Seventh Sunday: Perfect Love

This Sunday we complete Matthew 5, the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount.  Although the Lectionary will only give us parts of the next two chapters, we get every verse of Matthew 5.  It is exquisite.

Searching the Scriptures

Our readings start with God saying in Leviticus, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”  Our Gospel concludes, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The key is in our second reading, where St. Paul says, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God?”  God dwells in us, and so we share in his holiness.

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It is important to see the continuity between Leviticus and the Gospel.  Last week Jesus said, “I have come not to abolish the law or the prophets . . . but to fulfill.”  This week we are tempted to doubt that claim.

Our reading begins, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  The second half begins, “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  We get the idea that the Old Testament is all about vengeance, and Jesus has come to abolish it.

To the contrary, the Old Testament took us half way.  Eye for an eye was not an encouragement to poke people’s eyes out.  It meant, if someone pokes out your eye, you’re not allowed to kill his whole family in retaliation; and if no one has poked your eye out, you oughtn’t to poke out anyone else’s.  These laws from Leviticus are not an encouragement to retaliation, but a restraint on it.

So too, this week’s reading from Leviticus reminds us that the main teaching of the Old Law was “love your neighbor” – it just didn’t extend that love to the enemy.  “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people,” we will hear.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

***

But Jesus goes much further: “turn the other cheek.”  He goes so far that we are tempted to think he is

Crucified with Christ

merely exaggerating.

The heart of the matter is in his first response: “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.”  Can he really mean that?

Now, Greek has three words for evil.  One is inherent wickedness.  The second is degeneracy – falling into inherent wickedness.  But the word here focuses not on the evil of the person himself, but on his effect.  Jesus does not say, “Let the wicked person be wicked.”  What he says is, “when someone, or even some thing, deprives you, let it go.”

The same word appears two other important places in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is at the end of the Beatitudes (thus returning us again to that fundamental teaching): Blessed are you when they say all depriving words against you, when their words strip you.

But it is also at the end of the Lord’s Prayer: deliver us from being deprived.  Throughout the Beatitudes, why are we blessed?  Because the one thing the deprivers cannot take from us is God.  And if we have him, we have everything.

***

Jesus’s commentary on this “do not resist the depriver” nicely focuses on doubling.  In an eye for an eye, there is balance: his eye, your eye.  But in Jesus, instead of taking his eye, you give him your other one.  If they slap one cheek, let them slap the other.  If they sue you for your tunic, give them your cloak.  If they demand one mile, go two.  Doubling.

And the final doubling: “You have heard it said, You shall love your neighbor . . . .  But I say to you, love your enemies.”  The Old Law took us half way, Jesus takes us all the way.

That’s the real meaning of the last words, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The Greek word for “perfect” means “all the way to the end.”  Don’t go half way into love.  Go all the way – as God goes all the way.

***

And that’s the reason we can go all the way: because God goes all the way.

We always doubt the prudence of what Jesus says.  I’m going to have no cloak!

To lose all and have Jesus

But in this week’s reading from First Corinthians, St. Paul warns us against “the wisdom of this world.”  Hanging on to your cloak won’t get you so far.

The wisdom of God is that “everything belongs to you . . . and you to Christ, and Christ to God.”  We are “the temple of God, and . . . the Spirit of God dwells in you.”  If you have God, why are you fighting over the cloak?  Go all the way, love to the end, let God be your all.

Where do you fight for worldly goods and forget the presence of God?  How do you live the wisdom of this age?

 

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Greater than the Pharisees

I wonder if what really makes conservative Catholics angry at Pope Francis is that he refuses to pat us on the back.  It’s what liberals love about him, too.  It’s not that he’s nice to them – it’s that he’s tough on us.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

Similarly, lately it seems to me like almost the central theme of the Gospel, almost more than the identity of Jesus, is his criticism of the Pharisees.

That’s the heart of this Sunday’s next section from the Sermon on the Mount.

***

It’s the passage on the fulfilling of the Law: you have heard it said, but I say to you.  Jesus goes through the fifth, sixth, and seventh commandments, and says that beyond not murdering, committing adultery, and breaking our oaths, we should overcome anger, lust, and any kind of untruth.  Ouch.  That’s a tough standard.

But perhaps the heart of the reading is not the fulfilling of the Law but the scourging of the Pharisees: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  On the one hand, it sounds like they are pretty righteous.  On the other hand, it sure implies that they’re going to Hell.

***

The second part of this reading, about adultery, is the most arresting but also the easiest to understand.  Jesus says two things: he condemns divorce, even pleasant, upright, Pharisee divorce.  And he condemns lust.  Ouch.

But that’s not all Jesus opposes.  We could be totally opposed to divorce and still be on the Pharisee side of this debate.

Jesus opposes anger, too.  There’s a sign of how shocking Jesus’s words are in the manuscript tradition.  A long line of Greek texts – including the ones the King James Version used – added the word “idly.”  If you’re angry for no good reason.  But that’s not what it says.

If your brother has something against you and you are bringing your gift to the altar – don’t bother.  Go be reconciled.  The Greek word is tough: not just “smooth it over,” but “change things completely,” before you come back to the Temple.  Ouch.

If you are on your way to court, make a settlement, don’t fight for your rights.  “Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard,” etc., “until you have paid the last penny.”

Maybe the best way to understand that text is in John’s Gospel.  (John is always recasting these sayings, to take us deeper.)  With the women caught in adultery, Jesus says, “he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”

If you want to think of yourself as righteous, go ahead.  But you will stand before the judge, too.  Jesus is not commending adultery.  (Nor is Francis.)  Rather, he is telling us that we need a deeper righteousness than the Pharisees and the stone throwers.

Jesus gives us no high fives, doesn’t tell us we Christians are awesome, unlike those other people.  He tells us to live love all the way to the end.  That means living the commandments, and a lot more besides – he’s not making things easier, he’s making them much harder.  We have to go all the way.

***

This week’s reading from First Corinthians reminds us that we live by a higher wisdom, “God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden.”  It is a wisdom, on the one hand, “for our glory.”  And it is a wisdom, on the other hand, without which “they crucified the Lord of glory.”

Jesus reveals to us his face, his face of righteousness and mercy, his face of the Beatitudes, his face hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, foreign, and imprisoned.  He calls us to take on that face, to put on his wisdom – and most of the time, like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, we would rather crucify him than follow that path.  We want a God who pats us on the back, not a God who calls us to glory.

The first reading, from Sirach, presents a simple choice.  “If you choose you can keep the commandments.”  Well!  That sounds Pelagian – but then he says, “If you trust in God, you too shall live.”

Jesus waits to make us holy, to clothe us in his righteousness and mercy.  The awesome challenge of the Sermon on the Mount, to be without anger and lust and untruth, is possible, if only we accept his grace.  But we have to receive it from him, and we can’t be self-righteous Pharisees.

The choice, says Sirach, is fire and water, life and death, good and evil.  Jesus is not messing around.  We can have all – or nothing.  But we must accept the way of the Beatitudes, the fulfillment of the commandments, the whole awesome love of Christ, and him crucified.

At what points do you find yourself stopping to throw stones, instead of following the Beatitudes of Christ?

 

Fifth Sunday: Becoming Christ

This Sunday we continue our reading of the Sermon on the Mount.  It continues from weeks four to nine of this year of Matthew: almost an eighth of the year, and more than a sixth of Ordinary Time.  This Sermon is central to Matthew’s Gospel, and the Lectionary makes it central to our Matthean years.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

We don’t get to read all of the Sermon, but this week we read the verses that immediately follow last week’s Beatitudes: “You are the salt of the earth.”

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The preaching of Jesus often uses multiple metaphors to bring out different aspects of the same thing.  Here the metaphors are salt of the earth, city on a hill, light of the world.  As so often happens with the Gospel (this is the challenge of the new evangelization), these words are so familiar that they can seem less challenging than they are.

The three metaphors all obviously point to mission.  But more deeply, they point to identity.  Paired with the Beatitudes, they seem to say: if you profess to follow Christ, you’d better look like it.

The first metaphor, salt of the earth, is arresting.  “If salt loses its taste” is absurd: there is nothing to salt but its taste.  “It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot”: salt losing its taste is so impossible that the metaphor doesn’t make sense.  Salt never gets thrown out.

But that’s the point: so too, a Christian who does not follow the Beatitudes, a Christian who is not imbued with the full radicalism of the image of Christ, is not just disappointing or kind of bad, it’s

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

absurd.  The Beatitudes are not nice suggestions or side issues.  They are essential.  Poor, sorrowing, meek, just, merciful, pure, and peacemaking – or nothing

“Loses its taste” is hard to translate.  The verb is literally, “becomes a moron” – its primary meaning is about stupidity; it only refers to flavor by extension.  These are not nice words.  Jesus knows how moronic our Christianity will become.

***

“A city set on a mountain.”   The reference is obviously Jerusalem.  “Set” is a good translation.  The city is “sitting” on the hill because someone has “set” it there.  He made you this city.

The city brings out a collective angle.  We are each individually salt – but we are all together the city, and all together the salt.  Leave the city – leave the Church – and you become tasteless, pointless, moronic.

The city “cannot” by hidden.  The verb is forceful.  Partly it means “must not,” “dare not,” “you’d better not.”  But partly, again, it means, “it’s just a contradiction”: if you don’t taste like the Beatitudes, you’re not just a bad Church, you are no Church at all.

In the second and third third metaphors, Jesus does not repeat the “trampled under foot” part, from the salt metaphor – but it stays implicit.  If you do not look like, taste like, show forth the Beatitudes – you are nothing.  The call of Jesus is radical.

***

And last, the lamp.  Again, note the verb: “nor do they light a lamp.”  Actually, the lamp is “set on fire.”  It doesn’t say who sets it on fire, but obviously it is Jesus himself who must set us aflame.

The Beatitudes are not just a moral teaching.  They are the face of Christ.  Christ wants to take root in us, to transform us into himself.  He wants to set us aflame, “set” us on the hill, transform us into salt.  He wants to be not just our teacher, but our identity, the one who makes us what we are, so that we are poor with his poverty, weep with his tears, bring his peace to the world.

Only in that way, in the last words of our reading, does his Father become “your heavenly Father.”

***

Our first reading, from Isaiah, brilliantly illumines the Gospel.  “Then,” it says, “your light shall break forth.”  When?  When we feed the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked.  Isaiah twice repeats these ideas.

Sound familiar?  How brilliantly the reading from Isaiah ties together the first and the last words of Jesus’s preaching in Matthew’s Gospel.  We have been talking about the Beatitudes – but Jesus’s final words are feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the imprisoned; or else, the threat is his, not mine, go to Hell.

The preaching of Pope Francis on this essential passage in Matthew 25 takes us to the heart of the teaching.  First, he points to how practical these words are.  At the end of his preaching, as at the beginning, in the Beatitudes, Jesus doesn’t call us to stand back and profess doctrine, as if Catholicism were a political party or a favorite sports team.  He calls us to take on his own face, to touch others with

Pope Francis and Our Friend Dominic Gondreau

his own touch.  Doctrine matters – when it becomes our very life.

Second, note that clothing the naked is a bit odd.  Naked?  This is more than dropping clothes off at Goodwill.  We clothe the naked, Francis says, when we cover the humiliation of others’ poverty.  When we become the radical love of Jesus Christ.

“Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer.”  “Then your light shall break forth.”  “Then light shall rise for you.”  When Christ becomes our very life, our prayers will be answered: we will see him, and make him seen.

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And so again, in our reading from First Corinthians, we look not for “sublimity of words or of wisdom.”  We look for, and put on, nothing but “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  We come not in strength but “in weakness and fear and much trembling,” and we long only for “a demonstration of Spirit and power”: the Spirit who can make us like Jesus.

Nothing but Jesus.

Where is Jesus calling you to become more radical?

Fourth Sunday: the Beatitudes

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

This Sunday we read the Beatitudes.  To make brief comments is hopeless.  We need to memorize them, ponder them one at a time – perhaps one each day.  We need to spend time thinking about their path of upward ascent, taken all together.  We need to read books about them, ponder them, make them our rule of life.

Here I will only try to put them in context.

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We have come to the fourth week in Ordinary Time, in the Lectionary year of St. Matthew.  The Beatitudes are Matthew 5:1-12, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and the beginning of the preaching of Jesus.

Consider how few words he has spoken up till now.  Chapters one to two were the infancy.  Luke gives the child Jesus a few words, when he is found in the temple, but in Matthew it is all the actions of Joseph.

Chapter three is John the Baptist.  Jesus only says John should baptize him, “to fulfill all righteousness.”  Righteousness.

Chapter four is the Temptation followed by the call of the first disciples (our reading last week).  Jesus has three words at the Temptation: “not by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God”; “do not test the Lord”; “you shall worship the Lord alone, him only shall you serve.”  Again, righteousness, with a deeper sense of following.

In the rest of chapter four, his only words are to Peter and Andrew: “come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  Our path of righteousness is moving deeper into radical union with Christ.

After the calling of Peter and Andrew, James and John, we read that he went around Galilee preaching and healing.  The Lectionary skips the last two verses of the chapter, which say his fame spread, and great multitudes came to follow him, from all over.

***

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

And so we come to the Beatitudes.  Jesus goes up the mountain, and his disciples come to him.  Disciple only means “learner.”  All those multitudes “followed him” with the same verb by which Jesus commanded Peter and Andrew, “follow me,” “and they followed him.”  He is not stepping away from the crowds.  He is going up where he can teach to them.

My point in reviewing all this background is to underline how central to Jesus’s mission are the Beatitudes, and the Sermon on the Mount, which they begin.  He has said nothing but “follow me.”  Now, at last, he opens his mouth and teaches.  (Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel of Jesus’s teaching, organized in five great sermons.)

And Jesus says – his very first real teaching, about the righteousness and following and word of God that he had proclaimed – “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Not a side point.  The heart of the Gospel.

Poor, men of sorrows, meek, hungering for justice, merciful, pure of heart, peacemakers, and persecuted.  He describes himself, and he calls us to come follow him.

Living for the kingdom of heaven and the consolation of the Spirit and the inheritance, and justice and mercy, and the vision of God and sonship.

***

Our first reading, from the prophet Zephaniah, tells those “who have observed the law,” “seek the Lord.”  He speaks of a transition, a deepening.  We must observe the Law, but we must go deeper: “Lord, I have done all this,” says the rich young man in Luke’s Gospel, “what more?”  “Come, follow me.”  We must live for nothing but Jesus.  We must put on Jesus, poor, man of sorrows, meek, hungering for justice, merciful, pure of heart, peacemaker, and persecuted.

We must become “a people humble and lowly.” 

And we must “take refuge in the name of the Lord”: “the name of the Lord” is an Old Testament expression for God’s self-revelation.  We want nothing but to know Christ, and him crucified, and to put on his image, in the Beatitudes.  Sacred heart of Jesus, make our hearts like unto thine!  That’s the Gospel.

***

Our next reading from First Corinthians further emphasizes the “humble and lowly”.  God chose us – and Paul’s point is that he chose us not for our greatness but for his, not because we are powerful and wise and awesome but because he is.  He chose us not so we can boast, but to destroy our boasting.

And he made Jesus our wisdom from God, our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption, and

The Stigmata of St. Francis

our only boast.

Humility means knowing that it is only in Jesus that we find greatness.  Humility means knowing that the way of Jesus, the self-portrait he paints in the Beatitudes, is a way of humility.  And humility means knowing that the Beatitudes are not only a way we would never guess unless he revealed it to us, but also a way we could never live unless he gives us his heart.

How are the Beatitudes calling you to deeper humility?

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jesus at the Margins

After the Baptism of the Lord and the second Sunday (John’s commentary on the Baptism), this past, third Sunday we began Matthew’s Gospel in earnest.  Matthew 1-2 is the infancy, with the exile to Egypt

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

and the return to Nazareth.  Matthew 3 is John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus.  Matthew 4:1-11 is the temptation in the desert.

This week we launch in at Matthew 4:12, beginning a year of working through that great Gospel: “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.”

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There is much in that word “withdrew.”  The Greek means something like “went back.”  But the key to the word is the context.

We learned in the story of the Baptism that “Jesus came from Galilee” to meet John, who was “preaching in the wilderness of Judea,” at the Jordan.  Now, Judea is where Jerusalem is, and if he was at the Jordan River, that means he was some place between Jericho and the Dead Sea, less than twenty miles from the big city.  John was in the wilderness – but he was in the wilderness near where the action was.

It’s not surprising, then, that the Scribes and the Pharisees were there: “Jerusalem and all Judea went out to him.”  And it’s not surprising that John was thrown in prison – later in the Gospel we’ll learn of his feud with the king himself.  John was where the action was.

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But Jesus “went back” to Galilee, in the North.  In our reading, we hear about that city in a quotation from Isaiah – and our first reading encourages us to dig deeper into that passage.

We might think Jesus was just going north to avoid arrest, but Isaiah gives us more.  He went to “Galilee of the Gentiles”; Galilee was on the borderlands of Israel, where the non-Jews were.  The old lands of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali are on the far margins.  It is “the way to the sea,” where there is traffic, but not Jewish traffic, not the important people.

Isaiah says these are the lands of “the people who sit in darkness . . . in a land overshadowed by death.”  But he says too that those lands “have seen a great light,” that God brings them “abundant joy and great rejoicing.”

In Matthew’s rereading of that text (and when the liturgy encourages us to dwell on it) we find Galilee as a special place of mission for Jesus.

Jesus is on the edge of nowhere – but he is there to fulfill the prophecies, and to bring light.  He is there on mission.

Jesus could have stayed in the heartlands of Judea and kept quiet.  Instead, he goes to the margins and proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Jesus isn’t avoiding trouble, he’s going on mission.  Notice the parallel to Luke, where Jesus starts his mission by proclaiming, “He has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor.”

***

The pattern is repeated in the calling of Andrew and Peter, John and James.  On the one hand, Jesus goes to the nobodies.  There would have been better candidates in the synagogues, or in the Temple, or in the Big City.  Today, we would go to media and university elites, people with influence.  Instead, Jesus goes to nobodies, the poor, the laborers.

But he calls them to follow him, and equips them for mission.  Right from the outset, from the very first words about these fishermen, we hear that Simon will be called Peter, the rock.  Jesus isn’t among the nobodies to avoid trouble.  He is there to stir up trouble.  He takes mission seriously enough to go to the margins.

“Fishers of men” sounds nice in English, partly because of the alliteration with “fishermen”.  But in Greek, the word for “fishermen” is derived from the word from salt – more like “salties”; the primary meaning is “sailor,” and it is fisherman by extension.  “Salties of men” doesn’t sound impressive.  But he chooses those laborers, those poor men, as the ones who know what salvation means.

***

At the beginning of the year, our Epistles are from First Corinthians.  The connection isn’t obvious: St. Paul is talking about division in the Church.  He says they ought to “be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.”  He was not sent to baptize but to preach the Gospel.

Alongside our Gospel, we can say this: the poverty and insignificance of Galilee and the salties reminds us to see no one but Jesus.  We must follow him – all the way to the margins – and focus on nothing else.

And so too, we must focus, not on the elite, but on the weak, “not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.”

Where is Christ calling you to the margins, to the nobodies?  How are you tempted instead to seek the places of power?

Learning to Read (Aloud)

jeromeI’m not an expert on many things, but in one area I can count myself proficient: reading aloud.

I have five children (and another on the way).  My oldest is twelve now, and for various reasons has always been above average at listening to books.  From the time he was three continuing until now, he has loved to listen to chapter books.  So for almost ten years, with an ever growing audience, with always diverse ability levels, I have been reading halfway serious children’s literature (Arthur Ransome, Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, Laura Ingalls Wilder, etc.) aloud to my children.

That’s not to mention, of course, the myriad picture books.  But here’s the thing: pictures carry much of the weight in picture books, and the easier story lines and great repetition don’t require as much from the reader.  Whereas getting kids of all ages to understand and stay engaged in a semi-complicated story without pictures means you have to make the words come alive.

I hope you’re seeing where I’m going with this: the same is true of the liturgy.

***

Now, I know there are readers famous for their fun voices for different characters, but I don’t think that’s the key to reading literature aloud.  In fact, my children get angry with me when I do voices – partly, to be sure, because I’m not much good at them, but partly because voices get in the way of the story.  What makes a great story great is not the voices, which aren’t on the page anyway.  What makes it great are the words.

vespersMy insight, at this point, is that the real key to reading is pauses and, even more, emphasis, at the right places.  You have to understand what you’re reading, you have to see how the words come together to form small and big units, and you have to make that come across to someone who is listening, half distracted, not as experienced as you, and unable to look back to the page if she missed something.

Consider the following:

“He ran until he nearly reached the hedge by the footpath, then turned and ran until he nearly reached the hedge on the other side of the field.  Then he turned and crossed the field again.”

Now, in these two sentences, at the beginning of a great series of books on sailing, we are introduced to the pivotal concept of tacking.  But at this point, the listener knows nothing about the topic and doesn’t yet know if the book is interesting or understandable – and meanwhile, we’re also learning about hedges and footpaths and fields, all of which are also foreign (at least to my non-British, city kids) and which are painting a background.

The key, again, is pauses and especially emphasis:

“He ran .. until he nearly reached the hedge by the footpath, … then turned … and ran until he nearly reached the hedge .. on the OTHER side of the field….  Then he turned and crossed the field AGAIN.”

It’s an art.  I find that in order to emphasize a phrase, you emphasize not the most important word of the phrase, but the word that kind of ties the phrase together: it’s not, for example, that “nearly” is that important of a word, so much as that “nearly-reached” is the key to seeing him use the maximum of the space.  Then somehow you have to make clear that the-hedge-by-the-footpath is not a series of details, but one key part of his path.

***

A few months ago I was discussing Gregorian chant with an uncommonly excellent group of students.  Graduale_Aboense_2They said what’s great about Gregorian chant is that it creates a kind of monotone, so that you don’t have to pay attention to the speaker.  I was shocked that they’d get it so wrong, but I think it’s a common misconception.

What’s great about Gregorian chant (Leila Lawler’s lovely book The Little Oratory has a nice section on this) is precisely that it cares about the text.  Chant – when it’s done right – is all about loving the text, discovering the text, saying the text like you mean it.  And the same thing must happen with the readings and prayers of the Mass, whether chanted or spoken: like a father reading to his five-year-old, you’ve got to make the text come alive, both for your own sake and for theirs.  If there aren’t pauses in the right places, you’re doing it wrong.

We have a lot to learn about this.  There seem to be methods of teaching people to “read well” that involve hand gestures and voices and eye contact – but not the text.  That’s wrong.  And there are various forms of music, even common interpretations of chant, that are just as bad, monotones that obliterate the text instead of discovering it.

We need to learn to read aloud.  Which means we first need to learn to read.

How are you growing in your understanding of Scripture?

Second Sunday of Ordinary Time: The Lord the Giver of Life

This Sunday we enter Ordinary Time.  With Christmas on a Sunday, Epiphany ended up bumping the Baptism of the Lord, normally the first Sunday of Ordinary Time, to Monday of this past week.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

Each year of the three-year cycle, the reading for Baptism of the Lord is from the year’s Gospel – this year, Matthew.  But the second Sunday lingers a little longer on the beginning of Jesus’s ministry by giving us a reading from the beginning of John.  The third Sunday then goes back to the year’s Gospel, with whatever story immediately follows Jesus’s temptation in the desert.  (The desert, of course, is saved for Lent.)

Meanwhile, the Epistle at the beginning of each year is First Corinthians, Paul’s letter on the sacramentality of the Church.  This year we’ll get selections from chapters 1-4, next year 5-10, and in year C, 12-15.

***

Let’s focus on the Gospel reading.

John’s Gospel is like a theological commentary on the others, a deeper insight into what’s going on.  On Monday, we read that (the other) John baptized Jesus.  Here, John gives Jesus three titles:

“The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

“Who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.”

“On whom the Spirit comes down and remains, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

***

Jesus is the Lamb of God.  Now, John came with a baptism of repentance, a symbolic pledge that we want to leave behind our sins.  But Jesus really takes away our sins.  And he takes away our sins not as a Baptizer but as a Lamb.  Jesus will make the perfect sacrifice.  Jesus’s baptism sets us free from sin because it plunges us into that perfect sacrifice; it is a union with the Cross of Christ.

The Lamb is a figure not of Baptism but of the Eucharist.  The Baptism of Jesus “washes away” our sins because it is our initiation into the Eucharistic Church.  Only Jesus can open the sacramental door that gives us access to the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Sin is an absence, a lack of love.  He takes away the sin of the world by filling us with his love.

***

Jesus is greater than John because he existed before John.  Jesus is the I AM, the eternal, God from God, light from light.  John’s Gospel doesn’t mess around: at the beginning, he professes that Jesus is “in the beginning.”Divine-Mercy

John – both Johns – always remind us that our union with God is not by our own effort, not by our blood (that is, by birthright), nor by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man – and not because in Baptism we make a pledge that we’ll try harder.  Union with God is a gift from God.  Only he who was in the beginning can fulfill this pledge.

When John says Jesus is the Lamb, he speaks about Jesus himself.  When he says he was “before me,” he speaks about Jesus’s union with the Father.

***

And then he tells us about his union with the Holy Spirit: The Spirit descends on him, remains on him, and so he baptizes with the Spirit.

Only the one who has the Spirit can give us the Spirit.  And the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives us, the Spirit that fills all seven sacraments, is the Spirit of Jesus himself, and of the Father.  We receive the Spirit of the Lamb, the heart of the Crucified.  We receive the Spirit of union, the love between Father and Son.

John’s Gospel takes us deep into theology.  Jesus is no mere preacher.  John the Baptist is there, in fact, largely as a contrast, to remind us of the difference between someone who can only talk and offer symbols, and Jesus who is very God.

***

Dwelling in this Gospel, then, we see the meaning of the other two readings.  In the brief introductory verses of First Corinthians, we read that we are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy” – called to be holy only because we have been made holy by Christ, who pours his life into us in the sacraments.

good-shepherd-2And in our first reading, from Isaiah, we see on many levels what it means to be God’s servant.  Jesus is God’s servant, John is Jesus’s servant, and so too are we.  The servant is the one “through whom I show my glory”: it is the glory of God that shines on the face of Christ, and it is only Christ’s glory that can shine on the face of the saints.

We become a light to the nations, who can call back God’s beloved people – “to raise up the tribes of Jacob” – only when first we let Jesus, crucified Lamb of God, in the beginning with the Father, giver of the Holy Spirit, pour his life into us through the sacraments.

What do you need to do to more fully draw your life from Jesus?

Epiphany and the City of God

Next Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord.  At Christmas we talked about Jesus appearing; in the East, this feast of Christ appearing to the Magi is the main celebration of Christmas.

As it happens, I am writing from the mountains of North Carolina, where I am on vacation with my extended family – and where, at the Tractor Supply and elsewhere, I’ve heard a lot more couAll-Saintsntry music than one finds in urban north New Jersey.  

I heard a song that helps (by contrast) to illustrate the meaning of our feast.  The chorus says, “Lord, when I die, I wanna live on the outskirts of heaven.”  He explicitly contrasts the “streets of gold” in the Biblical vision of heaven with his own vision: “there’s dirt roads for miles, hay in the fields, and fish in the river.”  It’s country-music fun, but it’s also an attractive image.

Now, before I say why it’s wrong, let me acknowledge: we should long for a world in harmony with nature, unstained by human destructiveness, and a cozier home, where everyone knows and loves one another, and no one is treated like a statistic.  There’s something right about this vision of heaven.

***

But it’s not the Biblical vision, which is the heart of our feast’s first reading.  “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! . . . Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.  Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you.”

When the kings come to see the king of kings in Bethlehem, the Liturgy turns to the image of Jerusalem as capital city of the world.  God began his heavenly city in Jerusalem, and gradually calls all nations into that city.  The Church is a city.  Heaven is a city, the new Jerusalem: yes, with gates and streets (pearly gates and streets of gold) – and throngs of people.  Heaven ain’t in the country.

When Jerusalem is filled with throngs, “then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overthrow” – not because of the gold and pearls, but because of the beauty of humanity, gathered together into the great kingdom.

That country song concludes, “the good Lord knows me, he knows I need blue skies and green grass forever.”  But that’s not the way the good Lord works.  He doesn’t change heaven to fit our earthly desires.  He changes our hearts to love the true heaven.  That’s what grace means.

***

The reading from Ephesians focuses on the gentiles coming in.  At Epiphany we see that Jesus is king not just of the Jews but of all the nations, which the kings personify.  “It has now been revealed . . . that the Gentiles are coheirs.”

The reading has two heavenly-city themes.  The first is immigration.  The Gentiles are “coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise.”  In the Greek the parallels are stronger: co-heirs, co-body, co-participants.  

The first image here is of family: heirs.  It insults our sensibilities to think of new people joining “our” family.  And it’s even more insulting when we think about inheritance: if we share, there won’t be enough!  But that’s just the point: God’s family is unlimited, because God’s riches are unlimited.  I lose nothing by sharing.  Country roads are ruined by too many neighbors, but the city of God is not.  

The second image is “body” – both the physical body and the “body politic”.  The city is a body, where we find ourselves as “parts.”  We rebel against the earthly city, because it always abuses its parts – but the heavenly city is one where we want to be parts.11_1_3_saints  

And the third image is general, metaphysical: “participant.”  We all fully enjoy our place, participating in the heavenly city.

***

The second city theme in our reading from Ephesians is of leadership.  Paul has been given “the stewardship of God’s grace, that was given to me for your benefit.”  “The mystery was made known to me for revelation” – we hear it through him.  Grace and revelation are given “to his holy prophets and apostles.”

We don’t come to God just as individuals, each on our own path.  Authority in the Church is precisely an indicator that we come as members of one body.  Knowing God and coming to Jerusalem are one and the same.  Deeper than sacramental authority, deeper than infallibility, Church authority is a sign of the unity of the body of Christ.

***

The Gospel plays it all out dramatically.

The earthly Bethlehem and Jerusalem, quite near one another, were the two cities of David, the king who was born in Bethlehem and would Jerusalem.  For both the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly, Bethlehem is a little town and the seed of the big city.

ascensionWhen the kings came, “They saw the child with Mary his mother.”  Here is the beginning of the city: Mary and Jesus cheek to cheek.  Yes, it is a cozy, homey image.  But in that image of human closeness begins the streams of all nations, gathered together by closeness to God incarnate.

How does your vision of heaven correspond – or not – to the Biblical one?  And how does that affect your life?  

Our Lady and a “Prosperous New Year”

You could say that the reforms after Vatican II made for a kind of “remedial liturgy.”  One of the basic principles was that the meaning of the liturgy should be accessible to those who are faithful but lack a deep symbolic formation.

The Liturgy of the Hours, for example, was simplified, and the hardest verses were removed from the Hail Mary ImagePsalms.  For example, they removed from Psalm 110, which we have recited every Evening of the Christmas octave, verse 6: “He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.”  It’s not that this verse is wrong, once you know how to read the spiritual meaning of the Psalms.  It’s just that it’s not the best way to introduce people to the liturgy.

(Some other time perhaps I’ll explain how necessary I think this “remedial liturgy” is.)

So too, the Marian liturgies are greatly simplified.  It can be annoying.  The tradition has some awesome Biblical symbolism for Mary.  (For example, Sirach 24:9-18, in the old Little Office.)  Now the readings are all on the literal level – and since Mary (perhaps by her choice) was hidden in Scripture, that means we don’t get much.

Even the feasts themselves are simplified.  The octave of Christmas, January 1, used to be the feast of the Circumcision (which the people of the Old Testament do on the eighth day after birth), but in the remedial liturgy, that’s simplified to just, “Mary, Mother of God.”  Forget the details, focus on the big stuff.  And the readings for the feast are strangely generic.

***

The first reading is the blessing of Aaron: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you, the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.”  There’s nothing Marian, on the literal or symbolic levels, in this first reading for Mary’s main feast day.  It’s a lovely blessing for the New Year, but not specifically Marian.

And yet the reading is strangely insightful about Mary.

A strange parallel, from my December reading: One of St. John Paul II’s synods was on Confession.  Out of that synod came his post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia.  Now, on first glance, that document is all over the place.  Here we’re supposed to be talking about the sacrament of Confession, and instead JPII gives us musings on world peace, human rights, terrorism, racial discrimination, and “an unfair distribution of the world’s resources.”  Confession doesn’t show up until the last of seven chapters.  Was he avoiding the subject?  Getting distracted?  (Imagine if Pope Francis did that!)

Well, of course JPII knew what he was doing.  He was showing what Confession is really about.  It’s not about waving a magic wand.  It’s not about a ticket out of earthly responsibility.  To the contrary, it’s about how wildly practical God’s grace is, how the sacraments work to restore our humanity, to restore society, to bring about “reconciliation.”

To understand and appreciate grace, we have to understand and appreciate the natural order that it heals and elevates.

***

So too with Mary.  Yes, the Circumcision is significant.  But if we get lost in the details, we can come up with a Mary who is marginal, a Mary who is just a matter of theological obscurity, a Mary who has nothing to do with our real lives – and a God who has nothing to do with our real lives.

But Mary is not a theological obscurity.  Like Confession, she has everything to do with the true meaning of a happy new year, and even the true meaning of politics.  We can’t let our faith become a fun little dress up game we play in Church.  Mary is everything.

***

And so in our first reading, Mary reveals the true Happy New Year: “May the Lord bless you and keep you, let his face shine upoin you, look upon you kindly and give you peace.”

our lady of milleniumIn our second reading, Mary is the transition from the Law – a law that, as a faithful Jewish girl, she lived to the hilt – to the discovery of God as Father.  She looked on her Son and knew, as no one had ever known before, God as Father.

And in our Gospel, Mary is inseparably there when we discover Christ himself, as she was for the shepherds, who “went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the infant.”  With Mary, with the shepherds, may we “keep all these things, reflecting on them in our hearts,” dwelling in the amazement of the Word made flesh.

(And let us go, too, to his very human circumcision, which also makes it into our Gospel reading.)

Mary isn’t a matter of obscure details.  Mary is about the heart of the Gospel.  Mary is everything.

How do you keep your faith – and your devotion to Mary – from becoming marginal to your real desires for the New Year?

At Christmas He Appears

What are we celebrating on Christmas?  What happened on that day?

swaddlingOn a certain level, nothing.  As we rightly point out when talking about abortion, nothing metaphysical happens at birth.  The day before and the day after, the child is the same.  Life begins at conception – and the great metaphysical moment for Christians is the Annunciation, not the Nativitiy.  March 25 is the feast of the Incarnation.  That’s when he empties himself and takes the form of a slave.

Nor does Christ do anything great on Christmas.  His great actions are still thirty years away.  His greatest action is on the Cross, another mystery of March.

But something great does happen at birth: the mother sees her child.  Birth is no small moment for ordinary mothers, including the mothers we counsel about abortion.  And the birth of Christ is no small moment for Our Lady and the Church of which she is the first member.  She sees him.

***

The Liturgy for Christmas is full of this theme.  This year (for various reasons – Christmas is all about interrupted plans) my family attended the noon Mass – there are, you know, different readings for Christmas Eve evening, midnight, “dawn,” and “during the day,” so that we can read about the angels, the shepherds, and the Prologue of John, and remember that before midnight, Christ is not yet born.

At the daytime Mass, the reading from Isaiah begins, “how beautiful,” talks about him “announcing good news,” and says, “they see directly.”   The reading from the beginning of Hebrews compares Jesus to the angels, but sets the tone for the rest of that letter by saying, “he has spoken to us through the Son.”  And though the Prologue of John talks about who Jesus is (the Incarnation, a mystery of March), it concludes, “No one has ever seen God.  The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.”

Like every birth, Christmas is about the revelation of the child, the appearance of the mystery that was hidden in the mother’s womb.  And so too the readings tell of hearing him speak: though the child does not speak, that first look at him on Christmas reminds us how fortunate we are to have a God who is no longer hidden, but revealed, a God who speaks to us.

So too at midnight, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9), “the grace of God has appeared” (Titus 2), and the angels “proclaim to you good news . . . and this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant” (Luke 2).   And at dawn,  “The Lord proclaims . . . say to daughter Zion, your savior comes” (Is 62), “the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared” (Titus 3), and “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see” (Luke 2).

Seeing, joined with hearing the good news: revelation.

***

I have been thinking this Advent about the Canticle of Simeon, which we pray every night in Night Prayer:

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, according to your word,

For my own eyes have the seen the salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of every people

A light to reveal you to the nations

And the glory of your people Israel.

I am not like Simeon.  Simeon “goes in peace” because he was an old man, “being instructed by the Holy Spirit, he was not to see death before he would see the Christ of the Lord.”  Simeon is ready to die – but surely I am not?

And Simeon’s “own eyes have seen”: Jesus appears before him.  I have not seen.

But I have heard, in Scripture, and I have touched, in the Sacraments.  (John says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled – 1 John 1:1.)

At Christmas I am reminded how close Jesus has come, so close that we could see him, touch him, hear him.  Like Simeon before the Presentation, I still long to see him face to face.  But he is not altogether hidden, and every day I rejoice at how much I have seen, in the Word and Sacraments of his Church, and so I long to see him fully.

And so I too can go in peace, can even contemplate, as we do throughout Night Prayer, leaving this life behind.  Because we have seen him, and we go to see him, and that is all that matters.

After this exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb. Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_Project

And we can hope already to be like Stephen, “full of the Holy Spirit, looking up intently into Heaven, he saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  And he said, Behold, I see.”

 

How different is your life because Jesus because you have heard the Word of Jesus?  What difference does it make that you have not yet seen his face?