The Sins of Fathers and the Hope of Fatherhood

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Twelfth Sunday: Conversion

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Paul’s answer is subtle.

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

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

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

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

Eleventh Sunday: A Severe Mercy

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

2 SAM 12:7-10, 13; PS 32:1-2, 5, 7, 11; GAL 2:16, 19-21; LK 7:36-8:3

Sheldon Vanauken, a master of the English language, wrote an autobiography called A Severe Mercy, about the premature death of his wife.  The name comes from one of the many letters in the book from his friend C.S. Lewis.  It is the only book that has ever made me weep, and I recommend you read it.

But Scripture is better.  Last Sunday’s readings give us a deeper insight into the severity of God’s mercy, the Cross that is united to our healing.

***

The Old Testament reading was the repentance of David, after his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah.

The first thing to notice is that the Psalm that follows is not Psalm 51, which David seems to have composed to express this repentance.  It doesn’t need to be Psalm 51, because the repentance that Psalm expresses is not rare.  Repentance is everywhere in the Bible.

***

In the story itself, God threatens David: “Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have looked down on me.”  It is this threat that evokes David’s repentance: “Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’”

But you might have noticed that the reading skips some verses: “2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13.”  In verses 11 and 12, the threats go deeper: God threatens to give David’s wives to adulterers, to treat him as he has treated others.  And in the verses immediately after, despite David’s repentance and God’s forgiveness – “Nathan answered David, ‘The Lord on his part has forgiven his sins, you shall not die’” – nevertheless, God does punish David by the death of the son he has conceived with Bathsheba, and David is so upset that his servants fear “he might do himself harm.”

David repents, but sin has consequences.  

***

We can think of the consequences as God’s choices: God does not want us to take sin lightly – and, more important, he does not want us to take his mercy lightly – so he shows us the depravity of sin.  

But we can also think of them as natural (and so as a deeper form of God’s providence).  Sin does have consequences.  When we act against marriage and the family, it takes no special act of God to harm our families.  It is David himself who has brought the punishment.  

Sin is horrible.  That’s why God wants to save us from it: because it is the reverse of the goodness he wants to show us.  God didn’t hurt David’s child, David did.  God made marriage and family, David unmade it.

That’s what it means when God so often punishes “even unto the third and fourth generation”: our sin itself has repercussions that hurt ourselves and our families, for a long time.  That’s why God wants to save us from sin.  That’s how good God is.

***

In the reading from Galatians, Paul tells us we are “not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”  (I pray that, now that the Magisterium has restored readings in the vernacular, we will rediscover this message.)

Goodness is God’s creation.  God alone made marriage and family, and God alone makes us able to live it.  Alone, we only unmake things.

But St. Paul goes further.   “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.  I live by faith in the Son of God, who has loved me and given himself up for me.”  

Sin has negative consequences – and Christ has joined us in those negative consequences.  He has taken on the “punishment” – the inherent pain – that comes from sin.

And so we are not alone.  We can rise again because those punishments themselves can become the place where we rediscover the good we have lost.  Christ does not unmake the punishment of sin, he redeems it.  As we experience the horror of sin, he fills us with his love – because he is there, with us in the fiery furnace.

***

The Gospel is the sinful woman who anoints Christ’s feet with an alabaster flask of ointment.

The Pharisee thinks, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”

But Christ does know.  He knows.    

Jesus says that the sinner “whose larger debt was forgiven” will love him more.  He knows that her debt becomes a path to union, when she does her best to repay it.  The ointment is costly.  Her sin costs her.

But deeper than repayment, “she wept.”  Elsewhere we read that “Jesus wept.”  

It is not in turning away from the pain that we find God, but in the hurt itself.

Where are you experiencing the punishment of sin?  How could you make that hurt a path of love?

Lead Us Not: The Anointing of the Sick

seven sacramentsWe come at last to the end of our series on the Seven Sacraments and the Our Father. We conclude with the strangest, and perhaps the most interesting, part of each.

The Anointing of the Sick is a strange sacrament. Like Confession, it deals with things we don’t like to think about.  The old name was Extreme Unction. Unction and Anointing are two translations of the same idea. The classic verse for the sacrament is James 5:14: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” The Greek for “anointing” is a slightly eccentric word, from which the Latin tradition gets “unction.” But the “oil” is the standard olive oil always referred to by “anointing.” In short, anointing and unction are two words for the same thing.

The bigger difference is “extreme” and “sick.” The old name emphasizes that the sacrament has to do with facing death (in extremis). But there was a bit of an abuse that grew up in the early modern period, parallel to the withholding of other sacraments, whereby this sacrament wasn’t given until you were basically dead. The new name, “of the sick,” is supposed to highlight that yes, it’s about facing death – but we face death before we’re dead.

All in all, this sacrament is about that strangest fact of human life: death – and the way that Jesus is present to anoint us at the hour of our death.

***

Meanwhile, our final two petitions of the Lord’s Praye r– or are they one? – are even stranger. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Lead us not? It’s not, “lead us out,” which would make sense, but “do not lead us.”  Are we really worried that God will lead us “into temptation”?  And why is it “but” deliver us? That’s a curious word, suggesting a connection between the two phrases that is not obvious.

***

If we think about the Anointing of the Sick, with some help from the Greek of the Our Father, we can get some insight.  The word for “temptation,” peirasmon, is about testing. It has the suggestion both that we can pass the test – and that we are being put to the test, facing something really difficult.  There are many tests in life – but the ultimate test is death. How will we react? Will we submit to temptation – the temptation to despair, to deny God’s mercy? All of the little tests of our life prepare us for this one. All the little times we are challenged lead us to this ultimate challenge, where we will either accept God’s mercy, extended through the sacrament of Anointing, or reject it, as we so often reject God when put to the test.

**

The next key word, however, is “into.” The prayer does not talk about being led while “in” temptation, but about being leading “into” temptation. This is even stronger in the original languages, but “into” talks about your ultimate destination. To be led “into” a house is to end in the house. To be led “through” a house is to end on the other side.

Perhaps what we are saying is, yes, God will give us tests. It is God himself who, somehow, in some hard to understand way, gives us death as the ultimate healing from sin. But death is not meant to be our end. Too many people – and too many of us, too many times – go “into” temptation, but never come through on the other side. If God is going to give us the test, we pray that he lead us “through.”

If you lead me to temptation, let me not end in it.

***

The prayer expresses this idea with the word “but.” Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. “But” signals that these are not two separate petitions. Deliver us from evil is the alternative to being led into temptation. The test itself can be our ultimate destination – we can end in death, and despair, and emptiness – or it can end with our liberation from evil.

You likely know that the “evil” of our English translations is a bit abstact compared to the Greek. In Greek, it’s in the masculine, not the neuter. Neuter would signal a thing, but masculine signals a person. And it is a definite article, “the evil one,” not just abstract “evil.” The evil one – the word has overtones of both “hurtful” and “guilty” – wants to claim us. He wants us to end in despair. We will face the evil of death – but let us be delivered by it from the grips of the destroyer.

We pray for God to lead us through the test, to pour his anointing oil on our tests, and make death itself our final liberation from evil and sin.

If you had to predict based on how you dealt with the tests of this day, how would you expect to relate to God at the hour of your death? How could you prepare for that final test better?

Tenth Sunday: The Power of the Word

 

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

1 KGS 17:17-24; PS 30: 2, 4, 5-6, 11, 12, 13; GAL 1:11-19; LK 7:11-17

Last Sunday our readings talked about prophets and healing.  The connection goes deeper than it first appears.

We are at last back to Ordinary Time.  In this third year of the cycle, we are reading through Luke’s Gospel in order.  In this section of the year, we are also reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians; since we are reading both of these things in order, the connections are somewhat coincidental, typically rich but subtle.  But the Old Testament reading is chosen for its explicit connection to the Gospel.

The Gospel for this tenth week is the widow of Nain; the Old Testament widow of Zarephath is an obvious parallel.  In both cases, a widow has lost her only son.  There are immediate emotional resonances.  These resonances are powerful, but they go deeper.

In both cases, the man of God–Elijah and Jesus–accomplishes one of his greatest miracles by bringing the young man to life.  Elijah is thus a “type,” a pre-figurement, of Jesus.  The Old Testament is like a prism, separating the intense light that is Jesus into myriad lesser lights.  The prism makes a rainbow – and all those colors are contained in the white light that enters the prism.  Jesus contains the greatness of Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Moses, David, Elijah, and all the rest.  The stories of Elijah bring out certain parts of the greatness of Jesus.  

But it is deeper than it seems.

***

In each case, the response is not just about the emotional experience of receiving the dead son.  The widow of Zarephath says to Elijah, “Now indeed I know that you are a man of God.”  The miracle points beyond the gift it gives, to the power from which that gift is given.  It testifies beyond itself, to Elijah’s message.  She adds something deeper and more specific: “The word of God comes truly from your mouth.”

So too, the people who surround the widow of Nain say to Jesus, “A great prophet has arisen in our midst” and “God has visited his people.”  This is the essence of a miracle: not only that something remarkable is done, but that it points beyond itself, to God’s deeper gifts of presence to his people.

In both cases, they note that the wonder worker is a prophet, a speaker.  “The word of God comes truly from your mouth.”  

The prophet speaks to God and for God.  “Elijah called out to the Lord.”  He remonstrated: “O Lord, my God, will you afflict even the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son.”  And he pleads with God: “O Lord, my God, let the life breath return to the body of this child.”  And “The Lord heard the prayer of Elijah.”  

Elijah is a prophet – one from whom we hear God’s word – because he is first a man of prayer, someone who speaks to God and is heard.  Yes, the miracle testifies to God’s favor in him.  But it goes deeper.  There is something deeper here, about speaking with the Lord.

***

It goes even deeper.  Elijah’s prayer emphasizes the breath of the young man.  (I am on vacation and don’t have my Bible software, but I think there are important Hebrew words here about the Spirit and the Word.)  “Let the life breath return to the body of this child.”  “The life breath returned to the body of the child.”  It is not just life that comes to the young man, but the power of speech.

In the Gospel, the same thing is explicit.  “The dead man sat up and began to speak.”  The gift of God, the gift of life, is the gift of speech.

These prophets, these men who speak God’s word, are men who speak to God and give the power of speech.  God’s spirit, his own power of speech, empowers them to prayer, it empowers them to speak his word, it empowers them to put the word into others.  God’s word that made the world gives life and speech to us.

There is more going on than we realize when God gives us his word in Scripture.  The Bible itself is this power of life-giving speech, God’s word become ours.

***

And this is the theme at the beginning of Galatians.  Galatians 1 is the central discussion of what it means to be an Apostle.  Paul is confirming the authority of his preaching.

Here, the first authority is a different kind of healing.  Whereas Elijah is proved a prophet by giving breath to the young man, Paul is proved a prophet by the changing of his speech, from persecution of the Church to proclamation.  Elijah and Jesus gave speech to the young men whom they raised from the dead; Paul was dead not in body but in speech, and Jesus restored him by giving him new speech.

Paul emphasizes that he didn’t need to learn the Gospel.  This is a strange theme: Paul did not become an apostle because he read it in a book or learned from tradition, but because God’s spirit, God’s breath, was in him inspiring his speech.  

And yet for this reason, Paul himself becomes a font of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium.  And so the central act of his conversion is to go spend fifteen days “conferring” – that is, speaking – with Peter and James, the leaders of the Apostles.  

Their words are inspired.

How can you let yourself be filled with God’s speech?

The Two Hearts and the Rosary

sacredheartThis past Friday and Saturday we celebrated the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  These feasts go together: the fruit of the Heart of Jesus is the Heart of Mary, the source of Mary’s heart is Jesus’.

But before we speak of these two hearts, we should speak of Jesus’ own two hearts.  The Sacred Heart itself is a celebration of the union of God’s heart with man’s.  The Sacred Heart is God’s heart beating in man’s, or man’s heart beating in God’s.  

This is the mystery of grace: the love of God poured into our hearts (Romans 5:5).  St. Thomas makes a kind of analogy of grace.  He speaks of the Incarnation as “the grace of union,” distinct from but analogous with sanctifying grace.  Sanctifying grace enters our hearts to unite us to God.  The grace of union is the deepest reality of Jesus.  

They are different, as the difference of being Son of God by nature and son by adoption.  In the case of Jesus, it is inseparable from who he is; in our case, a change must come about, and it can be undone.  

But they are similar, for in each case it is the union of God and man.  What happens in the heart of Jesus is what Jesus desires for us.  What happens in the heart of Jesus is what happens in the heart of Mary: God’s love poured into our hearts, total union of God and man.

***

The rosary is a kind of meditation on this union of the two hearts.  It is a meditation, first, on the life of Jesus, of God’s love in the human life of Jesus — and most deeply, in his human heart.  But it is a meditation, second, on Mary’s participation in these mysteries.  What happens in the heart of Jesus is what happens in the heart of Mary.

In the Eastern Church, they constantly rediscover the icon of the face of Christ, even tracing its outline with their fingers.  In the rosary, we retrace the face of Jesus, the heart of Jesus, rediscovering over and over again his mystery, which is the mystery that he recreates in us.

***

The Hail Mary is a meditation on the mystery of the two hearts.  It has three acts, tracing three directions in the relation between these two hearts.

The first act commemorates the action of Jesus’s divine heart on Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”  What does it mean to say Mary is full of grace?  It means that the Lord is with her.  Praying this prayer alongside the mysteries of the rosary, we see the heart of the Lord who is with her.  The Lord – the Lord whose heart is on the cross, or in agony in the garden, or rising to heaven, or making wine at Cana, etc. – that Lord, is with Mary.  

The fruit of his presence is that his heart is impressed on hers.  That is what “full of grace” means: he is with her, and acts on her.  And what he brings about is a re-creation of his heart in hers.

***

immaculateheartThe second act commemorates the similarity of the two hearts: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”  His blessing is her blessing.  And she is truly blessed.  She has all the riches that humanity can receive, the riches that set her above all her kind.  And that is the blessing of the one who, as fruit of her womb, shares in her nature.  He too, her child, has all the riches of humanity.  The two hearts are alike.

(Again and again, as we trace the faces of Jesus and Mary, we turn to their hearts, their innermost depths: that is where they are truly similar.)

***

Finally, the third act commemorates Mary asking Jesus to share this favor with us:  “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the heart of our death.”  She prays for us, asks God’s blessing on us.  

But what blessings does she ask for?  Well, she is holy – conformed to Jesus.  Because her heart is like his, she asks for the blessings that he considers blessings, the blessings of the heart of Jesus.  

That is why we, who are sinners, so close to death, ask her to pray – because as sinners, we tend to ask for the wrong blessings, so forgetful of the hour of our death and focused on things that do not endure.  She who is holy asks for the blessings of the heart of Jesus.  

And as his mother, mother of God, she has, not power over him, but influence – the influence he chose to give her, in uniting his divine heart to a human heart, becoming her child.

In the mysteries of the rosary, we trace over and over the face of Jesus, the heart of Jesus – the heart he gives to Mary, giving her true likeness to his heart, so that she can beg the same blessing for us.

What do the two hearts mean to you?

Corpus Christi Sunday: Thanksgiving

Corpus-Christi-Holy-Quotes-Sayings-Wallpapers-Messages-SMS-3

GEN 14:18-20; PS 110:1,2,3,4; 1 COR 11:23-26; LK 9:11b-17

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Now, the real day for Corpus Christi is the Thursday after the octave of Pentecost, that is, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Last week we were talking about octaves, and how a single feast is drawn out over a long time. The reason we celebrate Corpus Christi on this Thursday is that it is the very next Thursday (not counting the weeks-long celebration of Easter) after Holy Thursday. Holy Thursday contains so much. On this “next” Thursday, we separate out just the element of the Eucharist.

(Of course, in the United States we transfer the feast to Sunday. This is because of the challenges of coordinating Masses in far-flung dioceses. I used to get annoyed about transferring feasts. But hey, it’s the priests’ and bishops’ job to figure out these details, not mine. My job is to enjoy the liturgy. Kvetching doesn’t help.)

***

In the three-year cycle of the post-Vatican II liturgy, we get different angles on this liturgy. This year, we focus on thanksgiving.

The first reading is Abraham’s mysterious encounter with the priest Melchizedek. Melchizedek, of course, gets a lot of play in Hebrews as a precursor of Christ. Psalm 110, “The Lord said to my Lord,” which we pray in this Mass, identifies the Messiah as a priest “in the order of Melchizedek.”

But a nice place to go to appreciate Melchizedek is in the Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer One, where after the consecration, the priest prays:

accept [these offerings], as once you were pleased to accept

the gifts of your servant Abel the just,

the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith,

and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek,

a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.

Melchizedek is portrayed as one of the models of offering perfect sacrifice – and a model that helps explain the others.

Now, that’s surprising, because in our reading this Sunday, we see that his sacrifice hardly fits our definition of sacrifice. “Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High, he blessed Abram.” He invokes God as “creator of heaven and earth . . . who delivered your foes into your hand” – but he doesn’t destroy anything. Doesn’t sacrifice mean death and destruction?

The tradition’s answer is, no it doesn’t. Sacrifice is an act of thanksgiving and worship, manifested with material things. We have a fine model of sacrifice in the American holiday of Thanksgiving. The turkey (one hopes) does not get burned, it gets eaten. And yet that sacred banquet is itself an act of giving thanks to God most high, creator of heaven and earth, who provides and protects and gives us a place of rest.

Melchizedek gives thanks and praise, as we do in the Eucharist – it is right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give thanks and praise, which is why it is called Eucharist, thanksgiving.

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The Gospel reading this Sunday is also surprising. It is not the Last Supper – we hear about that only in the Epistle. It is the feeding of the five thousand. Now of course, in John 6, that apostle takes the occasion of the multiplication of loaves to give us Jesus’ central discourse on the Eucharist. But this year we read Luke.

All we have is Jesus: “looking up to heaven, he said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.” But the language is surprisingly reminiscent of the Mass: “and with eyes raised to heaven to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples.” That line, “with eyes raised to heaven” isn’t in any of the accounts of the Last Supper – the Roman Canon takes it from the multiplication of the loaves.

What are we to make of this? Again, the deeper point is Eucharist, thanksgiving, not destruction. Jesus gives them (as John tells us he said over and over at the multiplication of the loaves) not the bread of death, but the bread of life. He feeds them with finest wheat – his very life – and they are filled with praise and joy and thanksgiving.

***

Our epistle is 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul gives his own account of the Last Supper. He tells us the Eucharist was established “on the night he was handed over,” and “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” Yes, it does call to mind his death – but as we await his coming. This eschatological aspect of the Eucharist reminds us that he is not dead, he is victorious. His death is the mystery we pass through on the way to his life and triumph.

And so “this cup is the new covenant in my blood,” the chalice, as the Roman Canon says, “of everlasting salvation.” We are filled not with death, but with “every grace and heavenly blessing.” We celebrate his triumph with hymns of praise and not with destruction, but with a festal banquet. The Eucharist is joy.

How could you express greater thankfulness to God?

Forgive Us Our Trespasses: Confession

seven sacramentsAfter a long break, we return to the end of our series on the Our Father and the sacraments.

Our point is that the Our Father can help us think about the sacraments – and thinking about the sacraments can help us pray the Our Father well. When we say, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we can make a spiritual communion – and in thinking about the Eucharist, we can make those words meaningful. And we can do the same thing with the rest of the Our Father and the other six sacraments.

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Today we consider the penultimate petition of the Our Father, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The connection to Confession is obvious: both are about the forgiveness of our sins. But we can go deeper than the obvious.

The sacraments confer grace, but they do it through tangible means. Our sins are not forgiven in a way that leaves us out, as if some magic happens elsewhere than in our hearts. Our sins are forgiven in us.

This is expressed, first of all, in the very praying of this petition of the Our Father. Our sins are forgiven by us asking for forgiveness. They are forgiven when we acknowledge both our sin and God’s mercy.

We live in a world of cheap grace. In a way, the amoralism of our culture is a kind of deformed Christianity. On some level, our culture believes that all sin is forgiven, that God is merciful. But our culture’s understanding of this forgiveness is impersonal. Our culture’s understanding of God’s forgiveness is just that God doesn’t care about what we do, so we needn’t even ask forgiveness. God is a very distant father.

To the contrary, to ask forgiveness is a personal encounter. Pope Francis talks about the caress of God’s mercy on our sin. We are meant, not to ignore God and our sin, since our sin doesn’t matter, but to bring God into contact with our sin, by asking forgiveness.

***

This is why, to the question why we “have to” confess our sins to a priest, the best answer is to express our joy that we “get to” go to confession. The forgiveness of our sins is not something we want to avoid. It is not something we want to minimize. It is something we want to celebrate.

Confession is, of course, frightening. It is supposed to be frightening. Contrition (or attrition) means our sin makes us sad, tristis. The whole point of confessing our sin is that we realize that our sin is awful.

But we realize, too, that God’s mercy is wonderful. We solve the fear of our sinfulness not by ignoring it, but by feeling the caress of God’s mercy upon it.

We do that through the ministry of ordained priests. Wonder of wonders! The point of ordained priests is not that they are great, holy guys – in fact, it is precisely not that. The point is that they are ordained, whatever wretches they might be. The point is that they have received the special touch of Christ that is ordination.

We confess not to the priest, but to Christ. In the East, there is a practice of confessing in front of the icons, to make this point clear. But the priest makes Christ concrete. We want to hear his voice. We want to experience the shame of confessing our sin – because it is in that shame that we can feel the caress of God’s mercy.

Thus thinking of confession helps give substance to our prayer “Forgive us our trespasses.” That is the whole point of the sacraments: to give substance to words that can be said with so little seriousness. I pray the Our Father carelessly – until I imagine kneeling down in the confessional.

***

But the greater wonder is in the second part: “As we forgive.” This part is so important that in the Sermon on the Mount, it is the only part of the Our Father on which Jesus comments: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Mt 6:14).

The sacraments are powerful. They have an effect. They do something.

That is why another essential aspect of Confession, along with confessing to the priest and feeling sorrow for our sin, is penance. Contrition makes no sense if we do not change. Our penance – or, technically, “satisfaction,” which means, “doing enough” – is our first steps in the right direction.

Without those steps, our contrition is meaningless. Without those steps, it is as if we don’t really take sin seriously, don’t really care about our lack of love. Without those small first steps, it is as if the sacrament has changed nothing.

But Christ pours his grace into us. He absolves us – if we bothered to translate the word, we should say he “unbinds us,” “unties us,” lets us loose from our sin. The gentle caress of Christ’s mercy heals us and lets us go free from the suffering of sin.

The Our Father expresses this freedom, these steps in a new direction, by infusing the very experience of forgiveness with this new-found spirit of love: our being forgiven is inseparable from our learning to forgive. God’s mercy does not leave us unchanged, but gives birth to mercy in our own hearts. God’s love makes us lovers.

Where do you need to feel God’s mercy today? How could you experience it?

The Confiteor and the Profession of God’s Mercy

kyrieIn this year of Mercy, we do well to rediscover the prayers for mercy in the Mass.

Technically, we say that the Mass begins with the “Penitential Rite.” But we might do better to say we begin with the profession of mercy. We begin the Mass by professing our need for God – and his unbounded generosity.

In the sacrament of Confession, we dig into God’s mercy by thinking specifically about our sins. This is an essential complement to the Mass. And yet in the Mass we don’t take too much time to think about our sin. In the Mass, we are focused on God’s mercy.

This is the right way to start. In the readings, we continue to meditate on God’s generosity – the myriad ways of his generosity through all the pages of the Bible. (One way to listen to those readings: now and then silently pray, “O Lord, mercy.”) Always his mercy on our need.

In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we give thanks and receive the ultimate gift. Mercy, mercy, mercy.

And so we begin, we set the stage for the whole Mass that will follow, by calling for mercy, celebrating mercy.

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The older part of this celebration of mercy is the Kyrie. This is the original litany, once sung in processions on the way to Mass: have mercy, have mercy, have mercy.

I don’t think it’s helpful to criticize the liturgy; we should live it and love it, as we love the Church that gives it to us. But if there were one tiny thing I could change about the liturgical reform, it would be to restore the ninefold Kyrie. Now the priest says, “Lord have mercy,” we repeat; he says, “Christ have mercy, we repeat; etc. But it used to be just a little more complicated, with each one said three times instead of two. One of the ways it was celebrated was to go back and forth in sort of an odd way: after the priest says the third “Lord have mercy,” the people say the first “Christ have mercy,” etc.

Well, it’s an insignificant little detail – but the point is, the Kyrie is a time to dig into these words, to spend a little extra time on them, to luxuriate in the word mercy.

I use the word mercy when I teach my classes about Gregorian chant. The only point of chant, really, is to spend a little more time on the words. Mercy is the best example: apart from singing, there’s no way to enjoy that word as long as we ought to enjoy it. Gregorian chant is not designed to take forever – but it is designed to spend just a few more moments enjoying that word: Lord, have mercy.

Until the translations of the 1970s, Kyrie eleison was one of the few vestiges of the Greek liturgy. Even in Latin, you sing these words in Greek. Why? To remember that it is one of our oldest, most beloved prayers, our original inheritance. Before there was any Latin tradition at all, there was Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.

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 It was in early medieval France, in perhaps the 800s, that the Confiteor was added before the Kyrie. In fact, there’s a different spirit to the Confiteor. Where the Kyrie is said with hands raised in the form of the Cross – publicly, openly, to God, together – the Confiteor is said with hands united, looking down, introspectively.

The Confiteor is a preparation for the Kyrie. Before we sing the simple, spectacular hymn of God’s mercy, we confess our need. The first thing to know in discovering the Confiteor is that its introspection is not the point. We are not at Mass to say mea culpa, but to say Kyrie eleison. But mea culpa helps us enter into Kyrie eleison.

The greatest glory of the Confiteor is its actual petition. After saying mea culpa, we do not say, “I ask you to accept me anyway.” We say, “I ask you to pray for me.”

Here is a simple, magnificent expression of the true nature of mercy. Mercy does not leave us alone. Mercy does not leave us as we were. Mercy comes to our aid. “I am a sinner, my brother and sisters! Help me! May God help me!” With that little insight, we can launch more profoundly into the simple hymn of mercy that follows.

Lord, have mercy! Lord, help me!

How could you practice greater devotion to the Kyrie?

Trinity Sunday

Holy Trinity, Rublev

Holy Trinity, Rublev

PRV 8:22-31; PS 8:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; ROM 5:1-5; JN 16:12-15

This Sunday we celebrate the Trinity, the most obscure but also most glorious mystery of our faith.

Historically, this feast has two origins. First, it is the Octave of Pentecost. In the early middle ages, there grew a practice of recelebrating a feast one week afterwards, and every day in between. Divine Mercy Sunday is the Octave of Easter: it is like the whole week repeats the glory of Easter, and the liturgy even says that “today” is Easter throughout. One day cannot contain its glories. Christmas, too, has an octave. Pentecost was the third to get an octave – and after that, they started giving octaves to all sorts of lesser feasts.

Now, Easter season is the octave of octaves. Pentecost, the Sunday after seven weeks of seven, is the final day of this super-octave. It seems to be in for this reason that they dropped the Pentecost octave in the reform of the liturgy after Vatican II – we should think of Pentecost as part of Easter, not a separate season. But we retain Trinity Sunday as kind of a reduplication of Pentecost – that is, as a celebration that Jesus the Son of God, the victor of Easter, and the Holy Spirit, whom he pours into our hearts, are truly God from God, light from light, true God from true God.

***

There was also an independent tradition that at some places had a Trinity Sunday as the final Sunday before Advent, as the culminating feast of the Church year. The readings at the end of the year point to the end of time, and the readings of Advent to the second coming of Christ. Thus a feast was added to ponder the final mystery, the mystery in which all things culminate, the life of God.

And in fact, before Vatican II the liturgy for the feast focused less on the mystery of the Trinity than on the mystery of God. The first reading (they didn’t used to have an Old Testament reading) was from Romans: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?

The Gospel had the Baptismal formula from the Great Commission, but juxtaposed with Romans and the other prayers of the day, the point seemed only to be that we are baptized into the mystery of God. That is part of what Trinity Sunday does: it just leads us to think about God. It is the feast of God – and the feast of the mysteriousness, the unthinkability of God.

Preachers are sometimes scared of Trinity Sunday. But we should dwell on that: that we cannot understand God is precisely the point.

***

And yet the readings of the reformed liturgy do lead us into a meditation on the three persons. The first reading, from Wisdom, talks about the wisdom, the Logos, who was in the beginning with God, through whom all things were made (as John says in his prologue). Although the tradition would probably focus on the Son, you can think of it speaking of the Spirit, too: “When the Lord established the heavens I was there, when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep,” etc.

We ponder, at the end of this Easter season, the true identity of the Son and the Spirit. True God, in the beginning with God.

***

The first reading from the New Testament, from Romans, is more specific.

“We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access.”  The whole point of the original controversies about the Trinity, in the fourth century, was that Jesus can only give us access to God because he is God – and man. A bridge must reach to both sides: if he is less than God, he cannot connect us to God. But he is that great, that awesome – and our redemption is that great.

So too the Spirit: “the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Not something less than God, but God himself, as love. How great is our dignity!

And this is our hope even in “afflictions”: through the trials of life, we are in union with God himself, nothing less.

***

Most specific of all, of course, are the words of Jesus, from the prayer at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. The Spirit “will take from what is mine and declare it to you,” and “everything that the Father has is mine.” Jesus can lead us to the Father because he is true God, nothing less. The Holy Spirit, poured into our hearts, unites us to Jesus because he is true God, nothing less.

How great is the mystery of God! And how great is our Redemption! Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit!

How would your day be different if you really believed that God himself was at work in your heart?