Sunday of Christ the King: Shepherd and Savior

van eyck adoration

 EZ 34:11-12, 15-17; PS 23: 1-2, 2-3, 5-6; 1 COR 15:20-26, 28; MT 25:31-46

We come at last to the final Sunday of the year, Christ the King.

Year B, next year, when we read through Mark’s Gospel, the Gospel for this feast will be from John: Pilate asks, “are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (Before Vatican II, this was the reading for the feast every year.)

Year C, in Luke, we read, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” But the good thief says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

His kingdom is not what we expect.

***

This year we read the final words of Jesus’s preaching, the end of Matthew’s magnificent Fifth Sermon. We begin with kingly grandeur and judgment: Jesus tells his disciples, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another.” Christ the King!

But the story quickly takes a strange turn. First, “he will separate them one from another . . . as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” The King is a shepherd . . . .

And then it gets stranger. Judgment seems appropriate to this king of glory: “the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ . . . ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

But then he explains his judgment. “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.” It’s quite a list. I must visit prisoners? Bad guys?

The Tradition, of course, takes these words with dreadful seriousness, and is full of St. Martin’s giving their cloaks to the naked Christ. (Even a boring saint like Thomas Aquinas was said to do this frequently.)

***

The sheep and the goats each ask the same question: “When did we see you?” And they get the same answer, “What you did . . . .” In his most distressing disguises, it is hard to see Jesus. He asks us to serve him anyway.

But why? How does all this fit together? What do filthy prisoners have to do with Christ the King?

***

The reading from Ezekiel gives an answer in metaphors. “I myself will look after and tend my sheep,” says the Lord. “The lost I will seek out.”

We have seen this theme several Sundays this year. “To the merciful I will show myself merciful.” In our acts of mercy we recognize his mercy. The problem with saying to the prisoner, “you are a lost cause, not worth my time,” is that we are a lost cause, not worth Christ’s time.

In stooping to the poverty of others, we recognize that he stoops to our poverty. In refusing to stoop, we refuse to acknowledge that he stoops. We deny his love, his mercy, his generosity. Deny it also by thinking we have to be stingy: any time I say I don’t have enough to share – enough money, enough time, enough energy – I deny also that the Good Shepherd provides for me.

***

Ezekiel gets strange. “The sick I will heal,” says the shepherd, “but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. . . . I will judge between rams and goats.”

What is the difference between sheep and goats? The sheep follow the shepherd: they go where he goes (even to the lowly), and they receive their food from him (and not from their own strength).

“The sleek and the strong” could also be translated “the greasy and noisy” – and then it sounds more like goats. But perhaps the deeper difference is that they have no need for a Shepherd.

***

Our reading from First Corinthians explains more directly. At the Resurrection, “in Christ shall all be brought to life.” The deeper question of Christ the King is whether we receive all from him, whether we are “those who belong to Christ,” or more simply, just “those who are of Christ.” In him is life. Without him is death.

And therefore he will “destroy all sovereignty.” Those who think they are mighty cannot abide the way of Christ: cannot follow the shepherd, cannot receive life from him.

This is what we live out, in our acts of mercy or our refusal of mercy. Will I follow the one who stoops to seek the lost? Will I receive from the one who provides for my hunger and visits me in my sickness?

Where does your life call you to acts of mercy? Can you see the provision of the Good Shepherd there?

Aparecida on “Communicating the New Life in Christ”

brazil-popeThe Aparecida Document’s seventh chapter, the first chapter of its third and final part, examines “The Mission of the Disciples in the Service of Full Life.”

Part Three: The Life of Jesus Christ for Our Peoples

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

     a. Living and Communicating the New Life in Christ to our Peoples

          i. Jesus at the service of life

          ii. Varied dimensions of life in Christ

          iii. At the service of a full life for all

          iv. A mission to communicate life

     b. Pastoral Conversion and Missionary Renewal of Communities

     c. Our Commitment to Mission Ad Gentes

In order to understand this chapter, this week we will examine the four subsections of section “a,” next week we will return to consider the whole chapter.

***

The bigger purpose of this chapter, and of the whole document, is to understand the real meaning of “mission.” What does it mean to be truly missionary?

There are two sides to this question. First, what is a real missionary? What does a real Christian missionary bring to others? Second, why do Christians need to be missionaries? What does mission have to do with my spiritual life?

The title of this section, “Living and Communicating the New Life in Christ to our Peoples” addresses that second question. First, it ties together “living” and “communicating.” On the one hand, we cannot communicate what we do not live. If we do not find our lives in Christ, there is no point trying to be missionaries of Christ. We communicate more by who and what we are than by any words we may preach. Words are necessary, but they make little sense if our lived witness contradicts them.

But on the other hand, can we really live without communicating? Does it make any sense to say that I think Christ is the way, the truth, and the life – but only for me? Christian life without mission, in fact, is a kind of relativism, a denial of the truth of Christ. If I really believe Christ is life, I must communicate that to others!

**

Second, the title of this section ends “to our Peoples.” And there is simply a recognition that I am part of a people.

It is perhaps easier seen at the level of family. If I find my life in Christ, and I am a part of a family – if my life is really tied to that family – how can I not share that life with the people to whom I am bound!

And so too if I am part of a neighborhood, of a parish, of a nation, of any community, if those really mark part of who I am, how can my life in Christ not spill over, how can I not communicate that life to my communities?

Mission and true life go hand in hand.

***

But what kind of mission? The first subsection proposes “Jesus at the service of life.” We are returning to a previous theme. If Jesus is truly our savior, truly our life, then he is the savior of our entire life, everything about us. Jesus affects, and perfects, and restores every aspect of human life.

Of course, in so restoring it, it will be changed. He might restore my desire for movies by redirecting it to something richer; might change my desire to rise from poverty to a desire to help those who are truly poor. He does not leave us unchanged.

But he does perfect us, in all our humanity. To say Jesus is life is to say – Aparecida quotes Pope Benedict – “The new life of Jesus Christ touches the entire human being and develops human existence in fullness ‘in its personal, family, social and cultural dimensions.’”

Thus true life in Christ, and true communication of that life, must celebrate “varied dimensions of life in Christ.” To tell people to embrace Jesus without showing how he perfects every aspect of life is simply not to live or communicate the fullness of the Gospel.

So too if we are not “at the service of a full life for all.” If Jesus is savior, he is savior of all of human life, every aspect of ourselves, and of every human life. The fullness of the Gospel must be preached, to all men!

***

Aparecida tells us, “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others.” Let us discover the fullness of life by sharing Christ, the way, the truth, and the life, in all his fullness, with those around us.

Think of someone in your life who does not know Jesus as Savior. If you were to tell them he is life-giving, what parts of your life would you need to show that through?

The Psalms on Our Hands

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

“Do not abandon my soul with sinners

And my life with men of blood

In whose hands is crime . . . .”

Our Psalm 26 has considered the joy in God’s tabernacle, and now expresses the fear of sin. It walks a careful middle line: it is not clear whether we fear more what the men of blood will do to us, or that we will become one of them. Who is worse off, the violent man, or his victim?

Our line for today starts to examine the men of blood themselves: there is crime in (or on) their hands.

***

We are reminded of the famous scene from Macbeth:

“What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes.

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red.”

All the oceans of the world cannot wash the blood from Macbeth’s hands. The world itself will be stained in blood before it can wash the murderer clean. And so the crime that has stained his hands plucks out his own eyes, destroys his whole ability to relate to the world.

***

The hand, said Aristotle, is the “tool of tools.” We use a hammer to drive nails and a screwdriver to drive screws – but we use our hand to drive the hammer and the screwdriver.

The hand is a sign of our interaction with the world. It is “exterior” to us, in that it is our main tool for interacting with other things, whether by touch or by manipulation. But it is also “interior,” in that the hands work intelligently, not dumbly kicking, but dexterously interacting.

Thus the hand is, for the Psalmist, a sign of the encounter between our interior and our exterior, between our soul and our actions.

***

To say our hands are “stained with blood,” or that “on their hands is crime,” is to say that our interaction with the world touches us. Macbeth can, in fact, wash the physical blood off of his hands.

What he cannot wash away (at least not by all the oceans of this world) is the stain of his free choices. Precisely the intelligence of the hands signals that what we have done with them is truly us.

Macbeth’s hands didn’t kill Duncan, Macbeth himself did. But the hands, both for Shakespeare and for the Psalms, signal that our free, intelligent choices really bring our interior in contact with the exterior world. The hands are a sign that there is no deep divide between the outside world and our interior: we are our actions.

***

We should note that alongside the Psalms’ endless references to hands (about 150 times: our hands, the hands of the wicked, the hands of God), they speak often too of the lips (about 35 times), the tongue (another 35 times), and the mouth (almost 70 times).

Like the hands, the mouth is bodily and spiritual, a point of contact with the outside world but profoundly tied to our intelligence and free choice. What we do with our hands and what we say with our lips is truly us. These are profound signs of the reality of our word and deeds.

***

What is our real fear, then, with bloody men and sinners? What they do to us?

Truly the crime-stained hands are a reminder that sinners sin. Haters, the new expression says, are going to hate. If we entrust ourselves to the world, we should not be surprised if the world treats us the way the world is, with its crime stained hands.

Hollywood is not out to make you a better Christian. To say it is an instrument of the devil would be too strong – unless we mean that the world is in the power of sin.

Even our loved ones, even if they are good Christians, are still sinners. They are going to sin. We should love them, profoundly. But we should entrust ourselves to the One who will treat us well. We should not look for sinners to treat us with perfect mercy. We should not be surprised when the world hurts us.

***

But even deeper, when we pray, “Do not abandon my soul with sinners,” we pray not only that God will care for us among the sins of others. We beg even more deeply that he will rescue us from sin itself. Because the greatest punishment of sin is precisely the staining of our hands, the staining of our souls, the plucking out of our eyes by our own hands, when we give ourselves over to corruption.

Think of a little sin that you don’t take very seriously. How does it affect, not others, but you yourself?

33rd Sunday: Joy in Action

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

PRV 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; PS 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; I THES 5:1-6; MT 25:14-30

As the end of the Church year approaches, our readings from Matthew turn to the end, and to judgment. How will we be judged? And why?

The reading from Matthew 25, the end of Jesus’s preaching, is certainly familiar: “To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one . . . . ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’”

But the conclusion, perhaps, remains a little obscure: “Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Why? Why is Jesus like a master who wants “interest on my return”?

Our first clue is in the specific reproach: “’You wicked, lazy servant!” There’s something more specific than wickedness here. His wickedness is laziness.

And on the reverse side, there is his commendation of the others: “Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’” Perhaps we notice the faithfulness in small matters, and miss the deeper point, which follows. “Your master’s joy” is “great responsibility.” Responsibility is the reward.

***

The deeper point is that our joy is in action. Not in having, but in doing – even were we to be given a reward of money, we could only enjoy it by using it.

And so too the punishment: “darkness outside.” It is a double punishment: to be in darkness, and to be outside. But both signify not being part of the action, not being where we can see, and interact, and be part of things. “Responsibility” is about being alive, doing, action. To lack responsibility, to be in out in the dark, is the ultimate frustration: a place of weeping and gnashing our teeth.

Our Master is “a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant” in the sense that he gives us our humanity not just to hold, but to perfect. He has made us the kind of being that needs to act to be happy.

***

The two readings give us two angles on this central teaching.

The first is from Proverbs: beautiful words about the “worthy wife.”

“Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting.” The deeper purpose of matching this reading with our Gospel is to discover where human worth really lies. The worthy wife is someone her husband can “entrust his heart to,” who “brings him good.” She has “loving hands” – first working with “the distaff” and “the spindle,” but then “she reaches out her hands to the poor.”

She is a woman of action: “give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her.” But what makes this reading so beautiful is the deep humanity of her action.

Sometimes people say we are “human beings” not “human doings.” The truth in that saying is that we have to find the kind of action that truly perfects us; we have to discover what we really are. We have to discover which “doing” we ought to be doing.

Action is bad when it is the frivolous action that distracts us from knowing and loving God and neighbor. But God does not call us to sit around looking pretty. He calls us to love, and look lively.

***

While the reading from Proverbs focuses on love of neighbor, the reading from First Thessalonians focuses on love of God. “The day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.” The point is, “let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.”

“Sleeping” is checking out of life. “When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’” it is as if they have stopped caring about life, stopped looking for the Lord.

But we are to watch vigilantly for him – not by sitting still, but by waking up. Our prayer itself should look not like sleep, but like wakefulness, vigilance, aliveness. (This is why the Tradition so insists on the value of words: prayer is not about spacing out, like a Buddhist.)

In our life, too, we should be constantly watching for the Lord, looking for him: in everyone who comes across our path, in every task. Our reading from Paul takes us deeper into our reading from Proverbs: Proverbs itself describes that active, lively, relational woman most deeply as “the woman who fears the LORD” – or, we could say, the woman who is looking for the Lord at every moment.

That is what puts our hands to the distaff, our fingers to the spindle, and causes us to reach out our hands to the poor.

Are there aspects of your life where you are half asleep, not vigilantly looking for the Lord?

Dies Irae: Jesus the Judge

Carracci-Purgatory“He will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead.” The second section of the Creed, the part about Jesus, ends with judgment. This November, as we ponder the dying of the year, and so our own death and the death of all things, let us look to this final coming of Jesus. Our hymn Dies irae gives a truly stunning meditation on Jesus as judge.

For eight painful stanzas – just long enough, without being too long – it builds up the fear of judgment.

“What trembling there will be

When the judge will come [venturus – the same form of the word as in the Creed]

To make a strict accounting of all things.”

The words carry their own weight. It doesn’t have to say, “you, man, are a sinner!” It only has to say, “imagine a strict accounting of all things in your life” – and our own conscience supplies the rest. Oh no. . . .

***

 We enter deeper into the image:

 “Creation will rise

To respond to the one who judges.”

 All things will stand before a judge!

“A written book will be brought forth

In which all things are contained

In which the world will be judged

“Therefore, when the judge sits

All that was hidden will appear

Nothing will remain unavenged.”

Again, our conscience supplies the rest: we know that if all is laid bare, it will not go well for us. The drama builds!

***

Then comes the break:

“Miserable me! What shall I say?”

– Or rather –

“What patron shall I call upon?”

– Do you see where this is going? –

“When even the just man is hardly safe?”

(And I am hardly just.)

***

And then he appears. First in majesty:

“King of majesty that makes us tremble”

But he appears, also, as Jesus:

“You who freely, by grace, save all those who are going to be saved,

Save me, oh well of mercy.”

The judge is Jesus. What patron shall I call? Who will save me? None but the judge himself. Our hope is that the same God who will judge us is the one who came to save us.

***

And now, after all this trembling before the throne, comes an outpouring of the beautiful mercy of Jesus:

“Remember, oh merciful Jesus,

That I was the reason for your journey;

Let me not be lost on that day.”

The word for merciful, both here and above (“oh well of mercy”) is even richer than mercy. He is fons pietatis, Jesu pie. Our coarse, commercial, individualist, corrupt world has forgotten such words. Pietas is family feeling, a care for your own. We invoke Jesus to see us as his children – and remember that he is the very well of such feeling.

***

“Seeking me, you sat forsaken

Suffering the Cross, you bought me back:

Let such work not be in vain!”

Oh, we tremble before the judgment seat. And yet we fear it not, we don’t hide behind forgetfulness of that day of wrath, because the judge, the Rex tremendae majestatis, sat alone and forsaken out of love for us.

***

But neither do we think he is a pushover. He is

“Just judge of vengeance”

So we pray:

“Give the gift of remission

Before the day of accounting.”

He came, not to prevent the final judgment, but to prepare us for it. And we contemplate the Biblical examples:

“You who freed Mary [Magdalene]

And heard the thief.

To me, too, grant hope.”

Ah: his mercy for Mary and the thief was not to leave them in their sin, but to lead them out of it. “The gift of remission” we look for, the absolution, is not that there be no judgment, no accounting of our deeds. We do not ask for the book to be closed. We ask for it to be rewritten. You who love us so much, grant us the grace of conversion!

***

The final image takes us to the end of Matthew:

“Place me among the sheep

Separate me from the goats

Let me stand on your right hand.”

Maybe we don’t know our Scripture, but the medievals did. The sheep and the goats (Matt 25:32-33) tells of when “the Son of man shall come in his glory” (v. 31). “Then will the King say to those on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in” (vv. 34-35).

What we ask is not to avoid judgment, but to be able to stand before the face of Jesus, because we have truly loved that face in this life, in all our deeds.

What would you want to change before seeing Jesus face to face?

St. John Paul II on “Celebrating the Gospel of Life”

pope-john-paul-IIBecause we have been sent into the world as a “people for life”, our proclamation must also become a genuine celebration of the Gospel of life. This celebration, with the evocative power of its gestures, symbols and rites, should become a precious and significant setting in which the beauty and grandeur of this Gospel is handed on.

For this to happen, we need first of all to foster, in ourselves and in others, a contemplative outlook. Such an outlook arises from faith in the God of life, who has created every individual as a “wonder” (cf. Ps 139:14). It is the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility.

It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image (cf. Gen 1:27; Ps 8:5). This outlook does not give in to discouragement when confronted by those who are sick, suffering, outcast or at death’s door. Instead, in all these situations it feels challenged to find meaning, and precisely in these circumstances it is open to perceiving in the face of every person a call to encounter, dialogue and solidarity.

It is time for all of us to adopt this outlook, and with deep religious awe to rediscover the ability to revere and honour every person, as Paul VI invited us to do in one of his first Christmas messages.(108) Inspired by this contemplative outlook, the new people of the redeemed cannot but respond with songs of joy, praise and thanksgiving for the priceless gift of life, for the mystery of every individual’s call to share through Christ in the life of grace and in an existence of unending communion with God our Creator and Father.

. . .

We are called to express wonder and gratitude for the gift of life and to welcome, savour and share the Gospel of life not only in our personal and community prayer, but above all in the celebrations of the liturgical year. Particularly important in this regard are the Sacraments, the efficacious signs of the presence and saving action of the Lord Jesus in Christian life. The Sacraments make us sharers in divine life, and provide the spiritual strength necessary to experience life, suffering and death in their fullest meaning.

Thanks to a genuine rediscovery and a better appreciation of the significance of these rites, our liturgical celebrations, especially celebrations of the Sacraments, will be ever more capable of expressing the full truth about birth, life, suffering and death, and will help us to live these moments as a participation in the Paschal Mystery of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

In celebrating the Gospel of life we also need to appreciate and make good use of the wealth of gestures and symbols present in the traditions and customs of different cultures and peoples. There are special times and ways in which the peoples of different nations and cultures express joy for a newborn life, respect for and protection of individual human lives, care for the suffering or needy, closeness to the elderly and the dying, participation in the sorrow of those who mourn, and hope and desire for immortality.

. . .

Part of this daily heroism is also the silent but effective and eloquent witness of all those “brave mothers who devote themselves to their own family without reserve, who suffer in giving birth to their children and who are ready to make any effort, to face any sacrifice, in order to pass on to them the best of themselves”.

In living out their mission “these heroic women do not always find support in the world around them. On the contrary, the cultural models frequently promoted and broadcast by the media do not encourage motherhood. In the name of progress and modernity the values of fidelity, chastity, sacrifice, to which a host of Christian wives and mothers have borne and continue to bear outstanding witness, are presented as obsolete …

“We thank you, heroic mothers, for your invincible love! We thank you for your intrepid trust in God and in his love. We thank you for the sacrifice of your life … In the Paschal Mystery, Christ restores to you the gift you gave him. Indeed, he has the power to give you back the life you gave him as an offering” (homily for St. Gianna Beretta Molla).

-St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae

Sunday of St. John Lateran: Life “In” the Church

lateranEZ 47:1-2, 8-9, 12; PS 46:2-3, 5-6, 8-9; 1 COR 3:9c-11. 16-17; JN 2:13-22

This Sunday Ordinary Time is again superseded, this time by one of the Church’s most surprising feasts: the Dedication of St. John Lateran. What is this feast, and why is it more important than our Ordinary-Time journey through the Gospel? In fact, it is a feast that takes us deep into our own identity as members of the Church.

***

The Lateran was in ancient times the palace of a great Roman family, the Laterani. By the time of Constantine (early fourth century) it was in the hands of the Emperor; Constantine gave it to the Popes, who lived there for a thousand years, up until Avignon (the fourteenth century). There, for example, were the great Ecumenical Councils of the medieval Church – just as more recently they have been at the Vatican, where the Popes now reside.

There too, naturally, was and remains the Cathedral of the Pope, bishop of Rome. St. Peter’s is, for obvious reasons, his preferred Church for ceremony, but the Lateran is his actual seat, or cathedral. The Cathedral has burned and been rebuilt (896 and 1360), and its name changed from The Savior to St. John’s, after the Benedictine monastery next door.

But it remains, as it says on the wall, Omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater, et caput: “Of all the churches, of the city and of the world, the mother and the head.” To Catholics I need not explain why the Pope’s church is the most important Church. The deeper question is why a church building is of such importance anyway.

Years ago a Protestant friend had his little girl sing to my wife and I, “I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church.” True enough. The Church is the people. So who cares about the buildings?

***

lateran altarOddly enough, Jesus himself cared about buildings. In our reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus cleanses the temple. He says of this building, “stop making my Father’s house a marketplace,” and John quotes the Psalm, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The reading quickly shifts keys. Asked for a sign, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up . . . . But he was speaking about the temple of his Body.” Jesus himself is the true temple, the true “house” for which zeal should consume us, the true dwelling place of God. The Church is not principally a building, but his body.

So why did he care about what they were doing in “the temple area”?

***

And then, too, we are his body. Our reading from First Corinthians says to the people, who are the Church, “You are God’s building. . . . You are the temple of God . . . . The Spirit of God dwells in you.” He even presses the metaphor, “like a wise master builder I laid a foundation.”

Jesus is the Church. We are the Church. So who cares about the building?

***

The key is in the first reading, from Ezekiel. Ezekiel tells us of a vision. This is not reality – but it reveals reality.

He sees “the temple,” with “water flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple” and from “the altar.” “This water flows into the eastern district down upon the Arabah” – into dry lands – “and empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh. Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live. . . . for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary.”

The temple is, first, a vision of Jesus himself, source of living waters, source of life. Life flows out from the temple – just as we receive life from the sacraments that dwell there.

And then, too, it is a vision of us, the Church. “Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow; their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail . . . for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary. Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.” Those who receive the life-giving waters from the altar themselves become full of life, and life giving.

***

So yes, the Church is Jesus, his Body and all its members. “I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church.”

But this is a mystery worth dwelling on. We celebrate the buildings – and, today, the “mother and head” of all such buildings – because they remind us that life flows from the altar (from Christ), and that his life is poured into all those gathered around the altar (I, and you, and we).

Ezekiel’s vision trains us to see the building as a powerful vision of this reality.

How could we more consciously reverence the altar and the life that flows to the people from it?

Dies Irae: on the Final Judgment

Carracci-PurgatoryDuring this month of November, at the dying of the year, we will dedicate our Thursdays to an examination of the hymn Dies irae, “Day of wrath.” It is one of the great “sequences” of the Middle Ages: long, non-Biblical poems (this one has nineteen three-line stanzas) inserted before the Gospel for various feast days.

The Church has gradually scaled back this art form, moving in the direction of the Biblical austerity of the earlier tradition. Dies irae, decidedly medieval and downright scary, is now optional for All Souls, but used to be used in most liturgies for the the dead. (Interesting to note, however, that even in the nineteenth century, decidedly conservative about liturgical things, use of the Dies irae was for a time pulled back.)

But since we here love things medieval, let us see what we can learn!

***

The poem is long and richly interwoven. Although we plan installments on four topics, it is important to keep them interrelated; each loses its meaning without the others. So at the beginning, our outline for these four weeks of November:

1. Day of Judgment

2. Jesus the Judge

3. Our response to the mystery of death and judgment

4. Throwing ourselves on Jesus

***

The poem begins dramatically:

“Day of wrath! That day

Will dissolve time in ashes.”

We can see why modern people shy away from this poem. Should we think about God in terms of wrath?

Perhaps we should (though, again, in connection with other things). The line comes from the prophet Zephaniah:

“The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on mankind” (Zep 1:14-17). Oh that day!

***

But what do we fear on that day? The first aim of the Dies irae is to shift our perspective on death:

“Death will be silenced, nature too,

When the creature rises again

To respond to the judge.”

Death itself seems the day of wrath, the ultimate punishment, the most terrifying fear of mortal man. At a funeral, at All Souls day, we stand terrified, at the loss of our loved ones, and at our own future loss.

But, says our faith, that terror is misplaced. Death does not have the final word. God will raise the dead. He has made us to last forever.

The final word, the final fear, is not that death will crush us, but, to the contrary, that we live forever. The deeper fear should be not that life will end, but that life will not end: are we prepared for eternity?

We can put it two ways. First, can I live with myself for eternity? Second, what will it be like to stand eternally before God? Those are the real questions, the things we should fear more than death.

***

The poem gradually turns the day of wrath inside out. From the beginning, “Dies irae, dies illa,” it leads finally to the second-to-last verse, “Lacrimosa dies illa”: that tearful day.

The movement is from outside to inside. “Day of wrath” speaks of the one we fear: death, or God, inflicting punishment on us. But “day of tears” speaks of our own response: our mourning before death, and even more, our mourning before eternity.

That second-to-last verse says:

“That tearful day

When from the ashes will rise again

The guilty man (homo reus) to be judged.”

Finally we look not to God’s wrath, but to the horrible sadness, not of eternal punishment, but even deeper, of eternal guilt. To live forever, with a heart full of hatred.

***

That verse picks up an earlier line:

“I groan within myself, as a guilty man (reus).”

It is a reference to Romans 8:22-23 – creation groans (it is the same word in Latin) and we ourselves groan. But why? Because we discover, as we think of eternity, our wickedness, and we long to be better.

“What trembling there will be

When the judge will come

To shake out all the details.”

To think of my life – my real life, in all its gritty details. Stricte discussurus, strict judgment, at first sounds like God is an unpleasant judge. The deeper unpleasantness, however, is not the judgment, but the very details of my life, a life so little given to things worthy of eternity.

We call upon Jesus – this is our theme for next week – to save us from our sin.

What are some details of your life this week that you would have lived differently if you imagined you would have to live with yourself forever?

Thomas Aquinas on the Greatness of the Apostles

I stumbled on this interesting passage in which Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, bursts out in praise of the greatness of the Apostles. I knew the tradition had greater devotion than we often do to the Apostles, but I enjoyed reading a sober mind express that devotion.

We each have vocations, and God gives us grace for our vocations. But think of the vocation of the Apostles: to found the Church, to set out when there was no one to help them, to begin the traditions, both of liturgy and of doctrine, on which the Church infallibly stands.

Next time you see a statue of an apostle, imagine what riches of grace God gave them. Love the Church, which is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, and receive her as a gift from Christ. And imagine the power of grace, that could build such a Church, with such depth of wisdom, to stand through the ages as a beacon of hope.

 St Thomas AquinasFirst Paul says: by the riches of his grace, all the faithful, you the same as we, have redemption and the remission of sins through the blood of Christ – but that grace superabounds in us, that is, it is more abundant in the apostles than in others.

We see then the gall, not to mention the error, of those who presume to compare the other saints to the apostles in terms of grace and glory. For it is clear from these words that the apostles have greater grace than any other saints, after Christ and the Virgin Mother.

One might say that the other saints can attain the same merit as the apostles, and thus can receive the same greatness of grace. To this we say that it is true, if by “grace” you mean “merit” – but that is not grace, as Paul says in Romans 11:6.

And thus, as God preordains some saints for higher honors, so he pours into them a more abundant grace – just as he gave a truly singular grace to Christ the man, whom he assumed into the unity of his person. And the glorious virgin Mary, whom he chose as mother, he filled both body and soul with grace.

And so to the apostles: as he called them to unique majesty, he bestowed on them the privilege of a unique grace, which Paul mentions in Romans: we ourselves are given the first fruits of the Spirit (8:23). It is therefore insolent to compare any saint to the apostles.

The grace of God superabounded in the apostles in all wisdom. For the apostles were put forward as pastors of the Chuch. As Jeremiah says: I will give you pastors according to my own heart, and they will pasture you with knowledge and doctrine (3:15)

Now pastors require two things, namely that they be sublime in the knowledge of divine things, and industrious in religious deeds. For those beneath them must be instructed in the faith, and for this is necessary wisdom, which is knowledge of divine things, and so he says [in Ephesians], in all wisdom. I will give you a mouth and wisdom, against which your adversaries cannot speak or resist (Luke 21:15).

Also, they must govern those beneath them in exterior things, and this requires prudence. For they govern the temporalities of the Church, and thus he says prudence. Therefore be prudent (Matt 10:16). Thus we see the advantages given to the apostles with regard to the excellence of wisdom.

Next he speaks of their advantage with regard to the excellence of revelation, that the mystery was made known to us, as if he says, “our wisdom is not that we would know the natures of things, and the movement of the stars, etc., but Christ alone.” For I judge myself not to know anything among you, except Christ Jesus (1 Cor 2:2). Thus he says, the mystery, that is, the sacred secret, namely the mystery of the incarnation, which was hidden from the beginning.

-Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Ephesians

The Psalms on the Poor

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

“Do not abandon my soul with sinners

And my life with men of blood.”

Our Psalm 26 leads us now to consider the violence of men against men – and so it encourages us to consider what Pope Francis says about a Church that is “poor and for the poor.”

The poor appear quite frequently in the Psalms: “the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever” (9:18); “The wicked in his pride doth persecute the poor” (10:2); “he lies in wait to catch the poor: he catches the poor, when he draws him into his net. He crouches, and humbles himself, that the poor may fall by his strong ones” (10:9-10); “For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, says the LORD” (12:5); “This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles” (34:6); etc.

The image of the poor man here is not primarily about money. It is about power. The poor is defined, not as lacking things, but as being vulnerable. This, indeed, is the deeper wound of poverty: not the frustration of materialism, but fear of oppression.

And this is the image put forth in our Psalm 26. “Don’t not abandon . . . my life with men of blood.” The imagery is of violence, of people who can hurt us, and want to hurt us. And we are vulnerable.

***

In considering this image, let us first consider the “men of blood.” Is it not true that people like to hurt one another? We can think of those who hurt us. When we are weak – when we are incompetent (as sometimes we are), when we are on the outside, when we are hurting, even when we are gentle and vulnerable with other people – how often does someone stick a knife in our belly? How often do people throw our sins and other failings in our face, rub our noses in them?

But so too, how often are we men of blood? In order to see this in its fullness, we need insight into the weakness of others. For me, I shudder to say, it stands out with my children. They are tired, they are hungry . . . and am I merciful? Sometimes. But sometimes we are not gentle at all; sometimes we are eager to tell the weak how weak they are, and how in the wrong.

It is hard to see that even the adults who oppress us are often lashing out from their own weakness. How do we respond? We can see, I hope, that we should be gentle with the tired child. But do we see it with the emotionally scarred coworker or relative? When they say something that hurts – but that, honestly, cannot truly injure us – do we see their weakness, or do we attack, eager to find a way to hit them back?

***

The Psalms call us to know our own poverty – our own vulnerability and weakness – and cry out to God for help. Scripture never tells us to be strong. It tells us that he is strong, and he will save us. “Do not abandon me with men of blood!” is the cry, not of someone too strong to be hurt, but of someone who know his own weakness, and his need of a Savior.

The Memorare (a prayer written by medievals immersed in the Psalms) teaches us to entrust ourselves to Mary, to trust that she will bring God to our aid. It appeals to our “piety” – unfortunately, the standard English translation says “gracious,” but the root idea is that Mary cares for her family, for her little ones. So too the Our Father teaches us to beg God to protect us: from evil, even from the temptation to evil.

These are prayers of those who know their weakness, know the danger of falling in with men of blood, who turn us into men of blood.

***

But the Psalms call us, too, to be Good Samaritans. The Psalms give us a unique space to discover our weakness before God. But the more time we spend realizing that we are not strong enough to stand without God, the more we appreciate that this is true of others, too.

As God has had mercy on our weakness, has reached out to help us when we are helpless, let us reach out to others, even – especially – when they try to hurt us.

Where are you tempted to be a man of blood, violent to the weak? Who acts like a man of blood towards you? Can you see their weakness? Is there any way you can bind up their wounds, or at least not inflict any more?