An Update

Dear Readers,

On the one hand, they say that internet readers like to know a little bit about the writers they read.  On the other hand, we could use some prayers, and I write this page for prayerful people, and there seem to be a lot of you.  So today, a little news on why I haven’t been writing:

I am now the father of six children.  My first was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that can have

Contemplation

many outcomes; Joseph, now twelve, is completely paralyzed from the waist down.  Life in a wheelchair is just how things are for us, a hassle, but something we can deal with.

But the last year things have gotten more difficult.  Last summer he needed to have his whole spine fused, neck to pelvis, to correct scoliosis.  The surgery has had endless complications.  In the first round there was an infection, then a secondary infection, altogether requiring seventeen days in the hospital in three admissions, including the first day of my school year.  Winter had lots of little things.  And then this summer we had another major infection in his back, and another ten days in the hospital.

I pulled off one post during that hospital stay, but since he came back, two Fridays ago, things have been hectic.

Tuesday night to Wednesday morning, our sixth was born, Elsbeth-Marie Thérèse.  (Elsbeth is a Swiss version of Elizabeth and a family name.  The other names point both to the Visitation, the feast day when we were married, and the Carmelite saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, one of our favorites.)  A great joy!

But Elsbeth has had some breathing problems.  Things seem to be headed in the right direction now, but she’s in the NICU and that is making things a bit crazy.  I have not gotten much work done this summer.

Meanwhile, the day after she was born, Joseph had a follow-up visit in which we learned that there is a high probability – though we don’t know how high – that infection remains, hiding in the “slime” on all that metal in his back.  The body covers metal with a hiding place for bacteria.  We face months of antibiotics (not part of our holistic lifestyle), at the end of which infection might still spring up in all kinds of ways.  They say we need to beware, and call our specialists, if he has a pimple on his back, since that could be a path for infection.  And any fever might be a new infection in his back.  Not good news.

Joseph takes everything in stride, but it is a lot for both of us.

Today, for example, my wife is at the hospital with Elsbeth and I am home with the other five, ages 3-12.  Today I needed to call the plastic surgeon to discuss some excessive discharges from his surgery site over the weekend; his orthopedics nurse to try to get a working prescription for a bandage he needs; the infectious diseases doctor to discuss his antibiotic, which she calls a “gorilla” for its aggressiveness, and which has a possible side effect, which we are experiencing, of joint damage – and then the other two doctors again, because the infectious disease specialist asked for back up.  It’s a lot.

I am sorry to admit that the main person for whom I write this webpage, dear readers, is not you, but myself.  It helps me keep see clearly.  So I will continue.  But right now, there hasn’t been time.

A last thought: you who read this webpage know that I believe love of the poor is essential to the Gospel.  I convict myself all the time, and have been trying to find ways to live what I preach.  I daydream of living like Henri Nouwen, for example, writing spiritual theology while working with the poor.

I am slowly realizing that fatherhood is my poverty.  I don’t get to visit the sick because I am always visiting the sick.  That, I suppose, is Jesus’s beautiful providence for me, and for it I give thanks.

Do keep us in your prayers.

 

Feast of the Most Holy Trinity: The Name of God

This Sunday’s feast, Most Holy Trinity, is underappreciated.  I think there are two reasons for that, both amounting to it seeming trivial.

Studying the Faith

First, it seems useless.  We love the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the mechanics of the Trinity seems like trivia, debates for theologians but unconnected to our practical or spiritual lives.

But worse than useless, it seems almost hurtful.  It seems like the only use for the Trinity is to catch someone making an error that doesn’t matter.

Simple saints (pick your favorite), it seems, wouldn’t care about these technicalities, and might even get in trouble for explaining them wrong.  The Trinity seems like an academic test designed to get in the way of our relationship with God.

***

Our Gospel, from John 3 (“God so loved the world”) responds to the second problem.  “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. . . . Whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

The name of the Trinity, like the name of Jesus itself, is not there to condemn, but to save.  Put it this way: it’s not that life is going along smoothly, and then along come these theological concepts to get us in trouble.  It’s not that we were already basically in heaven, and then it turns out that they’ll kick you out, or even punish you, if you don’t learn these obscure facts.

To the contrary, “whoever does not believe has already been condemned”: that is, life before the Gospel, life without God – especially unending life without God – is pretty empty.  There’s only so much television you can watch, so many donuts you can eat, before you realize that you were made for something better, and you wish you could reach it.

God tells us his name not to push us lower, but to raise us higher.  That knowledge is liberating.

***

The story begins in the Old Testament.  In our reading from Exodus 34, God begins to tell Moses his name.  The Old Testament doesn’t tell us everything, but it tells us some wonderful things.

A chapel atop Sinai

“Moses went up Mount Sinai as the LORD had commanded him.”  The Lord commands – but what he commands is intimacy.  He isn’t asking Moses to jump up and down and pat his head; he isn’t asking for trivia.  He is telling Moses where to meet him.

And he tells Moses good news: “The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.”  It’s easy to believe in a God who is “slow to anger”; our culture has no problem believing that God ignores our sin.  What is harder to believe is that God is kind and faithful, that he actually does something for us.

The Lord is telling Moses his name: merciful and gracious, rich in kindness.  He is telling Moses good news.

***

In our reading from Second Corinthians, we learn more about the name of the Lord.

Here we learn that his name is peace.  But this peace is more than an absence of war, it is active communion.  “Encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace”: this is an active peace.  “And the God of love and peace will be with you.”  Who is God?  He is a God of love, a God of friendship, a God of fellowship: active peace.

And so the next sentence is, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  The Greek for “greet” is “embrace,” or even better, “pull one another in.”  Handshakes and waves are nice, but the Biblical kiss of peace is not a gesture for strangers.  This is active love.  Paul moves back and forth between the God of love and the love of God’s people to show us what this name of God, “peace,” means.

And then comes a greeting that should amaze us: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”  This is our feast day: the Trinity.  And we find that the name of God is grace and love and fellowship.  The Father is love, the Son is grace, the Holy Spirit is fellowship.

This isn’t a secret code to keep people out, and it isn’t trivia.  This name of God is the good news.

***

The first line of our Gospel is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” It’s not “Loved the world so much”: it isn’t talking about the quantity of God’s love.  It’s talking about the way of God’s love, how God loves us.

He loves us by sending his Son, “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life . . . believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

The way God loves us is by telling us his name, Father-Son-Holy Spirit, and by inviting us into the unfathomable love that name describes.  The Trinity is good news.

How do you go about pondering, or contemplating, who God is?

Pentecost: Go Out to All Nations

Sorry for the late post this week.  Saturday I worked for hours, and got lost in all the amazing readings, in the Old Missal and the New, for the Vigil and Ember Days, and all the rest.  Sunday I stay away from the computer.  Monday I had a kid in the hospital.  Today I’m finally ready to focus on the Sunday readings.

 

Bishops who were there called Vatican II a “new Pentecost.”  Like Pentecost, it is misunderstood.

From my recent reading I have come to appreciate the comparison.  They were not saying that Vatican II was really exciting, or a new beginning, or the birth of the Holy Spirit.

They were saying something specific.  At Pentecost, the Church went out to all the nations because the Church learned from the Holy Spirit to speak all their languages.  Both literally and figuratively, Vatican II is a new Pentecost because Vatican II put the Liturgy in the vernacular.

***

Let me trace this dynamic through last Sunday’s readings.

In the reading from Acts 2, there are two parts.  In the second part, pilgrims from many nations say of the Apostles, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?  Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?”  It is exactly parallel to Our Lady of Gaudalupe: “Isn’t Jesus the God of the Spaniards?  How then does his mother appear as one of us?”

“Yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

Notice that they are not speaking in our own tongues whatever makes us comfortable.  That is not why the Church uses the vernacular.  They are speaking “of the mighty acts of God”: the vernacular is important because it allows people to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And that is the subject of the first part of our reading.  “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”  It is the power of the Spirit, not the power of human accommodation.  They speak in tongues – but tongues of fire.  They speak, but – the pun is obvious in Greek – they speak not with human breath, with the breath of God, a strong driving wind (in Greek, “breath”) breathed into them from outside.

Pentecost isn’t about dumbing things down.  It is about the Spirit transcending our weakness.

***

So too in 1 Corinthians 12.  The Gospel transcends “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons.”  “Jews or Greeks”: that means insiders and outsiders, and it means different cultures.  You don’t have to speak Latin, or be European, or a Spaniard, or brought up and educated as part of the club.  “Slaves or free persons”: and you don’t have to be rich and powerful.

But why not?  Again, not because we dumb things down; that is not the meaning of Pentecost or Vatican II.  Unity comes by the power of Baptism, the work of Christ and his Holy Spirit: “we were all baptized into one body.”  The Unity is the Unity of the Body of Christ: “all the parts of the body.”

Knowing Christ through faith in his Word

And we are talking only about the Spirit who lets us say, “Jesus is Lord.”  Vernacular is about proclaiming Jesus, not about affirming difference for its own sake.  “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts” – “but the same God who produces all of them,” and they are all “given for some benefit.”  It is Jesus building up his body.  The Gospel is preached in many languages by the power of Jesus building up the Body of the Church.

***

And then we had John 20. “The doors were locked where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews.”  There are different ways to deal with the divisions in the world.  One way is to lock yourself up, to build barriers and set yourself apart from the world.  (This is a popular reading of the “Benedict Option,” though I don’t think Rod Dreher, or St. Benedict, or Pope Benedict, would read it that way.)

But Jesus bursts through their doors.  And though preachers often focus on the “fear” and so assume that Jesus’s gift must be courage, what he says, twice, is “Peace.”  He gives them the peace of his presence within them.  The peace to face martyrdom.  The peace which binds people together.

He shows them his hands and his side, invites them to find peace in his Cross.  Again, not to paper over differences and try to be popular, but to set aside fear by being united to him, by the proclamation of his

Receive the Holy Spirit

Cross.

And he breathes on them, giving the ministry of forgiveness – above all, the ministry of Confession.  But his words are tough: not, “don’t worry, everyone’s going to heaven, forget about sin,” but “whose sins you retain are retained.”  They have a saving mission, a power that only Jesus can give, to work for the reconciliation of man with man and man with God, to give the peace that only Jesus can give.

Christianity – and Pentecost, and the right response to Vatican II – isn’t about locking ourselves behind closed doors.  But neither is it about capitulating to the culture.  It is about the power of Christ, staking everything on the power of the Gospel, proclaimed to all nations, to build up one body.

Do you lock yourself behind closed doors?  Why?

 

Glory be to the Holy Spirit

Glory Be and Devotion to the Holy Spirit

As we approach Pentecost, we should think about devotion to the Holy Spirit.  One approach is to pray the Glory Be.

For some reason it’s finally struck me recently, after twenty years of praying the Liturgy of the Hours, how often we say this prayer.  A parallel: the first couple times I went to a Byzantine Mass were in a chapel I stumbled into in Paris.  My French is only okay, and I didn’t understand much.  But I did notice how often they said, “ayez pitié sur nous,” have mercy on us.  Gosh, I thought, the Byzantines love that phrase.  But if you came to a Roman Liturgy of the Hours in the same situation, you might think, “wow, they love to say Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.”

One way to make our life more liturgical might be to run with that.  Love to say Glory be.  Say it often.  Say it well.  Say it like you mean it.  Be a Catholic.

***

File:Rom, Vatikan, Petersdom, Baldachin und Cathedra Petri (Bernini).jpgIt’s such a simple prayer.

“Glory.”  There’s an old Christian pop song that my kids like that says, “there’s such a thing as glory.”  What does glory mean?  Oh, I’ve written about that before: it means majesty, it means light, it means awesomeness.  But there’s something to that old pop song: rather than trying to define it, let’s just glory in the reality of glory.  It’s a word that picks us up beyond the ordinary, that gives us hints of heavenly splendor, that says there are beauties of which this world can only dimly hint.  (A better song on the same old album says, “there’s a loyalty that’s deeper than mere sentiment, a music higher than the songs that I can sing”: there’s such a thing as glory.)

We should go there now and then.  We should go there often.  Glory!  Let that word be a moment of joy salting your days.

***

Glory to the Father.  Our tradition knows how to pack a lot into a few words.  Mostly, I’m trying to get to the Holy Spirit.  But how can I keep from singing every word of this prayer?  (That’s all Gregorian chant is, you know: an exaltation in the beautiful, glorious words of the liturgy, an effort to hold on for just a few seconds to each of these life-changing, transfiguring words.)

God is glory.  That’s what glory is, and that’s what God is.  Glory to God in the highest means lingering in the sheer gloriousness of God, and recognizing that glory means what God is.

But beyond Glory to God, Glory to the Father.  Glory to a God who is more than Creator.  Creator is pretty awesome – and God is more glorious still.

You can’t have a Father without a Son (or daughter), the two words define one another.  Glory to a God who not only makes a creation, which only dimly hints at his glory, but a Son, who shares in it fully.  Glory to the Son who glories in the glory of his Father, who is nothing else but sharing in that glory.

***

Glory to the Son has two sides, one in heaven, one on earth.  It revels in the eternal mystery of the Trinity, of God being two, Father and Son, who share in the same glory, of God the Father being one who glories in sharing his glory.

But Glory to the Son also revels in the Incarnation.  Glory to the Son means, as we look at the baby in the manger, at the strange homeless teacher, at the man on the Cross – and at the Transfiguration, and the Resurrected Christ – this man, one of us, shares in the glory of the Father.  He is “consubstantial with the Father.”  He is nothing less than the awesome glory of God, come among us.

How good God is!  Glory to a God who would bring his glory among us, who would be so close to us. Emmanuel!

***

But Glory to the Holy Spirit says more.  It is as if we say, Glory to the Father, to God in heaven; and glory to the Son, to a God who walks among us; and glory to the Holy Spirit, to God who comes even closer to File:Illumination de la Croix du Careme 1.jpgus than the Incarnation.  In the Incarnation Jesus was near us.  But he sends the Holy Spirit to be within us, to be our own heart.  The Incarnation is awesome, but for us, the giving of the Holy Spirit is even greater.

Glory to the Holy Spirit means, all that awesomeness, all that glory we have reveled in in our little glimpse of heaven, all that glory we have given thanks for in the coming of the Son – all of that glory comes to dwell in our hearts, to make the Church the real Body of Christ, pulsing with his heart, living by his soul, branches on his vine, with his sap, the very Holy Spirit, no less glory than the Father himself, pulsing through us.

That’s the Gospel: that glory has come among us.  That Jesus who walks among us shares in the glory of the Father and gives that glory to us.

Where does devotion to the Holy Spirit fit in your day?

Sunday after Ascension: Seek the things that are above

We are an Ascension people.  The Lectionary gives me a hard choice for my reflections this Sunday.  Ascension is supposed to be on Thursday, the fortieth day from Easter.  Where I live, the liturgy celebrated it then, but in most of the US it is transferred to Sunday.  So my Sunday reflections could be on Ascension, or on the Sunday after Ascension.  I’m going to write about the Sunday after Ascension, because that is the time in which we live: after the Ascension.

In the Liturgy, we are between Ascension and Pentecost.  The first reading gives us nothing but the apostles going to pray while they wait for Pentecost.  Of course, we live after Pentecost – but this is our time too, the time after Ascension, of praying for the Holy Spirit.

They go back to the Upper Room to pray, to the room of the Last Supper.  That is what we do at the Mass: we live in the time after the Ascension, praying for the Holy Spirit to come on us and make us the Church.  And they pray with Mary, and that’s what we do with Mary.  Mary doesn’t teach us activism, she just teaches us how to pray, to long for Christ and beg for the Holy Spirit.  We are in the time after the Ascension.

***

Our reading from John’s Gospel finally takes the turn to Jesus’s final prayer.  John 13 is the washing of the feet.  John 14-16 is the farewell discourse, all the final things Jesus says to his disciples.  But John 17 is his prayer to the Father.

Both the discourse (14-16) and the prayer (17) mingle the Cross with the Ascension.  Our reading this Sunday, for example, ends, “And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you.”  He is leaving through the Cross, and he will leave through the Ascension.  Cross-Ascension are one Paschal mystery.   It is the mystery of our time, the time after the Ascension.

***

The Gospel takes us through several related ideas.

“Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you.”  Our readings talk a lot about glory.  Our short reading from First Peter looks forward to “when his glory is revealed,” it says “the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you,” and it says when we suffer we should “glorify God because of the name.”

“Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you.”  We are able to know the Father, to appreciate his glory, because he shares that glory with us.  We can see him only to the extent that he gives us a share in his divine nature.  When the glory of God dwells in us, we can see God in his glory, and show that glory to others.

***

“This is eternal life, that they should know you.”  Eternal life isn’t “after” this life.  Eternal life is knowing God.  Eternal life is contemplative, it is nothing other than knowing and loving the goodness and the glory of God.  It is “after” this life inasmuch as we cannot yet see him.  But it begins now, in every taste we get of his glory.

***

“I revealed your name. . . . And they have kept your word. . . . The words you gave to me I have given to 1648. Праабражэнне.jpgthem.”  The Christian mystery is the mystery of Revelation.  God shares himself with us.  He tells us, of course, lots about how we should live – but ultimately what he shares is his “name”: knowledge of himself, divine intimacy.

And that knowledge is mediated through words.  Words are mysterious things.  Of course the letters on the paper are nothing; the strange sounds coming from our mouth are nothing; and our ideas are far short of God.  Yet somehow, the mystery of Scripture is the mystery of a God who tells us about himself.  Somehow, through these words, we catch a glimpse.

The glory he gives us is the deeper part of our knowing him: the grace, and light, of faith.  But faith comes alive through meditation on his words.

***

“I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours.”  The words sound harsh.  But the point is grace.  The point is that we have been given an amazing gift.  Sometimes we get carried away by talking about how everyone is a child of God.  Of course there is an important sense in which that is true.  But never forget how privileged we are to have been called beyond the world, given a share in the glory of Christ, given knowledge of his name through faith in his words.  That’s not a put-down to other people.  It’s an amazing gift to us.

***

What does it mean to be an Ascension people?  It means to seek the things that are above, to be called to a glory beyond this world.

In what ways do you find yourself settling for less than the glory of the Ascended Christ?

An Ascension People

Around this time of year you sometimes hear priests saying we are an “Easter People” or even a “Resurrection People.”  But what does it mean?

As far as I can tell, “Easter” is an old-English word that means little more than “Spring Festival.”  But Il Risorto - Chiesa della SS. Trinità - panoramio.jpgwhat is our Spring Festival?  Other Catholic languages use the Hebrew word Pasch, which at least ties “Easter” to the Passover and to the whole “Paschal mystery” of Christ’s death and resurrection.  Still, what is the meaning of Easter?

And what is the meaning of the Resurrection?  Perhaps I’m jaded: when I was in college, a priest used to use the non sequitur argument that we shouldn’t kneel before the Eucharist because we are a “Resurrection People.”  But the same “liberal” logic passes over to some “conservative” Catholics, where Chesterton’s famous comments about “beef and beer” sometimes seem to devolve into a kind of Catholic pseudo-orthodoxy that thinks the Incarnation means we should all make ourselves at home in the world, eat drink and be merry.

Is that what Resurrection means?  “The battle’s done,” we’re an Easter people, let’s be fat and happy and self-referential?

***

I was struck in my reading this year by a Thomist theologian who tied the Resurrection to the Ascension.  The Bible is a little confusing here.  Of course we know that Jesus was “seen by them through forty days” (Acts 1:3), apparently before the Ascension (1:6-9).  And Thomas Aquinas seems confident to say the Ascension was “after forty days” (IIIa q. 55, a. 3, arg. 2; ibid. a. 5; ibid. q. 57, a. 1, arg. 4).

But the only other place the Bible talks about the Ascension is at the end of Luke’s Gospel – same author as Acts – where the drumbeat is “that same day” (Luke 24:13), “the same hour” (24:33), “as they were speaking” (24:36), and then, apparently with no passage of time, “He led them out as far as Bethany . . . and as he blessed them, He withdrew from them and was carried up into Heaven” (24:50).

Now, I’m not trying to throw you into confusion about when we should celebrate the Ascension.  I’m just trying to say the Ascension and the Resurrection are not so far apart.  They are more like two parts of the same mystery.

We tend to think, perhaps, that the Resurrection is the big deal, and then later on something obscure detail gets added on – and so our “Resurrection people” focuses on a God who is sitting on the beach having a meal.  But you wouldn’t be out of line if you instead thought that Jesus ascended on Easter Day, but made appearances “through forty days” so that they would understand the truth of the Ascension. File:Η Ανάληψη.jpg You wouldn’t be out of line if you thought of the Ascension as the main mystery, and the Resurrection and its appearances as sort of a step on the way.

The anamnesis, the important but over-looked prayer right after the Consecration of the Eucharist, ties the two together.  Eucharistic Prayer II, the shortest and so the most often used, just says “his Death and Resurrection,” but (google them if you’re interested) in EP III and the ancient EP I, the Roman Canon, the grammar gets strange as the two are tangled into one mystery.  The Ascension is not an afterthought.

***

A clue to the reason is in the two Prefaces for the Ascension in the Missal.  The second one (which was in the Pre-Vatican II Missal), says:

“after his Resurrection

he plainly appeared to all his disciples

and was taken up to heaven in their sight,

that he might make us sharers in his divinity.”

The other one says:

“he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state

but that we, his members, might be confident of following

where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.”

These prayers summarize a lot of what we have been reading from the Farewell Discourse of John’s Gospel.

The mystery of the Ascension is that our humanity is taken to heaven.  Yes, in the Resurrection our humanity conquers death.  But Jesus has a better plan than that: he wants us to share with him in the life of heaven.

***

We are an Ascension People.

File:Église de Kalkar - Ascension.jpgThe Resurrection does not mean that we make ourselves at home on earth.  It means that we are destined for heavenly glory.  Nor does the Resurrection mean that we are afraid to kneel: it means we are still on our way, trembling, to something eye has not seen and ear has not heard.

We are an Easter People.  But the Paschal Mystery, our Springtime celebration, doesn’t just mean we won and now we can party.  On one side of the Resurrection is the Cross, through which we must pass continually until we reach the glory of heaven.  And on the other side of the Resurrection is the Ascension, which calls us not to get too comfortable here on earth, but to long for heavenly things, the heavenly places that Jesus has prepared for us.

What does the Ascension mean for you?

Sixth Sunday of Easter: Our Apologetics is Love

We are coming to the end of the Easter season.  Ascension is on Thursday, and the readings are starting to look ahead to Pentecost.  (In the many places where Ascension is transferred to Sunday, the Lectionary gives the confusing option to do the New Testament readings from that Sunday on this Sunday; I will comment on this Sunday’s readings.)

Our Gospel continues on from last Sunday’s reading in John 14.  John expands on little details from the other Gospels.  They tell us about the institution of the Eucharist.  He takes us deep into the meaning of the Eucharist, not only in John 6, where he gives Jesus’s preaching about the multiplication of loaves and the Bread of Life, but also in John 13, where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, and then 14-17, where he preaches at length about his love for his disciples, the Church.

***

Love as I have loved

Our Gospel this Sunday has two themes: the commandment and the Spirit.

Now, the other Gospels, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, emphasize how love establishes the old commandments: if you love, you won’t kill or commit adultery or lie, etc., in fact you’ll never come close to those things.  John knows this point has been made – but he wants to emphasize the other direction, the necessity of love.

Our reading this Sunday begins and ends with Jesus saying that if you love him, you will keep his commandments.  In the next chapter he will say, “if you keep my commandments, you abide in my love,” just as he keeps his Father’s commandments and abides in his Father’s love.  “Abide” is one of John’s favorite words: we dwell in that love, live there, take time there, remain there.

But in that chapter after ours, right after he says “if you keep my commandments,” he says, “this is my commandment: love as I have loved you.”  He has said the same thing in the chapter before ours: “a new commandment I give you: as I have loved you, love one another.”  He has just washed their feet.  The Tradition calls Holy Thursday “Maundy” Thursday because of the commandment, the mandatum, to wash each other’s feet and love one another.

Jesus tells us to keep his commandments, in the plural – but Jesus really only gives one commandment: love as I have loved you.

St. Thérèse points out the newness of this commandment.  The Old Testament told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  That’s pretty hard.  But Jesus gives a new commandment: love not as we love ourselves, but as he loves ourselves, which is vastly more.  That is his commandment.  And that is the whole thing, that love is Christianity.

***

The other theme in our reading for this Sunday is the Holy Spirit.  Jesus emphasizes that the world does not have the Spirit, does not see him or know him or accept him.  But we do know him because – here’s that word again – the Spirit dwells in us, abides with us.

In John’s Prologue, he says we are born as children of God not by blood (not just because we are human), not by the will of the flesh or even the will of man, but from God.  Here he makes the same point in a different way: love is not just automatically in “the world.”  Love is the presence of the Spirit in us.

Receive the Holy Spirit

We can love as Jesus loves not because we try real hard – not by “the will of man” – and certainly not because it’s just human nature, but because he pours his Spirit, his love, into our hearts.  This is why the sacraments are an essential part of Christianity: because they are the means, the instruments, by which Christ pours his Spirit, his love, into our hearts.  Only his Spirit allows us to love as he loves.

***

Our reading this week from Acts continues the story of the deacons.  Stephen has been stoned, now there are a few stories about the deacon Philip.  The deacons have been ordained to free up the Apostles for preaching – but the deacons too, Luke tells us, are “full of the Holy Spirit,” and they too proclaim the Gospel, by word and deed.

And they go forth to bring the Spirit to others: they baptize, and then call the Apostles – the givers of the sacraments – to give the fullness of the Spirit by laying on hands.

***

Our reading from First Peter is about apologetics – it uses that Greek word.  But it is not quite the apologetics we sometimes learn.  Peter calls us to give a reason (a logos) not for our faith, but for our hope.  Tell them of your hope in Christ!

And the whole reading makes clear that the context matters.  Our “apologetic” begins with sanctifying the Lord in our hearts and ends with meekness, with fear – our translation says “reverence,” but Peter is saying, be ever so careful – and with a readiness to lay down our lives in gentleness, as Christ did, suffering not because we are obnoxious but only for the good we have done.  Our apologetics is love.

How does dwelling in Christ’s love – or not – affect your witness to the faith?

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter: Christ Alone our Cornerstone

Throughout the Easter season we read the Acts of the Apostles.  Up till now it has been Peter’s preaching at Pentecost.  In the weeks to come it will be the spreading of the Gospel to the nations.  But this week we get the central theme of Acts: the repetition of Christ’s life in the life of the Apostles.

Christianity, need I say, is Christ-centered.  A curious phenomenon of the Catholic Right is a constant assertion that we should be “reverent” and focus on the “transcendent,” which, they frequently assert, “all religions do” – while, meanwhile, you hear precious little reference to what is distinct about Christianity.  What is distinct about Christianity is Christ, and the repetition of his life in the life of his Body, the Church.

Instead of “reverent, transcendent liturgy,” let’s have a life and liturgy centered on Christ.  That also means Biblical liturgy, where we hear the unique message of Jesus Christ.

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This week’s Gospel reading, from John 14, has many famous lines: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”  “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”

As usual, John overwhelms us.  But we can pull some of these strains together.

First, there is location.  People say many pagan things about transcendence and immanence, but in the Eucharist, in the other sacraments, and in Scripture, as in the Incarnation, we have a God who draws us to himself.

Here in John 14, Jesus says, “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places . . . I am going to prepare a place for you.”  On the one hand, he says several times, “I am in the Father and the Father in me.”  On the other hand, he says his goal is “that where I am you also may be.”

It is not sufficient to say God is transcendent, and it is even less sufficient to say he is immanent.  The point is that by his grace, we ascend to the place from which he descended.  God became man so that man could be united with God: anything less is not Christianity.

***

A parallel theme is faith.  “You have faith in God, have faith also in me”: that is, “believe in me.”  “If you know me, then you will also know my Father.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. . . . Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe because of the works themselves.”

The reason Scripture is important is because it tells us something absolutely new about God.  Jesus, who alone is with the Father, has told us about something we could never have imagined.  Without belief in his words, trust in what he tells us, we can never know the amazing truth of the Gospel.

We need to hear his voice.  That means not just sitting in silence, where we hear our own internal voices, but reading Scripture, the voice of Christ, the Word of God, which speaks from outside of us and tells us something absolutely new.

***

The third theme is works.  “Believe me . . . or else believe because of the works.”  “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do.”  Faith bears fruit.  If we receive his Word, we learn what it means to receive Him; if we receive Him we are transformed to dwell where He is.

In our reading from Acts, the Twelve Apostles say, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve [diakonia] at table.”  On the one hand, the ministry of the Word is higher than the good works of Christians.  It is from faith that works come forth – here the works are “the daily service [diakonia] to the widows . . . at table.”

On the other hand, those works are essential.  So the deacons, committed to those words, must be “filled with the Spirit and wisdom.”  They receive the laying on of hands of the Apostles – waiting at table is a sacrament – and they produce great saints such as Stephen, the first martyr.  And thus, through this proper ordering of Word and service, “the word of God continued to spread.”

***

Our reading from First Peter tells us of the true worship.  All of us must “be built into a spiritual house,”

Knowing Christ through faith in his Word

which is “a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices”: through the ministry of the Apostles and priests, all of us are called to be priestly, in liturgy and life.

But to be that priestly house, we must be built on Jesus Christ, whom we know, Peter says, through “faith.”  Those who “disobey the word” – literally, those who do not assent to the word – see Christ only as a stumbling block.  Only through faith in Christ and his words can we become the holy people we are called to be.

How do you let your mind be transformed by the truth of the Gospel?

Fourth Sunday of Easter: Know His Voice

The fourth Sunday of Easter is the Good Shepherd.  Each year on this Sunday we read different sections of John 10, turning from accounts of the Resurrection in the first three Sundays to Jesus’s preaching at the Last Supper (John 14-17) in the weeks to come, and so penetrating into the meaning of Easter.

Searching the Scriptures

John’s Gospel is an overwhelmingly rich commentary on the other Gospels.  In Matthew 13, the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables; he responds with the parable of the Sower: his word is good seed, but it needs to be received in good earth.  John 10 is a variation on the same theme.

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John 9 was the man born blind.  At the end of that chapter, Jesus says he has come to open the eyes of the blind. The Pharisees, halfway understanding, ask, “Are you saying that we are blind?”  Jesus responds, “Now you say, We see. Therefore your sin remains.”

He then launches into the parable of the Good Shepherd, through all of chapter 10.  Jesus’s preaching is punctuated with the responses of the Pharisees.  Our reading includes the first response, “They did not understand what it was which He spoke to them.”  Later in the chapter they debate whether “he has a devil, and is mad.”  Later still they want to stone him.

The chapter is punctuated, too, by the Greek word ginosko, the word for “understanding” in “They did not understand his words.”  Deeper than understanding, it is knowing.  Later in the chapter Jesus says, “I know my sheep,” “I know the Father,” “The Father knows me and I know him,” “My sheep hear me, and I know them.”  And the final line of the homily is, “That you may know and believe.”

***

File:Timrå kyrka int6.jpgThis is the context for Jesus’s preaching about the Good Shepherd.  His sheep, he says, know his voice, they hear his words, they follow, “because they recognize his voice.”  They do not follow strangers, “because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”

Just as the good seed takes root only in good soil, so the sheep only follow their shepherd.  And as the seed in Matthew’s Gospel is the word, what the sheep follow in John’s Gospel is the voice of the Shepherd.  But in John’s version, the sheep have a bit more intelligence.  They do not just passively receive the word, they hear it, recognize it, and follow it.

This week’s installment from First Peter ends with a line about sheep.  It may be a play on words.  The Greek for sheep literally means, “the ones who walk straight forward.”  Maybe that is part of what people mean when they say sheep are stupid: they just plod straight ahead.

Peter gives two images of sheep.  First, “You had gone astray like sheep”: they just keep wandering off in whatever direction.  But second, “You have now returned” – the Greek word is turn – “to the shepherd.”  They plod straight ahead – unless they hear the voice of their shepherd and guardian, in which case they turn to follow.  Not so stupid, as long as they have a good shepherd and they know his voice.

***

Jesus mixes his metaphors.  He is the shepherd; he is also the gatekeeper and the gate.  We could summarize the mixed metaphor as Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, through him, with him, in him, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ behind me.

He warns us that there are those who would enter the sheepfold by other ways.  Jesus the Good File:The Christ Child as the Good Shepherd. Lithograph by J. Abri Wellcome V0034043.jpgShepherd wants life for his sheep, wants to lead us to pasture, but the others are thieves who want to slaughter the sheep.  Beware all that is not Jesus.  Beware Catholicisms of the Right and the Left that have something to offer you other than the love of Jesus.

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This week’s reading from Acts is the end of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, completing the reading from last week.  Our translation happens to botch the key word: “Save yourself,” it has, in the last line, “from this corrupt generation.”  But the point is precisely that we cannot save ourselves.  The Greek says, “be saved” – by Jesus.

In response to Peter’s preaching, his audience has asked, “What are we to do.”  Peter says, “Repent and be baptized.”  Repent, because the one “that God has made both Lord and Christ,” is the Jesus “whom you have crucified.”  We have gone astray.  Repent, because this world is crooked and corrupt.

But repent and be baptized, because only Jesus can give “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (through the sacraments), only Jesus can save us, only Jesus can overcome our corruption and give us a new birth, a re-“generation.”

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File:Stories of old or Bible narratives (1863) (14579310939).jpgPeter offers one more metaphor.  “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his footsteps.”  The word for “follow” is the one used several times in John 10.  Go where he leads.

The “leave you an example” is a bit abstract in the English.  In the Greek, the image is of something written in bold so that you can put tracing paper over it.  “Copy” his example, follow his voice, no matter where it leads.

How could you better get to know the voice of the Shepherd?

Third Sunday of Easter: Discovering the Hope of the Resurrection

The first three Sundays of Easter give us accounts of the Resurrection; the fourth Sunday is the Good Shepherd; and the following Sundays of the season are about the Eucharist.  Meanwhile the first reading is from the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistle is from 1 Peter, 1 John, or Revelation, depending on the year.  We spend Easter pondering the meaning of Easter – and finding it in Jesus the Good Shepherd’s care for the infant Church, especially through the Eucharist.

This week we read the Road to Emmaus, from Luke’s Gospel.  Like the Easter Lectionary, those disciples are grappling with the meaning of Easter – and they find it in the Good Shepherd, revealed in the Eucharist.

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A word central to all three readings and the Psalm is hope.  As Jesus talks to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, they say, “We were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”  Of course they are right, he has redeemed Israel.  But not the way they expected.  They were prevented from recognizing him walking along with them – but they were also prevented from recognizing him as their redeemer and hope on the Cross.

Luke, the author of our Gospel and of the Acts of the Apostles, is concerned with abandonment.  In Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, which Luke seems to have had before him while writing his own, Jesus’s only words on the Cross are “Why have you abandoned me?”  Now, he is citing Psalm 22 which, the Gospel writers expect us to know, tells how even in what feels like abandonment God has not abandoned us.

But Luke wants to make it more clear, so he tells us about another Psalm Jesus prayed, Psalm 31, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  Jesus was not abandoned.  Nor did he abandon us: Luke also tells us of Jesus saying to the Good Thief, himself abandoned on the Cross, “today you will be with me in Paradise,” and even of the morally abandoned people who crucified him, “Father, forgive them.”

In our reading from Acts, the same Luke reports Peter beginning his preaching at Pentecost with Psalm 16: “You will not abandon my soul to the netherworld.”  It’s the same Hebrew word for abandon as in Psalm 22.

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The disciples on the Road to Emmaus feel abandoned.  Christ was not the redeemer, he was abandoned on the Cross, and so we too are abandoned.  But this is the first thing they need to know about Easter: we are not abandoned.  “Therefore,” says our Psalm, “my heart is glad and my soul rejoices, my body, too, abides in confidence; because you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.”

Rembrandt’s Christ in Emmaus

“Abides in confidence” – actually, the word is hope.  In the Greek Old Testament, which Luke cites in Acts, it’s the same word as the disciples say on the Road to Emmaus: “we had hoped he was the redeemer.”  It’s the same word Peter says in our Epistle: “through him you believe in God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.”

We are not abandoned, because we have hope.  And yet, as Paul says in Romans, hope is not yet possession.  The other side of hope is that we do indeed feel abandoned.  The power of Psalm 16, and the joy of Easter, is not in having completely escaped death, but in knowing, in the midst of death, that Christ is our hope.

The disciples “hoped” for a redeemer who would get them out of jail free.  For that, on the Road to Emmaus, Jesus scolds them: “Oh, how foolish you are!  How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!  Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory!”  (Glory is another word all over this Sunday’s readings.)  We enter glory through suffering, through hope.

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In our Epistle, St. Peter tells us that we were “ransomed” – redeemed, as in, “we had hoped that he would redeem Israel” – from our futile conduct.   Peter reads the resurrection in terms of our conversion, which is still in process.

File:De gamle Kalkmalerier or12.pngBut we were redeemed not through earthly power, “not with perishable things like silver or gold,” but through our Passover lamb, “with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.”  He redeemed us not by being a powerful conquering king, but by laying down his life on the Cross.

His Word and his Eucharist transform the disciples on the Road to Emmaus.  “Were not our hearts burning within us?”  Actually, the word is more like “kindled,” “lit on fire” – the Greek emphasizes not a fire already burning, but the beginning.

Jesus kindle, your love in me, may your Cross and Resurrection give birth to the Church, a hope of glory, in each one of us.

To what new hope is Christ calling you this Easter?