Gaudete Sunday: A Consuming Fire

I’ve been thinking about the Alleluia.  It is is something we say to celebrate, and what we celebrate with it is that, even among the greatness of the other Biblical readings, this one, the Gospel, is good news.  When we say Alleluia, we should pray, “Hurrah!”

But it’s almost funny how that hurrah clashes with what usually follows: because almost always, the Gospel punches us in the nose.  Those who haven’t read the Gospel think it’s full of Jesus telling us how nice he is and how much he likes us just as we are.  But open the Gospel and read it, and you feel yourself almost under seige.

In the last week’s daily Masses, for example, the paralyzed man lowered through the roof got healed, but only after he was reminded that he needs forgiveness, which Jesus alone can give; and the condition of his healing was extraordinarily hard work.  Mary’s life and plans were hijacked to make place for a kind of king none of us is looking for.  We were pointed to the bizarre and frightening John the Baptist, and told that the violent take the kingdom of heaven by force—which could mean a lot of things, but none of them pleasant.  We heard that Elijah—another fearsome prophet—must come, and that we fail to recognize him when he does.  We heard that John calls us to fast, and Jesus calls us, not to feast, but to pursue sinners—and on another day, to seek the lost one instead of just rejoicing over the ninety-nine—and I know I neither fast for seek the lost.  Good news?  Hurrah?

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This Sunday’s “Guadete” Gospel, “rejoice,” has three parts.  In the first paragraph, John the Baptist demands conversion.  In the second, he says his call to repentance is only water, but Jesus will bring fire.  And in the third—ah, that Gospel sense of humor—Luke tells us that somehow this is “good news.”

File:Spas v silach from Vasilyevskiy chin (15th c., GTG).jpgJesus is fire.  “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  John the Baptist baptizes with water: for all his terrifying austerity, he can only rinse off the outside.  But fire purifies all the way through.

And the Gospel is fire.  The good news is strange good news: not that we’re fine the way we are, but that Jesus changes everything.  The Beatitudes are the same way: “Blessed,” they begin, “Happy,”—and then they tell us that the path to happiness points what seems to exactly the wrong direction—to the Cross.

I was with a friend recently who was worrying that someone in his life would be a lot happier if she could just focus more on herself.  That makes sense.  The Gospel’s answer makes a lot less sense: but it’s true.

When we sing “Alleluia,” we don’t say, “this will be nice, I’m going to be confirmed in what I already thought,” but “thank God, Jesus comes to shake me out of my complacency, to lead me in new ways—and to purify me with unquenchable fire.”  Thank God I am not left to my own devices.  Hurrah!

(Incidentally, that’s why we should read and preach Scripture, not just our own stupid ideas.)

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Thus our reading from Zephaniah promises that the coming King will “renew you in his love” and “turn away your enemies.”  There’s a lot of joy in that—and a lot of purifying fire, since our enemies are within.

And Philippians tells us that a peace that surpasses all understanding—that is, not the peace that makes sense to the world—will guard your hearts and minds, and only “in Christ Jesus.”  “No anxiety,” because “by prayer and petition” we trust God to do what we cannot.

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And rejoicing, St. Paul tells us, goes hand in hand with “kindness.”  Sounds kinda hokey.  But John the Baptist says something similar.

“What should we do?”  “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none”: pretty reasonable, actually.  Jesus, who is fire, not water, will go much further, and tell us to give our tunic to the one who takes our cloak (Lk 6:29) and, “Sell all you have and give to the poor” (Lk 18:22).

John just tells us not to be jerks: share our excess with those who have none, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed,” “Do not practice extortion,” “Do not falsely accuse anyone,” “Be satisfied with your wages.”  All of those things, of course, apply far beyond tax collectors and soldiers: plenty of extortion and false accusations in our homes and workplaces.

But though what John says is reasonable, it is also radical.  A strange thing happened in twentieth century Catholicism, where “liberals” told us to be nice to people and “conservatives” said that’s just silly.  In fact, kindness and basic justice are far too demanding for our tastes, which is why we try to explain them away, and they end up demanding the whole moral law, because there’s no justice or kindness in adultery, theft, lying, or skipping Sunday Mass.  (“Conservative” and “liberal” Catholicism both water down the Gospel.)

And that’s just getting started, because where John rinses our outsides, Jesus comes with the Holy Spirit and fire, the winnowing fan to blow away the chaff with which we cover the Eucharistic wheat of the Gospel, and the fire of love to burn it all away.

Good news.  But the good news of the cross, and the poverty of Bethlehem.

How do you encounter the call to repentance?

Second Sunday of Advent: Under Pontius Pilate

Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126: Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6

File:Isenmann, Colmar Altarpiece (Flagellation, Crowning with Thorns).jpgAfter a first Sunday that looked forward to the final coming of Christ, our second Sunday of Advent introduces John the Baptist, calling us to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths,” and clarifying that the real preparation is “repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” which is the true meaning of baptism.

The reading, from Luke 3, starts, sort of like Luke 1 (“In the days of Herod”) and Luke 2 (“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus”) with a statement that locates the reading historically: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.”

That statement dates the appearance of John the Baptist in the desert, and the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry: the year 29-30.  Scholars think partly Luke is trying to be fancy.  Certainly he’s trying to state that the events he relates are historical.  When in the Creed we say, “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate,” one thing we mean is, “this is not myth, this is history.”

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But Luke goes on, with a lot of details that aren’t necessary for historical dating.  He is telling us more than that this is the year 30.  He is telling us what that year was like—as if, after saying, “in 2018,” we went on to say, “in the age of Hillary and Trump.”

File:Melker Altar - Dornenkrönung.JPGTo say “Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea” is to say that Jerusalem is occupied by pagans, by the rulers of this world.

He names only three “tetrarchs” (literally, “the four rulers”); the one he is leaving out he is the tetrarch of Judea, as if to say the so-called Jewish king of Judea (where Jerusalem is) is a non-entity.

“Herod was tetrarch of Galilee” reminds us how far the Herod’s have fallen: this is the son of Herod the Great; now he only gets the backwaters.  It also points forward, as does Pontius Pilate, to the crucifixion: the not-quite-king who will take part in the death of our Lord is introduced as a no one.

“His brother Philip [was] tetrarch of the regions of Ituraea and Trachonitis”: we are introduced to another nobody, for whose wife Herod will call John the Baptist.  Ituraea is “the land of Jetur’s people”: Ishmaelites, whom David battled.  Some kingdom.  Trachonitis means “rugged stony land.”  Some kings, these miserable tetrarchs.

And then “Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,” way up to the northeast, as if to underline that the Herodians who claim to be kings of the Jews are puppet of the pagan caesar, ruling over pagan lands.  “Tetrarch” is a lousy claim to authority.

Then comes, “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.”  Caiaphas, of course, again points forward to the crucifixion.  Annas was his father-in-law, yet another puppet of the Romans.  By this time Annas was not high priest, Caiaphas was; Luke is mocking the son-in-law, the puppet of a puppet.

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File:Giuseppe Arcimboldo Herod.jpgAnd into this morass comes John: “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”

Zechariah himself was introduced, in chapter one, in the same kind of juxtaposition: “In the days of Herod [the Great, the father], king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.”

Scholars cites this “days of Herod” as if it proves Jesus wasn’t born in the year 0: Herod died in 4 BC.  But whereas Luke 2 (“. . . This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria”) and Luke 3 (“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar”) are both specific, Luke 1 is not.  It doesn’t sound to me like Luke is trying to date the annunciations to Zechariah and then to Mary so much as to situate them.  Herod was king—and Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous.

So too, in Luke 3, Herod Jr and the rest of them claim power: and John, in the desert, son of the righteous ones, hears the Word of the Lord.  John calls us to repentance—but Luke is calling us to repentance, too, asking us whether we’d rather be in the palaces of kings, or in the desert, or the stable, whether we’d rather sit with these stupid puppets who do what they’re told by filthy pagan Romans, or whether we want to follow the Word of the Lord.

File:Masolino - Banquet of Herod - WGA14245.jpgOur Psalm again cites the torrents in the southern desert.  Into the dry land of Roman power comes pouring the power of God’s Word, the power of repentance, and of the Holy Spirit, and of Jesus.  Which do we cling to?

***

It puts a shattering spin on the mild words of our reading from Philippians: “I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you.”  With joy, because the Word has come to us.  But praying, because we have chosen darkness.

“And this is my prayer that your love may increase ever more and more.”  That is the torrent in the desert, the rush of new life: God’s love, poured into our hearts, “with knowledge and every kind of perception,” to see truly, to make crooked ways straight, to prepare the way of the Lord.

What miserable puppet kings do we follow?

Immaculate Conception: The Praise of the Glory of His Grace

The Immaculate Conception is not well understood.

File:ალავერდი (მონასტერი) - Alaverdi Theotokos, Georgia.jpgIn fact, that’s why it took until 1854 for the Church to declare it a dogma.  Christians believed that Mary was sinless from the very first, and from pretty early on, the faith of the people had an intuition of something like the Immaculate Conception.  But what was it?  What did it mean?

Just as the Immaculate Conception backs up from Jesus to his mother, some people who tried to articulate this intuition of faith backed up yet another generation, and proclaimed that Mary’s parents, Sts. Joachim and Anne, had a special sexual experience.  “Conception” can refer to what the parents do, and some people thought maybe what we believe about Mary is that Joachim and Anne had an act of Immaculate Conception.  But that’s kinda weird, and not right, and the Church could not “define” the Immaculate Conception until theologians made a clear distinction that we are only saying something about Mary, not something about her parents and their sex life.

File:Gottesmutter von Wladimir.jpgAnother way of articulating the intuition of faith was that somehow Mary didn’t need Jesus, or his redemptive act on the Cross.  Sometimes when people are trying to say superlative things about Mary, they get carried away.  But to say that Mary doesn’t need Jesus is to turn the whole point of Mary upside down.  The Church said, if that’s what you mean by “Immaculate Conception,” if you’re trying to minimize the work of Jesus Christ, then no, we absolutely don’t believe that.  The Church could only define the Immaculate Conception when it was clear that this was the greatest redemptive act of Christ on the Cross, not an exception from it.

In fact, a saint like Louis de Montfort, in the early eighteenth century, maybe the greatest Marian preacher of all, is brilliant precisely at showing that when we’re talking about Mary, we’re always talking about the awesomeness of Jesus.  It’s not zero-sum, as if you have to choose either Mary or Jesus.  Rather, it’s a package deal: the more we appreciate Jesus, the more we appreciate Mary, and vice versa.

***

File:Bonaventura Berlinghieri. Crusifixion. Madonna and Child with Saints. Diptych. c. 1255. 103x123cm. Uffizi, Florence..jpgThere are other misunderstandings that still get preached, even after 1854.  Some people try to make the Immaculate Conception a constraint on God’s freedom.  Sometimes they say that Mary had to be immaculately conceived in order for her to bear Jesus.  Others, appealing to an extraordinarily bad metaphysics, say that since God could exempt Mary from original sin, he had to do it.  Poppycock.

It can be hard to get the intuitions of faith into clear theological statements, and we can have mercy on those whose statements are poor.  But those are poor statements.  The holiness of Mary is an expression of God’s freedom, not an exception to it.

***

The last misunderstanding of the Immaculate Conception, and perhaps most important, is that it makes Mary fundamentally different from the rest of us.  Sure, too many Catholics say, Mary could be holy, and avoid sin.  But Mary was immaculately conceived, and I’m not!  She’s hardly even the same species as I am!

To the contrary, the second reading for our feast, from the beginning of Ephesians, makes it all clear.  The key phrase is “for the praise of the glory of his grace.”  If you haven’t gotten to know St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, you really should.  Her letters are out of this world.  She’s a young French Carmelite nun, a lot like St. Thérèse.  And she takes this as her nickname.  I want to be Laudem Gloriae, she says, quoting Ephesians 1: nothing but “the praise of his glory,” or “the praise of the glory of his grace.”

File:Duccio di Buoninsegna 005.jpgWhat we are talking about with the Immaculate Conception is “the praise of the glory of his grace.”  It’s not about how great Mary is on her own, apart from Jesus.  In fact, the wonderful thing about pushing her “immaculate-ness” back to her conception is that it emphasizes that she did absolutely nothing to earn it.  When we call Mary “full of grace,” we don’t mean that she tried really hard, and after enough of a spiritual workout, she got to be great.  We mean that God worked his miracle in her soul, the greatest miracle of all: holiness.  The reason we talk about the Immaculate Conception—the only reason—is to praise the glory of his grace.

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But Ephesians says too that the Father “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens.”  What happens to Mary is not unique to Mary.  In Christ, he has blessed all of us, “to be holy and without blemish before him.”  Do you want to guess what the Latin is for “without blemish”?  “Immaculati.”  That’s “immaculate” (“immaculata” is the feminine singular, and thus a name for Mary), but the “-i” makes it plural, because we are all called to be “immaculate.”  (Protestants who have a problem with us calling Mary immaculate need to start reading St. Paul.)

Or rather, not “called,” that is not the language of grace.  What Ephesians says is that we are “chosen”—“he has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world,” it is his eternal plan, in and through Christ—so that his grace can make us, too, immaculate.  “In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will”—that is, in the freedom of his love, because he can but he doesn’t have to—“for the praise of the glory of his grace, that he granted us in the beloved.”

St. Paul is amazing for his ability constantly to tie things to Jesus.

The Immaculate Conception is something we say about God’s grace: his free acts of love, transforming Mary just as he promises to transform all of us, to bring us to the glories of heaven.  The feast of the Immaculate Conception is nothing but a celebration of his grace, the praise of the glory of his grace, which he granted us in the beloved, Jesus Christ.

Are there ways you push away Mary’s “full of grace” too distant from yourself?

File:Lippo Memmi - Maestà - WGA15012.jpg

First Sunday of Advent: Anticipation

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25, 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2, Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

For the beginning of Advent, our first Sunday’ readings have us prepare for the end.

Ambrosius Francken (I) Triumph des Christuskindes c1605-10.jpgOur Gospel, in the new year of Luke, warns of final tribulations; we’re reading the parallel to the passage we read two weeks ago, from Mark.  “People will die of fright in anticipation. . . . The powers of the heavens will be shaken.  And they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”

Reading this Sunday’s Gospel (and the one from two weeks ago) with my children, I did not know quite what to tell them—this is surreal stuff—but I was glad that the Lectionary reminds me, and teaches them, to think beyond this world.  We need an “apocalyptic imagination,” to see beyond the everyday.  I read the Book of Revelation with them a few years ago: they loved it, it’s so strange and mysterious and exciting.  Our spiritual life should have that note.

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That said, I also want to emphasize the normality of this Gospel.  “On earth nations will be in dismay,” it says, “perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”  But that roaring, though it does have an apocalyptic sound, is also normal.  The Psalms are full of this roaring: “we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea.”  “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.”  “Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the LORD on high is mighty!”

The Apostles were amazed to see Jesus still the sea.  But they were not amazed to hear the sea roar.  It roared last week in Anchorage, Alaska.

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File:Christ entering Jerusalem icon.jpgIf you go to daily Mass, you heard this whole apocalyptic chapter of Luke last week.  Just before our Sunday Gospel we hear about the destruction of Jerusalem: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.  Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it.”

Now, as I’ve said before, I’m not a Bible scholar, and maybe I’m missing something, but: scholars think these predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem prove that Luke’s Gospel must have been written after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD.  I have no idea what year Luke’s Gospel was written.  But I do know that what happened in 70 AD was not unique.  Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians (587 BC I think, though I’m not great at these dates), after it had watched in terror as the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians (722).  Not long after they returned from exile (537) the Greeks desecrated the Temple again (168), and though the Maccabees fought back, the Judean kings themselves turned Herodian around 120 BC, and the Romans, like Pilate, took charge by 6 AD.

In short, the destruction of Jerusalem isn’t a weird thing, a unique occurance in 70 AD.  Jerusalem is always being destroyed.

The earth is always being shattered.  The Church is always being persecuted, and self-destructing.  The end will come, yes—but the surprising thing is that we are constantly shocked that the world is falling apart.

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Mystic Marriage.jpgNo, the miracle is not destruction, the miracle is healing.  Our reading from Jeremiah might be more helpful in that regard.

“The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise.”  Justice—in our short reading, he speaks of justice four times, plus security twice—will come at last.

Now, that’s good news and bad news.  Finally the righteous will be rewarded, the Church will triumph as she should.

But would that I were righteous.  Would that I hungered and thirsted for justice as I ought.  Would that I could receive the king of love, the king of justice and of mercy, as one who longed for those things and not for their opposites.  (Mercy and justice, of course, are not opposites: the opposite of justice is injustice, and the opposite of mercy is indifference to others’ sufferings.  If only those were not such good descriptions of me.)

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So our reading from First Thessalonians—one of Paul’s most apocalyptic letters, alongside our other apocalpytic readings—is wonderfully humdrum.  “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another.”  That’s how we can be ready to meet the Lord when he comes.

Bjc.jpgAnd how can we get ready for his return in power?  By entering into his first coming, in humility.  “We earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus . . . .  You know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.”

That’s a funny line: he gave instructions “through” the Lord?  What it means is that it is only in union with Christ that we can be ready for Christ to come.  It is only “the Lord” who can “make you increase and abound in love.”

Therefore, our Gospel concludes, “Be vigilant and pray”—pray!—“that you have the strength . . .to stand before the Son of Man.”

What would need to change for you to be able to stand without shame before the humble Lord Jesus?