Forty Days of the Mercy of Jesus

A thought for Lent, from the liturgy.

I am generally a great defender of the liturgical reforms after Vatican II: because I think liturgy depends on our relationship to authority (it is inherently anti-liturgical to criticize the liturgy that the pope and the bishops give us), because I think the changes are for the most part really good (mostly simplification to focus on essentials and increase of Scripture), and because I think claims about the difference between the liturgies manifest that people don’t know what they’re talking about (the two forms aren’t as different as people claim, beyond the fact that there are some non-essential prayers at the beginning, and then people stop paying attention).  So there.  (Want to debate?  I have a comment box . . . .)

I am not defending practice – both rites are done badly most of the time – but the new books I like.

That said, there are little details that bug me.  One of them was the Kyrie.  Before Vatican II it was sung in Greek (I think using some Greek is good and beautiful), three times each instead of two (I like the poetry of that), and without any interpolations, or “tropes.”  It’s the tropes I want to talk about.

There are a few options for how to do the Kyrie now, but most of them include adding lines like, “You are Son of God and Son of Mary, Lord, have mercy.”

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I don’t like additions.  To the contrary, one of the central principles of Vatican II’s constitution that defined the liturgical reform was:

“The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 34).

Later they apply it to the Mass in particular:

“For this purpose the rites are to be simplified, due care being taken to preserve their substance; elements which, with the passage of time, came to be duplicated, or were added with but little advantage, are now to be discarded” (ibid., 50).

Why, in the midst of this simplification to the essentials, are we cluttering up the Kyrie?  And why, especially, are we adding lines that are not directly related to the prayer at hand?  We are crying out to the divine mercy.  I love to say Jesus is Son of Mary – I love the rosary! – but that’s not the point here.  Keep it simple.

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But there’s one more part of my annoyance, and here we get to the crux.  The medievals too often added to the Kyrie, often long poems.  One of the main points of those poems was to develop a Trinitarian interpretation of the Kyrie.  The first “Lord have mercy” goes with the Father.  “Christ have mercy” goes with the Son.  The last “Lord have mercy” is the Holy Spirit.

But the Vatican II Mass speaks of Jesus at every turn: Son of God and Son of Mary, Lord have mercy.  We’re not talking about Jesus now – I thought.  We’re talking about the Father.  What are you doing!

But then I did some research.  It turns out that the Kyrie arises from an old procession where it was all about Jesus.  In fact, the Greek Kyrie is connected to that most ancient of Greek Christian prayers, the Jesus Prayer, where one repeats, over and over again, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  Which is both Christ have mercy and Lord have mercy.  Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison is just another way of digging into the repetition: Jesus, mercy!  Jesus, mercy!  Jesus, mercy!

It turns out, as so often happens, the Magisterium is smarter than I am, and my stubbornness, my assumption that they were screwing things up, is actually yet another call to focus.

Of course mercy is a Trinitarian theme.  But we begin the Mass by looking toward Jesus, the Divine Mercy incarnate.  Keep it simple.  The tropes say things like “Son of God and Son of Mary” precisely to put flesh on the words, “Lord have mercy.”  It’s not a vague phrase in another language.  It’s not even a high Trinitarian formula.  It’s the Jesus Prayer: Jesus – mercy; Jesus – mercy; Jesus – mercy.  It’s only through Jesus that we have access to mercy and to the Father and the Holy Spirit.

This Lent, I wish you forty days of Jesus and mercy.

Fourth Sunday: No Empty Words

In this Sunday’s gospel Jesus begins his ministry.

A Prophet (Jeremiah)

The first two readings teach us about prophets.  In the first, from Deuteronomy, Moses tells us God gives us a prophet, and God says he “will put my words into his mouth” so that we can hear God’s word before we are ready to face him.  The Psalm confirms that the prophet lets us “hear his voice.”

Our Epistle takes us now to the end of 1 Corinthians 7, where we hear the value of virginity.  For us, the rationale is more important than the conclusion.  The two most important words are “anxious” and “distraction.”  The Greek for anxious really is just “worry”: it’s not that we shouldn’t worry, Paul says, it’s that we should know what to worry about: pleasing God.  And distraction is “getting dragged around.”

In the context of our other readings, the point is: God speaks to us to tell us what we should be worried about, so we don’t get dragged around by every little thing.

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In our Gospel, Jesus speaks his third word, according to Mark.  He introduced himself with the shout, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God draws near. Repent, and believe the gospel.”  Then he said to the first apostles, “Come after Me and I will make you fishers of men.”

This week what he says is surprising: “Quiet!  Come out of him!”

It surprises us that after such a bold basic message, and after calling his apostles not only to follow, but to be fishers, he tells the demon not only “come out of him,” but “quiet!”  Quiet because he’s saying, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  Doesn’t he want that shouted from the rooftops?

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The question in this Gospel is about “authority.”

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus is saying, in the synagogue in Capernaum.  He says only that Jesus “taught.”  But he does tell us that “the people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”

The word scribe, in Greek as in English, is connected to the word “Scripture.”  They are “the Scripture Christ Giving His Blessing.jpgguys,” or Scripture scholars.  “Pharisee” means separatist; Sadducee might mean “righteous” or might refer to the name of their founder; the “priests” have a function, and social status, in Jerusalem.  But the “scribes” have no message, they are just guys who quote Scripture.

Jesus quotes Scripture – if he’s in a synagogue, that’s what they’re talking about.  But he does it with authority.  The distinction is parallel to what is sometimes said about lectio divina.  The difference between lectio and other ways of reading Scripture is that it actually has force in our life – authority over us.  The scribes are like cartoon characters, with words floating in bubbles outside their heads but no real significance.  (I’m stealing that image from Parker Palmer’s work on teaching.)  Jesus speaks and it matters.

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And that is why Jesus silences the demon who says, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  We can say those words . . . we can say “Lord, Lord” . . . we can profess the true nature of Christ, as Peter did before denying him at the Cross . . . we can exclaim over our own orthodoxy . . . we can quote Scripture, like a scholar or a trivia buff, or even like an apologist . . . and not accept his authority over us.

But Jesus has come not so we can make empty statements, but so that we can know his authority.

F.Mazzola-Cristo benedicente.jpgThe whole structure of Mark’s Gospel – Peter’s Gospel – is to say, sure, as Matthew tells us, perhaps people along the way called Jesus Lord.  But until the Cross, we cannot really know what it means.  Until we embrace his total authority, it is meaningless to say, “Lord, Lord.”  Even demons can say, “I know who you are,” as Peter did that fateful day.

So Jesus’s first words are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God draws near.  Repent, and believe the gospel.”  He points first not to himself, but to God’s authority over us.

And second, “Come after Me and I will make you salties of men”: if I am to be your Lord, you must be serious about your neighbor.

And now, “Come out of him!”  The demon asks, “What have you to do with us?”  It is a deeper question than “who do people say that I am?”  Deeper because it includes that question, takes us deeper into it.  Who do you say that I am?  What do you think I have to do with you?

Jesus’s answer is to demonstrate his authority, even over unclean spirits.

What part of your life calls into doubt your profession that Jesus is Lord?

The Incarnation and the Sea

Since my first John Denver Christmas post was popular – and, more important, since I encouraged us to think about Christmas in relation to the kerygma – here’s another piece.

The least Christmas-y song on “John Denver and the Muppets: Christmas Together,” is called “When the River Meets the Sea.”  Once again, John Denver is helpful because he’s so wrong – and then also helpful because he’s not all wrong.

His theme, I guess, is patience.  Some of the lines are just corny: “Like a baby when it is sleeping / In its loving mother’s arms / What a newborn baby dreams is a mystery”

I’m not sure a baby’s dreams are any more mysterious than anyone else’s, except that they appear to dream a lot about nursing.  So hey, let’s not press too hard on John Denver’s philosophy.  He’s just writing sentimental lyrics about the beautiful things he cares about: mostly mountains (the first line is “When the mountain touches the valley / All the clouds are taught to fly”), other things Colorado (the next verse begins “Like a flower that has blossomed / In the dry & barren sand”), and at this point in his life, I guess, babies (the chorus of another song says, “Merry Christmas, little Zachary” – it appears that he adopted a Zachary and an Anna, which might explain why he loves babies but doesn’t know that newborns appear to dream about nursing).

Anyway, the song is about patience: “truth and justice will be done” eventually, just like, I guess, the clouds learn to fly when they bump into the mountains.  But the chorus – the central image – is, “when the river meets the sea.”  For example, whatever that baby might be dreaming about now (maybe John Denver thinks he has premonitions of his blessed hope?), “His life will find a purpose / and in time he’ll understand / When the river meets the sea / When the river meets the Almighty sea!”

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Well, here’s my point: as Christians, we don’t believe that our lives end the way the river ends when it meets the Almighty sea.  John Denver’s idea is a perfectly reasonable one, held by most world religions: somehow our lives are momentary outgrowths from God (the “Almighty”), like spots on the sun, into which we then disappear again.  That makes sense.

But it isn’t what Christians believe.  One way of stating the kerygma is that we believe in heaven: we believe that we will survive contact with God.  Like the burning bush, and unlike the sunspot, we are not destroyed by contact with God.  The pleasure in heaven is our ability to survive as persons in union with God.

One of the greatest theological words for this is communion (from the Latin translation of the Greek word koinonia, a central word in the New Testament).  Com- means with, and communion means that in our union with God there is not just union, not just one being swallowed up by the other, as the river meets the almighty sea, but still two who are “with” one another.

Gebhard Fugel Moses vor dem brennenden Dornbusch c1920.jpgTraditional piety connects Mary with the burning bush – but the original burning bush is the one lying in the manger.  The mystery of Christmas is that human weakness is not destroyed by contact with God.  Were Jesus only to be a superman, we might think that somehow God and man had been blended, a halfway-between – but the weakness of Jesus, in the manger and on the cross, shows us that the fragile human person remains in all its singularity, even in the closest contact with divinity.

Mary is the burning bush because she too remains in her integrity, she is not swallowed up, either by the God in her womb or by being full of grace.  Jesus in the manger is the first full proclamation of the Gospel, and Mary is the second: she shows that the mystery of the burning bush doesn’t end with Jesus, but is our destiny too.

We don’t end like when the river meets the sea, swallowed up and disappearing.  We survive, like the burning bush, and live eternally, full of the light and life of God himself.  Communion.  That is the kerygma, and that is the mystery of Christmas.  John Denver has it exactly wrong.

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Now, I’m not trying to make you a John Denver fan here – I just like the album because I think the Muppets are funny.  (And humor, like family, is not destroyed but embraced by the presence of God.)  But we can come back and see that John Denver does get some things right.

The mountains bumping the clouds is not yet communion – the mountain pushes the clouds out of the way.  But the clouds do survive.  Even silly sentimentality knows it can’t be right that our destiny is just to disappear into the ocean.File:Cretey-Nativité-Detroit.jpg

The flower that is born in the dry and barren sand hints at a deeper union.  Jesus himself uses the seed as an image of how we flourish in union, and somehow the tender image of the flower does say something about life – though Jesus’s metaphor points to communion by insisting that the soil not be dry and barren.  It is worthwhile to ponder whether God or man is soil or seed.

We needn’t completely beat up on our silly sentimental secular songwriters.  Grace does not destroy nature, and the truest flowering of our nature survives contact with God.  But let the weakness of John Denver’s visions remind us how desperately we need the Gospel of that baby in the manger, and the grace he pours first into his mother’s heart and then into ours, to purify our hope.

 

 

John Denver’s Christmas and the Kerygma

Last night my family had a picnic around the Christmas tree and enjoyed our favorite silly Christmas album, by John Denver and the Muppets.  The album runs the gamut, from almost serious to very silly. A Christmas Together - John Denver & The Muppets(I’m partial to Animal’s background singing in the Beachboys song “Little Saint Nick”: if you have Prime, you can listen to it at the link above.)  But when Kermit the Frog sings, “I don’t know if you believe in Christmas . . . but if you believe in love, that will be more than enough,” or John Denver gives the solemn blessing, “Sleep in heavenly peace,” we get to the heart of the issue.

“John Denver and the Muppets: Christmas Together” seems a nice way to get at a more serious issue: the sentimentalization of Christmas, and of Christianity.  John Denver is only a more dramatic instance of what happens with a lot of our Church music and preaching, and a lot of the people in our churches, whether at Christmas and Easter or any other time of the year.  As Kermit says, they don’t seem to believe in Christmas, they just “believe in love.”

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To get at the issue, let me approach from another angle.  I’ve been working with St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  One way to say what I’ve found is this: I think everything I’ve ever heard said about it misses the point.

Now, my point here is not to explain John Paul II, I’m just using him as an example.  (I should write a post about Theology of the Body ­­– or a book – some other time.)  In short, I think Theology of the Body uses a close reading of the Bible’s teaching on marriage to understand the power of grace in regard to our sexuality.  It is, ahem, theology, and he is articulating the Basic Gospel Message as it plays out in the realm of sex.

Instead, people have all sorts of ideas.  A devout young man in our parish has a sweatshirt that summarizes Theology of the Body with some line about the dignity of the individual.  That’s pretty far from any reference to the Bible or the power of grace.  A scholarly work I was reviewing thinks it’s all about personal experience.  My kids went on a retreat where they were told John Paul’s main point was to embrace your sexual identity.  Etc.

What child is this?

Now, my point is this: On the one hand, those are not good summaries of the main point of Theology of the Body.  In fact, they completely miss the point.  They are philosophical points which say nothing about the redemptive power of grace – by themselves, they make the saving grace of Jesus Christ sound unnecessary or even irrelevant.

On the other hand, they are points that John Paul II makes along the way.  In fact, they are good points – not the main point, but good points, and truly parts of what John Paul II is saying.  And it’s not surprising that when a great Christian thinker dives into the heart of the Gospel – Scripture and grace – he also makes some nice philosophical points about other things.  And it’s not surprising that those points, too, are so wonderful that, even when people fail to grasp the Gospel’s teaching about grace, they are still amazed at that Christian thinker’s thinking on other things.  It’s a sign of John Paul’s greatness that people get so excited about his side points.

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One of Pope Francis’s most powerful points is that we need to focus on the “kerygma.”  (Kerysso is the Greek verb for proclaiming; –ma is the Greek ending for “the thing done by the verb”; so kerygma means “the thing that we proclaim,” the heart of the Gospel message.)  In fact, if you put the encyclicals of Pope Benedict side by side with those of John Paul II, you see Benedict saying the same thing: JPII talked about a million things, and Pope Benedict said, let’s focus on the love of God.  JPII was wonderful at showing that there are a million wonderful consequences of the kerygma – but Benedict and Francis are right that if we don’t get the kerygma clear, we miss the boat.

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Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year for discovering that people have no idea what the kerygma is, no idea what Christmas, and Christianity, is really about.  John Denver and Kermit the Frog – and an awful lot of other people, including too many of our priests – seem to think that Baby Jesus is a sweet little metaphor for everyone getting along and enjoying a peaceful night’s sleep.

And so Christmas is an important time for the rest of us to clarify the kerygma for ourselves, to figure out just what it is All About.  There are lots of ways to put it.  I like Romans 5:5, “The love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us.”  Or Galatians 5:22, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,” etc.  Or you could say “Christ is the Redeemer,” or “God became man so that men could become God.”  “If Christ is in you, indeed the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10 and many others).  Christ has opened the way to the Father.  There are lot of ways to put it – and Christmas should challenge us to figure out what is the kerygma that the Baby in the Manger helps us appreciate.

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On the other hand, just as I can appreciate all the side points people gather from Theology of the Body, so too at Christmas, we needn’t be greedy.  Yes, John Denver, and a lot of the people in our churches, are missing The Main Point about Christmas.  But the side points they grab onto are real.  Jesus does bring peace among men and peace in our hearts, and it’s beautiful that people are attracted to those things – even though they still need us to articulate for them why they need the Gospel of Jesus Christ in order to attain the secondary things they so love.

Even my family gathered around the Christmas tree, as beautiful as that is, isn’t the heart of the matter.  We need the kerygma.  But we can be generous toward those who still see only partially.

Where do you get annoyed about people missing the point at Christmas?  Can you articulate the connection between the goods those people are after and the kerygma, the heart of the Gospel?

The Worthy Wife?

The Lectionary readings just get better and better.  Augustine said Scripture is simple enough for a child, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim in.   A couple thoughts about last Sunday’s first reading, from Proverbs.

The reading is about a “good wife”: “when one finds a worthy wife, her value is beyond pearls.”  But as often happens, the teaching is better than it first appears.

At first it seems awfully . . . domestic.  “She obtains wool and flax and works with loving hands.  She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle.”

Now, it’s true we can get a lot out of these traditional portrayals of femininity.  Notice that she does more than just care for children; that she is in the marketplace; that craftwork is portrayed as beautiful and noble; that both the working and the product seem lovely.  There’s plenty to get out of that.

But that’s not the main thing Proverbs is talking about here.  Already notice the opening line, which I quoted above: “When one finds a worthy wife, her value is beyond pearls.”  We can read that generically and say, she’s real great.  But read it specifically, and it says: beyond material things.  We’re tempted to reduce it to the material, to think the point is how the worthy wife is useful for getting stuff.  But the opening says the opposite: she is worth more than stuff.

(Of course, note that the value put into the craftwork itself makes it better than just stuff.  Pearls are something you find.  But the beauty of workmanship is to make things better than we find them, by putting some of ourselves into them.)

Then it says, “Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize.”  Not “entrusting his stuff,” but entrusting his heart.  There’s more to this picture than stuff.

“She obtains wool and flax and works with loving hands.”  The thing is – this is one of my two main points – you have to look at what the reading is saying that isn’t obvious to its original readers.  Of course she obtains wool and flax.  That sounds novel and romantic to us, but not to the author and original readers of Proverbs.  The significant detail is not the wool and flax but the love.

So too in the next lines: “She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle.”  Well, yes, women had to do that.  And again, yes, sure, that’s lovely.  But it’s not the main point.  The main point is in the next line: “She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.”  All women have to do women’s work, whatever the women’s work of the time is (a discussion we aren’t very honest about these days – women do more than we give them credit for).  And there is virtue in doing that work.  But the significant detail is that “her hands” and “her fingers” not only do the stuff for herself, but “her hands” and “her arms” reach out to the poor.  It’s good that she fulfills her work at home – but that’s not the main point.

“Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”  It begins by saying the man entrusts his heart to her and ends by saying she fears the LORD.  That’s the main point of the reading.  It is contrasted with a materialistic view of the woman.

My main points are two.  First, when we read, we have to look for the significant detail.  The quaintness of ancient societies is not the main point of the reading – that’s the point that’s supposed to be obvious.  The main point is what it’s saying that was not obvious: not that women work with wool, but that the good woman cares for others.

And so my second main point is that the main point of this reading is not that women should do women’s work – knitting, etc. – but that a “worthy” wife is one who is more than an economic producer, but one who loves.

 

The Ladder of the Beatitudes

I was thinking during All Saints Mass, in our university chapel, of a nice hokey homily one could give.  All Saints celebrates, among other things, the unnamed, uncelebrated saints.  The marvelous reading from Revelation says, “from every nation, race, people, and tongue.”  We could add, from every walk of life: unnoticed stay-at-home moms, grandmothers, homeless men, garbage men, mailmen, and accountants.

And then, with the reading of the Beatitudes, you could say, here are various kinds of sanctity.  Wherever there is true poverty of spirit, there lies a hidden saint.  Wherever there is Christian mourning, genuine meekness, deep hunger and thirst for justice, authentic mercy – those are saints.  The pure of heart and the peacemakers: two more kinds of saints.

That would be a nice little homily to help those struggling with the idea of sanctity to consider that saints live not only among the statues, but in real virtues in real life.  That would be a helpful homily, and true, and rich.

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But I’d like to take advantage of today’s reading of the Beatitudes to go a step deeper.  Because, although they show various faces of sanctity, they are not just a disjointed list.  The tradition sees in them a united whole: though it might be helpful to think of them as different faces of sanctity, in truth, there is never one without the others.  Even more, they are an ordered whole, building from bottom to top in a ladder of sanctity.

This post is going to be too long, and I’m only going to be able to hint at this ladder.  But I hope I can give you something to meditate on.

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There is something funny about the structure of the Beatitudes.  Eight times, Jesus speaks in the third person: “Blessed are they.”  But then at the end, he says, “Blessed are you.”  The setting is, “His disciples came to him.  He began to teach them.”  They might be interested in what he has to say about some other “they” who are blessed – but most of all, they want him to address them as “you.”  When are we, your disciples, blessed?  Bless me, Lord!

All those other eight build up and culminate when he finally says, “Blessed are you”: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.”  Before that last moment, he has not said, “you” and “me,” but here is the summit.

Our reading from Revelation today said, about all the saints, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”  Somehow, it all comes to a head in being persecuted because of him, being united to his cross, bathing in the Blood of the Lamb by passing through the time of distress.

Sanctity can only be union with Jesus, can only be motivated by our desire for identification with him.  And it only comes to perfection when that identification with him comes to suffering.  There is no true sanctity, no final beatitude, apart from being persecuted “because of me,” being bathed in the blood of the Lamb.  That’s the top of the ladder, the peak of sanctity.  Everything is there, in a nutshell.  This is the only beatitude addressed to “you,” his disciples.  We need to long for that persecution, which will come, one way or another.

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BUT – we had better be careful, because not all persecution is “because of me.”  If you are hated because you use Christianity as an excuse to be a jerk, that is not the peak of sanctity.  It is not sanctity at all, just a cheap imitation.  And this is where the rest of the ladder comes in.

You can’t reach that top of the ladder without climbing the step before it: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”  That sounds almost the same, but it isn’t.  The perfect blessing is to be persecuted for the sake of him – but it is not for the sake of him unless it is also for the sake of righteousness.  Are you being a good person?  Only if you are can you claim that you are being persecuted for the sake of him, and not rightly slapped down for being a jerk.

But what is righteousness?  There is, of course, false righteousness, too.  You can’t reach that step of the ladder without the one before: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  If you face conflict because you are causing conflict, there is no blessing in that.  But if you are making peace, bringing the peace of Jesus, then perhaps your persecution is for the sake of righteousness, and for the sake of him.  Jesus was crucified for being a peacemaker, not a jerk.

And what is peacemaking?  The step before is “blessed are the pure of heart.”  There are a lot of false kinds of peace, cheap imitations of the peace of Christ.  To make real peace – a positive thing – requires clearing away all the dross in your heart.  You cannot be a true peacemaker without first being pure of heart.

But purity of heart, too, can be false.  There are many kinds of purity – Nietzsche is scathing on this – defined more by our isolation from others than by real Christianity. To be pure by standing aloof is Phariseeism, not the way of Christ.  To be persecuted for that kind of holier-than-thou attitude is not persecution for righteousness or persecution for Christ, and it can’t make real peace.  No, to have true purity of heart, we need first to climb the step before: “Blessed are the merciful.”

And of course there is false mercy, as well – parallel to spoiling children, which gives them what they want not for love of them but in hopes that they will leave you alone.  That’s not mercy, that’s a cheap imitation.  Real mercy, too, requires the step before: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”  Benedict XVI has a nice line about this: don’t say you are giving to others from what is yours unless you first give them what is theirs; love and mercy are greater than justice, but don’t tell me you love me if you won’t be just to me.  Only a passion for justice, a real desire to set things right, results in true mercy.

Ah, but justice – well, the problem with this step might be the most obvious of all.  Because we know crusaders for justice are often inhuman.  St. James says, “The wrath of man does not work out the righteousness of God.”  Most of our claims to be fighting for justice or righteousness are rooted not in righteousness, but in our demand for our own rights, and our desire to fight.  And so the previous step is necessary: Blessed are the meek.  Until we have conquered our anger with meekness, our claims to be hungering and thirsting for justice are bogus.

And how can I be meek?  First I must be aware of my sin: “Blessed are those who mourn.”  Before I can heal the problem, I need to see the problem.  I have to be pierced by the unrighteousness of men, by the tragedy of my sin and the sin of others.  Without that mourning, I might be mousy or conflict-averse, but I am not meek.

And – this is the bottom rung of the ladder – I cannot mourn as a Christian until I abandon earthly splendor: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” which (says St. Thomas, quoting Augustine and Ambrose) says either means the renuncation of pride or the spiritual renunciation of worldly goods.  Until I have abandoned worldliness, in either or both of those ways, I will always be mourning for the wrong things, for the loss of earthly goods instead of the loss of my soul.

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Well, this post is too long.  But the point is, if you memorize the Beatitudes – or just take a Bible with you to prayer – you can meditate on how they fit together.  There is not one without the others.  Each one guarantees the truth of the others.  And there is a ladder, climbing from our renunciation of earthly goods in poverty of spirit all the way to being persecuted, not for our own stupidity or meanness, but for Jesus himself.

Archbishop Gomez on America’s Founding Franciscans

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St. Junipero Serra

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His statue in the National Capitol

“The Franciscan missionaries who founded Los Angeles named our city for the Mother of God, the Queen of the Angels.

One of those missionaries was St. Junípero Serra, our newest American saint. St. Junípero was Hispanic, a migrant from Spain, and he entered this country after living for more than a decade in Mexico.

In his time, there were many in the California colonial government who denied the full humanity of the indigenous peoples living in this land. St. Junípero became their champion. He even wrote a “bill of rights” to protect them. And by the way — he wrote that bill of rights — three years before America’s Declaration of Independence.

Most Americans do not know this history. But Pope Francis does.

That is why, when the Holy Father came to this country in 2015, his first act was to hold a solemn Mass where he canonized St. Junípero. He held that Mass — not in Los Angeles, but right here in the nation’s capital.

Pope Francis was making a point. He believes we should honor St. Junípero as “one of the founding fathers of the United States.”[i]

I agree. I think we should, too. Because remembering St. Junípero and the first missionaries changes how we José Horacio Gómez .jpgremember our national story. It reminds us that America’s first beginnings were not political. America’s first beginnings were spiritual.

The missionaries came here first — long before the Pilgrims, long before George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Long before this country even had a name.

These missionaries — together with the colonists and the statesmen who came later — they laid the spiritual and intellectual groundwork for a nation that remains unique in human history. A nation conceived under God and committed to promoting human dignity, freedom and the flourishing of a diversity of peoples, races, ideas and beliefs.”

 

-Archbishop Jose Gomez, of Los Angeles, preaching to the majority of the Supreme Court and the great Red Mass gathering of the lawyers of Washington, DC

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.