First Sunday in Advent: Jesus Prepares Us to Meet Him

our lady of millenium

IS 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7; PS 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; 1 COR 1:3-9; MK 13:33-37

Our Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent sets the theme for the season:  “It is like a man traveling abroad.  Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming.”

Perhaps you are familiar with St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s famous sermon on “the three advents.”  There was the first coming of Christ, in Bethlehem.  There will be the final coming of Christ, on the last day.  And there is his daily coming, today.

Advent calls us to think of all three: to prepare to celebrate his first coming at Christmas by also thinking of his final coming, and by living each day in preparation for his coming.


The Gospel reading, from Mark (we now begin Mark’s year in the Lectionary), gives three fine details.

First, it says, “He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work,” but then focuses in on a particular work, “and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.”  We are told especially to identify with the gatekeeper: “Watch, therefore.”

But both in the parable and in our lives, the gatekeeper’s job bleeds into all jobs.  He watches for the coming of the Lord – but so too must everyone else, each in their own work.

In the same way, we are not only called to be gatekeepers.  In this life we are called to do much more than sit and wait.  We are “each with his own work.”  Rather, in our work, in all the particularities of the life Christ has given us, we are to be preparing for his coming.  Not by setting aside our lives, but by living them fully.


A second angle on the same thing: Christ is “the Lord of the house.”  Our lives belong to him.  Our houses (which we must therefore make fair as we are able), our children (whom we must raise for him), our jobs (which we must do as if working in his household), and everything else.

The coming of the Lord doesn’t mean this life doesn’t matter.  If he is “the Lord of the house,” the we must live our vocations more deeply, preparing for him.


And a third angle: “you do not know when.”  We could say there are two kinds of apocalpyticisms, a doctrinaire one and a moral one.  “Doctrinaire apocalypticism” thinks the point is what we do know.  We have secret knowledge.  We know there will be a last day.  (Notice that Christ himself is not that important to doctrinaire apocalypticism.)  And sometimes people – more often Protestants, but sometimes Catholics too – get really excited about predicting when.

But when he says, “you do know when,” he teaches a kind of “moral apocalypticism.”  Oh, it’s true, we believe he will indeed come, to judge the living and the dead.  But the point of this teaching is not that we know, the point is how we live.  We are called to live like we don’t know when, so that we are prepared every day for the Lord of the household to come.


Sunday’s first two readings teach, above all, that we need Jesus himself to prepare us for his coming.  His coming at Bethlehem – and his giving of the sacraments – works in us to prepare for his coming today, and on the last day.

The Psalm response speaks a key doctrine of grace: “Lord, make us turn to you.”  That fabulous little line contains both sides of grace.  On the one hand, grace is God’s work in us.  He makes us turn.  We can almost blame him for not turning us.  We can’t do it on our own.

But we do do it.  “Make us turn.”  God’s grace doesn’t work outside of us, it works in us.  It causes us to turn.  Jesus, cause me to love you; cause me to choose you; cause me to seek you and prepare for you.


So Isaiah speaks those unspeakable words, found throughout the Bible: “Why do you let us wander . . . and harden our hearts?”  We so desperately need God’s grace that we almost blame God for our failing.  Without him we can do nothing (John 15:5).

And he goes on at length about our hopelessness without God.  “Yet, O Lord, you are the father; we are the clay and you are the potter.”  “You wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for.”


But once Christ has come, Paul says, in the opening to First Corinthians, “in him you were enriched in every way . . . not lacking in any spiritual gift.”

And he puts this precisely in our Advent context: “as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He will keep you firm to the end.”

We live always in preparation for his coming – and in thanksgiving that he himself works in us to prepare us.

What does the Lord of the household want you to be preparing?

Dies Irae: Jesus is Everything


Oops!  Between the turkey and the pie, we forgot to post this meditation yesterday!

The year comes full circle. November is the month of death. Liturgically we look to the saints in heaven, think of those in Purgatory, and think of the year as ending. Outside the world is gray and dying. But at the end of this month of ending comes Thanksgiving – because the time of death is also the time of harvest, and thanksgiving for the year behind us.

So too do we end the year with Christ the King, pointing to judgment, yes, at the end of this life – but more directly to the great kingdom which is to come, the new beginning. And thus too Advent: a time of penance, a time of thinking about the end of the world, as things grow darker and colder still – but more than that, a time of preparing for the new birth at Christmas.


Perhaps it’s odd to ponder the Dies irae – day of wrath! – between turkey and pie, the Macy’s parade and the football game. But the Dies irae itself sees “the day of wrath,” “the day of reckoning,” “that tearful day,” “when there will be trembling, when the judge will come, to make a strict accounting,” finally in terms of hope.

Right in the middle, the Rex tremendae majestatis, king of majesty that makes us tremble, is also, in the very next line, the one who saves gratuitously, and in the next, the fons pietatis, wellspring of family feeling, pity, mercy. Two stanzas later we contemplate Christ “sitting forsaken,” not as an image of wrath, but as redeemer: “let that work not be in vain!” And the final word of the poem is not anger or judgment or tears, but peace: dona eis requiem.

The Dies irae teaches us to tremble, but it also – more profoundly – teaches us to give thanks, for so great a redeemer, the bringer of hope and love and peace.


The central image is that we will finally look on the face of Jesus, a central meditation of the Middle Ages.

Now strictly speaking, the object of the beatific vision is not the humanity of Christ but the Triune divinity. It is not his human face that will finally make us happy, but his divinity. But we mustn’t drive too strong a wedge between, and the piety of the Middle Ages emphasizes looking on his face – just as, in John’s Revelation, we always see the one seated on the throne (the divinity) together with the Lamb who was slain (the humanity of Christ).

So the magnificent Salve Regina (c. 1050) culminates “Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis, post hoc exilium, ostende”: after this exile, show us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus – underlining his humanity. And the equally magnificent Ave Stella Maris (800s?)concludes all its prayers for this life with “so that, seeing Jesus, we may ever rejoice with him.” We long to see his face.


But the Dies irae alludes to perhaps the grandest (and most Biblically central) icon. It slowly weaves the image. “Rex tremendae majestatis,” from Matthew 25:31, “when the Son of Man will come in his majesty, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the seat of his majesty.”

It then inserts two verses about him coming to save us – “Remember that I am the cause of your journey . . . suffering the Cross, you redeemed . . .” – as if to underline the aspect of gift in Matthew 25:34, “then the king will say to those on his right, come, blessed of my Father, possess the kingdom prepared for you.” Matthew’s commands must always be read in light of the grace of redemption.

And it culminates with the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:32-33), including some frightening thoughts about the flames, as Jesus says to the goats, “depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).

All of this draws us deeper into Matthew 25’s image of standing before the face of Christ: “when did we see you hungry?” (v. 37).

What is judgment? It is nothing else but standing before the poor face of Christ and giving an account of how we have loved that face in this life. An accounting of our deeds, yes. But more than that, an accounting of how we have loved the human face of Christ, in its most distressing disguises.


How can we learn to embrace that face?

“Grant the gift of remission . . . . My prayers are not worthy, but you are good, be good to me.”

In the end, all is Jesus. We beg Jesus to help us to see his face in this world, so that we can rejoice to see his face when this world ends.

What does “Christ-centered” mean in your prayer life?

Aparecida on Pastoral Missionaries

brazil-popeThe Second Vatican Council famously spoke (though actually quite infrequently) of “scrutinizing the signs of the times.” Some people like to emphasize that it was a “pastoral” Council. (I doubt these people have spent time with the documents of previous councils.)

Similarly, Pope Francis has spoken about being “pastoral,” including a Synod focused on “Pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization.”

At a recent discussion of the Synod, a young man said something I’ve heard too often. “Why even talk about being pastoral?” he asked. “Doesn’t that just risk watering down our theology?” A few other young people seemed to share his opinion.


We are now surveying the seventh chapter of the Aparecida document. We find there a call to “pastoral conversion”:

7. The Mission of the Disciples in the Service of Full Life

     a. Living and Communicating the New Life in Christ to our Peoples

     b. Pastoral Conversion and Missionary Renewal of Communities

     c. Our Commitment to Mission Ad Gentes

But here we find this “pastoral” idea thoroughly contextualized in terms of “mission.” “Pastoral conversion” is about “missionary renewal.”

I hope it’s clear that talking about “mission” and being “missionary” has nothing whatsoever to do with watering down our theology. It has to do with communicating our theology.

When I prepare a class, or a post for this website, or a parish presentation, I have to think about two things. First, what is it that I want to communicate? What do we believe? Call this part “theology” or “doctrine.”

But second, I have to ask myself, “how do I get that across to my audience”? If I’m teaching my students from the Summa theologiae, for example, I have to think about what information I need to add: they don’t know the Aristotelian philosophy Thomas is deploying; they don’t know the bigger outline of the Summa, and the other parts of the Summa to which Thomas is referring; they don’t know the Tradition; often, they don’t fully share Thomas’s rich Catholic faith. I have to say more, in order to explain to them what Thomas is teaching.

I hope it’s clear, this has nothing whatsoever to do with “watering down” what Thomas, or the Church, teaches. It has to do with actually caring whether other people understand that teaching. That is the true meaning of “pastoral”: not watering down, but figuring out how to explain it to people in a particular context, including showing them what it would mean to apply it to their actual lives. This is about loving an living our doctrine, not about watering it down.

As I have mentioned before, Pope Francis, and the Aparecida document before him, corrects St. John Paul II’s use of the phrase “pastoral formation” in his letter Pastores (pastors/shepherds) dabo vobis. Instead, Francis prefers to say, “missionary formation.” Not because being pastoral doesn’t matter, but because we need to see why it does matter.


Chapter Seven of the Aparecida document argues for “moving from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry.” By “mere conservation,” I think they mean, “we understand what we are saying, and we don’t really care if other people understand.”

Again, the “pastoral” orientation Aparecida is calling for is not toward relativism, not toward accepting the ways of the world. Aparecida is, to the contrary, confronting the practical relativism that doesn’t care about mission. No matter how much we say we believe in objective truth, if we treat Jesus as only our savior, and his moral teaching as only for us, we are practical relativists. Mission is about living like we believe in truth.

Thus, too:

“The Church’s ministry cannot ignore the historic context in which its members live. These social and cultural transformations naturally represent new challenges to the Church in its mission of building the Kingdom of God. Hence the need, in fidelity to the Holy Spirit who leads it, for an ecclesial renewal that entails spiritual, pastoral, and also institutional reforms.”

The reason for reform, the reason for considering our historic context, is not to accommodate to the world. It is about rising to the challenge. First, we need to think about how to talk, how to explain what it is we believe.

But then, too, we need to think about how to live it, how to show our neighbors our faith, and how to show them what it would mean for them, here and now, in this historical context, to embrace Jesus Christ.

“Pastoral conversion” is really a matter of “missionary renewal.”

What do I need to do to communicate the faith to the people around me?

Thomas Aquinas on the Many Members of the Body

What does it mean to call the Church the Body of Christ? On the one hand, it has something to do with unity with him: his Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church; the Church is so united that it is as if one person with Jesus. So “mystical body of Christ” indicates some kind of mystical union.

On the other hand, there is St. Paul’s frequent teaching about “many parts, one body.” (This is so ubiquitous in Paul as to be arguably his central teaching, his deepest insight after seeing Jesus as the one he persecuted when he persecuted the Church: most obviously in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 1, Ephesians 5, Colossians 1.) In this sense “body” means diversity in unity: “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us . . . .”

What is the connection between these senses of “body”? I recently found a great passage about it in Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on Ephesians 1.

St Thomas AquinasPaul says, “he has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” He explains Christ’s power in relation to the Church. . . .

Now a head is related to the other members in three ways: first, by its preeminent placement; second, by the diffusion of powers, since the senses of the other members are derived from their connection to the head; last, by sharing the same nature as the members. . . .

When he says, “which is his body,” he explains what he means, by adding, “and his fullness.” For if someone asks why, in a natural body, there are so many different members, namely head, hands, mouth, etc., the answer is that by their many kinds of actions, they serve the soul, for the soul is the cause, and principle of those actions, and the power of those actions is originally in the soul.

For the body was made for the soul, not the reverse. In this way, the natural body could be called “the fullness of the soul,” for unless there were all the members of the body, the soul could not accomplish all its operations.

It is similar with Christ and the Church. The Church was instituted for Christ, so that the Church is called “his fullness,” the fullness of Christ – that is, so that all the actions which are in Christ’s power could be in a certain sense “filled out” in the members of the Church: when all the spiritual sensitivities, and gifts, and whatever else is in the Church – all of which are first superabundantly in Christ – come forth from him into the members of the Church, and are made perfect in those members.

So Paul adds, “who fills all in all”: namely when the wise one who is a member of the Chruch receives from him the perfect wisdom which is in Christ; the just one receives perfect justice; etc.

The Psalms on Bribery

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We are learning about the spirituality Psalms by carefully reading Psalm 26. We are in the penultimate strophe of the Psalm, where we beg to be kept far from sin. But the last line of that strophe takes a surprising turn. The first line identified “sinners” generally. The second called them “men of blood,” describing sin as violence. The third spoke generally of “crime” on their hands. But this final line says, “And their right hand is full of bribes.”

The word bribery occurs only a couple times in the Psalms, but it points to a deeper concept that is ubiquitous – and to which Pope Francis has drawn attention by his calling for a Church “poor and for the poor.”

The Psalms say, “Blessed is he that considers the poor” (41:1). The Psalmist repeatedly identifies himself as poor, and says that God’s king (which, depending on the reading, could be God himself, the Messiah, or those who do as God wills) “shall judge for the poor, and save the children of the needy” (72:4). So we too are told, “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy” (82:3), where as he will be cut off who “remembered not to show mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man, that he might even slay the broken in heart” (109:16).

Examples could be multiplied. But the point is well made with the example of bribery. To take a bribe is to choose the rich over the poor because we choose self-interest over justice. The poor are vulnerable precisely as those who cannot pay bribes: who need to be treated right because it is the right thing to do, and not because we can profit from them.


Consider the Church’s traditional teaching on usury.

I’ll spare you at the front and say I don’t think everything the banking industry does is usury, and my point is not to condemn any particular financial practice, but to bring out a more generally applicable principle.

Usury is defined as making money off of someone else’s desperation. You are so desperate for bread that you beg me for some money. I tell you I’ll help you out – but for a price: only if I can make money off of you.

Usury is defined by its difference from trade or partnership. In trade and partnership, both parties benefit. Normally, if you buy bread for me, I get money I need for other things, you get bread, and everyone benefits. The word “interest” is meant, at least in theory, to suggest that both parties are interested in the success of a venture: as if I lend you a ship, or money to buy a ship, so that you can take your products to market, and we both benefit from your success.

Usury, to the contrary, is defined by my making money off of a person without really helping them. It is like bribery: I don’t care about giving you justice, I just want profit. I don’t care about you, I care about money, and me.

It’s only a little over-simplifying to say that the heart of Catholic Social Thought is simply the condemnation of the theory (a standard one in the United States) that you can treat another human person as merely an opportunity for profit. No, says the Church, never. You must always treat another human person as a human person, whether they are your employee, your customer, a beggar, or whatever. Basic justice – treating other people right – can never be set aside in favor of self-interest.


Let us return from social thought to our spiritual lives more generally – Catholic social thought is really just an application of true Christian spirituality to the marketplace.

Our Psalm – and all the places the Psalms invoke poverty, orphans, widows, etc. – treats bribery as a kind of paradigm for all sin. It is not bribery to ask someone to do their fair share. Bribery means I don’t care what’s fair, I just care what benefits me.

The poor are those vulnerable to bribery. How often we come across people and situations where my material self-interest and the right thing to do come in conflict. As in economics, much of the time we can work together on an even keel. But when someone is wounded or impoverished, we have to treat them right even though they can’t repay us.

It is true with the beggar on the street, of course. But it is also true with the wounded coworker, with the needy child, or the exhausted spouse – who, but for us, would be left a widow. We must do the right thing, respect their human dignity, even when we have nothing to gain by it. And that is a challenge.

Think of someone in your life who is emotionally needy. Do you ever look for personal benefit instead of their human dignity?

Sunday of Christ the King: Shepherd and Savior

van eyck adoration

 EZ 34:11-12, 15-17; PS 23: 1-2, 2-3, 5-6; 1 COR 15:20-26, 28; MT 25:31-46

We come at last to the final Sunday of the year, Christ the King.

Year B, next year, when we read through Mark’s Gospel, the Gospel for this feast will be from John: Pilate asks, “are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (Before Vatican II, this was the reading for the feast every year.)

Year C, in Luke, we read, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” But the good thief says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

His kingdom is not what we expect.


This year we read the final words of Jesus’s preaching, the end of Matthew’s magnificent Fifth Sermon. We begin with kingly grandeur and judgment: Jesus tells his disciples, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another.” Christ the King!

But the story quickly takes a strange turn. First, “he will separate them one from another . . . as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” The King is a shepherd . . . .

And then it gets stranger. Judgment seems appropriate to this king of glory: “the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ . . . ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

But then he explains his judgment. “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.” It’s quite a list. I must visit prisoners? Bad guys?

The Tradition, of course, takes these words with dreadful seriousness, and is full of St. Martin’s giving their cloaks to the naked Christ. (Even a boring saint like Thomas Aquinas was said to do this frequently.)


The sheep and the goats each ask the same question: “When did we see you?” And they get the same answer, “What you did . . . .” In his most distressing disguises, it is hard to see Jesus. He asks us to serve him anyway.

But why? How does all this fit together? What do filthy prisoners have to do with Christ the King?


The reading from Ezekiel gives an answer in metaphors. “I myself will look after and tend my sheep,” says the Lord. “The lost I will seek out.”

We have seen this theme several Sundays this year. “To the merciful I will show myself merciful.” In our acts of mercy we recognize his mercy. The problem with saying to the prisoner, “you are a lost cause, not worth my time,” is that we are a lost cause, not worth Christ’s time.

In stooping to the poverty of others, we recognize that he stoops to our poverty. In refusing to stoop, we refuse to acknowledge that he stoops. We deny his love, his mercy, his generosity. Deny it also by thinking we have to be stingy: any time I say I don’t have enough to share – enough money, enough time, enough energy – I deny also that the Good Shepherd provides for me.


Ezekiel gets strange. “The sick I will heal,” says the shepherd, “but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. . . . I will judge between rams and goats.”

What is the difference between sheep and goats? The sheep follow the shepherd: they go where he goes (even to the lowly), and they receive their food from him (and not from their own strength).

“The sleek and the strong” could also be translated “the greasy and noisy” – and then it sounds more like goats. But perhaps the deeper difference is that they have no need for a Shepherd.


Our reading from First Corinthians explains more directly. At the Resurrection, “in Christ shall all be brought to life.” The deeper question of Christ the King is whether we receive all from him, whether we are “those who belong to Christ,” or more simply, just “those who are of Christ.” In him is life. Without him is death.

And therefore he will “destroy all sovereignty.” Those who think they are mighty cannot abide the way of Christ: cannot follow the shepherd, cannot receive life from him.

This is what we live out, in our acts of mercy or our refusal of mercy. Will I follow the one who stoops to seek the lost? Will I receive from the one who provides for my hunger and visits me in my sickness?

Where does your life call you to acts of mercy? Can you see the provision of the Good Shepherd there?

Aparecida on “Communicating the New Life in Christ”

brazil-popeThe Aparecida Document’s seventh chapter, the first chapter of its third and final part, examines “The Mission of the Disciples in the Service of Full Life.”

Part Three: The Life of Jesus Christ for Our Peoples

7. The Mission of the Disciples in the Service of Full Life

     a. Living and Communicating the New Life in Christ to our Peoples

          i. Jesus at the service of life

          ii. Varied dimensions of life in Christ

          iii. At the service of a full life for all

          iv. A mission to communicate life

     b. Pastoral Conversion and Missionary Renewal of Communities

     c. Our Commitment to Mission Ad Gentes

In order to understand this chapter, this week we will examine the four subsections of section “a,” next week we will return to consider the whole chapter.


The bigger purpose of this chapter, and of the whole document, is to understand the real meaning of “mission.” What does it mean to be truly missionary?

There are two sides to this question. First, what is a real missionary? What does a real Christian missionary bring to others? Second, why do Christians need to be missionaries? What does mission have to do with my spiritual life?

The title of this section, “Living and Communicating the New Life in Christ to our Peoples” addresses that second question. First, it ties together “living” and “communicating.” On the one hand, we cannot communicate what we do not live. If we do not find our lives in Christ, there is no point trying to be missionaries of Christ. We communicate more by who and what we are than by any words we may preach. Words are necessary, but they make little sense if our lived witness contradicts them.

But on the other hand, can we really live without communicating? Does it make any sense to say that I think Christ is the way, the truth, and the life – but only for me? Christian life without mission, in fact, is a kind of relativism, a denial of the truth of Christ. If I really believe Christ is life, I must communicate that to others!


Second, the title of this section ends “to our Peoples.” And there is simply a recognition that I am part of a people.

It is perhaps easier seen at the level of family. If I find my life in Christ, and I am a part of a family – if my life is really tied to that family – how can I not share that life with the people to whom I am bound!

And so too if I am part of a neighborhood, of a parish, of a nation, of any community, if those really mark part of who I am, how can my life in Christ not spill over, how can I not communicate that life to my communities?

Mission and true life go hand in hand.


But what kind of mission? The first subsection proposes “Jesus at the service of life.” We are returning to a previous theme. If Jesus is truly our savior, truly our life, then he is the savior of our entire life, everything about us. Jesus affects, and perfects, and restores every aspect of human life.

Of course, in so restoring it, it will be changed. He might restore my desire for movies by redirecting it to something richer; might change my desire to rise from poverty to a desire to help those who are truly poor. He does not leave us unchanged.

But he does perfect us, in all our humanity. To say Jesus is life is to say – Aparecida quotes Pope Benedict – “The new life of Jesus Christ touches the entire human being and develops human existence in fullness ‘in its personal, family, social and cultural dimensions.’”

Thus true life in Christ, and true communication of that life, must celebrate “varied dimensions of life in Christ.” To tell people to embrace Jesus without showing how he perfects every aspect of life is simply not to live or communicate the fullness of the Gospel.

So too if we are not “at the service of a full life for all.” If Jesus is savior, he is savior of all of human life, every aspect of ourselves, and of every human life. The fullness of the Gospel must be preached, to all men!


Aparecida tells us, “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others.” Let us discover the fullness of life by sharing Christ, the way, the truth, and the life, in all his fullness, with those around us.

Think of someone in your life who does not know Jesus as Savior. If you were to tell them he is life-giving, what parts of your life would you need to show that through?

The Psalms on Our Hands

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

“Do not abandon my soul with sinners

And my life with men of blood

In whose hands is crime . . . .”

Our Psalm 26 has considered the joy in God’s tabernacle, and now expresses the fear of sin. It walks a careful middle line: it is not clear whether we fear more what the men of blood will do to us, or that we will become one of them. Who is worse off, the violent man, or his victim?

Our line for today starts to examine the men of blood themselves: there is crime in (or on) their hands.


We are reminded of the famous scene from Macbeth:

“What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes.

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red.”

All the oceans of the world cannot wash the blood from Macbeth’s hands. The world itself will be stained in blood before it can wash the murderer clean. And so the crime that has stained his hands plucks out his own eyes, destroys his whole ability to relate to the world.


The hand, said Aristotle, is the “tool of tools.” We use a hammer to drive nails and a screwdriver to drive screws – but we use our hand to drive the hammer and the screwdriver.

The hand is a sign of our interaction with the world. It is “exterior” to us, in that it is our main tool for interacting with other things, whether by touch or by manipulation. But it is also “interior,” in that the hands work intelligently, not dumbly kicking, but dexterously interacting.

Thus the hand is, for the Psalmist, a sign of the encounter between our interior and our exterior, between our soul and our actions.


To say our hands are “stained with blood,” or that “on their hands is crime,” is to say that our interaction with the world touches us. Macbeth can, in fact, wash the physical blood off of his hands.

What he cannot wash away (at least not by all the oceans of this world) is the stain of his free choices. Precisely the intelligence of the hands signals that what we have done with them is truly us.

Macbeth’s hands didn’t kill Duncan, Macbeth himself did. But the hands, both for Shakespeare and for the Psalms, signal that our free, intelligent choices really bring our interior in contact with the exterior world. The hands are a sign that there is no deep divide between the outside world and our interior: we are our actions.


We should note that alongside the Psalms’ endless references to hands (about 150 times: our hands, the hands of the wicked, the hands of God), they speak often too of the lips (about 35 times), the tongue (another 35 times), and the mouth (almost 70 times).

Like the hands, the mouth is bodily and spiritual, a point of contact with the outside world but profoundly tied to our intelligence and free choice. What we do with our hands and what we say with our lips is truly us. These are profound signs of the reality of our word and deeds.


What is our real fear, then, with bloody men and sinners? What they do to us?

Truly the crime-stained hands are a reminder that sinners sin. Haters, the new expression says, are going to hate. If we entrust ourselves to the world, we should not be surprised if the world treats us the way the world is, with its crime stained hands.

Hollywood is not out to make you a better Christian. To say it is an instrument of the devil would be too strong – unless we mean that the world is in the power of sin.

Even our loved ones, even if they are good Christians, are still sinners. They are going to sin. We should love them, profoundly. But we should entrust ourselves to the One who will treat us well. We should not look for sinners to treat us with perfect mercy. We should not be surprised when the world hurts us.


But even deeper, when we pray, “Do not abandon my soul with sinners,” we pray not only that God will care for us among the sins of others. We beg even more deeply that he will rescue us from sin itself. Because the greatest punishment of sin is precisely the staining of our hands, the staining of our souls, the plucking out of our eyes by our own hands, when we give ourselves over to corruption.

Think of a little sin that you don’t take very seriously. How does it affect, not others, but you yourself?

33rd Sunday: Joy in Action

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

PRV 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; PS 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; I THES 5:1-6; MT 25:14-30

As the end of the Church year approaches, our readings from Matthew turn to the end, and to judgment. How will we be judged? And why?

The reading from Matthew 25, the end of Jesus’s preaching, is certainly familiar: “To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one . . . . ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’”

But the conclusion, perhaps, remains a little obscure: “Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Why? Why is Jesus like a master who wants “interest on my return”?

Our first clue is in the specific reproach: “’You wicked, lazy servant!” There’s something more specific than wickedness here. His wickedness is laziness.

And on the reverse side, there is his commendation of the others: “Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’” Perhaps we notice the faithfulness in small matters, and miss the deeper point, which follows. “Your master’s joy” is “great responsibility.” Responsibility is the reward.


The deeper point is that our joy is in action. Not in having, but in doing – even were we to be given a reward of money, we could only enjoy it by using it.

And so too the punishment: “darkness outside.” It is a double punishment: to be in darkness, and to be outside. But both signify not being part of the action, not being where we can see, and interact, and be part of things. “Responsibility” is about being alive, doing, action. To lack responsibility, to be in out in the dark, is the ultimate frustration: a place of weeping and gnashing our teeth.

Our Master is “a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant” in the sense that he gives us our humanity not just to hold, but to perfect. He has made us the kind of being that needs to act to be happy.


The two readings give us two angles on this central teaching.

The first is from Proverbs: beautiful words about the “worthy wife.”

“Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting.” The deeper purpose of matching this reading with our Gospel is to discover where human worth really lies. The worthy wife is someone her husband can “entrust his heart to,” who “brings him good.” She has “loving hands” – first working with “the distaff” and “the spindle,” but then “she reaches out her hands to the poor.”

She is a woman of action: “give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her.” But what makes this reading so beautiful is the deep humanity of her action.

Sometimes people say we are “human beings” not “human doings.” The truth in that saying is that we have to find the kind of action that truly perfects us; we have to discover what we really are. We have to discover which “doing” we ought to be doing.

Action is bad when it is the frivolous action that distracts us from knowing and loving God and neighbor. But God does not call us to sit around looking pretty. He calls us to love, and look lively.


While the reading from Proverbs focuses on love of neighbor, the reading from First Thessalonians focuses on love of God. “The day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.” The point is, “let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.”

“Sleeping” is checking out of life. “When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’” it is as if they have stopped caring about life, stopped looking for the Lord.

But we are to watch vigilantly for him – not by sitting still, but by waking up. Our prayer itself should look not like sleep, but like wakefulness, vigilance, aliveness. (This is why the Tradition so insists on the value of words: prayer is not about spacing out, like a Buddhist.)

In our life, too, we should be constantly watching for the Lord, looking for him: in everyone who comes across our path, in every task. Our reading from Paul takes us deeper into our reading from Proverbs: Proverbs itself describes that active, lively, relational woman most deeply as “the woman who fears the LORD” – or, we could say, the woman who is looking for the Lord at every moment.

That is what puts our hands to the distaff, our fingers to the spindle, and causes us to reach out our hands to the poor.

Are there aspects of your life where you are half asleep, not vigilantly looking for the Lord?

Dies Irae: Jesus the Judge

Carracci-Purgatory“He will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead.” The second section of the Creed, the part about Jesus, ends with judgment. This November, as we ponder the dying of the year, and so our own death and the death of all things, let us look to this final coming of Jesus. Our hymn Dies irae gives a truly stunning meditation on Jesus as judge.

For eight painful stanzas – just long enough, without being too long – it builds up the fear of judgment.

“What trembling there will be

When the judge will come [venturus – the same form of the word as in the Creed]

To make a strict accounting of all things.”

The words carry their own weight. It doesn’t have to say, “you, man, are a sinner!” It only has to say, “imagine a strict accounting of all things in your life” – and our own conscience supplies the rest. Oh no. . . .


 We enter deeper into the image:

 “Creation will rise

To respond to the one who judges.”

 All things will stand before a judge!

“A written book will be brought forth

In which all things are contained

In which the world will be judged

“Therefore, when the judge sits

All that was hidden will appear

Nothing will remain unavenged.”

Again, our conscience supplies the rest: we know that if all is laid bare, it will not go well for us. The drama builds!


Then comes the break:

“Miserable me! What shall I say?”

– Or rather –

“What patron shall I call upon?”

– Do you see where this is going? –

“When even the just man is hardly safe?”

(And I am hardly just.)


And then he appears. First in majesty:

“King of majesty that makes us tremble”

But he appears, also, as Jesus:

“You who freely, by grace, save all those who are going to be saved,

Save me, oh well of mercy.”

The judge is Jesus. What patron shall I call? Who will save me? None but the judge himself. Our hope is that the same God who will judge us is the one who came to save us.


And now, after all this trembling before the throne, comes an outpouring of the beautiful mercy of Jesus:

“Remember, oh merciful Jesus,

That I was the reason for your journey;

Let me not be lost on that day.”

The word for merciful, both here and above (“oh well of mercy”) is even richer than mercy. He is fons pietatis, Jesu pie. Our coarse, commercial, individualist, corrupt world has forgotten such words. Pietas is family feeling, a care for your own. We invoke Jesus to see us as his children – and remember that he is the very well of such feeling.


“Seeking me, you sat forsaken

Suffering the Cross, you bought me back:

Let such work not be in vain!”

Oh, we tremble before the judgment seat. And yet we fear it not, we don’t hide behind forgetfulness of that day of wrath, because the judge, the Rex tremendae majestatis, sat alone and forsaken out of love for us.


But neither do we think he is a pushover. He is

“Just judge of vengeance”

So we pray:

“Give the gift of remission

Before the day of accounting.”

He came, not to prevent the final judgment, but to prepare us for it. And we contemplate the Biblical examples:

“You who freed Mary [Magdalene]

And heard the thief.

To me, too, grant hope.”

Ah: his mercy for Mary and the thief was not to leave them in their sin, but to lead them out of it. “The gift of remission” we look for, the absolution, is not that there be no judgment, no accounting of our deeds. We do not ask for the book to be closed. We ask for it to be rewritten. You who love us so much, grant us the grace of conversion!


The final image takes us to the end of Matthew:

“Place me among the sheep

Separate me from the goats

Let me stand on your right hand.”

Maybe we don’t know our Scripture, but the medievals did. The sheep and the goats (Matt 25:32-33) tells of when “the Son of man shall come in his glory” (v. 31). “Then will the King say to those on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in” (vv. 34-35).

What we ask is not to avoid judgment, but to be able to stand before the face of Jesus, because we have truly loved that face in this life, in all our deeds.

What would you want to change before seeing Jesus face to face?