Exegesis

A couple days ago was the feast of St. Dominic, one of my favorites and the primary influence on this website.  I was hoping to write something about his mission of preaching.

Searching the Scriptures

In every age, maybe ours more than ever, anti-intellectualism has been trendy.  There are elements of truth in that idea.  But it becomes an excuse not to hear the Word of God, as if it is more intellectually humble to trust in your own unexamined ideas than to let yourself be formed by divine revelation.  St. Dominic believed that the Word of God, articulated through preaching, was key to conversion.  I agree.

***

Today I’d like to approach the same point from a different angle: exegesis.  In part because of events, in part by design, this page has become devoted above all to exegesis of the Sunday readings.  I have benefited from that, and I want to reflect with you on why.  I believe what I am about to say is the heart of Benedict XVI’s vision – though in our political age, few people notice.

Exegesis is a fancy Greek word that means “drawing out.”  (Ex– means “out”.)  The way to understand it is to consider its opposite, eisegesis.  (Eis- is the Greek for “into”.)  When you have a text before you – we are talking about Scripture, but this applies to liturgy, to Christian doctrine in general, and even to conversations with friends – eisegesis means that you impose your own ideas instead of hearing what the other person says.  (When people turn Benedict XVI into a proponent of the Latin Mass, for example, they are committing eisegesis, seeing their own ideas instead of listening to his.)

There is a “conservative” or “traditional” kind of eisegesis that sometimes infects what is called the “spiritual meanings” of Scripture.  Sometimes people in the tradition have been so eager to talk about Jesus, or Mary, or some other Christian topic that they don’t bother to hear what a particular Biblical text has to say.   It is possible to read these spiritual meanings in Scripture in an “exegetical” attitude, but it is true that we often fail.  Thomas Aquinas, for the record, warns that we need to start with the “literal” meaning of Scripture, by which he means exegesis.

***

St. Jerome

A more modern example.  It seems to me that someone taught many priests in my diocese a particular, not exegetical, approach to lectio divina.  In this method – which is not real lectio divina – you read a Biblical text, look for a word to jump out at you, and then you put the text down and run with the word.  You read about the disciples fishing – and that reminds you of fishing with your grandfather, and then you do a meditation, on your own or in your preaching, about the spiritual importance of grandfathers.  And your basis for this meditation is the word “fishing.”

Now, there is a germ of truth in this approach.  To understand the text, it is worth thinking about what it means that they were fishing.  But Scripture has something else to say to you.

Imagine if you did this to a friend.  He starts a story, “the other day I was driving in my car” – and you tune out, and start meditating on what cars mean to you.  Sure, part of understanding your friend’s story is understanding what he means by driving in the car, and it’s possible that your shared experience of the car is relevant to understanding his story – but you have to listen to the story!

There are, of course, more and less “spiritual” and “traditional” ways of doing this.  The point is, if you are more interested in your ideas than in the ideas being spoken to you, you are committing eisegesis.

***

To combat this kind of eisegesis, modern scholars have developed some methods – which often become their own kind of eisegesis.  It is good, for example, to consider the original context of the text.  Maybe it was written during the exile in Babylon.  Okay, that’s relevant.  But scholars get so carried away with their theories of Babylon – often, truth be told, based on scant evidence – that all they want to talk about is Babylon, and they can’t hear what Scripture is teaching them about our relationship with God.  They are avoiding one eisegesis and falling into another.

Another danger they want to avoid is that of being so sure that we understand a text that we miss what it has to say.  The Bible is a big book because it has many things to say.  If you are always meditating on the same idea, I would guess you are not listening to the many things the Bible has to say.  So another method of modern exegesis is to set aside your preconceptions and listen to each individual text on its own terms, as if it stood alone.  The modern exegetes have a point.

But again, this can go too far.  If your friend and you have shared experience, and shared loves and ideas, those things are not irrelevant to understanding what your friend is saying.  Even if you are reading someone you disagree with, your background knowledge about their ideas helps you understand the thing they are saying right now – even though, yes, you need to keep an open mind and make sure you keep listening.

One of the premises of this web page – a basic premise of Catholic theology – is that theological knowledge, knowledge of the truths of the Christian faith in general, is helpful for understanding the particular teachings of Scripture.  St. Matthew knew the same Jesus I have been trying to know, the same Jesus who comes to me in the sacraments, and in Scripture.  St. Matthew has things to say to me, and I need to be listening – but to pretend I know nothing about Jesus is not helpful in my listening to St. Matthew, any more than it would be helpful in listening to my friend’s story if I pretended I don’t know what a car is, or don’t know my friend.

***

Why exegesis?  Because the Bible has something to say to us.  Because God’s perspective is different from ours.  I listen to a lot of Catholic talk: in my opinion, people who aren’t doing exegesis tend to fall into human ways of thinking.  They especially tend to forget the central reality of divine grace, of redepmtion.  To keep our supernatural perspective, we need to listen to the sacred authors, who have that perspective better than we do.  To think like Christians, we need to read the Bible – and if we aren’t doing exegesis, we aren’t reading the Bible.

You don’t have to be an expert to listen to the Bible.  How do you let God’s Word speak into your world?

 

The Parables of Repentance

For three weeks the Sunday Gospel readings walked us through Jesus’s Sermon of Parables, Matthew 13.  My commentary focused on the hidden power of God.  The seed planted in different kinds of soil, and beside the evil one’s tares, the mustard seed, the leaven, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, File:Hortus Deliciarum, Der Sämann.jpgthe net that gathers in: all of these are symbols of the Holy Spirit, or the Divinity hidden in the humanity of Christ, the power of God that can transform us.

But before we move on from Matthew 13, let us pause to note a corollary.  Each of these parables is at the same time a parable of God’s power and of our call to repentance, grace and free will.  It is not one or the other, it is both, and we need to see both, not only to understand these parables but to understand the Gospel itself.

***

St. Paul has a technique of slipping in something we think is minor beside things we think are major.  For example in, Galatians 5, he says, “Now the works of the flesh are clearly revealed, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, fightings, jealousies, angers, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkennesses, revelings, and things like these; of which I tell you before, as I also said before, that they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

We skim, maybe we don’t even read the whole list.  But watch what he does.  “Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lustfulness.”  Ah, yes, sexual sin, bad!  Dirty people!

“Idolatry, sorcery.”  Even worse!  Such sinners!

“Hatreds, fightings, jealousies.”  Wait a minute, I can hate, can’t I?  And, I mean, not every fighting is hatred, and not all jealousy is fighting.  How dare he put my jealousy side by side with “really” bad things like adultery and idolatry!  A little divisions and envy aren’t so bad, are they?  Does envy really belong alongside murder, division beside heresy?

***

The parable of the sower works the same way.  “When anyone hears the Word of the kingdom and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and catches away that which was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown by the wayside.”  Well, I am not like that.  I embraced the Word of the Gospel!

“But that which was sown on the stony places is this: he who hears the Word and immediately receives it with joy.”  Right, me!  I received it with joy!  “But he has no root in himself, and is temporary. For when File:Birds from the parable of the sower.jpgtribulation or persecution arises on account of the Word, he immediately stumbles.”  Oh.

But I’m better than that.  “And that sown into the thorns is this: he who hears the Word; and the anxiety of this world, and the deceit of riches, choke the Word, and he becomes unfruitful.”  This sentence is the climax of the story.  You are someone who has received the Word, who does have roots, who isn’t just temporary.  And Jesus says: that isn’t good enough.  Because even if you have deep roots, you can choke out the life of the Gospel by your worldliness.

The Gospel is tough.

And it concludes, “He who hears the Word and understands; who also bears fruit and produces, one truly a hundredfold; and one sixty; and one thirty.”  He says, even those who are fruitful are not all equally fruitful.  Bear the hundredfold.

We are called to sanctity.  That doesn’t work with taking it easy.

***

The wheat and the tares spins the same lesson another way.  On the one hand, we are so judgmental, but the Master of the harvest warns us , sometimes the ones you are judging are wheat, not tares.  And on the flipside, are you so sure you are wheat?

This parable ends with the first of several threats in this sermon: “bind them in bundles to burn them.”  There are different ways we can think about the fiery punishment – but Jesus insists that the Gospel is demanding.

Later he explains the same parable with some of the most frightening words of the Bible: “The Son of Man shall send out His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire. There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

***

The mustard seed is positive, more about God’s power than about our obligation.  (Unless we wonder what kind of burden the birds in the branches are.)  But then the leaven turns the same idea into a parable of repentance: “until the whole was leavened.”  Has the leaven of the Gospel permeated my whole lump?

That idea hands off into the treasure and the pearl, which demand that we sell everything.

And the parable of the net repeats the threat: “The angels shall come out and separate the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire. There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

The stories in the parables do not require these harsh conclusions.  But the Gospel does: we are called to be transformed.  The power of that transformation comes from God, the Holy Spirit hidden within us.  It is he who will make us righteous.  But we have to become righteous.  Jesus is not interested in sending his Holy Spirit so that we can ignore it and go about our way.

We need to be the instructed scribes, who dig into our treasure house and pull out old and new, digging deep to live the Gospel.

What obstacle is keeping God’s seed from bearing fruit in you this week?

An Update

Dear Readers,

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

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

Contemplation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do keep us in your prayers.

 

Third Sunday of Easter: Discovering the Hope of the Resurrection

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

Rembrandt’s Christ in Emmaus

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

To what new hope is Christ calling you this Easter?

Second Sunday of Easter: The Open Doors of the Risen Christ

This Sunday has many names.  St. John Paul II renamed it Divine Mercy Sunday.  It used to be called the Sunday in the Octave of Easter – the last day of the week-long solemnity.  For the same reason it was called “Low Sunday”: part of Easter, though not the “high” part.  The pre-Vatican II Missal calls it “In Albis,” “wearing white garments,” though the older, fuller name was “in albis depositis,” “when they take off the white garments,” because before the Middle Ages, when there were many people baptized at Easter – as again now – this was the end of their week-long celebration in baptismal garments.

Before Vatican II, the opening prayer said simply, “grant that what we have celebrated we may maintain in our lives.”  The new prayer develops the same theme: “let us remember in what font we have been plunged, by whose Spirit anointed, by whose Blood.” This Sunday is a kind of send-off: the Easter solemnities conclude, but the new life they celebrate has only just begun.

And it was called Quasimodo Sunday, because the opening antiphon (what riches we lose by neglecting those opening antiphons!), quoting First Peter, says, “Quasi modo geniti infantes”: like newborn infants, desire milk, with reason and without guile (or in the new missal, “you must long for the pure spiritual milk, that you may grow to salvation”).  Receive the new life given you in Christ!

(In Victor Hugo’s novel, Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, the humiliated, the miserable, was abandoned by his mother and adopted by the Church on this day.)

***

The Gospel for this day has always been doubting Thomas.  On Easter day, Jesus visits the apostles in the upper room, bringing peace and the power to forgive sins – the power of mercy.  But Thomas is not File:Smuglewicz Doubting Thomas.jpgthere.  The next Sunday after Easter, Jesus submits himself to Thomas’s doubting and probing.  He stoops down to Thomas, unafraid to be humiliated and lifting Thomas from his fears.  Mercy.

An interesting detail: on both Sundays, St. John tells us, the doors were locked, “for fear of the Jews.”  We’ve just been through the season where our modern Missals are full of assurances that John isn’t talking about today’s Jews and we shouldn’t be anti-Semites.

Those notes are right, but they don’t go far enough.  For us, “Jews” means another religion, outsiders.  But that’s exactly the opposite of what it meant for John.  John’s point is not that outsiders crucified Jesus, but that his own people did it: “he came to his own, and his own people received him not” (John 1:11).  It’s not only that we shouldn’t hate the Jews.  In fact, when John says “Jews,” we could translate it as “Christians,” us.  We, his people, crucified him.  The constant warning of the Gospel is not against outsiders, but against insiders.  The ones who most persecute Christ are us, the Christians.

When the disciples lock the doors for fear of the Jews, they are locking out doubters like Thomas – and thus becoming doubters like Thomas.  Both Sundays, John says, Jesus comes in “although the doors were locked.”

Like Thomas, like Jesus’s own people, we are always locking him out.  But Jesus overcomes our locked doors, just as he overcomes Thomas’s doubt.  Locking out our brothers, locking ourselves in against our fear, we lock out Jesus, just as Thomas’s doubt locks out Jesus.  But the mercy of Jesus comes through our locked doors.  Where we hide behind locked doors, Jesus shows his pierced body: perfect File:Hosios Loukas Crypt - Doubting Thomas 01.jpgvulnerability, his own hands and heart like an open door.

And Jesus sends us as missionaries of the same mercy.  He brings them peace and sends them as missionaries of peace: whoever’s sins you forgive.  Unlock the doors.

***

Our first reading, from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles – the verses immediately following Pentecost – tell us how the early Church carried on the mystery of Jesus that was given to them.  They lived in the teaching and the common life and the Eucharist and prayer.  And from that rooting in Jesus, came openness to one another: sharing all things in common, meeting in common, making their homes domestic churches.  Their meals were filled with the joy of the Gospel, and what our translation calls “sincerity of heart” has a root meaning of something like, “no stoning of hearts.”  When Jesus came through their locked doors, they opened their own hearts and hands to one another.

As always, the epistle, this time First Peter, gives the theology of grace.  From the resurrection of Christ we have received a new birth and a living hope.  We look forward to the inheritance in the final time.

This reading has one of the best ironic lines in the Bible: “though now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials.”  No kidding!  Peter knows, in fact, that we will be “tested by fire,” smelted like gold, crucified with Christ.  But the life and love of Jesus poured into our hearts lets us love, and believe, and rejoice, even though we do not see.

Rooted in the mystery of Easter, we have nothing to fear.

Where is the mercy of Jesus calling you to open doors that you have shut?

Mercy, Truth, and Humiliation

I’m sorry I’ve been silent over these last, most important days.  I spent hours on a Palm Sunday post, but it didn’t quite come together before Holy Week got very busy.  This year we went to the Chrism Mass and had good friends in town, along with everything else – and then we got a bad stomach bug, and a big new project for work, etc. 

Yesterday I wrote two posts: before I wrote about today’s readings, in this post I’ve tried to put together some insights from the last week.

***

Every Good Friday my kids and I join our Franciscan friends for a procession through Harlem and the Bronx.  There are many great things about this procession, but this year I also learned something about the liturgy.

One of the priests pointed out the novena to the Divine Mercy: beginning with Good Friday, there are nine days leading up to Divine Mercy Sunday.  I’ve always been a little confused how Divine Mercy fits into Easter Week, but here it is: Divine Mercy summarizes the mystery of Good Friday and Easter.  As soon as we have passed through these nine days of mercy, we stop to think about it.

***

This year during the last few weeks of Lent I was meditating on Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited.  Thurman was a big influence on Martin Luther King.  The book is both imperfect and breathtakingly important.  An example:

Thurman complains that he doesn’t like St. Paul.  That’s bad: Paul is amazing, and Thurman is missing Paul’s theology of grace, which is so central to the Gospel.  Thurman is incomplete.

But the reason he doesn’t like St. Paul is fascinating: because of citizenship.  When Paul is accused, he appeals to Ceasar (Acts 25).  Paul is a Roman citizen, he has rights.

BrotherSlave.jpgNow, whether or not Thurman understands Paul, he uses this event to take us deep into the mystery of Jesus.  Jesus did not have rights.  He was a poor man from a despised region of a despised, occupied country with a despised religion.  From Thurman’s experience as a black man in the 1930s American South, he takes us into Jesus’ experience of having no rights at all.

***

If you’re at all interested in what people like Ta-Nehesi Coates have been talking about (I think you should be), you should read Jesus and the Disinherited, which says the same things but in a much richer, more complete way.

One powerful chapter, for example, talks about how the poor are often stripped of their love of the truth.  To deal with their lack of rights, it is tempting to solve everything with lies.  Thurman gives a meditation on the disaster this loss of truth is for human dignity.  And on how Jesus shows another way.

Jesus dies because he has united himself to the most humiliated.  And he dies because in that position of absolute humiliation, he alone maintains human dignity – a dignity, we must add, found ultimately in the Fatherhood of God.  No one else can deal with that kind of humiliation.  Jesus does.

For me this Lent and Easter, this meditation on Jesus’ union with the humiliated has opened up the Gospel in a new way.  I have heard it in every line of these last weeks’ liturgies.

This is the Divine Mercy: he goes all the way down, to save us at our most humiliated.

***

Of course, like Paul, and much more comfortable than Paul, I have rights.  I am not among the humiliated.

But Jesus teaches me to love those who are, to see in them the deepest truth of the Gospel, the face of Christ.

Jesus teaches me a more excellent way, which is not to cling to my rights, not to fight to get ahead, but to love till the end.  At the Cross, Peter fled humiliation.

Jesus teaches me the meaning of my little humiliations.  I have not experienced what Thurman or Jesus (or Peter or Paul!) experienced.  But there are so many humiliations in life, leading up to the final and utter humiliation which is death.  (Another important read: Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan IlyichIf we do not learn humiliation during life, we will have to learn it at death.)

At the same time, I’ve been reading John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul.  Spiritually, too, everything culminates in humiliation.  This is central to the Gospel.

And it is central to Divine Mercy: the mercy of Jesus is to join us in our humiliation.

***

One more thought, from Good Friday.  In John’s account of the Passion, Jesus discusses with Pilate his kingship and his kingdom.  “Are you a king then?  Jesus answered, You say that I am a king.  To this end I was born, and for this cause I came into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.”

Jesus is a king, but not the kind of king that conquers with a sword.  His kingdom is the kingdom of truth, his soldiers are those who embrace truth, speak truth, die for truth.  Those, too, who do not resort to untruth as a way of avoiding humiliation: the lies that protect our pride, the lies that get us out of hard situations, and the lies that allow us to demean others.

To follow Jesus is to live in the truth.  To receive Jesus is to have our eyes opened to the truth, to live in the light.

Where is humiliation in your life?  How does Jesus want to transform that?

 

The Mercy of Almsgiving

I recently heard someone summarize our Lenten observances as prayer, fasting, and fraternal charity.  On the one hand, that’s good: the heart of almsgiving is our love of neighbor, and discovering that our neighbor is our brother.  Fasting denies ourselves so that in prayer we can turn to God and in almsgiving we can love our neighbor.

File:Léo Schnug, Saint Martin partageant son manteau.jpgBut the tradition – based above all on the first half of Matthew 6, in the Sermon on the Mount – does not say fraternal charity.  It says almsgiving.

***

Almsgiving takes us a step further, because it specifies that the neighbor in question is poor where we are rich.

It means recognizing our own gifts.  On this level, almsgiving brings together two things that seem like opposites.  On the one hand, we should be grateful for all God has given us.  On the other hand, we should deny ourselves.  Those two seem to be in contradiction: we often find ourselves thinking that if we are grateful to God, we ought to feast, not fast.  In almsgiving, we make our fast out of our neighbor’s feast.  We give thanks to God for what he has given to us by denying ourselves and sharing with our neighbor.  Quite nice.

Almsgiving also means recognizing our neighbor’s need.  This recognition goes against our tendency to make excuses for ourselves and demands of our neighbors.  I am needy, he ought to help me.  But almsgiving calls us to recognize that I have more than enough, and my neighbor is hurting.  We need to see how our neighbors hurt.

File:Meister des Schwabacher Crispinus-Altars Hl Sebastian Martin und Rochus c1500.jpg

St. Martin and the Beggar

And almsgiving calls us to get over our assumption that when I lack, I don’t deserve it, but when I possess, I do deserve it – and when my neighbor lacks, he does deserve it, but when he possesses, he doesn’t deserve it.  In its most basic, traditional form – what Jesus is talking about and the tradition practices – almsgiving means finding someone you don’t know, someone whose merits you can’t judge, and helping them out, purely out of mercy.  It means renouncing our tendency to judge—and, even more, always in our own favor.

It teaches us to see ourselves as rich and our neighbor as poor.  And it teaches that the right way to deal with that is to share our riches.

***

Where can we practice almsgiving?

I have said before and I will say again: the traditional call to almsgiving should remind us that there is something very strange about our society.  If you read the life of any saint, they regularly came across beggars.  Beggars have always been a part of life – including anonymous beggars, not just people you know all about and can judge worthy or unworthy.  Jesus and the whole of the Bible treat it as a normal part of life that you will encounter beggars.

Why, in our normal American lives, don’t we encounter beggars?  This website is about theology and spirituality, not economics, so I can only assert as a moral judgment, not prove: we have constructed our entire American way of life on making sure we never see beggars – making sure we never have to give alms.  That should disturb you.  There are lots of beggars in America – we have just organized our lives to make sure we don’t have to encounter them.

***

And yet there are beggars in our life.  Elizabeth Foss, a homeschooling writer I very much respect, once pointed out that Jesus’s words in Matthew 25 about caring for him in the hungry, thirsty, foreign, naked, sick, and imprisoned almost exactly describe the vocation of motherhood.

Mothers see more literal naked beggars than even the most traditional society.  We might need some metaphor for the foreigner, but our children’s lack of social graces, their inability to act according to our expectations, makes them pretty “strange”: can we welcome them nonetheless?  And though they are not typically in prison, like the prisoner they are often accused, sometimes falsely, sometimes legitimately – and Jesus calls us to ignore that distinction and love them, be present to them, either way.

We can give alms to our children.

***

Sometimes I like to meditate on the Old Testament injunction to care for widows and orphans.  I simply add to it that to the extent that I fail in my vocation, my wife is a widow and my children are orphans.  So along with caring for the poverty of my children, I can care for the poverty of my wife, who relies on me.

And so too I can realize that everyone who depends on me, at work, in my extended family, in my neighborhood, or elsewhere, even in my economic relationships, is an orphan and impoverished to the extent that I fail them.  I give alms when I recognize that they deserve my generosity.

Finally, I give alms every time I recognize the suffering and poverty of the people around me.  Real almsgiving teaches us, and our call to almsgiving calls us, to see the brokenness of the people around us and to come to their aid.

And it teaches us that, though prayer is the highest thing, our love of Jesus means not only “spiritual works of mercy” (which are not explicitly taught us by Jesus) but far more, “corporal works”: simply giving up our material stuff to care for the concrete needs of our neighbor.  That’s why we have material stuff in the first place.

Where can you give alms?

Second Sunday of Lent: Lenten Transfiguration

The first Sunday of Lent, for obvious reasons, gives us Jesus fasting in the wilderness for forty days.  But the second Sunday takes us to a different image: the Transfiguration.  (In the coming weeks, the readings Duccio di Buoninsegna 039b.jpgof the post-Vatican II differ from the old Lectionary.  But these first two weeks are traditional – in fact, before Vatican II both Saturday and Sunday of this weekend had important liturgies centered on Matthew 17:1-9.)

In the past, the Transfiguration was seen as a central mystery of the faith.  It reveals the deepest mysteries of grace and the Incarnation, the total penetration of humanity by divinity.  But here at the beginning of Lent, let us notice the penitential themes in this reading.

***

The setting is a high mountain, by themselves.  In a sense, we are recapitulating the story of the Temptation: the Spirit drives Jesus into a lonely place, and Jesus leads his disciples into another one.  In the Temptation, we saw Jesus triumph over the devil – here, we see him shine forth with divinity.  We go into the wilderness of Lent to battle with the devil – and so to see the glory of Jesus.  We will do the same thing a third time on Good Friday.

Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.  As we were reminded in the Sermon on the Mount, Moses is the lawgiver, the taskmaster.  Elijah and the prophets called the people deeper into the Law, to a more perfect observance.  And Jesus takes us deeper still.  We are reminded of the moral radicalism of Jesus.

Peter wants to make tents.  He wants, on the one hand, to stay in this lonely place with Jesus, and on the other hand to do something for him.  So too in Lent we both offer Jesus our hard work – and, more deeply, we spend a few weeks dwelling alone with him, pitching our tent with no one but Jesus.

But a voice from a cloud interrupts Peter’s proposal.  It says, “Listen to him,” and the disciples fall to the ground afraid.  More and more radical.  In Lent we shut ourselves up for a few weeks and fall before Jesus in reverence.  We enter into a holy fear, realizing we need to be more radical, more obedient, less inclined to follow our own desires and more inclined to live for nothing but Jesus.

And they look up, and see no one else, but Jesus alone.  Nothing but Jesus.  That’s why we put aside Transfiguration by fra Angelico (San Marco Cell 6).jpgother things, that’s why we fast, that’s why we enter into this Lenten wilderness: to spend a few moments with nothing but Jesus.  What a grace!

The story ends with Jesus telling them to keep the vision to themselves, “until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”  We look forward to the Resurrection.  But we look forward, to, to the Cross.  Lent does both those things.  A hard Lent teaches us the joy of looking forward.  It also teaches us that there the only path to Easter joy is through the Cross.

***

If we open our Bibles, we find that the Transfiguration, in Matthew 17, immediately follows Christ’s call to take up our cross and follow him.  And that came immediately after Peter’s confession, with Jesus’s first prediction of the Cross and his rebuke of Peter.  Peter proclaims Jesus Lord, he looks forward to the Transfiguration – but Jesus tells him that the only path to that mountaintop is through the wilderness of Lent.

And right after the Transfiguration, in the rest of chapter seventeen, Jesus talks about the radical call to conversion of Elijah and John the Baptist, he casts out demons, and he talks again about resurrection.  At the heart is the divinity of Jesus – but all around it is the call to radical conversion.

Finally, Matthew’s Gospel is organized around narratives leading up to great sermons.  Chapters sixteen and seventeen are part of the lead-up to the sermon on community, in chapter eighteen.  In that sermon, he calls us to be the least, not the greatest; to cut off the hand that leads us to sin; to seek out the lost sheep; to forgive seventy times seven times; and not to be liking the unforgiving servant, who refuses to extend to others the mercy his master has shown him.

The Transfiguration is like the Temptation.  To have the glory of Jesus is to do battle with the devil.

***

The other two readings remind us that grace is at heart.  St. Paul teaches us to be hardships – as in Lent – but with the strength that comes from God.  In all these battles we learn that it is only the glory of the Transfiguration that carries us through the challenge of conversion.

And the reading from Genesis simply tells us that it is God who will make us a great nation, God will will bless us, God who make our name great, and God who will make us a blessing to the nations.

The path of Lent is a path of radical conversion – but far deeper, it is the work of God within us.

How is Jesus calling you to put him more radically at the center of your life this Lent?

A Bowl of Lentils

Lentils are a good Lenten theme.  Tasty, but pretty meager and penitential.

And lentils can be a symbol of our worldliness.

File:Lentil ( মুসুর ডাল) ০২.JPG***

This first week of Lent, I have been thinking about worldliness, about how often we prefer the world to God.  St. Louis de Montfort takes as a model of worldliness Esau, son of Isaac, brother of Jacob.

Now, Esau is the first born and the stronger.  He is a hunter and especially beloved of his father.  He is who we all want to be.

But he is also foolish.  In one of the weirdest passages of the often-weird book of Genesis (Gen 25:29-34), Esau comes back from his hunting and he is hungry.  His younger brother Jacob, the unimpressive one, has been at home, cooking soup.  (The Hebrew is kind of funny: he was boiling boiled stuff: sounds tasty.)  Esau sees the soup and says, “oh, give me some of that red stuff.”  (Genesis says this is one of the reasons he is called Edom, “the red”: he doesn’t even seem to care what is being boiled in the pot.)

Jacob says, “Sell me your birthright.”  (These stories are so strange and repetitive: Jacob gets his twin Esau’s birthright by fighting with him as they come out of the womb, by dressing up with goat hair and tricking his blind, dying father into thinking he is his hairy brother – and here.)  And Esau is so greedy, for that boiled red stuff, that he agrees to sell his birthright.

Only in the last verse of the story do we learn that the soup is lentils, which Jacob serves with bread.  Esau sells his birthright for a Lenten supper.

***

It’s a strange story, but it gives us a vivid image for thinking about our relationship to God and our Lenten observances.  In sin, we are always selling our birthright for a bowl of lentils.

File:Rembrandt adam and eve.jpg

Rembrandt: Adam and Eve (note the serpent on the tree)

The same thing happens in the Garden of Eden.  There, it sounds a little more exciting.  The fruit is “good for food, and pleasing to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make wise.”  It is the tree of Life and the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, at the center of the Garden.  And Satan talks up how good it is, and how slight the punishments.

And yet what did our first parents do?  They sold their birthright for a pot of lentils.  They had everything.  On earth, they had paradise itself, everything provided for them.  Beyond that, they had friendship with God, who walked with them in the garden in the cool of the day.  And they chose a piece of fruit.

It is not the food, of course, that is evil.  It is the choice to sell our birthright for it, the bad priorities.

One of my favorite places in Christian literature is in St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (somewhere around Book 1, chapter 21) where he meditates on the magnitude of sin.  Somehow we have to see how astonishingly foolish it was to trade Paradise for a piece of fruit – to sell our birthright for a bowl of lentils.

***

Sin isn’t a problem for God.  It’s not that God gets angry.  It a problem for us, a problem of upside-down priorities.  When we think about God’s side of things, modern man (including most Catholics) can’t imagine why there would be a Hell: God doesn’t want to put people into Hell.

But when we think about our side, we should see how very likely Hell is.  I sell my birthright for a pot of lentils all the time.  When I pray, I’d rather look out the window, or cultivate angry thoughts, or daydream.  I really do choose those things over God.  When the precious children God has given me come to speak to me, I’d rather look at my stupid phone.  When the magnificent sacrament of the present moment is before me, all the glories of my vocation, I constantly turn away to lesser things.

God offers me himself.  I would rather have a bowl of lentils.

***

Temptation-of-Christ-in-the-Wilderness.jpgThat’s what our Lenten penance is all about.  When we embrace the Cross, we are saying that if we lose absolutely everything and have Christ, it is okay.  But we have to recognize that it’s not just the Cross we shy away from, it’s the slightest inconvenience – how often I refuse to take even one step out of my way to see the glory of God.

I need to wrestle with that, to go out into the desert of fasting and face the temptations of Satan head-on, until I understand that man cannot live on bread alone – nor bread and a bowl of lentils, nor even a really nice piece of fruit.  We need to learn to hunger for every word that comes from the mouth of God.

How do you get yourself to wrestle with the lentil problem?

First Sunday of Lent: Hunger for God and His Word

The first Sunday of Lent takes us to the temptation of Christ in the desert.  It’s a tremendously rich reading.  I will not give you Dostoevsky’s reading, but if you have not yet read his “Grand Inquisitor,” promise yourself that you will.

File:Temptation of Christ by the Devil.jpgThe Temptation is a fine reading for the first week of Lent, because it introduces fasting, then goes deeper.  The second sentence introduces Christ’s forty-day fast, and then quickly moves on (with one of the great understatements of world literature: “afterwards he was hungry”).  It introduces that fast by saying that, deeper, it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness – not only to fast, but to be tempted by the devil.  The fast is needed, but it is about something much deeper.

The devil offers three temptations.  The first is bread – an appropriate temptation for someone who is hungry.  The third is to be king of the world.  But the second is funny: to cast himself from the temple and be caught by angels.  It is not as tempting a temptation.  What is going on here?

***

One answer is in the Biblical quotations.  To the offer of bread, Jesus responds with a quotation from Scripture about Scripture: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”  Jesus defeats temptation by relying on Scripture – and what Scripture teaches him is to rely on Scripture.

One way the second temptation is significant is its use of Scripture.  This time, the devil too quotes Scripture: “He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”  There is a saying, “the devil quotes Scripture,” and it seems to suggest that we should be cautious about quoting Scripture.

Indeed we should – but Jesus keeps doing it.  Jesus’s response to the devil quoting Scripture is not to give up on Scripture, but to prove that he knows it better – by quoting it back.  Jesus does not deny the devil’s quotation of the Biblical teaching that the angels will care for us. He only denies its particular

Searching the Scriptures

application: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”  Jesus overcomes the devil by knowing Scripture better.

Then comes the devil’s final attack.  The temptation is the greatest – to receive “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence” – but this time the devil does not bother quoting Scripture.  Jesus showed in the second temptation that he will win at that game.

There’s a note of desperation in the third temptation: the devil asks Jesus to “prostrate yourself and worship me”; not going to happen.  Jesus has already defeated him, in the Scriptural contest of the second temptation.  And Jesus defeats him a final time, by again quoting Scripture: “The Lord, your God, shall you worship, and him alone shall you serve.”

With this Biblical citation, two things happen.  The devil slinks away.  And the angels come to minister.  That’s an interesting detail: the devil was right, when he quoted Scripture, about the angels taking care of him.  There was just a bigger Biblical context that the devil was missing.

It’s a contest of Scripture.

***

Jesus’s first Biblical quotation contrasts bread with the word of God.

Fasting is an emptying out – but we empty ourselves so that God can fill us.  We fast to remind ourselves of our deeper hunger, for God.

In the desert, Jesus empties himself so that he can be filled by the encounter with God in the Word.  In the traditional practice of Lent, we empty ourselves by fasting so that we can encounter God in prayer and our neighbor in almsgiving – or rather, so that we can encounter Jesus in both: when we give alms to the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you have done it to Me.”

***

Do we really need fasting in order to have this encounter?

The other two readings are about original sin.  “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death . . . .  Sin was in the world” until “the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.”  We need to be saved.

One detail about our reading from Genesis 2: the tree of life is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  (Watch how the reading talks about “the tree in the middle of the garden.”)

God gives them the food they need.  But immortality is not something to be grasped at.  God does not want us to be ignorant – but we can never be self-sufficient.  We must always be hungry, waiting for God to fill us.  Our temptation to be full of earthly food covers our temptation to forget God.

The only goal is to encounter God.  But to do that, we need to struggle with sin, face temptation, empty ourselves, and know hunger.  Without fasting, we don’t get to that real encounter with Scripture, with prayer, and with almsgiving.

In what ways do you find yourself too full to hunger for the word of God?