Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Fulfillment of the Law

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

SIR 15:15-20; PS 119: 1-2, 3-4, 17-18, 33-34; 1 COR 2:6-10; MT 5:17-37

Almost Jesus’s first word, after the Beatitudes, is about the Law. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law. . . . Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

We can learn much from this Sunday’s readings about mercy and justice.

Now, often people think of justice and mercy as opposites, identifying one with the Old Testament and the other with the New. But this is not Jesus’s attitude. Jesus does not think the Old Testament was evil, or harsh.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment.”

“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The pattern is clear: what the Law of the Old Testament set out, Jesus intensifies. He fulfills the Law by showing the heart of the matter. The prohibition against adultery is not about seeing how far you can tiptoe before it counts as adultery. The prohibition against adultery is about rooting out anything in our attitude toward sexuality that undermines marriages. And so too with the other commandments.

When it says “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees,” the word is actually the word for justice. One of the things Jesus’s reinterpretation of the Law shows us is that justice defined as obeying legal commands and justice defined as treating other people right are one and the same: the Law commands that we treat other people right, profoundly right. And Jesus is on the side of justice.

***

But what about mercy? The reading from Sirach helps us go a little deeper. “Before man are life and death, good and evil,” it says. “Whichever he chooses shall be given him.” The Bible presents justice, fulfillment of the Law, as good for us. The commandments are not ugly obligations, restricting our freedom and crimping our life. They are life, goodness. Injustice is death.

We are made for relationships: for relationships with other people, and relationship with God. When the Law commands healthy relationships, it commands our own health. It is good for us to fulfill the Law. The Law itself, precisely by teaching justice, is mercy, because justice is good for us.

A “mercy” that set us free from the Law, allowing us to be unjust, would be no mercy at all, because it would allow us to self-destruct, by destroying our relationships.

***

But God is still more merciful than that. “If you choose you can keep the commandments,” says Sirach. I don’t think the original readers of the Old Testament were any more clueless about this than we are. I can? Actually, it’s really hard to fulfill the commandments! The Pharisees devoted their whole lives to fulfilling the commandments – and Jesus says their righteousness was not good enough.

But Sirach immediately goes on: “If you trust in God, you too shall live.” A moment later it will say, “Immense is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power.” This is two different things. We trust the wisdom of the Lord by accepting his Law. But we trust in the power of God by begging him to help us. We can only fulfill the Law, only live true justice, by the grace he gives us.

That, in fact, is precisely what “grace” means: the power, which only God himself can give us, to live true justice, true righteousness, true, perfect right relationship with our neighbor and with God.

***

The reading from First Corinthians gives us a glimpse deeper in. God’s wisdom is “not a wisdom of this age.” He offers us something greater than we can imagine, “which God predetermined before the ages for our glory.” “This God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”

The great mercy of Jesus Christ is not to set us free from the Law, not to ignore our injustice, but to make us just, and good, so that we can fulfill the beautiful Law of justice and right relationship.

***

Are there times when you have trouble appreciating the mercy of the Law? When you have trouble seeing the good in being just?

Eia Ergo –The Sigh of the Hail, Holy Queen

Hail, Holy Queen is a beautiful medieval hymn, written perhaps by Hermann Contractus, a brilliant monk, crippled from birth (contractus means something like bound up, or handicapped), around the year 1000, at the dawning of a great age of Marian piety. It was adopted by the Dominicans early in the thirteenth century as their prayer at Compline, from whence it has passed both to the end of the rosary and the liturgical end of the day for much of the Church. For many years it was also prayed at the end of Mass.

If you have not heard this beautiful hymn, in both its shorter and its longer, monastic version, please listen here!

 

Unfortunately, the English translation leaves out a beautiful line, eia ergo! I’ll show where it goes:

Hail, Holy Queen

Our Lady of Altoetting, oldest Marian shrine in Germany

Our Lady of Altoetting, oldest Marian shrine in Germany

Mother of Mercy
Our life, our sweetness, and our hope
To thee do we cry
Poor banished children of Eve
To thee do we send up our sighs
Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears
Eia ergo! Oh! therefore, a sigh! —
Turn then, most gracious advocate,
Thine eyes of mercy toward us
And after this our exile
Show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Oh! clement. Oh! loving. Oh! Sweet Virgin Mary
Pray for us!

Today I would just like to point out the element of sighing.

In the first half of the hymn, we do little but cry out: “To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping.” In the second part, we ask for something . . . but not much. Just remember us, turn thine eyes of mercy toward us – and someday, show us Jesus.

***

“Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us,” said the Apostle Philip. Jesus responded, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9).

The Hail, Holy Queen does little more than give expression – beautiful, emotional expression – to this line from the Gospel. We want nothing but to see Jesus.

And so the turning point of the hymn, the lynchpin, is Eia ergo! Ergo means “therefore”: since we mourn and weep in this valley of tears . . . therefore, what? Therefore eia. Eia is not a word, it is a sound, a cry, a sigh. Like “Oh!” But, a bit more expressive, I think. Try it: eh-yah!

Ultimately, what we sigh for us is to see Jesus: “show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb!” What the hymn does is build up that line, give it expression. We sigh for that line. The hymn adds a gloss, a kind of commentary, or poetic interpretation, to Philip’s line. Not just “Lord, show us the Father,” but “oh, oh, eia!

***

In addition, of course, it uses Mary to give greater emotional energy to the cry. The balance of “children of Eve” crying for the “Mother of Mercy” not to forget us; of being “banished” in “this valley of tears,” but praying that we may never be forgotten by those in heaven: “turn thine eyes of mercy toward us!” (And what is it to be poor and banished? Nothing more than not to see Jesus. Who is our most gracious advocate? She who sees Jesus.)

From “show us the Father” we come to a dramatic vision of Jesus (the more emotional, vivid image of the Father), a vivid image of our distance from that vision, a vivid image of our advocate, she who stands close to Jesus, and loves us – and a sigh, a real crying out of longing.

***

Notice, first, that the medieval tradition is anything but stoic! Jesus is an emotional thing. Longing for heaven is something we are supposed to feel, and sigh for. The medievals love to talk about people crying when they pray. To be sure, we don’t always feel like that. But let us not become too complacent in our unfeeling! Our prayer should be vivid enough, heartfelt enough, that we can sigh, and groan, and weep, for love of God. Prayer should make us say eia!

That doesn’t mean, of course, manufactured crocodile tears. To the contrary, notice also the funny conjunction of words and sighs in this hymn. The end is nothing but a groan, eia, beyond words. But the path to that end is strong, Biblical, Christ-centered words, an intelligent meditation on the sadness of our plight and the goodness of our heavenly friends. The path to real Christian tears is through solid Christian doctrine.

Eucharist: The Sacrificial Life

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigEach of the sacraments provides a way to think of the whole Christian life. In the past two weeks, we have seen how Baptism helps us think of “the life of rebirth” and Confirmation “the apostolic life.” The Eucharist, greatest of the sacraments, actually gives us two central images, according to the two things we do with the Eucharist: sacrifice and communion. (Technically, the Eucharist gives us an exterior act, sacrifice, because Christ becomes present on the altar, and not only in our souls.) These two aspects of the Eucharist, like all of the sacraments and all of the Christian life, are inextricably entwined. But we can talk about them one by one: sacrifice this week, communion next week.

***

There is some confusion about what “sacrifice” means. In modern English, sacrifice means something like pain for a higher good. If we work hard to go to college, we call that sacrifice.

But when the Church calls the Eucharist a sacrifice, that just isn’t the way we are using the word. (It’s unfortunate that we have to do this – to give a Catholic definition of words that is different from the “normal” definition. But we live in a culture that doesn’t understand worship, so there are going to be problems of language.)

The Catholic definition of sacrifice differs from the normal English one in two ways. First, sacrifice is not for just any good. By sacrifice we mean “only for God.” Sacrifice is what you only do for God. In that sense, “sacrificing for college” is just a contradiction.

Second, pain isn’t the point. For God is the point. Sacrifice does not always involve pain. In the Bible, some sacrifices are holocausts – up in smoke – but some are feasts, the very opposite of pain. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, because it involves both death and resurrection, is actually both: both pain and celebration. But what makes something a sacrifice, in the Bible, in Augustine, in Thomas Aquinas, in the Catholic understanding, is that we do it for God.

The sacrificial life is a life ordered to God.

***

The heart of sacrifice is thanksgiving – which is why the most important name for the Eucharist is not “communion,” but “Eucharist,” the Greek word for thanksgiving. At Mass we give thanks to God: for his goodness that we read about in the Bible, for all of creation, for our lives (both the nice things and the hard things), and above all for the grace he pours out on us in Jesus.

Jesus left us a “memorial” of his passion: he left us a way, a concrete practice, of giving thanks. The heart of the Eucharist is simply to recall what he has done, and do the thing, the sacrifice, that he gave us as the perfect way of calling to mind and giving thanks for his goodness to us.

***

Sacrifice is not about pain. It is about justice – “it is right and just.” It is about doing what is right, what we ought to do. “Make justice your sacrifice,” says the Psalm (4:5), and the refrain runs throughout the Bible, in a thousand ways. When we do what is right, purely because it is the right thing to do, we make justice our sacrifice. We give thanks to God by embracing the life and the duties he has given us. (We deny thanks to God by refusing the duties he has given us.)

This is where pain is relevant to sacrifice. Often our duties, the right thing, is not what we feel like doing. A right sense of mortification focuses not on how we can hurt ourselves – which is hardly part of an attitude of thanksgiving – but on doing the right thing even when it hurts. It is good, and right, to rejoice at the suffering when we know that it is because we are doing what is right. The pain – even the little pains, like getting up to help when we’ve just put our feet up – are a reminder, not of the goodness of pain (pain is not good in itself!), but of the goodness of doing what is right and just.

We could make our life thanksgiving, make our life Eucharistic, just by adopting that line from the Mass, “It is right and just!”

***

Thanksgiving longs for expression. The tradition calls the most important part “interior sacrifice”: truly being thankful. But we physical beings need to express that through “exterior sacrifices”: acts of thanksgiving.

How do you give thanks in your day? How do you make your life a sacrifice of praise?

St. Vincent Ferrer On Silence

st-vincent-ferrer-preachingThe following words of St. Vincent Ferrer are very strict, to be sure. But notice that St. Vincent does not prevent us from indulging in recreation – he just warns us against being severe and hurtful. I don’t know about you, but my examination of conscience turns up so very many places every day where I am too harsh on those around me. Come to think of it, Scripture, too, treats this as one of the most besetting sins, as I have written before.

Having laid the solid foundation of poverty inculcated by Jesus Christ Himself when, seated on the mountain, he said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit;” it behooves us to strive vigorously to repress the tongue. This organ ought only to be employed in useful speech, and never to become the instrument of vain and idle words.

In order the better to restrain the tongue, accustom yourself to reply rather than to express an opinion, and then only in answer to some useful and necessary question; all frivolous questions will be best answered by silence.

Yet, if you should sometimes indulge in a little pleasantry, by way of recreation, regulate your tone and manner in such a way as not to wound the sensibility of others. Avoid everything that would lead people to regard you as singular, severe, or as one who exceeds the bounds of piety.

Should they complain of you, or blame your behavior, it will then be needful to redouble your prayers for such persons, that God in His goodness may chase from their hearts all that is an occasion of trouble or annoyance to them.

Nevertheless, speak whenever a pressing necessity invites you, such as charity to your neighbor, or the obedience which you have promised to your Superior. In such cases, think beforehand what you ought to say, and express yourself in few words, and in a gentle and respectful tone, which will indicate the humility of your heart. You should also observe the same rule when anyone questions you.

If you remain silent for a time, it should be done with a view to edify your neighbor, and to foresee what may be conveniently said when the moment for speaking shall arrive. Beseech God to supply your silence, and to interiorly make known to others that the obligation you are under of subduing the tongue prohibits you from speaking to them.

–From the Treatise on the Spiritual Life

St. Vincent Ferrer, OP (1350-1419)

Thy Will Be Done

Sermon on the mountPart 6 in our series on the Our Father.

Our walk through the “Our Father,” Jesus’s little treatise on the spiritual life, brings us this week to “Thy Will Be Done.” As we noted last week, this line takes another step downward, from the contemplative heights into the practical life. From the heights, in which we see the Father’s “kingdom” extending through heaven and earth, we come to the simple acceptance of God’s “will.”

“Will,” as we said last week, is an interesting middle ground. On the one hand, we believe as Christians that God’s will is not arbitrary, that he has a perfect, wise plan, a reason for everything. (And, if we hold to the philosophy of the Catholic tradition, we believe that no one ever makes purely meaningless acts of will: will always express some kind of intelligence.)

But we speak of will, not intellect or wisdom or plan, precisely to emphasize that the reason doesn’t matter. To say “thy will be done” is precisely not to say, “if it makes good sense to me.” To the contrary, it is to say, “I don’t know the why behind this choice; I don’t see the wisdom in your willing; but I accept.” Even if we believe God has a reason, we say “thy will” to say that his reasons are often inaccessible to us.

The paradigmatic case, of course, is when Jesus himself says, “thy will be done”: “Father, if you will it, remove this cup from me, nevertheless not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42). Indeed, in this first sorrowful mystery, Jesus takes us in a sense to the inner depths of suffering: not only does it hurt, but we don’t see the reason for it. All we can do is bear it – “suffer” it, in the older sense of the word – and try to believe that somewhere underneath there is a reason.

We mustn’t think God is arbitrary or mean. But anytime we think we know all his ways, we fall into foolishness, and we wander from his will. When we substitute our intelligence for his, we abandon his perfect plan.

***

This is an important part of the Our Father. A couple weeks ago, when I wrote on the opening words of the prayer, my friend Chris commented that we hardly need the rest: everything is right there, in the two words “Our Father.” In one sense this is true. Truly all of Christianity is contained in those words.

But to fully appreciate those words, and their force in our lives, especially in this valley of tears, we have to appreciate that much of the time we won’t see it. Often God will seem more like a will to which we must submit than like a loving Father. We need to say the first words, to know that ultimately behind this strangeness, there is meaning, and love. But we also need these later words, to remember that truly accepting the Father requires accepting his will, even when it makes no sense to me.

Indeed, it is not because he is a cruel tyrant, but precisely because he is a loving Father – infinitely wiser and more merciful than we can imagine – that we have to accept that we often can’t comprehend his ways. It would make sense if he were more like us. Thank God that he isn’t.

***

Perhaps this gives us an opening to think of “thy will be done” in a different way. Often we say these words to mean something outside of us: the suffering that comes, the downfalls in our careers or relationships. Thy will be done, Father. I accept this from your gracious and mysterious hand.

But “thy will be done” can also be a motto for our own participation in that plan. Because the Father’s will is always mercy and love. “Thy will be done” can also be an opportunity to say, “may I will as you will” – not only that I accept this thing that befalls me, but that I love, and pour myself out, as the God of Jesus Christ does.

“I will to will the will of God,” a motto of the saints, can also mean, I want to will goodness, and mercy, and kindness, and compassion, and love – and truth and justice and righteousness!

In this way, too, we see the progress and unity of the Lord’s Prayer. It is very fine to call God Father, to have our treasure in heaven, to long for God’s kingdom – but none of this means anything until we come down to the practicals of loving as God loves, willing as he wills.

***

How have you grappled with the goodness and mercy of God’s mysterious will in your life?

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Saltiness of the Christian

St Dominic with BibleIS 58:7-10; PS 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 COR 2:1-5; MT 5:13-16 

This Sunday’s reading pairs nicely with our consideration this week of Confirmation, because it talks about real Christian witness – about the witness of a truly Christian life.

This year we are reading Matthew’s Gospel. One of the finest things about the liturgical reform after Vatican II is the restoration of the “orderly” (hence, “ordinary time”) reading through the Gospels. We get to spend the year walking through the brilliance of Matthew. But we still get interrupted sometimes. Unfortunately, last week the fantastic Feast of the Presentation meant we missed the Beatitudes, the opening of Jesus’s preaching, and one of the most important parts of the whole Bible.

(That’s okay. Just memorize it.)

This week we get the passage that immediately follows: “You are the salt of the earth . . . . You are the light of the world.” The Sermon on the Mount mostly speaks of interior dispositions, especially the Beatitudes. What Jesus most wants is our heart. But it occasionally reminds us—first, and most boldly, in this passage—that our heart expresses itself in our actions. Not salty, not salt: if you don’t walk like a Christian, Jesus says, don’t tell me you have the heart of a Christian.

The heart of our witness is simply to be what we are. Someone who is truly poor in spirit is a fine witness; someone who is not, is not.

***

Paul’s message for us, from First Corinthians, is equally bold and direct. “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” To be poor, and to live entirely in relation to the Poor Man.

“My message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom, but on the power of God.” Now, we might be tempted, especially if we put too much distance between ourselves and the world of the Bible, to think this means Paul did magic tricks. But in light of what he said about “Christ, and him crucified,” I think the “power of God” goes deeper than mere miracle-magic.

The power of God expresses itself more powerfully in the spirit of the Beatitudes, in a person who lives true poverty of spirit. To know Christ, and him crucified, is to lay down your life in the confidence that God is real, and powerful, and present. God can make us happy even when all else is lost; God can keep us going when our strength has run out. If you believe that, your life will look different. You will be salty like a Christian.

***

Incidentally, this is also a point very close to Pope Francis’s heart, about evangelization. True evangelization is not based on laser light shows and clever manipulation of pop culture. True evangelization is based on people living like God is real, and thus being willing to follow Christ Crucified.

***

The point is made most clearly in our reading from Isaiah. “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless: clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.” (Or, as Christ says, in the very last words of his preaching, “Amen, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life,” Matt 25.)

Isaiah puts a nice point on it: “Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry out for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

See the parallelism: if you are there for the least of his brothers, he will be there for you. If not, not.

But we can go a step deeper, in light of our other readings. If you hoard your goods, as if you must supply for yourself, God will leave you to your hoarding: a pretty miserable eternal inheritance. If you pour forth your goods, as if God is your sufficiency, God will be your sufficiency.

This does mean going out to the literal poorest of the poor. There are no saints who ignore the literal power of Jesus’s words about this.

But it also finds expression in those close to home: in our willingness to shelter our neighbors in all the ways that they find themselves vulnerable, even – especially – when it hurts.

***

Is God your sufficiency? How do you express that?

Now for Something Kooky: The Meaning of Olive Oil

olive Oil 3A postscript to yesterday’s thoughts on Confirmation:

Olive oil plays a key role in several of the sacraments: Confirmation, Baptism (where it anticipates Confirmation), Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders, as well as the fabulous rite of blessing a new church or altar. The symbolism is a bit obscure.

But it’s important to appreciate that the symbols are key to the sacraments. We know what the sacraments mean when they evoke bathing, eating, and marriage. The symbolism of Confession – saying you are sorry for your sins – is so strikingly obvious as to be almost hard to notice. And it’s even pretty easy to understand what laying on hands means: if you can ever attend an Ordination, you will find that act beautifully evocative. The sacraments are not “just” symbols, but they work through symbols, and the symbolism is important to fully appreciating them.

But what about anointing? What the heck is the Bishop doing when he puts oil on people’s heads?

***

For the Psalmist, this is a powerful symbol. It is not just a random sign of choosing, but a sign of richness and blessing:

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: you anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over” (Ps. 23:5).

“God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows” (Ps. 45:7).

“I shall be anointed with fresh oil” (Ps. 92:10).

“Let the righteous strike me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not damage my face” (Ps. 141:5).

It seeps deep into the body:

“As he clothed himself with cursing as with his garment, so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones” (Ps. 109:18).

“The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords” (Ps. 55:21).

And, my personal favorite, it makes your face shine:

“He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengthens man’s heart” (Ps. 104:14-15).

***

Olive oil was the cosmetic of the ancient world, as important to hygiene as it was to cooking. In fact, there is a movement now to rediscover it: as a face cleanser, a moisturizer, and a lubricant for shaving. Clean oil actually does a remarkable job, on the one hand, washing away dirty oils, and on the other, seeping into the skin to nurture it.

If that sounds totally weird to you, maybe you should try it. Try it precisely because it is unfortunate if the symbolism of the sacraments creeps you out. If you think wine is poison (instead of it “gladdening your heart,” as in Psalm 104 above), it is hard to appreciate the joy of the Eucharist; if you hate baths and showers, Baptism loses its luster. But so too you miss out on the rich symbolism of several sacraments if you’ve never experienced the healthy “shine” (Ps. 104) and “seeping in” (Ps. 109) of olive oil.

Put it this way: on your death bed, God willing, you will be anointed with olive oil: hopefully the most powerful sacramental experience of your whole life. Wouldn’t it be nice if you were ready to appreciate that experience?

Try a little, just on your hands . . . .

***

By the way: it’s worth noticing, in passing, what anointing with olive oil can teach us about cosmetics. In short, the difference is both subtle and vast between a paint meant to make you look like something you’re not, and things like olive oil that bring out the radiance of your own beauty: the difference between truth and falsehood.

The Sacrament of Confirmation: The Apostolic Life

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigThough the Church’s teaching on Confirmation is remarkably scant, we can find in it an entire spirituality.

(Scroll down to the three canons here to see the entire magisterial teaching. A current school of thought, led by Josef Ratzinger, would like to minimize this teaching even further, in the name of ecumenical outreach. But I will present the medieval development of the doctrine, which I think you will find a lovely complement to Vatican II.)

***

The central act of Confirmation has the Bishop (or his representative) mark the confirmand’s forehead with scented oil, or chrism. Both the Bishop and the act of anointing suggest a commissioning, a task. The Latin name “confirmation,” more specific than the older Greek name “chrismation,” says that this oil (this chrism) is there to strengthen (“confirm”) us for the mission.

The Bishop traditionally anoints the confirmand with the sign of the cross. He now carries the cross on his forehead, wherever he goes. The medieval crusaders wore a cross on their back – the English called them “crouchbacks,” “crouch” being a variant of “cross” – to mark them as soldiers for Christ. Confirmation is one of the sacraments that you can only receive once: once a crouchback, always a crouchback; the cross marks your forehead forever, to your glory or to your shame.

The medievals saw this as the sacrament of evangelization. You are sent to represent Christ and his Church to the world. It is thus appropriate, though not necessary, that the confirmand be approaching adulthood: now you go out into the world.

But the cross on your forehead symbolizes what kind of witness you are to make: principally a silent witness. You are not anointed to be a big talker, but to show people what a Christian is. Like the crouchback, you wear it on your back, not on your big mouth: they see what you do, not what you say.

The oil used is scented, usually with balsam. The medieval tradition likes this even better. You are not supposed to talk like a Christian – you are supposed to smell like one! There should be a certain something, something that permeates who you are. Romano Guardini, I think, said, they should be able to tell you are a Christian from the way you climb a tree. I think we’re supposed to laugh . . .but the point is, Confirmation commissions you to be a witness by everything you do.

Some of the new closing blessings at Mass are, in my opinion, kind of hokey, maybe a bit reductive, but it is worth pointing out somehow that the Mass ends with (and, in fact, in the West is named by) the word “sent”: ite, missa est can be translated simply, “go, you are sent” (or more literally: “this is the sending”).

***

Most important, though, Confirmation is a sacrament. It is not a mission we take on ourselves, and not one we are sent out to do by our own power. As the oil seeps into our skin (see my post on this tomorrow), so confirmation strengthens us. We are meant to rely on his power, the power of Christ.

We are marked with the sign of the Cross, both because we bear witness to Christ, and because it is Christ who gives us the strength to do it. The strength he gives is the strength of the Cross. The principal witnesses are the martyrs, who did not impose the faith, but suffered for it – and who were willing to face the end of their strength in the knowledge that Jesus is stronger even than death.

***

Confirmation is, in one sense, a filling out of our Baptism. We can practice devotion to Confirmation by literally wearing a Baptismal garment: a cross, a metal, a scapular. But perhaps we would express the true meaning of Confirmation better by wearing our garment hidden under our clothes: a reminder that our witness is to be far more profound than a bumper sticker.

In another sense, since Confirmation strengthens us when we are tempted to hide the light of Christ, it is like Confession. And so, like Confession, we can practice devotion to Confirmation through little acts of penance: in this case, little reminders to ourselves that we need to be tough, willing to suffer for the truth of the Gospel.

Always we can make the sign of the Cross, and pray “come, Holy Spirit,” to enlighten and strengthen us for witness.

Then we can be as Jesus:

“Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty, with thy glory and thy majesty. And in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness” (Ps. 45:3-4).

***

How do you keep alive your call to be an apostolic witness?

Pope St. Leo the Great on Charity

From a homily on the Ascension. Watch Leo make a beautiful, and very traditional, move: from detachment, to love of the poor. To be “poor, and for the poor” . . . .

And so, dearly-beloved, let us rejoice with spiritual joy, and let us with gladness pay God worthy thanks and raise our hearts’ eyes unimpeded to those heights where Christ is.

Minds that have heard the call to be uplifted [Lift up your hearts!]
must not be pressed down by earthly affections ;
they that are fore-ordained to things eternal
must not be taken up with the things that perish;
they that have entered on the way of Truth
must not be entangled in treacherous snares;
and the faithful must so take their course through these temporal things
as to remember that they are sojourning in the vale of this world,
in which, even though they meet with some attractions,
they must not sinfully embrace them, but bravely pass through them.

LeoGreatFor to this devotion the blessed Apostle Peter arouses us, and entreating us with that loving eagerness which he conceived for feeding Christ’s sheep by the threefold profession of love for the Lord, says, “dearly-beloved, I beseech you, as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).evotion the blessed Apostle Peter arouses us, and en

But for whom do fleshly pleasures wage war, if not for the devil, whose delight it is to fetter souls that strive after things above, with the enticements of corruptible good things, and to draw them away from those abodes from which he himself has been banished? Against his plots every believer must keep careful watch that he may crush his foe on the side whence the attack is made.

And there is no more powerful weapon, dearly-beloved, against the devil’s wiles than kindly mercy and bounteous charity, by which every sin is either escaped or vanquished.

But this lofty power is not attained until that which is opposed to it be overthrown. And what so hostile to mercy and works of charity as avarice [love of material goods] from the root of which spring all evils ? And unless it be destroyed by lack of nourishment, there must needs grow in the ground of that heart in which this evil weed has taken root, the thorns and briars of vices rather than any seed of true goodness.

Let us then, dearly-beloved, resist this pestilential evil and follow after charity, without which no virtue can flourish, that by this path of love whereby Christ came down to us, we too may mount up to Him, to Whom with God the Father and the Holy Spirit is honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Thy Kingdom Come

Sermon on the mountPart 5 in our series on the Our Father.

Our prayer continues to move outward. “Hallowed be thy name” looked upward, to God himself, a prayer focused entirely in worship. “Thy kingdom come” now looks to the reverse side of the coin, to how God is manifested in the world. “Who art in heaven” had us up where God is already all in all. Now we ask him to extend his reign even here below, to where he is not yet.

Next week we will consider “thy will be done,” a beautiful prayer and, for many people, a favorite part of the Our Father. But here, let us briefly consider how “thy kingdom come” is different, and why it comes first, on the “heavenly” end of the prayer.

Note, first, the difference between the prayer “thy will be done” and Mary’s prayer to the angel, “be it done to me according to your word.” “Will” stresses arbitrariness, or at least darkness. I don’t know what you’re going to do, and I don’t know why you want to do it, but go ahead. But “word” expresses intelligibility, and wisdom. God has told Mary what is going to happen (at least in rough outline). She understands – and more importantly, his plan is understandable.

There is a risk – in fact, it is one of the key breaking points in the history of Christian thought – in thinking of God too much in terms of an arbitrary will. Certainly his plan is far beyond our sight or understanding. But God is not a tyrant, not arbitrary. He calls us into his heavenly kingdom – not, ultimately, into blind obedience to his “will.”

Before we speak of God’s “will,” the Our Father calls us to think of his Kingdom.

***

What is a kingdom? Well, first of all, it is a social reality. Louis XIV is supposed to have said, “l’état, c’est moi”: I am the State. Without getting into too many subtleties of political philosophy, let us notice that, though a tyrant may himself be the entire government, he simply cannot be the entire realm. A realm, or a kingdom, is many people, all the complexity of many lives. The tyrant might be the “State,” if by that we mean the mechanics of government, but he cannot be the entire nation.

Yet to the extent that there is a single realm, there is a kind of unity about it. A realm, or nation, is, as we occasionally remember in America, e pluribus unum, something one out of the many, a kind of unity of many people.

This is actually quite important to the Catholic understanding of the human person. We are social beings in such a way that our individuality and our being part of society are not at odds. In fact, we are more human when we participate in communities bigger than ourselves.

Heaven is the ultimate community, the ultimate kingdom. The heavenly city, the eternal Jerusalem, “the city of the great king” (Ps. 48:2) is a place where we are more fully alive because in union. Both our union with God and our union with all the saints do not destroy our individuality, but bring it out in all its richness.

All of this speaks of the order, the wisdom, the fullness of God’s kingdom. Indeed, in the old political philosophy, the distinction between a king and a tyrant was that a tyrant demands that everybody be a slave to his will – but a king works for the good of his kingdom, to make the realm shine and come alive in all its richness. That is what we pray for when we pray “your kingdom come.”

***

A kingdom, of course, points above all to a King. But in Christianity, our great king, the son of David, is a shepherd. We need his help. The sheep go astray, and the kingdom goes to pieces, without the goodness and wisdom (and defenses from danger) of the king. There is no doing without the good shepherd – and oh, how foolish it would be to try to replace him with our own selfishness and short-sightedness and weakness. But his exaltation is ours too, his kingdom our life, and happiness, and well-being.

All of this points, too, to why we must pray Thy Kingdom Come. It’s a little strange. In one sense, God is already king. Creation is always in his hand, nothing escapes his providence. But in another sense, Jesus will only truly be king when we embrace him, when the sheep hear his voice, when order, and beauty, and goodness come to our world, through the wisdom of Christ the King.

***

How do you envision Jesus as King? What does his “kingdom” mean to you?