the importance of his task!  No, it’s not an unfortunate accident that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Joseph wanted that to happen.  The just man, attentive to detail, made it so.  He wanted everything to be just right.

***

Finally, if there was no mad rush for everyone to be in Bethlehem on December 25, the “no room for him in the inn” looks a little different.  Translated literally, it says, “there was no place for him at the journey’s end.”  Or as John says, “he came to his own home, and his own people received him not.”

When the heir of David came home, it was not the busy inn that turned him away.  It was his friends and relations who made no space for him – or had nothing better to offer Joseph and Mary than the shed where they kept the cattle.

I don’t think it bothered Joseph and Mary much: they had Jesus.  They did “receive him, and believed in his name.”

***

This Lent and Holy Week, let us imitate St. Joseph.  Let us receive Christ, make him the best space we can, do our best to love his holy name.  Let us welcome him into our human family, and accept the poverty and work and suffering that come with him, not so much because God wants us to suffer as because we count the suffering as nothing, for the joy of being with Jesus.

Are there earthly comforts you value more than the presence of God in your life?

Fourth Sunday of Lent: The Saving Punishment

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

2 CHR 36:14-16, 19-23; PS 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; EPH 2:4-10; JN 3:14-21

This past Sunday’s gospel begins with a very strange idea – very central to our faith: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.”  In the original story, “The people spoke against God . . . . Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:5-6).  God sent punishment – and it was by their acceptance of that punishment, by looking on the serpent that killed them, that they were saved.

Our Sunday readings help us to understand this strange dynamic, and what it reveals to us about Christ and Christianity.  And by teaching us the saving value of punishment, these readings give us not only a preview of Good Friday, but also a glimpse of what we are about in our Lenten penance.

***

The first reading, from the very end of the Chronicles of Israel, summarizes the exile.  “Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them, for he had compassion.”  But for the wickedness of the people, “there was no remedy.”

So God gave them the Exile: the Babylonians destroyed their city and their kingdom, and “Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon.”

The prophet nicely sums up the drama of sin: “Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,  during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest.”  The people had refused to give up their projects, to set aside their work for the Lord’s day.  So God set their work aside for them.

But then, beyond all expectation, “Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.  Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and may his God be with him!”

The Lord takes away, and then the Lord gives back.  There is absolutely nothing Israel does to gain this redemption: they do not earn it, and they do not fight for it themselves.  It is purely miraculous.

***

Our reading from Ephesians puts this drama into the language of the interior life: “God, who is rich in mercy,  because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved.”

Sin is death: death for the land, death for the kingdom, death for our souls.  And there is no natural resurrection from that death, no possible way for the sinner to become just.  Christianity is not about trying harder.  It is about resurrection: a miracle.

“By grace you have been saved . . . and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.”  The Israelites cannot pat themselves on the back when Cyrus rebuilds their temple – nor have we anything to boast about when Christ saves us by grace.

Yet we are truly saved: “we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance.”  It’s not that good works don’t matter.  It’s that the good works are a gift: just as God created us without any contribution from us, so he makes us good as a pure gift.  And so, just as we do truly exist even though we are not responsible for our existence, so we truly become good, even though we did not make ourselves good.

***

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,” says our Gospel, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

“By grace you have been saved through faith,” says our reading from Ephesians.

Faith is the recognition that we are saved by grace.  That recognition matters; it is the foundation of our holiness.  This is the lesson the people learn in the Babylonian exile: they learn that salvation is God’s free gift.  It is the lesson Moses’s people learned in the desert: we need God, and God wants to save us.

And it is the lesson we learn on Good Friday: the wages of sin are death.  We are dead because of our sins.  “People preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.”  The Cross is our lot.

But when we look to the Cross, we find God there, “who is rich in mercy,” and who will bring us new life.

Lenten penance is not about trying out works righteousness; it’s not about how if we just try harder, we can save ourselves.  It is, rather, about learning the depths of our sin, the depths of our foolishness, and longing for Christ to come and bring us to life.

How is this Lent teaching you about your own “preference for darkness,” your own need for Christ?

Third Sunday in Lent: Turning to God’s Wisdom

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

EX 20:1-17; PS 19: 8, 9, 10, 11; 1 COR 1:22-25; JN 2:13-25

This Sunday’s readings began with the Ten Commandments.  The other readings, including the Psalm, are like commentaries on this.

Immediately after the reading came the second part of Psalm 19:

“The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul;

The decree of the LORD is trustworthy, giving wisdom to the simple.

The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;

the command of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eye.”

The Psalmist does not merely obey the Law.  The Psalmist relishes the Law.  Indeed, the Psalmist’s relish turns obedience on its head.  Obedience sounds like we are following something imposed on us.  Perhaps we fear punishment, perhaps we accept the rules out of reverence for the rule-giver, but the rules themselves seem like impositions.

But to the Psalmist, the Law is not an imposition, it is a wonderful gift.  The Lawgiver is more like a fabulous teacher than like a judge.

Some day perhaps we will walk through the many levels of the Law.  But notice the words for the Law in the Psalm above: law, decree, precept, command, also ordinances.  The Tradition reads in these not only the Ten Commandments, but the hundreds of other little rules given in the Old Testament – and prefiguring the detailed guidance the Holy Spirit gives us in the “new law” of grace.  The Ten Commandments are just the beginnings of God’s wonderful teaching.

***

As the Psalm commended God’s law immediately after the reading of the Ten Commandments, so the last words of the Gospel commended it in another way.  Jesus, it said, “did not need anyone to testify about human nature.  He himself understood it well.”

Pope Bl. Paul VI called the Church “an expert in humanity”; St. John Paul II often repeated these words.  We trust the Church not just out of “obedience,” but because the Church is wise!  But the Church’s wisdom is rooted in a deeper wisdom.  God who made us, knows us.  In Jesus, indeed, the Word (the wisdom!) through whom the world was made enters into human experience: the ultimate expert in humanity.

The first half of Psalm 19, in fact, speaks of God as master of creation.  Only then does it speak of the beautiful wisdom of his law.  We trust in God because God knows what he is talking about!  What a gift to receive wisdom from him – first the written wisdom of the Law, then “not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:3).

***

But there is a problem, identified in our reading from First Corinthians.  Although “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,” Jesus seems a stumbling block and foolishness.

Sometimes people read this powerful section of First Corinthians too quickly, and completely miss the point.  It’s not that Jesus is against wisdom – any more than the Cross, followed by the Resurrection, is a lack of power.  He is very powerful!  He is the true wisdom!

No, it is not Jesus who is against wisdom.  It is us.  We are foolish.  So foolish that when we see true wisdom, we reject it.  So foolish that when God, God himself, shows us the way, we think we have a smarter way.  Just as “the weakness of God,” conquering death itself, “is stronger than human strength,” so “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.”  It looks foolish to us – because we are fools.

***

Our Psalm gives us a particular angle on this:

“The ordinances of the Lord . . .

are more precious than gold, than a heap of purest gold;

sweeter also than syrup or honey from the comb.”

Here are two kinds of worldliness: one accumulating gold, the other pursuing sensuality (even in its most innocent kind: syrup and honey!)

The Psalm puts a positive spin on it, but here is the great struggle of sin: mostly, we prefer gold and syrup to the wisdom of God.  That is our foolishness.

***

And this is the dynamic in our Gospel story, where Jesus drives them out of the temple: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

God calls them to prayer – the ultimate sweetness.  They look for gold (with which, perhaps, to buy syrup).

We can see this even at a higher level: God offers us himself, and even in our relationship with God, we are more interested in spiritual good-feelings (honey) or in how God can make our life on earth better (spiritual gold).  Notice how much of the Ten Commandments focuses on prayer – and how little of our thought turns in that direction.  We just want to fight about murder and marriage.  Well, we should embrace the Lord’s law in those things, too – but then, above all, go to meet him, and receive him, in prayer!

Lent is our time to come to grips with our sinfulness: to see how much we prefer honey (fasting) and gold (almsgiving) to the sweetness of the Lord (prayer), who is wisdom itself.

How has worldliness infected your spiritual life?

The Mountain of Lent

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

GN 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; PS 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; ROM 8:31b-34; MK 9:2-10

This Second Sunday in Lent, year B (that is, Mark’s year) presents us with an embarrassment of riches.  The Gospel is the Transfiguration, about which much should be said – but at least it has its own feast day.  The first reading is the Sacrifice of Isaac.  This reading needs really a lot of unpacking, and unfortunately the only other time we read it will be Easter Vigil, when there is too much else going on.

For now, however, let us just consider what these things have to do with Lent.

***

The Lectionary, you know, was changed, mostly in good ways, after Vatican II.  But the Transfiguration has always been the reading for this Second Sunday.  Why?

There used to be readings in this first week of Lent (the Lenten “Ember Days”) that give some different models for the Forty Days.  We know of course about Noah in the Ark and Jesus in the wilderness.

But there is also Moses: “When I went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the LORD made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water” (Deut 9:9; cf. Ex 28:18, 34:28).

And then Elijah gets chased away by Queen Jezebel: “he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die” (as we might be starting to ask, ten days into Lent!).  “An angel touched him and said to him, ‘Arise and eat,’” and gave him bread and water.  “And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.’  And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”

Both of these characters are fasting for forty days – and going up a mountain.  Both of them are beyond their strength, sustained only by the Lord.  And both of them are going up to meet God.

***

Although, interestingly, Jesus is talking precisely to Moses and Elijah in the Transfiguration, the Transfiguration isn’t about forty days.  But it is about climbing the mountain of God, and it is perhaps in that way that it it serves to frame our Lent.

Yes, Lent is a long difficult fast, a “journey too great for you.”  But in order to understand that struggle, we have to see its goal – just as, in order to understand the Israelites wandering forty years in the wilderness, we have to see the Promised Land at the end.  We are going up to meet the Lord.

A couple nice details: “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.”  A more literal translation would say, “no clothes maker could make them so white.”  We are on our journey to become clean – nay, not only clean, but dazzling, filled with the light of God.  No human power can do it.  But we go up to the mountain to meet Jesus, who can fill us with light.

The story ends with them “questioning what rising from the dead meant.”  But again: the journey is too long for us, but the power that raises Jesus from the dead will be our strength, too, our bread from heaven, our sustenance that “gives life to the world” (John 6:33).

***

The sacrifice of Isaac is a complicated story.  But notice here, too, Abraham is going up the mountain.  He is asked to make a sacrifice too hard for him, a Lenten Cross no man can be expected to bear.  But God provides – Abraham in fact names the place “God provides.” Christ helps him carry his cross, so that he can offer perfect sacrifice.

And the story ends, like our Lent, not with the death of Isaac, but with the promise of life.  “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore.”  It is the sign of God’s life-giving power.  It is worth climbing the mountain, starving and gasping for air, to meet the Lord, the giver of life, at the top.

And so our second reading, from Romans, gives the simple principle:  “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?”  Why do we fear?  Why do we hoard for ourselves?  Why instead do we not go out to meet Christ in the wilderness, and let him be our bread from heaven?

Where do you secretly ask yourself whether God is worth the trouble?

First Sunday in Lent: Christ Joins Us In the Desert

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

GN 9:8-15; PS 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 PT 3:18-22; MK 1:12-15

The Christian lives – and we find ourselves, here in February – between two great poles: Christmas and Easter.  In one, God becomes man.  In the other, that God-man dies on the Cross.  Sometimes it seems rather a tension: Christmas is so happy, Lent and the Cross so miserable.

Do you ever find it strange, when we say the Creed during Mass, that we bow down at “became man” – and then immediately stand up for “for our sake he was crucified”?  There is a kind of prioritization here: awesome as is the mystery of the Cross, we treat the Incarnation as even more awesome.

In fact there is some evidence that Christmas is not the original feast of the Incarnation; the Annunciation is, March 25.  Which is, of course, right in the middle of Passover season, a classic date, depending on the year, for Easter.

Rather than thinking of Christmas and Easter as two separate feasts, we might think of the Incarnation and the Cross as one and the same.  The Cross is simply the culmination of the mystery of God made man.

***

Our Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent is Christ going into the desert: his forty days.  We often think of Lent as an imitation of Christ’s days in the wilderness, but I think that’s backwards.  To the contrary, it is Christ who enters into our Lent.  We don’t do Lent because he did it – he did it because we need to do it, and we need him there beside us.  Christ joins us in Lent – just as the Cross is the culmination of God becoming man: he dies because we must.

Lent is our baptismal retreat.  In our Gospel from Mark, Jesus has just been baptized; he goes out to be “tempted by Satan” and “among wild beasts,” but “angels ministered to him”; and he comes back to say, “Repent!”  We need that repentance.  We are among wild beasts, and tempted by Satan.  We need angels to minister to us, and the Holy Spirit to “drive” us, as it drove him.  We need Lent.  And we need the strength of Jesus to get us through it.

We need Baptism, which our reading from First Peter calls, “not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Note first: Baptism is about a clear conscience, conversion, repentance.  It is about lifting up our hearts to the Lord, turning to God.  That’s what we do here in the wilderness of Lent.

But it is “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”: only through his life-giving power can we live this Lenten Cross as a lifting up and not a sinking down into despair.  Only Christ turns the desert into a place of praise, because only Christ can give life to the dead.

***

In our first reading, God gives Noah the rainbow as a sign of his covenant, and isn’t that sweet.

But look closer at the imagery: God has destroyed the earth through rain.  His promise is “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings.”  And the sign of that promise, the rainbow, appears precisely in the clouds, when it rains, as a kind of shield to protect the earth.  Or rather, it appears after the rain, as if, when the waters of death threaten, the beauty of God intervenes to hold them at bay.

The Cross of Christ is the rainbow – just as when Moses holds up the serpent in the desert.  When suffering and death appear – and Lent and the Cross – we look up into the darkness, and there is the beautiful Face of God.  There on the Cross is the Incarnation.  There in the waters of Baptism, with its call to repentance, is the Spirit of the resurrection.

***

Conversion hurts.  Change hurts.  Growing out of our selfishness, and pride, and yes, our sensuality: it all hurts.  (Almsgiving fights selfishness; prayer opposes pride; fasting is against sensuality.)  Lent hurts.

We need the rainbow.  We need to contemplate the beautiful face of Christ, there on the Cross, to know that God is with us through that pain.  Because, indeed, the point of all this is not suffering, but union – not the Cross, but the Incarnation.  Before he goes to die he prays that we may be united to the Father as he is united: that’s the point.

Christ offers us Lent.  Indeed, he gives death itself as a gift, a retreat, a time of transformation.  But the goal is not to suffer, the goal is, through conversion, to enter into the Unity of the Trinity.  And the means, the narrow path to survive in the desert, is a Lenten wilderness not walked alone, but side by side with Christ.  He enters into our wilderness, joins us on our retreat.

Where is your rainbow?  How does the beauty of God help you find hope in suffering?

Dust and Ashes?

AshesMed2P1210554Today let us pause for a pastoral moment.

I want to ask a question about our proclamation about the Gospel.  But before I ask it, I want to underline that I think this is a real question.  (If I believed all the answers were obvious, I wouldn’t be maintaining this website – or my career as a seminary professor!)  I propose the following as a question to think about, not as a facile answer that everyone obviously ought to follow.

***

Supposedly there was a study several years back that asked American Catholics what their favorite sacrament was.  The most popular answer was, “Ash Wednesday.”

Today’s question is: what does that mean for evangelization?

Now, obviously this is something to laugh (or cry) about, since Ash Wednesday is not a sacrament, not even a day of obligation.  Obviously American Catholics are in need of serious catechesis, first, to know what the word “sacrament” even means, and second, to know that in the sacrament we encounter Christ in a unique way.  Every sacrament – especially the most blessed sacrament – contains Christ, the creator and redeemer of the world, really present to work the Gospel in our hearts, in a way that Ash Wednesday simply does not.  To say Ash Wednesday is your favorite sacrament is, on one level, to show that you have never discovered Christ.

Fine.  Point made. Ash  Wednesday should not be your favorite sacrament.

***

But as I received the ashes this year, in a church packed beyond the limits of the fire code, from a priest with a perpetual the-Church-is-such-a-pleasant-place dumb grin on his face, stretched even wider as he imposed the ashes, as if to say, “don’t worry! we’re happy!” I had this question about evangelization.

Every day of the year that priest grins welcomingly.  Give him the benefit of the doubt: his jokes, his pleasantness, his smile, these are all done in sincere hope that people will come back.

But they don’t.  The grins don’t bring people to church.  What brings them to church, in droves?  “Turn away from sin!”  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!”

That’s very strange, isn’t it?  They say you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.  But gosh, it seems like the only time the Church is truly popular is when she tells people they are sinners who are going to die.

***

One aspect of the popularity of Ash Wednesday is surely the sheer physicality of it – one could even say, “sacramentality”: a rich but sometimes confusing word.  Ash Wednesday lets people do stuff.  (Or at least experience stuff being done.)

Anecdotally, the main place I’ve experienced young non-Catholics asking to come to church is to light candles, to be in the gloom, to kneel in front of statues.  Very strange!  You’d think – at least, many people seem to think – that in our modern age, that stuff would be repellent.  But surely part of the popularity of Ash Wednesday is the sheer mixture of physicality and spirituality: smoke, candles, statues, kneelers, ashes!

Let me say that I think this can all be very superstitious: not necessarily a good thing.  Nonetheless, it’s strange how powerful an attraction it exerts on our contemporaries.  Maybe the tradition had a better knack for evangelization than we realize.

***

But at Ash Wednesday, the focus is not on candles – candles never draw people the way Ash Wednesday does.  Candles, in fact, are a lot more upbeat than Ash Wednesday.  (Aren’t they?)

Soot on your forehead.  “Repent!”  “To dust you will return!”  That’s what distinguishes Ash Wednesday – and what draws the crowds.

One of my favorite saints is Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican itinerant preacher in the fifteenth century.  This was his strategy: he went from town to town basically preaching Ash Wednesday.  With anything in history, it’s hard to know how exaggerated the numbers are – did he really draw tens of thousands to hear him tell them to fear hell? – but anyway, it’s historically undeniable that the guy was spectacularly popular.  And really . . . negative.  He preached the Gospel, to be sure.  But always a Gospel tied up with repentance and death and ashes.

Times change.  Vincent Ferrer’s time was miserable: full of war and plague and famine.  Miserable people, maybe, are more attracted to this message than are fat rich Americans.  That’s a good point: there’s plenty of room for asking what speaks to people in our time.

***

But the strange thing is, even today, what draws the crowds is Ash Wednesday.  Maybe, as in the time of Vincent Ferrer, instead of compelling people to go to Mass and receive communion – surely not the wisest part of our Ash Wednesday ministry – we should set up free-standing Ash Wednesday apostolates, with preaching about death and sin and repentance and opportunities to take on physical penances.  (The second most popular part of Catholicism?  Lenten penance!)

Or maybe not.

So I conclude with a serious question, a question to which I don’t know the answer:

What does the popularity of Ash Wednesday mean for your work of evangelization? 

Lent and Our Baptism

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

We now begin the great season of Lent. So what are we doing? Before we decide what we are doing concretely, it would be good to know what the theological point is.

Historically, Lent developed like this: first, there was Easter, the annual solemn commemoration of Christ’s Death and Resurrection.

Then there was a question of when to baptize converts. The theology of Baptism is about Easter:

“We are buried with him by baptism into death: that just as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom 6:4-5).

Baptism is a death to our old way of life – a death united to the death of Christ, and therefore a rising to new life, relying not on our own strength, but on the strength of God, which brings physical resurrection as a symbol of spiritual resurrection: new life, moral reform, and above all new spiritual life, to call God Father and live as if we believe it. Baptism is the beginning of this new life.

So it made sense to celebrate Baptisms at Easter.

***

But how to do this right? Easter itself should be fully celebrated, treated as the awesome event it is. But we completely misunderstand Christ if we do not see the way that he transforms our entire life. His death and resurrection does something to us. Baptism, by which we are plunged into Easter, does something. It does not leave us the same.

Baptism is about conversion, newness of life. Baptism – like all the sacraments – is about Christ transforming us, changing us, filling us with the power of his Spirit.

So part of solemnizing Baptism (and Easter), part of proclaiming what it really means, is to enter more deeply into the life of conversion.

***

Lent is originally a pre-Baptism retreat. There are three key aspects of that retreat.

The first is prayer. Above all, Baptism is about being united to the Father, falling in love with the Father, discovering our happiness in the Father, as Christ is supremely happy in union with the Father. Baptism without prayer – joyful, adoring prayer – is meaningless. So it makes sense to prepare for Baptism by spending time in prayer.

But union with Christ, and the Father, and the Holy Spirit also unites us to all others who are united to them (the Church, in the deepest sense) and all who are called to that union (all of humanity). And so a second pillar of the pre-Baptism retreat is almsgiving: the joyful embrace of our neighbor, in all his need. Almsgiving is a nice approach: it’s not that we seek our happiness in our neighbor – we seek our happiness in the Father! – and so we focus on our neighbor’s needs, embracing him in mercy and charity.

Finally – and, really, third, though also important – we dig into this truth that nothing but God can truly make us happy. That’s the true meaning of fasting: to take a step away from the other things that we use as replacements of God. Fasting from food is a brilliant approach: because we do need to eat, so we can’t treat food as an evil. Instead, we can change it from being our end to being only a means, eating enough to keep ourselves going, but not seeking our happiness in food, and even accepting a little pain in our bellies.

Prayer, almsgiving, and fasting: experiences of what Baptismal conversion really means.

And of course, we all need to rediscover our Baptism, so the last step in the development of Lent was the rest of the Church joining the Catechumens in this Lenten practice, rediscovering our own conversion.

***

Interesting that it comes before Easter, before Baptism.

First, it must be said that grace is at work in us even before Baptism: it is the Holy Spirit who draws us to the font. We don’t magically begin our Christian life after we receive the sacraments. The “magic” is that Christ works in us to draw us to himself in the first place.

Second, we do receive grace in a new way in the sacraments. Part of the pre-Baptismal Lenten retreat is the experience of longing: longing to be better at fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Yes, part of Lent is the experience that we’re not very good at this. Even for us who have been baptized, part of Lent is begging Christ to continue to transform us, begging for that baptismal grace to permeate us more deeply.

Third, our Lenten penance gives way before Easter joy. In the end, the Gospel is good news; ultimately the Christian is full of joy, not penance. Heaven won’t exactly be full of chocolate, but all our longings will be satisfied: the fast ends with a feast.

How can you think about your Baptism this Lent?

Sixth Sunday: For the Glory of God

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

LV 13:1-2, 44-46; PS 32:1-2, 5, 11; i COR 10:31-11:1; MK 1:40-45

Our readings this Sunday open very simply. The first reading is from Leviticus. The Gospel is going to be about the healing of a leper, so we start by reading part of the Old Testament rules about lepers. You can get a better sense of this if you glance at the reference in your Missal: “Reading 1: Lev. 13:1-2, 44-46.” Verses 1-2 and 44-46. What do you suppose is in the middle? More of the same!

But the basic point is made clearly in the second part: “The one who bears the sore of leprosy . . . shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”

The Hebrew is even more dramatic: instead of “he is in fact unclean” it just says, “he [is] unclean.” It’s just a fact.

The law seems harsh. He has to dwell apart, alone. He has to tell everyone he sees to stay away from him. And there is much else besides, in verses 3-45.

But the only thing harsh is the reality. Leprosy is a horrible, and very contagious, disease. He is unclean. What misery.

***

Mark’s Gospel continues to rush along. After the first physical healing, last week, this week we have the first leper, and the first request.

The dialogue is bracingly direct. “If you will,” says the leper, “you can make me clean.” “I do will it.” English is a cluttered language. In Latin it’s just, “Si vis.” “Volo.” The horror, not just of the Old Testament, but of humanity, the paradigmatically horrible disease of leprosy, is completely subject to the Lord’s will.

Volo. Poof! Jesus has power over nature, power to heal.

***

Again comes the same little theme in Mark. “See that you tell no one anything.” “The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad.” “People kept coming to him.”

Jesus wants to heal – he “wills it”! But he does not want to be known merely as the physical healer. His works have a deeper mystery in them, somewhere higher he “wants” to bring us. The one who has power over leprosy has power, too, over our loneliness, our distance, our sin. He has power to unite us to the Father.

With Ash Wednesday this coming week, we take our long break from Ordinary Time. But if we continued, the next reading would be the paralytic to whom Jesus says, “your sins are forgiven.” “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?”

It’s a wonderfully paradoxical question: it’s easier to say “your sins are forgiven,” but vastly more difficult to accomplish the true healing of sin. But the point is, He who has power over one has power over the other. He heals the paralytic, and the leper, not so people will come find a miracle worker, but so that they will find a Savior.

***

Our second reading continues our tour of First Corinthians. It is just four verses, but very rich.

“Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. . . . I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.”

First: the glory of God. There is a direction in all this. There is direction in the miracles: Jesus doesn’t come just so we can heal leprosy (wonderful as that is). He does not come to make us comfortable in this world. He comes to lead us to the glory of God.

But we can put the same point the opposite way: he leads us to the glory of God through healing. There is direction in all this. No, physical healing is not the end – but it is the means, the path, the way.

So second: Paul does “try to please everyone in every way.” Our works of healing, of whatever kind, do have significance. Paul does not try to please because pleasing people is an end in itself. No – he is “not seeking his own benefit.” In fact, Paul isn’t seeking his own healing – except for the supreme healing that Jesus offers him.

Healing is not an end in itself: but it is the means, the way that Jesus shows his love, and his power to save, and the way that we show Jesus’s powerful love to the world.

Where are you called to bring healing?

Fifth Sunday: Hope in the Word of Christ

Goodness gracious is life full and overwhelming! Thank God for the joy of the Gospel! I pray I will soon be able to write more regularly. For now, I again offer a meditation on the Sunday readings a couple days late. It is from the nourishment of the liturgy, from Scripture read with the Eucharist, that comes all our hope. If I can do nothing else, let me meditate on the Sunday readings, and find hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

***

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JB 7:1-4, 6-7; PS 147:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; 1 COR 9:16-19, 22-23; MK 1:29-39

Mark’s Gospel continues to rush along. This week we had Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law, going away to a deserted place, and coming back to preach in the villages. We can get a better sense of the drama if, again, we see the order of events.

In verses 1-8, we begin with John the Baptist – we read that on the Second Sunday of Advent.

In 9-11, Jesus was Baptized (Baptism of the Lord, the first Sunday of Ordinary Time).

In 12-13 he (very briefly!) goes out to the wilderness to battle the devil (First Sunday of Lent).

In 14-20, he calls the first apostles, to be fishers of men (Third Sunday).

In 21-28, he preaches, is recognized by the demons, and his fame spreads everywhere (Fourth Sunday).

Then in 29-39, this last Sunday, the Fifth, Simon’s mother-in-law is his first physical miracle; then he does lots of miracles; then the crowds follow him to solitude; then he comes back to preach.

Quite a rush of activity! Mark doesn’t want us to miss the point. He compresses it so we can read it all together – but he also eliminates details that might distract us. Note, for example, that he is famous before he has done any miracles, merely for his preaching and casting out demons. We have noted the rush to repentance. We have noted Jesus’s own focus: he has a message of repentance to preach, and does not want us to get ahead of ourselves, lest we proclaim ourselves orthodox before we have repented of our sins.

***

Another way to view Mark’s tight composition in chapter one is to look at the order of Jesus’s words.

His first saying is: “repent!”

His second is: “follow me!”

His third, to the demon who identifies him without repenting, is: “be silent!”

And this week, his fourth saying is, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also.” Driven.

***

Notice three kinds of miracles in these readings from Mark. At the lowest level, and last in Mark’s presentation, are his physical healings. A step above (and, in Mark, before) those is casting out demons. And a step above (and before) those is his preaching, his all-powerful word.

What is the casting out of demons? Let’s think of it as internal healing. Today, we might say there are two kinds of psychological healing. Some of it is physical, chemical: we flatter ourselves that “we know now” that epilepsy, for example, or even depression (sometimes) is more a physical ailment than a spiritual one. Fine: Jesus has the power to cure bodies, too! Other kinds of “psychological” ailments, however, are of a more spiritual nature, relating to sin and even to the impact of various kinds of demons: and Jesus is master over those, too.

But this upward motion, from healing our fevers to healing our brain chemicals to healing our spiritual ailments, culminates in his preaching: “For this purpose I have come,” he says. Not just to wave a magic wand, but to speak the truth to us – the truth about God, the truth about man, the truth about repentance and worship – and to heal us precisely so we can embrace that truth.

The people chase after him because he heals their bodies, but also because he heals their souls, and speaks with authority.

***

The reading from Job reminds us why we long for his word. Our “life on earth” is in so many ways “a drudgery.” We are like “a slave who longs for the shade.” At night we lie awake and are “filled with restlessness until the dawn,” and so many of our days “end without hope.” Lord save us!

The people rush out to hear him, not because he lays a new burden them, but because his word is hope, healing, peace, rest. How we need his word. How we need him.

***

In our reading from First Corinthians, Paul says, “woe to me if I do not preach!” He has given up “my right,” and instead “made myself a slave to all,” “weak, to win over the weak.” He has given his life “to all, to save at least some.”

The richness of the Gospel, as always, comes through in two directions. First, Paul has found the pearl of great price. Jesus’s word, the Gospel, the truth of his healing, is worth loosing everything for. Worth giving his life for: worth following Jesus to the wilderness, and through the villages, and deep into repentance, because this alone is true life.

But in so doing, Jesus and his Spirit come to dwell in Paul, so that he too becomes the messenger of Jesus’s Gospel, an instrument of his grace.

How do you let Jesus preach his Gospel to you?