Sunday, August 20, 2017

Year A Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 56:1.6-7; Ps 67:2-3.5-6.8; Rom 11:13-15.29-32; Matt 15:21-28

There is a remarkable convergence between the troubling events of this past week and our readings for this twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Our first reading comes from the part of the Book of the prophet Isaiah known as trito, or third Isaiah. This section consists of the final eleven chapters of the book, which were written after the Israelites returned from their captivity in Babylon. As incredible as it might sound, we are the fulfillment of the prophecy this oracle contains. We are the foreigners who have entered into covenant with the LORD. In fact, through our participation in this Eucharist this covenant into which God brought us when we were baptized is renewed.

Throughout the history of Israel, God’s chosen people, there were two main strands of thinking concerning their chosenness. The first strand, which is lampooned in the Book of Jonah, held that Israelites, as children of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were chosen to exclusion of all other people. Predictably, such a view inevitably led those who held it to think of themselves as superior to those who do not belong to Israel (i.e., the Gentiles). There is another, healthier, strand that reaches back to the covenant that God entered into with Abraham, when God promised our father in faith that his descendants would be more numerous than grains of sand on a seashore (Gen 22:17).

God told Abraham that because of his obedience, which bid him to take his household and journey to the land God had set apart for him, that through his descendants all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 22:18). Of course, the blessing was God’s only Begotten Son becoming human and reconciling the world to the Father by his life, passion, death, and resurrection. It is Jesus who allows us to become Abraham’s children through faith. This is why St Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, insisted:
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:27-28)
Immediately following this magnificent explanation about what it means to be a Christian, the Apostle wrote: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29). Being a child of Abraham is a matter of faith, not of blood, let alone soil.

The Woman of Canaan, by Michael Angelo Immenraet, 17th century. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

With regard to the correlation between current events and today’s readings, Paul stated that one of the purposes of his ministry to the Gentiles was to make his fellow Jews “jealous” because of the Gentiles’ acceptance of salvation. God gave salvation to the world through Israel, not merely for them, but for them and everyone else. This is why we can say with confidence: The Church, God's people, “exists in order to evangelize” (Evangelii Nuntiandi par 14). Right now, our world and our country are badly in need of the Good News of God's mercy given us in Christ.

The mission of the Church, the mission of all the baptized, is to spread the Gospel to everyone, no exceptions. By bringing Christ to people, we play our role in God’s mission of making the whole of humanity a single family. It was Paul’s hope that by witnessing the conversion of the Gentiles, his fellow Jews would respond to their vocation as God’s chosen people and realize the end for which God chose them. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman whom he encountered at Jacob’s well: “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). As St Peter is recorded preaching in Acts: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34b-35).

Today’s Gospel is one of those passages that marks the beginning of the fulfillment of the oracle from Isaiah in our first reading. We hear of an instance through which God begins expanding his covenant to include everyone through Christ. Despite being a Gentile, the Canaanite woman greeted Jesus with the messianic greeting, which one would think only a Jew who recognized him as Messiah might use: “Son of David” (Matt 15:22). She also hailed him as “Lord,” which goes beyond Messiah. But before greeting him thus, she first pleaded with him to have mercy on her by casting demons out of her afflicted daughter (Matt 15:22).

It is because of the woman’s faith expressed in her greetings that Jesus could use this encounter as we might call “a teaching moment.” What Jesus sought to teach is that God extends divine mercy to everyone, to Jew and Gentile alike. As seems to have often been the case with people they perceived as pesky, perhaps particularly a Gentile woman, Jesus’s disciples demanded that he send her away. Rather than doing so, Jesus stated that he was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). Upon hearing him say this, replying from her helplessness, she simply pleaded, “Lord, help me” (Matt 15:24). Their dialogue proceeded in this manner until the woman said she would be content with scraps from God's table. Her begging moved Jesus. He then commended her for her steadfast faith, which resulted in her daughter being healed.

I think that the inspired author of Matthew’s Gospel handed on the dialogue in the manner he did to demonstrate to Jewish Christians the same thing Paul wrote about accomplishing through his ministry to the Gentiles. It is important to note that the Gospel of Matthew was written for a largely Jewish Christian community. While it was likely a mixed group of Jews and Greek-speaking Gentiles that made up the community from the beginning, the balance was shifting with Gentile Christians growing larger in proportion to Jewish Christians. There is a parallel between this situation and that in our own diocese.

In 1979, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued a Pastoral Letter on Racism: Brothers and Sisters To Us. In it they stated clearly: “Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.”

In light of today’s readings, it seems fitting to observe that if we ourselves, the Church, or our nation are to be healed of the sin of racism, each of us needs to reflect on what in us needs to be healed in this regard. We may not think of ourselves as racist, being prejudiced, or intolerant but is that entirely the case? Intolerance and bias can hide in our attitudes and manifest in our actions. Each one of us needs to search our heart and find those places where we might harbor hostility, concealed discrimination and prejudice. Then we need to repent and change, endeavoring to do better in our relations with those who are different from us. If we are to be agents of the Gospel, that is, evangelists, and convert others we must first be converted.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

"And if the mountain should crumble"

Ah, blogging! I haven't quit altogether. My life presently is very busy. Despite being constantly busy, I can't seem to get the things done I need to get done. Poor time management? To some extent, yes. Not living my priorities? Again, no doubt to a point. So many things competing for my attention that I don't give anything the focused attention I need to? Ding, ding, ding. We have a winner. While I enjoy blogging, these days it is way down my list of priorities,

Recently I wrote down my priorities in an effort to better manage my time. I came up with 6 priorities, which I won't bother sharing with you. Like budgeting money, these plans only work if you discipline yourself to carry them out. Right now that is my struggle. I am not complaining. It's precisely the struggle in which I need to be engaged.

During my morning devotion yesterday, I was thinking about Dostoevsky's observation that "beauty will save the world." It's one of those phrases one cannot avoid these days, which is my polite way of suggesting that it's overused. I then began wondering that if I were to align the transcendentals (truth, beauty, goodness) with the theological virtues (faith, hope, love) to which virtue would beauty correspond? After giving it a few moments thought it became clear to me that beauty aligns with hope.

It is something of a theological/pastoral hobby horse for me to insist that hope is the most neglected of the three theological virtues. Fasting is the most neglected of the three fundamental spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, alms-giving). I also align fasting with hope. While it may be a bit of a stretch, it seems that beauty is often the most neglected of the three transcendentals. With so many self-styled Catholic apologists running around, it seems goodness, usually expressed as a rigid moralism, is the starting and ending point. This moralism arises from truth understood in a very restricted and static manner. It usually results in what I can only describe as a kind Catholic hyper-Calvinism; rule-bound, hide-bound.

It is precisely here that beauty comes to the rescue. Beauty becomes hope. In the eighth chapter of Romans, which for me is St Paul at his peak, the Apostle wrote: "For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees?" (Rom 8:24) Indeed, beauty points beyond itself. Something - a view of nature, music, a painting, a poem, a story, a film, a dance, etc. - is beautiful because it is transcendent. When we recognize something as beautiful, we experience correspondence. Another way to say this is that beauty strikes an inner chord. While not completely subjective, beauty that is beauty has an indispensably subjective element. Perhaps another way to describe correspondence is encountering something that resonates with my experience. It is important not to exclude our interior life from our experience.

Yes, I am avoiding the whole subject of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend and its aftermath. Suffice it to say, racism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism are utterly abhorrent. When these hateful and dangerous attitudes congeal and morph into a poisonous ideology that begins to be manifested publicly we must oppose those who espouse them. As Christians, how we oppose dehumanizing ideologies matters. If we claim to follow Christ, we must pray for our enemies and do good to them. In other words, our opposition must be rooted in love, not only for those who are being denigrated, but for those who espouse dangerous and hateful ideologies that denigrate. Love, not hate, is the basis of the only sustainable revolution. Come to think of it, love is beautiful. I don't need to abstract about this.

The response of Heather Heyer's father to her death, which was the result of the young woman being hit and killed by the car of an obviously very confused, hate-filled, and outraged young man, who drove it into a crowd of counter-protestors, very concretely and beautifully demonstrates what I am trying to express. What was Ms Heyer's father's response to the senseless death of his daughter?
And my thoughts with all of this stuff is that people need to stop hating and they need to forgive each other. I include myself in that forgiving the guy that did this. He don’t know no better. I just think about what the Lord said on the cross. Lord, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing
Any action that does not flow from prayer, from a real discernment is bound to fail. Many predict that the United States is headed for a period of increasing violence and confrontation. Therefore, we need to keep in mind that ideology is toxic. Moreover, let's not forget that Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers." Peace is not merely the absence of violence - though no violence is a necessary condition for peace - it is the realization of justice. Justice does not lack mercy because justice is the result of love, not vengeance.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Concerns about North Korea's nuclear capabilities

While U.S.'s bellicosity over the past few decades has often deeply troubled as well as puzzled me strategically (it seems we have gotten into the habit of instigating more chaos than we quell, resulting in too many civilians being killed, harmed, and displaced- ONE is too many, ideally), I do not believe we should stand idly by while the DPRK acquires nuclear weapons and a robust and increasingly accurate means of delivering them.

I like very much this statement by Defense Secretary (Gen) James Mattis. It is clear, concise, and reasonable. Above all, it expresses a desire for peace. Let's de-nuclearize, if I may use that clunky term, the Korean Peninsula and then start helping North Korea become a responsible state by taking care of its people.
While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth. The DPRK regime's actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates
As Secretary Tillerson noted recently and publicly, speaking to North Korean leadership, which has even taken to isolating itself from China: "We are not your enemies."

For those who want to dismiss Gen Mattis and most of the military top-brass as run-of-the-mill neo-cons, you're wrong. Neither are they part of some "deep state" conspiracy. I've heard some people suggest this about Gen Mattis with regard to Iran. It might be useful to know that GCC states identify Iran as their greatest threat and have for decades. It would not be a good thing for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons either, but that is another issue for another day.

The U.S. military is under civilian control. The JCS provides the best military advice they can to the president and the rest of the National Command Authority. However, the president is free to heed or disregard.

U.S. Secretary of Defense, (Gen.) James Mattis

Someone asked smugly, "So, is North Korea the new thing we're supposed to be scared of?" I wouldn't say scared at this point. But let's see, North Korea's development of nukes has gone on apace with significant progress over several decades. Every administration during that time has had moments of tension with North Korea and attempted to dissuade and/or deter them from so doing without success, but not despite trying and probably not without delaying them. As anyone who follows the news knows, North Korea is currently working on a nuclear-capable ICBM and making progress, as their recent robust testing regime demonstrates. This would give them the capability of "nuking" the United States, which they have (unsurprisingly) identified as a target. Please correct me if I am wrong, but didn't we freak out when Cuba requested the Soviet Union put nukes on that island in 1962? So much so we were willing to risk war? Thank God it didn't result in such a horror.

For anyone who thinks resuming the Korean War is in any way akin to Afghanistan or other recent Middle Eastern (mis-) adventures, you're badly mistaken. Simply using their existing conventional weapons capability, the North Koreans launching a first strike would decimate Seoul very quickly. What is very alarming about Kim Jong-Un is that he has isolated himself far more than his father or grandfather ever did, even from China. I am not sure the hard-press we're putting on right now is the best idea because it is escalating an always-volatile situation, but that's not my call. I would like Russia and China to chime in too, more than just voting to impose further sanctions, which they did today. While it may be a bit early to be scared, this is certainly news and something we should be interested in and concerned about.

In any case, if you believe in God, please pray for a peaceful resolution to this tense state-of-affairs, which means North Korea stopping its missile-testing and sitting down at the negotiating table, not just with the U.S., but perhaps a new round of Five Party talks (North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, U.S.). Whether you voted for, like or loathe, President Trump, pray for him on this (and other matters), as well as those who advise him, and those who carry out diplomacy. I think it is worth praying that no more countries acquire nuclear weapons and that countries that currently possess such weapons will work together to reduce them with an eye towards eliminating them altogether. At the end of the day, a peacefully realized nuclear weapon-free Korean Peninsula is a worthy goal.

Unlike at least one Christian leader, I don't believe God has given President Trump sanction to take out Kim Jong-Un, or start a war, especially one involving nuclear weapons, which would be the height of insanity. I do believe in praying for our leaders as they face the challenges of leadership, praying for a lasting peace, the end of nuclear proliferation, as well as the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord

There's proper Christian apocalypticism and then there is end-time madness. Jesus's Transfiguration, rightly grasped, is the former. The difference between apocalypticism properly understood and the kind of madness that grips people regarding the end-of-the-world is the difference between hope and fear. On the one hand, in a very real sense, due to the fall, the world is always in a mess. On other hand, God is at work in the mess accomplishing his purposes not despite the mess, but through it. "Bless this mess," then, becomes a form of the cry of some of the earliest Christians: Maranatha!.

In today's Gospel reading, we heard without much adieu, "Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them" (Matt 17:1-2a). Moses and Elijah, traditionally taken to represent the Law and the prophets respectively, appeared alongside Jesus. Matthew tells us that they "conversed" with Jesus. He gives us no insight into what they might have discussed.

I don't think it's too much to say that what Peter and the sons of Zebedee beheld that day was not necessarily things as they really are as much as things as they were meant to be and ultimately will be; the world transformed into what God created it and is redeeming it to be. After all, "apocalypse" literally means "an uncovering," a revelation.

Like Peter in this pericope, we are quick to memorialize things. He wanted to make three tabernacles, three booths- one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. To memorialize something in this way usually means being in a rush to put it in the past. Perhaps we can go back and revisit the memory: "Remember that time Jesus turned bright white and we saw him talking to Moses and Elijah? I wonder what they were talking about?"

The Transfiguration, by Raphael, ca. 1520

I find it interesting that Peter makes his suggestion to erect three booths, or tabernacles, before they were overshadowed by the cloud. Upon being overshadowed, they heard the voice of the Father declaring, as he had at Jesus's baptism: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matt 3:17). This is an encounter with ultimate reality! They experienced a theophany, an apocalypse. The only response to their encounter was to fall flat on their faces and be "vehemently," or "tremendously," afraid. Yes, there is an adverb in the original Greek to go with the verb indicating "they were afraid." Were that the sum total of their experience it may well have led the three disciples to adopt what is characterized as a kind of end-time madness, which deals in death and despair and turns God into an angry tyrant looking to exact revenge upon an unrepentant world with Jesus as his agent of mayhem.

What happened next was Jesus touched them- this is important. He touched them while they were still lying prostrate on the ground, afraid to look up. As he touched them he said, "Rise, and do not be afraid" (Matt 17:7b). Upon feeling his touch and hearing his words, it seems they felt it was safe to look up and stand up. When they looked, "they saw no one else but Jesus alone" (Matt 17:8b). This is the revelation, the apocalypse, the uncovering! While they did not yet possess full knowledge, they would never look at anything the same way again. Notice, there was no more discussion of erecting memorials. Why? Because Jesus walked down the mountain with them. God was with them, not left behind on the mountainside. God is with us, too.

You were transfigured in baptism. In the waters of baptism who you really are, who God created and redeemed you to be, was made known, was uncovered, revealed. What up until that moment was implicit became explicit. We also encounter Jesus each time we come to Mass. In the Eucharist the eschaton, the apocalypse, the final revelation of God is made immanent, just as it was for Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor. In the Eucharist, Jesus does not merely draw near to you, or make an appearance in our midst. He comes to be in you in order to transfigure you, to complete the good work he began in you with your baptism.

When you are dismissed from Mass, you are sent forth in the knowledge that Jesus is not only with you, but in you. As someone touched, encouraged, and empowered by Christ, you are to make him present wherever you go. How the world is transformed until Christ returns is by your proclaiming, "Lord, bless this glorious mess!" You make the mess glorious by engaging in it for Christ's sake, which primarily means helping those in need, working to see those who are without have what they need. In biblical language, this means taking care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger you encounter.

My friends, in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, surely God is with us.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Liturgy and the totus Christus

Showing a picture he took of a Lutheran chapel in Denmark, where he was participating in a conference of the European Hymn Society, Benedictine priest, musician and liturgical scholar, Fr Anthony Ruff (who I had the pleasure of meeting more than 20 years ago), where he celebrated Mass, noted that while "the Lutherans still use the medieval high altar of the former Cistercian monastery," he, a Catholic monk, "set up an altar/table facing the people."

In a further comment he noted something that strikes me as tremendously important:
If ad or[i]entem reinforces a sense of community - we're all facing the same direction and the priest is one of us - it's a good thing. If, however, it reinforces that the priest is doing Mass FOR the people or ON BEHALF OF the people - which can easily be the impression, then we have a major theological problem. Not denying at all the indispensible [sic] and irreplacea[b]le role of the ordained priest in the (communal) offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass, it is a distortion to think that the ordained priest is the mediator. He ain't. Christ is. It's also a distortion to think that only he shares in Christ's priesthood - which is a very widespread misconception. This is totally false - just look at the rite of baptism - all share in the priesthood through baptism
All I can say is, I agree. This is an important point to be discussed among those of us who care deeply about the sacred liturgy.

In my experience in pastoral ministry and on-line, the "major theological problem" Fr Ruff identifies is usually the crux of the matter. This ties very much into the reception, or non-reception, of the Second Vatican Council. It has to do with something far more fundamental than the liturgical reforms that followed the Council. It goes to those things on which the reform is based: a renewed and restored ecclesiology and theology of the Council as expressed in the Dogmatic Constitutions and the Pastoral Constitution. As it pertains to the liturgy, this results in the importance for all to fully, actively, and consciously participate.

Lutheran Church in Logumkloster, Denmark, by Fr Anthony Ruff, OSB

I have heard/read a number of people lately speak/write about wanting to worship in the Extraordinary Form precisely so as not to participate. I read one piece in the Catholic Herald yesterday, by a U.S. blogger, (not sure how they settled on him, retrograde and crosswise would be kind ways of describing his stance) who was lamenting things like formation for marriage and having children baptized. The whole concept of and our need for Christian koinonia, which is rooted in our participation in the Eucharist, seems lost on many people.

Do we need silence, space and quiet time for recollection and contemplation? Yes! I am an advocate for more silence than we often have at Mass: a pause before the Confiteor or penitential litany at least long enough to silently recite an Act of Contrition, some silence after the first reading, Psalm, and second reading, a few moments of reflection after the homily, a pause between the end of the Communion Rite and the Prayer After Communion. But we should have a prayer life outside of Mass, too, one that brings us to the Eucharist and enhances our participation in the Mass.

A dilemma someone posed to me about whether the liturgy is the work of God or work of the people strikes me as utterly misguided. It seems to me a classic false dilemma. If one chooses to impale him/herself on either horn of this dilemma I can't help but see that s/he runs the risk of rendering the liturgy practically meaningless- it would result in a fatal disconnection or dysfunction in one's conception of what is happening, which impacts how one engages at Mass. Therefore, it seems to me the only Christian approach is to grasp that the liturgy is at one and the same time the work of God and the work of God's people, the Church, who together constitute the totus Christus- the total or complete Christ. Stated simply, Baptism and Confirmation matter for Eucharist.

Friday, August 4, 2017

"A broken soul stares from a pair of watering eyes"

I had an idea this evening - just for fun and old times sake, why not put up a Friday traditio on Friday?! Why not, indeed. So, to kick-off August, which finds me still trying to regain my blogging chops, I offer THE THE with their classic song, "Uncertain Smile." Why? Because I heard it today on the radio driving home from confessing to my Spiritual Director. Hearing it, I was struck all over by what a great song it is. This makes it worth handing on, makes it a traditio.

Upon coming out of a fairly serious bout of depression I find it is good to give my sinful responses to being in that condition to the Lord through the Sacrament of Penance. I don't mind telling you, dear reader, July 2017 was about as rough a month as I can remember having experienced. God is good, very good.

On the first day of last month, the day after I arrived back home from my three-week residency at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, I had lunch with a friend who is a priest. We are the same age. He's a member of religious order that used to serve in my diocese. We met when he served here years ago as a fairly young priest. Prior to him being assigned back East, even when he served in Houston and Albuquerque after being in Utah, he was my Spiritual Director. He said something during lunch to which I found myself giving full assent. It was something along the lines that he always thought when he hit 50 or so many of life's struggles would become easier. Instead of becoming easier, he said he is finding many of these things more difficult. He provided a litany of things with which many of us struggle. I know that's vague. I may often write in a confessional manner, but I have no desire to go to confession on the internet or divulge the contents of a private conversation with a friend publicly. Especially you're a middle-aged man, apply your experience.

Without further delay, here's our traditio. It may be late, but it's on Friday.

A howling wind that blows the litter as the rain flows
As street lamps pour orange colored shapes, through your windows
A broken soul stares from a pair of watering eyes
Uncertain emotions force an uncertain smile

The jam at the end of this song is delightful.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Year A Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kgs 3:5.7-12; Ps 119:57.72.76-77.127-130; Rom 8:28-30; Matt 13:44-46

We just heard, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28). We might well ask ourselves, do I know this, either from my own life or from looking at the world? As is often the case, our world is enmeshed in violence, poverty, and strife of all kinds. A little closer to home, life is often hectic, stressed, and seemingly devoid of any meaning beyond the next thing we have to do. We might well ask, is God making these things work for my good? Such knowledge, however at odds with the facts as it may seem, constitutes wisdom because it informs me how I am to live my circumstances. Our question, then, might be: “How do I use my circumstances?”

Answers to such a wide-ranging and complex questions as these can only be tentative and provisional. Suffice it to say, even the wisest and most learned among us labor under the limitation of being human; try as we might, we cannot see the whole picture. Solomon recognized this limitation and sought a transcendent source of wisdom.

When told by God in a dream, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you,” Solomon asked for “an understanding heart,” for wisdom (1 Kgs 3:5.9). His humble request pleased God so much it was granted. So, the young king received from God “a heart so wise and understanding” that the inspired author proclaimed, with a bit of hyperbole, no doubt, there had been no one like him up until then and that nobody who would come after him would be equal to him (1 Kgs 3:12). Indeed, even today we revere King Solomon for his wisdom.

In the Jewish Scriptures wisdom is typically concerned with everyday life, not esoteric knowledge about otherworldly mysteries. Hence, wisdom concerns practical matters and guides people in living godly lives. Throughout the various books of the Old Testament wise people are not always the most intellectually gifted. Generally, when a person is depicted as wise, s/he is presented as in tune with God. The wise person and God have a strong, intimate relationship that translates into the wise person being very practical and possessed of what usually turns out to be quite simple, but by no means always well-received, knowledge.

The divine gift of wisdom, which the Church teaches is one of the seven gifts of the Spirit, is important for each of us in living out our Christian vocation, especially in the many ambiguous situations we in which we find ourselves. Presumably, each of us wants to live a good life, a life in tune with the divine life we received in baptism. To that end, we repent of those things that were unwise that pull us away from God, damage our relationships with others, and create disharmony in the eucharistic fellowship we share.

"The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field..." (Matt 13:44)

All of the parables in today’s Gospel begin with the words, “The kingdom of God is like . . .” (Matt 13:44-45.47.52). These analogies are in keeping with Jesus’ basic message that in him God’s kingdom has come near. As one of the great Church Fathers, Origen, stated it, Jesus is autobasileia, that is, God’s kingdom in person. God’s kingdom is present wherever and whenever God’s will is done. That seems simple enough, but we live in a technological age that demands exactness and precision. We are uneasy with paradox and ambiguity. If only Jesus had satisfied our need for exactness and given a precise definition of what the kingdom is and exactly where and when it occurs. I guess that's why we have systematic theologians.

Take today’s first parable as an example of the Lord’s indirectness. One might well respond to this story moralistically and say that the person who found the treasure in the field, reburied it and bought the field acted dishonestly. The treasure should have been reported to the owner of the field, not concealed until after the finder of the treasure could purchase the land, thus securing the treasure for himself. However, Jesus is not teaching here about honesty. It is not uncommon for his parables to feature characters who act in what we might see as slightly shady ways. Jesus sometimes used worldly stories to further open the eyes of those who could see, revealing to them the often-surprising ways God works in the world. Hence, the focus of this parable is on the realization of the value of the treasure - it is worth everything the finder owns and even more! The transaction in the second parable is more straightforward, but the point is much the same.

Two weeks ago, the discourse we are still reading (the third of 5 discourses in Matthew) began with Jesus sitting in a boat and teaching the crowds. In this discourse Jesus is presented not only as a wisdom teacher, but also as wisdom made flesh- divine, transcendent Wisdom engaging human limitation. The actions and words of Jesus are our practical, if often paradoxical, guidance for everyday life. Reading scripture daily, especially from the Gospels, is an indispensable way that we sit and learn at the feet of our Lord. Like the knowledge written about by St Paul in our reading from Romans, only those with ears to hear and eyes to see benefit from divine Wisdom. In other words, only those who are open to letting themselves be challenged and changed can see and hear. This excludes those who read and listen only to confirm what they think they already know- who hear only what they want to hear and only see what they want to see.

Linking wisdom to the knowledge “that all things work for good for those who love God,” it is safe to say of the lives of the saints and of our own lives that God is not so concerned about what happens to us as he is with how we respond. Indeed, do we have the wisdom to affirm with St Paul, who, later in this same chapter of Romans, wrote: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered?’” “No!” Paul emphatically continues, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:35-37). Such is the value of knowing Jesus Christ that knowing him is worth all we have in order to become all God created, redeemed us, and is now sanctifying us to be; without Christ, all we have amounts to nothing. As the title of popular Christian book written a few years ago by a now disgraced Evangelical pastor put it: Jesus + Nothing = Everything.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The war I must wage: destroying a piece of my own heart

The way I live, think, and write it would be a fool's errand for me to try to keep up with with all the political ups and downs of our present moment. Over time, I hope I am becoming less political. This is not a way of obliquely insisting that politics don't matter, they do, but not as much as I formerly thought. Because politics are provisional, seeking to be less political is my attempt at keeping politics in perspective. I am not a Republican, neither am I a Democrat. Given how these are understood in the United States, I can say that I am neither a liberal nor a conservative because, depending on the matter at hand, I am both a liberal and a conservative. Above all, I resist being in the thrall of any ideology.

I readily admit to finding the White House events from the Friday before last through yesterday to be both amusing and alarming. Maybe my interest is simply morbid curiosity, or is perhaps attributal to the ever-present sights and sounds of infotainment. In times like these there are a few working journalists whose writing helps me keep these provisional, even ephemeral, things in perspective. One such journalist is Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi. His article "The Anthony Scaramucci Era Will Be Freakish, Embarrassing and All Too Short" did not let me down in this regard. While it should go without saying (in the age of internet basic logic seems to fly out the window and some people insist on making invalid inferences, the popular name for which is jumping to conclusions), I have some pretty fundamental disagreements with Taibbi even as I find much of his work on what ails our republic politically and economically very insightful. In other words, as with many writers, philosophers, theologians, and economists, I find his diagnosis largely accurate, but part ways with him when it comes to many, by no means all, prescriptions.

It is way too easy to just provide a list of things that are wrong and walk away in disgust. It seems to me that this is just what many Christians content themselves with doing. It isn't much more difficult to follow one's list of ills with a plea to turn back the clock, which amounts to trying to reverse the world like Superman. The idea is to somehow restore what is deemed as a better time in the Church and in the world. Neither does the answer lie in Christians abandoning the world. A priest named Jonathan Morris summed this up nicely on Facebook recently: "Engaging the world, in all its messiness, has always been the Gospel way. Isolating ourselves in a cocoon of likemindedness is the easy way out."

In his speech to open the Second Vatican Council, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia ("Mother Church Rejoices"), the eminent historian, Angelo Roncalli, more popularly known as Pope St John XXIII, directly addressed those who see nothing but evil and who prefer trying to live in the past:
In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.

In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men's own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God's superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church
A Christian is not one who stands looking wistfully behind the plow, but is someone who not only looks ahead to the full realization of God's glory, which is yet to be fully revealed, and who actively seeks to usher in God's reign by living it as a present reality. A Christian, to paraphrase the liturgy, is one who waits in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ. I think the two words in that statement that require emphasis are "joyful" and "waits" in that order. Either Jesus is Lord of the present moment (i.e., he is Lord right here and right now), or he is not Lord at all.

This brings me to the point I want to make. Being a Christian is not to participate in some fantasy role-playing game, killing time 'til the parousia. Being a Christian is to be one who engages reality as it is and not as s/he might want it to be and to do so according to all the factors that together make reality what it is and not something else.

When it comes to those so-called "hot-button" social issues that challenge our humanity on a fundamental level, about which many Christians in the U.S. are rightly concerned, issues such as sexuality, marriage, parenting, life and death, we need to grasp the reality so we can engage as salt and light. Let me take two issues: marriage and abortion. In the United States these matters are now constitutional matters. In other words, they cannot be changed by the collective acts of Congress and the president, let alone by state legislatures and governors. The longer the decisions that made them constitutional issues endure, the more they become settled law and the less likely it is the Supreme Court will overrule them no matter who is appointed to the court. Like it or not, this is the reality we must face full on. Is it possible to amend our constitution? Sure. It's fine to advocate for such amendments. However, there is nowhere near the consensus to make such changes to our fundamental law. In fact, when it comes to consensus-building, the momentum currently goes against such efforts. This, too, is part of the reality we must engage.

Politics cannot save us, but I am convinced politics can damn us. For Christians how we engage our society and culture matter as much, if not more, than those matters that prompt us to engage. It seems to me that when we quote Jesus from Matthew's Gospel (10:16) to the effect that, as sheep sent among wolves, we are to be "shrewd as serpents and simple as doves," we usually, if implicitly, elevate shrewdness over simplicity, or gentleness. The effect of acting according to this implicit understanding is that it usually leads to something like becoming wolves in sheep's clothing: saying all the right "Christian" things while acting contrary to the Gospel.

"God Carrying Us," by Soichi Watanabe, based on Isaiah 46:4

I am tempted to pose the question here, "Given our acknowledgement of reality, do we surrender?" The problem I have with posing that question is it assumes that the Church's and, hence, the individual Christian's, relationship to the world and to other people is one of incessant combat. In other words, it assumes life is a war and the Church is an army. If we take that stance, we are forced to decide if someone is an ally or an enemy. If an enemy, then someone not only to be resisted, but to be vanquished, routed, beaten. In my view, this is no way to follow Christ. I say that being well-aware that martial imagery for the Church is not foreign to the Christian tradition. It is foreign, it seems to me, to the New Testament. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, gave us to two complementary images for the Church on earth, which, during the Counter-Reformation era, an era ended by the Second Vatican Council, was called the Church Militant: "the People of God" and "the pilgrim Church."

As a Christian the only battle I really need to fight is the one within myself. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed in his book The Gulag Archipelago:
the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
In what is still the road map for evangelization in the modern world, Evangelii Nuntiandi, promulgated by Bl Pope Paul VI more than 40 years ago, he observed:
for the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one's neighbor with limitless zeal. As we said recently to a group of lay people, "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses." St. Peter expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word.[1 Pet 3:1] It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus- the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity (par 41)
I think anything less what Pope Paul called for will prove futile. Besides, isn't it so much easier to reduce faith by conforming it to a secular political ideology and then engaging in political activism than to give humble, joyful witness to goodness, truth, and beauty for love of God and neighbor, by how I live day-to-day?

Practicing the fundamental spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, the latter of which primarily consists of selfless service to others, along with our participation in the sacramental life of the Church, are the means God gives us both to fight our interior battle and to engage the world in love as it is and not as we wish it was.
For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith (1 John 5:3-4)
Again, I had the best of intentions with regard to posting a traditio yesterday, but I did not do so. This only serves to prove, as I so often do, that intentions in and of themselves get you nowhere. So, our late traditio for this week is two Camaldolese monks who belong to the Hermitage of the Immaculate Heart in Big Sur, California- Fr. Cyprian and Brother James- with a simple and lovely rendition of one of my favorite hymns, Tantum Ergo:

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Wheat, tares, yeast and the greatness of God

Readings: Wis 12:13.16-19; Ps 86:5-6.9-10.15-16; Rom 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-43

In going over the readings for this Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, I was immediately struck by the first reading, taken from the Book of Wisdom. Why? Because while the sacred author acknowledges God's greatness and might, he sees it revealed in God's leniency, clemency, and, yes, kindness. God is great because God is merciful, or, taking a cue from the title of Pope Francis' book, God is mercy. God is what God does. With God there can be no separation between act and being. In human, if perhaps Heideggerian, terms we call there being no separation or contradiction between act and being authenticity.

To be sure, God judges justly. Whenever God condemns he does so justly. But God's greatness, it seems to me, lies in his reluctance and even refusal to condemn. God's mercy, his kindness, is expected of God's people, those who believe in God, revere God, and seek to follow his Son: "And you taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just [i.e., righteous] must be kind" (Wis 12:19). Being truly just, or righteous, requires a person to be kind. Not long ago I read that Jesus was only ever harsh with those who were harsh with others. While I have not undertaken a quantitative analysis of the Lord's interactions as set forth in the canonical Gospels, but this strikes me as true. It seems to be in accord with what Jesus taught as conveyed in St Matthew's Gospel:
Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? (Matt 7:1-3)
If Christ, who has no motes or beams, is clement and lenient and if Christ is himself the kindness and mercy of God, then how much more should we who have motes and beams be clement and lenient, kind and forgiving?

I was also struck by the sacred author of Wisdom's insistence that God shows his "might when the perfection of [his] power is disbelieved" (Wis 12:17). Jesus crucified is the ultimate showing of God's might and Christ's resurrection is the perfection of divine power because these are the means by which God exercises clemency and leniency, kindness and forgiveness. These can be summed up in one word: glory. As the apostle wrote to the Church in ancient Corinth:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:22-25)
I think this why, as St Paul wrote in our second reading, "we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26). We do not know how to pray as we ought because too often we do not pray to God, but to our own reduction, to who we think and would like God to be. Blessed be God for coming to our aid and interceding for us with "inexpressible groanings," which, I think, represent true prayer. Note that the apostles says of the one "who searches hearts"- he "knows what is the intention of the Spirit" in order to intercede for us in accord with God's will, not our own. This is the path to authenticity, to wholeness, to holiness.

Rather than trying to impose ourselves on God through prayer, we need allow ourselves to be formed by the Spirit through prayer. Stated more simply, we must learn to pray as we ought because doing so is crucial to living this way. What way? In the manner of Christian disciples, those odd people who live as if God's reign were already completely established, doing things like forgiving, loving, serving, and praying for our enemies, returning good for evil, caring for the widow, the orphan, the abandoned elderly person, the addict, etc. All those things that are easy to say but hard to bring ourselves to do. In other words, we are to be just and kind, like God. This is how we reflect the glory of God, how we demonstrate that the Church has, indeed, been infused with and continues to be animated by the Spirit of the Father and the Son.

Our Gospel reading today is a nice corollary to the pericope I shared about not judging others harshly so as to condemn them. Jesus' Parable of the Wheat and the Tares bids us not to worry about who is "really" a Christian and who might not be. This judgment is reserved to God alone. In the meantime, we act in good faith towards others trusting in their good faith. This may sound trite, but I daily see, especially on social media, Christians questioning the faith of other Christians as if faith could be reduced to a well-studied orthodoxy, or even worse, perfect praxis that is properly called moralism, which brings us back to the motes and beams issue.

Instead of wasting time pronouncing divine judgment on others, we are to be the good kind of yeast, as opposed to the yeast/leaven of the Pharisees (see Matt 16:5-12). Jesus' likening of the kingdom of heaven to the effect a very small amount of yeast has within a comparatively large batch of dough serves as something like the antidote to our all-too-human tendency to attempt to sort the wheat from the tares (I am always to be found among the wheat, of course). There is an obvious parallel here with how we go about evangelization, catechesis, and living out Christian koinonia in our late modern milieu. Jesus uses the mustard seed, too, to demonstrate that God's kingdom begins very small and then grows by the faith of those who make the word incarnate in their lives.

Together wheat and yeast make bread. In light of the recent instruction from the Holy See's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which reaffirmed what constitutes proper matter for the confection of the Eucharist in the Roman Rite (i.e., bread that is "unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made so that there is no danger of decomposition made of only wheat and water" and wine that "must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances" par 3a and 3b), it does not strike me as too audacious, or very original, to point out that we are to be the yeast in just the sense Jesus tells us we are to be in today's Gospel.

Homosexuality, Church teaching, and the pastoral conundrum

There are a number of recent books about the Catholic Church and homosexuality, bi-sexuality, and transgenderism, what is frequently denoted as LBGT. I think it is a mistake to lump trangenderism in with homosexuality. Earlier this year Commonweal magazine featured an insightful piece: "The Church & Transgender Identity Some Cautions, Some Possibilities," which is well worth the time of anyone who is interested in this complex issue.

Yesterday, in the Catholic Herald, I read a review of two recent books on homosexuality, Fr. James Martin's Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity and Daniel C. Mattson's Why I Don't Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexuality. These were reviewed together by Msgr Keith Barltrop in a piece entitled "These two books on gay Catholics are a missed opportunity." It is good that he paired these books because each presents a very different Catholic view on homosexuality that highlight well the tensions in the Church right now. As the late liturgical scholar Mark Searle noted, "Tension creates energy."

Image from Catholic Herald article

Msgr Barltrop's review is very thoughtful. His qualification to write on these matters is his years spent ministering in London to gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender Catholics. As someone who has been privileged to serve some of my LGB sisters and brothers, street cred matters. Coming at the issue exclusively by way of various media "takes" is worse than useless. Ideology has no place in pastoral ministry.

One insight I found very useful in Barltrop's reviews arises from the very objective teaching of the Church on the matter of homosexuality, something Fr Martin quite glaringly omits from his book:
if we believe there is truth in the Church's teaching, however imperfectly it may be currently expressed, then surely one way forward is to offer LGBT people, if they will not accept this teaching on its own authority, some tools to make an authentic discernment of their personal experiences of sex and erotic attraction Among such tools a sound moral theology and a spiritual discipline are paramount
Msgr Barltrop goes on to point out that Catholic pastoral ministers have great resources at our disposal: the work of St Igantius of Loyola on spiritual discernment, MacIntyre-inspired virtue ethics, as well as the work of Dominican moral theologian Servais Pinckaers, perhaps most accessible to pastoral ministers in his book Morality: The Catholic View. In his work, Fr Pinckaers focuses on what it means to seek true happiness. But these only work, Msgr Barltrop notes, "if a person puts a developing relationship with Jesus at the very center of his or her life and judges every moral decision by the way it deepens or threatens that relationship."

One of the things that verifies this approach is that it is not exclusive to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians. It is simply sound pastoral practice.