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.

***

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?

***

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.)

***

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.

***

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.”

***

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.

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

What miserable puppet kings do we follow?

First Sunday of Advent: Anticipation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Twenty-Seventh Sunday: Living by Faith

This past Sunday’s readings talked about faith – with a surprise ending in the Gospel.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

The selection from the Prophet Habakkuk gives us both the substance of his short book, even a summary of all the Minor Prophets, and also one of the most important phrases in St. Paul: “the righteous shall live by faith” is the theme of his pivotal Letter to the Romans.  But here we get to see that phrase in action.

The Prophets wrote in the time when Israel was being conquered.  Their experience speaks to our time – and every time in which it has seemed that the powers of evil are stronger than the Church.

Habakkuk says, “How long, O Lord?  I cry for help but you do not listen!  I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene.  Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery.”  (I kind of know how he feels.)

The Lord responds: “Write down the vision . . . .  For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come.”

This is what Habakkuk means when he says, “The just one shall live by faith.”  We live by realities that do not appear to us.  We believe God is good, and powerful – and the world gives an awful lot of counter evidence.  We believe the heart of Jesus will triumph – but we don’t see it.  Well, we live by faith.  Trust me, he says, it will all come clear in due time.

***

In our reading from Second Timothy, Paul takes us deeper into this life of faith.  “Bear your share of hardship for the sake of the Gospel . . . ,” he says.  The message of faith calls us to a struggle.

But more deeply, it gives us the strength to accomplish that struggle: “. . . with the strength that comes from God.”  It seems like what Jesus asks of us is too much.  But the Gospel is the promise that he will give us the strength to do what we cannot do without him.

“Stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.”  Now, Timothy is a bishop, and this may be referring to ordination.  But Acts also describes “imposition of hands” as part of Baptism (or Confirmation; Acts 19:6).  In any case, we are talking about the strength that comes through the sacraments.  To live by faith is to trust in that strength, though we cannot see it.

“Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me.”  To live by sacramental grace is to trust in the teaching of faith: to live by faith.

***

Now, the first part of our Gospel reading is obvious enough: “Increase our faith.”  “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea.’”  On the one hand, faith is powerful – or rather, we have access to the power of God’s grace by our faith in his promise.  On the other hand, faith itself is an example of the power of grace: it is a gift we beg God to give us.

(“Mulberry tree”?  In Matthew and Mark faith can move mountains.  But it’s also connected to the withering of the fig tree.  The Greek for “mulberry tree,” sukaminos, is a kind of “fig tree,” suke.  It’s also a big tree, like the mustard.)

But the second half of our Gospel is obscure.  Suddenly he’s talking about the servant who serves his master dinner: he should not expect to get invited to sit at the table, but should say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”  What does this have to do with living by faith?

The bigger theme running through these chapters is self-righteousness.  The Pharisees think Jesus should not eat with sinners, but Jesus says God knows their hearts, and that they break the laws: of adultery (by divorce), and of care for the poor (in the parable of Lazarus).  He tells his disciples, too, that though, “Woe to the one through him offenses come” – though sin is bad – yet they should forgive their brother “seven times a day.”

This is the context in which the disciples say, “Increase our faith.”  As in Second Timothy, the call of the Gospel seems too hard.  I would rather trust in my incomplete righteousness than except Jesus’s higher call.

In this context, Jesus says, part of living the life of faith is not commending ourselves: not patting ourselves on the back like the Pharisees, not expecting immediate reward like the servant who wants to sit down at table, but again and again returning to the path of love, which we live only through the continual gift of God’s grace.

Because life by faith is hard.  But the grace is there.

How do you find yourself letting self-righteousness interfere with trusting in God’s grace?

Twenty-Fifth Sunday: Biblical Social Thought

As I mentioned in my last post, my son has been in and out of the hospital, and so I haven’t had as much time to devote to writing these reflections.  I wish I did, I think it’s good for me.  But Deo gratias, things finally seem to be clearing up, and maybe life will settle down again.  Thanks for all your prayers.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

There’s an important part of the Bible, the Tradition, and the Magisterium that we in America tend to ignore.  It’s often called Catholic Social Thought, and many people who consider themselves orthodox tend to think they can ignore it, based on the assumption that it’s ignorant of the laws of economics.  I used to think that way, until I studied what the Church really teaches.  I found that it’s neither so stupid nor so optional as I had thought.  It’s an important part of letting our faith permeate our lives.  And this past Sunday’s readings give a good opportunity to think about it.

***

The reading from the prophet Amos is hard hitting.  “When will the new moon be over, you ask.”  The Old Testament, like traditional Catholicism, had many feasts.  Although the main purpose was to worship God, a central part of the practice was to step away from economic work.  In addition to the Sabbath, every month (not on the full moon, when the pagans celebrate, but on the new moon), God’s people were to set aside their economic work and focus on God.

The desire to get back to money making highlights what Jesus says in this week’s Gospel: a servant cannot serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

“We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating.”  Alongside defrauding God, the Old Law also forbids defrauding our neighbor.  The ephah was the measure for flour; it’s tempting for the seller to give the buyer less than he’s paid for.  The shekel was the weight for measuring gold; it’s tempting for the the seller to take more money than the buyer bargained for.

The examples of the fixed scales nicely cut to the heart of Catholic social thought.  We can talk about the laws of economics till we’re blue in the face – and actually, the Church acknowledges that social policy should be based on a good understanding of what “works” economically – but alongside those issues, there are moral issues.  Free market, sure – but beware the constant temptation to cheat.

The next line pushes the issue a little further: “we will buy the lowly for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell.”  We saw how the seller can cheat.  But the buyer can cheat too.  And here’s the real danger: the poor are easy to take advantage of.  Enslaving someone “for a pair of sandals” cuts to the heart: when someone is desperate (for clothing, for example – notice Jesus puts clothing the naked alongside feeding the hungry, etc.) they may be willing to be cheated.  But it’s still cheating.  So too with “the refuse of the wheat”: they might be so starved that they are willing to buy junk – but that doesn’t make it right to take their money.

***

The reading from First Timothy is not obviously connected.  “God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved.”  Well, first, there must be a recognition that there is “one God . . . one mediator . . . Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all.”  At the heart of the “preferential option for the poor” is the recognition that Jesus died for them, too – and where he gave himself as ransom, we should not look for easy profit.

But Paul isn’t primarily talking about all being saved.  Actually, “who wills everyone to be saved” is part of saying, “I ask that supplications . . . be offered for everyone.”  The point is not that everyone will be saved.  The point is that we pray for everyone.

Especially, he says, “for kings and for all in authority.”  Well, this isn’t about the poor at all.  But it is about social thought: those with power, whether political or economic, need conversion.  And we want their conversion, too, so “that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life”: we pray, also, for the right to live Catholic social thought, to live justly.

***

In the Gospel, Jesus commends a “dishonest steward for acting prudently.”  But it’s a funny “dishonesty”: the “dishonesty” of forgiving debts.  Then Jesus says we need to be “trustworthy with dishonest wealth” – or rather, “faithful with the mammon of unjustice”.  That is, in the economic realm, where we are all tempted to cheat and take advantage, we should focus not so much on getting rich in this world as on storing up riches in heaven.

Our deeper concern – and the concern of the Bible and the Church in their social thought – is not how to make a buck, but how we can use our economic life to grow in charity.

In what ways do you think people in our society are tempted to value things more than people – to “fix the scales” – in our economic relationships?