Third Sunday: We Need the Gospel

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Luke gives his version of how Jesus began his preaching: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

To bring glad tidings to the poor.  I’m going to be harsh: everyone I talk to, even people vowed to poverty, seems to think the poor are someone else’s vocation.  Jesus’s way is not for us.

Everyone I see seems to say of their own vocation, “The Spirit of the WORLD is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the RICH.  Maybe Jesus went to the poor, but He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the powerful and self-importance to those with worldly abilities, to absolve oppressors of responsibility, and to proclaim a year acceptable to . . . the world.”

(Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia, the top sociologist of marriage today, pointed out this week that, for example, though every college has a campus ministry, the Church has zero outreach to the 60% of American young people who do not go to college.  No wonder the poor have trouble with marriage.  Please let me know if you know of any ministries to those without degrees!)

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The Lectionary gives us a strange Gospel this week.  We finally begin in earnest our Year of Luke.  Luke spends a couple chapters showing that Jesus was born poor, so the beginning of Jesus’s preaching isn’t until Chapter 4.  But Luke has a prologue about his Gospel, so this week we read Luke 1:1-4 (theprologue) and then 4:14-21 (the first preaching).  It sounds a little odd because it is odd.

But Luke’s prologue is important.  What he says is that others have written Gospels before him, but now Luke wants to give sort of a more scholarly account.  He is not an “eyewitness” (like Matthew and John, and Peter, who maybe helped Mark) but he is talking to them, “investigating everything accurately anew.”  And his goal is “to write it down in an orderly sequence . . . so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received,” or “that you may have a solid grasp on the words that are being thrown around.”

In some ways, Luke’s is the most sophisticated Gospel.  Whereas Matthew (the accountant) just gives a straightforward accounting of what Jesus said and did, and Peter’s Mark makes sure we see that nothing makes sense apart from the Cross, Luke, friend of St. Paul, doctor, and most distant from the actual events, wants to get the theology clear. 

And Luke makes sure we start with the poor Jesus preaching the Gospel to the poor. 

Worldly wisdom tells us to start with the rich.  It’s not such a crazy idea tosay we should start at the Ivy Leagues, and the media centers, and lawyers and businessmen.  (Living in the outskirts of New York City, I call it the “Midtown strategy.”)  What’s crazy is that Jesus went to his equivalent of the Bronx.  What’s crazy is that St. Lawrence—and every other saint—called the poor the true riches of the Church.

Why?  Because grace can do what man cannot.  And Jesus teaches us to live by grace, not by human power.  To live by earthly power is to renounce the Gospel—even if you pretend to preach the Gospel, while chasing worldly standing. 

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St. Jerome

Our reading from Nehemiah is thrilling, if you know the context.  The Israelites have returned from exile in Babylon.  Nehemiah and Ezra have rediscovered the book of the Law—the Bible.  And now, for the first time in a long time, they are actually reading it, aloud, in public.  The people weep, recognizing how far they have strayed from God’s ways.  But Ezra tells them to rejoice.

The accent is important here.  The last words are not “REJOICING in the Lord must be your strength”: the point is not that joy is our strength.  The point is, “rejoicing IN THE LORD must be your strength.”  Don’t weep: God’s words shows us the way, and that’s Good News.  God gives us the strength to live in his way: that’s good news.  And the way leads to God: good news. 

When Christ calls us to renounce our worldly ways, to go to the poor instead of seeking worldly power, he’s not telling us our life should be miserable.  He’s showing us the path to joy—but joy is only in him.

***

And joy is in his body, the Church.  Our second reading, from First Corinthians 12, spends a lot of time on the body metaphor.  But let us not miss the conclusion: “Those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. . . . If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.” 

Now, no one in the Church is really a “little toe,” or a back of the knee, or whatever part of our natural body we think is unglamorous.  But the point is that even the unglamorous parts of the Church—even the poor and the disabled, even the crazy—are just as essential to the Church as the media stars, cultural icons, and Masters of the Universe that the world fawns over, and that even we in the Church tend to give so much of our attention.

To love Christ, to find ourselves in his body, is to love all those he has redeemed, not just the ones we would fawn over even if he we didn’t love Christ.  Christ’s “preferential option for the poor” is precisely a recognition that it’s in our treatment of those whom the world ignores that we signal our belief in the Gospel.

Thank you, Luke, for making sure we hear the message.  We need it.  We need to listen more carefully to Christ’s way, and less to the world’s.

Where do you find yourself practicing a preferential option for the rich and powerful?  Where is Jesus calling you to love him in his poverty?

Second Sunday of Ordinary Time: Fix me, Jesus

There are two reasons I’m only now writing last Sunday’s post.  The first is because the plumber made us replace all the cabinets in our tenant’s apartment.  It’s been a hassle, though kinda fun, and I hope it’s been good for me.

The other reason is that when I did sit down to write last week, I was overwhelmed by the readings.  John’s Gospel is ridiculously deep, too many things to say: it’s overwhelming in that way. 

But first I was overwhelmed by the reading from the end of Isaiah: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent . . . . As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you.”  It too is rich just as a text.  For example, who is speaking?  These words are the Prophet Isaiah’s, but they are also Christ’s—and they should be ours, too.  We should be unable to keep silent (and my silence here is a sign of my inability to live up to that call). 

Mystic Marriage.jpg

Richest of all, though, is the promise, the Lord’s love for us.  I’ve been sinking into the depression of this time in the Church.  As a seminary professor, I see and hear too much.  I can believe that “people call you ‘Forsaken’ or your land ‘Desolate.’”  But my heart breaks at the claim that “you shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused.’”  It is too much to believe that “the Lord delights in you” so that “nations shall behold your vindication, and all the kings your glory,” that “You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord.”

That, in fact, is the real reason for the textual richness of John and Isaiah.  The Bible and the liturgy over-abound with richness, because the God of Jesus Christ loves us, and offers us so much more than we can imagine.  He takes our water and turns it to wine. 

Seeing that promise on the page of Scripture the other day, I just closed my computer and gave up.  Given all my sins and weaknesses, given all the sin and weakness I see around me, can these promises be true?  That is the absurdity of the Gospel.

Yet our reading from First Corinthians claims the Spirit is at work, giving each of us the gifts the Church needs, so that all together, if we do not withdraw, do not give up, Jesus can work his miracles of rebirth through us.

***

“There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee. . . .”

I offer just two thoughts.

File:Duccio di Buoninsegna - Wedding at Cana (detail) - WGA06776.jpg

First, look at the jars.  “Six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons.”  Literally “six stony water things”—and big ones.  In the Gospel, stone is the cheerless stuff that the Father will not give us when we ask for bread, and the way he describes ground where seed cannot grow. 

But there is also a chosen stone, which the builders rejected, a corner stone.  And that One who entered into our stony world changes our stony hearts.  Those stony water jars signify our world, which seems so unchangeable and set in its ways—and which Jesus can fill with wine.

The water is “for Jewish ceremonial washings.”  But the Jewish ceremonies, like the Baptism of John, cannot take away our sin—not even the blood of bulls and goats, which is only a shadow of the good things to come (Hebrew 10).  It could only tell us there is a problem.  Without Christ, our natural perspectives, and even the Law, can only show us what a disaster this world is, how badly we need to be changed.

But there are six jugs.  That is the number of creation, of nature, and of natural law: complete in itself, yet waiting for the newness of the seventh day, when God’s love will come down.

File:Suleiman in Veronese The Wedding at Cana 1563.jpg

We need to step beyond this stony natural world.  And when we do, the water of John’s Baptism becomes the wine of the Eucharist, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, of the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. 

Wine is inebriating and celebratory, it is disorienting, both bitter and sweet, and unveils the joys of the wedding feast.  “For the creation waits with eager longing for the unveiling of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8). 

Come Lord Jesus!

***

One more thought: “The mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples were also invited [no, ‘called’] to the wedding.” 

Mary shares in our flesh, and above all in our weakness.  She can do nothing.  And yet in his union with Mary, Jesus comes down into our dryness, to our weddings without wine.  All she can do is open her heart to him, show him the agony of this longing world, and trust that if we do whatever he tells us, all will be made new.

In union with Mary, let us adopt that heart.  Come Lord Jesus!

What problems are you trying to fix without Jesus?

Becoming Flesh at Christmas

I’ve been away from this site for awhile, since I half-completed my post for the fourth Sunday of Christmas, December 23.

I have written in the past about the irony I find singing “Silent Night” at church on Christmas Eve—with a baby crying and kids jumping up and down in the pew.  Christmas is rarely a silent night for families.

But this year I’m thinking about how that affects the whole season. 

As I have said before, my main audience in these reflections is myself: writing these things is a good spiritual discipline, a good way for me to contemplate the face of Christ and try to say something positive, amidst all the negative thoughts that often fill my mind.

But during Christmas, I haven’t been able to do this spiritual discipline, or many others.  I go to daily Mass most of the year; I pray morning prayer more days than not, in the midst of my sloppiness, and my family often prays evening prayer; but Christmas week, my favorite liturgical week of the year, there’s hardly time for all that.  Instead, this year as many years, we were travelling to see family—and the next week we had family visit us.  The week after that, we had a huge plumbing mess to deal with, and some work deadlines. 

I’d like to say I’m the kind of spiritual superman who stays on top of my spiritual life through all of that—and I do try to pray, at least my rosary—but this time of year is often a mess.

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One of the things I hoped to post here during the Christmas season was TS Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi.”  The Wise Man in the poem says of their journey, “I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death,” because the Birth of Christ calls them to conversion, turns their worlds upside down and inside out.

Christmas is like that. 

***

I’ve been trying to meditate this last month on how all these family events, some of them my choices (like visiting relatives, mostly), some of them imposed on me (like the plumbing), draw me to Christ. 

Follow me!

At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Peter, “when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”  When I was young, I could go to Mass and take prayer times whenever I wanted.  It’s a lot harder now, with six kids, and a wife, and a job, and a tired old house. 

Of course that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to pray.  Prayer is our source, where we discover the meaning of all those things.  And prayer is our summit, where they all come to fruition.

But there is something rich in those challenges themselves.  I had been thinking already about how much easier it is for me (at least as an intellectual, and a theologian) to feel like a great Christian when I’m praying than when I’m dealing with other people.  I had a lovely retreat in November—and then I came back and discovered that loving the people around me, actually being drawn out of my selfishness, is a lot harder.  It’s the measure of true prayer: if prayer is easy and service is hard, the Bible reminds us a thousand different ways, it’s because our prayer isn’t as real as we think it is.

***

This Christmas I’ve been realizing that this is the truth of Christmas, too.  God becomes man.  In fact, long before Peter is an old man, it is the baby Jesus who stretches out his hands, and another dresses him, and carries him where he might not want to go.  At Christmas he takes the form of a slave for us.  God can do anything—the only thing he gains from becoming man is the ability to suffer, the ability to not be able, the ability to be weak and bound and frustrated.  Like me.

For the Christian, that is the path.  In fact, even real prayer is more about being captured and bound and turned from selfishness to service, from ego to love.  But the measure of that prayer is whether we are servants outside of prayer, whether our love can take on suffering flesh, as Christ’s love does.

I haven’t done a very good job of that this Christmas season.  But I hope that somehow, amidst all the time with family, and plumbing and deadlines, the Lord is not hiding from me, but calling me to himself.

What’s the hardest part of your Christian life?

The Death of a Child

This morning my older children and I attended the funeral of a sixteen-year-old girl.  We knew Ailish from my son’s disabled-sports league.  She had some horrible breathing impairment; she could barely speak, but always smiled.  I don’t know what happened, but her mother spoke of her getting sick last week, and they just couldn’t beat this one.

The priest gave a beautiful homily about making our wounds the source of our healing.  Ailish was a beatiful example of that.

But I was struck too about how many times he spoke of her sixteen-year-old life as brief (my children are all younger, but it feels like they’ve been with me forever) and of the special circumstances of her disability.  True enough.  But I was struck by how we try to put death away from us.

Last week someone commented on this web site that she didn’t feel like the words “Pray for us, now and at the hour of our death” are the Word of God for her.  I understand the fear of death—we shouldn’t want to die.  But the Word of God is clear on this one: life only comes through death.

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I don’t know what to think of Leon Tolstoy, but I highly recommend his short novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  The story is about a man facing death when he isn’t ready for it.  Two images stand out to me.

One is at his funeral.  One man winks to another as if to say, “Ivan Ilyich has made a mess of

things—not like you and me.”  I would never do such a foolish thing as dying.  Ailish had some unique malady, but she was different from the rest of us.

The other is as he dies.  “What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction.”  Maybe the path of life isn’t in the direction we think.

***

Death is all around us.  When the bell tolls (as it did when Ailish’s body arrived at the church this morning), it tolls for all of us.

As one way to get a random sample of ordinary people, I think about my wedding party.  One of my six children is severely disabled—but I’m the lucky one.  Two of my six groomsmen had babies die at birth; a third had premature twins, one of whom died after a couple months; a fourth has had two babies die halfway through pregnancy, when they were almost viable; and the other two guys were just unable to have children.  Depending how high you set your bar for tragedy, that’s six for six, or two thirds, or one half: half of these guys have held their dead babies in their arms.

Of my wife’s six bridesmaids, one had seven miscarriages, another had multiple very bloody miscarriages that required the horrible “dilation and curretage” procedure, a third had a bloody miscarriage that landed her in the hospital, a fourth’s husband had a genetic anomaly that gave them a 50/50 chance of their children dying before adulthood, a fifth was infertile and it ended in divorce (infertility is more horrible than you think), and the sixth had been a single teenage mother.  Not so much death as my groomsmen, but an awful lot of tragedy.

Of our two altar boys one is too young to have faced much yet, the other has had lung cancer.

And of our two readers, one had a baby who, last I heard (we haven’t stayed in touch) was not very likely to live, and the other lost a baby brother when she was little, and grew up with her mother depressed.

For that matter, my grandmother grew up in a household like that, under the dark shadow of a baby who had died, and so did my mother-in-law.  We try to sweep these things under the rug, but death is all around us.

And it is right in front of us.  One of my grandfathers died a beautiful death at a ripe old age.  The other one died while he still had teenagers in the house, after decades of horrible depression.  My two grandmothers both lived too long: we like to think that death is no problem if you’re old, but both of them lived into pain and disability that they didn’t know how to face, and spent their last years wishing they could die.

Death is not unique to Ailish.  It’s a fact of life.  We all have to figure out how to find healing in our wounds.  We all have to pass through the way of the cross.

***

 

Two images.

The Byzantine Liturgy contains a line, “By death he trampled death.”

The Russian Orthodox author Alexander Schmemann says those words mean that Jesus shows death is not the end.  If we flee from death, death is the ultimate horror, something we can never face.  But if we embrace the Cross, we find out that death is not death after all.  He is there, leading us through.

Another non-Catholic author I revere is the very strange nineteenth century Scottish Protestant preacher George MacDonald.  His theology, I guess, was heretical, but he makes some pretty Catholic stuff out of the Protestant problems he was handed.

MacDonald wrote strange fairy stories for children.  My favorite is At the Back of the North Wind.  The image comes from a sort of silly riddle in Greek mythology.  If the North Wind brings chill, what would it like to be on the other side, so that the North Wind is always blowing away from you instead of on you?

In the story, the North Wind is a beautiful fairy woman, who befriends a poor child in London.  In the end, you find that this wonderful friend is Suffering and Death, whom the little boy has discovered in an entirely new way, as a friend and adventure.  What if we saw suffering as a wind to ride, instead of to hide from?  What if the train is going the other direction?

***

One of the Eucharistic prayers speaks of those who have died “in the hope of the resurrection.”  This gets deep into the Eucharist itself, where death and the memory of death becomes a feast and the embrace of God.

Here’s the irony.  Without the hope of the resurrection, non-Christians think the blessing of death is to be free from the body and from pain, to be put out of our misery.  Fearing death, death is the only thing they long for.  That is not a view that sees heaven and earth as full of God’s glory.  It’s one that thinks the only good is to escape.

The hope of the resurrection means that we face death—and all the suffering, the little deaths, of our lives—not as the ultimate evil, not even as the end of our bodily life, but as a passage through.  To die with only the hope that you’ll be free of the body—which, after all, is an essential part of your person, and of your relationship with God—is to enter into eternal death.

To die with the hope of the resurrection means not detachment, but love of life.  “Her grip on a handburger had once been so strong that she had fallen through the back of a chair without dropping it,” as Flannery O’Connor says, in one of the greatest essays on this topic.  It means being sad to die, but glad to keep living.  It means losing our self-sufficiency and finding ourselves in the sufficiency of Christ.

That’s the only way forward.

Eternal light grant unto her, oh Lord, and to all of us.

The Nuncio on the Bishops’ Responsibility

Today the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops begins its annual meeting.  This year the top item on its agenda is the horrific sexual abuse by clergy, especially the disgraced ex-Cardinal McCarrick.

The Holy Father began by stopping the bishops.  They have been in a hurry to pass reforms that will save their face in the media.  Pope Francis wants them, first, to slow down, to make sure that their reforms are good ones.  The bishops have a retreat scheduled in January, and there is an international meeting of bishops–an “Extraordinary Synod”–in February on this exact topic.  True reform of the Church requires doing things thoughtfully and prayerfully, not rushing to impress the media.

The politics of this age is very complicated.  In the United States at least, we are used to thinking of everything as conservatives vs. liberals.  So often those ways of thinking fail to appreciate the real dynamics of the Church.  There are, to be sure, many people thinking as conservatives and liberals–but to the extent that they think that way, or as anti-conservatives or anti-liberals, they always fail the deeper mission of the Church.   We need to think as Catholics, not according to secular categories.

This is a big part of why things are so messy with Pope Francis: because the American Church, at least, insists on seeing everything as conservative vs. liberal, and Pope Francis–the real Pope Francis, not the Pope Francis of the conservative and liberal media (including blogs: those are media too, and all the more inclined to use secular categories)–just doesn’t fit those labels.

One place that is very true is on the issue of “lay review boards.”  I’m not going to try to think through everything in a quick blog post.  But it needs to be said: the bishops are the ordained leaders of the Church.  In the late nineteenth century, the fabulous Pope Leo XIII (who himself is impossible to label as conservative or liberal) refused a movement called “Americanism.”  Americanism was precisely the idea that lay people should run the Church.  That Americanism is returning with a vengeance today.  Ironically, it is the Right that has turned, in secular as well as ecclesial politics, to strange sorts of anti-authoritarianism–always with new kinds of authoritarianism mixed in, in hopes of preserving their libertarianism.  Many Catholics of the Right are shouting “down with the bishops, down with the Pope” (unless he’s my preferred bishop or pope). But whether that comes from the Right or the Left, it isn’t Catholic.

Look, as a lay person working in the Church, I rage against clericalism more than most.  There are lots of false authoritarianisms in the Church that I think should be denounced.  But the Pope remains the Pope, the bishops remain the bishops.  Like it or not, Catholics, we don’t believe that Christ established an egalitarian government for his Church.

Anyway, all of this is too much introduction for the nuncio’s fabulous talk to the US bishops today.  It is well worth a read.  Watch for his denunciation of “delegation,” in phrases like, “we must show that we can solve problems rather than simply delegating them to others”; “The exercise of authority is a real service and governance should not be a privilege or a position, but a responsibility to be neither ignored nor totally delegated.”  Mixed with lots of things about how the bishops should “listen”–yes yes yes–and should be close to the people.  But no, the bishops cannot delegate away their authority, and make it lay people’s responsibility to take care of clerical abuse.  The bishops need to take responsibility, not delegate it away.

Here is the nuncio’s excellent address.

http://www.usccb.org/about/leadership/usccb-general-assembly/upload/ga-2018-fall-nuncios-address-pierre.pdf

ps – I would be happy to discuss this issue further, in the comments or private messages.

How to Read the Bible

My principal goal with this web page is to encourage myself and others to encounter Jesus in the liturgy through the Scriptures.  Finding him in Scripture, especially in the Gospel, leads us from a vague awareness of God to a lively, specific awareness of who Christ is and how he wants to transform our lives.  The danger is that we hear the Gospel read at Mass and it might as well have been in a foreign language, because we aren’t paying attention.

I have found writing these pages to be a practice helpful for opening myself to the word of Christ.  I hope they help you too.

Today I want to talk about some other little methods I have found helpful.  These might be helpful for priests who will preach on the Sunday Gospel—and also helpful for those in the pews who want to get more out of the Sunday Gospel than they can get from their priest’s homilies.

***

Read the Sunday Gospel each day.  Make it part of your daily ritual.  My family tries (and often fails) to read the coming Sunday’s Gospel every day at the end of dinner.  You could also do it at breakfast or lunch, or before bed, or before you come from work in the evening—whenever.

Just read it.  A danger is that we are so caught up in our own concerns that we can’t hear Christ speaking.  I imagine it would be especially tempting for priests preparing homilies to jump ahead to their own concerns.  I tell my seminarians the liturgical gesture I most dislike is when the priest reads the Gospel, then shuts the book before preaching: “Enough of what he says—now for what I say!”  Instead, we need to open the book, read it without any agenda, let it speak to us before we begin to speak.

It may be helpful to read it out loud, just to slow yourself down a little.

With repetition, you notice details you hadn’t noticed before, funny little things you’d skipped past.  The message also begins to sink in, the seriousness of Christ’s word to you.  When you get to Sunday Mass, your ears are ready.

***

Spend some time, maybe ten minutes, with a short passage, such as the Sunday Gospel.

Sandro Botticelli - The Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Book) - Google Art Project.jpgIt’s good to read long passages too.  I recommend starting from page one, whether of the whole Bible or of the New Testament, and just reading it all, getting a sense of the whole.  Then do it again.  That’s very good.

But it’s good too to spend extended time with a short passage.  Even ten minutes is much more time than you usually spend with a paragraph.  Read it once.  Read it again.  Let a passage strike you, and sit with it a little, roll it over.  Then go back and read through again, and pull out another line.  Then move to another thing.

Don’t be systematic, just be determined to find out what it’s saying.

***

There’s a method of Scripture reading (that’s all “lectio divina” means: reading the Bible) where you pick one word and stick with it.  That’s fine—but from homilies I hear, I think it’s often misused.

This isn’t random word association.  You don’t hear there was a lake, and that reminds you of fishing with your grandpa, and that reminds you of playing cards with your grandmother, so you meditate on “lake” and then think about what time at “the lake” meant for you as a kid.  To do that is precisely not to listen to Scripture.  Imagine tuning out like that when a friend is talking.

Instead, you should be looking for words that encapsulate the meaning of the passage.  To do that, it’s helpful to return to the passage, to move from word to word.  Again, you don’t want to close the book,  and dive into what you think.  You want to find what Jesus is saying.  That means looking at the book, again and again.

***

Spas vsederzhitel sinay.jpgDig into the weird stuff.  If there’s a metaphor that seems strange, don’t gloss over it.  If there’s an idea that seems odd, or a funny word choice, think about that.  Jesus, and his holy writers, inspired by the Holy Spirit, choose their words deliberately.  They’re not always speaking literally, but they chose those words for a reason.  Be surprised.

To that end, I also recommend Bible software.  I love “e-sword” on my computer, and the “i-sword” app on my phone.  The most basic setting allows you to click on an English word and find the Greek or Hebrew behind it.  My Greek is okay, my Hebrew is non-existent.  But the point isn’t that you’re an expert at those languages.  The point is that the dictionary entries for those words can help you dig into what’s being said.  Look at where the words come from, what images they are evoking.  Dig into the meaning of the words Jesus uses to speak to you.

***

Finally, learn to pray “Alleluia.”  In Hebrew it literally means “Praise the Lord,” but a great author says, the way we use it, it is more like we are cheering, “The Lord is here!”

Hear his voice.

What methods do you use to dig into Scripture?  Please comment and tell us!

 

Bishop Flores

An amazing essay, by one of the best bishops in the American Church, from what I can see.

An excerpt:

“Polarization in the Church happens when we lose sight of the luminous Center from which all Catholic life and teaching flows. We are often speaking at each other from points of reference that emanate from the Center but, like different points on different spokes on a wheel, we appear frustratingly distant from one another. The luminous Center is the person and then the teaching of Christ himself. Our conversations and even our arguments, especially as they address the Social Teaching of the Church, are helpful in the Church only if we are all looking at the Center when we speak. . . .

“Pope Francis speaks of the “throwaway culture”, as a description that encompasses all that undermines the human good today. We use and throwaway unborn children, immigrants, laborers, the disabled, the elderly, the terminally ill, and our own natural environment. This is the condition that marginalizes and creates the “invisibles”.  Returning, then, to the point about the Christological center, for us, the dramatic clarity about the mystery of human vulnerability, and the great dignity it entails, is provided by the image of Christ in the womb of Mary, and Christ discarded and hanging on the Cross. The unborn and the immigrant, the death-row inmate and the street person are present in that continuum. In Catholic Faith, our salvation depends on how we respond to the Christ in those places. In his visit to the United States, Pope Francis called for the replacement of a throwaway culture, and a culture of radical individuality, with a human culture that “protects and cares for”, a culture of “radical care”. This is so important. Whoever is vulnerable, and at risk,” is brother or sister to me.” In the end, this includes everybody.”

 

“Caught by their heads”

File:Favorite Fish and Fishing 05.jpgIt is sometimes said in the Catholic world, “Men, like fish, are caught by their heads.”  Just as you have to hook a fish in its mouth, so too, to bring someone into the Catholic faith, you have to hook their intellects.

I’ve most often heard this line in connection with apologetics.  You get someone to be a Catholic by winning a war of apologetics.

But let us consider, this Easter, that apologetics is both too intellectual and not intellectual enough for the depths of catching men by their heads.

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First, consider how profound our intellectual connection to the faith is.  In fact, faith is an intellectual virtue.

You can’t love God without having some sense of who and what God is.  That doesn’t mean you have to exhaust the meaning of God.  It’s impossible to have exhaustive knowledge of God, and it is love that brings us to know God better.  It might be true that you can’t love what you don’t know—but you also can’t get to know what you don’t love, because love is what brings us to ponder who God is.

Searching the Scriptures

That is all the more true of Jesus.  We have to discover Jesus, have to have some knowledge of him, in order to fall in love with him—and then we only get to know him by loving him enough to gaze at him.  Love and knowledge are a circle.

So too with hope.  We cannot hope in Jesus unless we have some idea of how Jesus can help us.  Until we have some knowledge of the promises of Jesus, there can be no hoping in him—and living in that hope leads us deeper into knowledge of the promises.

Faith, says a standard line, allows us to hope, and then, as we discover Jesus as our hope, as we know how much he helps us, we fall in love with him.  And then that hope and love lead us back into deeper knowledge, deeper faith.

And yet faith, trustful hearing of the teachings of our faith, is somehow the foundation of our life in Christ.  And that means too that our knowledge of Christ is fundamental.  It doesn’t end in our “heads,” but somehow it begins there.  We build upside down, with the foundations in our heads.

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Now, on the one hand, that means apologetics often doesn’t take our “heads” seriously enough.  Sometimes it seems like, as with fish, we hope to “hook” people by their heads—then remove the hook and go on as if our knowledge of Christ was irrelevant once we’ve crossed the line into the boat of the Church.

I discovered this personally in my Bible reading.  There was a period, especially around the time I entered the Church (twenty years ago this Easter!) that I found myself reading the Bible only for apologetics.  The Bible was no longer speaking to me, it was only a source of one-liners that I could use to “hook” Protestants.

But the Bible is so much deeper than that.  The Bible is our endless source of knowledge of Christ.  For many Catholics, step one of discovering the Bible is to forget about apologetics, forget about what it says to “other people,” and start discovering what the Bible says to you.

Faith isn’t something we use just to get people into the Church, and then we throw it away.  Faith is the foundation of our whole life in Christ.  From the pages of the Bible—and, yes, the Catechism, the great spiritual writers and theologians, the Magisterium—we nourish our faith, which leads us to hope in Christ and love him deeper, which leads us to seek his face again.

Like fish, men are caught with their heads.  But unlike fish, we never remove the hook, we must always be drawn deeper in.

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That’s the way that apologetics isn’t intellectual enough.  But in another sense, apologetics is too intellectual.

That’s where this Easter is a good time to rediscover the Catholic life of the mind.  When we read the Passion on Good Friday and Palm Sunday, when we read about the Last Supper and then about Easter, we were reading, we were learning, we were using our minds.  But we weren’t getting “arguments.”

Be Fishers of Men!

A standard way to phrase this is that it isn’t about “head knowledge.”  I think that phrase misses the mark.  It sounds like we should stop reading, stop listening to the readings, and somehow go some “heart” place, as if our heads weren’t connected to our hearts.  Rather, say that the deepest knowledge isn’t about argument, it’s about meditation and contemplation.

In the amazing readings of this last week, we discovered Jesus.  We need to delve deeper and deeper into these readings.  Deeper than apologetics, deeper than one-liners and proof texts, beyond any knowledge that we will leave behind once we’ve crossed the line into the Church.

Rather, we should seek the knowledge that leads to hope and love, and in hoping and loving be drawn back to know ever deeper.  We should contemplate the face of Christ, on the page of Scripture.  That’s how Catholics use their heads.

How do you study the face of Christ?

 

New and Old

In our politicized times, Catholics throw around the words “liberal” and “conservative” too loosely.  We end up confusing things that are quite different.  This happens especially with Pope Francis: to say he is “liberal” is to say both too much and nothing at all.

Perhaps the same thing is more clear in the case of St. John Paul II.  Was he liberal?  Conservative?  The categories don’t fit, whether we’re talking about secular politics or Church policy.  Liberal and conservative just aren’t helpful words.  The same is an important point about Benedict.

Liberal and conservative say something, more or less, about our relation to things new and old.  Jesus doesn’t tell us to prefer one thing or the other, but says, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52).  We should be both liberal and conservative—at the service of the kingdom.

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At the heart of questions about new things and old in our time is the Second Vatican Council.

I was just perusing John Paul II’s introduction to the “new” Code of Canon Law.  He explains that when St. John XXIII called Vatican II, he said that the Code of Canon Law would have to be revised as well, to reflect the thinking of the Council.  Canon Law is inside baseball, but perhaps nothing John XXIII said so fundamentally expresses the opening he gave for the Council to bring forth things old and new: the whole law, all our procedures, would be adjusted.

John Paul II refers in this context to the phrase from Matthew’s gospel about “what is new and what is old”: “the Second Vatican Council has drawn both new and old from the treasury of tradition,” he says, and enumerates what he thinks is “new” in Vatican II (my paragraphing and boldface):

 

“Among the elements which characterize the true and genuine image of the Church we should emphasize especially the following:

 

-the doctrine in which the Church is presented as the people of God (cf. dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium, chapter 2)

-and hierarchical authority as service (cf. ibid., chapter 3);

 

-the doctrine in which the Church is seen as a communion

-and which therefore determines the relations which are to exist between the particular churches and the universal Church, and between collegiality and the primacy [of the pope];

 

-likewise the doctrine according to which all the members of the people of God, in the way suited to each of them, participate in the threefold priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ,

-to which doctrine is also linked that which concerns the duties and rights of the faithful and particularly of the laity;

 

-and finally, the Church’s commitment to ecumenism.”

 

In all these things he refers to “fidelity in newness and newness in fidelity.”

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That’s a hefty list of ideas, and I’m not going to try to spell them all out here; if you are so inclined, you can meditate on them yourself, or ask me questions.  But I offer them on two levels:

On the most general level, they are just modern examples, enumerated by John Paul II, of the Church’s “fidelity in newness and newness in fidelity”—or even “liberalism and conservatism in the service of the kingdom,” or “fidelity beyond liberalism and conservatism.”  The Church is not liberal or conservative, she is the Church of Jesus Christ, and these are examples of what that means.

On a more particular level, they offer John Paul II’s insight into the principles of reform in our time.  Might I suggest that, if you look behind all the idiotic stuff in the press—including, I’m sorry to say, a lot of idiocy in the Catholic press—this is a pretty good list of the real “newness” Pope Francis is working out in the Church.

It’s not about abandoning the Church’s teaching on marriage or communion or whatever, whatever the New York Times may tell you.  It’s about those elements of “newness in fidelity and fidelity in newness” that St. John Paul II identifies with Vatican II.

“As Yourself”

A lawyer asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:35-39).

We all know the line, but what does it mean?

The two commandments are not parallel.  We are not told to love our neighbor with all our heart, and we are not told to love God as our self.

Here is another place where pressing more closely into the words of the Gospel takes us deeper than our vague summaries.

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When St. Thomas Aquinas talks about charity, he gives us an interesting thing to think about.  When you drink a glass of wine—Thomas was Italian, but you can change the example to pizza or ribs or whatever works best for you—there are two very different kinds of love going on.

You love the wine and you love yourself.  But you love yourself in the sense that you want yourself to have a nice thing.  You love the wine in the sense that it’s the good thing that you want yourself to have.  Both are love, and they are connected, but they are very different.

There are different kinds of friendship.  There may be friends that you love like you love pizza.  You don’t care what’s good for them, you just like how they make you feel.  (And, a subdivision of this, there are friends whom you don’t even enjoy in themselves, you just love them because they give you pizza.  Aristotle calls these two friendships “friendship of pleasure” and “friendship of utility—but the point isn’t what Aristotle says, the point is that these are real things.)

There are other people you love not just because of what they can do for you, but for their own sake.  To lay down your life for your friends, or even to share your pizza with them, is a sign that you care not just about what you can get from them, but what is good for them.  (Aristotle calls this “noble friendship”—we could just call it “real” friendship.)

Friendship is funny, because often there’s a mix.  My best friends are pleasant to me.  We should enjoy them.  But we should also go beyond enjoying them, to wanting what’s good for them.  Sometimes you give them a slice of your pizza: less pizza for you to enjoy, but you enjoy that they are enjoying it.  You could say they are like “another self,” in that just as you want pizza for yourself, you also want them to enjoy good things.

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When Jesus says, “your neighbor as yourself,” we often think he means, boy, I really like myself, and I should like my neighbor that much.  “As yourself” would be a measure of quantity.

But “as yourself” is a different kind of loving.  (In Greek as in English, it doesn’t say “as much as.”)  It doesn’t mean love him more, it means love him in a different way.  Love him, not as pizza—not even as really really good pizza—but love him in the sense that you want what is good for him.

Just as you are always working to get what you think will make you happy, long also to make your neighbor happy.

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Now we have a connection to the first commandment.  When I love God with all my heart, I am loving him as my supreme good, way better than pizza.  He is what I want for myself.

But when I love my neighbor as myself, I want him to have that same good.  What I think is good for me, I also think is good for him.  In fact, wanting my neighbor to have this greatest of goods is a way of underlining that God is the highest good.

It even defines what kind of good God is: God is the kind of good, unlike pizza, that I will have more of if I share.  In wanting that good for my neighbor, I discover the kind of good that God is.

Loving my neighbor as myself opens up for me what it means to love God with all my heart.

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The stigmata–and seraphic love–of St. Francis

But St. Thomas says another, startling thing when he talks about charity.  He says that, although Christian hope desires God as good for me, Christian love of God is like real friendship.  God is not just the pizza I want to consume (though he is that, too)—God is another self, another one of the people for whom I desire the good.  I want to make him happy, I want his happiness.  That is a crazy claim.

In the Old Testament, which Jesus is here discussing—“On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets”—the highest good is to love God for my own sake.  But Jesus calls us not servants but friends.

St. Thérèse notices the difference between the Old Testament teaching “love your neighbor as yourself,” which is quite fine, and Jesus’s new commandment, “love as I have loved you,” an interesting reversal of “love as you love yourself.”

Somehow in loving our neighbor “as ourselves,” we discover a new level of love, a love that is not just about seeking my good, but seeing The Good, delighting in God not just because he makes me happy (though he does) but for sheer love.  Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit!

Whom would you love differently if you were loving them the way you love yourself?