A Bowl of Lentils

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

And lentils can be a symbol of our worldliness.

File:Lentil ( মুসুর ডাল) ০২.JPG***

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

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

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

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

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


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

File:Rembrandt adam and eve.jpg

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

First Sunday of Lent: Hunger for God and His Word

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

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

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


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

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

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

Searching the Scriptures

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

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

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

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

It’s a contest of Scripture.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Catholics

Years ago I heard someone on talk radio, I don’t remember who, defending his position as a “bad Catholic.”  He was speaking against the likes of Nancy Pelosi, I think.  He said, the problem with these people is that they try to pretend they’re good Catholics, instead of acknowledging that they can’t square their beliefs and actions with their attachment to the Church.  This guy acknowledged: I am a bad Catholic, I don’t represent the Church’s teaching.

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

I thought of these comments today at Ash Wednesday Mass.  (I’m going to turn them inside out.)  My school has a small chapel with a respectable but small daily Mass crowd.  Today, we packed the gym.

I’ve heard of surveys that say American Catholics respond “Ash Wednesday” to the question “what is your favorite sacrament?”  They turn out to get ashes on their heads.  And, of course, many of them leave before communion – and even more receive of them communion unworthily.


Now, I think “good Catholics” tend to get annoyed about such people.  I just want to suggest the opposite.

First, doctrine.  There are not clear dividing lines between good and bad, in and out of the Church.  Among those in a state of grace, there is of course the problem of Phariseeism: the moment we think we are good Catholics, we are not.

But on the other side of the mortal sin line – which is certainly a bright line – there are many distinctions.  There are those who have faith but not love; Thomas calls this “dead faith,” and he emphasizes that it is real, and supernatural a gift from Christ that leads to Christ.  On the one hand, dead faith is a state of mortal sin – on the other hand, having faith is hugely more advantageous than not having it, and traditional theology calls this faith a kind of membership in the Church.

Thomists also talk about “dead hope”: based on authentic Catholic faith, one can hope in God’s mercy, but not love him.  This is mortal sin – and it’s also a profound kind of membership in the Church.

St. Vincent Ferrer preaching to sinners

Many “Ash Wednesday Catholics” have dead faith or dead hope.  Why do you suppose they are receiving ashes?  Similarly, the “normal” state of one going to Confession – that is, someone in a state of mortal sin – is a person with dead faith and probably dead hope.  They wouldn’t be going to Confession without that hope – and yet they are in mortal sin.  That faith and hope should not be despised.

Then there are those with Baptism but no faith.  The Church teaches that even these people are members of the Church.  (See CCC 1213 and 1267.  Or CIC 204.)

And there is no small difference between those unbaptized people who worship one God and those who don’t.  Among atheists and idolators, it is not clear who is in a better state.

It’s just not so simple as to say there are good guys and bad guys.  The problem with such characterizations is that we tend to throw out the good the Lord is doing in people.


Pastorally, it’s common today to say you can’t have ashes unless you come to Mass.  I’d do the opposite.  If people want to hear that they are dust and to dust they will return, or that they should repent and believe in the Gospel, welcome them in!  And don’t force communion on them!  We should be trying to encourage people to come and not receive communion, not keeping people out or forcing communion on those who are not in a state of grace.

We should have more penance services, more liturgies of the Word, more room in the Church for Bad Cahtolics, even if they can’t receive communion.  We should have reverence for the hope, or faith, or cultural attachment to the Church, or even desire for repentance or transcendence, that brings people that close.  We should have reverence too, of course, for the people themselves.

We need not say they are good Catholics in order to welcome the bad Catholics.  Indeed, it was the Pharisees, attacking Jesus Christ, who rejected that distinction.

Getting ashes is not a sign of being a perfect Catholic.  There are no qualifications necessary, and all the ashes tell us is that the person has been told he is dust and a sinner.  Shout from the rooftops, welcoming anyone who wants to receive ashes!


There’s a deeper point here.  Many orthodox Catholics today enthuse over a smaller Church, a Church

The Good Samaritan

without Bad Catholics, a Church of the perfect.  I think the bigger thing driving the so-called “Benedict Option” is not a desire to go back to the land, but a desire to separate ourselves from bad Catholics.

If Jesus goes to the sinners – as he does constantly in the Gospel, to the chagrin of the Pharisees – they’d rather be separate from Jesus than close to the sinners.

But Jesus calls blessed those who mourn, not those who hate.  We should mourn over the sins of the bad Catholics.  But we mourn by being close, not by being far away.

Pray for sinners, and revere the work the Lord is already doing in them.  And whatever you do, don’t think of yourself as one of the good.

Do you know any Bad Catholics who received ashes today?  Why do you think they did it?

Fifth Sunday: Becoming Christ

This Sunday we continue our reading of the Sermon on the Mount.  It continues from weeks four to nine of this year of Matthew: almost an eighth of the year, and more than a sixth of Ordinary Time.  This Sermon is central to Matthew’s Gospel, and the Lectionary makes it central to our Matthean years.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

We don’t get to read all of the Sermon, but this week we read the verses that immediately follow last week’s Beatitudes: “You are the salt of the earth.”


The preaching of Jesus often uses multiple metaphors to bring out different aspects of the same thing.  Here the metaphors are salt of the earth, city on a hill, light of the world.  As so often happens with the Gospel (this is the challenge of the new evangelization), these words are so familiar that they can seem less challenging than they are.

The three metaphors all obviously point to mission.  But more deeply, they point to identity.  Paired with the Beatitudes, they seem to say: if you profess to follow Christ, you’d better look like it.

The first metaphor, salt of the earth, is arresting.  “If salt loses its taste” is absurd: there is nothing to salt but its taste.  “It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot”: salt losing its taste is so impossible that the metaphor doesn’t make sense.  Salt never gets thrown out.

But that’s the point: so too, a Christian who does not follow the Beatitudes, a Christian who is not imbued with the full radicalism of the image of Christ, is not just disappointing or kind of bad, it’s

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

absurd.  The Beatitudes are not nice suggestions or side issues.  They are essential.  Poor, sorrowing, meek, just, merciful, pure, and peacemaking – or nothing

“Loses its taste” is hard to translate.  The verb is literally, “becomes a moron” – its primary meaning is about stupidity; it only refers to flavor by extension.  These are not nice words.  Jesus knows how moronic our Christianity will become.


“A city set on a mountain.”   The reference is obviously Jerusalem.  “Set” is a good translation.  The city is “sitting” on the hill because someone has “set” it there.  He made you this city.

The city brings out a collective angle.  We are each individually salt – but we are all together the city, and all together the salt.  Leave the city – leave the Church – and you become tasteless, pointless, moronic.

The city “cannot” by hidden.  The verb is forceful.  Partly it means “must not,” “dare not,” “you’d better not.”  But partly, again, it means, “it’s just a contradiction”: if you don’t taste like the Beatitudes, you’re not just a bad Church, you are no Church at all.

In the second and third third metaphors, Jesus does not repeat the “trampled under foot” part, from the salt metaphor – but it stays implicit.  If you do not look like, taste like, show forth the Beatitudes – you are nothing.  The call of Jesus is radical.


And last, the lamp.  Again, note the verb: “nor do they light a lamp.”  Actually, the lamp is “set on fire.”  It doesn’t say who sets it on fire, but obviously it is Jesus himself who must set us aflame.

The Beatitudes are not just a moral teaching.  They are the face of Christ.  Christ wants to take root in us, to transform us into himself.  He wants to set us aflame, “set” us on the hill, transform us into salt.  He wants to be not just our teacher, but our identity, the one who makes us what we are, so that we are poor with his poverty, weep with his tears, bring his peace to the world.

Only in that way, in the last words of our reading, does his Father become “your heavenly Father.”


Our first reading, from Isaiah, brilliantly illumines the Gospel.  “Then,” it says, “your light shall break forth.”  When?  When we feed the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked.  Isaiah twice repeats these ideas.

Sound familiar?  How brilliantly the reading from Isaiah ties together the first and the last words of Jesus’s preaching in Matthew’s Gospel.  We have been talking about the Beatitudes – but Jesus’s final words are feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the imprisoned; or else, the threat is his, not mine, go to Hell.

The preaching of Pope Francis on this essential passage in Matthew 25 takes us to the heart of the teaching.  First, he points to how practical these words are.  At the end of his preaching, as at the beginning, in the Beatitudes, Jesus doesn’t call us to stand back and profess doctrine, as if Catholicism were a political party or a favorite sports team with these ski masks being inmense fans.  He calls us to take on his own face, to touch others with

Pope Francis and Our Friend Dominic Gondreau

his own touch.  Doctrine matters – when it becomes our very life.

Second, note that clothing the naked is a bit odd.  Naked?  This is more than dropping clothes off at Goodwill.  We clothe the naked, Francis says, when we cover the humiliation of others’ poverty.  When we become the radical love of Jesus Christ.

“Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer.”  “Then your light shall break forth.”  “Then light shall rise for you.”  When Christ becomes our very life, our prayers will be answered: we will see him, and make him seen.


And so again, in our reading from First Corinthians, we look not for “sublimity of words or of wisdom.”  We look for, and put on, nothing but “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  We come not in strength but “in weakness and fear and much trembling,” and we long only for “a demonstration of Spirit and power”: the Spirit who can make us like Jesus.

Nothing but Jesus.

Where is Jesus calling you to become more radical?

Fourth Sunday: the Beatitudes

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

This Sunday we read the Beatitudes.  To make brief comments is hopeless.  We need to memorize them, ponder them one at a time – perhaps one each day.  We need to spend time thinking about their path of upward ascent, taken all together.  We need to read books about them, ponder them, make them our rule of life.

Here I will only try to put them in context.


We have come to the fourth week in Ordinary Time, in the Lectionary year of St. Matthew.  The Beatitudes are Matthew 5:1-12, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and the beginning of the preaching of Jesus.

Consider how few words he has spoken up till now.  Chapters one to two were the infancy.  Luke gives the child Jesus a few words, when he is found in the temple, but in Matthew it is all the actions of Joseph.

Chapter three is John the Baptist.  Jesus only says John should baptize him, “to fulfill all righteousness.”  Righteousness.

Chapter four is the Temptation followed by the call of the first disciples (our reading last week).  Jesus has three words at the Temptation: “not by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God”; “do not test the Lord”; “you shall worship the Lord alone, him only shall you serve.”  Again, righteousness, with a deeper sense of following.

In the rest of chapter four, his only words are to Peter and Andrew: “come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  Our path of righteousness is moving deeper into radical union with Christ.

After the calling of Peter and Andrew, James and John, we read that he went around Galilee preaching and healing.  The Lectionary skips the last two verses of the chapter, which say his fame spread, and great multitudes came to follow him, from all over.


Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

And so we come to the Beatitudes.  Jesus goes up the mountain, and his disciples come to him.  Disciple only means “learner.”  All those multitudes “followed him” with the same verb by which Jesus commanded Peter and Andrew, “follow me,” “and they followed him.”  He is not stepping away from the crowds.  He is going up where he can teach to them.

My point in reviewing all this background is to underline how central to Jesus’s mission are the Beatitudes, and the Sermon on the Mount, which they begin.  He has said nothing but “follow me.”  Now, at last, he opens his mouth and teaches.  (Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel of Jesus’s teaching, organized in five great sermons.)

And Jesus says – his very first real teaching, about the righteousness and following and word of God that he had proclaimed – “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Not a side point.  The heart of the Gospel.

Poor, men of sorrows, meek, hungering for justice, merciful, pure of heart, peacemakers, and persecuted.  He describes himself, and he calls us to come follow him.

Living for the kingdom of heaven and the consolation of the Spirit and the inheritance, and justice and mercy, and the vision of God and sonship.


Our first reading, from the prophet Zephaniah, tells those “who have observed the law,” “seek the Lord.”  He speaks of a transition, a deepening.  We must observe the Law, but we must go deeper: “Lord, I have done all this,” says the rich young man in Luke’s Gospel, “what more?”  “Come, follow me.”  We must live for nothing but Jesus.  We must put on Jesus, poor, man of sorrows, meek, hungering for justice, merciful, pure of heart, peacemaker, and persecuted.

We must become “a people humble and lowly.” 

And we must “take refuge in the name of the Lord”: “the name of the Lord” is an Old Testament expression for God’s self-revelation.  We want nothing but to know Christ, and him crucified, and to put on his image, in the Beatitudes.  Sacred heart of Jesus, make our hearts like unto thine!  That’s the Gospel.


Our next reading from First Corinthians further emphasizes the “humble and lowly”.  God chose us – and Paul’s point is that he chose us not for our greatness but for his, not because we are powerful and wise and awesome but because he is.  He chose us not so we can boast, but to destroy our boasting.

And he made Jesus our wisdom from God, our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption, and

The Stigmata of St. Francis

our only boast.

Humility means knowing that it is only in Jesus that we find greatness.  Humility means knowing that the way of Jesus, the self-portrait he paints in the Beatitudes, is a way of humility.  And humility means knowing that the Beatitudes are not only a way we would never guess unless he revealed it to us, but also a way we could never live unless he gives us his heart.

How are the Beatitudes calling you to deeper humility?

Learning to Read (Aloud)

jeromeI’m not an expert on many things, but in one area I can count myself proficient: reading aloud.

I have five children (and another on the way).  My oldest is twelve now, and for various reasons has always been above average at listening to books.  From the time he was three continuing until now, he has loved to listen to chapter books.  So for almost ten years, with an ever growing audience, with always diverse ability levels, I have been reading halfway serious children’s literature (Arthur Ransome, Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, Laura Ingalls Wilder, etc.) aloud to my children.

That’s not to mention, of course, the myriad picture books.  But here’s the thing: pictures carry much of the weight in picture books, and the easier story lines and great repetition don’t require as much from the reader.  Whereas getting kids of all ages to understand and stay engaged in a semi-complicated story without pictures means you have to make the words come alive.

I hope you’re seeing where I’m going with this: the same is true of the liturgy.


Now, I know there are readers famous for their fun voices for different characters, but I don’t think that’s the key to reading literature aloud.  In fact, my children get angry with me when I do voices – partly, to be sure, because I’m not much good at them, but partly because voices get in the way of the story.  What makes a great story great is not the voices, which aren’t on the page anyway.  What makes it great are the words.

vespersMy insight, at this point, is that the real key to reading is pauses and, even more, emphasis, at the right places.  You have to understand what you’re reading, you have to see how the words come together to form small and big units, and you have to make that come across to someone who is listening, half distracted, not as experienced as you, and unable to look back to the page if she missed something.

Consider the following:

“He ran until he nearly reached the hedge by the footpath, then turned and ran until he nearly reached the hedge on the other side of the field.  Then he turned and crossed the field again.”

Now, in these two sentences, at the beginning of a great series of books on sailing, we are introduced to the pivotal concept of tacking.  But at this point, the listener knows nothing about the topic and doesn’t yet know if the book is interesting or understandable – and meanwhile, we’re also learning about hedges and footpaths and fields, all of which are also foreign (at least to my non-British, city kids) and which are painting a background.

The key, again, is pauses and especially emphasis:

“He ran .. until he nearly reached the hedge by the footpath, … then turned … and ran until he nearly reached the hedge .. on the OTHER side of the field….  Then he turned and crossed the field AGAIN.”

It’s an art.  I find that in order to emphasize a phrase, you emphasize not the most important word of the phrase, but the word that kind of ties the phrase together: it’s not, for example, that “nearly” is that important of a word, so much as that “nearly-reached” is the key to seeing him use the maximum of the space.  Then somehow you have to make clear that the-hedge-by-the-footpath is not a series of details, but one key part of his path.


A few months ago I was discussing Gregorian chant with an uncommonly excellent group of students.  Graduale_Aboense_2They said what’s great about Gregorian chant is that it creates a kind of monotone, so that you don’t have to pay attention to the speaker.  I was shocked that they’d get it so wrong, but I think it’s a common misconception.

What’s great about Gregorian chant (Leila Lawler’s lovely book The Little Oratory has a nice section on this) is precisely that it cares about the text.  Chant – when it’s done right – is all about loving the text, discovering the text, saying the text like you mean it.  And the same thing must happen with the readings and prayers of the Mass, whether chanted or spoken: like a father reading to his five-year-old, you’ve got to make the text come alive, both for your own sake and for theirs.  If there aren’t pauses in the right places, you’re doing it wrong.

We have a lot to learn about this.  There seem to be methods of teaching people to “read well” that involve hand gestures and voices and eye contact – but not the text.  That’s wrong.  And there are various forms of music, even common interpretations of chant, that are just as bad, monotones that obliterate the text instead of discovering it.

We need to learn to read aloud.  Which means we first need to learn to read.

How are you growing in your understanding of Scripture?

Epiphany and the City of God

Next Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord.  At Christmas we talked about Jesus appearing; in the East, this feast of Christ appearing to the Magi is the main celebration of Christmas.

As it happens, I am writing from the mountains of North Carolina, where I am on vacation with my extended family – and where, at the Tractor Supply and elsewhere, I’ve heard a lot more couAll-Saintsntry music than one finds in urban north New Jersey.  

I heard a song that helps (by contrast) to illustrate the meaning of our feast.  The chorus says, “Lord, when I die, I wanna live on the outskirts of heaven.”  He explicitly contrasts the “streets of gold” in the Biblical vision of heaven with his own vision: “there’s dirt roads for miles, hay in the fields, and fish in the river.”  It’s country-music fun, but it’s also an attractive image.

Now, before I say why it’s wrong, let me acknowledge: we should long for a world in harmony with nature, unstained by human destructiveness, and a cozier home, where everyone knows and loves one another, and no one is treated like a statistic.  There’s something right about this vision of heaven.


But it’s not the Biblical vision, which is the heart of our feast’s first reading.  “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! . . . Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.  Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you.”

When the kings come to see the king of kings in Bethlehem, the Liturgy turns to the image of Jerusalem as capital city of the world.  God began his heavenly city in Jerusalem, and gradually calls all nations into that city.  The Church is a city.  Heaven is a city, the new Jerusalem: yes, with gates and streets (pearly gates and streets of gold) – and throngs of people.  Heaven ain’t in the country.

When Jerusalem is filled with throngs, “then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overthrow” – not because of the gold and pearls, but because of the beauty of humanity, gathered together into the great kingdom.

That country song concludes, “the good Lord knows me, he knows I need blue skies and green grass forever.”  But that’s not the way the good Lord works.  He doesn’t change heaven to fit our earthly desires.  He changes our hearts to love the true heaven.  That’s what grace means.


The reading from Ephesians focuses on the gentiles coming in.  At Epiphany we see that Jesus is king not just of the Jews but of all the nations, which the kings personify.  “It has now been revealed . . . that the Gentiles are coheirs.”

The reading has two heavenly-city themes.  The first is immigration.  The Gentiles are “coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise.”  In the Greek the parallels are stronger: co-heirs, co-body, co-participants.  

The first image here is of family: heirs.  It insults our sensibilities to think of new people joining “our” family.  And it’s even more insulting when we think about inheritance: if we share, there won’t be enough!  But that’s just the point: God’s family is unlimited, because God’s riches are unlimited.  I lose nothing by sharing.  Country roads are ruined by too many neighbors, but the city of God is not.  

The second image is “body” – both the physical body and the “body politic”.  The city is a body, where we find ourselves as “parts.”  We rebel against the earthly city, because it always abuses its parts – but the heavenly city is one where we want to be parts.11_1_3_saints  

And the third image is general, metaphysical: “participant.”  We all fully enjoy our place, participating in the heavenly city.


The second city theme in our reading from Ephesians is of leadership.  Paul has been given “the stewardship of God’s grace, that was given to me for your benefit.”  “The mystery was made known to me for revelation” – we hear it through him.  Grace and revelation are given “to his holy prophets and apostles.”

We don’t come to God just as individuals, each on our own path.  Authority in the Church is precisely an indicator that we come as members of one body.  Knowing God and coming to Jerusalem are one and the same.  Deeper than sacramental authority, deeper than infallibility, Church authority is a sign of the unity of the body of Christ.


The Gospel plays it all out dramatically.

The earthly Bethlehem and Jerusalem, quite near one another, were the two cities of David, the king who was born in Bethlehem and would Jerusalem.  For both the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly, Bethlehem is a little town and the seed of the big city.

ascensionWhen the kings came, “They saw the child with Mary his mother.”  Here is the beginning of the city: Mary and Jesus cheek to cheek.  Yes, it is a cozy, homey image.  But in that image of human closeness begins the streams of all nations, gathered together by closeness to God incarnate.

How does your vision of heaven correspond – or not – to the Biblical one?  And how does that affect your life?  

Our Lady and a “Prosperous New Year”

You could say that the reforms after Vatican II made for a kind of “remedial liturgy.”  One of the basic principles was that the meaning of the liturgy should be accessible to those who are faithful but lack a deep symbolic formation.

The Liturgy of the Hours, for example, was simplified, and the hardest verses were removed from the Hail Mary ImagePsalms.  For example, they removed from Psalm 110, which we have recited every Evening of the Christmas octave, verse 6: “He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.”  It’s not that this verse is wrong, once you know how to read the spiritual meaning of the Psalms.  It’s just that it’s not the best way to introduce people to the liturgy.

(Some other time perhaps I’ll explain how necessary I think this “remedial liturgy” is.)

So too, the Marian liturgies are greatly simplified.  It can be annoying.  The tradition has some awesome Biblical symbolism for Mary.  (For example, Sirach 24:9-18, in the old Little Office.)  Now the readings are all on the literal level – and since Mary (perhaps by her choice) was hidden in Scripture, that means we don’t get much.

Even the feasts themselves are simplified.  The octave of Christmas, January 1, used to be the feast of the Circumcision (which the people of the Old Testament do on the eighth day after birth), but in the remedial liturgy, that’s simplified to just, “Mary, Mother of God.”  Forget the details, focus on the big stuff.  And the readings for the feast are strangely generic.


The first reading is the blessing of Aaron: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you, the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.”  There’s nothing Marian, on the literal or symbolic levels, in this first reading for Mary’s main feast day.  It’s a lovely blessing for the New Year, but not specifically Marian.

And yet the reading is strangely insightful about Mary.

A strange parallel, from my December reading: One of St. John Paul II’s synods was on Confession.  Out of that synod came his post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia.  Now, on first glance, that document is all over the place.  Here we’re supposed to be talking about the sacrament of Confession, and instead JPII gives us musings on world peace, human rights, terrorism, racial discrimination, and “an unfair distribution of the world’s resources.”  Confession doesn’t show up until the last of seven chapters.  Was he avoiding the subject?  Getting distracted?  (Imagine if Pope Francis did that!)

Well, of course JPII knew what he was doing.  He was showing what Confession is really about.  It’s not about waving a magic wand.  It’s not about a ticket out of earthly responsibility.  To the contrary, it’s about how wildly practical God’s grace is, how the sacraments work to restore our humanity, to restore society, to bring about “reconciliation.”

To understand and appreciate grace, we have to understand and appreciate the natural order that it heals and elevates.


So too with Mary.  Yes, the Circumcision is significant.  But if we get lost in the details, we can come up with a Mary who is marginal, a Mary who is just a matter of theological obscurity, a Mary who has nothing to do with our real lives – and a God who has nothing to do with our real lives.

But Mary is not a theological obscurity.  Like Confession, she has everything to do with the true meaning of a happy new year, and even the true meaning of politics.  We can’t let our faith become a fun little dress up game we play in Church.  Mary is everything.


And so in our first reading, Mary reveals the true Happy New Year: “May the Lord bless you and keep you, let his face shine upoin you, look upon you kindly and give you peace.”

our lady of milleniumIn our second reading, Mary is the transition from the Law – a law that, as a faithful Jewish girl, she lived to the hilt – to the discovery of God as Father.  She looked on her Son and knew, as no one had ever known before, God as Father.

And in our Gospel, Mary is inseparably there when we discover Christ himself, as she was for the shepherds, who “went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the infant.”  With Mary, with the shepherds, may we “keep all these things, reflecting on them in our hearts,” dwelling in the amazement of the Word made flesh.

(And let us go, too, to his very human circumcision, which also makes it into our Gospel reading.)

Mary isn’t a matter of obscure details.  Mary is about the heart of the Gospel.  Mary is everything.

How do you keep your faith – and your devotion to Mary – from becoming marginal to your real desires for the New Year?

At Christmas He Appears

What are we celebrating on Christmas?  What happened on that day?

swaddlingOn a certain level, nothing.  As we rightly point out when talking about abortion, nothing metaphysical happens at birth.  The day before and the day after, the child is the same.  Life begins at conception – and the great metaphysical moment for Christians is the Annunciation, not the Nativitiy.  March 25 is the feast of the Incarnation.  That’s when he empties himself and takes the form of a slave.

Nor does Christ do anything great on Christmas.  His great actions are still thirty years away.  His greatest action is on the Cross, another mystery of March.

But something great does happen at birth: the mother sees her child.  Birth is no small moment for ordinary mothers, including the mothers we counsel about abortion.  And the birth of Christ is no small moment for Our Lady and the Church of which she is the first member.  She sees him.


The Liturgy for Christmas is full of this theme.  This year (for various reasons – Christmas is all about interrupted plans) my family attended the noon Mass – there are, you know, different readings for Christmas Eve evening, midnight, “dawn,” and “during the day,” so that we can read about the angels, the shepherds, and the Prologue of John, and remember that before midnight, Christ is not yet born.

At the daytime Mass, the reading from Isaiah begins, “how beautiful,” talks about him “announcing good news,” and says, “they see directly.”   The reading from the beginning of Hebrews compares Jesus to the angels, but sets the tone for the rest of that letter by saying, “he has spoken to us through the Son.”  And though the Prologue of John talks about who Jesus is (the Incarnation, a mystery of March), it concludes, “No one has ever seen God.  The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.”

Like every birth, Christmas is about the revelation of the child, the appearance of the mystery that was hidden in the mother’s womb.  And so too the readings tell of hearing him speak: though the child does not speak, that first look at him on Christmas reminds us how fortunate we are to have a God who is no longer hidden, but revealed, a God who speaks to us.

So too at midnight, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9), “the grace of God has appeared” (Titus 2), and the angels “proclaim to you good news . . . and this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant” (Luke 2).   And at dawn,  “The Lord proclaims . . . say to daughter Zion, your savior comes” (Is 62), “the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared” (Titus 3), and “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see” (Luke 2).

Seeing, joined with hearing the good news: revelation.


I have been thinking this Advent about the Canticle of Simeon, which we pray every night in Night Prayer:

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, according to your word,

For my own eyes have the seen the salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of every people

A light to reveal you to the nations

And the glory of your people Israel.

I am not like Simeon.  Simeon “goes in peace” because he was an old man, “being instructed by the Holy Spirit, he was not to see death before he would see the Christ of the Lord.”  Simeon is ready to die – but surely I am not?

And Simeon’s “own eyes have seen”: Jesus appears before him.  I have not seen.

But I have heard, in Scripture, and I have touched, in the Sacraments.  (John says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled – 1 John 1:1.)

At Christmas I am reminded how close Jesus has come, so close that we could see him, touch him, hear him.  Like Simeon before the Presentation, I still long to see him face to face.  But he is not altogether hidden, and every day I rejoice at how much I have seen, in the Word and Sacraments of his Church, and so I long to see him fully.

And so I too can go in peace, can even contemplate, as we do throughout Night Prayer, leaving this life behind.  Because we have seen him, and we go to see him, and that is all that matters.

After this exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb. Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_Project

And we can hope already to be like Stephen, “full of the Holy Spirit, looking up intently into Heaven, he saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  And he said, Behold, I see.”


How different is your life because Jesus because you have heard the Word of Jesus?  What difference does it make that you have not yet seen his face?



Christ the King

Christ the King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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