Second Sunday of Ordinary Time: Beginning with Christ

And so we begin again, Ordinary Time.  This year we are reading Mark.  As I have often said, I like the theory that Mark was Peter’s disciple, and this is therefore Peter’s Gospel.  Peter is, above all, the one who was commended for knowing who Jesus is – “who do you say that I am? You are Christ!  . . . You are Peter!” – and then immediately put down for denying the cross (“Get behind me Satan”), and who would always know that he abandoned Christ at the Cross.  Therefore Mark’s Gospel is the most Cross-centered, rushing toward the key event.

But because it is short, we also get some supplemental readings from John.  This first Ordinary Sunday (called the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time), in fact, we get the story of the call of Peter.  It is a conversion story.

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John is like a theological commentary on the other Gospels.  At the end of our Gospel this Sunday, he inverts Peter’s Confession.  In the other three Gospels, the call of the first disciples begins like this: “And walking along beside the sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.”

But in John, there are three differences.  First, those two disciples are disciples of John the Baptist, not just fishermen.  The other Gospels tell us that the Baptist has prepared the way – but John the Evangelist dramatizes it.

The second and third differences are here: “One of the two who heard John and followed Him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.  He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, We have found the Messiah (which is, being translated, the Christ).  And he brought him to Jesus.”

Peter is not the first called, he receives his call through his brother.

And Peter is not the first to profess Jesus Messiah – he hears from his brother.  All the way through, they are hearing from another.

John’s version of the story culminates like this: “And when Jesus saw him, He said, You are Simon the son of Jonah; you shall be called Cephas (which translated is, A stone).”  It is an inversion of Peter’s profession.  In the other version, Peter says, “You are Christ, Son of the Living God.”

The standard theory says John is only distantly related to the other three Gospels.  I guess I should submit to those who know better than I.  But look, in the Greek, these are word for word the same.  John isn’t ignorant of Matthew’s story.  He’s quoting it, and turning it inside out.

It’s not that John is opposed to Matthew – or that any of the Gospels are opposed to each other.  It’s that John is giving a theological commentary.  Yes, of course Peter professes Christ (in John 6, it will be about the Eucharist).  But before Peter found Jesus, Jesus found Peter, and before Peter knew Jesus, Jesus knew Peter.

How powerful the moment earlier in our reading when “Jesus turned and saw them.”  To be seen, to be known, by Christ.

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I just got to teach Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium again.  This time, one of the lines that moved me the most quoted this Sunday’s Gospel: “The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: ‘It was about four o’clock in the afternoon’ (Jn 1:39).”

15 Lorenzo Veneziano, Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew. 1370 Staatliche Museen, Berlin..jpgIn fact, I think the point of the document – it’s about evangelization, but it’s called “The Joy of the Gospel” and talks a lot about our motives – is not that we should start with evangelization, but that if we don’t want to evangelize, we should ask what is wrong.

In the introduction, almost the first words, Francis says, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment” – not to start with evangelization, but – “to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.”  This is the topic of our Gospel this Sunday.

He continues, “Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. . . . Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”  Evangelization is a result of the joy of the Gospel.

Our first reading, the call of Samuel, says the same thing.  Samuel leaps when he hears the Lord’s voice, and then says, “Speak for your servant is listening!”  That is why “the Lord was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.”  His words had an effect on his listeners because he was listening to the word of the Lord.

Our second reading is First Corinthians – the first several weeks of each year begins with a different section of First Corinthians – here, talking about sexual morality.  But that’s not how St. Paul approaches the issue.  He talks about being a member of Christ, a temple of the Holy Spirit, glorifying God in our body.  As Pope Benedict said at the beginning of his first encyclical, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

At the beginning of this new year, the Lectionary summons us to encounter Christ, to begin again with that first meeting.  To stumble with the disciples of John the Baptist, as they hear Jesus pointed out, follow him, are discovered by him, go to see where he stays, and thus become apostles even to the other apostles.

When did you first meet Jesus?  Can you remember the hour?Hendrik ter Brugghen - De Roeping van Sint Mattheus.jpg

The Incarnation and the Sea

Since my first John Denver Christmas post was popular – and, more important, since I encouraged us to think about Christmas in relation to the kerygma – here’s another piece.

The least Christmas-y song on “John Denver and the Muppets: Christmas Together,” is called “When the River Meets the Sea.”  Once again, John Denver is helpful because he’s so wrong – and then also helpful because he’s not all wrong.

His theme, I guess, is patience.  Some of the lines are just corny: “Like a baby when it is sleeping / In its loving mother’s arms / What a newborn baby dreams is a mystery”

I’m not sure a baby’s dreams are any more mysterious than anyone else’s, except that they appear to dream a lot about nursing.  So hey, let’s not press too hard on John Denver’s philosophy.  He’s just writing sentimental lyrics about the beautiful things he cares about: mostly mountains (the first line is “When the mountain touches the valley / All the clouds are taught to fly”), other things Colorado (the next verse begins “Like a flower that has blossomed / In the dry & barren sand”), and at this point in his life, I guess, babies (the chorus of another song says, “Merry Christmas, little Zachary” – it appears that he adopted a Zachary and an Anna, which might explain why he loves babies but doesn’t know that newborns appear to dream about nursing).

Anyway, the song is about patience: “truth and justice will be done” eventually, just like, I guess, the clouds learn to fly when they bump into the mountains.  But the chorus – the central image – is, “when the river meets the sea.”  For example, whatever that baby might be dreaming about now (maybe John Denver thinks he has premonitions of his blessed hope?), “His life will find a purpose / and in time he’ll understand / When the river meets the sea / When the river meets the Almighty sea!”

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Well, here’s my point: as Christians, we don’t believe that our lives end the way the river ends when it meets the Almighty sea.  John Denver’s idea is a perfectly reasonable one, held by most world religions: somehow our lives are momentary outgrowths from God (the “Almighty”), like spots on the sun, into which we then disappear again.  That makes sense.

But it isn’t what Christians believe.  One way of stating the kerygma is that we believe in heaven: we believe that we will survive contact with God.  Like the burning bush, and unlike the sunspot, we are not destroyed by contact with God.  The pleasure in heaven is our ability to survive as persons in union with God.

One of the greatest theological words for this is communion (from the Latin translation of the Greek word koinonia, a central word in the New Testament).  Com- means with, and communion means that in our union with God there is not just union, not just one being swallowed up by the other, as the river meets the almighty sea, but still two who are “with” one another.

Gebhard Fugel Moses vor dem brennenden Dornbusch c1920.jpgTraditional piety connects Mary with the burning bush – but the original burning bush is the one lying in the manger.  The mystery of Christmas is that human weakness is not destroyed by contact with God.  Were Jesus only to be a superman, we might think that somehow God and man had been blended, a halfway-between – but the weakness of Jesus, in the manger and on the cross, shows us that the fragile human person remains in all its singularity, even in the closest contact with divinity.

Mary is the burning bush because she too remains in her integrity, she is not swallowed up, either by the God in her womb or by being full of grace.  Jesus in the manger is the first full proclamation of the Gospel, and Mary is the second: she shows that the mystery of the burning bush doesn’t end with Jesus, but is our destiny too.

We don’t end like when the river meets the sea, swallowed up and disappearing.  We survive, like the burning bush, and live eternally, full of the light and life of God himself.  Communion.  That is the kerygma, and that is the mystery of Christmas.  John Denver has it exactly wrong.

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Now, I’m not trying to make you a John Denver fan here – I just like the album because I think the Muppets are funny.  (And humor, like family, is not destroyed but embraced by the presence of God.)  But we can come back and see that John Denver does get some things right.

The mountains bumping the clouds is not yet communion – the mountain pushes the clouds out of the way.  But the clouds do survive.  Even silly sentimentality knows it can’t be right that our destiny is just to disappear into the ocean.File:Cretey-Nativité-Detroit.jpg

The flower that is born in the dry and barren sand hints at a deeper union.  Jesus himself uses the seed as an image of how we flourish in union, and somehow the tender image of the flower does say something about life – though Jesus’s metaphor points to communion by insisting that the soil not be dry and barren.  It is worthwhile to ponder whether God or man is soil or seed.

We needn’t completely beat up on our silly sentimental secular songwriters.  Grace does not destroy nature, and the truest flowering of our nature survives contact with God.  But let the weakness of John Denver’s visions remind us how desperately we need the Gospel of that baby in the manger, and the grace he pours first into his mother’s heart and then into ours, to purify our hope.

 

 

John Denver’s Christmas and the Kerygma

Last night my family had a picnic around the Christmas tree and enjoyed our favorite silly Christmas album, by John Denver and the Muppets.  The album runs the gamut, from almost serious to very silly. A Christmas Together - John Denver & The Muppets(I’m partial to Animal’s background singing in the Beachboys song “Little Saint Nick”: if you have Prime, you can listen to it at the link above.)  But when Kermit the Frog sings, “I don’t know if you believe in Christmas . . . but if you believe in love, that will be more than enough,” or John Denver gives the solemn blessing, “Sleep in heavenly peace,” we get to the heart of the issue.

“John Denver and the Muppets: Christmas Together” seems a nice way to get at a more serious issue: the sentimentalization of Christmas, and of Christianity.  John Denver is only a more dramatic instance of what happens with a lot of our Church music and preaching, and a lot of the people in our churches, whether at Christmas and Easter or any other time of the year.  As Kermit says, they don’t seem to believe in Christmas, they just “believe in love.”

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To get at the issue, let me approach from another angle.  I’ve been working with St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  One way to say what I’ve found is this: I think everything I’ve ever heard said about it misses the point.

Now, my point here is not to explain John Paul II, I’m just using him as an example.  (I should write a post about Theology of the Body ­­– or a book – some other time.)  In short, I think Theology of the Body uses a close reading of the Bible’s teaching on marriage to understand the power of grace in regard to our sexuality.  It is, ahem, theology, and he is articulating the Basic Gospel Message as it plays out in the realm of sex.

Instead, people have all sorts of ideas.  A devout young man in our parish has a sweatshirt that summarizes Theology of the Body with some line about the dignity of the individual.  That’s pretty far from any reference to the Bible or the power of grace.  A scholarly work I was reviewing thinks it’s all about personal experience.  My kids went on a retreat where they were told John Paul’s main point was to embrace your sexual identity.  Etc.

What child is this?

Now, my point is this: On the one hand, those are not good summaries of the main point of Theology of the Body.  In fact, they completely miss the point.  They are philosophical points which say nothing about the redemptive power of grace – by themselves, they make the saving grace of Jesus Christ sound unnecessary or even irrelevant.

On the other hand, they are points that John Paul II makes along the way.  In fact, they are good points – not the main point, but good points, and truly parts of what John Paul II is saying.  And it’s not surprising that when a great Christian thinker dives into the heart of the Gospel – Scripture and grace – he also makes some nice philosophical points about other things.  And it’s not surprising that those points, too, are so wonderful that, even when people fail to grasp the Gospel’s teaching about grace, they are still amazed at that Christian thinker’s thinking on other things.  It’s a sign of John Paul’s greatness that people get so excited about his side points.

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One of Pope Francis’s most powerful points is that we need to focus on the “kerygma.”  (Kerysso is the Greek verb for proclaiming; –ma is the Greek ending for “the thing done by the verb”; so kerygma means “the thing that we proclaim,” the heart of the Gospel message.)  In fact, if you put the encyclicals of Pope Benedict side by side with those of John Paul II, you see Benedict saying the same thing: JPII talked about a million things, and Pope Benedict said, let’s focus on the love of God.  JPII was wonderful at showing that there are a million wonderful consequences of the kerygma – but Benedict and Francis are right that if we don’t get the kerygma clear, we miss the boat.

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Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year for discovering that people have no idea what the kerygma is, no idea what Christmas, and Christianity, is really about.  John Denver and Kermit the Frog – and an awful lot of other people, including too many of our priests – seem to think that Baby Jesus is a sweet little metaphor for everyone getting along and enjoying a peaceful night’s sleep.

And so Christmas is an important time for the rest of us to clarify the kerygma for ourselves, to figure out just what it is All About.  There are lots of ways to put it.  I like Romans 5:5, “The love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us.”  Or Galatians 5:22, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,” etc.  Or you could say “Christ is the Redeemer,” or “God became man so that men could become God.”  “If Christ is in you, indeed the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10 and many others).  Christ has opened the way to the Father.  There are lot of ways to put it – and Christmas should challenge us to figure out what is the kerygma that the Baby in the Manger helps us appreciate.

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On the other hand, just as I can appreciate all the side points people gather from Theology of the Body, so too at Christmas, we needn’t be greedy.  Yes, John Denver, and a lot of the people in our churches, are missing The Main Point about Christmas.  But the side points they grab onto are real.  Jesus does bring peace among men and peace in our hearts, and it’s beautiful that people are attracted to those things – even though they still need us to articulate for them why they need the Gospel of Jesus Christ in order to attain the secondary things they so love.

Even my family gathered around the Christmas tree, as beautiful as that is, isn’t the heart of the matter.  We need the kerygma.  But we can be generous toward those who still see only partially.

Where do you get annoyed about people missing the point at Christmas?  Can you articulate the connection between the goods those people are after and the kerygma, the heart of the Gospel?

Like Children at Christmas, or The Joy of the Prophet

File:But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart Alice Havers.jpg“Unless you become like children.”  I’ve wondered for a long time what it means – feel free to tell me.

The obvious thought recently occurred to me that this might have something to do with the Fatherhood of God.  And as with the fatherhood, I wonder if we over-psychologize childhood.

A long-ago parish priest, for example, used to have a great line about how children immerse themselves in little details.  A beautiful thought – but awfully psychological.  Less beautiful, I heard today a sappy Christmas pop song that invoked Jesus’ line about childhood in the course of saying we should act more like children around the Christmas tree – Christian childhood at Christmas without reference to Christ.

Better, I think, to think metaphysically about childhood.  What is a child?  A child has received his Father’s nature, but is still growing into it.  To become like children means admitting that God isn’t finished with us, we aren’t divine yet.  That is the Christian child’s joy: not about the Christmas tree, but about the Child, who is God entering into our human weakness.

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That thought goes well with the readings for this Gaudete Sunday.  The Epistle, from First Thessalonians, sounds the central theme of this Sunday, midway through the Advent night of winter: “Rejoice always.”  The other two readings speak to us of the vocation of a prophet.

The first half of the reading from Isaiah (the first two verses of chapter 61), speak of prophecy: “He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor.”  The second half (the last two verses of the chapter) sounds the theme of joy: “I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul.”  But what is the joy of the prophet?

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Our Gospel, from the first chapter of John, brings us back to John the Baptist.  First it gives the key definition of John’s vocation, from the Prologue: “He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.”  The prophet is one who bears testimony to Someone Else.

So then we jump ahead to where John (the Evangelist) tells us about “the testimony of John” (the Baptist).  They asked him, “Who are you?”  And his first answer was, “I am not the Christ.”

There’s a lot of talk these days about our identity, about appreciating how great we are.  There’s something important in all that – but John’s identity, his first answer to “Who are you?” is “I am not the Christ.”  It is good to talk about how much God loves us.  But we don’t know what that means until we also can answer: “I am not God.  I am not the Messiah.”

They ask him other questions.  “Are you Elijah? . . . Are you the Prophet?”  Well, in the other three Gospels, Jesus will say, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you will receive it, this is Elijah who is to come” (Mt 11:13-14, cf. Mark 9:12-14 and Luke 1:17).  Yes, John sort of is the ultimate prophet and Jesus even identifies him with Elijah.  But John’s answer is “I am not.”  The words ring more powerful when you know how often John’s Gospel has Jesus say, “I am,” an echo of God’s word to Moses at the burning bush, “I am who am.”  I am not.

They ask why he baptizes – and he doesn’t even answer the question, he only says that the one coming after him is one whose sandal he is not worthy to untie, whose feet he is not worthy to wash, whose baptism will actually be worth something.

John’s main purpose in the Gospel is not to be Jesus.  Jesus is not just a prophet.  Jesus’s baptism is not like John’s.  John is not the Christ.  John is not.

But he does also tell them his vocation, quoting Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.”  He is not entirely “not.”  Even more powerful than that, he is the one who points to he who is, and who brings life to where life is not.  John’s life is entirely relative to Jesus.

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So too when our reading from Isaiah talks about joy it is all about “him”: “He has clothed me, he has wrapped me like a bridegroom and a bride, the Lord GOD will make justice and praise spring up.”  And when he talks about being a prophet too it is all about “him”: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, he has anointed me, he has sent me, to announce a year of favor from the LORD.”

So too when our Epistle says “rejoice,” it then says “Pray without ceasing.  In all circumstances give thanks.” Whatever you have not and whatever you have, point to him.  “Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise prophecy”: believe that God is alive and active in our world.  “May the God of peace” – He! – “make you perfectly holy.”  “He will accomplish it.”

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The joy of the prophet is to know that he is not the source of his own joy, but receives everything from one infinitely greater.

Christian childhood is to know that the power at work in us, bringing us to full maturity in Christ, is infinitely greater than we can ask or imagine.  It’s not that we already possess, not that we have arrived – but that he is at work in us.

The joy of Advent is in looking forward to the one who comes, who can do what we cannot.

And the joy of Christmas is knowing that God is with us, and God has entered into our weakness, to give us a strength that does not come from us.

Where do you find yourself focusing too much on your own goodness and strength?

Second Sunday of Advent: A City in the Wilderness

At the center of our readings for the second Sunday of Advent is an image of Jerusalem.  The Entrance Antiphon says, “O people of Sion” (the temple hill at the center of Jerusalem) “behold, the Lord will come to save the nations, and the Lord will make the glory of his voice heard in the joy of your heart.”  The Communion Antiphon again says, “Jerusalem, arise and stand upon the heights, and behold the joy which comes to you from God.”  Jerusalem looks toward the Lord who will come.

The Liturgical renewal of Vatican II is remarkable, sometimes dumbfoundingly rich.  These two antiphons are ancient, and were part of the readings before the Council.  After the Council, the readings themselves changed – though the Gospel continues to bring our attention to John the Baptist – but we enter even more deeply into these antiphons.

The earthly Jerusalem is a strange city. Most cities, like New York, are near the sea and trade routes.  Jerusalem is in the mountains, desert mountains, a fortress set apart.  Jerusalem is a city in the wilderness, a watchtower.

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Our Epistle, from Second Peter, keeps us looking forward, to the Second Coming.  We are reminded that on that day, “the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire.”  All that will remain is “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”  (In Revelation, that’s the New Jerusalem.)  “Therefore . . . be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him.”  Be cleansed so that you can meet your Lord when he comes.

Our Prophet, Isaiah, is more reassuring: instead of threatening the incineration of heaven and earth, he says, “Comfort”: tell Jerusalem that “her guilt is expiated.”  But still we are preparing “in the desert . . . the way of the Lord,” preparing for when “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” because “Here comes with power the Lord God.”  A watchtower.

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The Gospel is John the Baptist, whom Mark calls, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”

A central line of the reading points us to the identity of Jerusalem.  I’ll give my own translation, because the point is tricky: “There came out to him the whole Judean territory and all the Jerusalemites.”

Like everything else in this reading, it is a reference to Isaiah and Elijah.  Our reading from Isaiah said, “Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news!  Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God!”

Jerusalem, the city on a hill, is a people looking east.  The earthly Jerusalem proclaims salvation to all the nations, beginning with the Judean countryside that surrounds it.  “All of Jerusalem,” Mark says, goes out to John the Baptist.

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John himself is an image of the Old Testament people.  The reading begins, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet” – but then it quotes two of the prophets, Malachi, who says, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,” and then our reading from Isaiah, “A voice of one crying out in the desert.”

Both passages have prophets telling of a prophet telling of the Lord who comes.  Jerusalem is a people looking East, a people of prophecy, a watchtower.

John the Baptist himself proclaims a baptism.  In the Greek version of the Old Testament that Mark is quoting, “baptism” is a word derived from the word for the ablutions that are center to Jerusalem’s identity.  In the Passover rite in Exodus, for example, “You shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip [bapto] in the blood in the bowl, and strike the lintel and the doorposts with the blood in the bowl.”  And on Yom Kippur, “the priest shall dip [bapto] his finger in the blood and sprinkle of the blood seven times before Jehovah, at the front of the veil of the holy place.”

But the exact word appears only, of course, in Isaiah, where baptizo is being “overwhelmed” (even in English, “whelm” literally means “submerge”) by the awesomeness of the Lord, and what Elijah’s successor Elisha tells Naaman the Syrian to do in the Jordan.

John leads the people of Jerusalem back to their roots, in the Jordan.  He wears the camel hair and belt that were the marks of Elijah and all the prophets.  He eats wild honey, recalling the promised land of milk and honey, and locusts, a food of the poor in the desert and the animal food allowed by the charter of the people in Leviticus.

John reminds the people of Jerusalem who they are: a prophetic people, a people looking east, awaiting their Lord – a people of the desert, a city in the wilderness, gathered not by trade but by the Lord who comes.

To be Jerusalem and Israel is to say, “One mightier than I is coming after me.  I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals” – to wash his feet, though he submerges mine.

We too are called to be that prophetic people, a people gathered together in prophecy of the day of the Lord.

How would your parish be different if it lived as a prophetic people, a city in the wilderness?

 

First Sunday in Advent: Christ’s Work in Us

“Let us see your face, and we shall be saved,” was our Psalm response this week. “Come, Lord Jesus!” is our prayer for Advent, as we prepare to celebrate for his first coming and look forward to his coming again.

Searching the Scriptures

Our Gospel sets our face toward that second coming when it says, “You do not know when the lord of the house is coming . . . .  May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”  Those are the words of Jesus, who has already come, and tells us to look forward to his coming again.

So too in our first reading, from the beginning of First Corinthians: “as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  First Corinthians was written to a community already established by the revelation of Jesus Christ, else they couldn’t even use his name. But they look forward.  In fact, “He” – that is, Jesus Christ himself, who already came, and already is at work in us; “he” of whom Paul has just said, “the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus” – “He will  keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Christ who has come prepares us for Christ who will come again.

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We enter into this mystery through the first reading – of course, as every Sunday in Advent, from the prophet Isaiah.  The reading begins and ends, “You, LORD, are our father.”  At the end it explains: “We are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.”  We are what we are because God makes us.  That’s why in the reading from Corinthians Paul says, “I give thanks to my God always on your account” – because of “the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus.”  He makes us.

This appreciation of grace takes a startling turn when Isaiah says, “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways.”  He believes so firmly that God alone makes us righteous that he can even blame God for not making us righteous.  And so he begs, “Return.”  And so we beg, “Come, Lord Jesus,” “let us see your face and we shall be saved,” “Lord, make us turn to you.”

Isaiah begs, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” – and we beg, “Come, Lord Jesus,” “I believe that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”  Be our king!  Reign!  Make the world righteous at last!

Isaiah would like to say that we are righteously awaiting, but he cannot: “all of us have become like unclean people,” even “all our good deeds are like polluted rags. . . .  There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you,” says the Prophet who is calling on the name of the LORD, but knows he does it so poorly.

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Mary sees

Things are the same and different for St. Paul.  “In Christ Jesus,” he says, “. . . you were enriched in every way, with all logos and gnosis . . . so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.”  Because we know him, we are enriched by him.

And so now, too, after Christ has come, we long for his coming.  And now too we know that we cannot make ourselves ready for that coming, for that reign of true righteousness.  But “God is faithful,” and so “He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Before Christ, Isaiah sees nothing but polluted rags.  After Christ, Paul knows that the power already at work in us through faith in the revelation of Jesus Christ can make us holy, irreproachable as we await the perfect reign of Christ.

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In our reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Be watchful!  Be alert!”  Or “Look, and stay awake!”  Keep your eye on him, on the revelation of Christ who has come and will come again.

“It is like a man traveling abroad,” he says.  “He places his servants in charge, each with his own work.”  We each have a work to do, a way to prepare, a way that he wants to work in us as we await the revelation of his perfect kingdom.

“He orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.”  The gatekeeper is a specific work, not the work of all the servants.  And yet his work gives the ultimate meaning to all our other works.  “Watch, therefore.”  Be prepared at every moment, by living the vocation, the work that he has given you, and that he works in you.

To prepare for Christ is not to sleep, but to let him who has already come work in us.  If we are to be ready for his perfect reign, we must make sure we are not like the people in Isaiah’s time, when Christ had never come, and they were unclean and no one called on his name.  Rather we must be like St. Paul, enriched with every good gift for every good work, by our knowledge of him who has already come to begin his work in us

How is Christ trying to make you turn to him, to prepare your place in his kingdom?

The Worthy Wife?

The Lectionary readings just get better and better.  Augustine said Scripture is simple enough for a child, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim in.   A couple thoughts about last Sunday’s first reading, from Proverbs.

The reading is about a “good wife”: “when one finds a worthy wife, her value is beyond pearls.”  But as often happens, the teaching is better than it first appears.

At first it seems awfully . . . domestic.  “She obtains wool and flax and works with loving hands.  She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle.”

Now, it’s true we can get a lot out of these traditional portrayals of femininity.  Notice that she does more than just care for children; that she is in the marketplace; that craftwork is portrayed as beautiful and noble; that both the working and the product seem lovely.  There’s plenty to get out of that.

But that’s not the main thing Proverbs is talking about here.  Already notice the opening line, which I quoted above: “When one finds a worthy wife, her value is beyond pearls.”  We can read that generically and say, she’s real great.  But read it specifically, and it says: beyond material things.  We’re tempted to reduce it to the material, to think the point is how the worthy wife is useful for getting stuff.  But the opening says the opposite: she is worth more than stuff.

(Of course, note that the value put into the craftwork itself makes it better than just stuff.  Pearls are something you find.  But the beauty of workmanship is to make things better than we find them, by putting some of ourselves into them.)

Then it says, “Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize.”  Not “entrusting his stuff,” but entrusting his heart.  There’s more to this picture than stuff.

“She obtains wool and flax and works with loving hands.”  The thing is – this is one of my two main points – you have to look at what the reading is saying that isn’t obvious to its original readers.  Of course she obtains wool and flax.  That sounds novel and romantic to us, but not to the author and original readers of Proverbs.  The significant detail is not the wool and flax but the love.

So too in the next lines: “She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle.”  Well, yes, women had to do that.  And again, yes, sure, that’s lovely.  But it’s not the main point.  The main point is in the next line: “She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.”  All women have to do women’s work, whatever the women’s work of the time is (a discussion we aren’t very honest about these days – women do more than we give them credit for).  And there is virtue in doing that work.  But the significant detail is that “her hands” and “her fingers” not only do the stuff for herself, but “her hands” and “her arms” reach out to the poor.  It’s good that she fulfills her work at home – but that’s not the main point.

“Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”  It begins by saying the man entrusts his heart to her and ends by saying she fears the LORD.  That’s the main point of the reading.  It is contrasted with a materialistic view of the woman.

My main points are two.  First, when we read, we have to look for the significant detail.  The quaintness of ancient societies is not the main point of the reading – that’s the point that’s supposed to be obvious.  The main point is what it’s saying that was not obvious: not that women work with wool, but that the good woman cares for others.

And so my second main point is that the main point of this reading is not that women should do women’s work – knitting, etc. – but that a “worthy” wife is one who is more than an economic producer, but one who loves.

 

Thirty-Third Sunday: The Lord’s Work

I am sorry I missed writing a post on last week’s amazing readings.  Part of it is my own laziness.  Part of it is that  this year I have been trying to read the Gospel readings more carefully – and it’s overwhelming.  I get started and can’t imagine paring things down to 800 words.  There is too much there, I had no idea the Gospels were so rich.

But notice how laziness and failure to receive the Lord’s goodness go together.  This week’s readings, in fact, speak right to me.

Searching the Scriptures

The first reading, from Proverbs, talks about the “worthy wife.”  She works hard.  When it says, “charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised,” it’s telling us something important about women.  But the main point, the reason it’s paired with this Gospel, is to teach us that we’re all called to work.

The bigger context is in our reading from First Thessalonians: “the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.”  At the end of the Church’s year and the end of the Gospel – these last three Sundays, we are reading every word of Matthew 25, Jesus’s last words before he goes to be crucified – the theme is preparing for the end of time and the second coming of Christ.  “Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.”  Let’s get to work.

***

First Thessalonians’ discussion of the end – especially the parts the Sunday Lectionary does not give us – is scary.  So too Proverbs talks about the woman who “fears the Lord” and our Psalm refrain is, “Blessed are those who fear the Lord” (which the Psalm again ties to the health of the family).

File:Pantocrator from Gavshinka (1200s, Rublev's museum).jpgThe three readings from Matthew 25, meanwhile, are a crescendo of threats.  At the end of last week’s reading, the Bridegroom locks the foolish virgins out, telling them, “I do not know you.”  At the end of this week’s reading, the parable of the talents, the Lord says, “throw the unprofitable servant into outer darkness; where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (that is, both sorrow and anger).  And at the end of next week’s Gospel, the very last words of Jesus’ preaching are, “Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.  And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.”

People think that the Old Testament is scary and the Gospels are nice.  That is because people haven’t read either one.  The most terrifying threats in Scripture come from the mouth of Jesus.

But what is the point of this fear?  In this week’s parable of the talents, the one who had received the one talent says, “Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.  Here it is back.”

But that was foolish.  As the Master responds, if you are afraid, you should work hard.  Jesus is demanding.  He wants more from us.  The Gospel is not about being fleeing responsibility, it is about being filled with the vigor of Jesus.

***

The beginning of our parable is important.  Our translation says, “A man going on a journey.”  The Greek word means, “going away from his people.”  It is a powerful word at the end of Jesus’ preaching, as he goes, first to the Cross and then to the Ascension.

He “called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.”  The Greek for possessions is “things under his authority.”  And notice the two uses of “his.”  The things are his – but the Greek uses a deeper word for saying the servants are his.

The last words of Matthew’s Gospel will be, “Behold, I am with you all the days until the end of the world.  Amen.”  He goes away – but he sends us with his authority, because we are his.

So notice too the words of reward.  “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”  We are called to be his servants, doing his work – as in the next and final parable we will be called to welcome him in the poor.  The word for Master in this parable is Kurios, as in Kyrie eleison, Lord!  The words we want to hear are that we have been good and faithful servants, that he has been our Lord.

Then he says, “since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great” – possessions? no – “responsibilities.”  Literally, “I will put you over much.”

“Come, share your master’s joy.”  But your Lord’s joy is in the care he gives, the work he does, the love he bestows, and pours into our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.

How perfect that the other readings tie this commission to family.  Our joy is not in being relieved of responsibility, but in entering into our Lord’s work.

What’s an important place in your life where you think you will find joy by fleeing the work the Lord has given you?

Thirty-First Sunday: We’re All Priests

This year, I have been making an effort to study the Gospels, especially this year’s Gospel, Matthew, better than I have before.  What has most struck me is the centrality of the Pharisees.  But one of my favorite things about the Pharisees is how accusations of Phariseeism boomerang.  Jesus manages to accuse them without becoming one himself, but every time I point out Phariseeism, I find myself committing it.

In this week’s Gospel we find Jesus saying, “They will not lift a finger” to help people carry the burdens they lay, and, “They preach but they do not practice.”

***

But the readings start with the minor prophet Malachi cursing the priests of Israel: “You have caused many to falter by your instruction.”  His particular accusation is “you show partiality in your decisions.”  The Hebrew for that is something like, “You look up,” looking at whom they are judging instead of, like our blindfolded Lady Justice, looking only at the case itself.

Thus he ends, “Have we not all the one father?   Has not the one God created us?  Why then do we break faith with one another, violating the covenant of our fathers?”  Instead of angling for whom we can benefit from, we should treat others right, because they are our equals and because they belong to God.  So too – looking back to our Gospel – we should help others carry their loads instead of trying to gain honors.

But one thing that’s fun about this juxtaposition of texts is that the Pharisees are the opposite of the people Malachi is blaming.  Malachi is talking to the Levites, the ones who serve in the temple.  But in Jesus’s day, that was the Sadducees, the enemy of the Pharisees.  The Pharisees thought the Sadduccees, who were worried only about temple observance were – something like what we would call liberals, not tough enough on how people behave outside of church.

In short, both sides of the argument are, in the broad sense, “Pharisees.”  Both sides are failing to practice what they preach.  There is plenty of blame to go around.

***

There is plenty in today’s Gospel that we can use to accuse the priests – or the blamers of priests – of our day.  It is true that they tie up heavy burdens hard to carry, but will not lift a finger to move them.   It is true that they sit in the chair of Moses, teaching with authority, so that we should observe all the things they tell us – but often we should not follow their example.  It is true that they often seem to love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Father.’  Some may disagree, but I don’t think we get anywhere denying that there is much about our clergy that is less than inspiring.

And it’s true, as Malachi says, that they ought to have greater respect for the people whom they serve.  The priesthood doesn’t make you the one special member of the congregation.  It makes you a servant of all, because we are all part of the priestly people, all called to holiness.  I think priests would behave better if they remembered the dignity of the Christian people.  So would the people who blame priests.

Fine.  But here’s my point: we are a priestly people in another sense, too.  We are all guilty of the sins of the priests, all guilty of what Malachi blames the Levites for, and Jesus blames the Pharisees for.  We all need Jesus to tell us, “The greatest among you must be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Whatever we accuse others of, the accusation comes back to ourselves.  Whatever gripes you have with other Christians, whatever you think many clergy are guilty of (whether you think they’re too strict or too lazy) – look to yourself.  It’s not so much that we shouldn’t judge others, as that we should judge ourselves.

In all these passages about the Pharisees, Jesus teaches us to judge ourselves.  Perhaps we start by seeing Phariseeism in others, but always the accusation boomerangs to us.

***

Instead, as Paul says of himself, let us be “gentle” with one another, “as a nursing mother cares for her children.”  Let us share “the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved” may we see others.

In that way, and only in that way, we can make sure that “receiving the word of God from hearing us,” they may receive “not a human word, but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.”

Who in the Church do you tend to judge?  How are you guilty of the same things?

 

The Ladder of the Beatitudes

I was thinking during All Saints Mass, in our university chapel, of a nice hokey homily one could give.  All Saints celebrates, among other things, the unnamed, uncelebrated saints.  The marvelous reading from Revelation says, “from every nation, race, people, and tongue.”  We could add, from every walk of life: unnoticed stay-at-home moms, grandmothers, homeless men, garbage men, mailmen, and accountants.

And then, with the reading of the Beatitudes, you could say, here are various kinds of sanctity.  Wherever there is true poverty of spirit, there lies a hidden saint.  Wherever there is Christian mourning, genuine meekness, deep hunger and thirst for justice, authentic mercy – those are saints.  The pure of heart and the peacemakers: two more kinds of saints.

That would be a nice little homily to help those struggling with the idea of sanctity to consider that saints live not only among the statues, but in real virtues in real life.  That would be a helpful homily, and true, and rich.

***

But I’d like to take advantage of today’s reading of the Beatitudes to go a step deeper.  Because, although they show various faces of sanctity, they are not just a disjointed list.  The tradition sees in them a united whole: though it might be helpful to think of them as different faces of sanctity, in truth, there is never one without the others.  Even more, they are an ordered whole, building from bottom to top in a ladder of sanctity.

This post is going to be too long, and I’m only going to be able to hint at this ladder.  But I hope I can give you something to meditate on.

***

There is something funny about the structure of the Beatitudes.  Eight times, Jesus speaks in the third person: “Blessed are they.”  But then at the end, he says, “Blessed are you.”  The setting is, “His disciples came to him.  He began to teach them.”  They might be interested in what he has to say about some other “they” who are blessed – but most of all, they want him to address them as “you.”  When are we, your disciples, blessed?  Bless me, Lord!

All those other eight build up and culminate when he finally says, “Blessed are you”: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.”  Before that last moment, he has not said, “you” and “me,” but here is the summit.

Our reading from Revelation today said, about all the saints, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”  Somehow, it all comes to a head in being persecuted because of him, being united to his cross, bathing in the Blood of the Lamb by passing through the time of distress.

Sanctity can only be union with Jesus, can only be motivated by our desire for identification with him.  And it only comes to perfection when that identification with him comes to suffering.  There is no true sanctity, no final beatitude, apart from being persecuted “because of me,” being bathed in the blood of the Lamb.  That’s the top of the ladder, the peak of sanctity.  Everything is there, in a nutshell.  This is the only beatitude addressed to “you,” his disciples.  We need to long for that persecution, which will come, one way or another.

***

BUT – we had better be careful, because not all persecution is “because of me.”  If you are hated because you use Christianity as an excuse to be a jerk, that is not the peak of sanctity.  It is not sanctity at all, just a cheap imitation.  And this is where the rest of the ladder comes in.

You can’t reach that top of the ladder without climbing the step before it: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”  That sounds almost the same, but it isn’t.  The perfect blessing is to be persecuted for the sake of him – but it is not for the sake of him unless it is also for the sake of righteousness.  Are you being a good person?  Only if you are can you claim that you are being persecuted for the sake of him, and not rightly slapped down for being a jerk.

But what is righteousness?  There is, of course, false righteousness, too.  You can’t reach that step of the ladder without the one before: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  If you face conflict because you are causing conflict, there is no blessing in that.  But if you are making peace, bringing the peace of Jesus, then perhaps your persecution is for the sake of righteousness, and for the sake of him.  Jesus was crucified for being a peacemaker, not a jerk.

And what is peacemaking?  The step before is “blessed are the pure of heart.”  There are a lot of false kinds of peace, cheap imitations of the peace of Christ.  To make real peace – a positive thing – requires clearing away all the dross in your heart.  You cannot be a true peacemaker without first being pure of heart.

But purity of heart, too, can be false.  There are many kinds of purity – Nietzsche is scathing on this – defined more by our isolation from others than by real Christianity. To be pure by standing aloof is Phariseeism, not the way of Christ.  To be persecuted for that kind of holier-than-thou attitude is not persecution for righteousness or persecution for Christ, and it can’t make real peace.  No, to have true purity of heart, we need first to climb the step before: “Blessed are the merciful.”

And of course there is false mercy, as well – parallel to spoiling children, which gives them what they want not for love of them but in hopes that they will leave you alone.  That’s not mercy, that’s a cheap imitation.  Real mercy, too, requires the step before: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”  Benedict XVI has a nice line about this: don’t say you are giving to others from what is yours unless you first give them what is theirs; love and mercy are greater than justice, but don’t tell me you love me if you won’t be just to me.  Only a passion for justice, a real desire to set things right, results in true mercy.

Ah, but justice – well, the problem with this step might be the most obvious of all.  Because we know crusaders for justice are often inhuman.  St. James says, “The wrath of man does not work out the righteousness of God.”  Most of our claims to be fighting for justice or righteousness are rooted not in righteousness, but in our demand for our own rights, and our desire to fight.  And so the previous step is necessary: Blessed are the meek.  Until we have conquered our anger with meekness, our claims to be hungering and thirsting for justice are bogus.

And how can I be meek?  First I must be aware of my sin: “Blessed are those who mourn.”  Before I can heal the problem, I need to see the problem.  I have to be pierced by the unrighteousness of men, by the tragedy of my sin and the sin of others.  Without that mourning, I might be mousy or conflict-averse, but I am not meek.

And – this is the bottom rung of the ladder – I cannot mourn as a Christian until I abandon earthly splendor: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” which (says St. Thomas, quoting Augustine and Ambrose) says either means the renuncation of pride or the spiritual renunciation of worldly goods.  Until I have abandoned worldliness, in either or both of those ways, I will always be mourning for the wrong things, for the loss of earthly goods instead of the loss of my soul.

***

Well, this post is too long.  But the point is, if you memorize the Beatitudes – or just take a Bible with you to prayer – you can meditate on how they fit together.  There is not one without the others.  Each one guarantees the truth of the others.  And there is a ladder, climbing from our renunciation of earthly goods in poverty of spirit all the way to being persecuted, not for our own stupidity or meanness, but for Jesus himself.