Holy and Not So Holy Families

At last the holidays are over.  I can step away from entertaining and get back to reading, writing, and prayer.

But Christmas is a family holiday, which the Feast of the Holy Family naturally follows—in more ways than one.

On the one hand, Christmas is about Jesus being born into a holy family.  On the other hand, we celebrate that feast in our own, less than holy families. 

I count myself blessed that, for all my family’s challenges, I look forward to being with my family at Christmas.  But I notice, every year more, how family struggles bring misery to many people’s Christmases.


We idealize Christmas as a magical time, families gathered around the tree and around the table, giving wonderful gifts and basking in the light of tree and candles.  And that’s partly true.  But, just because it should be a magical time, it’s also a time where we notice all the ways our imperfect families spoil the magic: forgetting what others really want, from gifts or from time together; sinking into selfishness where we should be basking in love.

As my children get older, I appreciate the failures of parents.  The future Pope John Paul II, as a young priest, wrote a play called “The Radiation of Fatherhood.”  I don’t know anything about it beyond the name, but that name is a wonderful idea.  I am called to share in God’s Fatherhood, to teach my children what it means to be loved, what it means to be receptive before a benevolent and powerful parent, what it means to receive gifts in the deepest sense.  How wonderful to radiate fatherhood!

But, just because it is wonderful, how awful that we fail at it.  How awful that at Christmas I, and every other parent, am too often tired, or impatient with my children’s glee or weakness, or just want to be left alone. 

At Christmas we realize the scars that we all bear, of parents who have not always radiated the glory of God’s fatherhood. 


Call this the second wound. 

Our first and deepest wound is Original Sin.  Original Sin isn’t something attached to our souls—it is a lack.  Our first parents received from God a fabulous grace, that both united them to God (grace elevates) and held them in unity within themselves (grace heals), so that, among other things, their appetites and desires helped them live a happy life, instead of leading them to misery. 

Our first parents also received the ability to hand this gift on to their children, so that we too would live that unity.  Instead, they squandered it.  Their selfishness broke their union with God, broke their unity within themselves—and withheld that gift of unity from us, so that we are born to struggle instead of to peace.  Original sin is a wound deep within ourselves, a lack of grace that can only be healed by God’s grace.  That is the first wound.

But the second wound follows closely.  Just as Original Sin wounds us from within, so our parents wound us from without—and what a horror, as a parent, to realize that we pass these wounds on to our children.  I’d like to think that my children are receiving from me all the gifts that will make their lives perfect and happy—and, to be fair, our parents gave us, and we give to our children, many gifts.  But wounds, too.  We are all screwed up by our screwed-up parents, and we’re all screwing up our children.

A favorite Christian poet names both sides: “I’ll carry the songs we learned when we were kids.  I’ll carry the scars of generations gone by.”  Our personalities begin as that mash of beauty and scars, both handed down by our parents.  That is the family celebration of Christmas.


But at Christmas, Jesus enters into the family.  The real magic is not our perfect Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, or Christmas dinner.  The real magic is that God has not abandoned us to ourselves. 

We come to the creche not as the bearers of gifts, but as the bearers of wounds.  We come to Christmas not as those who make things magical, but as those who know we need a Savior.  The only gifts we can pass on are those we receive from him.  (How magical that the Magi came to the Savior King only because he was already at work in their hearts.  Our desire to serve him is itself his gift.)  The only songs worth singing are the ones that come from him and point us back to him.  The only songs worth singing are the ones that acknowledge our scars, and bare them to his healing balm.

The Holy Family is holy because Jesus is there.  He radiates his love into the heart of Mary; she loves him because he loved her first.  The lesson of the Holy Family is not that our families should be perfect, nor less that they automatically are.  The lesson is that grace heals and elevates, and that the only way to make our families holy is to draw near to the Savior. 

Somewhere in there is his poverty, with nothing but dirty hay for his bed, and letting himself be treated like food for beasts.  May you take with you from this Christmas that poverty, with Jesus at the center.

What wounds did you discover this Christmas?

Keeping Christ in Christmas II: the Positive Side

Last week I argued that keeping Christ in Christmas does not mean saying “Merry Christmas”—a phrase much more connected to figgy pudding, Santa Claus, and consumerism than to anything about the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity—to Jews, Muslims, and secular people, which is to say almost everyone we encounter today.  Keeping Christ in Christmas has to mean something about Christ, not something about preserving the secular aspects of the modern winter holiday we vaguely call Christmas. 

This week I’d like to say something more positive.


Love as I have loved

Christmas is literally the feast of Christ.  In England they still refer to the feast of St. Michael (Sept. 29), after which the Fall Semester for universities and courts is named, as Michaelmas.  The English liturgical tradition calls the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Feb. 2), when candles are blessed (because it is bleakest midwinter and because Simeon calls Jesus “a light for the nations”) Candlemas.  As Michaelmas celebrates Michael, and Candlemas celebrates candles, Christmas celebrates—Christ.

In liturgical Christianity, we celebrate lots of things.  The Council of Trent (1545-63) had to point out, because people sometimes used to get confused, “the Church at times celebrates certain masses in honor and memory of the saints; but it does not thereby teach that sacrifice is offered to the saints, but to God alone, who crowned them; thus the priest does not say, ‘I offer sacrifice to thee, Peter, or Paul;’ but, giving thanks to God for their victories, he implores their patronage, that they may intercede for us in heaven, whose memory we celebrate upon earth.”  In all things we celebrate the work of God Alone, but sometimes we celebrate that work as it appears in the lives of saints and angels, and sometimes in different mysteries of the life of Christ. 

Even at Easter, we celebrate the greatest work of Christ.  But at Christmas, what we celebrate is not a work, but Christ himself: the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of who he is, which comes before all the wonderful things he does.  In Latin it is called Natalis, the birth, by which God is born as man—but the English tradition is onto something in calling it simply Christ-mas, the feast of Christ.


This Fourth Sunday in Advent, we read Isaiah’s prophecy that “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”  We read already the birth story in Matthew’s Gospel, which confusingly tells us that the angel tells Joseph “You are to name him Jesus . . . to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet . . . they shall name him Emmanuel.” 

Emmanuel means God is with us, which is amazing.  The name Jesus goes a step further in the same direction.  Jesus is a Greek from of the Hebrew “Yehoshua.”  Instead of Immanu-el’s generic “el,” “God,” the root here is “YHWH,” the supreme name of Israel’s God.  And instead of “im-manu,” which means roughly “with us,” in Jesus’s name we get “yashah,” “he saves.”  That God is with us, “Emmanuel,” is amazing.  That YHWH acts in our lives to save us, “Jesus,” is more amazing yet.

So this Sunday we also read the opening of Paul’s masterpiece, Romans, where he calls himself “a slave of Christ Jesus,” consecrated to the “the gospel about [God’s] Son,” calling us “to belong to Jesus Christ.”  He also mentions Jesus’s greatest work, “resurrection from the dead.”  But before we get to the Cross and Resurrection, we have to look to Jesus himself.  We need Christ-mas.


John Paul II talked a lot about a phenomenon he called “practical atheism.”  Theoretical atheism means that you embrace the idea, the theory, that there is no God.  Practical atheism means that you might theoretically believe in God—but in practice, it makes no difference in your life.  Secular Christmas is a great example: you can claim to celebrate the feast of Christ, but nudge God out of it altogether.  I fear that even a lot of people who claim to be devout Christians use Christianity more as a placeholder for a general conservative attitude than as a real relationship with God.

Taking things a step further, I’d add to “practical atheism” the danger of “practical theism.”  By theism I mean religion (theos is Greek for God) without Christ.  I fear it is awfully easy, especially in our current climate, to proclaim yourself a Christian in practice, but to have little or no place for Christ in your Christianity.  There’s a lot of talk about natural law, a lot of religion that seems more excited about capital punishment and free markets than about the Gospel, lots of philosophical Catholics whose religious worldviews don’t have any place for Jesus. 

That’s a problem.  We need Christmas, an annual feast to remind us that every day we need to refocus on Jesus.


In our reading from Romans, Paul names three practices for recentering ourselves on Christ. 

St. Jerome

The first is Scripture.  To believe that Christ is Savior is to believe that he teaches us something we wouldn’t know without him.  I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to say Christ changes everything, and then to get all your ideas from philosophy.  Philosophy plays a delicate and important role in Christian thinking, don’t get me wrong—and I should say more about that than I have space here to say.  But if Christ changes anything, our thinking needs to be radically subject to his word.  As Christians, as Catholics, we believe that Word is Scripture.  To be Christ-centered has to mean subjecting our minds, again and again, every day, to that word: above all, to the Gospels, but also to the New Testament, and even to the Old Testament, in which Christ mysteriously proclaims himself.  Christianity without Scripture is a Christianity where Christ is irrelevant: “practical theism.”

(I should add: by extension, the same goes for the papacy.  In the age of Pope Francis, conservative Catholics seem enthusiastic about a Christianity without a Magisterium.  Ultimately, that means a Christianity without revelation—and a Christianity without Christ, where we do it all by our own genius.  Beware, conservative Catholics!)

A second practice Paul names for recentering ourselves on Christ is devotion to grace.  Grace, I think, is the central content of Scripture.  We need to be healed.  We cannot fully know natural law, because we cannot live natural law, without Christ.  We need devotion to the sacraments, devotion to prayer, devotion to the Holy Spirit—and beneath them all, devotion to grace, to Christ’s work in our lives.  We need to recognize, in our lives and the lives of those around us, that the Fall is real: we are a disaster without Christ.  That’s the real heart of Christian mercy: the recognition that of course we fall without grace—and that grace can heal, but in Christ’s mysterious plan, it heals us slowly. 

And the third practice Paul names is simple devotion to the name of Christ: to think about the meaning of that name, but also just to say the name, to pray the Jesus prayer, to pray the Hail Mary with a focus on his name, to turn again and again and invoke the name of Jesus Christ.


Of course we also need to bear witness to Christ.  But we can only bear witness to what we have discovered ourselves.

This Christmas, let’s redevote ourselves to Christ.

How do you return to Jesus?

Keeping Christ in Christmas

I was in the grocery store the other day, shopping for Christmas.  A nice cut of meat was on sale that we wanted for Christmas dinner.  (I hope it survives getting frozen in the interim.)  So I was chatting with the butcher about what our families like to cook for Christmas.

I live in a pretty diverse part of New Jersey.  At the checkout I was chatting with a woman I see regularly there; I gather from her veil, and from her being an African American with an Arabic name, that she is probably a Muslim, like many people in my city.  (Perhaps sometime I can write about black Muslims; I understand that’s a complicated proposition, involving both ill-treatment by Christians and a desire to live a devout life.  But this is not about my judgment of her soul.)

So I figured, not trying to have any deep thoughts about diversity, just to have a polite pleasant interaction with my neighbor, that talking about what meat we eat for Christmas was probably not the best way to be loving toward her at that particular moment in the checkout line.  I didn’t hide that it was for Christmas, but we shifted to talking about family, and kids (we just had our seventh!), etc.

The same thing happened a few days later, at another grocery store, where I was buying stocking stuffers but thought there was a decent chance the checkout guy was Jewish. 


And it occurred to me after that last encounter, as it had not occurred to me before: not so long ago, this was something really controversial.  The maybe-Jewish guy said, “Happy holidays,” and on the way out the door, after pleasantly saying “you too!” I remembered that not so long ago we were fighting about saying, “No!  Merry Christmas!  It’s not just ‘Holidays,’ you heathen!”  Keep Christ in Christmas!

Now, I do think we should witness to our faith.  But I want to challenge what it means to keep Christ in Christmas. 


Keeping Christ in Christmas certainly means that my family tries to pray extra during Advent, and keep a sense of waiting, and to go to Mass and pray extra and read the Bible at Christmas, and decorate with the creche, etc.  When my secular family comes to visit, we’re planning to keep up our traditions of Christmas prayer.  Certainly we need to keep Christ in Christmas. 

And certainly, we should look for chances of all kinds to witness to our faith.

But keeping Christ in Christmas is different from keeping the word “Christmas” in the holidays.  Demanding that the Jewish or Muslim checkout people hear me say “Christmas,” I propose, has very little to do with witnessing to Christ. 

In fact, in our culture, the word “Christmas” has little obvious reference to Christ.  If I want to witness to Christ, I need to talk about him.  Saying, “Merry Christmas” to someone who is not a Christian is just keeping the word “Christmas” in the holidays.  Whatever that is, it is a different thing from keeping Christ in Christmas.

The phrase “Merry Christmas” points us a step further.  There’s nothing Christ-centered about the word “Merry.”  “Merry” is about a particular element of Victorian culture that somehow we like to preserve.  From a tiny bit of research, it looks to me like the phrase came into popular parlance through the song “We wish you a merry Christmas,” which makes no reference whatsoever to Christ.  The phrase “Merry Christmas” has everything to do with “figgy pudding”—that is, with sensual indulgence and with Victorian culture, which was not especially Christian—and almost nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

I’ll keep saying Merry Christmas, in appropriate contexts.  “God rest ye merry, gentlemen” does say “remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas day!”  (Though it doesn’t quite say “Merry Christmas.”)  But let’s not confuse that phrase with keeping Christ in Christmas.  Keeping Christ in Christmas is something different.


Going a step further, all of this leads us to some things about the New Evangelization.  We live in a unique historic period, in at least three ways. 

First, modern travel has created multicultural societies as never before.  Perhaps you live in a place that is mostly Christian: fine!  But realize that much of the world, like my corner of New Jersey, is not mostly Christian anymore.  More than perhaps any other time in world history (imperial Rome might be an exception, but I don’t think so), we live in a society where we can make few assumptions about the religion of our neighbors; we certainly cannot assume they are the kind of people who celebrate Jesus Christ at Christmas.  “New Evangelization” is a reminder that we need to evangelize people who are not Christians, not assume they already are. 

Second, modern technology has created a society uniquely forgetful of God.  Most societies in history have had screwed up ideas about God (or the gods)—but at least they had some spiritual awareness.  Today, we can’t even assume that God is on people’s radars.  When they think about Christmas, they think about material things: figgy pudding, stockings, lights, gifts, food.  The New Evangelization has to begin with reminding them that there even is a supernatural realm. 

And third, we live in the first post-Christian society in the world.  In ancient Rome, Christians were a minority, but only Christians celebrated Christmas, so if you talked about Christmas, you were talking about Christianity.  In most parts of today’s world, Christmas means—well, it means shopping, and food, and stocking stuffers, all the stuff in my interactions above, but it has nothing to do with God or Jesus Christ.


We often get into the wrong arguments.  We should fight hard to keep Christ in Christmas.  We need to celebrate him in our homes, and in our Churches, far more than we do.  We need to bear witness to him, however and wherever we can. 

But saying Merry Christmas to non-Christians, I submit, is something quite different from keeping Christ in Christmas. 

How will you bear witness to Jesus Christ this holiday season?

The Our Father and the Kingdom

Last Sunday we celebrated Christ the King, this Sunday we begin Advent, where we await his coming.  A good time to think about Christ the King.

I have written in the past about the Our Father.  There are many ways to pray it, many ways to think about it.  You can just pray it straight.  But I find it fruitful to have some theme, to keep me paying attention.  I have had times where “thy will be done” was a fervent enough pray to give meaning to the whole thing, or other times, more tranquil, where I was thinking about God’s fatherhood.  I wrote about how it can describe twelve steps, from heaven down to earth, or how you can think about it in connection with the sacraments. 

But a friend who does scholarship in Judaism recently introduced me to a new focal point: the kingdom.


My friend’s main insight was about the first petition: “Hallowed be thy name.”  This is, of course, the most obscure part in English—but that’s the fault of our English tradition, not of the prayer Jesus taught us.  “Hallowed” means sanctified: “made holy,” or “treated as holy.”   

One way the Old Testament talks about “hallowed be thy name” is in terms of the reputation we give God.  When Israel sees God’s “children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name” (Isaiah 29:23).  But when God seems to be absent, “Their rules wail, declares the Lord, and continually all the day my name is despised” (Isaiah 52:5). 

Most of all, when God’s people are evil, they cause God’s name not to be sanctified: “Wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of his land’” (Ezekiel 36:20).

St. Paul summarizes this as, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24).

It is easy to think about this in light of the sex abuse scandals: the name of God is blasphemed because of our sins. 


The flipside is that the name of God should be sanctified, revered, “hallowed,” by the way we show forth his goodness. 

That happens, in part, by our holiness, by our good works, which show God’s work in our life.

But, it must be said, our actions will never be good enough to hallow God’s name.  It is also by our mercy, our awareness that he is good, and he is strong, though we are not—our humility—that we can make God’s name hallowed.  

Or rather, that God can hallow his own name through us.  If he does anything good in us, it is to lead us and others to himself, to hallow his name.


When you think about the first petition in this way, you can think of the whole Our Father as begging God to let the nations see him through us.

“Hallowed be thy name.”  That is our greatest prayer.  Just that they may know you—that we may know you.

“Thy kingdom come.”  They will know God when we act like he is our king, in our individual and social lives.  That is how God’s name is hallowed.  And, conversely, his kingdom is nothing more or less than us knowing who he is, living in the light of his mercy.  His kingdom comes when his name is hallowed—and his name will be hallowed as his kingdom comes.

“Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Again the same: God is king when we live according to his will, and accept his will, in his commandments, in his providence, even in the suffering he sends us.  When we accept his will, we make him king, and we let his name be known and hallowed.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”  So what do I desire?  What is the one thing I ask for myself?  The strength to let his kingdom come in and through me.  I don’t ask for more than that—but I do ask for that strength, keep me going God. 

“Forgive us trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  I recognize that on my account, his name is blasphemed, and so I beg his forgiveness.  But I know, too, that his name is mercy. That I make him known not by my perfection but by living under that mercy.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  Let me only live in that kingdom, let me never step out of it, so that I may know your name and make it known, so that your name be hallowed.

“Our Father, who art in heaven.”  May I know you, and may they know you.  We ask for nothing else.

Thirty-Third Sunday: With Empty Hands

My apologies for posting this so late.

In the liturgical year, November is a time of dying: the end of the Church year, which rebegins in Advent, as we prepare for the new birth of Christmas; the death we experience in the natural world as the cold sets in; and the end of our in-order reading of the year’s Gospel, as it approaches Jesus’s death, and Jesus talks about the end times.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus responds to people’s admiration of the “costly stones and votive offerings” at the Temple by saying, “there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”  All things end, now fades all earthly splendor.

Our first reading, from the prophet Malachi, is nicely paired: “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven.”  The “blazing oven,” in Hebrew, is more literally a “gleaming flame.”  So when the reading goes on to say that just as those who fear God will experience “the sun of justice with its healing rays,” we realize that the same fire—the fire of death and the fire of God—is destruction for some, and healing for others, depending how we relate to God.


In this week’s Gospel, after he tells them that the costly stones of the Temple will be thrown down, they ask Jesus about the end of time.  His answer isn’t nice.

Terrifying things will come—and false Christ’s will claim to save us.  But neither of those things are the end.  He doesn’t say, “when something scary happens, that must be the end.”  He says, “Lots of scary things will happen—long before you even get to the end.”

“Nation will rise against nation,” “earthquakes, famines, and plagues”: these aren’t the things of the end, these are situation normal.  It’s a real danger of our rich American society that we imagine that we can escape from bad things.  Of course we do our best—but the world is a scary place.  And that’s not even the end.


But even worse than the temptation of false Christ’s (and false predictions of the end), and even worse than the external threats (earthquakes, famines and plagues), the worst suffering will be on account of our faith.  How’s that for a Savior?  This one says, “If you follow me, you will get hurt.”

“They will seize and persecute you . . . because of my name.”  Following Jesus is not supposed to make life easy.  He says it will make life hard. 

Then he explains how to respond: “You are not to prepare your defense beforehand.”  It’s tempting to think the threat of persecution means we need to defend ourselves.  Jesus sends us in barehanded—just as he went to his own death.

Part of our defenselessness is that Jesus promises that even our families and friends will turn again us, “and they will put some of you to death.”  There is no one we can trust.

Or rather, we go not empty-handed, but armed by him alone, trusting in him alone: “I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking.”  Our strength will not prevail.  We need to renounce our strength.  But his strength is sufficient: “a wisdom . . . that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.”

It’s worth noting that death itself will be like this: we will stand alone and defenseless.  The only one who can save us is the one who conquered death on the Cross.


Real Christianity is scary; it involves a kind of hopelessness.  “I do not promise to make you happy on earth,” Mary told Bernadette—and Jesus tells us over and over in the Gospel.  If you’re looking for a God who will make things easy and nice, the Gospel is the wrong place to look.

And yet there is hope beyond the hopelessness, blessed joy in our sorrows and sufferings, Resurrection on the other side of the Cross.  If we call to Jesus, he will sustain us.


Our second reading adds a funny little angle.  The Lectionary is perhaps less successful than usual in its deployment of Second Thessalonians.  It’s hard to capture the genius of this little letter. 

This reading doesn’t give us the central topic of the letter, I suppose because that topic is summarized in the other readings: “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him,” it says, and like our other two readings, it predicts the calamities we have to look forward to.

But then it makes a funny turn, and this is what the Lectionary gives us: “In toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you.”  “We instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.” 

The genius of Second Thessalonians is to say our response to all these dire predictions is not to stockpile water and weapons, not to gossip about when or how we think the end will come—but to put our head down and trudge along. 

As Jesus says at the end of our Gospel: “By your perseverence you will secure your lives.”  The real excitement is to abandon ourselves to him. 

Are you ready to meet Jesus?

Thirty-Second Sunday: I am the Resurrection

This week’s Gospel story is easy to understand, but its lessons are harder to find.

The Sadducees ask Jesus a trick question: “At the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?  For all seven had been married to her.” 

Jesus responds that it’s a false dilemma, but his reasoning gets more and more strange.


First, he says there is no marriage—which answers the question by making it worse: does that mean that heaven will destroys our earthly loves? 

Second, he explains why there is no marriage: “because they cannot die.”  (Our translation leaves out the “because,” but “because” is a fascinating word when you’re trying to understand a reading; it shows how the writer thinks the sentence is relevant.)  What does the inability to die have to do with not getting married?  And even more, what does it have to do with earthly marriage disappearing?

Third, he explains the not dying: “because they are like the angels.”  (It’s a funny word, literally “angel-equals.”)  Does that mean we resurrect without human bodies?  Or that angels have human bodies?  The Tradition answers both those answers “no”—but how are they like angels?

And fourth, he gives his final answer: Since at the burning bush God tells Moses that he is the God of Abraham, Abraham must have risen from the dead.  I don’t find that argument convincing at all.  If I say the United States is the country of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, I am not making any claims about the resurrection. 

Jesus’s argument seems a bizarre chaining together of claims that do not clarify each other.  And anyway, who cares?  That there is a resurrection is of course important.  But what does this encounter with the Sadducees add to my understanding of it?

Saint Petka Church in Skochivir Fresco 06.jpg


A first clue is the word “age.”  The Sadducees conclude without that word: “At the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?”  But Jesus responds by introducing it: “The children of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are made worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead . . . .”

More than angel-equality or inability to die, these two “ages” suggest mystery.  Like the Sadducees, we imagine that heaven is just a slight tweak on this life.  Okay, we can’t die anymore, maybe we grow wings, but we imagine things will be about the same on the other side of death.

Transfiguration Christ Louvre ML145.jpg

But here, at the beginning of his response to the Sadducees, Jesus tells us that the key to thinking about the Resurrection is to realize that it’s a different world, a different “age.”  (The Greek word means something like “forever”—and Jesus is saying there is “this forever” and a different “forever.”) 

He is saying that the Sadducees—and we—lack imagination in our thinking about heaven.  Or perhaps we are using our imaginations too much, trying to picture something that matches our experience here.  To the contrary, says Jesus, no eye has seen, no ear has heard.  You have no idea what it will be like. 

Rather than trying to iron out the details—or to disprove the Resurrection because we can’t iron out the details—we need to realize that all will be transformed. 


(How will things be transformed?  No sin and no death is a pretty big change.  Try to imagine a new world where everyone loves each other perfectly—where everyone has been “made worthy of the resurrection.”  Spiritually, maybe it’s not that the earthly love of marriage will be wiped away, but that it will be perfected, so that we all love one another with the intensity of spousal and familial love, no longer need to guard our modesty from prying eyes, and no longer need sexual intimacy to kindle our love.  And what will the body be like, without death and suffering, including the ache of longing?  Pretty hard to imagine!) 


A second key to this reading is Jesus’s interpretation of Scripture. 

What he says about the burning bush is not convincing.  He hasn’t found a proof text that proves to every skeptical reader that the writer of Exodus believed in the Resurrection.

But it is an interesting rereading of that story.  Jesus finds in God’s words to Moses a deeper, fuller meaning than we would have expected.  There’s more to the story, a deeper statement about who God is, and how he relates to Moses, and to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and to us. 

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The Scripture is not confirming Jesus’s authority.  Rather, Jesus is lending his authority to Scripture.  He is showing that he understands Scripture at a deeper level, takes Scripture to a deeper level, than we could find without him. 

And how?  Because Jesus knows that other “age” with the intimacy of someone who lives there.  He can talk about the God of the Burning Bush as someone who knows the Father face-to-face, who burns with the same light and heat.

In fact, what we learn is not something about the Resurrection, but something about Jesus, and about the God of that coming “age.”  Because Jesus himself is the Resurrection and the Life. 

How could you contemplate Jesus as heaven himself?

Thirtieth Sunday: His Mercy, Not My Self-Justification

Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

This week’s Gospel gives us the tax collector and the Pharisee: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  This is the root of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,” which the Eastern tradition urges us to pray constantly.

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The other readings cast helpful light.  Sirach tells us God is “not unduly partial toward the weak.”  We can misread much of Luke’s Gospel, as if just being poor, or miserable, or a sinner, is enough to get you into heaven.  Careful.

Rather, “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds . . . and the Lord will not delay.”  The point is not our wretchedness, but God’s action.  The key is not just that we need salvation, but that he saves.  That’s what prayer is all about, and that’s the difference between the tax collector and the Pharisee.


Paul’s words to Timothy nudge our parable in a different direction.  Paul brags: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.  From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me.” 

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The challenge is that, in some ways, the Pharisees are so very much like the saints.  The reason Jesus talks so much about Pharisees is that they are not easy to identify.  We can run from sanctity in the name of fleeing Pharisaism, and embrace Pharisaism in the name of sanctity.  Pride is the hardest sin, because it looks so much like righteousness.

But in the second paragraph, Paul differentiates.  “No one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me.  May it not be held against them!”  In the first sentence, Paul sounds his unique righteousness.  But in the second sentence, he shows its real heart: he forgives. 

Then, “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed.”  He preaches not himself, but Jesus Christ.  Jesus works in him—so intimately that Paul repeats his, “Father, forgive them”—but Paul knows it is only Jesus who makes him holy, and so he preaches only Jesus. 


Key to our parable is Luke’s introduction: “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else” (or: counted the remainder of humanity as nothing).  The point is not just that the Pharisee rejects the tax collector.  The point is that he rejects everyone.  There’s a fine line between being grateful for God’s work in your life (like Paul) and despising everyone else (like the Pharisee).  Recognizing God’s work does mean knowing you’re special; it doesn’t mean being a Pharisee.

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The Pharisee is pretty righteous: fasting twice a week and tithing on his whole income is way better than most of us.  He’s right that humanity on the whole is “greedy, dishonest, adulterous.”  He’s right to oppose those vices.  He’s right to thank God for saving him (though it’s interesting that he thanks God “that I am” not “that you have made me”).  He’s right to give thanks, and to pray.  He’s doing so many things right.

And Jesus condemns him: “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former.”  How we should pray that we will go home justified, that we will not be counted among the Pharisees.  How dangerous this accusation of Pharisaism is, since the one who accuses tends to be one!  How narrow the way, how straight the gate, that Jesus preaches!


What should we be instead?  Tax collectors?  I don’t think that’s the point.  Again, so much of the danger here is that the Pharisee is right about so many things.

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But note that the tax collector, like the Pharisee, goes up to the temple to pray.  He knows the sacred geography.

But where is his focus?  The Pharisee looks at himself (“spoke this prayer to himself”) and at humanity (“not like the rest of humanity”) and at the tax collector (“or even like this tax collector”).

The tax collector would not raise his eyes to heaven, but prays to heaven, “O God, be merciful.”  He looks to himself, not to commend himself, or pray to himself, but to “beat his breast” and call himself “a sinner.”  His whole prayer—the whole parable—collapses if he is self-righteous, if he complacent in his sin.  The point is not that he should be a tax collector.  The point is that, unlike the Pharisee, he knows he needs to change.

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Jesus Prayer is the key: to go, no longer to the Temple, but to Him who replaces the Temple, and pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” only location of my prayer, “have mercy on my a sinner.”  To know always my sin, and his mercy.  That is everything.

In what ways does your gaze shift from his abundant mercy to your self-justification?

Twenty-First Sunday: Seek

Exodus 17:8-13, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2, Luke 18:1-8

Two weeks ago, the apostles said, “Increase our faith!” and Jesus said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed.”  Last week, Jesus told the Samaritan leper, who knew to return to him, “Your faith has made you well.” 

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Interwoven with those exhortations to faith were warnings about meeting him when he comes again.  Two weeks ago, it was, “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’?”  And between last week’s reading and this week’s, we skip a passage that says, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed,” “They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. . . . so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.” 

This week, he ties those two themes together: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”


He does it with another strange parable.  Luke has beautiful parables, like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  But also strange ones, like the dishonest servant, and perhaps the rich man and Lazarus.

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Here, he wants to teach us that he will “give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night.”  He could have used a straightforward story, like we have in our first reading: when Moses prays, the Israelites win. 

Instead, he has the parable of the widow.  Her insistent prayer makes sense.  What is strange is how he portrays himself in the story: “there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.”  He says, “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.”  Why portray himself as the one “who neither fears God nor respects man”? 


God is good.  He is righteous, he upholds righteousness.  The Psalms tell us, “he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”  “The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.”  “I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy.”  He is not like that judge.

But as in the story of Moses praying for the Israelite army, he wants us to acknowledge that goodness.  Ironically, that means we have to cry out.

We are tempted to say, “God is good, he’ll take care of it.”  In practice, I think this thinking is more pervasive than we’d expect.  Christians and non-Christians alike say, if God is good, I don’t need to pray, I don’t need to work, I don’t need to be righteous.  God will take care of it.

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But Jesus calls us to a relationship.  And that relationship means that we do have to cry out, we do have to pray and work and beg for him to act.  Ironically, the only way to know God’s goodness is to have to work for it.  So Jesus tells this bizarre story where he compares himself to an unjust judge, one who doesn’t care about justice or about us.  Ironically, it’s only when we beg like that widow, when we act like we have to convince God to be good almost against his will, that we discover that he really is good.  That’s the mystery of prayer.

Of course, the widow in the story doesn’t get anything by her own works.  She’s not able to secure justice for herself, and she’s not even able to earn the judge’s intervention.  We’re not talking works righteousness here.  Like the widow, we are helpless unless God acts.  But ironically, we only discover that helplessness when we work to beg God to act.


Our second reading, from Second Timothy, tells us about another practice where we discover God’s graciousness: reading Scripture.  Like the widow’s intercessory prayer, studying the Bible, searching the Scriptures, is a kind of proclamation of God’s goodness.  In the Scriptures themselves we find that he is good.  But even before we find him, the very practice of searching for him there is a confession of his goodness, a practice of knowing his providence for us. 

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And just as it makes sense to say we don’t need to beg God’s mercy, because he’ll do it anyway, so too it makes sense to say that we don’t need to look in Scripture, because God will speak to us anyway.  And yet he wants us to search for him, because it is in searching that we find, in knocking that the door is open to a relationship, a real confession of his goodness, not just a passive expectation that he’ll care for us while we ignore him.

While we wait for his coming, he calls us to be eager and watch.

Do you search for God?

Twenty-Eighth Sunday: The Body of Christ

2 Kings 5:14-17; Psalm 98; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19

This Sunday’s Gospel is a little complicated.

On one level, the story is easy to follow.  Jesus heals ten lepers.  Only one comes back.  “Your faith has saved you.”  A good homily could be given on that level.

But the complication begins with the difference of that one leper.  All ten had cried out, “Jesus, Master!  Have pity on us!”  Normally, that seems to be all it takes for him to say, “Your faith has saved you.”  For example, in the next chapter, the blind man will say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And Jesus will say, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well” (or “saved you,” or “healed you”: it’s all the same in the Greek).  But here, he says that only to the leper who returns.


It’s all about geography.  Our reading begins, “As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem”—the organizing theme of Luke’s Gospel—“he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.”  I’m not sure what to make of that.  Galilee is the north, Samaria is the middle, Judea, with Jerusalem, is the south.  The first half of Luke’s Gospel, and the early chapters of Jesus’s life, are in the north, in Galilee. 

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The turning point of Luke’s Gospel is Luke 9:51, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem”: he heads south. The very next verses say, “And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him.  But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” 

His journey begins by entering Samaria.  The Samaritan religion was a variant of Judaism that didn’t recognize Jerusalem, but held onto the older tradition: before David built Jerusalem and Solomon built the temple, the previous version of the Temple, the wandering Tabernacle, had been kept in the central plains.  Samaritan means “the keepers”; the Samaritan version of Judaism guarded that older tradition, in defiance of David and Solomon’s Temple. 

It’s funny, then, that this Sunday our reading begins, “he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.”  Galilee should have been left behind.  I don’t know what to do with that, except to say that Luke is drawing our attention to this journey.  But I do notice: Jericho, to the east of Jerusalem and on the Jordan river, is also the route to Jerusalem that Galileans used to avoid going through Samaria.  Maybe Luke is thinking of Jericho again?


The next appearance of Samaria was in the chapter after he set his face to go to Jerusalem.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who fell among robbers was “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”  Jerusalem is in the mountains.  You always “go up” to Jerusalem.  This man was leaving—on that Galileean road.

So was the priest who passed him by.  With the Levite who passes him by, it is unclear, except that it says he did “similarly” to the priest.  And it’s very clear: priests and Levites do their work in Jerusalem.  They work in the Temple.

But the Good Samaritan is just “travelling.”  It doesn’t say he was “going up” or “going down,” but it’s interesting that the priest and the Levite have their backs to Jerusalem.  Interesting, too, that when the Good Samaritan takes the man to an inn, the Greek word is literally, “a place that receives all people.”


The third time Samaritans appear in Luke’s Gospel is in our reading this Sunday.  The lepers “stood at a distance,” because they were following the Law: leprosy is contagious, and lepers were supposed to keep far away.

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Jesus follows the Law on this, too.  He does not lay hands on them.  With the blind man in the next chapter, “Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him.”  But with the lepers, he does the opposite: he tells them to go away: “Go show yourselves to the priests.” 

He is following the Law in a second way.  The Law requires those who are healed of leprosy to have their healing confirmed by the priests.  And the priests are now in Jerusalem.  He is sending the lepers to Jerusalem.

The one who returns is a Samaritan, someone who doesn’t believe in Jerusalem. 


“He fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him”—the word for thanks is eucharist.  Jesus said in reply, “. . . Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks?”

Our first reading is Naaman the Syrian, another foreign leper.  That story too is earthy, geographical: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.”  The waters of the Jordan heal him.  He takes two mule-loads of earth home with him so he can worship on holy ground.

Our second reading, from Second Timothy, shifts from land to the body of Jesus, “raised from the dead, a descendent of David.”  Salvation is “in Christ Jesus.”  “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him.”

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Jesus is the new temple, the new Jerusalem.  The place of worship matters.  We need to go up to the Temple.  God is everywhere, but we meet him by going to the place where he chooses to reveal himself to us.  The Samaritan is wrong to deny Jerusalem, so important to Jesus—but also right to replace Jerusalem with the higher temple of Jesus’s body. 

Jesus removes the ethnic attachments of Israel.  You don’t have to be born of Israel to come to the Temple.  But you do have to go to the Temple.  Just as Jesus had to go to Jerusalem, we have to go to Jesus.  We don’t eucharist just anywhere, but at his feet.

Does your religion ever get disembodied?  Could you be more Christ-centered?

Twenty-Sixth Sunday: Fake Love

Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31

One of the main features of Luke’s Gospel is his collection of moving parables.  This week we get the Rich Man and Lazarus.

The first two readings prepare us.  The prophet Amos is writing just before the northern kingdom of Israel will be conquered.  He says, “Woe to the complacent in Zion!”  They are comfortable in their riches.

“Yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!”  I think there is a double entendre here.  In the prophet’s present, Joseph refers to the two tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim (Joseph’s sons), the first and the final of the northern tribes to be conquered.  But in history, it also refers to the poor brother sold into slavery.  Amos argues that Israel will be conquered because they don’t care for their poor brothers. 

“Like David, they devise their own accompaniment” on the harp: metaphorically, their actions form the accompaniment of their affections.  Complacent hearts bear fruit in complacent lives.


Against that complacency, our final reading from First Timothy says, “pursue righteousness.”  Paul reminds us that God gives life, and that Jesus gave testimony—two ways of saying we should be active, not complacent—and then points to the fulness of the commandments.

He concludes by reminding us to prepare for the coming of Jesus, the King of Kings, whose Lordship we must recognize—and contrasts that to the God in “unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.”  Its like Paul’s version of what First John says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”  It makes no sense to call God, or Jesus, Lord, if it doesn’t affect the way we live in this world.

And it points us forward, to Matthew 25, “when did we see you hungry?”, and to Luke’s more colorful version of the same parable, the Rich Man and Lazarus.


Where Matthew 25 moves directly from our treatment of the poor to our judgment when Jesus comes again, Luke’s version dwells in the human relationships.

The rich man has purple garments and fine linen, and dines sumptuously every day.  But he doesn’t have a name.  He is depersonalized by his wealth.

The poor man has a name.  Lazarus is a Greek version of the Hebrew name Eleazar (or El-azar): God helps.  He looks to the crumbs that fall from the man’s table, while sickness oozes from his own body.  I always thought the dogs who licked his wounds were humiliating him, but I wonder if they are his only friends.

The poor man’s death is rich in relationships.  The angels carry him, to the bosom of Abraham.  I can’t find any other places where heaven is described this way—the parable is making a point about how relational heaven is.  It’s not just individuals floating in the ether with a depersonalized God.  Heaven is family. 

Luke says that the poor man and the rich man see their fortunes reversed.  But that reversal is not the whole story.  It’s not just that accounts are balanced.  It’s their quality of relationships that brings about the reversal.  Lazarus isn’t in heaven because he’s poor, but because he leans on God.


The story takes a sophisticated turn when we see the rich man in hell.  Again, we are not told directly why he is in hell—but it plays out in the story.

“Father Abraham,” he calls.  A great theme of the Gospel is what it means to be a child of Abraham.  Many of the Jews think it is their birthright.  Jesus proclaims it a matter of faith.  The rich man has one, but not the other.

In our translation, Abraham says, “My son.”  But it’s important that he doesn’t say “my.”  He doesn’t recognize him as a true son of Abraham.  He just says, “child”—who knows whose child.

The rich man is pretending to have a relationship he doesn’t have.


Then he pretends to have another relationship.  Again trying to call Abraham “father,” he says, “I have five brothers.”  No surprise, he asks that Abraham make Lazarus his messenger boy, to warn his brothers.  He cares, he says, about them, while instrumentalizing Lazarus.

But how often Jesus tells us that it is no love to love only those who give to you.  If the rich man had no concern for Lazarus at his gate, Abraham is not impressed by this “love” for his brothers. 

And we learn something about them: they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets.  That means, first, that they aren’t true children of Abraham; they may have his blood, but not his faith.  And it means, second, that they too are ignoring the call of Moses and the prophets to love your neighbor and care for the poor. 

In short, Abraham calls him out on false love.  It’s easy to say we love others.  But the Gospel calls us to a more radical love. 

And so too, Abraham says at the end, it’s easy to say you believe in the resurrection of the dead.  But true faith means hearing the call of the Gospel and the call of the prophets, which includes the cry of the poor, and the call not just to love those who are convenient, but to love with the heart of Jesus.  Only that love can welcome us into the family of heaven.

How do you fake love?