The Psalms on Where We Stand

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We come to the second-to-last line of our Psalm:

“My foot stands on a straight path.”

It’s a fitting place for a prayer to end.  In the course of Psalm 26 (as in many Psalms) we have considered our eyes, our mouth, our heart, and our kidneys.  Each of these body parts points to a different aspect of how we relate to the world around us.  But our feet, and where they stand, points to givenness.

At the end of our prayer, we say, “here I am, in this spot – this career, this house, this vocation, this family, these friends, this culture,” and, by thinking about our feet, we say, “given that I’m here, where will I go?”

The basic dynamic is simple: on the one hand, it’s up to me to walk, to head off in the right direction.  On the other hand, an awful lot of my life isn’t up to me.  I stand in a particular place.

***

There’s a modern philosophy called existentialism which focuses on radical freedom.  Every moment is separated from every other moment.  Every moment is a moment of decision!  (We have the expression “existential angst” to talk about how it’s scary for everything to be up to us, “in our hands.”)

Existentialism is beloved of both Christians and non-Christians.  And of course there’s something true about it.  Ultimately, what matters is the state of our heart, and that really is all about our decisions.

But there’s something really false about this, too.  Everything is not up to us.  Or rather, what’s up to us is how we deal with the particular place where we find ourselves.  We do no favors to ourselves – to our responsibility, our dignity – by pretending there’s not a situation given to us.  St. John Paul liked to call it our “task”; we could also call it a “call,” or vocation: we have a reality to deal with.

***

There’s a strange theme in the Bible, of children being punished for their parents’ sins.  The Bible is aware this is strange.  For example: “the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Ex 34:6-7).  Forgiving, but punishing children?

Modern Christians are tempted to solve everything by saying the Old Testament God is evil and unfair.  But that strategy fails on a lot of levels.  The most important problem with it is that the Old Testament is God’s Word, and full of wisdom!

Here’s the simple fact: we do suffer for the sins of our parents, even our grandparents, to the third and fourth generation.  This is a big part of “where our feet stand.”  My feet stand in the good things and the bad things my parents and grandparents, and their whole generation, have bequeathed to me.

Just as existentialism does me no favors when it pretends everything is up to me, it does me no favors to pretend that the sins of my fathers don’t affect me.  Oh, I suffer for them!

But even more important, they are the place where I stand, the ground I have to walk across.  This is where I live my faith: in the place my parents and grandparents – and, in another way, their whole generation – gave to me.

***

But in our Psalm, the line is, “my foot stands in a straight path.”  So here are three ways I can look at my situation, the place I stand: I can see the way I bear the consequences of my grandparents’ actions, especially of their sins; I can see the way I simply must live wherever I am; but finally, I can give thanks for where I stand.

My foot stands in a straight path.  The place where I stand, where I find myself, is a good place, a path leading right up to the heavenly Jerusalem.

This means, first, giving thanks for all the good things in life.  That I know Christ, above all, and everything else about my life: these are gifts.  I don’t claim responsibility for where I stand: I give thanks.

But, too, I give thanks for all the bad things in my life.  I recognize that God’s Providence has put me here, and God’s Providence will bring me home.  This is a good place to be, a straight path to heaven, if I receive it from his hand.

What parts of your life do you have the hardest time recognizing as paths to God?  What failures of recent generations present tasks to you today?

 

Third Sunday: The Gospel of Repentance

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JON 3:1-5, 10; PS 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 COR 7:29-31; MK 1:14-20

This week we return to the Gospel of Mark – and how classically Mark it is.  We are in verse 14 of this roaring, rushing Gospel.  Already we have met John baptizing in the wilderness; Jesus has been baptized; he has gone into the wilderness to battle (for just one verse, in Mark) with the devil; and John has been arrested.  A roaring, rushing Gospel!

And now we come to Jesus’s first words in Mark’s account: “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”  Twice we have the word “Gospel”: good news, a happy message.

But this happy message is a bit unsettling: a lion’s roar.  “This is the time of fulfillment” – what does that mean?  “The kingdom of God is at hand.”  Exciting, but where is this leading?  “Repent!”

Here is the key word, the same word John the Baptist had proclaimed, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance,” in verse 4.  This explains “the time of fulfillment”: now is the time of repentance, the time of conversion.  This explains “The kingdom of God is at hand”: now we will change our behavior, live as if God is king.  This explains, even, the good news: the good news is repentance, a change of heart.

The Greek metanoia, you probably know, means “a change of mind,” a new way of thinking, a new attitude.  The Latin poenitentia adds an important insight: the pain, poena, of change.

***

But the real key is not in linguistics, it’s in the story.  Immediately, in the roar of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus calls his first disciples, Andrew and Peter, then James and John.  “They abandoned their nets and followed him.”  “They left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.”

Repentance means leaving the old way of life, dropping it right where it lays, and following Jesus.  We can work back the other way.  If the good news is repentance, it’s also true that repentance means recognizing the good news: recognizing that Jesus is worth leaving everything for.  Repentance means acknowledging him as our king, accepting the Lordship of God, going his way, not ours: the kingdom of God is at hand.  There are lots of ways to fill this out – it means accepting, for example, God’s wisdom expressed in the nature of things – but most immediately, most roaringly, it means dropping our nets and following Jesus as our king.  Mark’s theme is always, let’s not get distracted: this is about following Jesus.

That is “the time of fulfillment”: the time when following Jesus becomes everything.  That’s the good news.

***

Notice too, of course, that it immediately turns also to preaching the good news, evangelization.  If we accept Jesus as king, we go forth to extend his kingdom – to extend the good news of dropping everything to follow the good king.  “I will make you fishers of men.”

***

That’s the theme, put boldly, in our short reading from Jonah.  The children’s story is fun, where Jonah is all about getting swallowed by a whale.  But that’s just a side issue in the real storyline of Jonah: God calls him to go forth and preach the gospel of repentance.  His reluctance – which leads, among other things, to getting swallowed by a whale – just shows us what a radical repentance that gospel calls us to undertake.

“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” is Jonah’s good news.  This is the drama of the good news: it’s good news because the opposite is bad news.  Not to follow Jesus, to remain in our old ways, is destruction, annihilation – not because God imposes nastiness on an otherwise happy Nineveh, but because without Jesus we are lost.

So they “believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. . . . They turned from their evil way.”  That is the good news of repentance: it looks a little rough, and that’s often the point: we are so inclined to sit in our boats and miss the One Necessary Thing that the call to follow Jesus feels like pain, poenitentia.  But he calls us to the gospel, to freedom from the emptiness that is life without him.

***

And that is the meaning, too, of our reading from First Corinthians: “the world in its present form is passing away.”  That’s not an imposition: all earthly splendor fades.  It just does.  When Paul calls “those rejoicing” to act “as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully,” it’s not that he’s tearing them away from joy.  He’s tearing them away from what cannot satisfy, and calling them to the good news.

But the good news means repentance, a change, a tearing away, from emptiness to fullness of life.

Are there parts of your life where it’s hard to see how repentance, following Jesus, is good news?

The Psalms on Redemption

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

With many interruptions, we draw closer to the end of our Psalm 26.  The final strophe says:

 

“But I walk in my innocence;

Redeem me and have mercy on me.

My foot stands on a straight path;

In the congregations I will bless the Lord.”

 

Now, there is a strange tension here, especially in the first two lines: I walk . . . redeem me.  Which one is it?  Is it about our works, or God’s?  Is salvation by grace, or by works?

In truth, it is both – and indeed, how can we read the Bible without seeing that it’s constantly saying both things: God’s mercy and his justice; our call to righteousness and our need for a Savior; the necessity of our works, our “walk,” and the centrality of his redemption.

***

“Lord make us turn to you,” the Psalms say elsewhere: God makes us turn – and we turn.  This is best thought of not as a shared work.  We are not on an equal playing field with God, like two rowers each pulling an oar.  Rather, in more abstract language, it is primary and secondary causality.

The real model is creation: God makes us – and we really exist.  Creation is entirely God’s work; I contribute absolutely nothing.  But when God creates me, I do exist.  Indeed, to deny my existence would not uphold God’s strength, but deny it.  He actually makes something happen.

So too with salvation: God does everything, I contribute nothing – yet when he restores me, brings me back to health, then I really am healthy.  It’s not that God needs me to walk, or that I “contribute” my walk to God’s redemption.  Rather, now that God has redeemed me, I can walk.  That’s what his redemption does: it makes me able to walk – and, more importantly, makes me, really me, able to “bless the Lord.”

***

“Redemption” is a fabulous, rich word.  The Latin roots of the word are re-, as in restoration – and emptio, which means buying.  Properly, it is buying back a slave.  When an enemy holds one of the Israelites hostage, his people can “ransom” him, buy back his freedom.

Redemption is restoration.  The root idea is that there is a former state that can be restored.  A parallel idea is “health” – and indeed, that is the root of the word “salvation,” in both Latin and Greek.  Salvation is being salved, being healed.  It means being restored to our nature.

That means we have a nature.  We have a reality, which sin has deformed and wounded and enslaved.  Redemption is the restoration of freedom, the freedom of the glory of the children of God, the freedom to be ourselves again – but our true selves were designed to find their happiness in God.  We become human again, which means not randomly doing whatever, but turning again to the Lord, looking back to his face, as is our birthright.  Redemption means being bought back from the slavery of sin to the freedom of glory.

Restoration means we have an original design, a way things are supposed to be, not because there are some rules written on high, but because we are discovering our true selves.  This is the real meaning of “natural law,” a much abused term.  In the Christian context, “natural law” doesn’t mean “what you can do without Christ.”  It means, “the nature that Christ restores.”  When grace makes us whole again – redeems us, heals us, restores us – then we again act like human beings.

We live marriage: which is natural, but which sin makes impossible.  We live neighborliness.  We work, and build, and garden.  Above all, we worship, and give thanks to God for all the beauty of creation – and now, too, for the beauty of our restoration.  We are restored, bought back, made ourselves again.

***

This is why Christ is true man: because he comes to restore man – not to replace him, not to make us into something else, not to leave our nature in the dust, but to make us human again.  Redemption.

And that’s why “redeem me” does not negate “I will walk.”  Redemption makes us walk again, makes us able to live again.  Even more deeply, in the last line of our Psalm, it restores “the congregations” and lets us “bless the Lord”: Redemption means that the Church is our natural home, the natural place of love of neighbor and love of God.

And finally, “redeem me” is the true meaning of “have mercy on me.”  Mercy does not leave us the same, does not merely overlook our faults.  Mercy heals our faults.  Mercy is not withholding punishment – or, not just withholding punishment.  Mercy is God giving us gifts, grace, redemption.

How does Jesus want to make you more human?

Pope Francis on St. Joseph the Sleeper

Speaking to families in the Philippines, Pope Francis gave this little meditation on St. Joseph.  I love it!  The basic organization is: Joseph sleeps; Joseph rises; Joseph gives witness.  And we families should be like Joseph!

 

pope francisThe Scriptures seldom speak of Saint Joseph, but when they do, we often find him resting, as an angel reveals God’s will to him in his dreams. In the Gospel passage we have just heard, we find Joseph resting not once, but twice. . . .

It is important to dream in the family. All mothers and fathers dream of their sons and daughters in the womb for 9 months. They dream of how they will be. It isn’t possible to have a family without such dreams. When you lose this capacity to dream you lose the capacity to love, the capacity to love is lost. I recommend that at night when you examine your consciences, ask yourself if you dreamed of the future of your sons and daughters. Did you dream of your husband or wife? Did you dream today of your parents, your grandparents who carried forward the family to you? It is so important to dream and especially to dream in the family. Please don’t lose the ability to dream in this way. How many solutions are found to family problems if we take time to reflect, if we think of a husband or wife, and we dream about the good qualities they have. Don’t ever lose the memory of when you were boyfriend or girlfriend. That is very important.

annunciation-to-josephJoseph’s rest revealed God’s will to him. In this moment of rest in the Lord, as we pause from our many daily obligations and activities, God is also speaking to us. He speaks to us in the reading we have just heard, in our prayer and witness, and in the quiet of our hearts. Let us reflect on what the Lord is saying to us, especially in this evening’s Gospel. There are three aspects of this passage which I would ask you to consider: resting in the Lord, rising with Jesus and Mary, and being a prophetic voice.

Resting in the Lord. Rest is so necessary for the health of our minds and bodies, and often so difficult to achieve due to the many demands placed on us. But rest is also essential for our spiritual health, so that we can hear God’s voice and understand what he asks of us. Joseph was chosen by God to be the foster father of Jesus and the husband of Mary. As Christians, you too are called, like Joseph, to make a home for Jesus. You make a home for him in your hearts, your families, your parishes and your communities.

To hear and accept God’s call, to make a home for Jesus, you must be able to rest in the Lord. You must make time each day for prayer. But you may say to me: Holy Father, I want to pray, but there is so much work to do! I must care for my children; I have chores in the home; I am too tired even to sleep well. This may be true, but if we do not pray, we will not know the most important thing of all: God’s will for us. And for all our activity, our busy-ness, without prayer we will accomplish very little. . . .

Next, rising with Jesus and Mary. Those precious moments of repose, of resting with the Lord in prayer, are moments we might wish to prolong. But like Saint Joseph, once we have heard God’s voice, we must rise from our slumber; we must get up and act (cf. Rom 13:11). Faith does not remove us from the world, but draws us more deeply into it. Each of us, in fact, has a special role in preparing for the coming of God’s kingdom in our world. . . .

Finally, the Gospel we have heard reminds us of our Christian duty to be prophetic voices in the midst of our communities. Joseph listened to the angel of the Lord and responded to God’s call to care for Jesus and Mary. In this way he played his part in God’s plan, and became a blessing not only for the Holy Family, but a blessing for all of humanity. With Mary, Joseph served as a model for the boy Jesus as he grew in wisdom, age and grace (cf. Lk 2:52). When families bring children into the world, train them in faith and sound values, and teach them to contribute to society, they become a blessing in our world. God’s love becomes present and active by the way we love and by the good works that we do.

-Pope Francis

Sunday Readings: The Call to Contemplation

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

1 SM 3:3b-10, 19; PS 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10; 1 COR 6:13c-15a, 17-20; JN 1:35-42

This weekend is the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – but it is really our first “ordinary” Sunday, since the “First Sunday” is the Baptism. Last Sunday we completed our Christmas cycle of meditating on who Christ is. Now we set out on our way.

This year, “Year B,” we read Mark’s Gospel. But because Mark’s Gospel is short, we also get lots of commentary from John’s Gospel. That is what we read this Sunday.

John, we have said, is almost like a commentary on the other three “Synoptic” (or “look-alike) Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke begin the action with John the Baptist in the wilderness, then the call of Peter and his brother Andrew: “I will make you fishers of men.”

***

John gives us a commentary, taking us deeper. First, he unites the two scenes:

“John was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said,

‘Behold, the Lamb of God.’ The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus.” The call of the fishermen is through the mouth of the Baptist.

The disciples “follow the Lamb” – it’s a phrase John will use elsewhere. John gives us many meditations that teach us the meaning of this name. The Lamb is the one who is slain, the sacrificial victim. And the Lamb is the one who hears the voice of his master and follows. Jesus is the one who goes where his Father calls. The disciples who follow – follow – become lambs of the Lamb, obedient to the obedient one, looking for the green pastures where he lies down.

What rich insight John adds to their call!

***

Then he tells us what Simon and Andrew said. Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” And they say, “Teacher, where are you staying?”

This is another of John’s favorite words: “remain.” To really appreciate John, you have to discover that there are many English words translating the same rich Johannine Greek word. The “many rooms” – King James had “mansions,” which gets the re-main element – in the Father’s house are not rooms, they are “dwelling places,” “places where we can remain.” At the Last Supper John himself will dwell on Jesus’s breast. In his first letter, he will tell us to “dwell,” or “remain,” or “abide” in our Baptism.

John calls us to contemplation. But the image is so tangible: here, Peter and Andrew “stayed with him that day.” They dwelled with him, remained. Just to “be” and to “be with.”

And John has Jesus giving Peter his name, “the rock,” here. Not in action, but in contemplation. If he is “fisher of men,” it is because he is first the one who spends time “dwelling” with Christ. In fact, John has Andrew as the first apostle: he finds Peter and “brought him to Jesus.” What a fabulous description of evangelization: to bring people to Jesus. And “Jesus looked at him.” Dwelling. Remaining.

***

The first reading, the call of Samuel, gives one element of this. The prophet hears a call, but he doesn’t know what it is. As if all of us are hearing a voice beckoning to us, calling our name. But “Samuel was not yet familiar with the Lord.” He didn’t know the meaning of that call.

The solution was a prayer, one of the great prayers of the Bible: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Divine intimacy. To learn that the incessant call we hear is the call to listen to Him – to dwell with him, heart to heart, cheek to cheek, mouth to ear.

(Let me add that the Tradition is insistent: above all, we hear the Lord speak through Scripture. His voice is there, his word is written. But intimacy demands that we listen!)

***

In our reading from First Corinthians, we get another angle on this intimacy. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? . . . Avoid immorality.”

The word, as the context (and the Greek) makes clear, is specifically about sexual immorality. But there is richness in applying it more broadly too.

What is the heart of Christian morality? Social consequences? “Natural law”? Obedience? Look: those things matter. But they matter because of divine intimacy: because we dwell with Christ.

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” “You have been purchased at a price.” “Whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with him.”

In these many ways, Paul calls us to think about morality about all in terms of union with Christ. Let us never allow “moralism” to take the place of that contemplative “dwelling.” Divine intimacy: that is the call.

Is there space in your life simply to be near Christ? How could you increase that space – that “dwelling place”?

Aparecida on Good News in the Family

brazil-popeIn the last of the Aparecida Document’s three parts, we are considering “The Life of Jesus Christ for Our Peoples.” Christ restores the whole person. – This is the real heart of Catholic morality: not that we are required to do something to win Christ’s love, but exactly the opposite: that Christ’s grace restores us to life, brings the fullness of life to all aspects of our humanity.

Aparecida reminds us that this truth must be at the heart of our own encounter with Christ, and that it must express itself in evangelization. Let us give witness that Christ is life, for us and “for our peoples,” the people around us.

The four chapters of Part Three walk us through this truth and three applications:

7. The Mission of the Disciples in the Service of Full Life

8. Kingdom of God and Promoting Human Dignity

9. Family, Persons, and Life

10. Our Peoples and Culture

Chapter Seven says that Christianity is about “fullness of life.” Chapter Eight applies that to how we look at the individual; Chapter Nine the most basic relationships, in the family; and Chapter Ten the broader relationships of society.

***

Today we consider the family:

9. Family, Persons, and Life

a. Marriage and Family

b. Children

c. Adolescents and Young People

d. The Well-Being of the Elderly

e. The Dignity and Participation of Women

f. The Responsibility of the Male and Father of Family

g. The Culture of Life: Proclaiming It and Defending It

h. Care for the Environment

Actually, I was thinking about putting these meditations on hold today, and instead talking a little about why I have not been able to write as much the last few weeks. But that would have been a meditation on family, anyway. On the one hand, the exuberantly wonderful demands of my own family at Christmas: above all my children, but also by parents and brothers, who came to visit. How better to celebrate Christmas than with family!

On the other hand, the crosses of family, as we have been very busy tending to very dear friends who are considering divorce, and then a divorce, and a new ersatz-marriage relationship, within our own family. What can be more painful than this!

Even so briefly outlined, my own experience the last few weeks gets at the deeper point. If Christ brings life, that can nowhere be more powerfully true than in the family itself. And nowhere do we more powerfully experience our desperate need for Christ than in the struggles of family life.

***

Aparecida’s outline nicely shows the reality of this – the sort of inherently bursting-beyond-itself of human life. Marriage, of course, is one of our strongest attractions. The first thing we have to say about celibacy is that everyone remotely healthy wants to get married – celibacy is a sacrifice! It is not good to be alone: we feel that so deep down.

But immediately – before Aparecida even gets beyond point a – our marital relationship is bursting its seams, and becoming “family.” When two people come together . . . other people naturally start showing up! (babies) Our culture tries to convince us – and sometimes Catholics are a bit quick to let themselves be convinced – that marriage is “first of all” about two people. That’s boloney. Marriage is about family. It is human relationship bursting out into new relationships.

And suddenly we are thinking about children . . . and adolescents, and young people! Before we get to our own adolescents, we have others: for me, my younger brothers (in their twenties now), my and my wife’s cousins, etc. How fabulously life ramifies, branches out, leaves us endlessly in relationship.

So too, in the other direction, come the elderly: our own parents, and grandparents – the relationships that burst their seams to make us – and our spouse’s parents, etc.

Even we end up thinking beyond ourselves. Pushing our envelope, perhaps, Aparecida gives us not only “the culture of life” – family makes us worry about a family-friendly world! – but also “care for the environment,” which is most properly thought of not as the worship of Gaia and hatred of man, but as the desire to pass on a beautiful world to our children and children’s children.

***

Because – this is the point – we are by nature relational beings.

The concrete lesson for today is that these various branchings out of family relationship mean that the place we live life – and the place we live our spiritual life, and our awareness that Christ is life – is above all in family. Family is no distraction from our Christian faith. It is the very tangible place where we show what Christ means for us.

How can your relationships with your family manifest to others that Christ is good news?

Baptism of the Lord: Repentance the Fruit of Grace

 

ISbaptism of the lord 42:1-4, 6-7; PS 29:1-2, 3-4, 9-10; ACTS 10:34-38; 1 JN 5:1-9

This Sunday we launch into Ordinary Time with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

The Lectionary is a little confusing on this feast.  The three liturgical years have their own Gospels for the day.  But the first two readings are listed in general, and then there are alternatives given for years B and C.  I can’t make out why there are alternatives – but I will hear consider the options for Year B, since we looked at the Year A/Standard option last year.

Basically, the question for us as we shift from Christmas to Ordinary Time is, what does this mean for me?  We have spent a couple weeks focusing on Jesus, and that is very good.  But so what?  What does that mean for me?  What do I take with me into the year?

All three of our readings play out this question, which is the central dynamic of the theology of grace: there is Jesus, and there is me.  Salvation is all the work of Jesus – and it happens in me, so that it is also my work.  Both Jesus and me.

***

The focus here is on Jesus’s Baptism.  Here is our first coming together of God and man.  John’s Baptism is a human baptism, a work of man.  Jesus does not scorn that – though he is infinitely beyond it – but he enters into it.

Looking a little deeper, John’s Baptism is not only a human work itself, but it is a call to works – a call to repentance.  By itself, John’s Baptism is the the most straightforward works righteousness, or even Pelagianism.  He tells us to prepare the way for God – think of the absurdity of that!  And he tells us to repent, to change our own ways.

On one level Jesus triumphs over that.  In fact, John himself knows that Jesus will triumph over it.  He says, “One mightier than I is coming after me.  I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.”  Notice the description: not only is John unworthy of Jesus, he is not as “mighty.”  John can’t make repentance happen.  He calls us to change, but he can’t bring that change about.

The bizarre thing – in a sense, this is the very heart of the Gospel – is that Jesus enters into that call to righteousness.  He does not say, “oh, let me do it for you.”  He doesn’t say, “there is no works righteousness.”  Rather, Jesus is baptized: he joins the call to repentance, and thereby transforms it from within.

Jesus’s Baptism brings the Holy Spirit descending from above.  He brings divine sonship, and the opportunity to be “pleasing” to God.

On man’s side is the call to repentance.  On God’s side is divine filiation.  But those go together: divine filiation does not leave us the same: it changes us.  By itself, the call to repentance is completely inadequate.  But it is part of the work of Jesus, part of how Jesus transforms us.

***

Our reading from Isaiah gives another version of the same dynamic.  The first paragraph is like John the Baptist: “Why spend your money for what is not bread, your wages for what fails to satisfy?”  This is put in a positive way, but it is the call to repentance: only God can satisfy!  Live that way!

And, too, we are called to missionary activity: “so shall you summon a nation you knew not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you.”  You summon them!  They will run to you!

The second paragraph continues: “seek the Lord while he may be found. . . . Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked man his thoughts.”  Repent!  You do it!  Change yourselves!

But then comes a metaphor going the other way: “just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful.”  The “rain and snow” are God’s grace, the Holy Spirit.  Our repentance does not begin with us: it is the fruit of God’s work in us.  Yes, we are called to repent.  But it is God who gives us the grace to do it.

***

And again in the First Letter of John: He begins, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God.”  Salvation is by faith!  But its fruit is works: “when we love God and obey his commandments.”  It doesn’t begin there, but it does fructify in our works.

“Not by water alone”: no, Baptism’s call to repentance is fruitless by itself.  But neither “by blood alone”: it is Jesus’s blood that gives power to the waters – that gives the Holy Spirit to the waters, so that our call to repentance may bear fruit.

Where is God calling us to let him change us?  How can we bring our sins to his transforming touch?

 

The Aparecida Model: Total Conversion

brazil-popeIn Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, perhaps the greatest English Catholic novel, Rex Mottram needs to convert to Catholicism so that he and Julia Marchmain can have a Church wedding.  Rex, an adulterer, liar, and financial criminal, is happy to join the Church.  “What do I have to do?  Just show me where to sign.”

Cordelia plays some games to see what’s really going on.  She gets Rex to accept, for example, “the sacred monkeys of the Vatican,” and the importance of sleeping with feet facing East, so it will be easier to walk to heaven.

Fr. Mowbray, the Jesuit who is assigned to instruct Rex in the faith, concludes that Rex is less than human.  In a classic Waugh-ian critique of the modern world, he says that the pagan world knows no such emptiness of the human mind as in Rex.  Rex is happy to embrace a life of total incoherence, where one part of his personality has nothing to do with any other part of his personality.

We could add to Waugh’s critique of Rex’s humanity a critique of Rex’s God.  A God of the absurd – a God who requires you to believe in sacred monkeys so that you can have a pretty wedding – is no God at all.  Indeed, the glory of the Catholic faith – Waugh brilliantly shows this – is precisely in the coherence of creation: beauty, order, wisdom.  To be restored to true love of the Creator God, and even to become his sons and daughters, is to see the meaningfulness of everything.

Rex is no man.  Rex’s God is no God.

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After a December break, we return to our last few meditations on the Aparecida document.  Perhaps it’s good to begin with this bigger picture.

Pope Francis (the principal editor of the document) and, in various ways the document itself, speaks often against the danger of “proselytism.”  I wonder if this word is more familiar in the Latin Ameican context; I don’t think North Americans typically know what it means.

I think what Francis means by proselytism is scoring conversions like Rex Mottram’s.  It is possible, you know.  Fallen man is more than willing to embrace total incoherence, both in his thought and in his moral life.  Modern man, with modernity’s deconstruction of reason and culture, wildly accelerated by the modern media, is especially susceptible to this.

This is the real meaning of heresy: to accept part of the faith and reject other parts – and heresy is not that hard to come by.  Perhaps more deeply, there is the technical term “dead faith” (see Summa theologiae IIa-IIae, q. 4, a. 4).  Dead faith is the real possibility that you can have true, orthodox faith, believe all the right things, but not love God, and so be in a state of mortal sin.  It is possible to be completely orthodox and go to Hell.

We in the orthodox Catholic world need to beware of all this, both in ourselves and in our apostolates.  Faith alone is not sufficient.  That means, too, that being a good culture warrior is not the same as being a good Catholic: you can hold all the hardline positions – all of them! – and not love God or neighbor, and that is death.  And this means loving God, not just kind of, in the background of our orthodoxy, but with all our heart and mind and soul and strength; loving our neighbor not just sort of, but as we love ourselves.

This is the danger in apologetics.  Apologetics has its place!  But a true apologetics must not just win over Rex Mottram’s, who say, “fine, I believe in the Real Presence and the Infallibility of the Pope,” (or, perhaps more dangerous, “yes, I love being uber-traditional”) but do not have a real spiritual life that spills into their entire practical life.

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Aparecida, then, proposes a model of evangelization that is total: “varied dimensions of life in Christ,” “At the service of a full life for all,” “Kingdom of God, Social Justice, and Human Dignity,” etc., along with Francis’s emphasis on the evangelization of “accompaniment.”

There is a place for argument.  But more deeply, we need to show, by the way we live, the coherence of the Gospel, the way it impacts our life in its totality, and the way it is meant to bring total conversion to others, not just “signing on the dotted line.”

Aparecida goes to the heart when it puts all of our life and all of our mission under the sign of Mary, for she is the image of total conversion, a life utterly transformed by Christ, down to washing the dishes.

Think about the most boring elements of your life.  Could they show forth the Marian face of the Gospel?

An Aparecida Prayer for the New Year

The Aparecida Conference began, on May 13, 2007, with an address by Pope Benedict XVI.  The Aparecida Document concludes by quoting extensively from that beautiful address.

The words below come from that quotation: they are words from both Pope Benedict and Aparecida, and thus the future Pope Francis.

I simply point out the Christocentrism: “stay with us, Lord.”  In this New Year, let us recall our deep need for the presence of Jesus in our lives.

Note that it first speaks of Jesus “enlightening our minds” through his word: our meditation on Scripture is a central way Jesus “stays with us.” And this “helps us to experience the beauty of believing” in him.

But then it speaks of how we need his presence: in our families, in our homes, and especially among the most vulnerable and the young.  Stay with us, Lord!

 

POPEStay with us, Lord, keep us company, even though we have not always recognized you. Stay with us, because all around us the shadows are deepening, and you are the Light; discouragement is eating its way into our hearts: make them burn with the certainty of Easter. We are tired of the journey, but you comfort us in the breaking of bread, so that we are able to proclaim to our brothers and sisters that you have truly risen and have entrusted us with the mission of being witnesses of your resurrection.

 

Stay with us, Lord, when mists of doubt, weariness or difficulty rise up around our Catholic faith; you are Truth itself, you are the one who reveals the Father to us: enlighten our minds with your word, and help us to experience the beauty of believing in you.

 

Remain in our families, enlighten them in their doubts, sustain them in their difficulties, console them in their sufferings and in their daily labors, when around them shadows build up which threaten their unity and their natural identity. You are Life itself: remain in our homes, so that they may continue to be nests where human life is generously born, where life is welcomed, loved and respected from conception to natural death.

 

Remain, Lord, with those in our societies who are most vulnerable; remain with the poor and the lowly, with indigenous peoples and Afro-Americans, who have not always found space and support to express the richness of their culture and the wisdom of their identity.

 

Remain, Lord, with our children and with our young people, who are the hope and the treasure of our Continent, protect them from so many snares that attack their innocence and their legitimate hopes. O Good Shepherd, remain with our elderly and with our sick. Strengthen them all in faith, so that they may be your disciples and missionaries!

 

-Conclusion of Aparecida Document, quoting Benedict XVI, “Inaugural Address of the Fifth Conference, Aparecida”

Epiphany: Christ for Us

magiIS 60:1-6; PS 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; EPH 3:2-3a,5-6; MT 2:1-12

This Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord, his manifestation.  In the East, this is the bigger feast.  Though we read the Prologue of John’s Gospel at the daytime Mass on Christmas, it was nine months ago, at the Annunciation, that “The Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us.”  What happens at Christmas is that we see him.  At the midnight and dawn Masses for Christmas, we read Luke’s story of Jesus’s appearance to the shepherds; at Epiphany we read Matthew’s story of Jesus’s appearance to the nations, represented by the kings.

In fact, both Christmas and Epiphany are celebrations of his appearance: not what happens to him, but what happens to us, when we see him.  There’s an important theological and liturgical truth in the Church’s ranking of Christmas higher than the Annunciation.  In fact, what is important here is not just what happens to Jesus (that he is incarnate) but what happens to us: he is incarnate for us.  John’s Gospel quickly continues: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us – and we have seen his glory.”

The readings are there for us to hear.  He comes to the altar for us to see, and touch, and taste.  He is made flesh to be united to us.

And so we celebrate Christmas and Epiphany: Christ born for us.

***

The differentiation of these feasts nicely takes us into the differences among the Gospels.

Matthew’s Gospel, which tradition believes was written first, is the straightforward Gospel.  Matthew organizes Jesus’s teaching into five neat sermons (the Mount, the parables, the Church, missionaries, and the end of time), paired with appropriate signs, opening with the birth told from the perspective of the father (Joseph), and closing with the Cross and the Resurrection.  Neat and clean.

Mark cuts to the chase.  He is short.  The writing is actually very tight, very clean.  There is no nativity: it opens with John the Baptist, like a lion’s roar.  And it rushes forward: the constant refrain is “then immediately,” and no one recognizes Jesus until the Cross.  Mark wants us to know that in real life, it wasn’t so neat and easy to understand as Matthew tells it.  What Matthew says is true – but Mark takes us into the drama.

Luke then takes us into the theology: where Mark emphasizes the Cross, Luke focuses on grace.  Luke is the Gospel of poverty.  His nativity story tells us not about the kings, but about the shepherds; he tells us about the stable (and his symbol is the ox).  Christmas, when we read Luke, is the poor man’s Epiphany.  The Epiphany that we celebrate this week is the more respectable one, with Jesus in the company of kings – and the more straightforward consideration of Christ’s appearing.

John, the eagle, rewrites it all with high-flying theological commentary: his nativity story is “in the beginning was the Word,” just as he glosses the institution of the Eucharist with the Bread of Life discourse (in chapter 6), the washing of the feet (chapter 13), and the farewell discourse, culminating in chapter 17: communion as “may they be one”.

Each Gospel tells the truth, but each selects its material to make a particular kind of theological point.

***

So what is the theological point of Matthew’s Epiphany?  If Mark’s theme was “no one understood,” Matthew’s theme is “all the signs were there: they should have understood.”  He has appeared!

The Birth of the Messiah appeard to Gentile and Jew.  The magi – pagan wise men – “saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”  And when they come to Herod, all the learned Jews tell him “the Christ was to be born . . . In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet” – and in case we’re unsure, Matthew quotes the prophet at length.  They should have known!

But Herod “sent them to Bethlehem” – he did not go himself.  He did not go, of course, because he did not want to do what they did: “They prostrated themselves and did him homage.  Then they opened their treasures.”  He wanted to be king.  We should let Jesus be king for us.

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Our first reading, from Isaiah, nicely emphasizes the problem.  Matthew tells us Herod “was greatly troubled – and all Jerusalem with him.”  Isaiah says, “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come.”  Jesus is theirs!  “He came to his own home,” as John says – “and his own people received him not.”

“Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. . . . The riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you,” says Isaiah.  In our reading from Ephesians, Paul adds, “the mystery was made known to me by revelation. . . .  It has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”  Thank God he has been revealed!

And what is that revelation?  “That the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”  The revelation is precisely that we are called from every nation to see him.  Christ is born for usDeo gratias!

Christ dwells among us.  In your daily life, how could you better join the kings and the shepherds, go to see his glory?