Twenty-Fifth Sunday: Biblical Social Thought

As I mentioned in my last post, my son has been in and out of the hospital, and so I haven’t had as much time to devote to writing these reflections.  I wish I did, I think it’s good for me.  But Deo gratias, things finally seem to be clearing up, and maybe life will settle down again.  Thanks for all your prayers.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

There’s an important part of the Bible, the Tradition, and the Magisterium that we in America tend to ignore.  It’s often called Catholic Social Thought, and many people who consider themselves orthodox tend to think they can ignore it, based on the assumption that it’s ignorant of the laws of economics.  I used to think that way, until I studied what the Church really teaches.  I found that it’s neither so stupid nor so optional as I had thought.  It’s an important part of letting our faith permeate our lives.  And this past Sunday’s readings give a good opportunity to think about it.

***

The reading from the prophet Amos is hard hitting.  “When will the new moon be over, you ask.”  The Old Testament, like traditional Catholicism, had many feasts.  Although the main purpose was to worship God, a central part of the practice was to step away from economic work.  In addition to the Sabbath, every month (not on the full moon, when the pagans celebrate, but on the new moon), God’s people were to set aside their economic work and focus on God.

The desire to get back to money making highlights what Jesus says in this week’s Gospel: a servant cannot serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

“We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating.”  Alongside defrauding God, the Old Law also forbids defrauding our neighbor.  The ephah was the measure for flour; it’s tempting for the seller to give the buyer less than he’s paid for.  The shekel was the weight for measuring gold; it’s tempting for the the seller to take more money than the buyer bargained for.

The examples of the fixed scales nicely cut to the heart of Catholic social thought.  We can talk about the laws of economics till we’re blue in the face – and actually, the Church acknowledges that social policy should be based on a good understanding of what “works” economically – but alongside those issues, there are moral issues.  Free market, sure – but beware the constant temptation to cheat.

The next line pushes the issue a little further: “we will buy the lowly for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell.”  We saw how the seller can cheat.  But the buyer can cheat too.  And here’s the real danger: the poor are easy to take advantage of.  Enslaving someone “for a pair of sandals” cuts to the heart: when someone is desperate (for clothing, for example – notice Jesus puts clothing the naked alongside feeding the hungry, etc.) they may be willing to be cheated.  But it’s still cheating.  So too with “the refuse of the wheat”: they might be so starved that they are willing to buy junk – but that doesn’t make it right to take their money.

***

The reading from First Timothy is not obviously connected.  “God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved.”  Well, first, there must be a recognition that there is “one God . . . one mediator . . . Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all.”  At the heart of the “preferential option for the poor” is the recognition that Jesus died for them, too – and where he gave himself as ransom, we should not look for easy profit.

But Paul isn’t primarily talking about all being saved.  Actually, “who wills everyone to be saved” is part of saying, “I ask that supplications . . . be offered for everyone.”  The point is not that everyone will be saved.  The point is that we pray for everyone.

Especially, he says, “for kings and for all in authority.”  Well, this isn’t about the poor at all.  But it is about social thought: those with power, whether political or economic, need conversion.  And we want their conversion, too, so “that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life”: we pray, also, for the right to live Catholic social thought, to live justly.

***

In the Gospel, Jesus commends a “dishonest steward for acting prudently.”  But it’s a funny “dishonesty”: the “dishonesty” of forgiving debts.  Then Jesus says we need to be “trustworthy with dishonest wealth” – or rather, “faithful with the mammon of unjustice”.  That is, in the economic realm, where we are all tempted to cheat and take advantage, we should focus not so much on getting rich in this world as on storing up riches in heaven.

Our deeper concern – and the concern of the Bible and the Church in their social thought – is not how to make a buck, but how we can use our economic life to grow in charity.

In what ways do you think people in our society are tempted to value things more than people – to “fix the scales” – in our economic relationships?

Twenty-Third Sunday: God’s Plans

Thank you to all my readers who have prayed for my son Joseph while he was in the hospital.  The news, in short, is that he is home, but still waiting for something to heal – and there is no guarantee that it won’t heal without surgery.  So please do keep praying for us!

 

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

As the second readings of the Sunday Lectionary take us through the Epistles of the New Testament, this week we get a taste of the shortest of Paul’s letters, Philemon.  Philemon was the owner of the slave Onesimus.  They were both Christians.  Paul speaks here, in a different key from his other letters, about the relation of slaves and masters.

It is sometimes said that the value of science fiction (or also fantasy, like Tolkien or Lewis) is to put human beings in a circumstance very different from usual – and thus to discover what remains true of us in all circumstances.  There is something of that in the differences of earthly vocation.  Paul uses slave and master, the greatest distance, to bring out the essential sameness of human persons.  Slave or master, here or in space or in Mordor, we are human beings.

In our reading, Paul has taken the slave Onesimus to be with him for a time.  Now he sends him back to his master Philemon.  He says, “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for awhile, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.”

As things are moved around, we discover what they truly are.  When Paul can dislodge Onesimus from the standard order of things, Philemon can rediscover him for what he truly is, a brother in Christ.

***

“Perhaps this is why.”  The first reading is from the Wisdom of Solomon.  Its central point is that the reason God’s plans don’t make sense to us is not because they are senseless, but because we are.

I have spoken of this problem before.  Modern Christianity has a tendency to exalt God’s freedom and “will” as if God’s actions were without intelligence.  But no, Scripture is so clear: everything makes perfect sense to God.  Everything is orderly.

But for us, says our reading today, “the corruptible body burdens the soul, and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.”

There are at least two ways the “corruptible body” darkens our intellects.  One is passion: we are so fixed on our own little expectations that we cannot sit back and discover God’s plan.  A second is indeterminacy: we cannot follow through on our plans, nor can anything we see infallibly hit its mark, and so from our perspective, the world often seems random.  But it is not random from God’s perspective.  He has a plan.  He has a way.

***

In our reading, Paul says, “perhaps this is why.”  But our reading from Wisdom says, “Scarce do we guess the things on earth . . . .  Who ever knew your counsel?”

Perhaps it is important that Paul says “perhaps.”  We don’t know why things happen.  We don’t know why Onesimus was born a slave, Philemon a master, some of us rich, some of us poor.  We are so quick to assume we have it figured out, and so to harden our ways.  “Onesimus deserves to be a slave!”

Instead we should focus on what we do know: God has called us to love.  And he has a plan, for Onesimus and for Philemon, to discover his love.

***

Our Gospel is the infamous, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children,” etc.

This reading too focuses on knowledge.  Most of the reading is taken up with Jesus’s metaphors of starting projects – building a tower or going to war – without proper planning.  The punchline is: “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions” (or rather: “all that he has,” including family) “cannot be my disciple.”  We should plan ahead, and recognize the cost of discipleship.

But we can go a step deeper in light of our other two readings.  Obviously Jesus does not want us to hate our families.  But he does want us to realize that we don’t know his plan.  Like the slave master, we can be tempted to think we know exactly what role God wants us to play in the lives of our families.  Things harden in our foolish little plans.

Let go, says God.  It’s not that everything is random, that family doesn’t matter.  But you don’t know what plans God has for your family, how he wants to use those relationships, where he will take you.

Even in the metaphor of army and building, it’s not that the wise men know exactly what’s going to happen.  It’s that they have the flexibility to adapt to events.

God’s plans are richer than ours.  Let us not be too quick to think we’ve got it all figured out.

 

What parts of your life would benefit if you weren’t so sure of what’s supposed to happen?

On Mass at the Hospital and True Participation

Dear readers, I have had a hard time keeping up with this website the last few weeks because I have been in the hospital.  My oldest son, who is paraplegic, had a major surgery for scoliosis at the end of July; he and I spent almost a week in the hospital recovering.  The next few weeks we were at home, and those weeks were also hard – I have found that disability and hospitalization have not been hard in the ways you’d expect, but have been hard in ways I didn’t expect.  Then last weekend there were some Sistine Adamcomplications from the first surgery, and our doctor told us to go to the emergency room.  Then there was another minor surgery, a small infection, and another week we have spent in the hospital.  We aren’t home yet, but it looks like we’ll go home Monday.

 

Exhausting.

 

(But by the way: Joseph’s doing great.)

 

Now, I might write this to apologize for not keeping up with my reflections here, but actually, I want to make a theological point.  (It’s actually a point that explains why I want to keep writing these reflections, as much as I can.)

 

***

 

Most of these days I have managed to get to Mass.  But what is Mass like when you’re exhausted in the hospital?

 

On one level, it looks like not having the strength to pray, flopping in the pew with my mouth hanging open, trying to remember where I am.

 

But it means more than that – and this is an important point about liturgy and about grace.  The thing is, the Mass (and the Liturgy of the Hours, and the quasi-liturgical rosary) gives me an opportunity not just to sit slack-jawed, but to have intense moments of prayer.

 

St. Thérèse used the image of an elevator.  God does all the work – which is good when I haven’t the energy to climb the stairs.  But I really rise.  The divine elevator doesn’t leave my behind.

 

I don’t have the words to pray – but the Mass does, and now and then I can grab on to those words and pray with the full intensity of the Mass itself.  We are not meant to sit there slack-jawed.  We are meant to participate in the greatness of the action.  In the Mass, Christ puts himself in our empty hands, so that we who have nothing to offer can offer all the awesomeness of God and of the Cross.

 

***

 

The key to Christology is that Christ is not part man and part God, he is 100% God and 100% man.  Normally it doesn’t work that way, you can’t be two natures in one person – but in this case, it is not a zero-sum game.  He doesn’t have to be less man to be more God, or vice versa.

 

(Creation, actually, is parallel.  The sun is not less a sun for being created.  It is 100% created by God and 100% the sun.  This is how the relationship between God and the world works.)

 

It is the same way with grace (and the liturgy).  It’s okay to say that we “cooperate” with God – but far too often we imagine it’s 50% God and 50% man – or in hard times like this, maybe 98% God and 2% man.  We can be tempted to say God prays “for us,” in our place, so that it’s okay that we sit there slack-jawed, because anyway, God’s doing the work.  He goes up in the elevator so we don’t have to.

 

When we sin, it’s like 100% God and less than 100% man.  We are not receiving all that he has to give us.  We are at 50% – or far less.  But when we are weak, it is not like that.  When we sin, it’s like God is pouring water, and we are moving our glass out of the way.  But when we are weak, it is more like we have a smaller glass, but God still fills it all the way.  (That’s another Thérèse image.)

 

When I get distracted at Mass because I don’t love God, I don’t pray as much.  When I get distracted at Mass because I am exhausted, in some sense I also don’t pray as much.  But there’s a big difference between leaving my glass empty because I refuse to receive, on the one hand, and on the other hand, having my tiny weak glass completely filled by the awesomeness of God.

 

The point is: we are supposed to pray at Mass.  That is the whole gift, the whole point – of Christianity, really: God acts on us so that we can receive his fulness, so that we can be, not only active (on our own) but “activated,” brought to life by his touch.

 

Moments of exhaustion are a great time to discover that God does great things in us.

 

When have you experienced God bringing you to life?

George MacDonald on Fear of the Lord

George MacDonald was a nineteenth century dissenting Protestant who wrote amazing fiction.  People like Chesterton and C.S. Lewis attribute their conversions to his stories.  The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel, The Princess and Curdie are among the best fairy stories I’ve come across – and the great fairy story writers, like Tolkien, agree.  I do not know how to write a short sufficient recommendation of At the Back of the North Wind.  It is extraordinary.

In an idle moment, I recently pulled off the shelf C.S. Lewis’s book on George MacDonald.  I did not realize it’s an anthology, mostly snippets from MacDonald’s preaching.  Lewis’s praise is superlative: “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.”  I am eager to read the other fantasies Lewis recommends: Phantastes (which Lewis says made his conversion), The Golden Key (with pictures by Maurice Sendak!), The Wise Woman, and Lilith.

Well, I’ve only read – slowly – the first couple passages in this anthology, but they are exquisite, and mostly focused on a topic I love but have had a hard time expressing, fear of the Lord.  Here are a few splendid snippets:

When we say that God is Love, do we teach men that their fear of Him is groundless?  No.  As much as they fear will come upon them, possibly far more. . . .  The wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves God made shall appear.

For that which cannot be shaken shall remain.  That which is immortal in God shall remain in man.  The death that is in them shall be consumed.  It is the law of Nature—that is, the law of God—that all that is destructible shall be destroyed.

 

The man whose deeds are evil, fears the burning.  But the burning will not come the less that he fears it or denies it.  Escape is hopeless.  For Love is inexorable.  Our God is a consuming fire.  He shall not come out till he has paid the uttermost farthing.

 

And is not God ready to do unto them even as they fear, though with another feeling and a different end from any which they are capable of supposing?  He is against sin: insofar as, and while, they and sin are one, He is against them—against their desires, their aims, their fears, and their hopes; and thus He is altogether always for them.  That thunder and lightning and tempest, that blackness torn with the sound of a trumpet, that visible horror billowed with the voice of words, was all but a faint image . . . of what God thinks and feels against vileness and selfishness, of the unrest of unassuageable repulsion with which He regards such conditions.

 

Can it be any comfort to them to be told that God loves them so that He will burn them clean? . . . They do not want to be clean, and they cannot bear to be tortured.

 

How should the Hebrews be other than terrified at that which was opposed to all they knew of themselves, beings judging it good to honor a golden calf?  Such as they were, they did well to be afraid. . . .  Fear is nobler than sensuality.  Fear is better than no God, better than a god made with hands. . . . The worship of fear is true, although very low: and though not acceptable to God in itself, for only the worship of spirit and of truth is acceptable to Him, yet even in his sight it is precious.  For He regards men not as they are merely, but as they shall be; not as they shall be merely, but as they are now growing, or capable of growing, toward that image after which He made them, that they might grow to it.  Therefore a thousand stages, each in itself all but valueless, are of inestimable worth as the necessary and connected gradations of an infinite progress.  A condition which of declension [that is, downward movement] would indicate a devil, may of growth indicate a saint.

 

He will shake heaven and earth, that only the unshakable may remain: he is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal.  It is the nature of God, so terribly pure that it destroys all that is not pure as fire, which demands like purity in our worship.  He will have purity.  It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship thus; yeah, [it] will go on burning within us after all that is foreign to it has yielded to its force, no longer with pain and consuming, but as the highest consciousness of life, the presence of God.

 

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Francis on Parishes

pope francisWhenever this pope opens his mouth . . . .  I know there are a lot of people saying that whenever Francis opens his mouth he causes trouble.  Unfortunately, I think those people are reading media reports, instead of what Francis actually says.  Whenever I read what he actually says, I find it outstanding.

 

Here’s part of his off-the-cuff talk with the Polish bishops.  So practical, so real:

 

True, the dechristianization, the secularization of the modern world is powerful, very powerful. But there are also those who say that while it is powerful, there are also clear indications of religiosity, of a reawakening of the religious sense. This too can be dangerous. I believe that in this highly secularized world we have also the other danger, that of a gnostic spiritualization. Secularization makes it possible for us to indulge in a spiritual life which is a little gnostic. We remember that this was the first heresy in the Church – the apostle John went after the gnostics, relentlessly! – it consists in a subjective spirituality, without Christ. For me the bigger problem with secularization is dechristianization: removing Christ, removing the Son. I pray, I feel… and that is all.  This is gnosticism. [. . .]

 

What would I advise? I would say – but I believe it is in the Gospel, where there is precisely the Lord’s own teaching – closeness. Today we, the Lord’s servants – bishops, priests, consecrated persons and committed laypeople – need to be close to God’s people. Without closeness, there are only disembodied words. Let us think – I like to reflect on this – of the two pillars of the Gospel. What are the two pillars of the Gospel? The Beatitudes and Matthew 25, the “criteria” on which all of us will be judged. Concreteness, closeness, touching, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

 

“But you are saying all this because it is fashionable to speak about mercy this year!” No! This is the Gospel! The Gospel, the works of mercy. It shows us the Samaritan heretic who is moved, does what he has to do, and even risks his money! To touch. Then there is Jesus, who was always with people, with the disciples, or alone with the Father in prayer. Closeness. Touching. This is Jesus’s life… And when he was moved, at the gates of the city of Nain (cf. Lk 7:11-17), he went over to touch the bier saying: “Do not weep…” Closeness. It is closeness to touch the suffering flesh of Christ. The Church, the glory of the Church, is of course the martyrs, but also all those men and women who left everything to spend their lives in hospitals and schools, with children and with the sick…

 

[…]

 

The works of mercy: to touch, to teach, to console, to “waste time”. To waste time. I was very pleased once: a man who went to confession was in a situation where he couldn’t receive absolution. He had gone with a certain apprehension, because he had been sent away several times before: “No, no, go away”. The priest listened to him, explained the man’s situation, and told him: “But you keep praying. God loves you. I will give you my blessing. Do you promise to come back?” This priest “wasted time” in order to draw that man towards the sacraments. That is what closeness means.

 

[…]

 

Then too, young people. Because we have to talk about young people during these days. The young are “a bother”! Because they always come and say the same things. “Here is what I think…” or, “the Church should do this or that…” We need to be patient with young people. I knew a few priests when I was young. Those were the days when people went to confession more frequently than now. Those priests spent hours listening to the young, or received them in the parish office to hear the same things over and over, but they did so patiently. And then, to take young people out into the country, to the mountains… Think of Saint John Paul II. What did he do with the university students? Yes, he gave them classes, but he also went with them to the mountains! Closeness. He listened to young people, he spent time with them…

 

There is one last thing I would emphasize, because I believe that the Lord asks it of me: grandparents, the elderly. You suffered under communism, atheism. You know that it was the elderly who preserved and passed on the faith. The elderly possess the memory of a people; they preserve the memory of the faith, the memory of the Church. Don’t waste the elderly! In this throwaway culture, dechristianized as it is, we discard whatever is not useful or helpful. No! The elderly are the memory of a people; they are the memory of the faith. To connect young people with the elderly: this too is closeness. To be close and to build closeness.

 

That is how I would respond to the question. There are no easy answers, but we have to get our hands dirty. If we wait for the doorbell to ring, or for people to knock on the door… No, we have to go out and seek, like the shepherd who goes out to seek the lost sheep. Anyway, that’s what I think…

 

[…]

 

“A parish is exhausting if it is well organized. The renewal of the parish has to be a constant concern of bishops. How is this parish doing? What is it doing? What is its religious education programme like? How well is catechesis being presented? Is the church open? So many things… I think of one parish in Buenos Aires. Whenever an engaged couple arrived to get married, the secretary would immediately begin by saying: “Here are the prices”. This is wrong, parishes like this are wrong. How do we greet people? How attentive are we to them? Is someone always in the confessional? In parishes – not those in the country but in city parishes and those on the highways – if there is a confessional with the light on, people always come. Always! A welcoming parish. These are the questions we bishops should be asking our priests. “How is your parish doing. Do you go out? Do you visit the imprisoned, the sick, the elderly? What about the children? Do you have a place for them to play? What about the oratory? The oratory is one of the great parish institutions, at least in Italy. There kids play and learn a little catechesis. They come home tired, happy, and a good seed has been sown.

 

So the parish is important! There are those who say that the parish is no longer relevant because this is the hour of the movements. That is not true! The movements help, but the movements must not be an alternative to the parish. They must help in the parish, contribute to the parish, like the confraternities, Catholic Action and so many other groups [that is: in the past, too, there were organizations that helped parishes]. To want to innovate and change the parish structure? What I am saying may seem heretical, but it is how I see things. I believe the parish structure is analogous to the episcopal structure, different but analogous. The parish cannot be touched; it has to remain as a place of creativity, a reference point, a mother, all these things. It is where that inventiveness has to find expression.

 

The Heavenly Mysteries of August

 

dormitio2The months of July and August were renamed in the last century before Christ.  They had been called “fifth month” and “sixth month” (like September, October, November, December; the year used to begin in March) but they were renamed for Julius Caesar and his adopted son Octavian, who was called Augustus.  Augustus is related to augment; Octavian expanded the Roman Empire, so he received that name as his honorific.

(March, May, and June were named for the Roman gods Mars, Maia, and Juno; January means doorway, or beginning; February is from a word for purification, or Spring cleaning; and I can’t find why it’s called April.)

So August is a month named for Empire.  And in this month the Church celebrates a kind of third set of high holy days.  There is the season of the Nativity in winter, the season of the Paschal mystery in spring – and the heavenly mysteries of August.  August reveals the awesome Empire of God.

We talk about a kind of tension about how you define Christianity.  We can call it the religion of the Incarnation: God has become man so that man can become God – and everything follows from that.  Or we can call it the religion of the Cross and Resurrection: by the divine power we pass through death to life.  Each of these is an almost complete way of thinking about Christianity – and each needs some help from the other, to keep its balance.  

But we can also think of Christianity in terms of the heavenly mysteries of August – and indeed, a large part of the tradition does so.  We can think about Christ – but we can also think about the Empire he builds.

***

Earlier this month, we pondered the Transfiguration.  It is a kind of manifestation of the Incarnation.  But where divinity is hidden in weakness at Christmas, at the Transfiguration the divine light pours through Christ’s humanity.  The Incarnation is revealed.  The Transfiguration is a preparation for the Cross – a reminder that the one who goes to die is glorious in his divinity.  The Transfiguration is a kind of summary of the Christian faith, a promise of the greatness of Christ.

So too are the two Marian feasts that follow, the Assumption, which we celebrate today, and the Coronation, next week.

The Assumption reveals the true Empire of God.  I heard a fine homily today from a young priest about how the Assumption was “necessary.”  (Friends, Thomists will remind you that our piety gets a little ahead of itself when we talk about divine “necessities.”  God’s pretty powerful, and doesn’t have to do many things.  But it’s okay, amongst ourselves, with several grains of salt, to think about how there’s a kind of connection among the mysteries that makes things sort of seem “necessary.”)  The homilist said it was necessary that she whom God had preserved incorrupt through her life would be uncorrupted by death.  It was necessary that she who had shared so personally in the Crucifixion should share in the Resurrection.  It was necessary that she whose body was united to Christ should share bodily in his triumph.  This is nice.

***

But it’s worth turning around the other way (and taking away the “necessity”).  You could say that God “had to” bring her body to heaven if he had involved it in the Incarnation.  But it’s more true to say the opposite: God wanted to bring her body to heaven, and so he involved it in the Incarnation.  Etc.

The Assumption isn’t an afterthought.  It’s more like God’s main thought: he wants to bring Mary – and all of us – body and soul to heaven.  He wants his Empire to extend that far, to save us in our entirety.  And that’s why he did all those other things.  That’s why he did the Incarnation and the Cross – so that we could reach the heavenly mysteries of August.  We mustn’t forget those other mysteries – but we understand all of them better if we know that this is the final destination, and Mary is the firstfruits.  

The Transfiguration, the Assumption, and the Coronation are our Christian destiny.  They are what it’s all about.  They are the glory God has in mind when he enters into all those other mysteries of our faith.

We should ponder these heavenly mysteries of August, dig deeper into them.  Each of them has a surface layer: Jesus is shiny, Mary’s body went up in the air, she gets a crown.  But each of these surfaces reveals the depths of the faith: Jesus’s humanity is filled with divinity; Mary participates fully, in every aspect of her person, in the glorious joys of heaven; everything is at the service of this mystery, everything comes together in the fulfillment prefigured in Mary’s coronation.  

Let us renew our dedication to these heavenly mysteries of August – to the uttermost glory of the Empire of God.

How could you focus your mind better on the August mysteries?  What do we lose when we forget them?

Twentieth Sunday: For the Sake of the Joy that Lay before Him

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JER 38:4-6, 8-10; PS 40:2, 3, 4, 18; HEB 12:1-4; LK 12:49-53

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has his face set on Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die, and so enter into his glory.  Our readings from last Sunday encourage us to set our face in the same way.

The reading from Hebrews says Jesus, for the sake of the joy that lay before him, endured the cross, despising its shame.  He suffered physically – and he suffered shame, too.  It wasn’t nice.

But he looked ahead to the joy.  Our reading says that we too should “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus,” who is both our model of a man seeking divine joy and the God who is our joy.  

With our eyes fixed on him, we can “rid ourselves of every burden and sin.”  The conjunction is nice.  On the one hand, sin is a burden.  It’s not that Jesus wants to take away our joy.  It’s that he wants us to set aside the things – the Greek for “burden” literally means “bulky things,” a nice image – that get in the way of seeking our joy.  We can’t rush forward to the Father with these burdens on our back.

On the other hand, there are burdens other than sin – or rather, we should expand our notion of sin, to include not just rule-breaking, but every burden that stands in our way.  The fear of shame and the fear of pain, for example, are bulky burdens.  As long as we worry about these things, we cannot keep our eyes focused on the joy before us.  We should count them as nothing.

Notice that in this Biblical vision, suffering isn’t a good.  Or rather, it’s only good as an opportunity to shrug it off.

***

The reading from Jeremiah gives us an example.  His sufferings are almost comically awful: thrown into a pit with no water to drink, only mud into which he sinks.  

The reading needs some context.  Jerusalem is under seige, collapsing under the weight of its sins.  Jeremiah says the Babylonians are going to take the city captive.  It’s not a personal preference, not an advocacy, just the truth.  The king’s friends shoot the messenger.

Thus the strange words of the court official who gets Jeremiah freed: “He will die of famine on the spot, for there is no more food in the city.”  “There is no more food in the city” is a strange reason to set someone free.  But the point is: Jeremiah isn’t the one who’s hurting us.  He’s just speaking the truth.

Well, for us, the point is that Jeremiah is doing what Jesus did, following his master.  (Yes, the saints of the Old Testament, too, had Jesus for their master.)  He worried more about speaking the truth than about suffering the consequences.  As Hebrews said, “for the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame.”  We are all called to walk the same path – not because we love getting thrown in a muddy pit, but because it just doesn’t matter compared to the joy of knowing God.

***

The reading from Luke is strange: Jesus says, “Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you but rather division.”  And he says households will be divided, father against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law.  Not nice!

To understand these words, I just want to point out some of what happens at the end of Luke.  On the Cross, Luke – expanding on the “Why have you forsaken me” of Matthew and Mark – has Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them” and telling the thief, “today you will be with me in paradise.”  

Does he come to bring peace or division?  Well, he does make peace on the cross – but not a nice easy peace.  In fact, that true peace comes about by being willing to suffer division, willing to suffer the cross.  Jesus wants not war but – well, he says it in our reading: I have come t oset the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”  Not war, but not false peace either.  He comes to bring the fire of love, which is willing to suffer.

And so in Luke’s account of the Resurrection, Jesus tells the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “It was necessary to suffer all these things and so enter into glory.”  He says almost exactly the same thing in Luke’s other resurrection story.  

Glory through the cross.  Not suffering as the end, but suffering as the path, suffering as something to “despise,” to shrug off, on the way to something grander, “for the sake of the joy that lay before him.”  

Christ speaks a word of peace to us.  But not false peace, that avoids suffering.  Peace born of a love that endures the cross, despising its shame, on its way to something far better.

Where does fear of suffering prevent you from finding divine joy?

Faith in the Divine Promises

 

I think this is the farthest behind I’ve yet gotten on a Sunday post.  Sometimes life intrudes: right now I have a kid recovering from major surgery, my wife trying to take some days away to think about homeschooling, and a brutal heatwave – we have no air conditioning – that makes me shudder at the thought of opening my laptop.  But I think it’s worth my while to reflect on last Sunday’s readings; perhaps it will be worth your while, too; so I’ll sit myself down in front of a fan . . . .

 

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

WIS 18:6-9; PS 33: 1, 12, 18-19, 20-22; HEB 11:1-2, 8-19; LK 12:32-48

The readings, you will perhaps remember, were something obscure from Wisdom about the Passover; Hebrews 11’s classic catalog of what people did “by faith”; and Jesus talking mostly about being prepared when the Lord returns.

What strikes me about those readings – perhaps because it is a preoccupation of mine – is that faith has content.  Liberal religion tends to turn faith into kind of a vague attitude – but, I have to say, conservative religion can do the same thing.  It’s closely related to the tendency of modern Catholicism to replace Biblical spirituality with various forms of silence: as if God has nothing to say, as long as we vaguely trust in him.

But he does have something to say, and these readings are helpful demonstrations.

***

The reading from Wisdom is short, but its point is specific knowledge.  “The night of the passover was known beforehand to our fathers.”  “The holy children of the good were offering sacrifice and putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.”

The divine institution.  The word in the Greek original here seems to be nomos – the equivalent of Torah, the Law.  But Torah has the deeper meaning of “teaching.”  The divine institution – whether of the Old Passover or the New one, Christ and the Eucharist – is God’s teaching.  We don’t know what it is unless we listen.

This is what set the Israelites apart from the Egyptians.  God spoke to them, told them how they should worship, and they responded as he asked.  

***

The reading from Hebrews begins with the classic definition of faith.  (St. Thomas uses it.)  “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”  That’s dense; we need to unpack it.

Faith is intimately related to hope.  It is the “realization” in the sense that by it we “realize” what it is that we ought to hope for.  We hope for heaven – but we can only hope for heaven because we first believe in heaven.  We hope for God’s grace and mercy – but we can only hope for these things because we first believe in them.  

(The more literal translation is “the substance” of things hoped for.  But the point is the same: faith tells us what to hope for.)

It is the “evidence,” or “argument,” of things unseen in the sense that it is the basis of all our thinking.  In normal thinking we begin with what we know by our senses.  In faith we begin with what we only know by faith.  We think in a Christian way because God has told us something – something concrete, definite, not just a vague feeling that God is good.

***

The reading gives many examples of what faith is; let’s look at a couple: “by faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.”  It’s not just that he vaguely trusted God – God told him where to go, and he went.  The divine institution.  Go where he sends you: for example, the sacraments, the Magisterium.

“By faith he received power to generate” (or procreate).  Christ gives us powers we would not think we could have.  Our thinking is far too natural.  Too often even devout Catholics come up with what is possible, or reasonable to expect, based on their own lousy instincts.  But God tells us something greater!  To steep ourselves in Scripture is to see “arguments” based on different premises: the premise of the power of God’s grace, stronger than death.  

The Abraham and Sarah story is amusing.  He trusts God will give him a child, but keeps coming up with all too natural means of doing it – he adopts someone (Gen 15:2-3), even has sex with his handmaid.  So too we compromise, because our “arguments” are based on natural assumptions, instead of on faith.  We need to steep ourselves in Scripture to learn to think based on the awesomeness of God’s promises.

In the end, faith means trusting in the power of the resurrection: with the sacrifice of Isaac, “He reasoned that God was able to to raise even from the dead.”

***

Our Gospel has three sections.  First, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid any longer . . . sell your belongings and give alms.”  In other words, move on from natural calculations and trust in the power of God.

Second, he says, “gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding.”  Faith teaches us to live in light not only of a past event, but of a future – something to hope for.  He will come again in glory. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  We should “reason” based on preparing for that.  

Third, Peter asks him how this applies to pastors – and Jesus gives an answer that applies both to pastors and to everyone else.  Here, first Jesus says, your master is coming back, don’t forget that!  Prepare for Jesus!  

And then at the end he comes around again to the “divine institution”: “that servant who knew his master’s will . . . .”  Act the way he teaches.  Follow his commands: to live by the divine riches, not human strength; to hope for what is naturally impossible; be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect; follow the divine institutions (the Church, the sacraments, etc.).  And look forward always to seeing the face of Jesus; do not set your sights too short.

How do you nourish your thinking according to the divine promises?

The Transfiguration

PFA83070Two points about the Transfiguration, our feast today – which in the East and the older tradition was viewed as in some ways the greatest feast of all, the feast of the true identity of Jesus.

First: His face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.

At the Transfiguration, Jesus appears for a moment as who he truly is.  “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev 21:3).  “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).  “The Word was made flesh and dwelt within us” (John 1:14).

Jesus is true God and true man, the presence of God within man.  What does that look like?  The Transfiguration is a glimpse.   A magnificent glimpse, because God is portrayed as pure light, and Jesus as a man full of that light.  

Like the burning bush, his humanity is not destroyed by the all-consuming fire of God’s presence.  God’s presence shines out in his humanity.

The word comes to confirm it: “This is my chosen Son.”  And yet the Transfiguration itself shows forth what that word means: true God and true man.

***

As the great simple hymn says, “we hail your body glorified and our redemption see.”  One of the desert fathers said, “If you would, you could become all flame.”  This is our redemption, this is the promise.  Our humanity too will shine forth with the light of God. We will be the temple, the dwelling place of God.  

Here on Mount Tabor, for a moment, we get a glimpse.

Praying Morning Prayer for the feast, my children pointed out the parallel to the reading from Revelation in Sunday night prayer: “They shall see the Lord face to face, and bear his name on their foreheads.  The night shall be no more.  They shall need no light from lamps or the sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever.”  We hail your body glorified, and our redemption see.  This is the gospel.  This is heaven.  This what shall be written on our own foreheads.

***

Second: And when the voice came, Jesus was found alone.  

That’s how Luke says it, and that’s our reading this year.  It makes even more simple the delicious simplicity of Matthew and Mark: and lifting up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus alone.

St. John Paul II wrote, in his testament for the new millennium, Novo millennio ineunte,

“It is not therefore a matter of inventing a ‘new programme’. The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its centre in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a programme which does not change with shifts of times and cultures, even though it takes account of time and culture for the sake of true dialogue and effective communication. This programme for all times is our programme for the Third Millennium.”

Because all our hope is in Christ, because Christ transfigured is our hope – what we hope to be and the way we hope to reach that hope, the way the truth the life – the heart of the program must be, as John Paul II says, “contemplate the face of Christ.”

That means, too, “Listen to him.”  We must let his words, his Word, penetrate us, because no other words, no imaginings, can do anything like justice to the enormous truth of the transfigured Christ.  All our ideas fall short of his, of him.  We immerse ourselves in his Word because no other words express the wild reality of the Transfiguration.  We immerse ourselves in his Word because our whole redemption is to immerse ourselves in the transfigured Christ, the consuming fire and the burning bush.

How do your ideals fall short of the Transfiguration?

Eighteenth Sunday: Christ Our Savior

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

ECC 1:2, 2:21-23; PS 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17; COL 3:1-5, 9-11; LK 12:13-21

Before I reprove, let me exonerate:

Christianity is about personal transformation – the transformation that is love penetrating into our whole being. You can’t talk about Christianity without talking about how it changes us, and thus an awful lot of our talk, an awful lot of preaching, even the majority of Scripture, is about what that transformation looks like.

But that talk has to take place against an essential backdrop, and too often the backdrop fades away into nothingness. Too much of our preaching is nothing but moralism. To the contrary, our preaching should focus more on that “backdrop” than on the transformation.

That’s why the Epistle at Sunday Mass is important: the apostolic preaching never turns into mere moralism. Scholars think Paul’s letters were written well before the Gospels. I like that, because it suggests that the Gospels – which do contain an awful lot of moral exhortation – were written and read only for people who first understood the message of St. Paul.

***

To put it another way, I like to tell my students, Jesus is not our gym teacher. He’s not there merely to tell us how we should be better. The Cross encourages us, sure – but it’s not like the poster we put up of our favorite athlete, merely encouraging us to try harder on our own power.

No, Christ is not our gym teacher, he is our savior. He is the one who makes moral transformation possible. He is the one who brings about our moral transformation: not I but Christ in me. If I change, it is only because he changes me. Sure, there’s a place for taking about how I will look when I am changed. But too often we act like it’s all up to us.

Luther said reading the moral teaching of Scripture leads us to despair, so that we know that we need a Savior who will overlook our moral weakness. That’s not quite right – but it’s more right than the Pelagianism that so dominates Catholic preaching. When was the last time you heard a homily where Christ did anything at all for us – other than act like a gym teacher?

The moral teaching of Scripture reminds us that without Christ we are a disaster. But it also shows us what Christ can do for us.

***

That’s a lot of lead up to this past Sunday’s readings. The first reading, from Ecclesiastes, basically said, “you can’t take it with you.” We focus on the things that are passing away, and it is so stupid.

Here divine revelation is only pointing out what ought to be obvious, if we weren’t so morally bankrupt. (Since we are morally bankrupt, it’s a good thing Scripture states the obvious.)

What Ecclesiastes doesn’t tell us is how to change. What, should I just try harder? Thank you, gym teacher, but I need more than that. I need a Savior. If I don’t believe that, I am simply not a Christian. Buddhists can tell me that wealth is vanity – and they will be right. But we haven’t yet gotten to Christianity.

***

Remarkably, our Gospel reading says little more. Jesus gets a little deeper, telling us that we should be “rich in what matters to God” (or just “rich in God”). He reminds us not only that earthly riches are dirt, but also that there is a higher wealth. Buddhism is weak on this, but it’s still something a good philosopher should be able to tell you (if he weren’t morally bankrupt, and if you were morally with-it enough to listen).

What the Gospel adds to Ecclesiastes is . . . a different atmosphere. Somehow it feels different coming from Jesus. But this Gospel reading doesn’t explain that difference. We have to know Jesus as Savior to understand why it’s different coming from his lips.

***

And that’s why the Epistle is so important. Our reading from Colossians tells us not just, “seek what is above,” but “If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” We can seek what is above because Christ is our moral and spiritual resurrection – because he has lifted us up.

“You have died” – in Christ. “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Yes, you need to “put to death the parts of you that are earthly” – that language makes us the agents. But even “earthly” takes on a new coloring: it is not merely that, like a philosopher or a Buddhist, we focus on transcendent things, but that we get beyond trusting in our own strength and are “renewed in the image of our creator.”

“Christ is all and in all.” We are more than Buddhists, more than philosophers, more than moralists, because Christ is our Savior. It is Christ who will lift us up, not we ourselves.

At what point today did you trust too much in your own strength? How could you preach the Gospel better?