Seventeenth Sunday – Selling All for the Kingdom

This Sunday we complete the sermon on parables.  The last four parables teach us to be smart, and so to repent.

Searching the Scriptures

The Lectionary pairs them with Solomon’s prayer for wisdom.  Two notes on how the Hebrews, and the Hebrew language, thought about these things:

First, in our translation, Solomon asks for “understanding.”  The Hebrew word, though, means listening.  He wants, needs a listening heart.  This is a good thought to pair with the sermon on the parables, the theme of which is, “he who has ears ought to hear.”

Second, he wants to be able “to distinguish right from wrong.”  This word, distinction, is key to the Old Testament.  You need to be able to tell the difference.

Pope Francis (using an old Ignatian idea) talks a lot about discernment.  Make sure you know which are tares and which are wheat.  You have to be intelligent.  And to do that, you first need to listen to God’s Word.

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In our first parable this week, a man finds a treasure hidden in a field.  The key phrase, of course, is, “he sells all that he has and buys that field.”  The wise man – the listening, discerning man – knows that God is worth everything.

The second parable, the pearl of great price, is so like it that we need to look for the difference.  On the one hand, Jesus is doubling down on the punchline: “he goes and sells that he has and buys it.”

The main difference is what they’re doing.  The treasure in the field seems to be a surprise, but the merchant is “searching for fine pearls.”  The digger “hides again” the treasure so that the owner of the field won’t know why he’s buying it, but the merchant is buying the pearl itself, so it appears that someone is selling it.

Sometimes we stumble on the kingdom of heaven where we least expected it.  Sometimes we are searching.  Together, the two parables seem to say that it makes no difference.  Like the parable of the eleventh hour (which is not in this sermon), whether you deserve to find it is irrelevant.  What matters is if you will sell everything to keep it.

***

And so the third parable, the last one about the kingdom itself, says the kingdom is also like a net thrown into the sea.  Our translation says it “collects fish of every kind.”  But the Greek doesn’t say fish, and the word it uses for “kind” is the word for “the nations,” the goyim, the gentiles.  And when the net “collects” them, the word is “synagogue”: the gathering place.  The double meaning is that all nations are drawn into the community of Israel.  The kingdom can find everyone.

And do we find the kingdom, or does the kingdom find us?  Are we searching, or are we caught in a net?  Well – both.

But in another twist on the same theme, the lovely are brought home and the rotten are thrown out.  Jesus ends his sermon with those terrible words about a fiery furnace and weeping and gnashing of teeth.  We have to say it: contrary to the idea that a snuggly Jesus overcomes the mean God of the Old Testament, far and away the scariest threats of the Bible come from the lips of Jesus himself.

Because always the message is: repent.  Give up everything and follow.  If you don’t appreciate the pearl, you don’t have to have it.  That seems to be the central theme.

***

At the end, parallel to our “ears to hear” in previous sections, Jesus asks the disciples if they understand.  Then he adds one more parable, not about the kingdom, but about the disciples.  In fact, when it says, “who has been instructed,” the word is the word for disciples.  But our translation is right to emphasize that the word for disciple is not so much about moral formation as about listening.  We are formed, we grow in discernment, by listening.

Then the parable says, the good student of the kingdom “is like the head of a household who brings form his storeroom both the new and the old.”

The “head” here is not a servant, not the butler.  You’re going to have to do this yourself.  And the Greek has less to do with “bringing” than with “casting out.”  One way of reading this parable is that, with the discernment we gain from hearing the word, we learn not to cling to what is old or new, but to reject whatever is contrary to the Gospel, old or new.   The kingdom means cleaning house.

Crucified with Christ

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Our reading from Romans has the comforting words, “all things work for good for those who love God.”  But how?  No, he will not buy you a Cadillac.  Rather, we are “conformed to the image of his Son” – the crucified.  Love casts out all things contrary, and so gains the beloved, though all else may be lost.

What is the Gospel calling you to get rid of?

Sixteenth Sunday: The Good Seed is There

Our readings this week continued with the theme of hope.  We continued to read Romans 8, the charter

Searching the Scriptures

of hope, and the sermon of parables in Matthew 13, on the hidden power of God.

We got three parables this week.  The main one was the wheat and the tares.  Subordinate to it are short ones on the mustard seed and the yeast that leavens the whole lump.  Paired with these readings is one from the challenging Book of Wisdom.

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A central line for all these readings is in the parable of the wheat and the tares.  When the field begins to bear fruit, the servants ask the householder, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?  Where have the weeds come from?”

File:Hortus Deliciarum, Der Sämann.jpgWhen Jesus explains the parable, he says that the servants are the angels.  We can imagine the angels looking down on our world with furrowed brow.  “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?”  This world – at least the human part of it – does not look like God’s creation.  If you aren’t tempted to wonder if God is sowing evil, or maybe not in charge at all, maybe you aren’t paying enough attention.  The story is a parable, not literal truth – but on some level, the angels must be appalled at what they see.

And we too.  We should ask ourselves how many less-honest ways we have of saying, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?”  At least that question puts the asker in contact with the Lord.  Instead, I get angry at the world, I set out to fix things, I try to take charge.  Because, so often, I have a hard time believing that God has sowed good seed.

***

The two short parables begin to answer the question.  The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  It is a hidden power.  We should be amazed at the power of the seed.  It doesn’t make much sense that trees can grow from tiny seeds.  And sometimes it makes even less sense to look at this world and think that God is strong, and good, and paying attention.

In “The Grand Inquisitor,” Dostoevsky (who didn’t like the Roman church) imagines a cardinal telling Jesus he is foolish to abandon worldly power.  How is anyone going to be converted by love?  How can that foolish little mustard seed produce anything?  Jesus, don’t you have something more powerful?

And in the third parable, the key word is “hidden.”  Our translation says the women “mixed” the leaven in – but the Greek says she “hid” her leaven in a whole lot of flour – and found the whole lump leavened.

God has sowed good seed.  He is at work, in us and in our world.  But the seed he sows is tiny, and hidden, and takes time to produce its fruit.

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In the Gospel, the seed is the Word.  In our reading from Romans, the power in that Word – the breath behind the word, the life within the seed – is the Holy Spirit.

“We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.”  Now, some other time I need to talk about anti-intellectualism; a great danger of our age is Apse Saint Peter's Basilica Vatican City.jpgto think that God is wherever thinks don’t make sense.  I can’t tell you how many problems there are with that problem.  The seed is hidden, and we don’t understand – but the seed is the word.  It’s not that God makes no sense, it’s that we don’t.  It’s not that he is mindless, but that we are.

God “knows what is the intention of the Spirit,” or “sees what is the mind of the Spirit.”  In our weakness, we don’t see, but the Spirit does.

He intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings.  Don’t of this as mindless groans.  Think of it as subtle whisperings.  The workings of God are so much more subtle than we think.

Yes, says the Gospel, there are the evil ones, and the scandals, and at the end of time it will all be sorted out.  But in the meantime, it is subtle, and we need to trust the Spirit, not our gross eyes, to show us where God is at work.

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The reading from Wisdom tells us what to do.  First, trust: his “might is the source of justice,” and the reason he doesn’t crush the evil ones is because he is strong, not weak: “your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all.”  So trust.

And trust makes us gentle: the reading repeats God’s clemency, his lenience – and then says, “those who are just must be kind.”  Kind because God is strong, and we don’t need to crush evil.  And kind because we don’t know where he is at work.

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The parables all point us back to the Word itself.  And so our reading ends, “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”  Because we don’t see, we must listen, to the gentle whisperings of the Spirit, to the unexpected teachings of Jesus.  Listen, and trust.

In what ways do you find yourself doubting that God has sowed good seed?

Fifteenth Sunday: Receiving the Word

For the next three Sundays, we will be reading Jesus’s sermon of parables, in Matthew 13.

The parables are the third of five sermons around which Matthew orients his account of the Gospel.  He begins on the Mount, setting out the Christian way (cc. 5-7).  In the next sermon, he calls his twelve apostles and tells them how to spread the message (c. 10).  Chapter 13 is in a boat, again speaking to the crowds, but from some distance; the heart of the message, we will see, is that they hear but do not understand.  The fourth sermon turns inward, talking about the life of the community (18-19).  And the last proclaims the coming destruction and judgment (23-25).  At each step the gate seems to be narrower.

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This week’s parable, the first, about the seed sowed on different kinds of ground, introduces the genre of parables.  He gives the image, but before he interprets it, the disciples ask, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”  He responds, “Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but . . . they look but do not see, and hear but do not listen or understand.”  A parable is a way of teaching that only some people understand – or rather, it manifests how all of Jesus’s teaching makes sense only to a heart rightly disposed.

Then he explains the parable.  Watch how the word “hear” dominates the transition. “Lest they see with File:Birds from the parable of the sower.jpgtheir eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted . . . .  Many prophets and righteous people longed . . . to hear what you hear but did not hear it. . . . Hear then the parable of the sower.  The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it.”

The first parable is about parables: we can all hear the same word from Jesus, but it doesn’t bear fruit in all of us.

***

Martin Luther used the image of cow manure to explain his understanding of grace.  You stink.  Grace is like snow that covers up your stink.  But you are not changed.  That, of course, is the opposite of the Gospel as Catholics understand it.

But as Ratzinger liked to point out, Luther usually has a point worth considering.  I am told the following response comes from Teresa of Avila, though I am not sure:

Yes, we are like manure.  But in the Bible, grace is not like snow.  Grace is like a seed.  As much as manure stinks, it is the material that a seed can turn into a fruit-bearing plant.  Manure is fertilizer.  In fact, it is better fertilizer the more it has been chewed up and broken File:Hortus Deliciarum, Der Sämann.jpgdown and excreted as waste.  In this week’s parable, we want to be like manure.  Snow, well-tended ground, solid rocks, even jewels – none of these can become part of a flower or tree.

Now, an important part of that metaphor – and our Gospel’s metaphor – is that the life force is from outside of us.  It is the seed that brings life, not the manure.  The manure is lucky to be incorporated into something better – just as the life that grows in us is Christ’s life, turning us into members of his body, branches on his vine.

That might be the genius in Luther’s image: we can become nothing until we realize that we are nothing.  The only way the dirt “cooperates” with the seed is by letting the seed take over.

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Last week I said that Romans 8 is the great charter of hope.  This week we get another installment.  “Creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility . . . in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

It’s not quite right to think of ourselves as manure.  Manure is a side-effect, a reject.  But all of creation was made for this.  All the emptiness, all the frustration, is part of a plan: the making of the good earth that can receive the seed of God’s word.

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And while the Gospel parable emphasizes the many people who are not good ground, our reading from File:The sower went forth to sow.jpgIsaiah emphasizes the power of God’s word, which “shall not return to me void.”  Here the word even “gives seed to the one who sows” and then “bread to the one who eats.”  Where the Gospel focuses on one point, our reception of the word, Isaiah emphasizes that God is active at every point: he is the rain, he is the seed, he is the bread, his Sacred Heart will triumph.

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For one more image of our receptivity, return to the Gospel.  The seed is the word, something with shape and intelligence.  The receiver is the one who hears, with or without understanding.  The human mind – not so separate from the heart – is an amazing potentiality to hear and understand and follow the Word of God.  Pretty fancy manure.

What kind of thing are you, than can receive the Word?

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Hidden Strength

In this past Sunday’s readings, we entered a new section of Matthew’s Gospel.  Chapters 11-13, concluding with the sermon of parables, talk about the Church’s hidden strength.

This week we skipped to 11:25.  The beginning of that chapter talked about how the Pharisees reject both the austerity of John the Baptist and the mercy of Jesus.  Neither one fits worldly standards.

Then come woes, “For if the powerful acts which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago”: we ought to embrace the hidden strength.

And that is the set-up for the two sections of this week’s Gospel: “You have hidden these things form the wise” and “Come to me and I will give you rest.”

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Our first two readings give us an idea of the kind of strength Jesus is talking about.  This year from weeks 9 to 24, our epistle is from Romans, that central articulation of the Gospel – and this week it is Romans 8, one of Scripture’s main passages on the Holy Spirit.  A great priest used to tell people who struggle with hope to memorize Romans 8.

“The Spirit of God dwells in you”: that is the first thing we need to know about this strength.

Transfiguration (Ostankino museum).JPG

The Transfigured Christ

He is “the one who raised Christ from the dead”: that’s the second thing.  The Spirit is powerful – powerful enough to work not just in some flighty “spiritual” world, but in the real world where bodies die.

“By the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body.”  Now, the Spirit who raises bodies is not anti-body.  Paul’s point is not that bodies are evil.  His point is twofold.  On the one hand, we can’t trust in bodily strength: our strength to live in the body comes from beyond the body.  The great gift of marital sexuality, for example, is a glorification of the body, but it requires spiritual strength.  It is the Spirit that raises the body, not the body itself.

On the other hand, on its own, the body falls into a whole realm of thinking that is evil.  Elsewhere Paul explains: “the works of the flesh” include not only “adultery, fornication, impurity, lustfulness” – obviously bodily sins – but also “idolatry, sorcery, hatred, fighting, jealousy, anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies,” etc.: sins not because they are in the body, but because they are based on fleshly calculations.

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Our Old Testament reading gives another angle on the same teaching.  “Your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass,” and not even a full-grown ass, but “on a colt, the foal of anBurrell CollectionDSCF0340 02.JPG ass.”  He will bring “peace to the nations,” but not by earthly means.

Our king rules from the Cross.  Our fleshly calculations of how to win through worldly power are all wrong.  His is a different kingdom, a kingdom of the Spirit.

Again, it is lived in the body, the Spirit conquers in the body and glorifies the body – but it is not based on bodily calculations, not measured by earthly strength.

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So the first part of our Gospel says, “you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to little ones.”

The “learned” are in Greek the “put together.”  The people who have their acts together, by worldly standards – those are not the ones who know the hidden power.

Rather the “little ones,” in Greek, “the wordless ones.”  (In-fant is from roots that mean no-speech.)  We are into the theology of spiritual childhood.  One way to think of it is this: we have all our “words,” our categories, our ways of thinking – and those are not God’s ways.  But that doesn’t mean we should be stupid.  Rather, like infants, we need to learn to speak – learn the categories in which we think – from our Father.

Little children are always listening.  When we read Scripture, we learn how to speak and so how to think.  There is nothing child-like about ignoring the language of our Father.

And so he adds, “No one knows the Father except the Son.”  We can’t know him as Father until we know how to be children, to receive from him the hidden strength.  And we can’t learn that except by hiding ourselves in Jesus: in the Sacraments, in Scripture, in the Cross.

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Simone Martini - St Anthony of Padua and St Francis - WGA21358.jpg

St. Anthony and St. Francis

“Come to me all who labor and are burdened.”  Everything else we have read helps us read these words.

There is a yoke and a burden.  Jesus calls us to repentance, to a new way of life, to put off the deeds of the body, “For if the powerful acts which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago.”

It is an impossible burden by worldly standards, as impossible as rising from the dead.  But like rising from the dead, the hidden strength makes it easy, the strength of the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit dwelling in us.

Where are worldly calculations standing in the way of your repentance?

Thirteenth Sunday: To Love with His Heart

We are back to Ordinary Time – the Lectionary returned last Sunday, but I was not able to write then.  We are reading through Matthew’s Gospel, and for most of this year, from weeks nine till twenty-four, the letter to the Romans.  Great as all our feasts and liturgical seasons are, Ordinary Time is awesome.

Searching the Scriptures

Matthew’s Gospel is arranged around five great sermons.  We are now (and were last week) in the second one, Matthew 10, the Sermon on Mission.  Jesus has seen the crowds scattered like sheep without a shepherd, so he sends his twelve as laborers into the vineyard.  This week we read the end of his instructions to them.

Just before our reading he has warned them, “Do not fear those who kill the body,” and, “I did not come to send peace, but a sword.”  Mission will cost us.

Now he says, “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” but “Whoever receives you receives me.”  He has said earlier, “A disciple is not above his master . . . it is enough for his disciple that he is like his master.”  Mission means being identified with Jesus, who gives all for his sheep.

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The first reading, from the section on the prophet Elisha in Second Kings, gives a positive spin to the Gospel.  A woman offers hospitality to the prophet.  He sees her generosity, investigates her needs (his servant Gehazi points out that she is childless), and prays for her to have a son.  The moral seems easy: if you do good, you will receive good.

But the story is harder than than that.  Our translation says she was “a woman of influence”; others go further, and say she is rich.  It sounds easy, like rich people can buy babies from God.  But the Hebrew just says she is “big”; one of the main meanings of the word elsewhere in the Old Testament is “old,” which makes more sense in this story, where her husband is “getting on in years” and they can’t have a baby.

It’s not clear that the woman is rich.  She makes a “little room” for Elisha – on her roof.  In the next story, we read that her husband was a field worker.  She was generous not out of her abundance, but from her poverty.

And the baby she “will be fondling” soon – I was meditating on this passage while holding my baby late at night in the hospital NICU – is not a prize, but another demand for generosity.  In the next story, the child dies, and the woman cries out to Elisha against the pain he has brought her.  Elisha raises the boy from the dead – but the first point is, parenthood brings suffering, draws us out of ourselves.

It is not that we throw to God a couple coins we didn’t need, and he buys us a Mercedes Benz.  Rather, if we enter into his generosity, he draws us deeper in.

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Our reading from Romans 6 glosses the issue in a similar way.  In Baptism, we have died with Christ.  “If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.”

On the one hand, Baptism gives life.  On the other hand, the life it gives is the life of Christ, who laid down his life.  It gives life only to those who will pass through death.  It gives a specific kind of life, one in which we “died to sin once and for all.”

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I like to ponder, in the Hail Mary, the phrase, “Holy Mary . . . pray for us.”  Mary is Mother of God, a pretty effective choice of advocate – or rather, God’s choice to become a child indicates his openness to hearing our prayers.)  “Mother of God” means we can ask God for things and he might listen.

But “Holy Mary, pray for us” is dangerous words.  Maybe we would rather have someone not holy pray for us, another sinner, with our set of values.  The Hail Mary doesn’t even specify what she should pray for.  We’d better look out, because she will pray for the things a holy person cares about, not the things we care about.

God provides for us.  But he provides according to his scale of values, not ours.  He provides to bring us to his values.

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“Whoever finds his life will lose it.”  Better to give a cup of water to someone in the name of disciple than to cling to our own values, even our natural love of father, mother, son, and daughter.  Of course, Jesus wants us to love them as he loves them.  But that will demand a transformation of our love, a hunger and thirst not for our rights, but for righteousness.

How is Jesus calling you to a greater sense of mission?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

 

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?