Mercy, Truth, and Humiliation

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


The Mercy of Almsgiving

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

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


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

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

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

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

St. Martin and the Beggar

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

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


Where can we practice almsgiving?

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

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


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

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

We can give alms to our children.


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

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

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

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

Where can you give alms?

Second Sunday of Lent: Lenten Transfiguration

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

A Bowl of Lentils

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

And lentils can be a symbol of our worldliness.

File:Lentil ( মুসুর ডাল) ০২.JPG***

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

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

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

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

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


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

File:Rembrandt adam and eve.jpg

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

First Sunday of Lent: Hunger for God and His Word

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

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

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


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

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

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

Searching the Scriptures

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

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

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

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

It’s a contest of Scripture.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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?