30th Sunday: Living God’s Mercy

 

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

EX 22:20-26; PS 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51; 1 THES 1:5c-10; MT 22:34-40

“Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest?” a scholar of the Law asks Jesus in this Sunday’s readings. As frequently happens, the readings are familiar, but the Lectionary helps us to see that they are richer than we might have realized. This week’s readings help us to see how God’s mercy for us should express itself in our mercy toward others.

Jesus’s answer is so familiar as to be almost not worth quoting. “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.”

But then comes something a little surprising, “The second is like it . . . .” How is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves “like” the commandment to love God? They are both about love, yes. But in fact, our neighbor is not loveable as God is – Jesus himself acknowledges this by giving radically different standards for how much we love God and neighbor. Only God is worth loving with all our heart, and soul, and mind.

A second strangeness takes us deeper: “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Remember, it is a scholar of the Law – the Old Testament Law – who is asking him this question. In my experience, most people do not consider the Old Testament to be all about love. To understand Jesus’s teaching, we need to read the texts to which he directs us.

***

The first reading is from the second half of Exodus. The first half of Exodus is the exciting part, with plagues and pharoahs and the Passover and the Ten Commandments. But most people stop reading there: after the Ten Commandments comes endless law-giving, all the way through Leviticus. The next book, Numbers, gives some stories, but then comes Deuteronomy, which literally means “second law” – or “more laws!” The stereotype is that this is all pretty awful stuff; my students tell me they think it’s all about stoning people.

So it’s important that the Lectionary gives us a taste: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien . . . . You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. . . . If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him . . . If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in?”

It turns out that all this law giving is about mercy, mercy, mercy. What is hardest about the Law of the Old Testament is that it tells us to care for the poor, the weak, and the outcast.

***

Oh, it is violent too: “If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me,” God tells them, “. . . My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword.” Yikes!

But it is violent only in demanding that we be merciful.

And there is a rationale: “for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” If you mistreat widows and orphans, “then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.”

The Psalm response says, “I love you, Lord, my strength.” The heart of the teaching is that those who have received mercy should be merciful – and we all rely on God’s mercy. If God had not loved us, undeservedly, we would not have the opportunity to abandon the weak – or even to pass over the undeserving.

We are called to express mercy (to love our neighbor as ourselves) as a way of acknowledging God’s mercy toward us (and thus loving him above all things).

***

The reading from 1 Thessalonians reminds us that this is how we give witness to God’s mercy toward us.

“You became imitators of us and of the Lord, receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit, so that you became a model for all the believers.”

First, they were in affliction, but discovered the Holy Spirit as their joy. God has saved them, been mercy to them, and strength.

But in receiving that mercy, they imitate those who received mercy before them, and become models to those after them.

Our readings calls us to discover God’s mercy in our lives. In showing that mercy to others, we both pass on the Gospel of his love and give him the thanks he deserves.

Think of someone who doesn’t deserve your mercy. Can you think of specific ways that God has already been merciful to you in just the same way you are called to be merciful to them?

Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Rosary, and Consecration

1143_jesus_handing_rosary_to_st_dominic_4f5e857a19fb7To continue our October meditations on the rosary, let us consider what we can learn about it from a devotion that arose around the same time, Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

At least in our part of the world (northeastern New Jersey), there are a lot of churches dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, including my family’s parish. The simplest reason for that is historical. Emigrants from Italy typically boarded ship at Naples (the biggest city in the southwest of Italy). There is a Carmelite monastery and church right on the bay in Naples, with a couple popular images and a tower that can easily be seen as emigrants left the old country behind. With the fear of the journey, many vows were made to this last image of home.

***

But devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel goes deeper. It reaches, first, to St. Simon Stock, elected general of the Carmelites (1247-65) at their first chapter, in England. Simon Stock is said to have seen a vision of Our Lady, in which she offered him the scapular, the long outer garment of the monastic habit, worn like a long apron over their full-length tunic. (Mary is also said to have appeared to the Dominicans and probably other orders to give them their habits, especially their scapulars.)

In the same thirteenth century (“greatest of centuries”!) a kind of third order arose by which lay people associated themselves with the total consecration of life exemplified by the religious orders. Part of this association was to wear some version of the order’s habits; the small scapular seems to have been one of the thirteenth century approaches.

Our_Lady_of_Mt_CarmelSo Our Lady of Mount Carmel also stands for that scapular, given to the religious orders, and then taken on by the laity. Just as many images of Mary have her handing the rosary to the people, so too does the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel show her handing the small brown scapular to the people.

***

But to understand this parallel, we need to go a step further back into the history of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Mount Carmel is a range of mountains, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea sort of east-southeast towards Nazareth, in Galilee in the north of Israel. It is a few miles south of Acre, one of the main fortresses and mostly the capital of the Crusaders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

At their best (and they were often not at their best), the Crusades were about pilgrimage. Along the road, pilgrimage is a kind of penitence or repentance, putting one foot in front of the other to signal a turning of one’s whole life toward the Lord. The destination of a pilgrimage signals some connection to Christ’s coming into the world; true penitence turns us toward Christ. That was, of course, most powerfully evident in the pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

And so some of the soldiers and pilgrims settled down to live a life of conversion and union with the Incarnate Lord. Mount Carmel became a central location for this. It was the place of the holy hermit Elijah, and of a great tradition after him. It was relatively safe, because close to Acre. But it was also in the land of Jesus’s home, close to Nazareth.

The Carmelite order began, then, as hermits gathered on Mount Carmel, around a central cave-chapel dedicated, as appropriate for something so close to Nazareth, to the Mother of God: they were the hermits of the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Their habit was a sign of their consecration; their outer garment, their apron or scapular, was a sign of preserving their habit, and their consecration, spotless.

***

In the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, she wears the habit of Carmel. The connection points both ways. She enters into the consecration of the Carmelites, and they enter into hers. Her habit shows that the true meaning of their consecration is to live in perfect devotion to the mystery of Christ Incarnate. She holds the small scapular out to us as an invitation to join in our consecration.

So too she holds out to the rosary as an invitation to join in her consecration. Like the habit of Carmel, it is meant not just as an external, not an occasional practice, but a total conversion of life, by entering into the intense spirituality and union that is Our Lady’s consecration to Jesus.

How could you better enter into Mary’s consecration to Jesus?

Aparecida on Christ and Culture

The following quote makes an interesting argument, moving from one point to another in perhaps an unexpected way.

The first point is specifically about Latin American culture. When the Gospel came to the Indians, it did not hurt their culture, it liberated it. By itself that is perhaps a happy, pat-ourselves-on-the-back Catholic triumph.

But Aparecida draws an important conclusion about culture in general. Today there is a great concern, including among some Catholics, to rediscover cultural particularity: a sense of place, a distinct way of life, artistic traditions, etc. The quotation below simply argues that this need not be opposed to the universality of the Church, of truth, and of the Gospel. The best way to really live local culture is to set it free through encounter with the truth who is Christ, and the universality which is the global Church.

Two other conclusions: first, within the truth of Christ – not outside it – we discover the true place of dialogue, of appreciating and affirming legitimate differences. I, an Anglo-American, can appreciate the best in Latin American, African, or Asian culture precisely through our contact in the Truth which is Christ.

And second, Christ is the truth. If you really want truth, if you really want culture, seek ye first his face, his kingdom, his righteousness. Don’t start with culture; find culture in Christ.

brazil-popeThe proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbian cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture. Authentic cultures are not closed in upon themselves, nor are they set in stone at a particular point in history, but they are open, or better still, they are seeking an encounter with other cultures, hoping to reach universality through encounter and dialogue with other ways of life and with elements that can lead to a new synthesis, in which the diversity of expressions is always respected as well as the diversity of their particular cultural embodiment.

Ultimately, it is only the truth that can bring unity, and the proof of this is love. That is why Christ, being in truth the incarnate Logos, “love to the end”, is not alien to any culture, nor to any person; on the contrary, the response that he seeks in the heart of cultures is what gives them their ultimate identity, uniting humanity and at the same time respecting the wealth of diversity, opening people everywhere to growth in genuine humanity, in authentic progress.

-The Aparecida Document

29th Sunday: God’s Providence, Inside and Out

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 45:1, 4-6; PS 96: 1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10; 1THES 1:1-5b; MT 22:15-21

Sunday’s readings teach us about God’s Providence, both in the external world and in the internal.

The reading from the Gospel is “Repay to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” The story is familiar enough, but the teaching is subtle.

On first glance we might take it for a kind of dualism. There’s a principle (contradicted by Thomas and the Catechism) that sees government and God as two unrelated principles. You have your obligations to God, and your relationship to God – and you live that out dealing with the practical realities of the State. But God really doesn’t care what you do with the State (says this incorrect reading). If you get penalized, you get penalized. Speeding tickets are just the price you pay. It has nothing to do with God.

There are various ways to respond to this, but let’s stick to the readings.

If you read Sunday’s Gospel seriously, you see that this is precisely the dualism that is being presented to Jesus. “The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians.”

The last word is key. The Pharisees think they have him trapped between two opposing parties. Either he will take the side of Herod (by paying the tax) and violate their religious principles, or he will take the side of the Pharisees (by refusing to pay the tax) and go against the secular king. Either way, the party he offends will have grounds for prosecution. Clever.

Jesus’s answer, by itself, simply dodges. By itself, he doesn’t fully answer what paying our taxes has to do with God.

***

But the first reading, from Isaiah, does. “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp.” Cyrus is the king of Babylon and Persia. He is not an Israelite, not a believer, not one of God’s people. He does end up helping them, but let us not miss the strangeness of calling this king God’s anointed – literally, his Messiah, or Christ, though we needn’t confuse the matter too much.

The lectionary chooses to focus on the good that can come through the secular powers, but let us not miss the point. Jeremiah says, “I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the LORD, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants” (25:9). Nebuchadnezzar is the most evil of all. God calls him “my servant.”

And in Romans 13 (a text quoted by Thomas and the Catechism when they teach that secular law obliges us in conscience, unless it is an inherently wicked law), it says, “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed” (13:1-2). We’re talking about the Roman Emperors here, the ones who killed Jesus, Peter, and Paul.

Our reading from Isaiah says to the foreign king, “I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. . . . It is I who arm you, though you know me not.” God is in control, even of those who do not know him.

And most importantly, this is all “For the sake of Jacob, my servant . . . so that . . . people may know that there is none besides me.”

When Romans 8 says, “for those who love God all things work together for good,” it means also that God is truly in control, even of those who hurt us. Caesar is God’s.

***

The point is not, of course, that we give glory to Caesar. The Psalm insists, “Give the Lord glory and honor. . . . The LORD is king, he governs the peoples with equity.”

***

And we too are God’s. In our reading from First Thessalonians, Paul says, “We give thanks to God always for all of you.” But why? Why does he thank God for what they do? Shouldn’t he just thank them?

He is “unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But isn’t that really their work, not God’s?

No. Just as Caesar can be both wicked in himself and still an instrument of God, so too their goodness is a gift of God. “For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”

All things are in God’s hands. How that works is a mystery beyond this post(!!). But when we are hurt, let us never forget that God is working through that. And when we are good, and see good, let us give thanks to God for all his gifts.

Are there forces in your life that you could better appreciate if you saw God’s hand in them?

The Rosary and the Virtues

1143_jesus_handing_rosary_to_st_dominic_4f5e857a19fb7There are many ways to pray the Hail Mary well, but notice that it is particularly useful in meditating on the virtues.

Hail Mary: the greeting means health, happiness, good news. We can approach it as an immediate entry into the transformation God has worked in her. Hello, oh virtuous one! How fortunate you are to be good!

Full of grace: in Catholic theology, grace is the effect of God’s work on us. In one direction, this greeting reminds us, immediately, that Mary’s virtues are a gift from Christ. In the other direction, they remind us that Christ really does give her gifts, really does fill her with his graces, to make her good.

The Lord is with thee: this says almost the same thing, but in reverse. Her virtue comes from her nearness to Christ. But it also exists for his presence: he makes her good so that she can meet him, so that she can fully embrace his presence.

Blessed art thou among women: in her own vocation, as a woman, in her own humanity, how fortunate she is – to be good, filled with Christ’s grace, so that she can encounter Christ in all the mysteries of the rosary.

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus: oh, and how good he is! How her virtues mirror his, and his virtues mirror hers – he who comes to share in her nature, to be so close to her that he can have human virtues, and she can have divine ones.

Holy Mary: the truest definition of her virtue is holiness. What a prayer these two words are in themselves: just to ponder the holiness of Mary. And again, holiness is defined as a gift from God, really changing her, so that she returns to God.

Mother of God: the second half of the prayer makes a turn, from simply meditating on Mary’s virtues, to begging her to pray for us. And so we invoke her power, the strange relationship that allows her, with the audacity of Cana, to beg Jesus to act. But it is the audacity of cheek-to-cheek: she is not God’s boss, but rather the one he has chosen to let hold him in her arms.

Pray for us sinners: we ask her to pray precisely in relation to our non-holiness, our lack of virtue. You have it, Mary – pray for us who don’t!

Now and at the hour of our death: in all of our needs. Looking forward to our death, we realize how deeply we need to be transformed, to be like Mary, so that we can cling to Jesus even in the hardest times.

***

Each mystery of the rosary gives us an encounter between Mary and Jesus. They are not all really meditations on Jesus himself: in the first two and the last two, at least, he is kind of hard to see.

But neither are they mysteries of Mary alone. She is not even present for many of the luminous and sorrowful mysteries, and Mary’s whole life is defined by relation to Jesus. If we separate her from him, we lose everything.

At the end of the Paradise, Dante sees the Trinity in the eyes of Mary. In the rosary we see Jesus in the eyes of Mary. We see the gaze, the union, the connection: him living for her, and her living for him.

This comes especially alive if we meditate on the virtues. Each mystery makes tremendous demands of Mary. Each mystery, in fact, demands all the virtues: that she figure out how to live (prudence), leave behind pleasure (temperance), fulfill her human obligations (justice), believe the unthinkable truths of God (faith), trust in his strength (hope), and love. Each mystery gives us an opportunity to see what every virtue looks like in its fullest development: in the encounter with Christ.

But so too each mystery lets us see those virtues radiate out from Christ himself. At the Cross Christ demands the ultimate fortitude from his mother – and from his Sacred Heart it radiates to her, so that she stands with his strength. These encounters with Christ that are the mysteries of the rosary show us what it means for Christ to give us the strength to meet him.

***

There are traditional lists of virtues, one for each mystery. But we can bring whatever list we want, meditate on whatever virtue we are looking for. We can do one virtue per rosary, one per mystery, or even one for each Hail Mary. I like to count to ten with Faith, Hope, Charity, and the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit or the Seven Beatitudes. (This is easier if you just pray one mystery at a time.)

What virtues do you find in the mysteries of the rosary?

Parting Thoughts on Formation in the Aparecida Document

brazil-popeFor several weeks we have been examining chapter 6 of the Aparecida Document, “The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples.” Before we close this chapter, and move on to the third main part of the document, some thoughts on putting this into practice.

My feeling coming away from this chapter is that there’s so much important work to be done . . . and I’m not sure how to do it. What can we do?

***

Some of us are directly engaged in the institutions considered as “places of formation for missionary disciples”: I am the head of a “family, first school of faith” I teach in a Seminary and a Catholic University.

But even in those institutions, it isn’t always easy to know how to promote formation. This chapter, for example, insisted on the importance of “initiation to Christian life.” Although my wife and I try to do a lot, it is striking to discover how difficult it is to get into our children’s souls. They sometimes tell me that they pray outside of family prayer times, but I don’t really know; I don’t know how engaged they are. (And, as Flannery O’Connor said, “stories of pious children tend to be false”: patting ourselves on the back for the games our children play or the sweet things they say is not the same as really forming them in the faith.)

This is all the more difficult in the university. I am fortunate to be able to proclaim Christ in my classroom – but how do I bring them to an actual encounter? I can talk about moral obligations, but how do I promote real moral conversion? I can talk about a lot of things: but ultimately, we are dealing with other people’s souls. And not only, as with my children, do I not have access to their wills, but in other contexts, I don’t even have access to most of their lives. I don’t know what goes on when they leave my classroom.

***

I feel this all the more acutely as we move into other areas, like the parish and “small ecclesial communities.” It is easy – and perhaps helpful – to daydream about a really lively parish, where people are really initiated and formed as Christians. But in practice, priests are busy, I have put on events in our little parish that no one comes to, and even when I help with formation events in more lively parishes, there’s still the question of how you get people in the door, how you get them to listen, and how you get them to actually embrace what we are teaching.

We attend our neighborhood parish, in the belief that investing in a less-than-perfect parish is a witness to our faith in the truth of the sacraments, our fidelity to the Church, and our call to mission. But the weaknesses of our parish make it all the harder to get any great programs going. I respect those who go out of their way to find better parishes, but I’m not sure it solves the problem. Still the question is how to initiate those who are not initiated, and form those who are not formed. Abandoning the weak doesn’t solve much, and even in a great parish, there remain many who do not want to go any deeper than they have already gone.

***

What to do? (This is a pep talk for me as much as for my readers.)

First, we can attend to our own formation. We can keep always before our eyes our own call to encounter with Christ, moral conversion, discipleship in Christ’s teaching, communion with other disciples, and mission – and continued development on the intellectual, spiritual, missionary, and communal levels. We cannot give what we do not have. If we work at our own formation, we never know what opportunities may present themselves, even in casual conversations.

Second, we can do what we can. Think of the music director. There’s only so much he can do, for example, to promote moral conversion, and drive people to confession. But he can do that: he can choose hymns with challenging texts, and the tunes he believes will draw people higher instead of coddling their complacency.

We too should do what we can. Last Sunday I chatted after Mass with an older woman, very nice, but not very fervent. What can I do to promote her formation? I can witness, by occasional words and by my public actions, my love of Christ, the moral transformation that love has brought about in my life, my commitment to the Church. Sometimes that seems like not very much. But at all times, we just have to do what we can.

Setting aside big programs, what are little ways that you can promote integral formation in your parish?

Pope Francis on Being Evangelized by the Poor

The following words from Pope Francis take us to the heart of the “preferential option for the poor.” They are a brilliant challenge.

Francis points out that the poor are not only to be recipients of our largesse. They should teach us. We need to see in their faces what suffering really means – especially us middle-class Americans who are so isolated from true suffering. He contrasts an “activist” way of approaching the poor with a “contemplative” one.

The latter part of the quotation urges the importance of including the poor in the Church. Think of all the pastoral initiatives you know: how many of them are not directly focused on the rich and powerful – missions to lawyers, to intellectuals, to colleges, to people online, through middle-class white pop culture, etc.? But if we need to contemplate the poor, what happens to us when we exclude them? What happens to our witness if we only go to those who can materially benefit us?

Notice, by the way, that the harshest, most challenging words here on the centrality of the poor to our apostolate are quotations from St. John Paul II.

pope francisThis is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei [i.e., they too have insight into the meaning of our faith], but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.

The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.

Our commitment does not consist exclusively in activities or programmes of promotion and assistance; what the Holy Spirit mobilizes is not an unruly activism, but above all an attentiveness which considers the other “in a certain sense as one with ourselves” (St. Thomas). This loving attentiveness is the beginning of a true concern for their person which inspires me effectively to seek their good.

This entails appreciating the poor in their goodness, in their experience of life, in their culture, and in their ways of living the faith. True love is always contemplative, and permits us to serve the other not out of necessity or vanity, but rather because he or she is beautiful above and beyond mere appearances: “The love by which we find the other pleasing leads us to offer him something freely” (St. Thomas).

The poor person, when loved, “is esteemed as of great value” (St. Thomas), and this is what makes the authentic option for the poor differ from any other ideology, from any attempt to exploit the poor for one’s own personal or political interest. Only on the basis of this real and sincere closeness can we properly accompany the poor on their path of liberation.

Only this will ensure that “in every Christian community the poor feel at home. Would not this approach be the greatest and most effective presentation of the good news of the kingdom?”(JP II) Without the preferential option for the poor, “the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass communications” (JP II).

Since this Exhortation is addressed to members of the Catholic Church, I want to say, with regret, that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.

-Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

The Psalms on the Glory of the Lord

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We have been meditating on the Tabernacle (and later Temple) in this line from Psalm 26: “Lord, I love the dwelling place of your house, and the place of the tabernacle of your glory.” This week let us consider the Glory that abides there.

The Psalms often proclaim the glory of God, and even say that it is our glory. Let us consider what it means to meet this glory in the Temple.

(Let me acknowledge that I have before me notes from a lecture Saturday night by Fr. John Saward on poverty and liturgical beauty.)

***

First of all, as we have considered before, the Hebrew word for glory refers to weight, dignity, and Magnificence. To speak of God’s glory is to say that he is awesome, awe-inspiring.

At the heart of worship is wonder, admiration, adoration. To discover how amazing God is.

Our acknowledgement of his magnificence, including the magnificence of our worship, indicates the purity of our love. We acknowledge him as the greatest, the highest, the best, as needing nothing from us – and then we offer him our greatest, our highest, our best, as a way of saying that he is worth giving everything for.

And in our discovery of God’s wealth, we acknowledge that he is the source of our wealth. Everything good we have comes from him, and should return to him. But so too, everything good we have is worth nothing compared to him. We lift it all up in worship, and acknowledge him as the most high.

***

A second meaning of glory, perhaps more directly present in the Greek and Latin translations, but central to the greater theology of the Psalms, is Beauty.

It is important to add this element to our understanding of God’s magnificence. God is not just a big will, not just crass power. He is wealth, yes, and awesomeness, and power.

But even deeper, he is beauty. This is important when the Psalms say, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1). The heavens – and the earth, and everything that is made – shows not only that God is powerful, but that he is wise, and good, and that he sets things in order. He has a plan, and not just a will.

I have commented before that “thy will be done” can run afoul if not connected to “thy kingdom come.” For God to be king is for God to make everything right – and beautiful.

And so too the worship offered in the Tabernacle and the Temple is not only awesome, but exquisite, lovely, well-ordered, beautiful.

And what God gives to his saints is not just power, but beauty, the radiance of being fully alive.

***

One way to understand that beauty is through a third word connected with “glory,” Light.

“In your light we shall see light” (Ps 36:9). This moves in two directions. God himself is the light, like the sun, shining with glory. He is dazzling. The sun itself bespeaks both magnificence and glory.

But to understand light, we have to turn downward, too, to that which light illumines. Light allows us to see truth. Darkness – such an important metaphor in the Bible, especially in the New Testament – is about hiding. Darkness is where you go when you don’t want the true nature of your actions to be shown.

(God, too, sometimes is hidden – but only as the sun dazzles our eyes by its brightness.)

Light is the place of revelation, where our actions are shown, and where the things we act upon are shown. To live relationships in the light is for ourselves to be seen, to see truly who our neighbor is, and to see truly what that relationship is meant to be. It is to see clearly, too, sin, and the way it mars reality.

To speak of God’s glory in this way is to speak of him as the truth itself. It calls us to rise back up and look at him, dazzling light itself, as the revealer.

This is what we do, for example, when we dwell on Scripture. (Fr. Saward said the melismata of chant buzz around the sacred word like bees, sucking the sweetness of God’s revelation. As does all true sacred art.) We discover the truth that it reveals, and we discover that God is Truth itself: the revealer, the maker of that which is revealed, the beautiful and magnificent artificer of beautiful and magnificent things.

***

 The Psalmist finds this glory both in nature and in the liturgy. We discover God’s beauty in all his works, and we turn to express it, in (the list is Fr. Saward’s) our chant, our ceremonial, our iconography, and our architecture.

Where could we better express the beauty of Jesus and his kingdom?

Twenty-eighth Sunday: The Feast

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 25:6-10a; PS 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; PHIL 4:12-14, 19-20; MT 22:1-14

As we approach the end of the Church year, the readings continually urge us to think about divine judgment – and help us to understand what it really means.

Our Gospel reading is the parable of the wedding feast: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come.”

This story enriches our understanding of judgment in two directions. First, it shows the real meaning of punishment. The king in the parable casts the unworthy guest “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

We tend to focus on the wailing and grinding of teeth. We could call this the “active” aspect of punishment: the king is hurting that man! But we ought to focus on the “darkness,” and even more, the “outside.” We could call this the “passive” aspect of punishment: the true punishment is not what the king is doing to the man, but what the man is refusing to receive from the king.

God has prepared a feast for us. Hell is not where God, or anyone else, whips us. Hell is where we would wail and grind our teeth, because we are outside, in the darkness, without the great feast that God offers. He has prepared a feast; it is we who choose to starve.

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Second, this story shows the real meaning of “worthiness,” the criteria of judgment. It does this through a series of images of unworthiness. Paradigmatic are those who “laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.” Perhaps we are not surprised that “The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” Here it seems, again, that punishment is an active thing: they actively do evil, and he actively punishes them for that evil.

But first comes another interesting – and ultimately revealing – category. “Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.” What excludes these ones from the feast? Not the king’s positive action against them, but their failure to receive the feast he offers them.

These ones seem innocent enough. Farms and businesses aren’t bad. But the image of the feast calls us to see more deeply what the real criterion of judgment is. It’s not that they’re hurting anyone. It’s that they refuse to receive the feast. They choose to remain in the darkness, outside. In this sense, their farms and businesses are not so innocent: not because those things making the king angry, but because they are choosing wailing and grinding of teeth, choosing something else instead of the feast.

Indeed, only these characters make sense of those who kill the servants. Why do we kill the prophets, kill the martyrs, kill Jesus, hate the messengers of the Church? Only, and precisely, because they distract us from our other interests by calling us to the feast. This ends in destruction, to be sure. But it is self-inflicted.

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The parable ends, strangely, “many are called, few are chosen.” Chosen? It doesn’t match the story, in which many seemed to be chosen. The point is that God’s choice, God’s judgment of us, is purely in our choice of him. Not to choose and not to be chosen are one and the same.

This, too, is the explanation of the third man who is punished, the man “without a wedding garment.” Why is the king so angry with this man? Only because he refuses to celebrate, refuses to participate in the feast. Even to be at the feast, but not to celebrate fully, is already to be in the outer darkness: not because he does not choose us, but because we do not choose him.

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Listen closely – like one in a wedding garment – to the reading from Isaiah, where God offers “a feast of rich food and choice wines,” and will “wipe away the tears from every face.” This is the offer. This is what we choose to refuse: to stay instead in the “web” of death.

This is the secret to the reading from Philippians. “I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry.” “My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

It is not that God gives some rule that we will be punished if we refuse to go hungry. Not at all. Rather, we have no fear of going hungry in this world, when we know that God in “his glorious riches,” offers us the perfect feast, the only thing that really matters, his presence.

Do we approach Christ – in our prayer life, in our moral obligations – as anything other than the most delightful feast? Do we see the darkness of being outside of that feast?

Fr. Benedict Joseph Groeschel, CFR

groeschelThe Protestant sage Stanley Hauerwas warns of the temptation to form a Church “of the world but not in it.” Hauerwas is wrong about a lot of things (mostly because he goes too far) – but he also feeds a steady stream of converts into the Catholic Church. I think this particular phrase gives a good starting point for thinking about the importance of Fr. Benedict Joseph Groeschel, CFR.

I have just returned from Fr. Benedict’s funeral, which packed our enormous Cathedral here in Newark.

Fr. Benedict, as you probably know, was a popular author, where he tried to meld his education in psychology with his formation as a Franciscan. He was a popular personality on television, and a popular preacher; my first encounter with him was when he came to preach a three-hour meditation on the Cross in St. Paul, Minnesota, when I was in college.

Part of his popularity, I think, was rooted in that wild accent, distinct to the neighborhood of Jersey City where he grew up. (Was it Bergen Hill? I can’t keep track of the different “heights” and “hills” of our neighboring city.) But even more it was rooted in a distinct combination of transparent sanctity and deep humanity.

That’s the core of Fr. Benedict: the union of sanctity and humanity – of God and man. I don’t know if his writings were successful in their attempt to pursue this insight through psychology – but the reason he took psychology seriously was because he took humanity seriously.

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This is the key, too, to his Franciscan reform. More important than his writings was the little community he formed, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. With seven younger priests, Fr. Benedict left the Capuchin Franciscans (who were watching a bit too much television, perhaps) and asked Cardinal O’Connor of New York to let them begin a reform.

It says something about the grit of this reform that the C in their initials, CFR, now stands for “community,” after the Capuchins refused to let them have a name that indicates their roots in the Capuchin reform of the sixteenth century. The CFRs are radically Franciscan, radically poor, radically committed to Christ and to his Church. Radical enough to be a threat.

But Fr. Benedict’s great gift to the Church is that the CFRs are also radically human. No one I have encountered makes clearer what Pope Francis means by “the joy of the Gospel.” No one is more filled with joy.

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And no one more deeply loves humanity. No one, anywhere, looks you in the eye like a CFR.

At the funeral, the Servant of the Community (their elected head) urged that the deepest lesson we should take forward from Fr. Benedict is what Pope Francis, in Evangelium Gaudium, calls “the culture of encounter.” The Holy Father wrote, “the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others.” That is the humanity that Fr. Groeschel taught us.

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The Church is called to be in the world but not of it, but we sometimes run the risk of being of the world but not in it. The temptation is to make Catholicism a way of being opposed to the world but still worldly: what Pope Francis calls “spiritual worldliness.” As if what Christ – no, not Christ, for such a falsified Catholicism rarely speaks of Christ – as if “Catholicism” were principally about being grumpy and hating people.

As if we can oppose loving the truth and being pastoral. There is nothing pastoral about hiding the truth. But neither can anyone claim to really love the truth – or Jesus Christ, the Truth – who is not passionate about bringing that Truth to others. To be unwilling “to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter” is to prove ourselves less than fully in love with the Truth.

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Perhaps this is the challenge of Vatican II. After the Council, of course there were those who said we should give up on truth. But there are also those who have said we that instead should give up on the world. Who have made “real” Catholicism consist in being grumpy.

(The Council was no break from the past. It only warned of the danger of heading in the wrong direction. I think Fr. Benedict’s most important writing is this article, on the reform of religious life.)

Fr. Benedict’s gift to the Church is to show a true, radical religious reform, a reform rooted in truly radical poverty and radical love of Christ and his Church, that is not grumpy, but filled with joy, delighted to take the risk of a face-to-face encounter with real human beings, deeply enough in love with Christ to love, too, humanity.

Where is Christ calling us to be more humane?