The Fourth Sunday of Easter—The Power of the Spirit

Пророк Троица XVIII.jpegOur reading from Acts this Sunday begins, “Peter, filled with the Spirit.”  Acts is like the Gospel of the Holy Spirit.  By my count, the Spirit is named about 60 times in these 28 chapters—compared to 67 times in the 89 chapters of the four Gospels.  Acts shows us the power of the Spirit.

The Spirit gives Peter the power to preach, of course.  But more deeply than that, the Spirit gives him knowledge.  He says he acts “in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”  The Spirit is power, and so is Jesus—the name of Jesus signifies that it is Jesus himself who has power.

Then he cites Scripture—another manifestation of the power of the Spirit: “He is the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.”  Peter knows what they don’t know.  The Spirit has revealed to him the power of Jesus Christ.

***

Every Easter season we read Acts.  This year of Mark, we read 1 John as our Epistle.  And this week John speaks of knowledge and love.  “See what love the Fathers has bestowed on us,” he says, and twice calls us, “beloved” agapatoi.

But what is the gift of the Father’s love?  “That we may be called the children of God.  Yet so we are.”  There is our identity—and there is our knowledge of our identity.  Both are gifts of the Father’s love.

Our identity is itself tied to knowledge: what we, God’s children, “shall be has not yet been revealed”—we don’t know yet—but “we do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  We know that we will know.  The power of the Spirit is in all this knowing.

***

Every year, this fourth Sunday is Good Shepherd Sunday; we read different selections from John 10.

Hermes crioforo.jpgNow, I don’t want to stretch things too far, but—when he says, “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” it sounds like he is talking about what is common to all shepherds.  But first of all, the Greek says, “The good shepherd.”  One way to read that is just as a general statement about shepherds, just as the next sentence says what “The hired man” does.  But another way to read it is to say, he’s not saying all good shepherds lay down their life, he is describing what The Good Shepherd does (and “the hired man” might be a more significant figure than he at first appears).

And the way he says, “lays down his life for the sheep” is literally, “puts his soul onto the sheep.”  Yes, it is saying that he is willing to die for them (how many shepherds die for their sheep?).  But later, John will say that when this Good Shepherd is pierced on the Cross, he pours out blood and water for them, and when he dies he “hands over the spirit.”  Both of these statements have to have double meanings: he lays down his life—and he gives his soul, his spirit, to us.

***

He goes on to talk about knowledge.  “I know mine, and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I put my soul upon the sheep.”  Yes, he dies for them.  But they know him because he gives them his Spirit, his soul.  That’s what it means to be his: to know him—whose death and resurrection make him the least knowable of all—because we have received the Spirit from him.

He goes on to say that he has other sheep who are not part of this fold.  “These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice.”  They too know his voice, and follow him—but they hear his voice because he leads them, because he gives them his spirit, speaks into their hearts.

Why does he talk about another fold?  To make clear what defines his flock.  It is only Jesus.  Wherever Jesus goes, whomever Jesus draws, those are his sheep.  It’s not because we were in the right place at the right time, not because we’re part of the right club—but because Jesus has put his Spirit upon us.  Don’t make the church more natural than it is.

Christ Angel of Great Advice (Ochride).jpg“And there will be one flock, one shepherd”—one flock, because one shepherd.  He’s not saying there are alternate churches—he is saying that what defines the true church is being led by him.

***

“This is why” (or: it is through this that) “the Father loves me, because (or: that) I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.”  True, this is the power of the Resurrection, that he willingly dies and has power to rise again.

But it is also the power of grace, the power of the Spirit.  He has the power to give that spirit to us, to lay his soul upon us, and thereby to draw us up to him.  We have no power to take that spirit—it is not by our own merits—but he lays it upon us.  That is the power of the Resurrection: the giving of the Spirit.

How can you gave more intently on Christ?

“Caught by their heads”

File:Favorite Fish and Fishing 05.jpgIt is sometimes said in the Catholic world, “Men, like fish, are caught by their heads.”  Just as you have to hook a fish in its mouth, so too, to bring someone into the Catholic faith, you have to hook their intellects.

I’ve most often heard this line in connection with apologetics.  You get someone to be a Catholic by winning a war of apologetics.

But let us consider, this Easter, that apologetics is both too intellectual and not intellectual enough for the depths of catching men by their heads.

***

First, consider how profound our intellectual connection to the faith is.  In fact, faith is an intellectual virtue.

You can’t love God without having some sense of who and what God is.  That doesn’t mean you have to exhaust the meaning of God.  It’s impossible to have exhaustive knowledge of God, and it is love that brings us to know God better.  It might be true that you can’t love what you don’t know—but you also can’t get to know what you don’t love, because love is what brings us to ponder who God is.

Searching the Scriptures

That is all the more true of Jesus.  We have to discover Jesus, have to have some knowledge of him, in order to fall in love with him—and then we only get to know him by loving him enough to gaze at him.  Love and knowledge are a circle.

So too with hope.  We cannot hope in Jesus unless we have some idea of how Jesus can help us.  Until we have some knowledge of the promises of Jesus, there can be no hoping in him—and living in that hope leads us deeper into knowledge of the promises.

Faith, says a standard line, allows us to hope, and then, as we discover Jesus as our hope, as we know how much he helps us, we fall in love with him.  And then that hope and love lead us back into deeper knowledge, deeper faith.

And yet faith, trustful hearing of the teachings of our faith, is somehow the foundation of our life in Christ.  And that means too that our knowledge of Christ is fundamental.  It doesn’t end in our “heads,” but somehow it begins there.  We build upside down, with the foundations in our heads.

***

Now, on the one hand, that means apologetics often doesn’t take our “heads” seriously enough.  Sometimes it seems like, as with fish, we hope to “hook” people by their heads—then remove the hook and go on as if our knowledge of Christ was irrelevant once we’ve crossed the line into the boat of the Church.

I discovered this personally in my Bible reading.  There was a period, especially around the time I entered the Church (twenty years ago this Easter!) that I found myself reading the Bible only for apologetics.  The Bible was no longer speaking to me, it was only a source of one-liners that I could use to “hook” Protestants.

But the Bible is so much deeper than that.  The Bible is our endless source of knowledge of Christ.  For many Catholics, step one of discovering the Bible is to forget about apologetics, forget about what it says to “other people,” and start discovering what the Bible says to you.

Faith isn’t something we use just to get people into the Church, and then we throw it away.  Faith is the foundation of our whole life in Christ.  From the pages of the Bible—and, yes, the Catechism, the great spiritual writers and theologians, the Magisterium—we nourish our faith, which leads us to hope in Christ and love him deeper, which leads us to seek his face again.

Like fish, men are caught with their heads.  But unlike fish, we never remove the hook, we must always be drawn deeper in.

***

That’s the way that apologetics isn’t intellectual enough.  But in another sense, apologetics is too intellectual.

That’s where this Easter is a good time to rediscover the Catholic life of the mind.  When we read the Passion on Good Friday and Palm Sunday, when we read about the Last Supper and then about Easter, we were reading, we were learning, we were using our minds.  But we weren’t getting “arguments.”

Be Fishers of Men!

A standard way to phrase this is that it isn’t about “head knowledge.”  I think that phrase misses the mark.  It sounds like we should stop reading, stop listening to the readings, and somehow go some “heart” place, as if our heads weren’t connected to our hearts.  Rather, say that the deepest knowledge isn’t about argument, it’s about meditation and contemplation.

In the amazing readings of this last week, we discovered Jesus.  We need to delve deeper and deeper into these readings.  Deeper than apologetics, deeper than one-liners and proof texts, beyond any knowledge that we will leave behind once we’ve crossed the line into the Church.

Rather, we should seek the knowledge that leads to hope and love, and in hoping and loving be drawn back to know ever deeper.  We should contemplate the face of Christ, on the page of Scripture.  That’s how Catholics use their heads.

How do you study the face of Christ?

 

Easter and the Gospel

Easter allows us to state the Gospel in the simplest terms: The death and resurrection of Jesus are symbolic and causative (just as a sacrament causes what it symbolizes).  And they symbolize and cause our moral death and resurrection.

File:Altenburg Brüderkirche Wandmalerei Auferstehung.jpgJust as Jesus died in the body, we are to die to our old way of life.  Just as Jesus rose again, we are to live a new life.  The new life is no less bodily, but it is a life from God and for God, and a life that never ends.

Jesus’s death and resurrection don’t just affect him.  They don’t just affect us emotionally, as if the main point of Good Friday was to be sad and the main point of Easter is to be happy.  They are sad and happy, and they do affect Jesus, but that is not the main point.  They don’t just affect our bodies, as if the Resurrection promises us only physical life after death.

And they are not just encouragement.  My silly new line with my students is, Jesus is not our Zumba instructor.  It is not that he moves vigorously around in our sight, and then we have to do our best to imitate that vigor.  The point of the Resurrection is that God is powerful to do what nature cannot do on its own.  I am weak and he is strong.

Jesus lives his life in the flesh to raise us to a greater life.

***

Thus at the Easter Vigil, one of the central proclamations of the Gospel in the whole Church year, proclaimed with the Gloria and with lights after darkness, is from Romans 6:

“We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”

  1. File:Atribbuted to Hans von Aachen 001.jpgOur participation in his death is sacramental. It’s not that when we physically die we will imitate Christ’s physical death and resurrection (though that happens too, as a consequence).  It’s that his physical death, and our physical baptism, participate in a world of symbols that point to and bring about something greater: our moral resurrection.
  2. Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father. So too it is only the glory of God that brings our new life: not just zumba-style imitation, but an influx of the light of God, bringing eternal life to our death.
  3. The new life we are given is not just more of the same physical life, but “newness of life,” that is, a new way of life, a transformed life, a new “moral” life, the life of the Beatitudes.

“We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.”

There is a death we must die.  But it is death to sin.  It is a bodily death, and sin is in our body, our “body of sin.”  But of course the Resurrection (not to mention the physicality of Baptism) cannot mean that bodies themselves are sinful, as St. Paul will say in a moment.  An old way of being bodily—a bodily life that is “corruptible,” in both the corruption that is physical death and the corruption that is sin—is ending, so that we can live a new, incorruptible life, also in the body.

File:Hans Thoma Auferstehung.jpg“If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.  We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him”

The end is not death, nor is it the destruction of our body.  The end is new life, in the body.

“As to his death, he died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God.  Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.”

His physical death is a sign of death to sin.  His physical life is a sign of life for God.  The consequence in us is that we live, in our bodies, a new life, no longer for sin but for God.  Our Resurrection is above all a moral resurrection, the life of the Beatitudes.

How do you pray the Resurrection?

Palm Sunday – Mark’s Picture of the Savior

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “Synoptic” Gospels–it means something like “look-alike”–because they are so similar, mostly word-for-word, that it is obvious they are copying from one another.  

Luke says in his introduction that he is working from previous versions, but we don’t know the relationship between Matthew and Mark.  I like to think of Mark as Peter’s revision of Matthew, though most modern scholars think Mark came first.

Acknowledging that we don’t know the exact relationships between them, it can still be fruitful to approach these three similar documents by digging into what is distinctive in each.  This year, the year of Mark in the Lectionary, I took this approach to my meditation on Palm Sunday, digging into the differences between Mark and Matthew.

***

There are some details of personal recollection.  If the ancient legends are true, Matthew was written by one of the Twelve, and Mark by the disciple of one of the Twelve, so both have inside information.  But it is touching to see the details Peter passes on.

Mark’s gospel tells us that Matthew’s “very expensive ointment” was spikenard–maybe Peter can remember the smell.  When the two disciples go to find the upper room for the Passover, Mark tells us the man they spoke to was carrying a pitcher of water. Matthew tells us only that the room is in a “house,” Mark adds that it is a “guest room,” a “large upper room, furnished and ready.”  

Matthew has the rooster crow once, all that is necessary for the story.  Peter remembers the detail that it was twice.

In the garden in Matthew, Jesus cries out to his Father–but Peter remembers that he used the Aramaic term, “Abba.”  (There’s a legend, started around the year 1900, that Abba means daddy, and we’re supposed to see something sentimental in it.  But it seems just to have been the word for father in Jesus’s language. So too Mark remembers Judas using the Hebrew title “Rabbi,” the places were called Gethsemane and Golgotha, and on the cross Jesus quotes Psalm 22 in Hebrew: Eloi, eloi, lama sabachani.)  Peter remembers the exact words.

Matthew tells us Peter was standing in the courtyard when he denied Jesus.  Mark knows that he was warming his hands by the fire. And he tells us that Peter was recognized by his accent as a Galillean.  

Mark has the weird detail of the young man running away naked.  Many scholars think that’s Mark’s own cameo appearance.

And Mark tells us that Joseph of Armimathea was the father of Alexander and Rufus–people he knows.  

Maybe there is symbolism here, I don’t know.  I just like the picturesque details, the personal touch.

***

And then there are the things Mark leaves out.  Mark’s gospel always cuts to the chase.

The central point in Mark’s gospel is that no one knows who Jesus is until he dies on the Cross.  Peter doesn’t deny that he had said, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” and that Jesus had named him Peter, the rock on whom he would build his Church.  But Peter leaves it out of his version of the story, because Peter knows that whatever he said way back then, he didn’t really understand, didn’t know Jesus’s identity well enough to stay with him at the Cross.  

Only at the Cross is Jesus truly revealed.

So in the Garden, Mark has the poignant line, “He said to Peter, ‘Simon’.”  Not such a rock that night. How that old name rings in Peter’s ears.

The characteristic word in Mark is “immediately”: always racing toward the Cross.  And Mark’s account of the Passion skips several details from Matthew’s.

When the soldiers come, Matthew tells us Jesus said he could call on angels, and tells his disciples to put their sword back.  Mark leaves out these details, so that Jesus’ words, “Have you come out as against a robber?” stand in all their starkness.

Mark leaves out the story of Judas hanging himself, Pilate’s wife’s dream, and Pilate washing his hands.  Nice details–but Mark is focused on Jesus headed to the Cross, and he does not want to distract us.

They both say the veil was torn when Jesus died–but Mark leaves out the distracting detail of people rising from the dead, and Matthew’s detail about Pilate guarding against a resurrection hoax.  

Christ is on the Cross, that is all that matters.

It’s not that Matthew’s details didn’t happen.  It’s that Mark wants us to focus, and adds only the details that make the scene real.

***

Finally, a series of details focus on Christ the King.  When the soldiers beat him, Matthew has them asking him to prophesy who did it.  By taking out that detail, Mark lets us focus us how they mock him as messiah-king.  He adds the detail that the mockers “knelt down in homage.”

Matthew says Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner.”  Mark focuses on kingship: “among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection.”  In Matthew, Pilate offers to release “the Christ.” In Mark it is “the King of the Jews.”

In Matthew, they offer Christ on the Cross gall, just something nasty.  But in Mark it is myrrh, a royal embalming spice.

In Matthew, they say to him, “He trusts in God; let him deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”  But Mark stays away from calling him Son of God until he is dead, and changes it to, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross.”  It makes less sense–Matthew’s God can get you down from the Cross better than Mark’s kingship–but Mark keeps us focused on this royal title.

And finally, the great hero of Mark’s gospel, the one who finally recognizes Christ, is no one but the centurion, the captain over a hundred soldiers, who then appears again, only in Mark, as the one who delivers the news to Pilate.  

Mark keeps directing our attention back to Christ as king.

***

And so he directs us back, too, to the triumphal entry with palms.  Matthew is focused on the fulfillment of prophecy, even to adding the weird detail that there were two animals, a colt and an ass.  Mark focuses us on the image of Christ riding in as a humble king, a different kind of king.

Matthew’s crowd acknowledges him as Son of David–fulfiller of the prophecy–but Mark again adds the detail of him being king, so that they say, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!”

He leads us to our own profession at every Mass: “Hosanna in the highest!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Hosanna appears in the Bible only in this scene; it means something like, “come save us!”)  

Mark makes it a little ironic.  Like the crowds, we may call this king-who-comes blessed because we seek an earthly kingdom.  Or we may have found the true kingship of Christ, a totally different kind of kingship, crowned with thorns and hanging on the Cross.

At every Mass, as we say those words, may Mark’s challenge ring in our ears: do we seek the king apart from the Cross, or the king who hangs on the Cross?  What salvation, and savior, do we profess?

Fifth Sunday of Lent: God Will Act

A very late publication for last Sunday’s readings.

We are getting close, entering the last two weeks before Easter.

The Gospel for this Year B is a reading from John that concludes, “He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.”  What is this death—both the death of Lent that we have been experiencing, and the death of Christ we are about to celebrate?  What do we gain from dying?

***

The beginning of the answer is in our Prophet, Jeremiah.  “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant.”  Covenant theology became very hip among conservative Catholics, perhaps through Evangelical influences, in the late twentieth century.  I confess I don’t understand what this is about.  But I think it’s important to challenge one idea about covenants: most covenants are two way, but our relationship with God is not one among equals.  More important—and I think this is the central point of the readings this week—it is not the case that God “does his part” and then passively waits for our response.  Our God is living and active.

“This is the covenant that I will make,” he says.  “I will place my law within them. . . . All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord.”  This is not like a two-way agreement.  It is a promise that God will act—will act within our very hearts, stirring the sources of our action.

***

Our Epistle, from Hebrews, says of Jesus, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.”  (Hold this word “obedience” loosely—wait to see what he’s saying about it.)  He learned to offer “prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death.”

The suffering of Christ is about begging God to act, and trusting that even if God leads us to death, he will give us life.  It is entering into the purest passivity—nothing is more passive than being dead—and trusting that God will act to save us.

And so “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”  We enter into this pattern of trusting God to act—and just as Jesus in his humanity was saved from death by God, so Jesus who is God will himself save us from death.  It is about learning to trust God to act.

***

Our Gospel, from John, not a famous passage, is a telling illustration of two approaches to religion.

Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem for Passover, the feast where he will die.  This is the story immediately after the Triumphal Entry.

In Jerusalem are “some Greeks.”  They tell the Apostle Philip, “who was from Bethsaida in Galilee,” a more Greek part of Israel, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”  Maybe I’m wrong, but this request sounds . . . tourist-y.  We’re seeing the religious sights, let’s see Jesus too.  They’re like tourists who don’t genuflect in a church, or gawking at the pope in St. Peter’s.  There’s no indication of reverence.  They don’t approach Jesus with faith, they don’t fall down in worship.  Instead, they go to their ‘connection,’ Philip—who himself goes to his connection, Andrew, a more central apostle. (John 1 tells us, “Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.”)

And how tourist-y is our faith?  How much are we looking for an ‘in,’ instead of putting our hope in God?

When Philip and Andrew go to Jesus, he changes the subject—John never mentions those Greeks again.

Instead, Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies. . . . Whoever loves his life loses it. . . . Whoever serves me must follow me”—to death—“The Father will honor whoever serves me.”

“I am troubled now.”  Literally, he says, “my soul is stirred up”—and he has just said, “whoever loves his soul will lose it.”  Yes, he is afraid of death—and he says, “damn the torpedoes,” forget the fear, full steam ahead.

***

Then comes one of the weirdest moments in John’s Gospel.  Here, in the middle of Jerusalem, the Father speaks.  Jesus says, “Father, glorify your name,” and a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”  It’s a bizarre experience for the crowd, who then debate whether it was thunder or an angel or what—because they don’t expect God to speak.

But the God of Jesus Christ is alive, he acts.  He speaks.  He glorifies his name.  And he will glorify it—by raising Christ from the dead.  It’s not that we glorify him with our goodness—it’s that he shows his goodness through our weakness.

This is not the god of tourism, not a god in the zoo, or a dead idol whom we check out at our convenience.  This is a God who speaks into our lives and raises us from the dead.  That’s the kind of death Jesus will die: a way of living that stakes everything on God’s promise to act.

“Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you”?  No.  That’s the opposite of what Jesus does at the cross.  Stake everything on the power and promise of God!  Act like you believe God is alive.

How would you behave differently if you were confident that God will even raise you from the dead?

New and Old

In our politicized times, Catholics throw around the words “liberal” and “conservative” too loosely.  We end up confusing things that are quite different.  This happens especially with Pope Francis: to say he is “liberal” is to say both too much and nothing at all.

Perhaps the same thing is more clear in the case of St. John Paul II.  Was he liberal?  Conservative?  The categories don’t fit, whether we’re talking about secular politics or Church policy.  Liberal and conservative just aren’t helpful words.  The same is an important point about Benedict.

Liberal and conservative say something, more or less, about our relation to things new and old.  Jesus doesn’t tell us to prefer one thing or the other, but says, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52).  We should be both liberal and conservative—at the service of the kingdom.

***

At the heart of questions about new things and old in our time is the Second Vatican Council.

I was just perusing John Paul II’s introduction to the “new” Code of Canon Law.  He explains that when St. John XXIII called Vatican II, he said that the Code of Canon Law would have to be revised as well, to reflect the thinking of the Council.  Canon Law is inside baseball, but perhaps nothing John XXIII said so fundamentally expresses the opening he gave for the Council to bring forth things old and new: the whole law, all our procedures, would be adjusted.

John Paul II refers in this context to the phrase from Matthew’s gospel about “what is new and what is old”: “the Second Vatican Council has drawn both new and old from the treasury of tradition,” he says, and enumerates what he thinks is “new” in Vatican II (my paragraphing and boldface):

 

“Among the elements which characterize the true and genuine image of the Church we should emphasize especially the following:

 

-the doctrine in which the Church is presented as the people of God (cf. dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium, chapter 2)

-and hierarchical authority as service (cf. ibid., chapter 3);

 

-the doctrine in which the Church is seen as a communion

-and which therefore determines the relations which are to exist between the particular churches and the universal Church, and between collegiality and the primacy [of the pope];

 

-likewise the doctrine according to which all the members of the people of God, in the way suited to each of them, participate in the threefold priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ,

-to which doctrine is also linked that which concerns the duties and rights of the faithful and particularly of the laity;

 

-and finally, the Church’s commitment to ecumenism.”

 

In all these things he refers to “fidelity in newness and newness in fidelity.”

***

That’s a hefty list of ideas, and I’m not going to try to spell them all out here; if you are so inclined, you can meditate on them yourself, or ask me questions.  But I offer them on two levels:

On the most general level, they are just modern examples, enumerated by John Paul II, of the Church’s “fidelity in newness and newness in fidelity”—or even “liberalism and conservatism in the service of the kingdom,” or “fidelity beyond liberalism and conservatism.”  The Church is not liberal or conservative, she is the Church of Jesus Christ, and these are examples of what that means.

On a more particular level, they offer John Paul II’s insight into the principles of reform in our time.  Might I suggest that, if you look behind all the idiotic stuff in the press—including, I’m sorry to say, a lot of idiocy in the Catholic press—this is a pretty good list of the real “newness” Pope Francis is working out in the Church.

It’s not about abandoning the Church’s teaching on marriage or communion or whatever, whatever the New York Times may tell you.  It’s about those elements of “newness in fidelity and fidelity in newness” that St. John Paul II identifies with Vatican II.

“As Yourself”

A lawyer asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:35-39).

We all know the line, but what does it mean?

The two commandments are not parallel.  We are not told to love our neighbor with all our heart, and we are not told to love God as our self.

Here is another place where pressing more closely into the words of the Gospel takes us deeper than our vague summaries.

***

When St. Thomas Aquinas talks about charity, he gives us an interesting thing to think about.  When you drink a glass of wine—Thomas was Italian, but you can change the example to pizza or ribs or whatever works best for you—there are two very different kinds of love going on.

You love the wine and you love yourself.  But you love yourself in the sense that you want yourself to have a nice thing.  You love the wine in the sense that it’s the good thing that you want yourself to have.  Both are love, and they are connected, but they are very different.

There are different kinds of friendship.  There may be friends that you love like you love pizza.  You don’t care what’s good for them, you just like how they make you feel.  (And, a subdivision of this, there are friends whom you don’t even enjoy in themselves, you just love them because they give you pizza.  Aristotle calls these two friendships “friendship of pleasure” and “friendship of utility—but the point isn’t what Aristotle says, the point is that these are real things.)

There are other people you love not just because of what they can do for you, but for their own sake.  To lay down your life for your friends, or even to share your pizza with them, is a sign that you care not just about what you can get from them, but what is good for them.  (Aristotle calls this “noble friendship”—we could just call it “real” friendship.)

Friendship is funny, because often there’s a mix.  My best friends are pleasant to me.  We should enjoy them.  But we should also go beyond enjoying them, to wanting what’s good for them.  Sometimes you give them a slice of your pizza: less pizza for you to enjoy, but you enjoy that they are enjoying it.  You could say they are like “another self,” in that just as you want pizza for yourself, you also want them to enjoy good things.

***

When Jesus says, “your neighbor as yourself,” we often think he means, boy, I really like myself, and I should like my neighbor that much.  “As yourself” would be a measure of quantity.

But “as yourself” is a different kind of loving.  (In Greek as in English, it doesn’t say “as much as.”)  It doesn’t mean love him more, it means love him in a different way.  Love him, not as pizza—not even as really really good pizza—but love him in the sense that you want what is good for him.

Just as you are always working to get what you think will make you happy, long also to make your neighbor happy.

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Now we have a connection to the first commandment.  When I love God with all my heart, I am loving him as my supreme good, way better than pizza.  He is what I want for myself.

But when I love my neighbor as myself, I want him to have that same good.  What I think is good for me, I also think is good for him.  In fact, wanting my neighbor to have this greatest of goods is a way of underlining that God is the highest good.

It even defines what kind of good God is: God is the kind of good, unlike pizza, that I will have more of if I share.  In wanting that good for my neighbor, I discover the kind of good that God is.

Loving my neighbor as myself opens up for me what it means to love God with all my heart.

***

The stigmata–and seraphic love–of St. Francis

But St. Thomas says another, startling thing when he talks about charity.  He says that, although Christian hope desires God as good for me, Christian love of God is like real friendship.  God is not just the pizza I want to consume (though he is that, too)—God is another self, another one of the people for whom I desire the good.  I want to make him happy, I want his happiness.  That is a crazy claim.

In the Old Testament, which Jesus is here discussing—“On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets”—the highest good is to love God for my own sake.  But Jesus calls us not servants but friends.

St. Thérèse notices the difference between the Old Testament teaching “love your neighbor as yourself,” which is quite fine, and Jesus’s new commandment, “love as I have loved you,” an interesting reversal of “love as you love yourself.”

Somehow in loving our neighbor “as ourselves,” we discover a new level of love, a love that is not just about seeking my good, but seeing The Good, delighting in God not just because he makes me happy (though he does) but for sheer love.  Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit!

Whom would you love differently if you were loving them the way you love yourself?

 

Laetare Sunday – The Joy of Conversion, the Joy of the Cross

The fourth Sunday of Lent is Laetare Sunday, rose-vestments, a moment to rejoice in the midst of Lent.  For Year B (unless your parish uses Year A, the readings for catechumens), our Gospel gives a sort of stylized vision of the Cross: Jesus is “lifted up,” the light of the world, so that we are not condemned but saved: “for God so loved the world.”  It is another image of the joy of the Lenten desert.

On our way to that Gospel, the Lectionary gives us an astoundingly rich Old Testament reading, from Second Chronicles, of all places.  (The little tastes we get from the Old Testament should set you on alert: these books are more wonderful than we could ever imagine.)

It is the story, told many places, of how God allowed first the ten tribes of the North, then even Jerusalem and the two tribes of the South, to be conquered by the Assyrians and the Babylonians.  Even here there is Good News—rejoicing, even in the Cross and the Desert of Lent.

***

The reading is hard because it is full of Hebrew puns.  “The anger of the Lord against his people was so inflamed.”  Now, the Bible uses metaphors—in the very first question of the Summa, Thomas Aquinas talks about how the Bible uses metaphors both to make divine realities accessible in human language and to remind us how far we are from full knowledge of God.  Of course, the Tradition says, God doesn’t literally get angry.

File:Moses-icon.jpg

The Burning Bush

But here it’s not even a metaphor—not that metaphor, anyway.  The Hebrew word for anger really means “heat.”  God is a consuming fire.  He doesn’t have to get worked up, and it’s not about emotion.  It’s about the reality of God, which our sin runs against like a car racing into a brick wall.  God isn’t angry, he is fire.

The result is that “their enemies burnt the house of God”: his flame consumes them.

Then, in that opening statement, his anger isn’t “inflamed,” as in our translation.  In the Hebrew, it “ascends,” goes up.  Then the enemies “ascend” against them.  And at the end, God’s people “ascend” back to Jerusalem.

And in the middle, God says that by letting his people be deported, he will enforce on the land the sabbath rest that they refused to take: “during all the time it lies waste is shall have rest”: sabbath.

The punishments fit the crime.  God isn’t randomly lashing out in anger.  He is—albeit through created causes—bringing his fire and rest and rising up into his people.  At first it hurts—but then it becomes joy, transfiguration.

***

File:Christ Bearing the Cross MET DP215890.jpgOur Epistle, from Ephesians, gives a very gentle spin to the Cross.  “We are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works.”  God is at work in us, he has “raised us up with him.”  Our Epistle says this is about “God, who is rich in mercy,” “great love,” “by grace,” “immeasurable riches,” “kindness,” “the gift of God,” “that we should live.”  Very positive.

But let’s not forget, what he means is that we are being converted, and it is by passing through the Cross of Christ.  On one level, this is very painful.  He is not leaving us as we were, “dead in our transgressions.”  Conversion hurts.  But on the deepest level, our mid-Lenten Epistle reminds us, it is pure joy.

***

Our Gospel is the second half of the Baptism discourse to Nicodemus, “unless you be born again,” though now Christ talks and Nicodemus disappears from the story.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”—lifted up on the Cross.  The comparison is striking: Moses’ serpent is the one who bit them, killed them, punished them for their sins.  Again, Jesus puts it in a positive way, but we are reminded that the Cross is the sign of our sin.

File:Russian - Christ Pantokrator - Walters 371183.jpg“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  The word for “perish” is the strongest one possible, with a preposition added to strenghten it.  We are on the road to destruction—and Christ, Christ on the Cross, pulls us out.

“Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.  But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”  The Cross reveals our sin: our violence, our hatred, our sensuality, our negligence, our rebellion.  True life is in acknowledging our need for conversion—and letting God work that conversion in us, even through Lent and the Cross.  Staying in the dark means destruction.

Laetare Sunday is still Lent, still the way of penance on the way to the Cross.  But in that penance is the joy of turning to the Lord.

Where do you need to be reminded of the joy of conversion?

How to Pray the Angelus

A few years ago, a couple friends of mine raised the question of what’s going on in the Angelus.  It seems to be scattered: various lines from the Gospel, mixed up with Hail Mary’s.  We know it’s supposed to be a good thing, but how do we understand it, so that we can pray it well?  Good question!

The Hail Mary offers one way to answer that concern.  The Hail Mary itself at first appears a bit scattered.  The second half is a petition: Pray for us.  But the first half is not a petition, it just addresses Mary.  And each of these parts has multiple parts: the first half is the Angel’s words to Mary (Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you), three clauses which themselves make at least three main points; and then Elizabeth’s words (Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb), two clauses with two points, plus a third point in the parallels between them.

The petition half of the Hail Mary is complicated, too: before we get to the two prayers (now, and at the hour of our death), we have two titles (Holy Mary, Mother of God).  The trick is to see how all this fits together. . . .

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The three parts of the Angelus give us three ways to discover the Hail Mary.

“The Angel declared unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.”  The first phrase of the Hail Mary is the Angel’s first declaration to Mary.  The words of the Angelus help us to focus on the drama of those words—and then to see how they inform Elizabeth’s words: Mary is blessed because the Angel declared unto her and, by the Holy Spirit, she conceived the blessed fruit of her womb.

We have our first glimpse of how Mary is holy, and the beginnings of her being Mother of God.  And so we ask her to pray for us, now and at the hour of our death.

Great Marian saints like Louis de Montfort and John Paul II recommend that we add words to the Hail Mary to help us dive in.  We could make the connection here vivid by saying, “Hail Mary, who heard the angel’s word: full of grace, the Lord is with thee!”

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File:Людовик Мария Гриньон де Монфор.jpg“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word.”  Now we turn around, from the Angel’s words to Mary, to Mary’s words to the angel.  And we have an even deeper insight into who she is, because we see how she acts.

Hail Mary, full of grace, who received the word—that’s how the Lord is with thee, that’s why you are blessed among women, and the Blessed One is the fruit of your womb.  Pray for me to be open to his word like you were, now and at the hour of my death!

***

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”  Always Mary points beyond herself to Jesus—De Montfort says, “When we say Mary, she says Jesus.”  The Hail Mary itself reminds us that everything about Mary is relative to Jesus: she receives his grace, he is with her, he makes her blessed, he is the blessed fruit of her womb, he makes her holy, he makes her his mother, and she prays to him.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Incarnate word is with thee.  That’s why Elizabeth calls you blessed, because of the blessed fruit of your womb.  You who are so close, so holy, because God is in your womb, making you his mother: pray for us.

***

You can expand the Hail Mary in your own words, as I have here.  You can find a simple little formula for each of these Hail Mary’s: Hail Mary, hearing the declaration; Hail Mary, handmaid; the Incarnate Lord is with thee.  Or you can just pray the Hail Mary, but using each of the three declarations of the Angelus to help you dig deeper into its words.

The point is: the Angelus is an opportunity to pray the Hail Mary better, to delve into its riches.

***

One more thought: more and more, it seems to me the richest word of the Hail Mary is the most obscure word, Hail.  It doesn’t mean “Salute.”  It is a greeting.  It’s a rough attempt to translate the Greek word in the New Testament, which means “Rejoice,” the deepest most personal version of “Good day!”

When we pray the Hail Mary, we should pause now and then on this word, and just enjoy Mary’s joy.  The Angelus gives us three angles on that joy.

How do you pray the Angelus?

Third Sunday of Lent: Spring Cleaning

I’m really trying to get these posts up before Sunday, but I have had one technical problem after another.  Sorry about that.

File:Jésus chassant les marchands du temple.JPGLent is a time of spring cleaning.  We are called to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Prayer and almsgiving fill us up (in relation to God and neighbor)—but there is something central about fasting, emptying ourselves out.

Thus it is appropriate that the revised Lectionary, after the traditional first two Sundays going into the desert to be tempted and going up to the mountaintop to see Christ, now (unless your parish, like mine, chooses to use the Year A readings because of catechumens) gives us John’s story of Jesus cleaning out the Temple.  To be filled up, we must also be emptied out.

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The first reading is the Ten Commandments.  To keep things simple, the Lectionary gives the option of skipping the extra stuff (verses 4-6 and 9-11) and just getting the main points about the commandments.  But the rhetoric of Exodus is wonderful.  All the “Second Tablet” stuff, the stuff we think most about, honoring our parents, murder, adultery, theft, and coveting, gets said very quickly.  But Scripture takes its time with the First Tablet, idolatry, the name of the Lord, and the Sabbath.  The purpose of the commandments is to empty ourselves out—so that we can put our focus on God.  The First Commandment is the longest because it’s the main point.

Our Epistle, from First Corinthians, gives a Christ-centered spin on this emptying out.  “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified.”  We have to be emptied out not only of mortal sin, but of all our distractions, all our earthly fascinations, and look to Christ alone.

***

And so we come to the cleansing of the Temple.  Jesus drives out the sellers of sheep and oxen and doves, and the money changers.

File:Two scenes in the Temple Christ, the woman taken in adultery, and Pharisees, Christ drives out the money-changers (f. 20v) Cropped.jpgA little background is helpful.  In the last verses of Deuteronomy 14, for example, Scripture specifically says it is okay to buy your sacrifices when you get to Jerusalem.  The language there is nice: in your hometown, you “change” your sheep into money, which is easier to carry, and then change it back into the proper symbols of Old Testament worship when you get to Jerusalem.  As for money changing, I presume the point is that you get your local currency, whatever it is, turned into what can be used in Jerusalem, and pay your tithes.

All of this God has commanded.  And Jesus here calls the Temple his “Father’s house,” and John uses Old Testament Scripture—Psalm 69, “Zeal for your house will consume me”—to confirm him.  Jesus is in favor of the Temple worship.  It finds its perfection in his sacrifice, but here—in John 2, the very beginning of his ministry, first thing after the wedding feast of Cana—he defends the Temple.  The sheep and the money aren’t the problem, and the Temple isn’t the problem.

But Scripture also says, for example in those same verses of Deuteronomy 14, that the priests are supposed to live on the sacrifices and tithes.  Not all of the sheep and oxen get burned up, some of them are food for the priests.  And the people bring other things to the priests, including wheat and money.  So the question is: why are they selling things inside the temple area?  (In fact, the Greek calls it not “the temple area” but “the sacred place.”)  The whole city of Jerusalem is there to be the “marketplace” near the Temple.

The answer, I think, is that the priests are greedy.  They want not only their portion of the sacrifices, but also some profit off of selling the sacrifices (or rent from those who sell).  We are never satisfied with enough, and never satisfied with righteousness (for which we are supposed to hunger and thirst).  Always greedy.  That’s why we fast—to learn about enough, instead of greed.

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File:Jesus Chasing the Merchants from the Temple.jpgJesus “made a whip out of cords.”  People often remember the whip and cite this as an example of righteous anger.  But it doesn’t say he was angry, only that he was zealous.  The detailed list of how he dealt with each thing, including asking them to carry the pigeon cages, shows deliberation more than rage.

What is more fascinating is making the whip out of cords.  The word for cords, as best I can tell, refers to the kind of ropes that tied up the animals.  (I guess the ropes are cast aside once the animals are sacrificed.)

Far from an image of rage, this is an image of deliberation.  Jesus sat down and carefully wove his tool.  He thought this out.  Lent is a time for us to carefully weave the tools of our own cleansing.

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In the next scene, they ask him what right he has to cleanse the temple.  He responds, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

They respond, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years.”  No wonder they’re looking for money.

But Jesus is talking about the Resurrection—and the power and wisdom of God.  Our human calculations lead always to compromise, to set aside the primacy of God in the name of human prudence.  Jesus calls us to keep holy what is holy, trusting that he can build what needs to be built.

What human calculations are crowding your Temple?