Feast of the Presentation: Jesus the True Priest

van der weyden presentationMAL 3:1-4; PS 24: 7, 8, 9, 10; HEB 2:14-18; LK 2:22-40 

This Sunday falls on February 2, so we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the fourth joyful mystery of the rosary – and one of the more obscure ones. This feast teaches us two things: first, Jesus comes to fulfill the Old Testament; and second, it is precisely in that way that he comes very close to us.

“Suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek.” The scene is the temple in Jerusalem. The faithful of Israel – never more than a remnant: not all of Israel, but the faithful are true Israelites – await the Lord, they long for “the messenger of the covenant,” the fulfiller of the Old Testament. (Covenant and testament translate the same word.)

Simeon “was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel.” The “prophetess” Anna is one of the most obscure characters in the Bible – why is she in the story? But we know she is “of the tribe of Asher,” a true Israelite, and “she never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.” True Israelites, joyfully seeking God in his temple.

Mary and Joseph are true Israelites, too. “When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord.” They did everything “in according with the dictate in the law of the Lord”; at the end of the story, they returned to Nazareth “when they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord.” Faithful Israelites, fulfilling the law of the Temple.


These are poor people. The law in question says, “if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Lev. 12:8). Mary, of course, brings the true lamb, the richest sacrifice of all – but in material things, she is very poor. Notice the gentleness of the Law. It is not burdensome.

We sometimes have an image of this horrible law of the Old Testament. But the Jews who lived it did not find it horrible. They prayed, “The law of the LORD is perfect . . . . The jugments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Ps. 19). Sometime flip open the endless Psalm 119: every single verse (there are 176 verses) extols the goodness, the sweetness of God’s law.

The “purification” itself is a mercy. My wife and I appreciate this more every time we have a baby. After the birth of a baby, the woman was “unclean.” People assume this is a condemnation, a put down: women are yucky. But that isn’t what it says. “Unclean” simply means “she shall not come into the sanctuary” (Lev. 12:4). It means she should stay home from church, so to speak.

But that is the same thing our midwives tell us: not because they hate women, but because they love them, and respect them, and want to care for them. What we are talking about is an automatic dispensation for new mothers: stay home! Recover!

Once she is recovered, she and her husband make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her reappearance is celebrated. She doesn’t just show up at synagogue one day. She is given a special ceremony.


And here is the most important thing. The new father and mother are given something to do. Far from unclean, they have a priestly task. Think of how powerful it would be, to bring your new baby, not just to your home parish (though that’s pretty exciting, too), but to the great temple in Jerusalem, to offer up a true sacrifice.

This is the point. The Law and the Temple provided for a very human religion, a religion that blesses the key moments of human life, a religion that binds together a people (so that these serendipitous meetings, like that of Mary and Joseph with Anna and Simeon are the norm), and makes allowance for human weakness while still allowing you real access to true worship. How beautiful is the Law of the Lord!

Jesus comes into that Law. He expands it to all people. In Simeon’s words, “the light for revelation to the Gentiles” is “the glory of his people Israel.” He does not destroy that very human religion, but invites us all into it. A truly merciful, inclusive high priest.


What human parts of our religion most excite you?

A Prayer at Communion

massacio trinity with virginLord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof . . .

Father, I am not worthy. I am not worthy to be a called a son of God. I am not grateful to you. I do not entrust myself to you, and I do not receive the gift of life you offer to me.

But Father, you are mercy. Mercy itself. Eternally giving alms, giving to the poor, making life, and goodness, where there was nothing at all. You are the overflowing spring from which all creation pours forth, the spring from which even the Son and the Holy Spirit flow forth.

And Mary is daughter of mercy. She is your creature, your daughter. Her very being is to receive life from you. She lives perfect daughterhood, precisely because you have made her your daughter; the spirit of daughterhood is itself your gift to her. This is the Gospel. This is the promise – that we too may receive Mary’s spirit of daughterhood.

Jesus, Son of God, I am not worthy. I am not worthy to be called your brother. I do not love as you love. I do not pour myself out as you pour yourself. I am not poor as you were poor, I do not care for those who are poor as you care for them.

But Jesus, you are mercy. Your very being is to be the overflowing spring of mercy, the almsgiver. You came not to condemn but to seek out and save. You are the Good Samaritan. Your well of mercy never runs dry. Your purse is never empty.

And Mary is mother of mercy. I cannot fathom what this means. You who are such perfect mercy have become so little that she could hold you in her arms, wrap you in swaddling clothes, lay you in a manger, and see you die on a cross. You have come so close that she could hold you at her breast, hold you at her cheek, stand and suffer the wound of love at your cross. This is the Gospel. This is the promise: that you become so little, so close to us, that we can receive you as she did.

Holy Spirit, I am not worthy. I am not worthy to be called your temple. Not worthy to hold God within me. I do not live by your power, do not live by your goodness. I turn always to myself, to my own strength, to contemplation of my own face. I am not yet your true temple.

But Holy Spirit, you are mercy. You are nothing but the poured-out love of Father and Son. There is no end to your goodness, no end to the alms you give us. You are truly Father of the poor, giver of life to us who are dead, light to us who dwell in darkness.

And Mary is the bride of mercy. You come to make life in her womb, to bring her to life, to let her pour life out for others. You have united her eternally to your work of mercy. She walks where you walk, and gives your perfect gift. And this is the Gospel. This is the promise. That you come to make us your partners, come to give us life, come to make us your bride, ever crying out “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Father, I am not worthy
But Father, you are mercy
And Mary is daughter of Mercy

Son of God, Jesus, I am not worthy
But Jesus, you are mercy
And Mary is mother of Mercy

Holy Spirit, I am not worthy
But Spirit, you are mercy
And Mary is bride of Mercy

This is the Gospel.
For this I give you thanks.
This is the mercy I receive from your altar.

 My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord . . .

The Baptismal Life

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigWe would do much to rediscover the true Christian spirituality if we thought of all of our life as a living out of our Baptism. Indeed, this is probably the “anointing” – in Greek, the christening, or Christ-ian-ing – that John talks about:

“The anointing which you have received from him abides in you, and you have no need that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teaches you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it has taught you, you shall abide in him. And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming” (1 John 2:27-28).

This is the same Apostle John, of course, who gives us this exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus: “Amen, amen, I say to you, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God . . . . Amen, amen, I say to you, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, 5).

But how do we “abide in this anointing”? How do we actually live according to this most bizarre claim that we are “born again” by Baptism ?


In fact, the Church gives us a wonderful frequent devotion to Baptism so common that we almost overlook it: the sign of the Cross. A whole spirituality is carried in this simple little devotion.

The main place of the sign of the Cross is at the holy water stoup, as we enter the Church. Notice, in fact, that the little prayer we say as we make the sign of the Cross is simply the Baptismal formula: “Go you therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” These words are meant to call to mind our baptism, which is why they are attached to the holy water: nothing more nor less than a sacramental reminder of the waters of Baptism.

(Thomas Aquinas, in fact, says that all the power attached to the sacramentals is in their devotional power in reminding us of the real Seven Sacraments. The power of holy water is devotion to Baptism.)


Baptism is our entrance into the Church. Yes, it “washes away sin” – though the point of the John the Baptist stories is to remind us that first, Baptism was a sign of repentance, of beginning anew. The difference between John’s Baptism and the Baptism of Jesus is that Christian Baptism gives us the spiritual power to truly begin anew. That means leaving behind our former ways – and thus “washing away sin” – but more powerfully, it means entering into Christ: the anointing, and plunging into Christ.

Baptism only “washes away” by “pouring in” divine life.

It means, above all, entering into the sacramental life of Christ’s Church. Baptism gives us access to the sacraments. It is the beginning of the sacramental life. That’s why we remind ourselves of our Baptism when we enter the Church: it’s a delightfully literal symbol that Baptism is the way we “enter” the Church of Jesus.

(It is also nice, in light of the Great Commission we quoted above, to make the sign of the Cross as we leave Church: we are sent to “teach all nations” and draw them to Baptism, to life in the Church. Our life outside of the Church is about preparing ourselves and others to enter the life of the Church.)


The physical sign we use, along with water, is a cross, drawn on our own body. (We can remind ourselves of this by making this cross actually look like a cross, not a sloppy hand wave.) The sign of the Cross reminds us that we are united to Christ. In Baptism we have died and risen with him. Our sufferings are united to his sufferings – and we are reminded that the divine love will include real suffering. But union with his suffering also means resurrection, the power of God that draws us through and beyond suffering. To mark Christ’s cross on our own body is no small thing!

But the prayer we say, along with recalling our Baptism, recalls the spiritual heights to which we are called, the reason the Cross is worth it. We are called through the Cross into the very life and love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Abide in that anointing. Live your Baptism.


What does the sign of the Cross mean to you?

St. John of the Cross on Scripture

john of the crossA frightening thing happened in the modern age. Sometime between 1700 and today – the Council of Trent (1545-63) is certainly not to blame, as anyone who reads it can attest – Catholics got the funny idea that Scripture is a Protestant thing.

Just as one little example, I offer St. John of the Cross’s opening to The Ascent of Mount Carmel, the first part of his two-part writing on “The Dark Night of the Soul.” It is a nice example, because, at first glance, John of the Cross seems so very experiential. Well, that isn’t how he thought of his own work:

In order to say a little about this dark night, I shall trust neither to experience nor to knowledge, since both may fail and deceive; but, while not omitting to make such use as I can of these two things, I shall avail myself, in all that, with the Divine favour, I have to say, or at the least, in that which is most important and dark to the understanding, of Divine Scripture; for, if we guide ourselves by this, we shall be unable to stray, since He Who speaks therein is the Holy Spirit.

And if aught I stray, whether through my imperfect understanding of that which is said in it or of matters uncollected with it, it is not my intention to depart from the sound sense and doctrine of our Holy Mother the Catholic Church; for in such a case I submit and resign myself wholly, not only to her command, but to whatever better judgment she may pronounce concerning it.

Hallowed Be Thy Name

Sermon on the mountPart 4 in our series on the Our Father.

“Hallowed,” of course, means “made holy.” In English, as in the Greek of the New Testament, it is in the passive voice: the focus is not on who in particular is making God’s name holy, but just that it be made holy.

This is, obviously, a strange statement. We don’t make God holy. God makes us holy. But this is not the only such strangeness when we talk about God. God is hard to talk about, because everything flows one way: we are always the ones who benefit. Even our worship – and this petition of the Our Father has much to do with worship – does not help God, it helps us. Philosophically – and Biblically – this is really what defines God: he is the Creator, the one from whom everything else receives everything that it is. But if we have received everything from him, we have nothing to offer in return. We just receive. God is sheer generosity.


One traditional way of interpreting “hallowed be thy name,” then, is to begin by ignoring the direction of the statement, and turning it around more towards, “Hallower be thy name”: God is the one who makes others holy. The place of holiness in the statement is nice, because it points us to the highest gift God gives us. Yes, he gives us our daily bread, forgives us, delivers us. But far more, he shares with us his nature, lets us enter into his very life.

This, as we have said before, is the real meaning of holiness: sharing in God’s happiness, sharing in God’s love, sharing the internal life of the Trinity.

God’s name, we could say, is “Holy-maker.” First, “maker”: that is, he’s the one who makes everything else, the giver, the generous one. But second, the ultimate making he does is to make us holy: to give us infinitely more than this created world, to give us himself. That’s a pretty good definition, a pretty good name, for the Christian God. And a pretty good place to start, and to rise to, in our prayer: to know that “hallowing” is what God is all about.


On the other hand, the line in the Gospel does say “made holy”: as if other people (us) are the ones making God’s name holy. Granted the obvious fact that we can’t literally make God holy, what could the statement mean?

Perhaps it simply points to our keeping an attitude of worship toward God. First, in prayer, “hallowing God’s name” means rising above our begging for things, above even seeking his will for us, to a simple recognition of God’s holiness, of God being God. Be still and know that I am God.

And then, in relation to other people, to do the same: to make clear in all our actions that what we really live for is the good God, the generous God, the God whose ultimate purpose is not, for example, political, but holiness: the sharing of his goodness with us.

(“Not political,” by the way, is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, Christianity is not ultimately about winning political battles. On the other hand, it’s also not about winning popularity contests by our tolerance. True Christian politics works for the true good of people, which is found in union with their Creator. But that’s far too big a topic for here.)


Finally, names are interesting. What does a name do but point to the person himself? There is “my son,” or “the four year old,” or “that person who is hungry,” or “the sweet little snuggler” – but then, deeper than any of these partial descriptions, there is William, himself. To hallow God’s name is to single out not some particular aspect of God, but God himself.

This is the power of the name of Jesus: to look to him. The power of the name Our Father, which points down to the depths of who God is (the sanctifier, sheer generosity). The power, too, of the Hebrew name I-am-who-am. To contemplate God himself, to love God himself, beyond all other goods.

This holds an important place in the way the Our Father gradually moves outward. Beyond God himself (“Our Father”), and beyond heaven (“who art”), on the one hand, but more intimate than those who merely seek forgiveness, or bread, or even his will or his kingdom, there are those who know his name, those who care about his kingdom and his will, and even their daily bread, etc., above all because they love Him, his name.


How do you hallow God’s name?

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jesus Saves

St Dominic with BibleIS 8:23-9:3; PS 27: 1-4, 13, 14; 1COR 1: 10-13, 17; MT 4:12-23 

This Sunday’s readings simply direct our eyes to Jesus: a fitting beginning of Ordinary Time (so called because we read through the Gospel in order).

The Gospel reading has the calling of the Four: Peter and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John. “He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.” The message is very simply: they followed him.


But first, the Gospel cites a prophecy from Isaiah. “Land of Zebulun and Naphtali!” The prophecy looks to Galilee, the homeland of Jesus. The setting is dramatic: it is called “Galilee of the Gentiles” because even in the beginning, the armies of Joshua were not able to drive the pagans from the land; later, the land was conquered by foreigners. Galilee is a place of perpetual struggle for the people of Israel.

But “the yoke that oppressed them, the pole on their shoulder, and the rod of their taskmaster you have smashed, as on the day of Midian” – one of the great victories of Moses in the desert. The people of Galilee have been liberated.

The prophecy nicely names various forms of liberation: the oppression of the yoke, the rod of the taskmaster; also anguish, darkness, gloom, distress. “The people who dwelled in darkness have seen a great light.” Now we see that every former liberation of Galilee was just a foretaste of the great liberation: Jesus walks the land. Jesus is the light. He is the bringer of joy and the dispeller of distress, the liberator from yoke and taskmaster, the one who brings light to darkness.

It is he, the Psalm says, who lets us “gaze on the loveliness of the Lord and contemplate his temple.” (We might say that the humanity of Christ is the temple, in which we see the loveliness of his divinity.) We must “wait for the Lord with courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the Lord,” because it is only the presence of Jesus that sets us free.

Light, joy, freedom: different ways of describing the contemplation that Jesus gives us access to. And, in fact, we need multiple ways of saying it. No one word sums up the goodness that Jesus offers us. The Bible is long because there is so very much to say!


The reading from First Corinthians is at first hard to connect with this theme of liberation. Paul is scolding the Corinthians for schism. I think the simple message here is the same as the simple calling of the Apostles: follow Jesus! There are so many other things that can get in the way, so many spirits of partisanship. But what draws Peter, Andrew, James, and John together into the one Church is that they are all following Jesus. Cling to the light, and there is peace, and union.

In the Gospel, “They followed him. He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.” The Apostles are united in seeing Jesus as the Savior. It is he who is the good news, he who is the kingdom, he who is true teaching, and healing.

In his call, Jesus tells Andrew and Peter, “I will make you fishers of men.” But what is so important, what the reading from First Corinthians underlines, is that to be true apostles, they must have their eyes fixed on Jesus, they must find their salvation in him.

John’s Gospel can be read as a kind of commentary on the other ones. He puts right at the beginning, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” (We don’t know if this means John the Baptist or John the Apostle; it doesn’t matter.) “He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.” Always we must let him be the light.


A little coda: we have seen here both the simplicity and the complexity of the Gospel. On the one hand, there is only Jesus. On the other hand, (a) the richness of the Gospel needs the whole Bible to describe it, (b) the Gospel densely quotes, using brief references to call to mind whole histories and rich, complicated prophecies, and (c) we, like the Corinthians, often need Paul to scold us back to the truth.

In short, maintaining the simplicity of the Gospel, keeping our eyes focused on Jesus, takes work. It means study, and a real effort to overcome our tendency to substitute ourselves and our favorite factions for the salvation offered in Christ. To “gaze on the loveliness of the Lord” means daily dropping our nets, picking up our cross, and following him.


Do you find yourself substituting other loves for Jesus? What are the ways that you are tempted to forget that he is the Savior?

The Evil of Guile

Thomas Sully (1783-1872). GossipThe Psalms speak constantly of the evil of guile. Indeed, the Psalms warn us much more about the evil of guile than of lust. Come to think of it, so does the Pope. One of my prayers for the New Year is that I will make headway against this evil in my own life.

Ramah, the Hebrew root of the word mirmah, refers principally to shooting, or throwing stones. Mirmah, then, means deceiving, fraud, treachery, falseness, guile. “Lo, the wicked bend their bow, they make ready their arrow upon the string, that they may in the darkness shoot at the upright in heart” (Ps. 11:2).

Let us define guile this way: it is (a) speech, that (b) is not true, and (c) aims to hurt. And let us discover how often we use it: “Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; test my kidneys and my heart. For thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes: and I have walked [or: I wish I had walked] in thy truth.  I have not sat with vain persons, neither will I go in with concealers” (Ps 26:2-4).


The purpose of speech is to bring people together by reference to something else: the topic of conversation. Guile undermines this, both by turning speech into a hurtful weapon instead of a tool of love, and by speaking about something that is not true, and so creating a bond over something that isn’t really there.

We can engage in this kind of speech in various ways. First, with different Gossippeople. The one we hurt can be the one we are speaking to, when we use speech to demean the person in front of us. We can also demean someone who is absent, as when we gossip and say bad things about people who aren’t there.

And guile can be part of our interior monologue – do other people talk to themselves as much as I do? I find myself imaginging conversations: I imagine telling other people how bad someone is, or how I would like to hurt that person with my own words to his face.

Oh, how much guile there is in my soul! How many of my conversations, and of my interior conversations!

Notice, too, that guile can affect our speech in non-verbal ways. The way we say, “yeah, right” can be aimed to hurt. Our tone of voice can so easily turn innocent words into weapons.


It is not always wrong to wound with words. If speech is meant to bring people together in the truth, then in fact there is a place for criticism. The problem is that so often our criticism is not true.

Here’s where I experience this most directly: when I say the words “you can’t just . . . ” to the kids. “You can’t just eat candy all day long.” Okay, well, that’s true enough. But were they asking to eat candy all day long? Were they asking to “just” eat candy? Was what they were asking for even candy?

Of course I must often tell my kids that they can’t eat what they’d like to eat. But when the words exaggerate, they create distance. I am being unfair, criticizing something they haven’t actually done. That unfairness, in fact, prevents my children from hearing the legitimate point I want to make – because the point I am actually making is not legitimate.

Exaggeration is untruth. It undermines what words are for. If I exaggerate about someone not present, I do harm in so many ways: I injure the person we are talking about, both by attaching a falsehood to their reputation, and by using my words to create greater distance between me and them, rather than love. And I also hurt the relationship in front of me, because I am building that relationship on sand, on untruth, that will not last; and on hatred, which can only come back to hurt every relationship.


How can we fight this? “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). The friends of St. Dominic said he spoke “only to God and about God.” If our interior conversation were directed toward God, I think we would be less inclined to speak untruth, because we know he knows it is untrue.

horse with bridleAnd as James says, “we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us” (James 3:3). Perhaps we can do a lot to steer our whole behavior by realizing that the words we speak are central to who we are. We might make a lot of progress just by taking the advice of so much of the Bible and the Tradition, and focus on our speech: make sure it is in love, and make sure it is true.


How does guile express itself in your life? Have you found any good strategies to fight it?

The Sacramental Life: Keeping Our Eyes on God

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigIn recent weeks we considered several names for the spiritual life as it relates to various persons of the Trinity, and then we considered St. Louis de Montfort’s four different names for the spiritual life as it relates to Mary. Today we begin a series that will consider how the sacraments can serve as names for the spiritual life. All of these things name the same basic reality: our incorporation in Christ, our sharing in the life of God.

But they highlight it in different ways. This is important because in fact it is easy for us to lose track of what the spiritual life is really about.


The two basic poles of the spiritual life are God as our destination and God as our means of reaching that destination. “Charity,” or divine love, is the theological name for loving God as the ultimate good toward which everything is aimed. Grace is the theological word for the transformation of the person by contact with God: the work God does in us.

Our constant temptation is to sink into ourselves. We replace charity with love of self when we focus on experience, as if the real point of the spiritual life was to have visions, or warm fuzzy feelings – or no feelings: spiritual dryness can be idolized too. In fact, I fear that there’s a certain kind of pseudo-mysticism about where people feel like if they space out, especially in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, that emptying of the mind is the presence of God. Liberal Catholics call this “centering prayer,” and conservative Catholics know it must be bad. But I think a lot of conservative, or quasi-orthodox Catholics, also think silence itself is prayer: a dangerous incursion of Buddhism, a loss of the fire of charity.

But so too can be the fad of journaling. Now, Mother Teresa herself, a real model of divine charity, seems to have liked both silence and journaling. But what are we journaling about? Are we gazing at ourselves in the mirror? Or are we creating a God in our own image, describing the God we love in our own terms, rather than his?

To love truly, we have to keep our eyes on God. Scripture can be a helpful way to do that, which is why the tradition is so in love with the Psalms and various kinds of lectio divina. But in any case, the point is, Catholicism urges us to look beyond ourselves. The true Christian spiritual life maintains charity by thinking about the various names for the spiritual life we have been considering.


The same is true of grace. The constant temptation is to think either that we do it all by our own power (or by the human power of our community) or that we cannot do it – despair is just another angle on trusting in our own powers. When we lose a clear sense that the spiritual life is the work of the divine Trinity, or of the Lord, incarnate in Mary’s womb, true spirituality is replaced.

On the one hand, we focus on our own strength, and begin to exalt in what we do for ourselves instead of what God does for us. But on the other hand, since our own strength can’t get us very far, we begin to set our sights too low, as if the things we can do on our own are the only possibilities of the spiritual life. The spiritual life without an intense emphasis on divine grace becomes hardly any spiritual life at all.


In the next several weeks we will go through the seven sacraments, considering the richness of naming the spiritual life by reference to Baptism, or Confirmation, or the Eucharist (either sacrifice or communion), or Penance, or the Anointing of the Sick, or the Priesthood, or Marriage. In fact, each of these sacraments provides an excellent description of the spiritual life as a whole.

But first, briefly, what is a sacrament? Sacraments are signs that give what they signify. Baptism is a symbol of spiritual washing – and it does in fact spiritually wash us.

Sacraments provides an intense focus on grace. Just as touching the hem of Jesus’s robe made clear that grace came from him, not from our own power, so too with the sacraments. The sacramental life means trusting in his power.

And the sacraments make vivid that the spiritual life means coming out of ourselves in pursuit of the Good God. They are profound signs of the spiritual reality of Christianity.


How do you find nourishment through the sacraments?

Archbishop Chaput on Real Love

chaputI think the following is so important, because it underlines that real love must embrace suffering. It isn’t going to be easy. Which is why there must be the Grace of God.

Last fall the scientific journal Nature reported that “by the age of 30, individuals with Down syndrome invariably develop amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles [in the brain].” As a result, beginning in their 40s, “up to 75 percent of people with Down syndrome develop dementia.”

In other words, no matter how well they live; no matter how well they’re cared for; no matter how fiercely they’re loved, three out of four persons with Down syndrome will develop a form of Alzheimer’s. Sooner or later a day will come when they no longer recognize the family members who loved them, sacrificed for them, encouraged them, protected them, laughed with them, suffered with them and fought for them.

At some point in the future, doctors may be able to treat or prevent this dementia. But right now, today, the longer a child with Down syndrome lives, the more likely he or she will contract Alzheimer’s. And that brings us back to the question I asked at the start: At what point does love become foolish, and unsustainable, and even fruitless?

The cost-effective answer is simple. The effort involved in loving these children with Down syndrome is too great. Their lives are too expensive. They bring too much heartache and have futures that often seem too bleak. The Catholic answer is also simple. No love is fruitless. No love is wasted. Every life is precious. And every child with Down syndrome brings a joy that outweighs any suffering. We trust in a loving God who is love itself; a God who pours out an unearned, redeeming kind of love on every one of his creatures; a God who became love incarnate to make all things new.

None of my friends who has a daughter or son with Down syndrome is melodramatic, or self-conscious, or even especially pious about it. They speak about their special child with an unsentimental realism. It’s a realism flowing out of love – real love, the kind that works its way through fear and suffering to a decision, finally, to surround the child with their hearts anyway, no matter what the cost, and to trust in the goodness of God.

Of course, that decision to trust demands not just real love, and not just real courage, but also real faith. We can’t trust a God we don’t believe in. Faith matters because hope and love can’t bear the weight of the suffering in the world without it. Faith matters because it reminds us that there’s good in the world, and meaning to every life; and that the things that make us human are worth fighting for. Faith matters because it drives us to do what’s right.

–Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia

Address to the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders, August 23, 2013


Who Art in Heaven

Sermon on the mountPart 3 in our series on the Our Father.  

The Our Father immediately directs our attention to heaven as the place where God is. Jean Leclercq’s classic The Spirituality of the Middle Ages is a phenomenal book for reminding us of our true heritage as Catholics. One key point that comes up again and again is that Catholics used to spend a lot of time thinking about heaven: “devotion to heaven.” There are a lot of reasons that is important to remember – but few reasons can be greater than that it appears right at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer.


What does “heaven” mean? First, it means the place where God is. We might say the words “Our Father” take us into God’s interior – we said last week the single word Father summarizes the whole interior life of the Trinity. But “heaven” (actually, in Greek it’s plural, heavens) names all that is in his presence: the angels, the saints.

But then the first point to thinking about heaven is to realize that this ain’t it. The Bible frequently contrasts heaven and earth; the Our Father itself will soon do this, when it says “on earth as it is heaven.” Although, on the one hand, that petition begs for earth to be like heaven, it presupposes that that is not already the case. There is a place where God’s kingdom has come, where his will is done, where we are finally delivered from evil and temptation. To think of heaven is, first, to realize that in those respects and others, it will be different from here.

The bodily ascension of Jesus and assumption of Mary remind us that heaven is not an impossibility for us bodily creatures. It is possible. But for us, it isn’t yet arrived. We should think about that, and long for it.


The word heaven, of course, means sky: that point is clearer in the original languages than in English. Our Father is “in the sky.” Now, we moderns are enlightened enough to know that God isn’t somewhere “up there” in the sky; in the space age, we even know that there’s no final “up there” at all. (In fact, the Western tradition isn’t so dumb on these issues. When Dante gets to the presence of God, just to pick one example, there is a remarkable turning inside out of the heavenly spheres, as he realizes that God is more like the center than like the highest circle.)

On the other hand, the Bible is actually pretty insistent on the “up” of heaven. I recently did a study of New Testament teaching on the end of time. I was surprised to see that “sitting on the clouds,” for example, is in fact a consistent element of early Christian thinking. Heaven is, in some sense, “up there.” What can we do with that?

First, we can see that it is out of reach. Again, Dante is brilliant on this. We are bound by earthly weight. To say that Our Father is “in heaven” is to say that he is where we can’t get: not only far away, but somewhere we need wings to reach. Only God can bring us to heaven.


Second, up high is a place of all-seeing. Nothing is hidden from the Most High; he never has an obstructed view. Interesting, too, that this is not restricted to God: everyone in his presence can see everything. This matches nicely with Biblical themes of light: to be a saint is not to be in ignorance, but to see clearly, both the big picture and all the details. We don’t see that way yet, but we ask for that perspective.

Finally, the ancients saw the heavens as the place of stability, where everything follows its course exactly. You never know what will happen with the shifting sands down here, but the sun is perfectly predictable, the stars follow their course exactly.

We know now, of course, that the sun and the stars have their bumps and sunspots, that even they have a beginning and end. But, on the one hand, they are still radically more stable, more predictable, than anything down here. And, on the other hand, if we really wanted to go all the way “up,” it would be beyond the confines of the universe, to the laws of physics: just a new model of perfect stability.

In the Bible, God is like that: the one who is always there, who never changes. And so too the angels and the saints: their glory is to be where they will never fall away. Again, the heavens prove to be more like the center, which always holds, and which we can always rely on.


What does devotion to heaven mean to you?

Click here for the entire Our Father series.