Monday, March 10, 2014

Monday of the 1st Week of Lent

Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-18 / Matthew 25:31-46

You shall not curse the deaf.

In the list of commands given by the Lord to the people of Israel in Leviticus 19, the command not to curse the deaf stands out. It is not, of course, that we imagine cursing the deaf to be a good thing to do, and so find ourselves shocked that God disapproves. Rather, it might not seem as obvious why cursing the deaf is especially a bad thing to do. After all, as opposed to cursing those who can hear, in cursing the deaf, the object of our malediction may well not know he has been cursed at all. If he should not hear about it, literally or figuratively, then where precisely is the harm in my speaking ill of him. For that matter, if I should speak ill of anyone in such a way that they do not hear about it, how can I be said to have harmed them?

Despite what we might imagine at first glance, there is in fact real and grave harm in speaking ill of another without his knowledge. In part, the harm is done to the person's good name. We are, after all, social creatures, made by God to thrive not each on our own in an isolated way, but in relation with others. When we speak ill of another person, even if what we say should be true, and even if he should never hear of it, we do real harm in how other people, or at the very least how we ourselves, see him. In cursing, which is to say, in speak ill, we make it more difficult for him, and depending on what we have said, we may even make it impossible for him to have those ordinary and general, as well as those particular and intimate connections with other persons, without which real human living cannot be had.

More than that, secretly speaking ill of another does real harm to the one who curses. Our standard, as God reminds his people Israel through Moses, is not to be harmless, but to be holy. So long as we think we can speak ill of others, even to think ill of them, only on the condition that it remains a secret, then we remain far from the holiness of God, which holiness is both our measure and our goal.

As we begin our Lent, we must attend not only to our public selves and the visible harm of our external acts, but perhaps even more we need to be attentive to the part of us which is too willing to curse the deaf. Let us, instead of gossip and detraction, submit our weakness in hope to the one who does not curse us in our deafness, but rather blesses us with his mercy, the Holy One, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

First Sunday of Lent (A)

Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7 / Romans 5:12-19 / Matthew 4:1-11

We have, since Lent began only a few days ago, no doubt heard much about those three foundations of our Lenten discipline, namely, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. There is, to be sure, good reason to have reminded ourselves of these indispensable means of turning back to God, of setting ourselves on the path to righteousness and the joy of the empty Tomb. Moreover, so clear are these themes in the early days of our Lenten reading that we can find them without too much difficulty even in those selections from the Scriptures set before us today. Might we not see in Jesus' powerful and decisive refusals of his temptations after the forty days in the desert an affirmation of these foundations? In Jesus' reminder that man does not live by bread alone, uttered even in his own hunger, do we not hear and discover the true meaning of fasting? In his refusal to put God to the test, are we not given important directives about the kind of prayer pleasing to God? In his clear rejection of having the world meet his needs and desires by his service to the Devil, does not Jesus turn this on its head, committing himself to serve God alone through meeting the needs and hopes of the world, and so outline for us the right inspiration of almsgiving?

In contrast, we can also see in Eve's first sin in the Garden an image of what we repeat daily in our own sinful lives precisely by failing to submit to the triple discipline of Lent. When Eve listened to the words of the serpent, rather than the clear words of the Lord, that warning she herself had just repeated, she set out precisely the life of a soul which fails to pray. When she gazed upon the fruit and attended to its goodness, and so neglected what she knew, recognizing only that it was good for food, and pleasing both to the eyes and for wisdom, she played out for us the turning away from good in a life which has never fasted. When she offered the fruit to her husband Adam, and when he took what she ought never to have offered, they enacted the very kind of illicit exchange, promoting and indulging false and imagined needs, which makes a mockery of the true generosity that is the soul of almsgiving.

All of this is quite true, but it misses something crucial, another deep and important truth set before us as we begin our Lent. What this retelling misses is precisely the fact that the proper context of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving involves not merely us and God, but a third and by no means disinterested party. Said plainly, we have forgotten the Devil. It can perhaps be assuring to imagine that our faults and cravings, our weaknesses and the desires of our heart, are our affair alone. It can perhaps even be soothing for the repentant sinner with a blackened soul to think that the path before him to God, while doubtlessly hard and long, is straight and clear. The truth, however, is quite different. The truth is that there exists someone who has committed the whole of his life to undoing the work of God, someone unimaginably more powerful, more intelligent, more cunning than we are, and who has at his disposal countless legions of similarly minded spirits who tirelessly seek our undoing.

In reminding us of the Devil at the beginning of Lent, the Church wants us to attend to two important truths. The first is that Lent is not merely an annual project of moral improvement. That is, Lent does not merely call upon us one more time to try to acquire good or better habits while pruning away bad or unhelpful ones. Lent is not a gymnasium, a spa, or a sanitarium. Lent, we are reminded, is a military exercise on a battlefield. Our disciplines, however peaceful they are and must be on the physical plane, however much they call from us not less but greater acts of charity to our neighbor, are nonetheless weapons of war, the spiritual armaments that we need to be equipped against our murderous foe, the Evil One, the Devil.

At the same time, we are reminded of the Devil precisely to remind us of what he cannot do. The Devil is not the all-powerful Lord of Evil, the dark parallel of God. He is a creature with limits. More than that, while the Devil and his angels may be our foes in battle, they are the enemy forces in a ware that they have already lost. Already in Jesus' temptation in the desert, we are meant to see not the Devil's power, but his impotence against the Victor, who is also our Savior and Friend, Jesus Christ. By the Cross and the power of his Blood, Jesus has definitively broken the power of Hell, and it has no power to prevail over those whom Jesus has claimed as his own. As Paul reminds us in the Epistle to the Romans, it was by man's work, by the collusion of Adam and Eve with the temptations of the serpent, that death and sin entered the world. Even before his defeat by Christ, our first parents had what they needed to repel our ancient Foe. Now that we have Jesus Christ as our Head, we are not less, but better equipped to put to flight the Devil and his angels.

This is why we ought not to fear the Devil as though he can undo the work of God, even while we must be attentive to the fact that, until he is finally and unequivocally bound in the Final Judgment, we will have to contend with him. The example of Eve's failure is meant to recall for us that, even in a condition of grace, we ought not be inattentive to the gifts of God, and so become easy prey for the Devil. However, our Gospel, our Good News, is that the work of Christ in the desert, indeed the whole of his saving work, remind us that the Devil not only does not have the final say, but we also can drive him off even at his first promptings. We have, as our companion none other than Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, and as our Advocate the Holy Spirit. With God himself dwelling within us and striving for us, without any foolhardiness concerning the malice of our Enemy, how much more joy and hope we ought to know this Lent in the love and goodwill of our Friend.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 / Luke 9:22-25

Dethe spareth not low ne hye degre
Popes kynges ne worthi Emperowrs
When thei schyne moste in felicite
He can abate the fresshnes of her flowres
Ther briÊ’t sune clipsen with hys showres
Make hem plownge from theire sees lowe
Maugre the myght of al these conquerowres
Fortune hath hem from her whele ythrowe.

 On any reasonable view of the world, loss is inevitable. Physicists assure us that entropy, to move from order to chaos, from dynamic energy to stasis, is the unavoidable future of the cosmos. Our own experience in life, so poignantly if shockingly portrayed in Medieval renderings of the Dance of Death, reminds us that nothing, however good, lasts forever, and that mortality is the great equalizer. At the end of every life, whether lived long or short, poorly or well, befriended or alone, the is the inexorable coming of death.

We might like to think that the spiritual life proves an exception to this rule. In a crucial way, of course, it does. We are confident with blessed assurance that in Jesus Christ there is new and eternal life, that in him and through the shedding of his blood on the Cross, his rising from the Tomb, and his ascension into glory, we can come to know a life without loss. This promise is at the heart of the Gospel, that life in Jesus Christ just is a sharing in God's own inexhaustible life, a light which never dims and admits no shadow, an unconquerable joy.

Even so, our coming to this life is no less marked by loss than anything else in the world. As Jesus reminds us: Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. We do not do well to focus so much on the final words, that we will save our lives, if in doing so we become vulnerable to confusion and despair what the loss assured by Jesus comes our way. What the Gospel tells us, what Jesus wanted his disciples to see by foretelling his suffering, his rejection and betrayal, and his being put to death, and then in his invitation that they, and we, should take up our crosses, was that the loss rooted in the world is not merely present in the way to God, but is indeed at its heart.

The difference, however, is that Jesus wants us to see that we can, in a significant way, dictate the very terms of that loss. We will be crucified, but it can be we ourselves who, like Jesus, choose to pick up the cross in freedom and love, rather than have it imposed on us. We will be denied, but it can be we ourselves who, like Jesus, knowingly and with forgiveness and mercy, choose to deny ourselves, rather than face a denial that will inevitably come from others. In short, the question is not whether or not there will be loss. The question is whether or not we will claim that loss as our own, and by embracing it in freedom, in generosity, and in mercy, find that we have lost nothing that we have not had returned to us, that we have, in losing, gained the deepest desire of our heart.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-18 / 2 Corinthians 5:20 - 6:2 / Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

We might be excused for associating the discipline of Lent with exhibiting a lack of self-worth. After all, we are, right at the very beginning, with the imposition of ashes, likely to hear the words: Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. Today, and throughout the season, the word that jumps out repeatedly is Repent. And, even in our first fervor to embrace some spiritual practice to assist our sanctification, we discover all too quickly, sometimes even before the week is out, the extent of our weakness and the intensity of our cravings.

However, the Church places before us today not a message of gloom, but the joyous announcement of our great honor: We are ambassadors for Christ. Now, an ambassador has no glory or honor of his own. It is certainly true that an ambassador does not speak from his own authority, nor does his pursue his own agenda. Rather his authority and his agenda come from the king who sent him.

Even so, an ambassador is not a mere messenger. He acts not simply to convey a message, but with the great authority and status which have been conferred upon him. He can, both in the days of St Paul and in the present, meet personally with princes, kings, and heads of state, no matter what the condition of his birth because, as an ambassador, he shares in the authority and status of the one in whose name he acts.

More than that, the ambassador acts not automatically, not in the mode of a recorded message, nor as the mere mouthpiece of another. Rather, he is intended to draw upon his own freedom and to use to the full his own gifts and creativity in advancing the cause of his king and country. He does not choose the message, but he is free to, indeed he is both expected and obliged to make known that message as he best sees fit, as his own talents and insights provide and allow.

This is why we take on once again the discipline of Lent. It is not as though we are trying to chastise an unworthy self. Instead, we seek better to accomplish our noble and exalted task as ambassadors for Christ, announcing to the world the will, the saving and redeeming will, of God our King. So, we pray, that we might better know Christ's will, by whose authority we speak and act. We fast, that we might better pursue not our own purposes, but those of him who sent us. We give alms, that others may better know through our very personal, individual, creatively free responses to the forgiveness that we have received in the Gospel, the reconciliation offered to the whole world in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Ss Simon and Jude, Apostles

Ephesians 2:19-22 / Luke 6:12-16

We often experience a conflict between what seems to be best for the individual and what is best for the group. All too often, maximizing personal good comes at the expense of the common good, whether by the hoarding or consumption of time and resources, the disruption of common efforts, being absent from those projects that, apart from the contribution of all, fail to produce fruits for any. Even so, the contrary position, that of prioritizing the good of the whole or the many over the good of the few or the one, has been and continues to be, on both small-scale and national levels, the source of grave injustice, trampling on the lives of persons, preventing their flourishing, all the while justifying this action in reference to the common good.

It is striking, then, that the Scriptures use both the collective vision of the good and the individual and personal one as images to understand our vocation in Jesus Christ. In Ephesians, Paul reminds us that we in Christ are one among many, fellow citizens of the holy ones, being built into a temple. This temple, however, is not for us, not for our private benefit, but for God and his glory, a place sacred in the Lord which is built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. Our vocation, as presented in Ephesians, is, in other words, not principally for us at all.

In the Gospel, on the other hand, we hear the list of the Apostles called out not generically, but rather each by name. More than that, the evangelist takes great care to distinguish the specific individuality of each, showing genuine concern that those Apostles with the same name not be allowed to disappear or be effaced by the confusion. So, when he speaks a second time of Simon, who might easily be confused with that Simon who was called Peter, he tells us that this is a different man, Simon who is called a Zealot. Similarly, when it comes to Jude or Judas, lest we think that there was only Iscariot, who became a traitor, Luke makes sure to note that the first-mentioned Judas is the son of James.

What are we to see in all of this? On the one hand, the first image we hear ought to change our perspective of God's activity in our lives. He does not act simply for our sake, for fulfilling our needs and desires alone or promoting and assisting our personal projects. His work in our lives is precisely with the eye to fitting each of our lives with those of others, of making stones for building, shaped to come together not as a mere heap or pile, but as a true building, a temple, crafted to fit together as a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, the Gospel reminds us that our life in Christ, our life in the Church, does not erase what is most personal to us. It does not come at the expense of what is dearest to who we are, but rather elevates and fulfills us.

This is why we need not fear being drawn into the mystery of the Church, the household of God, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets. To live in the Church is to fulfill what is most worthy of God not in spite of, but because at the very same time it fulfills what we most desire as individuals, as persons precious in the eyes of our Lord, the capstone, our Savior Jesus Christ.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

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

In the middle of the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare, we see, together with Hamlet the prince, Claudius the king, Hamlet's uncle, kneeling in prayer. Claudius is guilty of having murdered his brother, the king (also named Hamlet), father of the prince, and he has now become not only the king of Denmark, but also the husband of Gertrude, the wife of the slain king and mother of the prince. Like the publican in the Gospel, at this moment, struck by a recognition of his grave sins, the king does not seek to conceal his sins before God: O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven; it hath the primal eldest curse upon't, a brother's murder! Just as the publican himself realized, so also King Claudius does not trust, as does the Pharisee, in his own merits, but rather he trusts only, or at least his words say so, in the grace of God: What if this cursed hand were thicker than itself with brother's blood, is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens to wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy but to confront the visage of offence? And what's in prayer but this twofold force, to be forestalled ere we come to fall, or pardon'd being down? By all appearances, this accursed king, sorrowful and penitent, imploring and beseeching the mercy of God, looks in every way like the publican who, as the Lord Jesus assures us, went home justified.

In contrast, we have the example of St. Paul in his second letter to Timothy. While the publican and Claudius say nothing of their own merits, the theme of merit seems to be central to the Apostle, even as it was for the Pharisee. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day. And later: The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom. For Paul, there is no doubt at all of his justification. For him, as for the Pharisee, or at least his words seem to say so, it is just to proclaim his own merits and to connect them, in one way or another, to his justification and his entrance into the eternal kingdom of God.

The problem here is clear. In the parable, the Pharisee, who trusts in his own merits and proclaims them before all, is not justified, while the publican is. Claudius the king, in contrast, the one who implores the mercy of God by confessing his own sins, does not find justification, while St. Paul, who declares with confidence his merits and his salvation in Christ, is the one who goes to the home of the Father justified. Where does this contradiction arise? Why do we not find something sinful in Paul's words, as we did in those of the Pharisee, and why do not we consider the fratricidal king to be justified by his prayer, given that the Lord teaches us in the book of Sirach: The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens?

The solution, I believe, comes from the fact that the difference between the Pharisee and the publican is not to be found in their moral quality — seeing that, all things being equal, only someone confused or morally corrupt would prefer the life of the publican over that of the Pharisee — and neither is it to be found in the kind of conversation they have with God, that is, whether of self-accusation and petition or of thanksgiving and confidence. Rather, the difference is to be found in humility in its proper and full sense. Humility is not some sort of low self-esteem. It is not a refusal to acknowledge and declare the gifts which we have received from God. Rather, the humility that Jesus presents us in the Gospel is nothing other than truth: a truth that is just as ready to take account of the graces received from God as it is to accuse itself of sinfulness. Humility grounds itself not in a self-abasement that is, in truth, a humiliation, a degrading contrary to the dignity of a person created by God and recreated in the life-giving death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, it is founded on Truth itself, which is to say, on the living and holy God, the one who confronts us with our limits, with our incapacity in the face of his infinite power, but above all the God who, being eternal Truth and the source of every truth, confronts us with his goodness and mercy, which in its abundance reduces to nothing both our declaration of our own virtue as if it came not from him but from ourselves and our prayers for mercy when we are not ready to find in God, and in him alone, our only source of life, rather than in those things and earthly privileges we have obtained by our sins.

This indeed is what Claudius the king realized: But, O, what form of prayer can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murther'? That cannot be; since I am still possess'd of those effects for which I did the murther --- my crown, mine own ambition, and my queen. May one be pardon'd and retain th'offence? Or, as he concludes: My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go. In contrast to this, but rooted in the same intuition, St. Paul says in the same letter to Timothy: He — that is, God — saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began. And again: Guard this rich trust with the help of the holy Spirit that dwells within us.

Where do we choose to stand? Do we find ourselves with the Pharisee, trusting in our own merits and our own capacities — as professors or students, as administrators or businessmen, as mothers or virgins, as farmers, laborers, politicians, or pundits — or with Claudius, repenting before God without giving up the fruits of our sins, of our private or collective compromises with our personal, common, or consecrated lives? Or, on the other hand, do we stand with the publican, confessing our sins, without pretending to have a virtue that we do not, or with St. Paul, declaring with confidence our salvation, not because of our merits, but because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the help of the Holy Spirit? Are we ready to trust in Jesus Christ, and in him alone, and in that humble confidence, pierce the clouds, rescued from the lion's mouth, enter through him into the kingdom that lasts forever?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

A story is told among the Buddhists of Kisa Gotami, a woman who lost her only son. Deeply afflicted with grief, she approached the Buddha, begging him for a cure. He told the sorrowful mother that he could restore her son to life if she could bring him a handful of mustard seeds from a household that had never lost son or daughter, father or husband. Making her way about the village, although she found all willing to help her, she also found not a single household that was free from the death of a loved one, and indeed where the grief did not still afflict them. Seeing how universal grief was, how common the suffering coming from death is to all men, she returned to the Buddha to follow his teaching, finding in him alone a way to relieve her suffering.

The Gospel also presents us with a woman who lost her only son, a woman stricken with grief. Unlike the Indian sage, however, Jesus actually brought the dead son to life. While both sage and Savior responded to the woman's grief, in the former case, the woman was led to see the folly of sorrow, while in the latter case, the very cause of the woman's grief was taken away, death conquered by Life himself.

Yet, despite this clear and important difference, there is a remarkable similarity in these two stories. In both cases, it is not to the son that pity is shown, but to the woman who is suffering grief. Said differently, we are not told that Jesus, on seeing the dead youth, was moved with pity for him, but rather that, on seeing the widow, he had pity for her. Surely, there is something a bit odd about this. That is, we would surely regard death as a greater calamity than sorrow, however onerous the burden of grief may be. Sorrow may be lived through, may abate in time; death, considered in itself, is final. Yet, the Gospel is clear. Jesus' pity is directed toward the widow, not her son.

There is much wisdom to learn here, but surely one of the lessons is that we are not as good at measuring suffering as we might take ourselves to be. The problem, both for the Buddha and for the Lord Jesus Christ, is the woman's grief. The Buddha answers this with natural wisdom about the universality of human death. Jesus answers it as the Lord of life itself, but the lifegiving is at least as much directed to the woman as to her son. What this suggests is that our diagnosis of our own pains, our own confidence about what it is that most ails us and those we love, and thus what we imagine ought to be God's foremost concern, is less than reliable. We cannot, of course, simply set our reason aside, act as though we have no way to tell what kinds of ills are bad, and which kinds are worse. Even so, we should not be so quick to fall into despair when God seems to not want to take away from us the ills we believe most impede our joy.

Unlike the placid wisdom of the Buddha, the love of Jesus Christ is, we need have not doubt, directed to attend to the evils that assail us, and in his heart, Jesus can surely be moved with pity. Are we prepared to receive the mercy he chooses to give, rather than demand he respond on our terms? Are we willing to learn, from the mercy he does send us, what it was that truly had been oppressing us, and give thanks?