Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Peace, but Only through the Cross

In our Gospel this week, Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.  From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three,” etc.

I’m afraid with my summer travels I haven’t finished writing my Sunday reflections in a couple weeks.  (I have several half finished!)  But we remain in the context we’ve been in, in Luke 12:

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“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” Jesus said last week.  But then, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.”  Then he gave the principle: “Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” 

On the one hand, we have no reason to fear.  God will provide!  But that doesn’t mean we should settle into worldliness.  To the contrary, our trust that God will provide is why we are not worldly, why we abandon earthly riches and trust in heavenly.

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The same dynamic comes out in our reading from the prophets this week.  The princes say to the king, “Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city . . . ; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.”

(I just did a long personal study of Jeremiah.  I recommend it: he’s the easiest to understand of the long prophets.)

The context is this: the Nothern Kingdom, called Israel, has been taken into exile.  Judah, the Southern Kingdom, is under seige by the Babylonians.  And the prophet Jeremiah says, “we deserve this.”  God will protect us, he says—but first he will punish us.  And we need to accept that punishment.

As always—as today—the people of his kingdom want a prophet who will say, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” but who will not say, “Sell your possessions and give to the needy.”  They want an easy Gospel, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”  We all want Christianity without the cross.  But there’s no such thing.  That is not what the Christian God’s love for us means.

File:Study for the Prophet Jeremiah (recto); Studies of a Horse Seen from Below and of a Man Seated on a Chair, Probably a Self-Portrait and an Off-Print in Brown Ink of a Nude Female Abdomen and Legs (verso) MET DP804311.jpg

Jeremiah does care about them.  But that care includes God’s “severe mercy.” 

In fact, in our reading, Jeremiah dramatizes the whole thing.  He is thrown in a cistern—a pit for gathering water—and sinks into the mud, until the king’s eunuch comes to his rescue.  God protects Jeremiah, and he will protect us—but through our weakness, not through our strength, and through our acceptance of the hard road of conversion, not through cheap grace.

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Our reading from Hebrews shows the same thing with Jesus.  “For the sake of the joy that lay before him” (that sounds nice!) “he endured the cross, despising its shame.”  So too we have to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race.”  God will come through—but it won’t be easy.  That’s the religion of Jesus Christ, the religion of love through the cross.  He died and so must we.

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In our Gospel, Jesus says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”  The “set” is more like “throw.”  The image is something like fire and brimstone, or shooting lightning bolts.  Some translations say, “how I wish it were already kindled,” making us think of starting our fire small and gentle—but our translation rightly shows the violence of Jesus’s language: he’s not gently warming our hearts, he is crashing in, kicking down the walls.

Then, “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.”  Jesus uses lots of mixed metaphors.  Notice how he’s shifted from fire to the water of baptism.  (Baptism literally means dunked in water.)  It seems to me he shifts metaphors partly to keep us from getting too attached to any one of them.

But notice too that he has shifted persons.  He wants to cast fire on the earth, on us.  But he wants to be plunged into the waters himself.  That’s his love: He leads the way, “the leader and perfecter of faith,” as our reading from Hebrews says.  And that is the meaning of our baptism: we are violently plunged into the cross of Christ, the radical call of conversion—and so the waters cast fire on us.  This is not the religion of a comfortable bath, it is the religion of the radical cross.

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And then the household.  There are five characters here, father, mother, adult son, daughter, and the son’s wife, a pretty picture—but “a household of five will be divided.”  He says, look, the religion of love is going to be hard; it will not make cozy happy homes; it will set us at odds with a fallen world.  That’s ironic—as ironic as the fire and water he has just discussed. 

But that’s the cross.  That’s setting our face toward Jerusalem, which is both the place of communion and the place of the cross.  Of course he has “come to establish peace”—but not “on the earth.”  It’s a hard peace, the peace of radical love.

Where do you use God’s love as an excuse to avoid conversion?

Corpus Christi: Give Him Thanks

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Yesterday we celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi.  As in the late twentieth century the Pope accepted a visionary’s call to make a feast to emphasize the ever-present Divine Mercy, so in the thirteenth century, a Pope accepted a similar call to make a feast for the Eucharist.  It’s supposed to be the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday—that is, the first Thursday after Holy Thursday, except (it’s kind of funny) after Easter and Pentecost week.  But of course we usually switch it to Sunday.  (But maybe instead of griping over days of the week, we should focus on loving Jesus in the Eucharist.)

The original liturgy was written by none other than Thomas Aquinas.  The opening prayer, which he wrote, and which we also use for Benediction, is interesting: grant that we may so venerate that we may perceive (sentiamus) the fruits in ourselves.  Our act of veneration is, on the one hand, a gift from God, and on the other hand, a way that we can “experience” God’s goodness to us.

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The Vatican II Lectionary uses the readings Thomas picked, including John 6, only for Year A (though we also read John 6 during August of year B, and every year at the weekday Masses of Easter Week Three).  Year B for this feast we read Mark’s account of the Last Supper, and this year, Year C, we read Luke’s account of the feeding of the Five Thousand.  John 6, in fact, is also the feeding of the Five Thousand, teaching us to think of that miracle in terms of the Eucharist.

The theme throughout this year’s readings is precisely the idea, in Thomas’s opening prayer, that we experience God’s work in us by celebrating it.

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Genesis 14, when Melchizedek sacrifices bread and wine for Abraham, is at the beginning of his story: before his name is changed from Abram to Abraham, before the covenant, circumcision, the visitation at the oaks of Mamre, the destruction of Sodom, or the promise and sacrifice of Isaac—and long before the establishment of the priesthood of the Levites.  Melchizedek is the original priest, and this sacrifice is the root of Abraham’s story.

They are celebrating a military victory, and Abraham is refusing to attribute that victory to the king of Sodom.  Instead, Melchizedek says Abraham is blessed by “the creator of heaven and earth . . . who delivered your foes into your hand.”  Melchizedek offers bread and wine, and Abraham gives him a tithe, as a sign of his own sacrifice.

The point of their acts of sacrifice, their acts of reverence, is what the opening prayer says: by venerating God, by these actions of giving thanks, they increase their awareness, their perception of God’s work in their life.  God has no need of our thanks, but we are blessed by acknowledging that every good and perfect gift comes from him.

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So too in 1 Corinthians 11, when Paul gives his account of the Last Supper, and says that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” 

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The Last Supper itself was an act of thanksgiving.  By lifting up bread and wine, and the Paschal Lamb, Jesus proclaimed the goodness of God, both in his daily giving of bread and in his historic saving action.  When he gave that action to us—“do this”—he added to it a memorial of his own death, so that we give thanks for the “fruit of the earth and work of human hands” and also for his saving action for us on the Cross, for creation and redemption.

The Real Presence does two things: sacrifice and communion.  First, it perfects the sacrifice, so that what we lift up and offer really is the saving work of Jesus Christ himself, and somehow participates in his own self-offering on the Cross.  Second, through communion it unites us to him, so that our act of veneration is itself his gift to us: he is the one we offer, and he himself offers in and through us, by uniting us to himself in communion.  He perfects our act of thanks, he “grants us” that act of veneration.

But what we do with the Real Presence is this act of sacrifice, this lifting up, that just as with Melchizedek, makes us more deeply aware of God’s goodness in our life precisely through our giving thanks to him for it.

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This post is long enough, so in the Gospel, I will only point out one nice little thing from the Greek.  The Twelve say, “Dismiss the crowd so that going away [poreuthentes] they can go to the surroundingvillages and farms and find lodging and provisions.”  When Jesus says, “Give them some food yourselves,” they reply, “unless we ourselves going away [poreuthentes]buy food for all these people.” 

They think they need to find sustenance somewhere else, to go away from Jesus to get what they need.  But he tells them to “have them sit down”: stay right here.  (The groups of fifty must have some deep significance, but I like how it makes a hundred groups of fifty, as if just to emphasize what a huge crowd Jesus can provide for.) 

Jesus provides.  We don’t need to go away.  We need to stay close.  He provides our deepest, sweetest food in the Eucharist.  He provides himself, and his grace, and his love.  And, as Creator, he provides all our other needs, too.  What we need to do is to stay close and become aware, perceive, through our acts of thanksgiving and sacrifice and Eucharist, how good he is to us.

What parts of your life do you try to solve by “going away” from Jesus?

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!)

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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. 

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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.

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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?

Gaudete Sunday: A Consuming Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you encounter the call to repentance?

Second Sunday of Advent: Under Pontius Pilate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What miserable puppet kings do we follow?

First Sunday of Advent: Anticipation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Christ the King

Christ the King

Dear readers, I am sorry I have been away.  Like many others, I have been absorbed by the presidential ChristTheKingIconelection, not to mention some craziness at work.  Yesterday’s feast day, Christ the King, calls us back to a higher and nobler kingdom.

This year, the first reading for the feast turned our eyes to King David, in the Old Testament.  It recalls the words of the Angel to Mary at the Annunciation: “He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord God shall give Him the throne of His father David.  And He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).

Earthly kingship and Jesus’s kingship reflect on one another.  He is all that is great about earthly kings – and heals all that is wrong.

So the Liturgy gives us a brief image of what is attractive about the kingship of David.  As the Israelites proclaim their new king, they say, “Here we are, your bone and your flesh.”  The king is one of us, from us and for us, our perfect leader because truly our brother.

“It was you who led the Israelites out and brought them back.”  He leads them in battle, fighting to defend his people.  Leading means he goes first, puts himself in harm’s way.  And he brings them back: the good king saves them from harm.

good-shepherd-2“You shall shepherd my people Israel.”  The king preserves them, guides them, feeds them, enriches them and keeps them safe.

“And they anointed him.”  Christ is Greek, and Messiah is Hebrew, for the anointed one.  Jesus Christ means Jesus the king.  All that is noble and admirable about a true king: that is our king Jesus.

***

The Psalm recalls Jerusalem, built as a city with compact unity.  The king makes a glorious kingdom, a true community.  “Jesus come” and “thy kingdom come” go together.  To love the king is to love the kingdom he makes – and the kingdom arises from the goodness of his kingship.  Only Jesus makes the glorious kingdom of his Church.

***

But while the Old Testament readings give us some idea of how Jesus is like earthly kings, the New Testament readings tell us how he is different.  The epistle is the glorious Christ-hymn of Colossians 1.

He has brought us “to the kingdom of his beloved Son” from “the power of darkness.”  Jesus saves us from a darker enemy.

In him “we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”  Redemption means ransom.  Every king ransoms back his hostages.  But Jesus ransoms us from the power of sin, sets us free from our true enemies, the sins that bind us.

“In him were created all things in heaven and on earth.”  Our king is the creator of all earthly and heavenly goods.  His kingdom is infinitely more glorious, more beautiful, more splendid, than the kingdoms of this world.

In him were created “thrones, dominions, principalities, powers”: he is the king of kings, through whom all good kings come to us, and who conquers all the evils of earthly kings.

“All things,” all powers, all earthly splendors, all things that we are and desire, “were created through him and for him.”

***

And he is the king of the cross.  He is the firstborn even of the dead: as he goes before us in splendor, so he goes before us in suffering.  He leads our armies not just to earthly victories but to Resurrection and heaven.

He has “made peace” – like every earthly king, but – “by the blood of his cross.”

So every year for Christ the King the Gospel takes us to the Cross.

The earthly “rulers sneered at Jesus.”  His kingdom is not of this earth.  His ways and power are not of this world.  “The rulers” and the bad thief repeat, “Save!”  The salvation he brings is not the salvation they expect.  The cross is not the throne from which they expect the king to reign.

But the good thief begins to have the right insight: “We have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes.”  Our king is just and innocent.  Our king saves us not from earthly enemies but from the power of darkness, by the forgiveness of our sins.

Exaltation-CrossHe saves us by going forth with us through the battle of suffering.  He redeems us not by denying the evil of sin, but by redeeming our suffering.

The good thief says to our king, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He sees, dimly, in his awareness of the evil of sin, the true kingdom.  And Jesus says, to those who embrace his cross, to those who accept his kingdom, not of this world, “today,” with your acceptance of me, with your embrace of the cross, “you will be with me in Paradise,” the true Paradise, beyond all earthly promises.

Do we love the kingdom of righteousness?  Do we love the true king?  What would that mean for our view of all this earthly sordidness?

Thirty-First Sunday: Come, Lord Jesus!

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

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

As always, the Gospel makes it all incarnate.

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

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

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

***

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

What does “Come Lord Jesus” mean to you?

Thirtieth Sunday – Not Our Goodness, but His

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

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Twenty-Eighth Sunday: All is Grace

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

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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