Thirty-First Sunday: Come, Lord Jesus!

It is cold.  We are coming to the end of the year.  And the Lectionary takes a turn toward the end of the world.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

The place it happens most clearly is in the Epistle.  The Gospels we read in order (hence “ordinary” time); there we are reaching the end, approaching Jerusalem.  The Old Testament reading complements the main theme of the Gospel.

But the Epistles are chosen for the end of the year.  In Year B it’s the end of Hebrews, which looks toward the saints in heaven.  But in Years A and C it’s First and Second Thessalonians, which may be some of the earliest writings in the New Testament, and speak particularly of persecution, which they read in light of the final coming of Jesus.

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The Lectionary is gentle with us, giving a taste of the End for those who read no further, and much deeper references toward the End for those of us who open our Bibles.

Thus our reading this Sunday, from the end of the first chapter of Second Thessalonians, begins, “We always pray for you” – but if you open your Bible, you’ll see that the sentence (and the verse) begins “Therefore.”  Wherefore?

Paul has been commending “your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations which you endure.”  He looks forward to “when He shall come to be glorified in His saints and to be admired in all those who believe . . . in that Day.”  And he warns of “flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“Therefore, we always pray for you,” as our reading says – that God may make us worthy to stand when Jesus comes.

The second paragraph of our reading says “not to be shaken” by any false claims “to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand.”  If you keep reading, St. Paul warns of the coming of “the lawless one,” the rebellion that comes before the End.  Don’t believe it’s already happened – look forward to his coming.

At the end of the year we face the end of time, and we pray for the grace to stand before the face of Jesus.

***

In that light, we have the reading from Wisdom, which helps us to focus on God’s mercy.

Wisdom is a philosophical book.  The argument this week is in three straightforward steps:

God can.  The universe is itty-bitty to him.  We are weak but he is strong.

God wants to.  All things exist because he made them.  “And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it?”  And he is especially, such beautiful words, “lover of souls.”  Among all created realities, nothing is so beautiful to him as our souls – in the words of Gaudium et Spes, “man is the only creature on earth [alongside the angels] which God created for its own sake,” to live forever with him.

And so – God rebukes us.  His mercy doesn’t leave us wallowing in our sin.  His mercy “rebukes offenders little by little,” gently leading us out of the coming darkness and into his own glorious light, “that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O Lord!”

Jesus saves sinners.  Come, Lord Jesus!  Thy kingdom come!

***

As always, the Gospel makes it all incarnate.

Jesus is approaching Jerusalem, coming near to his cross.  In today’s reading, he gets to Jericho, the next big town over, to the northeast.  The end is near.

And we see a scene of mercy.  Zacchaeus is one of the most loveable figures in the Gospel: a tax collector, therefore a bad guy, but so short, and so shaken by the Holy Spirit moving him within, that he climbs a tree to see Jesus.  When Jesus comes to his house – “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner” – Zacchaeus repents: “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”  Which is a lot.

But the punchline comes at the end: “Today salvation has come to this house . . . .  For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

***

The liturgical year has us facing the end.  But as we face the end, we come to a greater encounter with the mercy of Jesus, who calls us out of this present darkness and into his glorious light.

What does “Come Lord Jesus” mean to you?

Thirtieth Sunday – Not Our Goodness, but His

Over the summer, at a marvelous summer camp, a wise old grandfather was telling me of his experience

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

praying for his descendents.  He said he keeps finding himself tempted to think, if I just pray x many rosaries, maybe I can get the upper hand, and force God to do what I want him to do – or at least earn it from him.

But to the contrary, we pray not to get power over God, but precisely because we know that’s not how it works.  We pray because we know all good things come from his hands, and all we have to do is ask.

There’s a similar lesson in many of our prayers.  The Memorare focuses, of course, on Mary’s faithfulness in responding to our prayers.  But this faithfulness is put in focus by the line, “sinful and sorrowful.”  See, the point is that in praying I renounce my merits.  I don’t say, “hey, I deserve this.”  I say, in your mercy, hear and answer.  The same thing happens in all the Psalms that say, “for thy name’s sake, O Lord.”  Not because I am good, but because you are.

(That, of course, is the point of a novena – or even the defined length of the liturgy of the hours, and the intercessory power of the Mass.  Not that I do so much that God has to listen, but that I say my prayers and then stop, trusting not in my goodness, but in his.  That’s why we pray to the saints, too – not my goodness, but his, in them who are close to him and full of him.  I don’t think myself worthy to storm into the throne room on my own.)

***

Our Sunday readings all talk about the power of prayer, and the power of our weakness in prayer.

The first reading, from Sirach, is about God’s preferential option for the poor – sort of.  “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds . . . and the Lord will not delay.”  Pretty effective!

But there’s a spin.  The reading begins not by saying the poor are God’s favorites, but by saying, “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.”  He is “not unduly partial toward the weak – yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.”

It isn’t that they win because they are poor.  It’s that they win because they trust in his goodness, not theirs.

***

So too in our reading from Second Timothy, one of the “prison epistles,” written from Paul’s captivity.

“Beloved: I am already being poured out like a libation” – that is, like one of the “drink offerings” of the Temple, where the wine was a sacrificial victim, poured out on the altar.  Pretty good!  Paul himself is the sacrifice!  “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.  From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me.”  He’s got his act together, huh?

Then (the reading skips several verses), he talks about his trial.  “At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me.”  It starts out sounding like he’s the hero, he alone is the deserving one.

“But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.”  Nope.  The whole point is that he boasts of his weakness.  I didn’t stand a chance.  I couldn’t do it.  He did it.  His goodness, not mine.  So Paul talks about being “rescued from the lion’s mouth” – like Daniel, who is not the one who shut up the lion’s mouth.  “The Lord will rescue me . . . .  To him” – not me – “be glory forever and ever.  Amen.”

That’s the meaning of being a libation.  Not that I was so strong that I made myself a sacrificial victim – but that I was so weak that the only thing I could do was be broken down, and trust in the goodness and the strength of God.  It is good to be weak, for then we know that he, he alone, is strong.

***

And so the Gospel is obvious.  We pray not like the Pharisees, “convinced of their own righteousness,” who say, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity.”  Our prayer is not, “I fast twice a week,” look at me!

No, our prayer is like the tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

How do you find yourself trying to coerce God, instead of depend on his mercy?  How could your prayer be more focused on his goodness, and less on yours?

St. John Paul II on Catholic Social Thought and the Lay Vocation

From John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the Lay Vocation, Christifideles Laici:

The situation today points to an ever-increasing urgency for a doctrinal formation of the lay faithful, not simply in a better understanding which is natural to faith’s dynamism but also in pope-john-paul-IIenabling them to “give a reason for their hoping” in view of the world and its grave and complex problems. Therefore, a systematic approach to catechesis, geared to age and the diverse situations of life, is an absolute necessity, as is a more decided Christian promotion of culture, in response to the perennial yet always new questions that concern individuals and society today.

This is especially true for the lay faithful who have responsibilities in various fields of society and public life. Above all, it is indispensable that they have a more exact knowledge -and this demands a more widespread and precise presentation-of the Church’s social doctrine, as repeatedly stressed by the Synod Fathers in their presentations. They refer to the participation of the lay faithful in public life, in the following words: “But for the lay faithful to take up actively this noble purpose in political matters, it is not enough to exhort them. They must be offered a proper formation of a social conscience, especially in the Church’s social teaching, which contains principles – of reflection, criteria for judging and practical directives (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction of Christian Freedom and Liberation,72), and which must be present in general catechetical instruction and in specialized gatherings, as well as in schools and universities. Nevertheless, this social doctrine of the Church is dynamic; that is, adapted to circumstances of time and place. It is the right and duty of Pastors to propose moral principles even concerning the social order,  and of all Christians to apply them in defence of human rights. Nevertheless, active participation in political parties is reserved to the lay faithful” (proposition from the Synod).

I think the holy Pope’s main point is this: Catholic social thought is the lay vocation.  The Church informs our thinking about family, politics, economics, and culture.  (Those are the four elements traditionally summarized, including in this papal document.)  To miss out on Catholic Social Thought is precisely to miss out on how our faith penetrates into our lives as lay people.

Unfortunately, in my experience, apart from abortion (which is certainly a key part), orthodox Catholics tend to be told that Catholic social thought is purely optional, something with no doctrinal authority whatsoever.  What the Church thinks about economics is treated as roughly equivalent to what your grandmother thinks about economics.  The more I’ve studied Catholic social thought, the more I’ve heard the Popes – all of them – strenuously rejecting that kind of dissent.  As John Paul says above, “Above all, it is indispensable that they have a more exact knowledge -and this demands a more widespread and precise presentation-of the Church’s social doctrine.”  Indispensable.

Of course, how can they believe unless they hear, and how can they hear unless it is preached?  I used to dissent from Catholic social doctrine because I hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was.  The assumption that it is okay to dissent leads many priests and lay people never to bother to learn what it actually teaches.

***

A subordinate point the Pope makes is that part of Catholic social doctrine is the recognition that it requires application.  The Church teaches, for example, that employers have a responsibility to the families of their employees.  It also teaches – this is part of Catholic social doctrine – that it is up to employers to figure out how to live out that responsibility.  The Magisterium doesn’t pretend to answer every question; they don’t pretend that the answers are simple.  But it does teach a lot.

A parallel: the Church teaches the obligation of parents to love their children and to teach them the faith.  It doesn’t pretend to explain every detail of how we go about that.  But to dissent – to say that I am not required to love my children and teach them the faith – would be a denial of Church teaching about marriage.  I think we all agree about that.

What is less commonly acknowledged is that, though the Church does not teach every detail of how we live economic, political, and cultural responsibility, she does teach a lot – too much, obviously, for this short blog post – about the responsibilities we have.  We have to welcome immigrants, for example – though there is plenty of room to discuss how we go about doing that.

To reject or minimize what the Church does teach is, as St. John Paul says in the introduction to the same document, to succumb to “the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world.”

Twenty-Eighth Sunday: All is Grace

In last week’s readings we learned about living by faith.  In this week’s, Jesus tells the leper who was cleansed, “your faith has saved you.”  In fact, this week’s readings take us deeper into the grace in which we have faith.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

The readings begin with Naaman the Syrian.  Naaman, you’ll remember, came to Elisha to be cleansed of his leprosy.  Elisha sent him to wash in the River Jordan, which was surprising.

Naaman’s response teaches us much about grace.  First he acknowledges the God of Israel, and responds, “Please accept a gift from your servant.”  Literally, it’s a blessing, or benediction.  God has given Naaman a gift or a blessing, and Naaman wants to repay him.  Perfectly respectable.

But Elisha says, “As the LORD lives” – he invokes the unspeakable name of the unfathomable God of Israel – “whom I serve, I will not take it.” And Naaman learns a new approach: “If you will not accept, please let me, your servant, have two mule-loads of earth,” so that when he goes back to Syria, he can worship God on the soil of God’s blessed land.

The moral of the story is that our relationship with God is not quid-pro-quo, it’s not about trading blessings, paying God back and making things even.  Elisha leads Naaman from a response that tries to bless God back to a response that merely continues to receive God’s blessing.

We don’t buy grace.  It is a free, unmerited gift.  A gift, yes, that changes our lives, that makes us new.  But nothing we can pay back.

***

We are spending seven weeks on Paul’s two letters to Timothy.  In this week’s reading, from Second Timothy, Paul again speaks of the inequality of God’s power and ours.  Paul is “suffering” for the gospel, “even to the point of chains, like a criminal.”  On one level, Paul is doing something very meritorious.

But Paul makes a play on words.  He is in chains, “But the word of God is not chained.”   I am weak and he is strong.  I willingly boast of my weakness.  What Paul can do for the Gospel is just to show that it’s not Paul who makes the Gospel powerful, but God.  He is not the hero, God is.

He quotes a little song, or saying.  “If we have died with him we shall also live with him” – all we can do is die, but he can raise the dead to new life.  “If we persevere we shall also reign with him.”  Literally, it’s “if we stay under”: a bit less active than “persevering,” we just cling to him – and he reigns, and brings us to his reign.

“If we deny him he will deny us.  But if we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”  The only unforgivable sin is the sin against the Holy Spirit – the only sin that cannot be healed is the one that we don’t bring to Jesus – the only way he will turn away from us is if we turn away from him, push him out of our life.  And yet he remains faithful, not because we are good, but because he is.

All is grace.  I am weak but he is strong.  I gladly boast of my weakness, for when I am weak, then I am strong.

***

In the Gospel, Jesus heals ten lepers, who have all asked his mercy – but only one returned to thank him.  All were healed of their bodily disease, but only to one does he say, “Your faith has saved you.”  Faith is the recognition of grace, the knowledge that it is God who has done it.  And that is the more radical healing.

Oh, we are changed, healed morally, just as the leper was really healed.  Don’t get me wrong: “all grace” doesn’t mean that we remain the same.  Grace heals us.  Grace makes us holy.  Grace even, in the language of St. Thomas, makes us “merit” heaven, makes us in some sense worthy of God’s grace.  We are called to be changed.  But that change doesn’t begin with us.  It is Jesus who heals us, not we ourselves.  We are justified not by works but by God’s grace – and so too, the Council of Trent and St. Thomas will say, along with St. Paul, we are saved by faith, by our discovery of God’s promise to save us.

And the heart of the matter is not the healing, which all ten lepers received, but the recognition of the healing, the return upon grace to acknowledge that it is grace, that this is God’s work in me.  To be changed would be nothing if we did not return to give thanks.  He makes us holy so that we can worship.

In Latin, as in Spanish, grace is both the word for a free gift and the way you say thank you.  Gracias, they say in Spanish: free gift!  Wow, thank you!

For what works of God in you do you need to return to give thanks?

Scripture and Grace

Scripture is a grace, in a sense the first grace.  And Scripture is necessary for us to keep alive our awareness of grace.

pentecost-2

Mary reads the Bible and receives the Holy Spirit

The monastic tradition chants Psalms “antiphonally.”  That means that one half of the group sings a verse while the other half listens, and then the second half sings and the first half listens, back and forth.  It’s a splendid metaphor, and more than a metaphor, for grace.  When we listen, we see that God’s Word – and God’s grace – comes to us from the outside.  Scripture is something we receive, something we did not make.  But when we sing, we show that God’s Word – and God’s grace – becomes part of us.  It becomes my word.  The Psalms are not supposed to remain outside of me, but to become my own prayer.

Grace begins outside of us: it is God’s work, not ours.  But grace means that we are transformed.  It becomes our work.  It becomes us.  God’s Word speaks to us from the outside, but it is meant to become our own word, our own understanding.

Scripture is a metaphor, and more than a metaphor, for grace.

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But so too, Scripture is a guardian of grace.

Because grace does not begin with us, because grace is God’s initiative, and a totally free initiative, it is unexpected.  Grace doesn’t fit into our plans.  It certainly doesn’t fit into our natural way of thinking.  We can craft whole theologies of how we would expect our relationship with God to work – and it will almost always leave out grace, because grace, by definition, is not part of our plan, not part of our view of things.

Scripture is the inspired Word of God.  It is not just inerrant; it’s not just that everything that it says happens to be okay.  It’s that God himself – God’s Holy Spirit – moves the human authors to see and say things they would not say on their own.  They say it in their way – it is, again, they who say it; God’s Word becomes their own word; our “reading from the letter from James,” for example, is how we receive “the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God” – and yet it is a word that does not begin with them.

Indeed, the Word is Christ: he is the Word they speak.  And he is grace; grace is conformity with him, becoming as he is, through his Father giving us new birth into his divine sonship.  And the Word is inspired by the Holy Spirit, he who is grace, he whose presence transforms us, and we call it grace.  Grace and Scripture go hand in hand.

***

Here’s my punchline: when we forget Scripture, we forget grace.  I shouldn’t complain about homilies.  But here are the two things I most notice about homilies.  (I’ll get to complaining about lay people in a moment.)  First, very few homilies are Biblical.  Sometimes there’s one verse here or there taken out of context, but rarely does the homily dig into what the Bible is saying.  Second, even fewer homilies are about grace.  To listen to most Catholic homilies, you would think that we were deists, who believe that God made the world and then left it behind.  (Deists can say many nice things about how we ought to behave – they can even say we ought to worship God – and so too do many of our deist homilies.)

Now, these two problems, forgetting the Bible and forgetting grace, go hand in hand.  Or put it the other way: because grace is unexpected, of course we’re going to forget about grace if we don’t listen to the inspired authors.  Of course we’re going to make up some alternate theology, in which there is no grace.

Again, many of these grace-less theologies are very nice; in many ways you might call them “orthodox.”  I heard a homily the other day from a very nice priest.  His starting point was a line in the Gospel: “no one who lights a lamp conceals it.”  He came up with this whole nice thing about how we ought to let our little light shine for all to see.  Nothing heterodox about that.

But he barely scratched the surface of Scripture, ignored all of the readings except one convenient line, which he wasn’t even interpreting very directly, and he had nothing whatsoever to say about what God does in us.  His little light was a light without grace – a light, it appeared, that we create ourselves.

And of course it was!  Because without listening to God’s word we never expect the amazing things God does.  Deists can tell other people about their deist God, light their little lights and witness to their absent God.  But Catholics ought to be talking about the vastly better plan, the plan of grace, which is revealed to us in Scripture.

***

Well, of course this isn’t only true of homilies, it’s true of all of our lives.  If we don’t read Scripture, if we don’t meditate on Scripture and let Scripture shape our thinking, we’re bound to craft our own little alternate pseudo-Catholic theology, in which God does nothing.

Let Scripture surprise you with grace.

How has Scripture surprised you?

Living by Faith

This past Sunday’s readings talked about faith – with a surprise ending in the Gospel.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

The selection from the Prophet Habakkuk gives us both the substance of his short book, even a summary of all the Minor Prophets, and also one of the most important phrases in St. Paul: “the righteous shall live by faith” is the theme of his pivotal Letter to the Romans.  But here we get to see that phrase in action.

The Prophets wrote in the time when Israel was being conquered.  Their experience speaks to our time – and every time in which it has seemed that the powers of evil are stronger than the Church.

Habakkuk says, “How long, O Lord?  I cry for help but you do not listen!  I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene.  Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery.”  (I kind of know how he feels.)

The Lord responds: “Write down the vision . . . .  For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come.”

This is what Habakkuk means when he says, “The just one shall live by faith.”  We live by realities that do not appear to us.  We believe God is good, and powerful – and the world gives an awful lot of counter evidence.  We believe the heart of Jesus will triumph – but we don’t see it.  Well, we live by faith.  Trust me, he says, it will all come clear in due time.

***

In our reading from Second Timothy, Paul takes us deeper into this life of faith.  “Bear your share of hardship for the sake of the Gospel . . . ,” he says.  The message of faith calls us to a struggle.

But more deeply, it gives us the strength to accomplish that struggle: “. . . with the strength that comes from God.”  It seems like what Jesus asks of us is too much.  But the Gospel is the promise that he will give us the strength to do what we cannot do without him.

“Stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.”  Now, Timothy is a bishop, and this may be referring to ordination.  But Acts also describes “imposition of hands” as part of Baptism (or Confirmation; Acts 19:6).  In any case, we are talking about the strength that comes through the sacraments.  To live by faith is to trust in that strength, though we cannot see it.

“Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me.”  To live by sacramental grace is to trust in the teaching of faith: to live by faith.

***

Now, the first part of our Gospel reading is obvious enough: “Increase our faith.”  “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea.’”  On the one hand, faith is powerful – or rather, we have access to the power of God’s grace by our faith in his promise.  On the other hand, faith itself is an example of the power of grace: it is a gift we beg God to give us.

(“Mulberry tree”?  In Matthew and Mark faith can move mountains.  But it’s also connected to the withering of the fig tree.  The Greek for “mulberry tree,” sukaminos, is a kind of “fig tree,” suke.  It’s also a big tree, like the mustard.)

But the second half of our Gospel is obscure.  Suddenly he’s talking about the servant who serves his master dinner: he should not expect to get invited to sit at the table, but should say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”  What does this have to do with living by faith?

The bigger theme running through these chapters is self-righteousness.  The Pharisees think Jesus should not eat with sinners, but Jesus says God knows their hearts, and that they break the laws: of adultery (by divorce), and of care for the poor (in the parable of Lazarus).  He tells his disciples, too, that though, “Woe to the one through him offenses come” – though sin is bad – yet they should forgive their brother “seven times a day.”

This is the context in which the disciples say, “Increase our faith.”  As in Second Timothy, the call of the Gospel seems too hard.  I would rather trust in my incomplete righteousness than except Jesus’s higher call.

In this context, Jesus says, part of living the life of faith is not commending ourselves: not patting ourselves on the back like the Pharisees, not expecting immediate reward like the servant who wants to sit down at table, but again and again returning to the path of love, which we live only through the continual gift of God’s grace.

Because life by faith is hard.  But the grace is there.

How do you find yourself letting self-righteousness interfere with trusting in God’s grace?