Notre Dame

I was just coming to write my Sunday post (a day late), and find news of Notre Dame.

I am devastated.

It was my favorite church, from three trips to Paris. It was exquisite, the central, perfect monument of such a rich age.

I can only think of Lamentations. In the old office of Tenebrae, “Shadows,” sung during Holy Week, we invoke the desolation of Jerusalem at the Babylon exile. Quomodo sedet sola civitas: as the city sits alone.

The devastation of Jerusalem, the devastation of the Cross. It’s so easy to skip to the next step, to shrug and say, yes, but in three days he will rebuild this Temple. But in his valley of tears, so many Temples will never be rebuilt.

Devastation.

(from
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/notre-dame-fire-live-updates-cathedral-paris-france-stream-video-latest-a8871471.html#post-1162886657 )

Fifth Sunday of Lent: Not Written in Stone

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

For the last Sunday before Holy Week, unless for RCIA you’re reading the Raising of Lazarus, this year’s Lectionary gives us John’s telling of the Woman Caught in Adultery.  The theme is second chances.

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That theme begins with Isaiah 43.  There’s a major turn in Isaiah at chapter 40—modern scholars wonder whether the “First Isaiah” wrote as Jerusalem was being attacked by the Babylonians, and the “Second Isaiah” wrote as they were coming back from Babylon, and even Thomas Aquinas begins his commentary by saying clearly this book has two halves.  Let’s just say that the first half is prophecies of woe, and the second half is prophecies of hope.

So our reading says the God, “who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army”—like the army that “First Isaiah” says God sent to destroy sinful Jerusalem—is later “doing something new.”  That newness, “In the desert I make a way,” sounds to me more like a recollection of how he got his people out of Egypt, and less like the specifics of how they came back from Babylon.  (That route is actually up the beautiful Euphrates, until you’re north of Palestine, and then south through the beauties of Syria and Lebanon.)  But the point is, he always saves his people.

Our reading of Philippians turns that newness inside out.  It’s not that he brings us “back” to earthly splendor, but that he pulls us forward: “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead.” We count what lies behind “so much rubbish,” but look forward to being transformed in righteousness “through faith in Christ.”  But still, it’s a second chance, a path out of the desert.  God does not abandon his people.

***

That’s the obvious theme of the Woman Caught in Adultery: instead of stoning her, he says, “go and sin no more.”

But a couple kooky thoughts on John’s rich commentary on this story:

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First, on stoning.  We all know that they say, “Moses commanded us to stone such women,” and Jesus says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

But it’s worth noticing that both sides are twisting the Law of Moses.  Actually, what Moses says is, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10).  Both of them.  And John is careful to quote them saying, “This woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery”: you can’t catch one without the other. 

So what’s going on?  How faithful are they to the Law?  Are they “without transgression,” even here?  Or are they instead prosecuting the one side of the Law that they like, and ignoring the other?  There’s something dramatic about how they “made her stand in the middle.”  In the Greek, I think, it’s a phrase that always emphasizes being the weirdo, the one unlike everyone who surrounds you.  We’re talking about a bunch of men attacking a woman: “the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman.”

We’re so used to hating on the Law of Moses that we miss its civilizing effect.  Killing the woman is what every pagan culture does.  Punishing the man, too, is a dramatic move toward social responsibility. 

***

So too stoning.  It sounds so brutal to us, but Jesus’s words remind us how it worked.  He says, “throw the first stone.”  But the whole point of stoning is that no one throws the first stone.  Modern firing lines are a bit like this: when they execute someone by gunfire, the Nazis would have one man do it, so he knows he did it, but more civilized societies have several guns, and one of them is not loaded, so that each man can hope maybe it wasn’t him.  Stoning is a form of execution that demands responsibility from everyone in the community.  You don’t send someone to an abstract Death Row where you never have to think about it again: everyone in the community has to stare the death penalty in the face, and participate in it.

Nicolas Poussin: Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery

I’m not trying to defend capital punishment.  I’m trying to say that Moses is always taking a step in the right direction, a step toward civilization, toward at least recognizing what the death penalty means. 

Moses is not the bad guy in this story.  In fact, the goodness of Moses brings out the evil of the scribes and Pharisees, who ignore the sin of the man and can’t bear to take personal responsibility for the punishment that sounded so exciting to them. 

God’s true law is not about lynching people who are different from us, much as we like to twist it in that direction.  God’s law is about growing in personal responsibility.

That’s our side, now God’s side.

***

Second: bending.  Several times in the story, “Jesus bent down” and then “straightened up.”  In Greek it’s the same word: he bends, and he unbends.  That’s a weird image, and not the way modern writers write—but it is the way ancient writers write.  To their rigidity, Jesus responds with flexibility.  It’s not the flexibility of condoning sin—he tells her to sin no more.  But it is the flexibility of second chances.  It is the flexibility of a God who bends down to us, and then rises up again to carry us to heaven. 

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And so, third: drawing on the earth.  When it says, “Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger,” I think it’s quoting Exodus (31:18): “And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.”  Jesus is the author of the Law, who wrote it with his own finger, not only on tablets of stone, but right into the earth itself, when he created us. 

But the earth into which he inscribed it is more flexible than stone.  He doesn’t change the Law—Jesus is clear about the evil of adultery, and tells the woman to sin no more—but he has the flexibility and strength to wipe away this sin from her heart.  Not everything is written in stone.

Where is Jesus calling you to offer others—or yourself—a second chance?

Fourth Sunday of Lent: Joy in the Desert

Third Sunday of Lent: Rejoicing to be On Our Way

Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; Psalm 34; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

This Sunday is the pink Sunday of Lent, the day the priest wears joyful vestments to remind us that there is happiness even here. (I know they insist the vestments are “rose.” But rosa is just the Latin word for pink.)

Our first reading is a commentary on that joy in the desert.  Joshua and the Israelites are camped “on the plains of Jericho”: that means they just crossed the Jordan, after forty years of Exodus, and are beginning to claim the Promised Land.  They celebrate the Passover, and the next day they eat “unleavened cakes” (since Passover is observed for a week) and “parched grain.” “Parched” is a funny translation; what it means is that they roasted the fresh local grain on their campfires. 

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Now, on the one hand, it’s nice that they’re finally eating fresh grain, instead of manna.  They have come to a place where good food actually grows.  But it’s cooked on the camp fire—just as the Passover lamb must be roasted over fire, not in an oven or a pot—because they are still on the move.

I imagine our own campfire meals.  Even canned stuff tastes good over a campfire, because you’re thankful to be eating, a special thankfulness because you can’t prepare a feast. 

And that’s the pink vestments of Lent: not the settled joy of a feast day, but the joy of being on the road, on our way, moving forward toward the Resurrection.  Even a fast can be a feast.

***

Our reading from Second Corinthians talks about “reconciliation,” or maybe it should be translated, “exchange.”  “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”  We are “in Christ a new creation,” and that’s something to celebrate.  But we celebrate that new creation in and through Lent.  It’s not that everything is fine; it’s that we are in the process of transformation, on the road to the Resurrection, passing through Good Friday.

***

And so we come to the Prodigal Son.  Above all what marks Luke is his eye for these stories—also the Good Samaritan, the place of honor at the wedding feast, the rich man and Lazaurs, the persistent widow: the touching stories are mostly unique to Luke. 

So many rich details.  I love this book.  I wish I could write my own. 

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The story, of course, is not about the Prodigal Son, but about the Father and the Elder Brother.  The Lectionary sets the theme: “the Pharisees and scribes began to complain,” the Elder Brother, “saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,’” like the Father in the story.  Then it skips the two introductory parables, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Luke alone adds the widow and her coin), which tell the same story more briefly.

But though the main point is about the Father and the Elder Son, Jesus and the Pharisees, Luke gives us brilliant details about the Prodigal. 

The Prodigal is clearly at fault: “Father give me the share of your estate . . . So the father divided the property,” literally his “life.”  What a lout.  “He squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.”  But “when he had freely spent everything,” we feel almost bad for him, because “a severe famine struck,” not his fault.  Few stories in world literature make our eyes roll like this one. 

But what does he do?  “He hired himself out?”  Literally, he glued

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himself to a local, adhered, sucked up.  And it must be said, when he “comes to his senses,” he doesn’t say, “what a jerk I’ve been,” he says, “how many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough.”  It’s pure calculation and manipulation: sucking up to this guy hasn’t worked out, maybe I’ll suck up to my father.

Meanwhile, “he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody game him any.”  We groan again: he’s feeding the swine, he doesn’t need anyone to give him “the pods” (literally, “the hard stuff,” from the same word as keratin).  But he wants more gifts, like he took from his father.  And going home, he’s not looking for hard keratin “pods,” he’s looking for “food”: he knows how they eat at his father’s house. 

But his father is utterly unlike him, catching sight of him a long way off, filled with compassion, running to meet him, giving him what he doesn’t deserve.  He goes out to the Elder, too, who refuses to come in.

***

The Elder Son’s objections are totally reasonable.  The Prodigal is a real jerk, one of the greatest jerks in all literature.  And the Prodigal in this story is us.  This isn’t a story about how great we are.  Our new creation, our entrance into the Promised Land, isn’t about how we’ve really cleaned up our act and done the right thing.  It’s about the sheer goodness of the Father, in his Son Jesus Christ. 

The Elder Son, of course, is also us, rejecting the Father’s way of mercy, insistent on merit. 

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But the real celebration, the pink vestments of Lent and the fresh grain roasted on the fires of the Promised Land, is that somehow he can bring us from death to life, from being lost to being found.  We rejoice not in our goodness, but in his, and in the process of our redemption, which is still under way.

In what parts of your life should you be rejoicing more at the Father’s mercy?

Third Sunday of Lent: Get Moving

Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15; Psalm 103; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9

The first Sunday of Lent, the reading has always been about Jesus’ fast of forty days, and the second Sunday, his Transfiguration.  The sixth Sunday is Palm Sunday, when we read the Passion from our Gospel for the year (with John’s version on Good Friday).  In this year of Luke, the fourth Sunday will be the Prodigal Son, and the fifth will be the woman caught in adultery, from John.  (You have probably noticed that parishes with RCIA have the option to use the same readings every year.)

The Lectionary tells us, with good reason, that these middle Sundays are “about conversion.” 

But this third Sunday the reading is obscure.  First Jesus talks about some Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.”  Then he talks about a fig tree that bears no fruit—you can get an idea of how weird that parable is if you look at the different treatments Matthew, Mark, and Luke give it: a rich but confusing episode in the life and preaching of Jesus.

The theme that will emerge, a central theme of Luke, is that we are on our way.  Christianity is not about where you are, but where you are going, and the progress you make on the road.  Lent is a time to remember that we have not yet arrived.

***

The first three readings are a complicated web.  The Lectionary says the Old Testament readings of Lent aim to give us a tour of the Old Testament, while the Epistle ties together the first reading and the Gospel.  In every season, the Psalm brings out the central theme of the Old Testament reading.

This Sunday, the Epistle is from 1 Corinthians 10.  It says that everything that happens in the Old Testament “happened as examples for us.”  And it says, particularly, that the Exodus is about us.  We skip some verses about the idolatry and porneia of the people of the Exodus, but skip to the central point: God provided, and the people grumbled.  They did not receive what he offered.  It’s not good enough to be one of the people, if you do not let God’s presence transform you in thanksgiving.

The Psalm says the Lord is kind and merciful.  The Hebrew words speak of God caressing us, bending down in acknowledgement of us. One of its central words is hesed, which means loving kindness but literally that he bows his head to us, shows us reverence.

The Old Testament reading these all spell out is Moses and the Burning Bush.  There God says he hears his people’s cry, witnesses their affliction: he bows his head to them.  Then it says who he is: he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he is the great “I am.”  Let us just say that God’s hesed is not a sign of his weakness, but of his awesomeness.  He is the God of life, of superabundance, the God who saves and is the source of all being.  As at the Transfiguration, we should be overawed at his goodness—and moved by it.

***

In our Gospel, Jesus calls us to move. 

In the first half, “some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate” had shed, in their place of sacrifice.  Now, this is Luke 13.  In Luke 9, the turning point, Jesus sets his face for Jerusalem; people recognize him, fear him, as one whose “face is set for Jerusalem” (9:53).  But in chapter 17, he will still be “between Samaria and Galilee.”  So at this point, he is in Galilee, on his way to Jerusalem. 

So first he speaks of Galileans: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?  . . . If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”  To the Galileans, he says, it’s not about what happens to you or where you’re from: it’s about repentance.

Then he speaks of his destination, “Or those eighteen people were were killed when the tower at Siloam [near Jerusalem] fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?”  It’s not about being a Jerusalemite either.  All will perish.  But God calls us to repentance.

Lent reminds us: it’s not about being “a Catholic.”  It’s about repentance, about being moved by the awesome God.

***

So then he tells the parable of the fig gree.  “For three years now”—we are in the third year of Jesus’s ministry—“I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none.”  But the gardener begs one more chance: “Leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.  If not you can cut it down.”

The gardener, too, wants the fruit of repentance.  It’s not good enough to be “his” tree—unless the fertilizer he pours on us moves us and transforms us.  Not good enough to put up tents and get cozy on Mount Tabor.  Not good enough to be a Catholic without Lent, or the Cross, or the hard journey. 

Jesus calls us to move.

What complacency does Jesus want to work out of you?

Second Sunday of Lent: Called Out of this World

Genesis 15:5–12, 17–18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17–4:1, Luke 9:28-36

The first Sunday of Lent, we battled the temptations of the flesh (bread), the eye (miracles), and pride (the kingdoms of the earth). The second Sunday, we see the goal of this battle: Jesus transfigured.  Jesus shows us God’s power by leading us in the fight against temptation, and he shows us God’s glory in the Transfiguration.  And so the reading concludes, “Jesus was found alone,” or “there was found Jesus only.”  Only Jesus.

***

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Our readings rise to the theme.  In the first, Abraham walks by faith.  God promises him descendants as numerous as the stars; Abraham’s believes; and it is credited to him as righteousness.  It all begins with trusting in the Lord.

Already this reading develops things a step further.  Abraham believes the promise about children, but when God promises him a land for them, he questions.  That question drives him to sacrifice—the strange sacrifice of animals split in two, with the appearance of a flaming torch passing between them. 

There are two levels of faith.  One is pure faith in God’s plan for his people.  But then that faith has to take flesh: to believe that God will actually give us a place for those children requires trusting God with our stuff, and so Abraham’s sacrifice.  The highest faith sees Jesus alone—but for that faith to take flesh, we must set aside other things, so that Jesus is alone.

***

Our reading from Philippians raises the stakes.  For the enemies of the cross, Paul says, “their end is destruction.”  That’s ironic: the Cross seems like destruction.  We say, “God wants me to be joyful!”  And Jesus says, “only through the Cross.”

So too those who make their stomach their God and shameful things their glory.  If we live for this life alone, we live for destruction.  If we live beyond this life—and offer this life in sacrifice, even embracing the Cross—than beyond destruction we find God.

But only because he is our savior, who can “change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.”  Only Jesus can carry us through.  That’s what we profess in our Lenten fasting.

***

I’m sorry this is the first reflection I’ve been able to publish this year of Luke, because I’ve been trying to watch Luke’s themes.  His Gospel is the most complicated of the four.  Somehow it focuses on the power of grace, the power of God’s mercy, the change God brings about in the worldly order.

In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, he adds some details.  Moses and Elijah were talking to him—about “his exodus,” Luke adds, “that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”  In fact, Luke’s Gospel quickly moves to that final journey to Jerusalem.  Jesus heads for Jerusalem in chapter twenty of Matthew, six chapters before the Cross; and chapter ten of Mark, four chapters before the Cross; but in Luke it’s in chapter nine, thirteen chapters before the Cross.  (In John he heads for Jerusalem in chapter 12, but John skips right over the journey, and spends 13-17 at the Last Supper.)  Luke is all about that exodus up to, and through, Jerusalem.  And the Transfiguration is just a few verses before that.

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In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, he adds some details.  Moses and Elijah were talking to him—about “his exodus,” Luke adds, “that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”  In fact, Luke’s Gospel quickly moves to that final journey to Jerusalem.  Jesus heads for Jerusalem in chapter twenty of Matthew, six chapters before the Cross; and chapter ten of Mark, four chapters before the Cross; but in Luke it’s in chapter nine, thirteen chapters before the Cross.  (In John he heads for Jerusalem in chapter 12, but John skips right over the journey, and spends 13-17 at the Last Supper.)  Luke is all about that exodus up to, and through, Jerusalem.  And the Transfiguration is just a few verses before that.

In Luke alone, the disciples are falling asleep.  Jesus must escape out of a world where the flesh triumphs over the Spirit.  And though Matthew calls the cloud bright, and Mark only says there is a cloud, Luke says the cloud causes fear.  The disciples are being called beyond themselves.

***

And so Luke frames a little differently the words from the cloud: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”  (Many translations say “chosen,” but the Greek is “agapatos”: agape-d, beloved.) 

We are called to a profound conversion.  We follow the ways of the world.  Peter wants to build by his own strength and initiative, instead of listening to Jesus and being filled with the divine light.  And Peter’s plans are to stay put: he wants to build tents, but Luke adds that he says this that Moses and Eijah “were about to part from him,” and that Jesus is beginning his exodus.  Luke emphasizes the contrast.

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Jesus is leading us upward.  The Transfiguration is a funny mix, because on the one hand, we need to look at nothing but him, a kind of contemplative stillness.  But to look to him is to be called out of ourselves, to follow him in his exodus, into the Cross, out of the ways of this world, out of our comfortable tents. 

Thus the traditional Lectionary gives us the Transfiguration this second Sunday of Lent, a sign of the glorious culmination, almost more glorious than Easter itself—but in a key that calls us to conversion, out of our comfortable worldly calculations, up the mountain of the Cross to the heavenly Jerusalem.  For, says our epistle, “Our citizenship is in heaven,” not in earthly tents.

How are your calculations too worldly?

Thomas on Scripture

Dear readers, a little update, since I’ve been away so much.

I’ve already written a Christmas reflection, on how sometimes the Word takes flesh more in the chaos of family life than in brilliant meditations on Scripture. That’s been continuing in my life: I finally finished a comedy-of-errors plumbing fiasco. As I was finishing, two weeks ago, we got the flu.

I was standing inside a wall, taking a Sawzall to a thick iron pipe through the flooring way above me–a ridiculous position–and found myself quaking. Gosh, I thought, either I’m working harder than I thought, or I’m really getting stressed out about the magnitude of this project. But as soon as I had the pipe cut–and before I had the chance to replace it–I swooned on the couch, my fever spiked, and I was flat on my back for a couple of days, with the worst flu we can remember. Maybe it wasn’t the project that made me tremble, but the oncoming fever!

But such is life. And there’s so much richness just in being able to smile and count suffering and various forms of “passive diminishment” as part of living the Gospel. Just as there is so much joy, such richness in our faith, in being able to face financial frustration and rejoice to meet Lady Poverty, to find the joy of Holy Obedience in frustration at work, (even a taste of Holy Celibacy in times of separation) and abandonment to divine providence when life is too much for us. The Gospel of suffering is good news.

And that’s why I didn’t write two weeks ago.

***

But last weekend, it was a much different challenge. I want to share with you readers, just briefly, about a wonderful conference I attended, on Thomas Aquinas and the Bible. (It’s worth clicking through, just to see the titles of the talks.)

So many things I could say, but I just want to say something simple: there were I think sixty-nine papers given, by people who really know their stuff, on Thomas Aquinas’s love of the Bible.

Okay, a couple details: Maybe my favorite paper was by Brant Pitre, a Bible scholar and friend of Scott Hahn’s. He got into some very technical questions about the dating of the Last Supper: in short, John’s Gospel seems to say Passover didn’t start till the next night, Friday night, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to say Passover started Thursday night, and it’s pretty hard to figure out how to fit them together. Most Bible scholars just throw up their hands and say obviously the Gospels don’t care much about historical details, they contradict one another, they must be wrong.

Well, here’s what we learned about Thomas Aquinas in that paper: a) He believes the Gospels are accurate history, and that the history of the Gospels is really important to our faith, b) he thought really hard even about these very technical questions of Biblical interpretation, not because they have big philosophical significance, but because he loves the page of the Gospel, c) he read both the New Testament and some pretty obscure passages of the Old Testament a lot more carefully than any modern scholar, and found ways to solve this problem based just on knowing the Bible really really well.

There were lots of other papers that talked about, for example, Thomas’s deep insights into the theology of St. Paul, the interpretation of the Psalms (where he finds Christ on every page), and John’s Gospel, which he reads with exquisite depth.

The point of all these examples is simply this: Thomas Aquinas loved the Bible. You should know that.

I’m sorry I missed writing a post while I was at that conference. But it affirmed the most basic insight of this web page, which is that the deepest Catholic theology comes from meditation on Scripture, and the best preparation for reading Scripture is a deep understanding of Catholic theology. I’m proud to have a small place in that project: on this page, at the conference, and I hope in all my teaching and research–and my life. Thomas Aquinas and Scripture!

Third Sunday: We Need the Gospel

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Luke gives his version of how Jesus began his preaching: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

To bring glad tidings to the poor.  I’m going to be harsh: everyone I talk to, even people vowed to poverty, seems to think the poor are someone else’s vocation.  Jesus’s way is not for us.

Everyone I see seems to say of their own vocation, “The Spirit of the WORLD is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the RICH.  Maybe Jesus went to the poor, but He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the powerful and self-importance to those with worldly abilities, to absolve oppressors of responsibility, and to proclaim a year acceptable to . . . the world.”

(Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia, the top sociologist of marriage today, pointed out this week that, for example, though every college has a campus ministry, the Church has zero outreach to the 60% of American young people who do not go to college.  No wonder the poor have trouble with marriage.  Please let me know if you know of any ministries to those without degrees!)

***

The Lectionary gives us a strange Gospel this week.  We finally begin in earnest our Year of Luke.  Luke spends a couple chapters showing that Jesus was born poor, so the beginning of Jesus’s preaching isn’t until Chapter 4.  But Luke has a prologue about his Gospel, so this week we read Luke 1:1-4 (theprologue) and then 4:14-21 (the first preaching).  It sounds a little odd because it is odd.

But Luke’s prologue is important.  What he says is that others have written Gospels before him, but now Luke wants to give sort of a more scholarly account.  He is not an “eyewitness” (like Matthew and John, and Peter, who maybe helped Mark) but he is talking to them, “investigating everything accurately anew.”  And his goal is “to write it down in an orderly sequence . . . so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received,” or “that you may have a solid grasp on the words that are being thrown around.”

In some ways, Luke’s is the most sophisticated Gospel.  Whereas Matthew (the accountant) just gives a straightforward accounting of what Jesus said and did, and Peter’s Mark makes sure we see that nothing makes sense apart from the Cross, Luke, friend of St. Paul, doctor, and most distant from the actual events, wants to get the theology clear. 

And Luke makes sure we start with the poor Jesus preaching the Gospel to the poor. 

Worldly wisdom tells us to start with the rich.  It’s not such a crazy idea tosay we should start at the Ivy Leagues, and the media centers, and lawyers and businessmen.  (Living in the outskirts of New York City, I call it the “Midtown strategy.”)  What’s crazy is that Jesus went to his equivalent of the Bronx.  What’s crazy is that St. Lawrence—and every other saint—called the poor the true riches of the Church.

Why?  Because grace can do what man cannot.  And Jesus teaches us to live by grace, not by human power.  To live by earthly power is to renounce the Gospel—even if you pretend to preach the Gospel, while chasing worldly standing. 

***

St. Jerome

Our reading from Nehemiah is thrilling, if you know the context.  The Israelites have returned from exile in Babylon.  Nehemiah and Ezra have rediscovered the book of the Law—the Bible.  And now, for the first time in a long time, they are actually reading it, aloud, in public.  The people weep, recognizing how far they have strayed from God’s ways.  But Ezra tells them to rejoice.

The accent is important here.  The last words are not “REJOICING in the Lord must be your strength”: the point is not that joy is our strength.  The point is, “rejoicing IN THE LORD must be your strength.”  Don’t weep: God’s words shows us the way, and that’s Good News.  God gives us the strength to live in his way: that’s good news.  And the way leads to God: good news. 

When Christ calls us to renounce our worldly ways, to go to the poor instead of seeking worldly power, he’s not telling us our life should be miserable.  He’s showing us the path to joy—but joy is only in him.

***

And joy is in his body, the Church.  Our second reading, from First Corinthians 12, spends a lot of time on the body metaphor.  But let us not miss the conclusion: “Those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. . . . If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.” 

Now, no one in the Church is really a “little toe,” or a back of the knee, or whatever part of our natural body we think is unglamorous.  But the point is that even the unglamorous parts of the Church—even the poor and the disabled, even the crazy—are just as essential to the Church as the media stars, cultural icons, and Masters of the Universe that the world fawns over, and that even we in the Church tend to give so much of our attention.

To love Christ, to find ourselves in his body, is to love all those he has redeemed, not just the ones we would fawn over even if he we didn’t love Christ.  Christ’s “preferential option for the poor” is precisely a recognition that it’s in our treatment of those whom the world ignores that we signal our belief in the Gospel.

Thank you, Luke, for making sure we hear the message.  We need it.  We need to listen more carefully to Christ’s way, and less to the world’s.

Where do you find yourself practicing a preferential option for the rich and powerful?  Where is Jesus calling you to love him in his poverty?

Second Sunday of Ordinary Time: Fix me, Jesus

There are two reasons I’m only now writing last Sunday’s post.  The first is because the plumber made us replace all the cabinets in our tenant’s apartment.  It’s been a hassle, though kinda fun, and I hope it’s been good for me.

The other reason is that when I did sit down to write last week, I was overwhelmed by the readings.  John’s Gospel is ridiculously deep, too many things to say: it’s overwhelming in that way. 

But first I was overwhelmed by the reading from the end of Isaiah: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent . . . . As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you.”  It too is rich just as a text.  For example, who is speaking?  These words are the Prophet Isaiah’s, but they are also Christ’s—and they should be ours, too.  We should be unable to keep silent (and my silence here is a sign of my inability to live up to that call). 

Mystic Marriage.jpg

Richest of all, though, is the promise, the Lord’s love for us.  I’ve been sinking into the depression of this time in the Church.  As a seminary professor, I see and hear too much.  I can believe that “people call you ‘Forsaken’ or your land ‘Desolate.’”  But my heart breaks at the claim that “you shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused.’”  It is too much to believe that “the Lord delights in you” so that “nations shall behold your vindication, and all the kings your glory,” that “You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord.”

That, in fact, is the real reason for the textual richness of John and Isaiah.  The Bible and the liturgy over-abound with richness, because the God of Jesus Christ loves us, and offers us so much more than we can imagine.  He takes our water and turns it to wine. 

Seeing that promise on the page of Scripture the other day, I just closed my computer and gave up.  Given all my sins and weaknesses, given all the sin and weakness I see around me, can these promises be true?  That is the absurdity of the Gospel.

Yet our reading from First Corinthians claims the Spirit is at work, giving each of us the gifts the Church needs, so that all together, if we do not withdraw, do not give up, Jesus can work his miracles of rebirth through us.

***

“There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee. . . .”

I offer just two thoughts.

File:Duccio di Buoninsegna - Wedding at Cana (detail) - WGA06776.jpg

First, look at the jars.  “Six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons.”  Literally “six stony water things”—and big ones.  In the Gospel, stone is the cheerless stuff that the Father will not give us when we ask for bread, and the way he describes ground where seed cannot grow. 

But there is also a chosen stone, which the builders rejected, a corner stone.  And that One who entered into our stony world changes our stony hearts.  Those stony water jars signify our world, which seems so unchangeable and set in its ways—and which Jesus can fill with wine.

The water is “for Jewish ceremonial washings.”  But the Jewish ceremonies, like the Baptism of John, cannot take away our sin—not even the blood of bulls and goats, which is only a shadow of the good things to come (Hebrew 10).  It could only tell us there is a problem.  Without Christ, our natural perspectives, and even the Law, can only show us what a disaster this world is, how badly we need to be changed.

But there are six jugs.  That is the number of creation, of nature, and of natural law: complete in itself, yet waiting for the newness of the seventh day, when God’s love will come down.

File:Suleiman in Veronese The Wedding at Cana 1563.jpg

We need to step beyond this stony natural world.  And when we do, the water of John’s Baptism becomes the wine of the Eucharist, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, of the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. 

Wine is inebriating and celebratory, it is disorienting, both bitter and sweet, and unveils the joys of the wedding feast.  “For the creation waits with eager longing for the unveiling of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8). 

Come Lord Jesus!

***

One more thought: “The mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples were also invited [no, ‘called’] to the wedding.” 

Mary shares in our flesh, and above all in our weakness.  She can do nothing.  And yet in his union with Mary, Jesus comes down into our dryness, to our weddings without wine.  All she can do is open her heart to him, show him the agony of this longing world, and trust that if we do whatever he tells us, all will be made new.

In union with Mary, let us adopt that heart.  Come Lord Jesus!

What problems are you trying to fix without Jesus?

Becoming Flesh at Christmas

I’ve been away from this site for awhile, since I half-completed my post for the fourth Sunday of Christmas, December 23.

I have written in the past about the irony I find singing “Silent Night” at church on Christmas Eve—with a baby crying and kids jumping up and down in the pew.  Christmas is rarely a silent night for families.

But this year I’m thinking about how that affects the whole season. 

As I have said before, my main audience in these reflections is myself: writing these things is a good spiritual discipline, a good way for me to contemplate the face of Christ and try to say something positive, amidst all the negative thoughts that often fill my mind.

But during Christmas, I haven’t been able to do this spiritual discipline, or many others.  I go to daily Mass most of the year; I pray morning prayer more days than not, in the midst of my sloppiness, and my family often prays evening prayer; but Christmas week, my favorite liturgical week of the year, there’s hardly time for all that.  Instead, this year as many years, we were travelling to see family—and the next week we had family visit us.  The week after that, we had a huge plumbing mess to deal with, and some work deadlines. 

I’d like to say I’m the kind of spiritual superman who stays on top of my spiritual life through all of that—and I do try to pray, at least my rosary—but this time of year is often a mess.

***

One of the things I hoped to post here during the Christmas season was TS Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi.”  The Wise Man in the poem says of their journey, “I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death,” because the Birth of Christ calls them to conversion, turns their worlds upside down and inside out.

Christmas is like that. 

***

I’ve been trying to meditate this last month on how all these family events, some of them my choices (like visiting relatives, mostly), some of them imposed on me (like the plumbing), draw me to Christ. 

Follow me!

At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Peter, “when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”  When I was young, I could go to Mass and take prayer times whenever I wanted.  It’s a lot harder now, with six kids, and a wife, and a job, and a tired old house. 

Of course that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to pray.  Prayer is our source, where we discover the meaning of all those things.  And prayer is our summit, where they all come to fruition.

But there is something rich in those challenges themselves.  I had been thinking already about how much easier it is for me (at least as an intellectual, and a theologian) to feel like a great Christian when I’m praying than when I’m dealing with other people.  I had a lovely retreat in November—and then I came back and discovered that loving the people around me, actually being drawn out of my selfishness, is a lot harder.  It’s the measure of true prayer: if prayer is easy and service is hard, the Bible reminds us a thousand different ways, it’s because our prayer isn’t as real as we think it is.

***

This Christmas I’ve been realizing that this is the truth of Christmas, too.  God becomes man.  In fact, long before Peter is an old man, it is the baby Jesus who stretches out his hands, and another dresses him, and carries him where he might not want to go.  At Christmas he takes the form of a slave for us.  God can do anything—the only thing he gains from becoming man is the ability to suffer, the ability to not be able, the ability to be weak and bound and frustrated.  Like me.

For the Christian, that is the path.  In fact, even real prayer is more about being captured and bound and turned from selfishness to service, from ego to love.  But the measure of that prayer is whether we are servants outside of prayer, whether our love can take on suffering flesh, as Christ’s love does.

I haven’t done a very good job of that this Christmas season.  But I hope that somehow, amidst all the time with family, and plumbing and deadlines, the Lord is not hiding from me, but calling me to himself.

What’s the hardest part of your Christian life?

The Death of a Child

This morning my older children and I attended the funeral of a sixteen-year-old girl.  We knew Ailish from my son’s disabled-sports league.  She had some horrible breathing impairment; she could barely speak, but always smiled.  I don’t know what happened, but her mother spoke of her getting sick last week, and they just couldn’t beat this one.

The priest gave a beautiful homily about making our wounds the source of our healing.  Ailish was a beatiful example of that.

But I was struck too about how many times he spoke of her sixteen-year-old life as brief (my children are all younger, but it feels like they’ve been with me forever) and of the special circumstances of her disability.  True enough.  But I was struck by how we try to put death away from us.

Last week someone commented on this web site that she didn’t feel like the words “Pray for us, now and at the hour of our death” are the Word of God for her.  I understand the fear of death—we shouldn’t want to die.  But the Word of God is clear on this one: life only comes through death.

***

I don’t know what to think of Leon Tolstoy, but I highly recommend his short novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  The story is about a man facing death when he isn’t ready for it.  Two images stand out to me.

One is at his funeral.  One man winks to another as if to say, “Ivan Ilyich has made a mess of

things—not like you and me.”  I would never do such a foolish thing as dying.  Ailish had some unique malady, but she was different from the rest of us.

The other is as he dies.  “What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction.”  Maybe the path of life isn’t in the direction we think.

***

Death is all around us.  When the bell tolls (as it did when Ailish’s body arrived at the church this morning), it tolls for all of us.

As one way to get a random sample of ordinary people, I think about my wedding party.  One of my six children is severely disabled—but I’m the lucky one.  Two of my six groomsmen had babies die at birth; a third had premature twins, one of whom died after a couple months; a fourth has had two babies die halfway through pregnancy, when they were almost viable; and the other two guys were just unable to have children.  Depending how high you set your bar for tragedy, that’s six for six, or two thirds, or one half: half of these guys have held their dead babies in their arms.

Of my wife’s six bridesmaids, one had seven miscarriages, another had multiple very bloody miscarriages that required the horrible “dilation and curretage” procedure, a third had a bloody miscarriage that landed her in the hospital, a fourth’s husband had a genetic anomaly that gave them a 50/50 chance of their children dying before adulthood, a fifth was infertile and it ended in divorce (infertility is more horrible than you think), and the sixth had been a single teenage mother.  Not so much death as my groomsmen, but an awful lot of tragedy.

Of our two altar boys one is too young to have faced much yet, the other has had lung cancer.

And of our two readers, one had a baby who, last I heard (we haven’t stayed in touch) was not very likely to live, and the other lost a baby brother when she was little, and grew up with her mother depressed.

For that matter, my grandmother grew up in a household like that, under the dark shadow of a baby who had died, and so did my mother-in-law.  We try to sweep these things under the rug, but death is all around us.

And it is right in front of us.  One of my grandfathers died a beautiful death at a ripe old age.  The other one died while he still had teenagers in the house, after decades of horrible depression.  My two grandmothers both lived too long: we like to think that death is no problem if you’re old, but both of them lived into pain and disability that they didn’t know how to face, and spent their last years wishing they could die.

Death is not unique to Ailish.  It’s a fact of life.  We all have to figure out how to find healing in our wounds.  We all have to pass through the way of the cross.

***

 

Two images.

The Byzantine Liturgy contains a line, “By death he trampled death.”

The Russian Orthodox author Alexander Schmemann says those words mean that Jesus shows death is not the end.  If we flee from death, death is the ultimate horror, something we can never face.  But if we embrace the Cross, we find out that death is not death after all.  He is there, leading us through.

Another non-Catholic author I revere is the very strange nineteenth century Scottish Protestant preacher George MacDonald.  His theology, I guess, was heretical, but he makes some pretty Catholic stuff out of the Protestant problems he was handed.

MacDonald wrote strange fairy stories for children.  My favorite is At the Back of the North Wind.  The image comes from a sort of silly riddle in Greek mythology.  If the North Wind brings chill, what would it like to be on the other side, so that the North Wind is always blowing away from you instead of on you?

In the story, the North Wind is a beautiful fairy woman, who befriends a poor child in London.  In the end, you find that this wonderful friend is Suffering and Death, whom the little boy has discovered in an entirely new way, as a friend and adventure.  What if we saw suffering as a wind to ride, instead of to hide from?  What if the train is going the other direction?

***

One of the Eucharistic prayers speaks of those who have died “in the hope of the resurrection.”  This gets deep into the Eucharist itself, where death and the memory of death becomes a feast and the embrace of God.

Here’s the irony.  Without the hope of the resurrection, non-Christians think the blessing of death is to be free from the body and from pain, to be put out of our misery.  Fearing death, death is the only thing they long for.  That is not a view that sees heaven and earth as full of God’s glory.  It’s one that thinks the only good is to escape.

The hope of the resurrection means that we face death—and all the suffering, the little deaths, of our lives—not as the ultimate evil, not even as the end of our bodily life, but as a passage through.  To die with only the hope that you’ll be free of the body—which, after all, is an essential part of your person, and of your relationship with God—is to enter into eternal death.

To die with the hope of the resurrection means not detachment, but love of life.  “Her grip on a handburger had once been so strong that she had fallen through the back of a chair without dropping it,” as Flannery O’Connor says, in one of the greatest essays on this topic.  It means being sad to die, but glad to keep living.  It means losing our self-sufficiency and finding ourselves in the sufficiency of Christ.

That’s the only way forward.

Eternal light grant unto her, oh Lord, and to all of us.