How to Pray the Angelus

A few years ago, a couple friends of mine raised the question of what’s going on in the Angelus.  It seems to be scattered: various lines from the Gospel, mixed up with Hail Mary’s.  We know it’s supposed to be a good thing, but how do we understand it, so that we can pray it well?  Good question!

The Hail Mary offers one way to answer that concern.  The Hail Mary itself at first appears a bit scattered.  The second half is a petition: Pray for us.  But the first half is not a petition, it just addresses Mary.  And each of these parts has multiple parts: the first half is the Angel’s words to Mary (Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you), three clauses which themselves make at least three main points; and then Elizabeth’s words (Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb), two clauses with two points, plus a third point in the parallels between them.

The petition half of the Hail Mary is complicated, too: before we get to the two prayers (now, and at the hour of our death), we have two titles (Holy Mary, Mother of God).  The trick is to see how all this fits together. . . .

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The three parts of the Angelus give us three ways to discover the Hail Mary.

“The Angel declared unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.”  The first phrase of the Hail Mary is the Angel’s first declaration to Mary.  The words of the Angelus help us to focus on the drama of those words—and then to see how they inform Elizabeth’s words: Mary is blessed because the Angel declared unto her and, by the Holy Spirit, she conceived the blessed fruit of her womb.

We have our first glimpse of how Mary is holy, and the beginnings of her being Mother of God.  And so we ask her to pray for us, now and at the hour of our death.

Great Marian saints like Louis de Montfort and John Paul II recommend that we add words to the Hail Mary to help us dive in.  We could make the connection here vivid by saying, “Hail Mary, who heard the angel’s word: full of grace, the Lord is with thee!”

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File:Людовик Мария Гриньон де Монфор.jpg“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word.”  Now we turn around, from the Angel’s words to Mary, to Mary’s words to the angel.  And we have an even deeper insight into who she is, because we see how she acts.

Hail Mary, full of grace, who received the word—that’s how the Lord is with thee, that’s why you are blessed among women, and the Blessed One is the fruit of your womb.  Pray for me to be open to his word like you were, now and at the hour of my death!

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“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”  Always Mary points beyond herself to Jesus—De Montfort says, “When we say Mary, she says Jesus.”  The Hail Mary itself reminds us that everything about Mary is relative to Jesus: she receives his grace, he is with her, he makes her blessed, he is the blessed fruit of her womb, he makes her holy, he makes her his mother, and she prays to him.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Incarnate word is with thee.  That’s why Elizabeth calls you blessed, because of the blessed fruit of your womb.  You who are so close, so holy, because God is in your womb, making you his mother: pray for us.

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You can expand the Hail Mary in your own words, as I have here.  You can find a simple little formula for each of these Hail Mary’s: Hail Mary, hearing the declaration; Hail Mary, handmaid; the Incarnate Lord is with thee.  Or you can just pray the Hail Mary, but using each of the three declarations of the Angelus to help you dig deeper into its words.

The point is: the Angelus is an opportunity to pray the Hail Mary better, to delve into its riches.

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One more thought: more and more, it seems to me the richest word of the Hail Mary is the most obscure word, Hail.  It doesn’t mean “Salute.”  It is a greeting.  It’s a rough attempt to translate the Greek word in the New Testament, which means “Rejoice,” the deepest most personal version of “Good day!”

When we pray the Hail Mary, we should pause now and then on this word, and just enjoy Mary’s joy.  The Angelus gives us three angles on that joy.

How do you pray the Angelus?

Third Sunday of Lent: Spring Cleaning

I’m really trying to get these posts up before Sunday, but I have had one technical problem after another.  Sorry about that.

File:Jésus chassant les marchands du temple.JPGLent is a time of spring cleaning.  We are called to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Prayer and almsgiving fill us up (in relation to God and neighbor)—but there is something central about fasting, emptying ourselves out.

Thus it is appropriate that the revised Lectionary, after the traditional first two Sundays going into the desert to be tempted and going up to the mountaintop to see Christ, now (unless your parish, like mine, chooses to use the Year A readings because of catechumens) gives us John’s story of Jesus cleaning out the Temple.  To be filled up, we must also be emptied out.

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The first reading is the Ten Commandments.  To keep things simple, the Lectionary gives the option of skipping the extra stuff (verses 4-6 and 9-11) and just getting the main points about the commandments.  But the rhetoric of Exodus is wonderful.  All the “Second Tablet” stuff, the stuff we think most about, honoring our parents, murder, adultery, theft, and coveting, gets said very quickly.  But Scripture takes its time with the First Tablet, idolatry, the name of the Lord, and the Sabbath.  The purpose of the commandments is to empty ourselves out—so that we can put our focus on God.  The First Commandment is the longest because it’s the main point.

Our Epistle, from First Corinthians, gives a Christ-centered spin on this emptying out.  “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified.”  We have to be emptied out not only of mortal sin, but of all our distractions, all our earthly fascinations, and look to Christ alone.

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And so we come to the cleansing of the Temple.  Jesus drives out the sellers of sheep and oxen and doves, and the money changers.

File:Two scenes in the Temple Christ, the woman taken in adultery, and Pharisees, Christ drives out the money-changers (f. 20v) Cropped.jpgA little background is helpful.  In the last verses of Deuteronomy 14, for example, Scripture specifically says it is okay to buy your sacrifices when you get to Jerusalem.  The language there is nice: in your hometown, you “change” your sheep into money, which is easier to carry, and then change it back into the proper symbols of Old Testament worship when you get to Jerusalem.  As for money changing, I presume the point is that you get your local currency, whatever it is, turned into what can be used in Jerusalem, and pay your tithes.

All of this God has commanded.  And Jesus here calls the Temple his “Father’s house,” and John uses Old Testament Scripture—Psalm 69, “Zeal for your house will consume me”—to confirm him.  Jesus is in favor of the Temple worship.  It finds its perfection in his sacrifice, but here—in John 2, the very beginning of his ministry, first thing after the wedding feast of Cana—he defends the Temple.  The sheep and the money aren’t the problem, and the Temple isn’t the problem.

But Scripture also says, for example in those same verses of Deuteronomy 14, that the priests are supposed to live on the sacrifices and tithes.  Not all of the sheep and oxen get burned up, some of them are food for the priests.  And the people bring other things to the priests, including wheat and money.  So the question is: why are they selling things inside the temple area?  (In fact, the Greek calls it not “the temple area” but “the sacred place.”)  The whole city of Jerusalem is there to be the “marketplace” near the Temple.

The answer, I think, is that the priests are greedy.  They want not only their portion of the sacrifices, but also some profit off of selling the sacrifices (or rent from those who sell).  We are never satisfied with enough, and never satisfied with righteousness (for which we are supposed to hunger and thirst).  Always greedy.  That’s why we fast—to learn about enough, instead of greed.

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File:Jesus Chasing the Merchants from the Temple.jpgJesus “made a whip out of cords.”  People often remember the whip and cite this as an example of righteous anger.  But it doesn’t say he was angry, only that he was zealous.  The detailed list of how he dealt with each thing, including asking them to carry the pigeon cages, shows deliberation more than rage.

What is more fascinating is making the whip out of cords.  The word for cords, as best I can tell, refers to the kind of ropes that tied up the animals.  (I guess the ropes are cast aside once the animals are sacrificed.)

Far from an image of rage, this is an image of deliberation.  Jesus sat down and carefully wove his tool.  He thought this out.  Lent is a time for us to carefully weave the tools of our own cleansing.

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In the next scene, they ask him what right he has to cleanse the temple.  He responds, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

They respond, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years.”  No wonder they’re looking for money.

But Jesus is talking about the Resurrection—and the power and wisdom of God.  Our human calculations lead always to compromise, to set aside the primacy of God in the name of human prudence.  Jesus calls us to keep holy what is holy, trusting that he can build what needs to be built.

What human calculations are crowding your Temple?

Second Sunday of Lent: Mountaintop Experience

On the first Sunday of Lent, Christ led us into the desert, where we found a rainbow of hope: one image of Lent.  On the second Sunday, Christ leads us to the mountaintop: another image of Lent.

File:MtSinaiJune2006.JPGMountaintops have a romantic reputation, maybe confused with sunsets.  A “mountaintop experience” is supposed to be pure bliss.  But mountaintops are themselves a kind of desert, a hard assent followed by an empty place and rarified air.  And so they too are an image of our Lenten desert.

Our first reading gives us one kind of mountaintop experience: the sacrifice of Isaac.  In the Old Testament, mountaintops, “the high places,” are places of sacrifice.  Here Abraham has a harrowing mountaintop experience, an encounter with God in the desert.  It is a place of challenge, a place of aloneness with God, and a place of conquest: where God conquers Abraham, Abraham conquers himself, and finally Abraham triumphs.  In that triumph, he recovers his son.

Our Epistle, from Romans 8, picks up a phrase from the story of Isaac: “did not spare his own son.”  But here we find that God did not spare his own Son.  We find that Jesus too has been to the mountain of sacrifice, where in losing everything, everything has been gained.  These are rainbow stories, images of Lent.

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But the main story is the Transfiguration, where the disciples discover Jesus in a new way on the mountaintop.  This year, of course, we get Mark’s account – the spiritual testament of Peter.

Armadio degli argenti, trasfigurazione.jpgIt begins by saying Jesus “led them up a high mountain.”  The Greek is even stronger, more like “carried them up.”  An interesting contrast to the end of the story where “they were coming down” with a verb that emphasizes their own two feet.  We go to the Lenten desert on the wings of an eagle.  The Gospel emphasizes that they were “apart by themselves,” a lonely place, where they will see nothing but Jesus.

Matthew says Jesus’ face and garment are filled with light.  Mark makes it more down to earth: his clothes were like no bleach can make them.  Otherworldly, yet Peter emphasizes that it was incomprehensible to them, a revelation of how little they understood.

Peter says, “It is good that we are here!”  Beautiful, really: Greek’s word for noble and upright is “beautiful.”  But Peter bumbles: “three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” has something of stuttering stupidity about it.  “He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.”  Matthew has the fear in a different place, where they bow down in reverent worship and Jesus touches them.  But for Mark, they’re just blown away, completely confused.

And so too, where Matthew has Peter reverently say, “Lord,” and “if you want,” Mark has Peter call the transfigured God-man “Rabbi,” and there’s no politeness in his offer, just stuttering stupidity.

“A cloud came, casting a shadow.”  It’s a nice translation.  We are too familiar with the religious-sounding word “overshadowing.”  Here it makes a strong contrast: after the bright light of the Transfiguration, there is mystical shadow.  Matthew calls it a “bright cloud.”  Mark just calls it a cloud, leaving them in darkness.  The light of Jesus is more like darkness for the stunned intelligence of St. Peter.

And yet in the end, “they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone” – and Mark adds to Matthew, “alone with them.”  Here on the desert mountaintop, Jesus astounds and astonishes and baffles – but he is with us.

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File:Prophet Elijah, Serbian painter, 18th c.jpgOn their way down the mountain, they talk about what is coming.  He tells them to keep quiet about this vision, “except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  They don’t know what “rising from the dead meant.”  Constantly baffled by Christ – and especially about his call to suffering.

The Lectionary stops there, but the Gospel has one more exchange.  Baffled about rising from the dead, they change the subject: Isn’t Elijah supposed to come?  Can we have more of the exciting part?

And Jesus changes the subject back, “Elijah truly does come first and restores all things. And how has it been written of the Son of Man that He should suffer many things and be despised?”  You want Scriptural prophecies?  I’ll give you prophecy: suffering and persecution.  And he adds, “Elijah has indeed come, and they have done to him whatever they desired, as it is written of him.”  On the mountain, they encounter the cross.

Matthew says that then they understood about John the Baptist.  Mark leaves them baffled.

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And so here is another image of Lent.  We go off into the desert, to the mountaintop.  And the more we are alone with Christ, the more we realize how little we understand, how deeply he challenges us.  Lent is a time for that kind of mountaintop experience, slowing down enough to see how challenging Jesus is.  Fasting itself is a new encounter with our frailty and confusion and inability to grasp Jesus.  From the heights, we can see how far we have to go.

This Lent, how is Jesus humbling you?

On Reading

St. Jerome

I started writing this web page, and especially the meditations on the Sunday readings, in part as a kind of solidarity with my seminarian students.  I am helping teach them to be priests, and one of the central things they will do – and one of the central things my teaching will help them do – is to preach.

I tell my students my least favorite liturgical gesture – even though I know it is often only symbolic – is when the priest begins his preaching by closing the Lectionary.  “Enough Bible, now here’s what I have to say!”  At least symbolically, I’d like them to preach with their finger on the Lectionary, always leading themselves back into the Sacred Page.

I began writing these reflections to see if it’s as easy as I make it out to be.  A new priest recently told me that one of the hardest parts of his priesthood is having to come up with homilies for daily Mass.  What’s he going to talk about?  I thought, let me see what it’s like to try to say something about Scripture, and to talk about grace while I do it.

I’ve found it a wonderful experience.  Scripture is endless, the depths unfathomable.  If priests don’t have enough to say, it’s because they are plumbing the depths of their own shallow minds, not because the Bible has gotten boring.

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The first few years of this web site I tried to focus on grace, and ended up talking a lot about the readings from my beloved St. Paul (or the other Epistles).  These are men who grow taller the closer we come to them.  They are wonderful.

About a year ago I set myself a new goal, to try to focus on the Sunday Gospels.  I had a spiritual intimation, from reading great authors, that the Gospel readings were great.  But I wondered if now I’d set myself too hard a task.  The real meat, I thought, is often in the Epistle.  The Gospels give us lovely images, but beyond picturesque stories, is there enough to preach on?

Searching the Scriptures

I’m happy to say that the Gospels surpass my wildest dreams.  The more I press, the richer they get.  I set myself a word count, trying to keep these posts short and readable – but there is so much more to say than ever I could write.

A sidenote: I’ve been doing some work on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  I don’t think people sufficiently appreciate that the whole book, some 600 pages, never goes beyond a commentary on seven verses in Matthew 19.  (He does use other parts of Scripture to help him explicate those seven verses – he doesn’t use philosophy.)  Or how that focus on Matthew focuses John Paul’s gaze on Christ the Redeemer and the Gospel of grace.  For historical reasons, and because of the deficiency of their own discovery of Scripture, Jesus, and grace, people confuse this Scriptural commentary with an older, philosophical work that is radically different and deficient.  But JPII’s real witness is his radical devotion to commentary on the Gospels.

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Perhaps you will be scandalized to learn that I don’t put much prayer into this web site.  I do try to have a rich life of prayer, liturgy, and sacraments, and I do try to use the liturgy of the day on which I’m commenting to help me enter in.  But what I am proposing here is, you might say, a less prayer-centered approach to preaching.

Instead what I use is great Bible software.  (I love e-sword, which you can download on your computer, and as mySword on your phone – maybe it’s iSword on Apple?  It gives me easy access to various translations and original languages, greatly supplementing my shaky Greek and non-existent Hebrew.)  Yup, when it comes to preaching, I would recommend more time with the computer and less time in prayer.

I know that sounds scandalous – but let me explain.

Augustine says something like, “I speak to God through prayer, God speaks to me through Scripture.”  God has spoken to us in Scripture.  In the liturgy, we say, “the word of the Lord,” but I don’t think most Catholics believe that.  Instead, people think there’s some other way around, as if in silence God will speak to you a word that he hasn’t said in Scripture.  That he will enlighten you if only you stop reading the Bible.  It’s almost funny to see how modern Catholics try to come up with versions of Lectio Divina where they can spend less time reading the Bible.

I think that’s incorrect.  I think it’s contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, to the example of the saints, and to my own experience.  Silence is golden, to be sure – but what we need is sufficient silence to listen to his Word, spoken on the page of Scripture.  What we need is to get serious about reading the Gospel, digging into the Gospel, seeing how profoundly supernatural is the Gospel’s ability to enlighten our darkness and speak into our emptiness.

The only thing I really want this web page to promote is your own love of Scripture.

How can you better listen to God’s Word?

The Rainbows of Lent

The first Sunday of Lent, we read of the Temptation in the desert – in Mark’s version, because this is the year of Mark.

But we began with the covenant with Noah, and the Lectionary has made a fantastic choice.

God makes a covenant with “you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you” – the whole earth saved through man.  “Never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood.”  And “This is the sign . . . I set my bow in the clouds.”

File:Regenbogen über der Nordsee.JPGThe rainbow is exquisite.  It’s called a bow because it’s a bent line – but in the Hebrew as in the English, bow is a reference to a weapon, a tool of destruction.  And it is set in the storm clouds, themselves signs of destruction and flood.  And yet the rainbow is something of fanciful, unbelievable beauty and delicacy.  (The rainbows we draw are silly.  Real rainbows are unbelievably beautiful.)  And Genesis makes it a sign, in the darkness, that God will never abandon us.

And so the rainbow is like the Crucifix, the tool of destruction now made a sign of hope, darkness turned to beauty.

Our Epistle, from First Peter, adds that Baptism, too, is a rainbow, a sign of drowning become “an appeal for a clear conscience,” just as the death of the righteous one becomes hope for the unrighteous, and his death in the flesh becomes hope for “the spirits in prison,” who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Lent is Spring.  The Latin for the season is Quadragesima – just “the forty days” – but Lent is an Old English word that says that here, when winter has grown long, life is coming again.  Fasting itself is a place of renewal and joy and hope.  It is a rainbow.

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File:Suðuroy rainbow2.jpgAnd so too is the Temptation of Christ.  Mark’s Gospel is wonderful.  Matthew gives the Temptation eleven verses, Luke give it thirteen.  Mark gives it only two verses – so that the Lectionary this year has to add a second two-verse story.  On the one hand, we just need those second two verses to make a respectable reading.  On the other hand, the genius of Mark is to move quickly enough to tie the stories together.

The Holy Spirit “throws him out into the desert.”  It is the work of the Spirit that brings us here.  And the interplay of “out” and “into” is lovely: the desert of Lent is both a going away but more deeply a going toward, and a going forward.

He is sent to be “tempted by Satan,” to face “the test,” the same word as we pray in the Our Father, “Lead us not into temptation.”  That temptation, too, is a rainbow, a fear that becomes in Christ a triumph.

Despite Mark’s compression of the Temptation account, he adds to the other two that Jesus was “among wild beasts.”  The other two have Jesus talking about Psalm 91, “You shall tread on the lion and adder; the young lion and the jackal you shall trample underfoot.”  Mark just points out that Jesus faces both physical and spiritual tests – and conquers.

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File:Tecza.jpgAnd then, “immediately” (that’s Mark’s favorite word), we’re launched into his preaching.  “John had been arrested”: another rainbow, where dark clouds seem to gather and suddenly hope emerges in the person of Christ.

He brings hope – he brings good news, “proclaiming the gospel.”  And what is the good news?  “The gospel of God” and “the kingdom of God is at hand.”  It’s not that the storms won’t come – but above the storms, we see the power and beauty and hope of God.  On the face of the Crucified shines the rainbow light of the Resurrection.

The last words of our Gospel are, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”  Lent is repentance, and repentance itself is a rainbow.  The joy of Lent, the spring of Lent, is to know that though we must battle hard against our sins, though we must suffer for a little while, the glory of love stands on the other side.

And what a fabulous connection: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”  The phrase is familiar enough to sound normal: one obligation, then another.  But the two halfs are opposites.  Do you believe the gospel, do you believe the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God and the triumph of love?  Then change your ways!  Nervous about repentance?  Perhaps you need to rediscover the good news of Jesus.  You need to see the rainbow in the storm clouds.

What holds you back from true repentance this Lent?

File:Double-Rainbow.jpg

Forty Days of the Mercy of Jesus

A thought for Lent, from the liturgy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later they apply it to the Mass in particular:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time: The Frustration of Jesus

Sorry, I’m not sure what happened last week.  I wrote a post, and when I came to post it, it was gone.

And just as I am frustrated by my inability, this week we hear of Jesus’s frustration in relation to his own ability and inability.

A man with leprosy

The readings begins with a challenge.  The reading from Leviticus tells us of the rules about leprosy.  The key line is “he is in fact unclean.”  It’s tempting to blame the Old Law for everything, as if Leviticus is cruel.  But Leviticus isn’t cruel, leprosy is cruel.  It is a horrible, deadly – and until recently incurable – disease.  As our Gospel reading makes clear, Leviticus has policies not only for banning lepers, but also for bringing them back to the community.  But leprosy is not Leviticus’ fault, Leviticus is merely trying to manage a bad situation.  Leviticus doesn’t cause the leper’s isolation, leprosy does.

That’s true about the Old Testament’s dealings with sin, too.  Leviticus is just trying to manage a horrible situation, and in so doing, it reveals how horrible that situation is.

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That is the context for this week’s Gospel reading, the last verses of Mark chapter 1 and the first major physical miracle Jesus works.  The first words of the reading are “a leper,” and all the horribleness of leprosy comes before us.  But the next words (actually the first words in Greek) are “came to Jesus.”  Our awful situation meets Jesus.

The leper’s words are direct: he kneels down and begs, because he knows how objectively horrible things are – but he professes, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”  He doesn’t even ask, he just says, “You can.”  That is the heart of faith: to believe that he can.  Jesus is powerful.  (In Greek, “can” and “power” are the same word.)  Hope is the trust that this God who can, does wish to do it.

He does wish, he can, and he does.

***

Next, we come to Jesus’s emotions.  Our translation has, “Warning him sternly.”  But that might not be stern enough.  The Greek evokes something like snorting with anger.  At the end of this first chapter, already Jesus is frustrated, he knows what is happening, and what is going to happen.  He wants – “he wishes” – that the man will keep things quiet.  The Greek is great: ‘don’t tell no one nothin.’

But of course, he “began to publicize the whole matter.  He spread the report abroad.”

Compare this snorting anger with the emotion just before: “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, Christ presenting the Sacred Heart. Engraving by Francesco R Wellcome V0035653.jpgtouched him, and said to him, I do will it.”  “Moved with pity” is the great Greek word, splagchnizomai, which sounds like guts and means he felt it in his guts.  Jesus’s stomach churned with pain for the man.  And he didn’t just touch him, he grabs hold, fastens himself to the man.

How deeply Jesus feels his love for the man – and his frustration at the stupid way he will respond.

***

The word for what the man does is kerusso.  It’s the same word Jesus said last week, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach [kerusso] there also.  For this purpose have I come.”  It’s where we get the word kerygma: it means, the thing you preach, the central content of the teaching.

Jesus says he has come to preach.  But what does he preach?  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God draws near. Repent, and believe the gospel.”  And subordinate to that, “Come after Me and I will make you fishers of men.”

That is not the former leper’s kerygma.  He says only, “He can!”

Jesus’s power over physical illness is part of the message.  He tells the man to follow the regulations of Leviticus for healed leprosy, a way of subordinating physical things to the spiritual and moral requirements of our relationship with God.  “That,” Jesus tells the former leper, “will be your witness.”

But the man doesn’t subordinate things.  He disobeys Jesus and preaches his own gospel, a gospel of physical healing.

***

The final line is wonderful: “It was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.”  For Jesus, nothing is impossible.  He can cure leprosy, he can rise from the dead, he can heal our moral ailments.

But the frustration of Jesus is that we refuse to hear his Gospel, his call to the kingdom and to repentance.  Just as the leper is “in fact unclean,” so Jesus “in fact” cannot preach to us when we are busily preaching an alternative Gospel.  He “cannot.”

***

Our reading from First Corinthians gives us the proper moral spin.  Paul says that he has become an “imitator . . . of Christ.”  That means he does “everything for the glory of God” and seeking the “benefit . . . of the many, that they may be saved.”  We need only to be open to letting Jesus transform us, through his preaching (his Word, his Gospel) and through his touch (his sacraments) – and to stop preaching our alternative gospels of worldly success.

This Lent, what can you do to set aside false gospels of worldly success and instead let Jesus heal you for the kingdom?

 

Fourth Sunday: No Empty Words

In this Sunday’s gospel Jesus begins his ministry.

A Prophet (Jeremiah)

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

The question in this Gospel is about “authority.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Sunday: Of Beach Rats and Businessmen

This Sunday’s Gospel tells again the story of the calling of the first four apostles – but this time from Mark’s perspective.

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Jonah

The first two readings suggest our angle of approach: Jonah (after his experience with the whale) tells the great city of Nineveh that destruction is at hand – and they repent of their sins, and God “repents
of his plan to destroy them.”

In our reading through First Corinthians, we now have Paul telling them that the time is short, this world is passing away.  Therefore – this is the theme of chapter seven, where our reading is near the conclusion – even those who are married should look beyond our marriages to the time of fulfillment.

Our first two readings give us an apocalyptic slant.

***

Our Gospel has three acts.  First, we have Jesus alone, preaching.  In Mark, these are his first words.  Last week, John in his account emphasized the closeness between John the Baptist and Jesus.  But in Mark, the clouds hang lower and darker.  Jesus begins his preaching “After John had been arrested,” or betrayed.  Our first two readings have set the right theme: Jesus comes in apocalypse.

In this context, he says, “This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.”  This is the good news – Mark says, “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel, the good news, of God.”  But he concludes, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

The Gospel is good news, God is good news.  But it is a radical call, out of our complacency (“repent”) and worldly perspectives (“believe”).  So too Jonah had good news for Nineveh, and Paul for Corinth – but the good news is that they can change their ways and live in the light of God.

***

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Peter

What comes next is the calling of the brothers Simon and Andrew, and then the calling of the brothers James and John.

In many ways these two stories are the same, but take a look at the differences.

Simon and Andrew are brothers.  But James and John are “sons of Zebedee” – and we will hear later how their family sticks up for them.  (We will later hear that Simon is “son of Jonah”: that’s probably just his father’s name, but it’s fun to imagine him belched onto the beach from the belly of the whale, parallel to that bumbling preacher of old.)

Simon and Andrew are “casting their nets into the sea.”  James and John “were in a boat mending their nets.”  Jesus “said” to Simon and Andrew, as if in a normal voice, up close – on the beach.  He “called” James and John, a Greek word often meaning a loud voice, for people far away – on a boat.  There’s no mention of Simon and Andrew having a boat, or taking care of their stuff.  James and John seem more established, more like they have a business plan.

Simon and Andrew leave behind only “their nets.”  James and John leave 1. “their father Zebedee” 2. “in the boat” 3. “along with the hired men.”

***

These are two kinds of conversion stories – or two sides of every conversion story.

File:Konrad Witz 008.jpgIn one, Simon and Andrew have little to lose.  Here they are, bumbling through life.  They don’t know what to do.  The English calls them “fishermen,” which sounds established.  But the Greek word refers not to the fish but to the sea: they are “salties,” beach rats.  And aren’t we all?

In the other, James and John are established, they have life plans, a proper family, a business, employees and property to tend to.  And don’t we all?  But they need to be shaken.  Preachers sometimes note the impropriety of leaving their father in the boat.  Well, Jesus tells us to care for our parents – but he also calls us to love him above even our family.  What our reading from First Corinthians says is shocking, but important: we can’t get so tied up in our marriages and families and earthly joys and sorrows that we treat these things as the end: “For the world in its present form is passing away.”  The only way to live your life is to lay your whole life down.  We all need to be shaken out of our business and busy-ness, like James and John.

***

He finds them in their own situation, and then makes them, not “fishers” of men, but “salties of men.”  The image is different – more like Pope Francis with the smell of the sheep.  It’s not so much that they are called to sit above the water hooking the people that are in.  Rather, they are called to smell like the water, smell like those in the water, be united to the fish – sympathize with the perils of both the washed-up beach rats and the fancy businessmen of the world.

Jesus sets them free so that they can dive in.

How are you bound up in this world?  How does Jesus want to set you free for the Gospel? 

Second Sunday of Ordinary Time: Beginning with Christ

And so we begin again, Ordinary Time.  This year we are reading Mark.  As I have often said, I like the theory that Mark was Peter’s disciple, and this is therefore Peter’s Gospel.  Peter is, above all, the one who was commended for knowing who Jesus is – “who do you say that I am? You are Christ!  . . . You are Peter!” – and then immediately put down for denying the cross (“Get behind me Satan”), and who would always know that he abandoned Christ at the Cross.  Therefore Mark’s Gospel is the most Cross-centered, rushing toward the key event.

But because it is short, we also get some supplemental readings from John.  This first Ordinary Sunday (called the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time), in fact, we get the story of the call of Peter.  It is a conversion story.

***

John is like a theological commentary on the other Gospels.  At the end of our Gospel this Sunday, he inverts Peter’s Confession.  In the other three Gospels, the call of the first disciples begins like this: “And walking along beside the sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.”

But in John, there are three differences.  First, those two disciples are disciples of John the Baptist, not just fishermen.  The other Gospels tell us that the Baptist has prepared the way – but John the Evangelist dramatizes it.

The second and third differences are here: “One of the two who heard John and followed Him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.  He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, We have found the Messiah (which is, being translated, the Christ).  And he brought him to Jesus.”

Peter is not the first called, he receives his call through his brother.

And Peter is not the first to profess Jesus Messiah – he hears from his brother.  All the way through, they are hearing from another.

John’s version of the story culminates like this: “And when Jesus saw him, He said, You are Simon the son of Jonah; you shall be called Cephas (which translated is, A stone).”  It is an inversion of Peter’s profession.  In the other version, Peter says, “You are Christ, Son of the Living God.”

The standard theory says John is only distantly related to the other three Gospels.  I guess I should submit to those who know better than I.  But look, in the Greek, these are word for word the same.  John isn’t ignorant of Matthew’s story.  He’s quoting it, and turning it inside out.

It’s not that John is opposed to Matthew – or that any of the Gospels are opposed to each other.  It’s that John is giving a theological commentary.  Yes, of course Peter professes Christ (in John 6, it will be about the Eucharist).  But before Peter found Jesus, Jesus found Peter, and before Peter knew Jesus, Jesus knew Peter.

How powerful the moment earlier in our reading when “Jesus turned and saw them.”  To be seen, to be known, by Christ.

***

I just got to teach Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium again.  This time, one of the lines that moved me the most quoted this Sunday’s Gospel: “The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: ‘It was about four o’clock in the afternoon’ (Jn 1:39).”

15 Lorenzo Veneziano, Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew. 1370 Staatliche Museen, Berlin..jpgIn fact, I think the point of the document – it’s about evangelization, but it’s called “The Joy of the Gospel” and talks a lot about our motives – is not that we should start with evangelization, but that if we don’t want to evangelize, we should ask what is wrong.

In the introduction, almost the first words, Francis says, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment” – not to start with evangelization, but – “to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.”  This is the topic of our Gospel this Sunday.

He continues, “Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. . . . Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”  Evangelization is a result of the joy of the Gospel.

Our first reading, the call of Samuel, says the same thing.  Samuel leaps when he hears the Lord’s voice, and then says, “Speak for your servant is listening!”  That is why “the Lord was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.”  His words had an effect on his listeners because he was listening to the word of the Lord.

Our second reading is First Corinthians – the first several weeks of each year begins with a different section of First Corinthians – here, talking about sexual morality.  But that’s not how St. Paul approaches the issue.  He talks about being a member of Christ, a temple of the Holy Spirit, glorifying God in our body.  As Pope Benedict said at the beginning of his first encyclical, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

At the beginning of this new year, the Lectionary summons us to encounter Christ, to begin again with that first meeting.  To stumble with the disciples of John the Baptist, as they hear Jesus pointed out, follow him, are discovered by him, go to see where he stays, and thus become apostles even to the other apostles.

When did you first meet Jesus?  Can you remember the hour?Hendrik ter Brugghen - De Roeping van Sint Mattheus.jpg