Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Scandal of Mediation

St Dominic with BibleIS 49: 3, 5-6; PS 40: 2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10; 1 COR 1:1-3; JN 1:29-34 

Why can’t I just go direct to God? This question arises at every step of the way. The Protestant doesn’t understand why he needs to confess his sins to a priest. But the non-Christian asks the Protestants why he even needs Christ: why can’t I just go direct to God?

The non-religious person who believes in God, meanwhile, asks why he needs any kind of spiritual discipline, books, or teachers, instead of just contemplating God free-form; the person who believes in God but does not pray asks why he can’t just experience God through the rest of life; and even the atheist, at bottom, asks why he can’t experience the Good directly, without having to clog things up with talk about God.

On the other end, many Catholics don’t see why they need the liturgy, the Bible, or Mary. Why can’t I just go direct to God?

Charles de Koninck, a great Thomist of the mid-twentieth century, called this “the scandal of mediation.” Medium means “in the middle”: why does there have to be something between us and God?

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The first answer, of course, is just that mediators help. When the Protestant asks why I “have to” confess to a priest, I say, “I get to.” It’s wonderful to have something to hang on to, some concrete experience. But let us consider this theme in this Sunday’s readings.

When John baptized Jesus, he saw fulfilled what he had been told beforehand: “On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” Oh my, the many mediations!

Jesus is the true baptizer, the one who gives us the Holy Spirit. He stands “between” us and the Holy Spirit – but not as an obstacle. He is the giver. He is that kind of mediator: one who gives, who makes present. And he gives the Spirit not “directly” but through baptism – which, again, stands “between” us and God not as an obstacle, but as a giver.

Meanwhile, John encounters Christ through the image of a dove. The dove does not conceal, but reveals. It shows John what he could not see without it. It is a mediator that gives him access to Jesus.

Finally, John himself is a mediator, the one who calls, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (a symbolic expression that mediates the reality of Jesus) “who takes away the sin of the world.” Both John and the symbolic expression reveal Jesus to us: they are mediators.

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The reading from the first three verses of First Corinthians is deliciously simple. “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” It is the will of God not that we come to him immediately, but that there be apostles – apostles of Christ Jesus, mediators of the Mediator. But Paul is not hiding Jesus. He is not an obstacle. To the contrary, the apostles make Jesus present, they bring him to other places. The apostles are the radiation of the presence of Jesus: he was in one place, and they make him present in others. Thank God for those mediators!

“To the church of God that is in Corinth.” So too with the Church. To be part of the Church is not an obstacle, but an opportunity. Being part of the Church means being able to receive the word – the word of God, through Jesus, through the Apostle. (So too with the sacraments.)

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father”: ah, direct! Oh, no: “. . . and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Through whom we have access to the Father.

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The problem is, the mediators have to be good ones, ones who reveal and do not conceal, who make present the reality of God and not . . . something else. And this is what the prophet (a mediator) Isaiah says in our first reading. “I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD, and my God is my strength.” Isaiah can be a prophet because the power is not his. It is a power granted to him by God. But truly granted to him, so that Isaiah’s words can truly be God’s words.

“You are my servant, Israel, through whom I show my glory.” It is God who does it: I show my glory. The God who “formed me as his servant from the womb,” the Creator, is also able to act through his creation. “I will make you” – I will make you – “a light to the nations.”

That is all of our call, my friends: to be mediators of the presence of Christ, and to find him through the mediators he gives us.

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Are there ways you could better embrace God’s chosen mediators? Do you ever treat them as obstacles, when they are meant to be opportunities? How do you use those mediators to make yourself a better mediator?

Gluttony and Fear of the Lord

gluttonyI have been thinking about gluttony: the holidays have that effect on me. So much good food. So much ill health. So much cause for celebration, but so many questions about celebrating well. It would be good if I could lose some weight in the new year, also so that I could be a better father: more energetic, stronger for the things my family needs me to be stronger for. Even more, I’d like to be holier in the new year.

My wife brought up recently that we can use fasting to celebrate, too. Traditionally the day before big feasts was a fast. It wouldn’t kill us to fast now and then – in fact, it might make us healthier. And it would be nice if we had some way to mark solemnities other than adding to our girth.

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The first thing to say about our relationship with food, of course, is that it’s not that big of a deal. It’s the least big deal of all the vices: unlike pride, envy, wrath, sloth, lust, and even greed, a disordered relationship with food doesn’t directly hurt other people.

The second thing is that there are serious issues of health involved. Our culture is pretty screwed up in its pursuit of a svelt body: but the truth is, I’m overweight, and it isn’t good for me, on any level.

But the third thing is that spiritual things matter more than the size of my belly. The real question is not about diet, but about gluttony: disordered desires, that affect my love of God and neighbor, continue to read more, what follows can save your life.

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Maybe a helpful way to approach the question is in terms of fear of the Lord. Yes, “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18). But on the other hand, fear of the Lord is a near-constant theme in Scripture, including in the New Testament and even the words of Jesus: “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Jesus goes on immediately after that to say, “fear not therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:31). The first thing to say about fear and the spiritual life, then, must be that there are many kinds of fear: good and bad; fear of God, fear of other things; different kind, even, of fear of God.

Augustine worked out some important ideas about fear of the Lord in his commentary on that line we just saw from First John, and the tradition has really run with those ideas as very useful. In short, he says we can fear that God will get in the way of our delight, by preventing us from having fun; this is a spiritually destructive kind of fear. But we can also fear God’s punishment: and just as God’s punishment is there to help us move toward God, so too fear of that punishment can help us grow in the spiritual life. Fear of punishment is a spiritually productive thing.

But not a perfect thing. The highest, best kind of fear, says Augustine, is the fear of wounding our relationship: the delicacy of lovers, or of child and parent. I would never want to do anything to hurt the ones I love, and that makes for an entirely different kind of fear, fear that is not cast out but increased by love.

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This is a helpful way to think about gluttony. On the one hand, yes, it’s true, God doesn’t “care” if I have another Christmas cookie: anyway, there’s no law against this cookie. On the other hand, I want to grow ever more sensitive, ever more delicate about my relationship with God. I want to think about him more, not less. It is not good for our spiritual life – indeed, it is one of the worst things of all – to spend life naming what God doesn’t care about, what doesn’t matter. The Psalms often repeat, “the wicked . . . has said in his heart, God has forgotten; God hides his face; God will never see it” (e.g. Ps. 11:11).

The struggle with gluttony is not about absolute right and wrong. It is about spiritual sensitivity, fear of the Lord, trying to live ever more in the presence of God. We should never think, “God hates this cookie.” But we should fight strenuously against the thought, “God doesn’t care.” God does care: he cares about our relationship. Let us use the struggle with gluttony to struggle to do what is best: what celebrates best, what best serves the people around us, what can best unite us to God, what can best serve our long-term interests. And never say God doesn’t care.

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Do you find yourself approaching food with an attitude of mediocrity: it doesn’t matter, God doesn’t care? How could you grow in your relationship with God through food?

For Mary

mary-baby-jesus1The last of St. Louis de Montfort’s descriptors of the spiritual life is “all for Mary.” (I am following the order in the often forgotten little book, Secret of Mary, which gives the bigger True Devotion a run for its money; both are fantastic statements of de Montfort’s doctrine.)

What does it mean to say “all for Mary,” and how does it work as a description of the spiritual life?

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First, it means “all for the true doctrine of the Incarnation.” As we have said before, the early Church judged that there was no clearer statement of Christology than calling Mary “Mother of God.” The key challenges to a right understanding of Jesus are Arianism (that Jesus is less than God), Monophysitism or Docetism (that Jesus is not really human) and Nestorianism (that the God-part of Jesus and the man-part are kind of two different persons).

To focus on Mary is, above all, to recognize that we easily lose track of who Jesus really is. If we are not careful, we slip into mistaken ideas of Jesus. To focus on Mary is to be careful about our Christology – to realize that we are constantly tempted to say, “Mary can’t really be Mother of God. That doesn’t make any sense.” To be zealously “all for Mary” is to be zealous about the truth of who and what Jesus really is.

Ironically, there is no other way to be truly Christ-centered than to keep Mary central in our thinking and devotional life.

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Second, “all for Mary” means being zealous for the truth of the Redemption. Again, falsehood is so very easy. Protestants tend to fall into a denial that Jesus does anything at all for us. The pleasant way to put the standard Protestant understanding is that Jesus saves us by covering our sins. But a truer way to put it is that in most Protestant understandings, the “good news” is that Jesus does not really care who we are, does not care whether we love God, does not care whether we love neighbor. “Forgiveness” turns into “Lucky us, Jesus doesn’t care.” This is really dangerous.

But equally – perhaps more – dangerous is that Catholics tend to fall into Pelagianism. I believe (above all from my experience teaching candidates for the priesthood, and talking to other people who teach them) that Pelagianism is raging among “orthodox” Catholics today. Pelagianism is the doctrine that we can save ourselves: if we just try harder, we can climb to heaven on our own strength. When was the last time you heard a homily about grace? This is raging, outrageous heresy, and it is extraordinarily dangerous to our spiritual life. It is a denial of Jesus, anti-Christ.

To say “all for Mary” emphasizes not only who Jesus is, but what he does for us. Mary is, on the one hand, against the Protestants, all-holy, fabulously holy. Holiness is possible; mystical ascent into the life of the Trinity is the Gospel. But Mary is also, against the Pelagian Catholics, entirely dependent on Jesus. That’s why we look to Mary more than to all the other saints. It is only proximity to Jesus that makes us holy. It is always his work, not ours. To be “all for Mary” is to keep the truth of the Redemption always before our eyes.

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Finally, “for” is a word about motivation, and love. Far more than any of the other words for true devotion to Mary, “for” Mary indicates fire, drive, passion. “All for Mary” means every step of the way, we ask what we are living for.

“All for Mary” means a real passion for evangelization. It means longing to see the image of Mary, radically holy because radically united to Jesus, repeated on every face we see. And thus being radically gentle.

“All for Mary” means a real passion for the possibilities of man. It means remembering that every person we see has the possibility to be what Mary is. Mary didn’t have to convert: God signals to us that his action always comes first by being with her from the beginning. But conversion is possible. The greatest sinner is still made of the same stuff as Mary. He can become what she is. He too can be raised into the life of the Trinity. And so I must love him.

Finally, “all for Mary” means a real passion for the work of God. It means repeating to ourselves, again and again and again, that Jesus saves, that grace is everything, that we totally depend on the mystery of the Incarnation. It means asking at every step, is the work of Jesus—what Jesus does for us—central to what I am doing now?

This is the spiritual life. This is Christianity.

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How do you keep alive the fire for Jesus?

Click here for more posts on Devotion to Mary.

Click here for the entire series on Names for the Spiritual Life.

Archbishop Chaput on Material and Spiritual Drug Addiction

 

chaputMarx called religion the opiate of the people. But the real opiate of the people – the coca leaves of modern culture that we’re all expected to chew – is the river of consumer comforts and distractions that we use to damp down our deeper hunger for God and our gnawing sense of obligation to so many other people.

 

Modern life in developed countries is becoming a cocoon of narcotics, from pornography and abortion to crack cocaine. And that brings us to the issue of drugs, the second of the three problems I mentioned at the start. In a way, drugs are just the symptom, not the root cause, of a deeper social dysfunction. Poverty is the more fundamental problem in understanding a troubled society. But the two issues are closely linked. Poverty drives despair, which seeks relief in drugs. Drugs destroy lives, which end up in poverty and crime. The two problems feed on and compound each other.

 

All of us here know the impact of the drug trade on the life of our continent. Ecclesia in America lists it among the sins that cry out to heaven for justice. Drug-related violence has killed tens of thousands of people. Drug money deforms entire economies. It cripples development. It corrupts law enforcement agencies. It poisons the courts and the political process. It spreads poverty and despair. It traps women and children in prostitution. And it robs young people of the future.

 

Something genuinely hellish resides in every transaction that profits from the suffering of an innocent young person. That same hellishness infects every man and woman complicit in sustaining the criminal drug industry, from wealthy consumers in New York, to cartel bosses in Mexico, to chemists in the jungles of Colombia. The United States bears special responsibility for the problem because of its enormous demand for the illegal substances. And as Pope Francis stressed in his visit to Brazil earlier this year, decriminalizing the drug trade will not control or solve the drug scourge. Only deeper social and personal reform can do that.

 

Of course, none of these words about poverty and drugs is new. They’ve all been said before, and said better, by others. The point I want to make in saying them again is that poverty, drugs and so many of the other painful issues facing our people both derive from and make worse a larger crisis of the spirit. It’s a crisis of identity and purpose. It touches every corner of the American continent. It crosses every border and language group. And it brings us to the third of the three problems I hope we can discuss with each other during this pilgrimage.

 

–Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Philadelphia,

 

From his discourse on “The New Evangelization: Responsibilites and Challenges for the American Continent,” Mexico City, Nov. 16, 2013

 

Our Father

Sermon on the mountPart 2 in our series on the Our Father.  Click here for the entire series.

“Father”: the first word of the Our Father (in Greek, the language of Matthew’s Gospel, as in Latin, word order is flexible enough that you can say “Father Our”: Pater humon, or Pater noster) describes the entire inner life of the Trinity. To truly understand this first word would be to understand everything in all of Christianity. The rest of the prayer, in fact, merely spells out, in increasing particularity, the real meaning of this first word.

The Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not merely God One, God Two, and God Three. Father and Son are defined by their relationship: the proper name for the Father says nothing except that he is Father of the Son. The name of the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is the opposite: his name signals what is common to Father and Son: they are both Holy, they are both Spirit. The inner life of God, then, is not just “threeness,” but Father and Son and what they share. The life of the Trinity is Father-Son.

To be Son is simply to receive the nature of the Father. On the one hand, it means similarity. When the Father is God, it means the Son must be God too: purely God, “true God from true God” – and thus, somehow, way beyond our understanding, he must share in the Oneness of God. What it means to be God includes, among other things, that there can only be One. What it means to be “God from God,” then, is to be “consubstantial with the Father”: to be the One God. Else he would not be true Son.

On the other hand, to be Son is to receive your nature from your Father. In the Trinity, Father and Son are totally equal and identical in all respects – except that the Son receives everything from the Father, and the Father gives everything to the Son.

“Father”: the first word of the Our Father is the inner life of God.

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And it is the life we are called to, the sublime call and offering of Christianity: the Gospel. Jesus does nothing but allow us to enter into the inner life of God, to enter into his very nature, which is to call God Father. When we say, “Father,” we mean, (a) sharing in his nature, and (b) receiving everything from him. Entering into that internal life of the Trinity. The Son eternally says nothing but “Father.” That is our eternal destiny, as well. That is the Gospel.

“As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit, that we are children of God: and if children, then heirs: heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17). What the Holy Spirit gives us is nothing else but Sonship: to share in that interior sharing of Father and Son. He lets us share in the inheritance of the Son: and the Son of God inherits nothing from his Father except God himself.

To say “Father” is to speak eternity.

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But Jesus teaches us not to say “My Father” but “Our Father”: the first person plural. “Our,” because shared with Jesus: his father and mine. But also “our” because I am joined to everyone else for whom God is Father.

Christianity offers us a vastly deeper reason for loving our neighbor than merely because he is a creature of God, or human rights. I don’t mean to put those things down – but Christianity goes vastly deeper, because Christianity takes us into divine Sonship. The Christian loves others because they are, or might be, eternal coheirs, co-sons and -daughters, brothers and sisters in the life of the Trinity.

There are many Scripture passages we could consider to think about this. Certainly in St. John’s writings, especially his magnificent First Letter, it is all about loving, not just “other human beings,” but “the brothers.”

But consider the fantastic passage from Matthew 25: “Lord, when did we see you hungry, and fed you? or athirst, and gave you drink? when did we see you a stranger, and took you in? or naked, and clothed you? and when did we see you sick, or in prison, and came to you? And the King shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of these my brothers, even these least, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:37-40).

The Christian loves others as brothers and sisters of the Son of God, and so our brothers and sisters: either because they have already begun to share his divine life in fact, or because they might.

To say “Our Father” is to bespeak a totally transformed vision of our own destiny, and our call to love God and neighbor.

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What does it mean for you to call God “Father”? How do you experience the sharing of that Fatherhood with others?

This Sunday’s Readings: Baptism of the Lord

baptism of the lord IS 42: 1-4, 6-7;  PS 29: 1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10; ACTS 10: 34-38; MT 3: 13-17

This Sunday’s Psalm, for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, is an interesting choice. Psalm 29 is the most emphatic of the Psalms about God’s power. But this Sunday, the liturgy emphasizes how his power is upon the waters.

“The voice of the LORD is over the waters, the LORD, over vast waters. The voice of the LORD is mighty; the voice of the LORD is majestic.” God’s power is in the waters of Baptism. The power, indeed, of his Word: his Word who is Jesus, and his Word which is invoked to bring his power: “Christ loved the Church, and delivered Himself up for it, that He might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water and the word” (Eph. 5:25-26). “The LORD is enthroned above the flood; the LORD is enthroned as king forever.”

In Matthew, Luke, and John, the Baptism is the beginning of Christ’s ministry; in Mark, it is the beginning of the Gospel itself. It is the beginning of our Church year, and the beginning of our own life in Christ. The power of God on the waters.

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The Baptism of Jesus is mysterious. Surely there is more to be said about it, but maybe “it’s mysterious” is an okay way to interpret John the Baptist’s saying: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me? Jesus said to him in reply, Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” No, it doesn’t exactly make sense for Jesus, the true Baptizer, to be baptized – but it is part of his saving plan.

For our part, let’s focus more on what follows. “He came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him.” What does Baptism do? It opens for us the gates of heaven. How? By sending the Holy Spirit.

It is important to make this connection. Baptism “washes away” sin, and thus restores our path to heaven. But sin is a negation, an emptiness. Baptism “washes away” sin by filling us with God’s Spirit, God’s love. “A voice came from the heavens, saying, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Baptism makes us pleasing to God not just by what it takes away, but by what it gives us: divine sonship.

To say the same thing another way: the dove coming down on the waters recalls Noah. The point is that the reign of death is over. Life is restored.

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In our reading from Acts, Peter describes the Baptism of Jesus: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.” Now, of course there’s something a little odd here: Jesus carried the power of God in his very person. And yet the point is, this is what Baptism does. It makes us Christians, conformed to Christ. It anoints us with the Holy Spirit and power.

And then what happens? “He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Not only is our sin washed away, but we begin to do good, to live the love of God, and to conquer the oppression of the devil. That’s what happens when God is with us.

And thus Peter tells Cornelius and his household, whom he is about to baptize, and on whom “the Holy Spirit is poured out,” “I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” Our access to God is not by being a member of a club or doing a one-off trick, but by being members of Christ’s body, filled with his Spirit, and thus living as he lives: in the fear of God and acting uprightly.

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Our Old Testament reading comes from Isaiah: “I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice.” Not to crush “a bruised reed,” but “to open the eyes of the [spiritually] blind, to bring out [spiritual] prisoners from confinement, and from the [spiritual] dungeon, those who live in [spiritual] darkness.” (Literal prisons are important too, but let us see the point here.)

Baptism is the victory of justice: but the true victory of justice is not when people are condemned, but when people become just. The one “upon whom I have put my spirit, he shall bring forth justice to the nations.” When the Spirit comes, through Baptism, we are made whole, made good, made just and upright and godly.

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What does your Baptism mean to you? How do you celebrate it?

Through Mary

mary-baby-jesus1We now come to St. Louis de Montfort’s third way of describing the Christian life: life “through” or “by” Mary – the French is par.

We look to Mary as the source of all life. The main point of doing this, and the way it shapes our life, is that we recognize our need for grace. On the one hand, simply to recognize that we are not self-sufficient is to make great strides in the spiritual life. The Desert Fathers said the heart of the spiritual life is simply to pray constantly the Psalm verse, “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me.” To live in light of salvation.

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This frees us, on the one hand, to recognize our sin. On first read, de Montfort’s take on this can be off-putting. In an infamous passage, he tells us, “You will consider yourself as a snail that soils everything with its slime, as a toad that poisons everything with its venom, as a malevolent serpent seeking only to deceive.” I know I am not the only one who put this book away the first time I read things like that!

But de Montfort’s point is not about our sin, but our salvation. When we recognize that God sends his grace to heal us, we no longer have to hide our sin. We can acknowledge our stupidity precisely because we know it is not the last word. Pope Francis speaks of “the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin”: the point is not to wallow in sin, but to feel that caress, and know that our sin is the occasion for God to send his healing mercy. I don’t have to defend myself; Jesus handles that.

Second, to recognize our constant need for grace is to recognize that, beyond our sin, God also calls us beyond the limits of even sinless nature. What the heart of man has never imagined, God has prepared for us (1 Cor 2:9). To live always by God’s power is to realize he calls us not to what our limited power can reach, but “to become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4): the very life of the Trinity.

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But why through Mary. Why not just say through Jesus, or with the Desert Fathers, “God come to my assistance”? In fact, de Montfort’s own motto was “God alone!” Why then through Mary?

First, ironically, because Mary emphasizes Jesus. It is so very easy for Jesus to become an abstraction: either a super man, or just sort of a face of God. The Incarnation itself – what happened in the womb of Mary – really does surpass our capacity for understanding. To focus on Mary is precisely to focus on Jesus. To say “all through Mary” is to say “all through the mystery of the Incarnation”: no grace comes to us except through that amazing union of God and man. That is the source of our healing – not some vague God in the sky, but the one in Mary’s womb.

Second, Mary helps emphasize for us the human effect. Grace is God’s work – but it is in the heart of man. To think of Mary as Queen of Heaven is important precisely because it reminds us that a human person can become Queen of Heaven, that we really can enter into the heart of God. That purity from sin is a possibility: an impossibility by our own efforts, but possible by God’s grace. And perfect, divine, Trinitarian love: that can actually happen in a human heart. Mary abides in the heights of heaven, in the heart of the Trinity! Gosh, that is so hard to believe that we need to think about it. To live “all through Mary” is to live in constant union with the truth of what God has done in her, and calls us to let happen in our own hearts.

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Third, to think of Mary is to think of the mystery of election, and predilection. Mary is lucky, the luckiest one of all. She did not earn God’s love. Nor do we. We shoud realize how lucky we are: to know the truth of the Gospel, and even more, to have the fire of the Spirit in our hearts. We should not put too human a face on God – it is easy to replace God with something far less. But it is important to remember the tenderness of grace, the personal relationship, the personal choice – not first ours of God, but God’s choice of us. Mary helps to give us that personal touch, without washing out the mystery of God.

All through Mary!

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How does Mary help you understand God, and Jesus?

Pope Francis on the Holiness of the Church

pope francisIn the Creed, after professing: “I believe in one Church”, we add the adjective “holy”; we affirm the sanctity of the Church, and this is a characteristic that has been present from the beginning in the consciousness of early Christians, who were simply called “the holy people” (cf. Acts 9:13, 32, 41; Rom 8:27; 1 Cor 6:1), because they were certain that it is the action of God, the Holy Spirit that sanctifies the Church.

You could say to me: but the Church is made up of sinners, we see them everyday. And this is true: we are a Church of sinners – and we sinners are called to let ourselves be transformed, renewed, sanctified by God.

There has been in history the temptation for some to say: the Church is only the Church of the pure, the perfectly consistent, and expels all the rest. This is not true! This is heresy! The Church, that is holy, does not reject sinners; she does not reject us all; she does not reject because she calls everyone, welcomes them, is open even to those furthest from her, she calls everyone to allow themselves to be enfolded by the mercy, the tenderness and the forgiveness of the Father, who offers everyone the possibility of meeting him, of journeying toward sanctity.

“Well! Father, I am a sinner, I have tremendous sins, how can I possibly feel part of the Church?” Dear brother, dear sister, this is exactly what the Lord wants, that you say to him: “Lord, here I am, with my sins”. Is one of you here without sin? Anyone? No one, not one of us. We all carry our sins with us. But the Lord wants to hear us say to him: “Forgive me, help me to walk, change my heart!”.

And the Lord can change your heart. In the Church, the God we encounter is not a merciless judge, but like the Father in the Gospel parable. You may be like the son who left home, who sank to the depths, farthest from the Gospel. When you have the strength to say: I want to come home, you will find the door open. God will come to meet you because he is always waiting for you, God is always waiting for you, God embraces you, kisses you and celebrates. That is how the Lord is, that is how the tenderness of our Heavenly Father is.

The Lord wants us to belong to a Church that knows how to open her arms and welcome everyone, that is not a house for the few, but a house for everyone, where all can be renewed, transformed, sanctified by his love, the strongest and the weakest, sinners, the indifferent, those who feel discouraged or lost. The Church offers all the possibility of following a path of holiness, that is the path of the Christian: she brings us to encounter Jesus Christ in the Sacraments, especially in Confession and in the Eucharist; she communicates the Word of God to us, she lets us live in charity, in the love of God for all.

Let us ask ourselves then, will we let ourselves be sanctified? Are we a Church that calls and welcomes sinners with open arms, that gives courage and hope, or are we a Church closed in on herself? Are we a Church where the love of God dwells, where one cares for the other, where one prays for the others?

–General Audience, Wednesday, 2 October, 2013

The Our Father: An Introduction to the Spiritual Life

Sermon on the mountThe first post in our series on the “Our Father”.

Last Fall we worked through the Hail Mary, a fine little catechism on grace. We begin in this new year a series on the Our Father, which itself contains a complete introduction to the spiritual life. Today we will examine the prayer as a whole, then comment on each phrase over the coming Mondays.

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First, the context. The Our Father as we know it comes from Matthew’s Gospel, 6:5-14. What distinguishes Matthew’s Gospel from the others is its very straightforward organization. We could say that Matthew is the grand organizer of the sayings and doings of Jesus.

(To say that is non-controversial. We could further conjecture that Mark’s Gospel whittles Matthew’s down to a rush to the Cross as the only interpretive key to the person of Jesus; Luke’s reworks the previous two according to a Pauline theology of grace and God’s promises; and John’s provides a theological commentary on the previous three: for example, instead of the infancy narratives, he gives us “In the Beginning was the Word”; instead of the Institution of the Eucharist he gives us the Bread of Life discourse, united to the multiplication of the loaves, in John 6; the washing of feet as manifestation of the charity implicit in the Eucharist; and the discourses on unity in John 14-17. Each Gospel has its proper character.)

Matthew organizes Jesus’s teachings into Five Sermons (parallel to the five books of Moses, the central teaching of the Old Testament), with a book of infancy signs beforehand and a book of cross and resurrection signs afterwards. Each Sermon has a narrative attached that ties his actions to these central words. Matthew is straightforward.

The first Sermon is the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’ teaching on the moral life – or, more properly, the spiritual life, beginning with the Beatitudes. (The subsequent sermons are on the mission of the apostles, the parables of the Kingdom, the Church, and the end of time.) What is important here is that Matthew is gathering all of Jesus’s teaching on Christian living into one place. The Our Father is the center of this discourse, and like the Beatitudes at the beginning, summarizes the whole. This is Matthew’s distillation of Jesus’s teaching on life.

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The Our Father itself contains two clear parts: “thine” and “ours.” Thy name, thy kingdom, thy will; our daily bread, our trespasses (as we forgive), lead us not into temptation, deliver us. Thy comes first: first we look to God, then we look to ourselves.

There is a kind of descent, from the highest to the most mundane. “Deliver us from evil” is the most pragmatic phrase of the prayer. Physical evil is the most immediate (and self-centered) reason we turn to God; for many people, God serves as nothing but a help when things get rough. Moral evil can seem the most basic struggle of the Christian life: God, just help me not to sin!

On the one hand, obviously this is a pretty limited idea of Christianity – indeed, one where God is purely instrumental, and where we are more interested in avoiding evil than in seeking good. On the other hand, there is some sense in which this is the most basic struggle of life, and the Catholic tradition has always seen the struggle with sin as the foundation – though not the end – of the spiritual life. We want to be delivered, or liberated, for something: freedom is no good unless we have something we want to do. But we can’t do anything else until we are liberated.

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On the other end of the Our Father is the highest, most contemplative part of the spiritual life. Notice the expansion, if we move backwards through the “thy” section. “Thy will” is a beautiful thing, but on the one hand, it focuses more on what happens here than on God himself, and on the other hand, it makes God sound a bit arbitrary, as if he has no plan or higher purpose, just acts of command. In fact, part of the good of speaking of God’s will is that it emphasizes that we don’t know why he wills what he does – though he has his reasons.

“Thy Kingdom,” on the other hand, takes a step higher: bigger purpose, a grander vision, a union of souls, not just the immediate obedience of one man to God. This is the higher vision of his will.

And “thy name” – indeed “Our Father, who art in heaven,” itself – enters into a vision of God himself: not what he wills out there, but him. Think of the difference between saying, “God, tell me what to do,” and simply praying, “Jesus I love you. Jesus, Jesus. Father!”

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How do you use the Our Father?

 

Epiphany of our Lord: Gather in the Nations

adoration-of-the-magi-1306IS 60:1-6; PS72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; EPH 3:2-3a, 5-6; MT2:1-12

This Sunday we celebrate Epiphany, a Greek word that means “appearance.” The principle appearance is when Christ first appears to the nations: when the three kings come to see him in Bethlehem. But tradition and the liturgy also connect to this his “appearance” when he was baptized and his appearance through his first miracle at Cana.

Some fun connections: 1. In the East, Epiphany is Christmas. The birth of Christ is important because now he appears, he is seen. 2. There are many ways Christ appears, and to various people. 3. Baptism is spiritual rebirth; it is fitting to connect his baptism and his birthday. 4. Just as Christ turns water to wine at Cana, so Baptism turns water into the power of the Holy Spirit; the transformation of our soul at Baptism is the greater miracle, to which the physical miracles bear witness. 5. God becomes man at Christmas; man is united to God by baptism; and so marriage, feasting, and all of human life is suffused with God at Cana.

But on Sunday, our readings focus on the three kings.

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“Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth . . . but upon you the Lord shines.”

The reading from Isaiah shows the nations streaming to Jerusalem. But they come to Jerusalem because the Lord is there. Jerusalem becomes the rallying point. All nations are united because all come together at God’s temple.

The image of light and darkness is especially nice. First, because the light comes not from Jerusalem itself, but from God above. The Church, Pope Francis likes to say, lives “the mystery of the moon.” The moon can do nothing but reflect the light of the sun. The light we have is the light that the Lord shines upon us. The Church, the true Jerusalem, is the gathering place of the nations because Jesus is here.

Second, darkness is a negation. It is true that the world is full of sin. But it is more true to say that the world lives in darkness, ignorance, emptiness. Sin itself is a negation, a not, something missing. When we come streaming to the light of the Lord in Jerusalem, it is not so much to “give up” sin, which is a nothingness, but to receive the goodness of the Lord: his light, the meaning he gives to life, his goodness.

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Paul speaks of this “mystery of the moon” in the reading from Ephesians. First, he calls himself a “steward of God’s grace.” Both the priesthood and the universal ministry of evangelization are a stewardship. What we spread is not our light, but the light that shines on us. We have been given a great gift, a gift to be shared. We do not preach ourselves. But we do preach the gift we have been given. That requires profound humility: always to submit our minds to the teaching of Christ, the teaching of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium; always to depend on the power of the sacraments, not our own power; always to live the communion of the Church, never to prefer our own ways to the ways of Christ.

Second, Paul says his message is “that the Gentiles are coheirs.” We come to Jerusalem. The New Testament is not a denial of the Old, but its perfection. Israel remains; the Church is Israel, the nation of God. The difference is not that we deny anything in the Old Testament; and especially not that we deny the intense national unity of the Old Testament. The difference is that now all nations are called to Jerusalem. We can all join Israel, the place where God’s light shines.

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Finally, the Gospel presents a beautiful contrast between King Herod and the three pilgrim kings. (Actually, Matthew describes them as wise men, though the Responsorial Psalm shows clearly that they are fulfilling a prophecy about kings.)

The good kings lay down their crowns and their gifts before the one true king. They give up everything to come to Jerusalem and pay him homage. And so they are more properly wise men than kings: more focused on seeking his light than on asserting their authority.

The bad king, King Herod, thinks Jerusalem belongs to him. He is King of Israel – and that is his downfall. Because the true King is the poor man lying in a manger, and shining with the light of God.

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What does the Church mean to us? How can we give up everything to come to Jerusalem and pay homage to the true king, the true light?