Twenty-First Sunday: God Builds the Church

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 22:19-23; PS 138: 1-2, 2-3, 6, 8; ROM 11:33-36; MT 16:13-20

Our Sunday readings this week teach us about the presence of God within the Church.

The Gospel reading is Matthew’s great account of Peter’s confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”; “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. . . .  I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

There are many rich ways to approach this text.  I would like to focus on the words, “I will build.”  “I.”

***

Our reading from Isaiah gives a parallel.  “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open.”  Clearly there is a parallel to when Jesus says to Peter in our Gospel, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom.”  Jesus is invoking this Old Testament parallel.

But the deeper parallel is not the keys.  The deeper parallel is “I.”

The reading begins with God speaking to the previous master of the palace.  “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station.”  The authority belongs to God.  It is God who drives Shebna out.

Then, “I will summon my servant Eliakim. . . I will clothe him with your robe . . . .  I will place the key . . . .  I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot.”

The part about the peg is nice: God has full authority.  God is in charge of the House of David, so fully in command that he can make things fit perfectly.

It is this divine power that explains Eliakim’s authority: “when he opens, no one shall shut” – because behind Elikaim is God.

Even deeper, “He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah.”  Eliakim can be a father only because of the power of God behind him.

***

So too Peter – and his successors, both the popes and even the bishops.

“I will build my church,” – I! – “and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”  Peter is not stronger than the netherworld.  But God is.

“Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  I hope it’s obvious that Peter has absolutely no power to affect this – unless God not only gives him the power, but upholds it, at every moment.  It is because God builds the Church that the Church has authority.

(The binding and loosing, by the way, is the root of the power of Confession – our penance is the “binding” part.  It is also the root of the power of Indulgences, and the works of penance that gain them.)

The Church is a work of God.  It is God whom we trust when the Church teaches, when the Church administers the sacraments, and when the Church gathers us together in unity.

***

Behind this is a deeper work of God.  “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus says, “but my heavenly Father.” See the way God works internally.  Just as God is able to give Peter the keys, so God is able to give Peter the faith.  God is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.  God illumines Peter so that Peter himself makes confession.

Even deeper, the conversation begins, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is.”  “Son of Man” is a phrase from the psalms.  It emphasizes that Jesus is man.  But Peter recognizes that Jesus is “Son of God.”  Among other things, the Incarnation shows just how intimate God is with his creation.

***

Our reading from Romans takes us to the deepest theological roots of this intimacy.  The reading begins with the inscrutability of God’s judgments.  But it concludes, “Who has given the Lord anything that he may be repaid? For from him and through him and for him are all things.”

Our inability to “know the mind of the Lord” only underlines that he is absolutely before us.  He makes us, not we him.

God has absolute authority over his creation because he made it: it is from him, and through him, and for him.  It is altogether in his hands.  God can speak to us interiorly, and cause us to make an act of faith, because he is our maker.  God can establish a Church, and a Pope, and bishops and priests and sacraments, because Creation is altogether in his hands.  He can work through it because it exists through him.

Are there places where we overlook the Providence of God in our view of Church teaching, or the sacraments, or the fatherly discipline of the household of the Church?

The Queenship of Mary

coronationTomorrow we celebrate the feast of the Queenship of Mary.  The feast comes on the octave of (that is, one week after) the feast of her Assumption.  The Assumption celebrates Mary passing from this world to the next, and is the bigger feast.  But as a conclusion of that feast, the Church gives us a meditation on what heaven is like for Mary.  Mary is Queen.

***

Now, the first thing to see here is that this privilege is not unique to Mary.  St. Peter says we are a “royal” or “kingly priesthood” (I Pet 2:9).  Paul says, “If we be dead with him, we shall also live with him.  If we suffer, we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:11-12).

And in John’s great book about heaven, Revelation, he says, “God made them a kingdom and priests, and they reign on earth” (Rev 5:10).  “I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast, nor his image, nor had received his mark upon their foreheads,or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (Rev 20:4).  “They shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years” (20:6).  “There shall be no night there; and they need no candle, nor light from the sun; for the Lord God gives them light.  And they shall reign for ever and ever” (22:5).

As in all things with Mary, she shows only the perfection of union with Christ, the highest perfection to which all are called.

***

Mary, and Mary’s Queenship, simply shows us perfect conformity with God – reigning with Christ, by entering into Christ’s reign.

The greatest theologians say it is unclear how exactly Mary reigns with Christ – or, in what sense Mary is “Mediatrix of All Graces,” as Catholic piety sometimes wants to say.

Does Mary herself distribute God’s grace?  Or does she merely ask God, and he does whatever she asks?  Garrigou-Lagrange, for example, says we don’t know.

What’s interesting is that it amounts to the same: what Mary asks for, happens – because Mary asks for exactly what Christ wants her to ask for.  She reigns because she has perfect conformity to Christ’s plan.  To be perfectly part of his kingdom is to share in his reign.

***

The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit are always useful for thinking through what grace really means, and who Mary is – but they are especially helpful here.

In heaven, Mary has perfect wisdom.  She sees God, and in seeing God she sees all things perfectly, and the place all things have in God’s perfect plan.  Her reign is founded first on seeing as God sees.

From this flows also perfect understanding.  In the Beatific Vision, Mary understands all of Scripture, all of Christ’s words, all the ways he intends things to be.  A perfect Queen is so at one with the King that both would order the same thing.  That is Mary.

Next comes the gift of counsel, which merely means that in the difficult cases, the Holy Spirit illumines her eyes to see the relevant detail, and so to know exactly what is necessary to make the perfect choice.  We call Mary “Our Lady of Good Counsel” because she sees as God sees.

From counsel flows the gift of fortitude.  Completely caught up into conformity with Christ through the driving force of the Holy Spirit, and so with her eyes completely on the Father, Mary never fails to follow through, never gives up before the time.  We could say Heaven is less like being stuck in a place then like having the strength to cling tenaciously to the clouds.  Mary never fails.

Then comes the gift of knowledge, which is merely the created side of the gift of wisdom: Mary sees and appreciates creation exactly as God wants it.

The center of creation is the children of God.  The gift of piety means Mary loves God’s children, the citizens of his city, the way they deserve to be loved – and so participates perfectly in his providence for them.

And finally, the gift of fear, like the gift of fortitude, means she shudders ever to fall away, would never take her eyes from God’s goodness and his perfect plan.

It is the gifts of the Holy Spirit that make for a perfect sharing in the Kingship of Christ.  We look to Mary to see the possibility of our reigning with him, and to see the gentleness and the goodness of his reign.

How could we meditate on Mary so as to help us focus more on the reign of the Holy Spirit in us?

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Let All the Nations Come

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra AngelicoIS 56: 

IS 56:1, 6-7; PS 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 7, 8; ROM 11: 13-15, 29-32; MT 15:21-28

This Sunday’s Gospel is very strange.  A Canaanite woman comes begging mercy for her demon-possessed daughter.  At first Jesus doesn’t answer.  Then he says what seems obviously untrue: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But when the woman compares herself to a dog, eating “the scraps that fall from the table,” Jesus heals her daughter.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”?

***

The first reading – from Isaiah, in the Old Testament “of the house of Israel” – holds the key.

The New Testament is like the end of a great mystery novel (or indeed, of any great novel, for any great story makes us long to know the conclusion).  Yes, now we know the solution.  But that only makes the rest of the story more interesting.  We don’t know who the Messiah is if we don’t know and love the Old Testament he fulfills.

***

Isaiah speaks of “the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD.”  You probably know that when “LORD” is capitalized, it is because it is a circumlocution for the unspeakable name revealed to Moses, YHWH.  These foreigners are not joining themselves to the abstract God of everywhere.  They are joining themselves to the God who has revealed himself to Israel.

The reading details this emphatically.  It describes them as “loving the name of the LORD”: the “name” speaks of his revelation, of joining the people who know him as by name.

The foreigners in question “keep the Sabbath.”  To worship God is of the natural law.  But to keep the Sabbath is to share in the worship he revealed to Israel.

They “hold to my covenant” – in general, his relationship with Israel – and come “to my holy mountain,” Zion, the temple mount in Jerusalem.  They “make joyful in my house of prayer,” the Temple, and offer “burnt offerings and sacrifices,” the sacrifices of the Law, “on my altar.”

And so this, “my house,” the temple in Jerusalem, “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” – those of every race and tongue and people and nation (Rev 5:9).

***

This image is absolutely essential to the Bible, and to our Catholic faith.  Salvation is not individual.  As Vatican II put it, “God does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring men together as one people. . . . That is why he chose the race of Israel as a people unto Himself.”

“In Christ Jesus you who once were far off” – not members of that nation – “are made near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of partition between us, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances, to make in himself from two, one new man, so making peace” (Eph 2:13-15).

By giving the Holy Spirit, Christ destroys the divisions between nations.  But this is not to send us off as individuals.  Rather it is to bring us together, to intensify the unity of Israel and to welcome all into it.  The Church, the new Israel, is more perfectly one.

***

The liturgy barely touches Paul’s difficult discourse on Israel in Romans 9-11.  This week we get a small taste.

“The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable,” he says.  The promises to Israel are not annulled.  The Old Testament is not gone, it is fulfilled.

We “have now received mercy because of their disobedience.”  That is, the failure of Israel to follow the Law by their own strength has taught us to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit (which Paul has just discussed in Romans 8).

But “by virtue of the mercy shown to you,” the strength of the Holy Spirit now fulfilling Israel, “they too may now receive mercy,” and so fulfill his promises to his chosen people.

***

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

He was sent to the lost sheep, those who strayed from the perfect unity he desired for his holy people.  But in bringing the lost sheep back to that unity, he also brings all nations together as one, so that “my house of prayer shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

The God who dwells in this people is not a God of scarcity, but one whose mercy overflows, like the scraps falling from the table.  Those who gather around his table, knowing the abundance that is there, he indeed showers with his grace.

Are there people you have a hard time imaginging gathered around Christ’s table?  Could you live greater devotion to his plenty through your relationship with those people?

The Assumption of Mary

dormitio2

Readings for the Vigil Mass: 1 CHR 15:3-4, 15-16; 16:1-2; PS 132:6-7, 9-10, 13-14; 1 COR 15:54B-57; LK 11:27-28.

Readings for the Mass During the Day:  RV 11:19A; 12:1-6A, 10AB; PS 45:10, 11, 12, 16; 1 COR 15:20-27; LK 1:39-56

Mary is the perfect proclamation of the Gospel, the good news of God’s love and salvation.  Tomorrow we celebrate the Assumption, not only of Mary’s body – though that is essential – but of Mary herself.  This is the Gospel: that God draws us, our very selves, into heavenly union with him, through Christ our Lord.

The readings for our feast are exquisitely beautiful.  So rich are they for this grandest of feasts that the liturgy gives us two distinct sets of readings, one for the vigil, one for the day.  There is too much for just one liturgy.

But we will try to contain ourselves, and touch on them all in less than 800 words.

***

The Vigil’s reading from Luke warns us against misunderstanding.

“Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!”  “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”  The Gospel is not about our bodies.  The Assumption is not about the body of Mary.  It is about clinging to God’s word.  (The Greek is more personal than “obey”: it’s about guarding and keeping.)

***

Yet there is a relation between our heart, where we cling to God’s word, and our body.  Our body is where we live it out – but the relation goes even deeper.

The Vigil and the Daytime liturgies both read from 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul discusses the resurrection.  The Vigil gives us the ending: “the sting of death is sin . . . .  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Daytime reading tells us more.  Death is “the last enemy.”  It is the ultimate enemy, the destruction of our very selves.  Pagan mythology sometimes came up with consolations for death, by claiming it was a liberation.  But those consolations were necessary because it is so obviously the ultimate destruction.

Maybe we can glimpse some of the awfulness of death through the words of St. Thérèse.  Amid all her sweetness and joy, as she lay dying, she also said things like, “I was lost in darkness, and from out of it came an accursed voice: ‘Are you certain God loves you?’”  “Oh! how necessary it is to pray for the agonizing! If one only knew!”  “Dear Mother, the chalice is full to overflowing! I could never have believed that it was possible to suffer so intensely.”

Death is horrible, because it is the destruction of our very selves.

***

But death begins with the sin of Adam: “death came through a man . . . all die in Adam.”

And on the other hand, Christ rules over all: “he hands over the kingdom to God the Father,” “For Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”

Sin brings death because sin is the destruction of our selves.  Christ destroys death because he brings life to our souls, and so brings everything, even our bodies, into the kingdom of our Father.

The Resurrection, and the Assumption, is just part of bringing everything to the Father.

***

The Daytime Mass also gives us Revelation 12, the battle between the woman, the mother of him “who is to rule over all nations,” and the dragon.

We hear the same story, told a different way.  The dragon brings destruction, even of the physical world: “His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven.”  He hates God’s creation; sin is hatred of God’s creation.

But God brings protection, even of the physical world: “the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God,” and there is even a mysterious invocation of God’s care for time: “for one thousand two hundred sixty days.”

At the center is the Incarnation: “the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. . . . But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne.”

Christ, who is to rule over all, brings all things, even the body, into the Father’s kingdom.  The victory, though, is not the body’s.  The victory is Christ’s.

***

At the Vigil Mass, Jesus says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”  But at the Daytime Mass, in the same Gospel of Luke, Elizabeth says of Mary, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary – not her body, not her disembodied soul, but Mary herself – is the one who hears the word of God and guards it, in her heart, in her womb, in her footsteps to the house of Elizabeth.  That’s why her voice, her bodily presence, brings joy to Elizabeth’s womb.

And that’s why Mary, Mary herself, body and soul, is taken up to heaven.

Are there parts of us that we that we find irredeemable?  What would it mean to let Christ rule even there?

Aparecida on Ecclesial Places for Communion

brazil-popeWe are now deep into the central second part of the Aparecida document, “The Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples.”  On our way to the last chapter of that part, on formation, we have considered what it means to call the Gospel “good news,” and how Jesus calls us to holiness.  But the last chapter before the one on formation is on the Church as communion.  We are made holy not just as individuals, but as members of the Church, loving one another and entering more deeply into the Body of Christ.

After laying out the general theme of communion, this chapter contains two more detailed accounts of how that communion is lived out: in particular “ecclesial places,” and in the various specific vocations.  Today we look more at the places.

Ecclesial Places for Communion

i.      The diocese, privileged place of communion

ii.      The parish, community of communities

iii.      Basic ecclesial communities and small communities

iv.      Episcopal conferences and communion between the churches

***

The parish comes second.  Aparecida will call the parish, “the privileged place in which most of the faithful have a concrete experience of Christ and ecclesial communion.”  But first it will talk about the diocese.

Perhaps we don’t think much these days about diocesan life – but today it is more important than ever.  The first-century martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of Pope Francis’s favorite saints, said, “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”  Ignatius repeats this theme in various ways in all of his writings.

The bishop, in fact, is important precisely because of the importance of the diocese as a local community of the Church.  The bishop leads the diocese, and represents its unity.  Schism with the bishop is a loss of communion with the local Church itself.

***

To understand why requires a brief meditation in political philosophy.  Aristotle calls the city the “complete community,” because it is there that, for the first time, we can fully live life.

The family is of utmost importance, of course, the foundation of everything else.  But families need to join with other families: to find spouses and friends, to provide for themselves, and above all to have a cultural life, with everything from music to museums to sports.  It is on the level of the “city” that we live a fully human life.

In the modern context, we can simply say that a “diocese” – the Church’s analogue to the city, built on the old Roman administration of cities and their outlying districts – roughly encompasses all the people who cross paths in the course of an ordinary week.

Now more than ever our life is not lived just on the level of our neighborhood, or parish.  We live in a diocese.  (Of course we also cross diocesan borders – but the diocese is meant to mark out, roughly, the broader borders of a complete human life.)

The diocese gathered around its bishop simply signifies all of life being lived out in communion with the Church.  So central is this experience to the living out of Catholic faith that the tradition gives the diocese itself the name “church” so that the universal Church can be called a communion of the local “churches.”

***

But of course we experience the Church most tangibly at the level of the parish.

The gathering of the parish actually expresses deep insight about the truly human, and truly Christian, life.  We come together around the altar as a people.  We discover Christ, not merely as individuals – as important as individual prayer also is – but above all as members of the Body, gathered to hear the Word of God and receive the sacraments, and solidfied as a people by our activity as Church.

And where, too, we most concretely learn what it means to love one another, by loving our actual neighbors.  Parish life, in a sense, really is Christian life.

***

But Aparecida reminds us that the parish is a “community of communities.”  We also live our life in smaller groups, which the Latin Americans have long called “basic ecclesial communities.”  These “basic communities” can be formal or informal, a group that meets regularly with an agenda, or simply a gathering of friends.

The deeper insight is that we learn what communion means also through Christian friendship.

***

Finally, of course the Church also transcends the local community.  The heart of the bishops’ conferences and their international activity  is precisely the recognition that the Church is communion, working together, standing together as the Body of Christ.

Do we live out communion practically?  How could we be more committed to our dioceses, our parishes, and our Christian friendships, as well as the wider Church?  

 

Thomas Aquinas on the Incomprehensibility of God

St Thomas AquinasIt’s good to be reminded that God is beyond us – that what makes him God.  It’s even, says St. Thomas, a way of knowing God: to know him as the one you cannot fathom.

 It’s also good to be reminded that someone like Thomas Aquinas glories in God’s unknowability.  That is, you don’t have to be anti-intellectual in order to rejoice in the unfathomable depths of God.  To say either you like to think or you appreciate mystery is a false dichotomy.  Indeed, I think St. Thomas would say we can appreciate God’s unfathomable depths best when we try to fathom them.

Here’s St. Thomas, in the midst of talking about different ways to know God:

 

But some come to knowledge of God by the incomprehensibility of the truth.  For every truth which our intellect can contain is finite – for, as Augustine says, everything known is within the limits of the knower’s comprehension.  Thus it must be that the first and highest truth, which is above every intellect, would be incomprehensible and without limits: that is, God.

So in Psalm 8 it says, your magnificence is lifted up above the heavens, that is, above every created intellect, angelic or human.  And this is because, as the Apostle says, he dwells in inaccessible light (1 Tim 5:16).  Isaiah says, I saw the Lord setting upon a thrown, high and lifted up.  By lifted up he means, above all knowing of created intellects.

And John reminds us of this incomprehensibility when he says, No one has ever seen God.

-From the commentary on the prologue to John’s Gospel

The Psalms on the Prosperity of the Wicked

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

The next line of our Psalm 26 says, “I do not sit with wicked men.”  It alerts us of another key challenge in the Psalms.  Why do the wicked prosper?

The Psalms open with a common theme of the Old Testament (and in its own way, the New): “Blessed is the man that walks not in the counsel of the ungodly . . . whatever he does shall prosper” (Psalm 1:1, 3).

Just two weeks ago we talked about the line “your goodness is before my eyes.”  The Psalms claim that God is good to us: he makes us happy, and is a good king, who judges justly.

But that’s not the way it is, and the Psalms know it.  “I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. . . .  Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world, they increase in riches” (73:3, 12).

Indeed, they prosper at the expense of the good: “The cords of the wicked have wrapped me up, but I have not forgotten your law” (119:61).  It isn’t always our fault.  Sometimes we do what we’re supposed to do, and the wicked win.

In fact, it seems like they win all the time.  The righteous are crucified, while those who ignore God seem to have all the fun.

***

This is such a challenge that our Psalm 26 goes on about it at length:

“I do not sit with wicked men

Nor join with the deceitful

I have hated the gathering of those who do evil

And I do not join with the impious.”

The Psalmist has to insist – and we have to repeat these lines to ourselves – because the company of the wicked is attractive.  It seems like they have all the fun.  It seems like the wicked prosper.

Let’s be concrete: how often are we tempted to participate in a media that forgets God, the moral law, and basic justice?

How often are we tempted to drive, or do our work, or build our homes, like those who have forgotten God?

It seems like we would have a happier life if we joined in.  And  it seems like their “wickedness” isn’t doing them any harm anyway.

The Psalmist’s answer to this is emphatic: do not conform!  Do not bargain!  Do not sit with the wicked.

***

The Psalms do not deny the prosperity of the wicked.  Rather, they say, “do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who brings wicked devices to pass” (37:7).  We have to learn how to see their prosperity and not fret.

Perhaps the heart of the answer is in a line like this: “with your own eyes you shall see how the wicked are repaid” (91:8).  Or as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “they have their reward.”

The Psalms – and our faith – call us to recognize that there are different kinds of rewards.  Does crime pay?  Well, yes, in some ways it does pay.  A certain road may indeed be the fastest way to get you to a given destination – the question is where you want to go.

The best way to make a lot of money may indeed be through wickedness.  The question is whether money is what you really want.

You can “see with your eyes” the way they are repaid.  That doesn’t mean, “you can see them punished.”  It means, yes, they get the material things they want.  They built their big house.  The punishment, on the other hand, might be precisely what you can’t see with material eyes.

***

The first Psalm says, “Blessed is the man that walks not in the counsel of the ungodly . . . whatever he does shall prosper,” but there’s a catch.  The questions are what such a man actually does, and what he counts as prospering.

That is, someone who goes to Mass might not make big money if he starts a business.  Because someone who is truly righteous won’t be out to make big money anyway: that isn’t the “prosperity” he seeks.  And so profit-making may not even be “whatever he does.”  Even if he starts a business, he might have other things in mind than making big money: like caring for his customers and his workers.

Meanwhile, “The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind drives away” (1:4).  The prosperity they win is real, and tangible, and visible.  But it isn’t what lasts.

Are there parts of your life where you have your eyes on the wrong prosperity?

Click here for the entire series on praying with the Psalms.

 

Nineteenth Sunday: The Still, Small Voice

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

1 KNGS  19:9a, 11-13a; PS 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14; ROM 9:1-5; MT 14:22-33

This week we again have a deceptively simple Gospel story. Again, like the parables, there is more than meets the eye.

“Jesus made the disciples get into a boat . . . . The wind was against it. . . . ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.’ . . . ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ . . . ‘Lord, save me!’ . . . ‘Why did you doubt?’ ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’”

Again, the story is rich and beautiful and stirring even on its surface level. Jesus is Lord of Creation – “consubstantial with” the “maker of heaven and earth.” He can save us, but we must trust him. Good!

***

But the liturgy takes us deeper into the riches of this he story by setting it against Elijah and Romans.

The story from First Kings is the “still small voice.” Elijah knows God, and God speaks to him, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.”

There follows “a strong and heavy wind . . . crushing rocks before the LORD” (pretty impressive!), an earthquake, and a fire – “but the LORD was not in the wind.”

Our translation says there was finally a “tiny whispering sound.” Now, there’s an insight in that translation. God is not just in the excitement – not just in the walking on waves and calming of storms, but also in the tiniest details. And though destruction is impressive, and may go “before the LORD,” God is not in destruction. The real presense of God is more subtle than that.

***

But I think in another way our translation is unfortunate. The old King James has “a still small voice,” and so far as I can tell from my concordance (I am not a Hebrew scholar, but have some good tools), the tiny whispering is not just a “sound” but a “voice.” The Hebrew word seems to be about calling, beckoning, and Elijah’s response is to go out to meet it.

He not only hears a sound. He is called. And indeed, what follows (after what we will hear at Mass) is instructions.

God is Lord of nature, yes. He can walk on the sea and still the waves, and that is important. But more important is that he calls to us, speaks to us, converses with us, and tells us the way we should go. God is more intimate than just impressive miracles.

***

Our reading from Romans is a little obscure. It begins the very difficult chapters 9-11, in which Paul discusses the plight of the Jews. Paul is a Jew, and loves the Jews: “I could wish that I myself were accursed . . . for the sake of my people.” And Paul insists on the truth of the Jewish faith: “theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” Christ does not annul Judaism, he fulfills it.

The connections to our other readings are subtle. Paul begins, “my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart,” yearning for the salvation of his people.

This is a very fine statement, close to the heart of Paul’s teaching. “My conscience joins with the Holy Spirit.” It is the still small voice. God speaks to us interiorly. He enlightens us, illumines us – and so sets Paul afire, with “great sorrow and constant anguish.”

God doesn’t just do miracles. He speaks, and his word is life.

Paul works throughout to explain the continuity of this with “the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” All of that speaking in the Old Testament is the same God who speaks to Paul – and to Elijah, and to Peter. He is a God who shows us the way to him, and tells us about himself.

***

Let us return, briefly, to the Gospel. The reading begins strangely: “Jesus made the disciples get into a boat . . . while he dismissed the crowds.” He sets them up. Their obedience to his word prepares them to receive his miracle.

And at the heart of that miracle is a dialogue:

“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

“Lord, save me!”

“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

It isn’t about walking on water. It’s about hearing his words of peace, calling out to him, and learning to trust.

How could we find more opportunities to heed his promises to us?

St. Dominic and the Rosary

1143_jesus_handing_rosary_to_st_dominic_4f5e857a19fb7Tomorrow is the feast of St. Dominic (1170-1221). I must acknowledge that he is far and away my favorite saint (after Mary), the driving inspiration of this Web site.

Recent scholarship has not been kind to the tradition that St. Dominic invented the rosary – or that Our Lady gave it to him, and he promoted it. Dominic was a great lover of Mary in an age when Mary was greatly loved, but none of the myriad stories of his time make any mention of the rosary as we now know it. Bl. Alain de la Roche (1428-75), the great promoter of the rosary in the fifteenth century, is the first one to tell stories of Dominic and the rosary.

Nonetheless, we can learn much about both St. Dominic and the rosary by thinking about their connections. We might even be able to uncover Bl. Alain’s basic insight.

***

Dominic founded an Order of Preachers. His mission began in an inn in southern France. The innkeeper had embraced the Albigensian heresy, which claimed an evil creator of the material world. Dominic talked with him through the night to bring him back to Christ, our incarnate Creator and Redeemer.

Dominic realized that bad ideas can destroy our spiritual life, and that good ideas lead to spiritual life. Dominic was not an academic, nor was the innkeeper. The mission of preaching is no “intellectual exercise.” It was preaching: speaking the truth about Christ, believing that that truth is saving, and healing, and redeeming. It was about nurturing faith by setting forth the image of Christ in all its richness.

***

In truth, Dominic’s mission begins before that night, as an Augustinian canon in Old Castile, in Spain. Before Dominic was a preacher, he was a contemplative. He lived the life of Scripture, praying the Psalms and pondering the saving words of divine truth.

Dominic discovered, first in his own spiritual life, that Christ is worth contemplating, worth discovering in all his richness.

Modernity (and perhaps some significant parts of modern Catholic spirituality) has lost some of this richness. We tend to think pictures are more valuable than words, and feelings more real than truth. The problem is that the pictures are of our own making; the Word is from God. And the Word can take us deeper into the reality of Christ than any of our pictures, nice as they may be: only words can tell us “this is my Body,” “my Lord and my God.”

Dominic’s Scriptural spirituality – truly the traditional spirituality of Catholicism, in every era before the modern one – begged Christ to tell us about himself. It found in his Word a God infinitely more wonderful than we can imagine.

***

Today we (heirs, really, of nominalism) use “intellectual” as a bad word, to mean someone who cares about ideas more than reality. Or at best, we say things like “men, like fish, are caught by their heads”: as if the word serves to “catch” men, but isn’t part of their real encounter with Christ. Once we convince them, it sometimes seems, they enter into a vague, word-less spirituality.

With Dominic it was not so. He was in no sense an academic – indeed, his most faithful, immediate successor as Master of the Order, Bl. Jordan of Saxon, was famous for dragging men away from the university, to the life of radical poverty and total devotion to prayer and preaching, and the early rules of the Order prohibited even the liberal arts except insofar as they aided the study of Scripture.

But Dominic was a preacher, who gave his life to using words, especially the words of Scripture, to speak to ordinary people about Christ, and to lead himself and others to Christ.

***

Dominic did not preach the rosary as we now know it, with its cycle of mysteries. But we do know that at his time people prayed Hail Mary’s on cycles of beads, as a stand-in when they did not have access to Scriptural prayer. (There were 150 Hail Mary’s to match the 150 Psalms.)

Bl. Alain seems to have invented the cycle of mysteries to facilitate the praying of the Hail Mary. But Dominic knew the value, for simple people and university professors alike, of meditating on the words of Scripture, especially that most central proclamation of the Gospel, the Hail Mary.

Bl. Alain added the mysteries to help us enter into the words, just as the images in church help us ponder the words of the liturgy. The real insight of St. Dominic, and of the rosary, is that those words are the Gospel truth.

How could you better listen to the words of Christ?

Aparecida on the Communion of Missionary Disciples

brazil-popeThe next three weeks we will examine chapter five of the Aparecida document, on “the communion of the missionary disciples in the Church.” We are learning, in Part Two of the document, about “The Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples,” and we on our way from the chapter on holiness to the chapter on formation.

But Aparecida pauses for a long chapter – the second longest, after the one on formation – on communion, the Church. The context explains the importance of the chapter. What does holiness mean, and how do we achieve it, form people to it? We cannot rightly answer those questions without a vivid appreciation of the importance of the Church in our lives.

Aparecida rightly approaches the Church through the lens of “communion.” The Church is hierarchy, yes, and sacraments. But even more fundamentally, the Church is communion, the body of Christ, the spiritual conjoining of Christ and all those who are united to him. This is the central teaching of the Second Vatican Council: the Church is communion. But it is an utterly traditional teaching, a restatement and more vivid appreciation of the Council of Trent, of the medievals, the Fathers, and Scripture.

To envision Christianity without communion – true communion, with the universal Church – is to envision a Christianity without Christ, because if we are joined to Christ, we are joined to all others who are joined to him.

***

This chapter passes through five sections:

 5. The Communion of the Missionary Disciples in the Church

     a. Called to Live in Communion

     b. Ecclesial Places for Communion (i-iv)

     c. Missionary Disciples with Specific Vocations (i-v)

     d. Those Who Have Left the Church to Join Other Religious Groups

     e. Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue

          i. Ecumenical dialogue so that the world may believe

          ii. Relationship with Judaism and interreligious dialogue

The first section states the theme, as we have above. The next four discuss the living out of that theme. Sections b and c are long, and we shall discuss them at greater length in the next two weeks. Here we merely outline.

The idea of “places” for communion makes communion concrete. We live in the Communion of Saints, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We pray for the souls of the Church in purgatory. We obey the teaching of the Church, and love her Tradition. But these can all fade into mere ideas if we don’t live it out practically.

At the heart of Jesus’s preaching is love of neighbor. Simply put, it means that true communion in the Church is either lived in relation to our neighbor, or not at all. Neighbor is a brilliant term. In English “neigh” is from “nigh,” or “near” – the point is more vivid in Greek and Latin.

Christ’s insistence on the “neighbor” is simply an insistence on “place” in our living communion. Yes, we love the universal Church. But as material beings, we love it by loving the people who are near to us, the ones we actually see and deal with. This is where we discover what communion really means. More on that next week.

***

The next section considers “vocations.” The insight is straight from St. Paul: to love the body is to recognize that there are different parts, with different roles. The communion of the Church is not a “heap” of identical members – not a pile of fingers, which would be no body at all – but a rich interrelation of different vocations.

This is the second aspect of living communion: to embrace our own vocation, to accept the vocations of others, to love the appropriate diversity within the Body of Christ. Like love of neighbor, this is what makes communion real. We will discuss it more in two weeks.

***

As the sections on “places” and “vocations” discuss communion within the Church, so the sections on “those who have left” and on “interreligious dialogue” discuss our relation with those outside the Church.

The simple insight is that the way we think about these things is entirely related to how we think about communion.

We see – for fallen-away Catholics, for non-Catholic Christians, for Jews, and for those of other religions – the tragedy of being, in various ways and degrees, separated from the body of Christ.

And we see our call to invite them back, not only to a certain dogmas or practices, but to the communion, and indeed, neighborliness, that those dogmas and practices undergird.

Are there areas of your life that you need to think about in terms of communion?

Click here for the entire series on the Aparecida document.