Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tuesday of 6th Week (Year II)

Genesis 6:5-8; 7:1-5, 10 / Mark 8:14-21

Is there a point of no return in the spiritual life? Can we ever come to a place where we find that there is no going back, from which we cannot and will not hear what God has to tell us, however insistently? We might think that there is no such point, no such place. After all, God's mercy is greater than any of our sins, indeed than all of our sins. Moreover, his patience is surely greater and more long-suffering that our stamina, than the force that fuels our rebellion against him.

However, the Scriptures today suggest otherwise. God's decision, rather his judgment of the human race at the time of Noah is quite clearly final, even while the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve remain alive, if not well. His decree is clearly beyond recall; apart from Noah and his family, and those representative pairs of the clean and unclean animals, none will be spared. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus raises a worry which amounts to the same idea. In response the the disciples confusion over the meaning of "the leaven of the Pharisees" and "the leaven of Herod," and thinking these to be some peculiar way of noting that they were without provisions, Jesus sighs deeply. His concern is this: Are the disciples confused because they do not yet understand (which suggests that they are slow to believe, but may still come to understanding), or is it because their hearts are hardened (and so, by implication, they simply will not understand, or more accurately, like the Pharisees and like Herod, they will to misunderstand)?

Of course, it is spiritually fatal to imagine either or ourselves or of others in this life that we have reached this point, that point when in our hardness we have been passed over, and will no longer see or hear. To imagine so would be the sin of despair, and so would result in the end of charity in the soul. Even so, it is equally dangerous to fall into presumption, to imagine that we can never turn ourselves irrevocably away from God, that because we do not see ourselves as hardened moral monsters, that we don't have anything to worry about.

Today, brothers and sisters, is Shrove Tuesday, and in the midst of the pancakes glistening with butter, syrup, sugar, jam, and spirits, and while we make merry with what may well be our last taste of sweets, meat, and the fruit of the vine or of the grain, it is also a traditional day to go to confession, to be shriven, which is to say forgiven of one's sins. The old wisdom was not that one should use Lent to prepare for a full-bodied confession right at the season's end, but rather that, before the penitential disciplines are upon us, we should free our souls of the sins that still bind us. We are freed by the sacrament so that we might enter Lent more openly, to receive God's words of warning and encouragement more fruitfully, free from any and all presumptions about our virtue, and ready to see with our eyes, hear with our ears and understand with hearts made soft, warm, and receptive to the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Tme (B)

Job 7:1-4, 6-7 / 1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23 / Mark 1:29-39

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.

It is not difficult for us to understand, or at least to think that we understand, Jesus' decision to leave, to be alone, far from all of his work and from all of the requests made by the whole town...gathered at the door of the mother-in-law of Simon. As a man, and so like us, Jesus Christ had his limits, the need to rest so he could find the strength to continue his work. Even though, being God, and so being the very source of all strength and energy, he would not have lacked the power to heal the sick and deliver those possessed by demons, he had all the same fundamental human needs, not the least of which is rest from work. And so, we cam imagine that, at the beginning of his earthly ministry, non yet accustomed to the crowds needing his help, Jesus found a moment for himself, a quiet moment of self-care.

However, such a reading, whatever truth there may be in it, misses something crucial about the life of Jesus. Jesus did not rise so early, he did not go off to a deserted place, to find and renew the strength necessary to take up again the healings and deliverances of the people of the town. As we read, after Simon and those who were with him had found Jesus and told him that the whole town was looking for him, Jesus revealed to them that he had no desire to return to those healings that he had dome in the city. Even though he had compassion for the people, his priority was that purpose for which he had come — the preaching of the Good News, of the Gospel. That is to say, his mission, his being send, more precisely his being sent by the Father, and so even more his identity as the Son, the Son send into the world by the Father but never absent from him — this mission and this identity, not his tiredness nor any kind of self-care, were at the heart of Jesus' prayer in the deserted place, early in the morning.

We, of course, are not sons of the Father by nature, and we have not been sent in the same way, with just the same saving mission of the eternal Son of God and his Paschal Mystery. We are, however, rightly and truly sons of the Father by our baptism; we are also, by our baptism and our confirmation, anointed by the same Spirit, and in that same Spirit partakers in the mission of Christ; some of us, moreover, are by our religious vows dedicated to preaching, and it is for us as preachers, no less than it was for Jesus in his earthly mission, to say, Let us go on to the nearby villages that we may preach there also. For this purpose have we come. Given all of this, it is also clear that our prayer, and in a particular way our private prayer, the prayer we make either physically or spiritually "early in the morning before dawn" in a "deserted place" ought to be rooted in this mission — the preaching of the Gospel — and in this identity — the filial participation in the mystery of God.

Brother and sisters, we all have a lot of work to do, and it is easy to feel sorry for ourselves, as though we were with Jesus in the house of Simon's mother-in-law, the whole town gathered at the door asking to see us, asking for our time and our energy. It is understandable that after our work, and after that sense that our work has been, and perhaps always will be, beyond our ability to accomplish, we desire a time, some time, brief or long, in which we can get some rest, be entertained, taste that dolce far niente during a few hours of idleness. It is understandable, and considering the weakness of our humanity, probably even justifiable. However, during these quiet moments, whether early in the morning or late at night or in a momentary pause between our daily tasks, we have even greater need of prayer. We need a life of prayer rooted non in the desire for energy to do even more work, nor in the desire to stop working and enjoy idleness, however necessary these both may be. What we need is a prayer rooted in the awareness of our identity — an identity received by the grace of the sacraments, an identity which we renew every time we celebrate the Mass and receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, an identity of being sons of God, partakers of the eternal life of the living God.

Filial prayer is not in the life, of course, a magic solution for our fatigue. Job's question is in a certain sense the question that will remain until the end of the world: Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?
Are not his days those of hirelings?
Filial prayer does not take away the difficulties that belong in this world to our mission. We ought rather to say with St. Paul, If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it! Filial prayer, however can be, and it ought to be the source of our joy whether we are at work or at rest, in drudgery or in play. We are sons of the Father, and by grace and love, we can taste, even today, here and now, the sweetness of the immortal life of the Trinity, the life promised by our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Septuagesima Sunday

1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 10:1-5 / Matthew 20:1-16

I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty; I so fight, not as one beating the air...

Among those sticks used to beat the Church, and the Church's faithful, one frequently used is the charge of arrogance. How, it is asked, can anyone possibly make the assertions the Christian faithful do — about the nature of God, the world, human life in this world and the world to come, and a host of other things — with any kind of certainty? What sorts of assurances warrant the kinds of sacrifices Christians themselves make, and more to the point, the kinds of sacrifices they sometimes insist others make, when what they assert seems to those who do not share the faith to be hogwash at best? Moreover, if Christians really believed what they profess to believe, should we not expect the world to work differently — less evil, more spontaneous healing of severed limbs, more and less dubious miraculous visitations, and the like? Minimally, should we not expect Christians themselves to behave differently?

In one sense, these critics are altogether correct. However compelling the evidence presented on behalf of the Christian faith, none of it actually compels belief. Nothing about the Scriptures, even the evidence of the fulfillment of prophecy, requires that a neutral observer take it to be anything other than an anthology of texts from the ancient Near East and Egypt, written by various persons over the course of centuries, with a somewhat spotty history of transmission. Nothing about the history of the Church's magisterium demands that the unbeliever see in any historical, or even present-day, articulation of Christian doctrine, the very same teaching proposed by Jesus Christ in his earthly ministry and confirmed by the work of the Holy Spirit. Even the proof of God's existence, which is compelling to reason, does not when honestly accepted require anything like the admission of the Trinity, much less the specific saving purposes of that Holy Trinity in saving the human race through calling us to share in his nature.

Why, then, is this not arrogance? Why is St. Paul able to distinguish our running of the race of faith from those who run for crowns that fade precisely on the point that we who run the race of faith do so not for some crown that may or may not be there for us? We submit to the discipline of the Gospel not thinking that only one of us might succeed, as though it is all practice with no reward. We do so out of confidence in Jesus Christ, confidence in his promises, confidence in the grace poured out upon us by the blood of the Cross. There is life eternal, and we have been called to share in it, indeed we already share in it through our Baptism.

The answer is simple, but not for that reason simplistic. We do so because of faith, the gift of faith. Faith is not the mere assertion of what we do not otherwise know. Faith is not a leap in the dark, based on the mere desire that what we long for should be out there where we cannot see. No, the faith we receive in Baptism is luminous. Faith makes us to see with eyes more than our own. Faith is a participation not in willful human assertions about unknowable truths, but rather a participation, here and now, in God's own knowledge of himself and of his purposes in and for the world. In faith, God has given us just enough light here and now to recognize in the Scriptures not merely many and disparate authors, but one principal Author, the Holy Spirit. In faith, God has given us illumination to see in the Church and her pastors not merely a group of men within a long, institutional history, but the very Body of Christ, the locus of God's saving work in the world. In faith, we can know not merely of God's general Providence, but more precisely how he has responded, will respond, and even now is responding to the evils of the world through the work of Jesus Christ.

This being so, that God has given us to see what our reason cannot reach, that we act really and truly out of sight, not out of will or assertion, makes the unbelievers challenge one we ought to make all the more to ourselves. That is, given not merely what we profess, but given that we in fact share in the light of faith and so can hold with a confidence not of our own devising that the promises of the faith are true, why do we not strive all the more to live in a way others can see this to be so? What have we done, and what are we doing now, to help one another in the faith to see at the very least within the Church, within the Body of those illumined by faith, to live the life that light of faith reveals more honestly, more truly?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Third Sunday of Advent

Philippians 4:4-7 / John 1:19-28

What sayest thou of thyself?

When we want someone to take responsibility, when when we want someone to account for what he is doing, and most especially when what he is doing is not merely out of the ordinary, but seems quite clearly out of bounds or unwarranted, we are accustomed a pointed question: Who do you think you are? Or, perhaps, less direct, but no less pointedly, we ask, What do you have to say for yourself? The idea here is that we take self-definition, self-understanding to be crucial. Who we think we are, what we have to say about ourselves, we hold to be central to assessing whether what we do and how we live is warranted. Consciously or not, we intuit the scholastic dictum agere sequitur esse: action follows being. We intuit, that is, that what things or persons do flows from who or what they are. Since it seems unproblematic that who we think we are is, if not the basis of, then at least central to the kind of person we actually are, then the question is obvious. In the face of puzzling behavior, what better query than, Who do you think you are? What do you have to say for yourself?

It is just this intuition that seems to animate the priests and Levites sent by the Jews of Jerusalem to interrogate John the Baptist.  Confronted by his baptisms, and more centrally his preaching of repentance, and even more attending to the large numbers of people heeding his words, they wanted to know just what warrant he thought himself to have to speak and act as he did. Who art thou? they ask. John, however, does not accept their line of questioning. In the face of their repeated request for a positive answer, for saying something of himself, John issues a series of denials: I am not the Christ or I am not. Pressed to the point, pressed to account for himself, that is pressed to speak his own words on his own behalf, John persists in his refusal. He does, to be sure, make a positive claim about his identity: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the Prophet Isaias.

Even here, even when John is willing to confess who he understands himself to be, by what warrant he baptizes and preaches, he steadfastly refuses to say anything of himself. His words, the words that disclose who he is, are not his own. They are the words of the prophet Isaiah, which is of course to say, that they are the words of God. It is God, and God alone, whom John allows to define him, to give an account for what he is doing. It is God, and God alone, who authorizes his baptizing and his preaching, for it is to prepare the way for God's coming, and for this purpose alone, that he has been sent. He does not identify himself, he does not say anything of himself, not to be difficult, not as a display of passive aggression, but rather because anything he would say of himself would conceal, rather than reveal the truth. Who he is, as baptizer and preacher, who his is, as witness to the Incarnate Word and Lamb of God, is not of himself, not the product of his own decisions, but a gift, a grace. It is not what he says of himself, but what God says of him through the prophet Isaiah, that constitutes him, that makes John who he is, not merely in his natural self, but all the more as called to eternal life with God himself.

What is true of the Baptist is no less true of those who are baptized in water and the Spirit. We are who we are in Jesus Christ, not because we have made it so. We share in the life of faith not as the product of our own efforts, our own self-definition. Rather, our new life in Christ, our being called to share in the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, is a calling, not an accomplishment. To the query Who art thou?, each of us might have a quite different answer to give, but in this we share a common reply with John the Baptist. It is what God has made of us, who God has called us to be, that makes us to be who we are. This is the source of our rejoicing, this is our motive to cast aside all worrying as though our worries and troubles have the final say. We are who who are, and we say of ourselves, simply that we are Christian, and keep our minds and hearts neither on ourselves nor on our troubles, but in the only source of hope and joy and rejoicing, in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Second Sunday of Advent

Romans 15:4-13 / Matthew 11:2-10

What is it that Jesus Christ came into the world to reveal? We might quite easily answer that he came to reveal God, and God's will for man, and this would surely be correct. The Scriptures, St. Paul tells us, were written for our teaching so that we might have hope. And why hope? That we might with one mind and with one heart we may glorify God and the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. When John the Baptist sent two of his disciples to Jesus, it was precisely that he might know who Jesus was, to be certain whether Jesus is in fact the one who is to come, the promised Messiah, or whether he needed to look for another. That is, he looked to Jesus to know just who Jesus is, to find in him, or not, a clear revelation of the saving will of God.

Yet, we find something curious about Jesus' reply. To be sure, Jesus answers John's question. He directs John's disciples to consider what they have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, to poor have the gospel preached to them. The signs are clear and unambiguous, at least for those who already trusted in the words God spoke through his prophets. However, at this point, Jesus turns the question around. He asks the crowd what they looked for in going out to see the John the Baptist. He notes that they cannot have gone to see anything other than one whom they took to be a prophet. Here is where the interesting turn happens. If Jesus is the one whom the signs prove him to be, that is, knowing Jesus to be the promised Christ, then who does this mean that John the Baptist is? He cannot be a mere prophet, as Jesus notes, but more than a prophet, the one of whom it is written: Behold I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.

A similar turn happens in Paul's letter to the Romans. Noting that for the Jews, the circumcision in Paul's language, the merciful revelation in Jesus Christ is a reaffirmation of the promises they already held, a reassertion if in a fuller way of a God whom they already knew. Yet, for the Gentiles, the revelation in Christ reveals who they are as well. In Jesus, we find that the Gentiles are, as much as the Jews, part of God's plan all along, that the saving mission for the promised one of Israel is, at the same time, the one in whom the Gentiles shall hope. Despite all appearances, the Gentiles, no less than the Jews, occupy a crucial place in the total plan of God's saving work.

What this suggests is that, in coming to know and confess who God really is, in coming to know God in the Incarnate Word, in Jesus Christ, and in knowing his saving plan for us, we at the same time come to a revelation of ourselves. In seeing who Christ is for us, we see at the same moment who we are meant to be for him, how we have played and continue to play a role in his saving work. This is why Advent is part of why Advent is a time of penance, a time of transformation. Advent summons us to abandon our false selves, to let go of the persons we thought ourselves to be. Advent invites us to enter in hope and joy into the identities God has revealed for us in his merciful coming, whom God has made known in the cave at Bethlehem, on the Cross at Golgotha, in the empty Tomb, and will make known for all to see in his glorious return.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Saint Nicholas, Bishop and Confessor

Hebrews 13:7-17 / Matthew 25:14-23

There is a hiddenness that is commendable. This is the hiddenness we find in the famous story of St. Nicholas and his liberation of the young women from a life of sexual servitude. In putting the money at the window, or down the chimney, and, as some legends say, into the stockings hung up to dry, while himself endeavoring to remain unseen, unknown, unacknowledged, Nicholas acted rightly. His acts of charity, even as ours, while meant to bind us more deeply to our neighbor, ought even more to direct both us and them to the very source of that charity, to the Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered for us on the Cross with ineffable charity that he might sanctify the people by his own blood. It is this same hiddenness that animates those secret, latter-day helpers of St. Nicholas by filling stockings and shoes across the world with candy, fruit, and presents, that those who receive might be directed not to the earthly minister of these kindly gifts, but to the joy and to him who is the author of all joy.

There is another hiddenness that is altogether detestable. This is the hiddenness we find in another story about St. Nicholas, in which the wonder-working bishop, stopping by an inn while on a journey, discerns by supernatural insight that the meat he would be served by the innkeepers is in fact the flesh of three boys, slain by the innkeepers, their bodies picked in a barrel and meant to be provided as food for the guests. This is the hiddenness inherent in all wickedness, the hiddenness that perfers the obscurity of darkness over the manifest glory of the noon-day sun. This is the hiddenness that seeks to plunge not only itself, but all the world, into and unending and unrelenting night of terror rather than turn from its self-inflicted horror and be saved. This is the hiddenness that even today prowls the world, snatching the innocent and helpless, the poor and lonely, and most especially children and the elderly, as its preferred victims. This is, of course, also the hiddenness that cannot escape the penetrating and luminous gaze of the Father of lights, nor the gaze of those filled with his light and truth.

Yet there is another hiddenness which, if less obviously detestable, is nonetheless no better in the long run. This is the hiddenness of those who would shrink back from hope, the hiddenness of the talent placed in the hole dug in the earth by the fearful servant. It is not that the servant did anything positively horrible, but all the same his action, or better yet his inaction, proved ultimately fatal. Why? In seeking to preserve the little he had been given, in acting out of fear rather than hope, in seeing the demand of his master not as the promised assurance of one with confidence in abundant success, but rather a veiled threat of certain failure, the servant prevented himself from entering into the joy of his lord. Said differently, if we do not dare to hope, dare to act in confidence that what God has given us, however little, will and must be abundant in grace, then we have made ourselves to be the kind of people that cannot, that will not be able to enjoy an eternity with God, who have refused to take sure and certain hope in the life-giving power of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Saint Francis Xavier, S.J.

Romans 10:10-18 / Mark 16:15-18

...they shall take up serpents; and if they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them...

The missionary journeys of St. Francis Xavier are famous, inspiring, fantastic and, for many, a little too much to believe. Could any one man really convert so many thousands of people, thirty thousand by some estimates? Or, if he brought that number to the font, can we really believe they knew anything of the Christian faith?

It's easy enough to dismiss such numbers as incredible, when we might find it hard to convince even one friend to join us for one week at Mass, much less tens of thousands to come to Christ in baptism, thousands who did not even speak the same language as the one making the appeal. We might be tempted to think this is pious exaggeration, a way of insisting on his heroic sanctity through an inflation of the actual numbers. Although, even then, are we more likely to follow this heroic missionary if we knew the numbers he converted were more "reasonable"? How much fewer did he need to call to faith for us to believe such a thing is even possible? Or, how many need there be, at which point we might imagine that mission for Christ is worth the effort? Had he brought only one person to Jesus Christ, would we then be more willing to share the faith?

If we doubt the witness of Francis Xavier, how much more we must doubt the promises of Jesus Christ to his disciples when he sent them out to the whole world to preach and baptize. If we can lead ourselves to accept the casting out devils, and just might squint at the speaking in tongues to be less outright miracle and more divinely-inspired language training, we are more likely to pause at the claims which follow: snake-handling, immunity to poisons, healing by the laying on of hands.

While it is true that we have no right to expect any specific miraculous intervention in our giving witness to Christ—as the life of St. Paul himself could easily attest—it is just as spiritually dangerous to live as though we cannot hope in doing great things, indeed superhuman, miraculous things, in the service of the Gospel. The promises of Jesus Christ are not to be trifled with, they are not to be dismissed with the condescending wave of our hand. Rather, we might well ask ourselves whether we even believe God might do such things. If not, we might well wonder why we have cast our lot with the man who was born of a Virgin, who healed the sick, who was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. That is, if we do not live and act not merely as though Jesus could intervene on behalf of the Good News in dramatic ways, but really and truly believing that he might, might this not explain, at least in part, the paltry show we can give of those who have been brought to Christ by our witness?

Advent is a season of hope, a season of renewed confidence in God, who brings light where there was gloom, abundant food where there was want, joy in place of sorrow, life in the shadow of death. Shall we not, this Advent, renew our faith in God who has, still does, and ever will work mighty deeds?