Sunday, July 10, 2016

Loving the Other—Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

Deut. 30:10–14; Col. 1:15–20; Luke 10:25–37

            Who is your neighbor? Who do you think of as neighbor? Is it the people in the houses closest to you? The people down the street on the corner? The people in a 10 block radius? Clearly Jesus thinks the term neighbor applies in a much more broad sense than how we usually use it.
            I admit to feeling a twinge of guilt when I hear this parable. I can name maybe three of my close neighbors. That seems so unlike how things were when I grew up. Back when I was in sixth grade, I could name nearly every family on our street. I grew up watching Fred Rogers singing his opening song inviting the viewer to be his neighbor. But we don't seem to live in a world that believes in Mr. Roger's neighborhood anymore. Maybe we never did. But certainly, we have it infinitely better than the world of the first century, where casual barbarism, as I've heard one scholar put it, ruled the day.
            The setting for Jesus' parable in this gospel reading today underscores that fact. A man coming down from Jerusalem is waylaid, beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the road to Jericho—a notoriously dangerous stretch of road during that time. Even in modern times this has been the case, as this road was the supply line and route to Jerusalem from the coast during the Israeli war of independence, and the road is still littered with the wrecks of those vehicles ambushed during that time. Anyway, Jesus tells us first that a priest walks down the same road, and seeing the man left for dead, he crosses to the other side to continue his journey. Then a Levite does the same. The commentaries often make the case that the priest and Levite are on their way to Jerusalem to serve in the temple and that they are trying to avoid the ritual impurity they'd incur by touching a dead body, rendering them unable to fulfill their service. However, as I read the passage, I noticed that they were coming down the road from Jerusalem, not going up. And if you know anything about going to Jerusalem, you always go up to it. Even today, for a Jewish person to go to Jerusalem is to make aliya—to go up to Jerusalem. So the priest and Levite are returning from Jerusalem, and hence, not in jeopardy of missing their term of service.
            Before I actually put all that together, I heard a great reflection on this parable from Dr. Brant Pitre, and he confirmed my suspicion. He also pointed out that one mitzvah or commandment for a pious Jew was the obligation to bury the dead. So what Jesus is highlighting here is not the conflict between one commandment and another, but of simple neglect to perform what one knows is just to anyone, friend or enemy, neighbor or stranger.
            So who is our neighbor? That's what the scribe asks. Jews of the first century had varying opinions. Leviticus 19:17-18 says to love your neighbor as yourself, as the scribe rightly notes. Some interpretations only included other Jews as neighbors, but Leviticus 19:33-34 says that one must also love the stranger in your midst as yourself. If this is the case, the stranger is treated as a neighbor. So Jesus is not teaching anything that the Torah didn't already teach. He's simply pointing out to the scribe, who should know better, the truth of the matter. Your neighbor is not just the one like you but may well be one who is quite different and might even hold contrary values to you—in short, your enemy. And Jews and Samaritans of the time were, in fact, bitter enemies.
            But what the parable demonstrates is that mercy is not some lofty concept that we have to struggle to grasp. It's right there in our hearts. We all know what mercy looks like. The scribe recognized it in the actions of the Samaritan easily enough. In our first reading from Deuteronomy 30, Moses makes note as well: "It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who will go up to the heavens to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?' Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, 'Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?' No, it is something very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it."
            In Catholic moral tradition, we have a term for this idea that morality resides in our hearts: natural law. It's the foundation of Catholic moral teaching. It's the reason why the Ten Commandments looks so much like the moral codes of other ancient civilizations. We know what's right in many circumstances, but for whatever reason, like the priest and Levite, we choose not to do it.
            That's what it comes down to—a matter of choice, a matter of the will. And that brings me back to the gospel reading again. Jesus has pretty much schooled the scribe on the meaning of the second greatest commandment to love neighbor as self, but buried in there as well is a lesson about the first commandment—the one that comes to us from Deuteronomy 6:5, a most cherished passage from Hebrew scripture called the Shema: Sh-ma, Yisrael. A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai E-chad. "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." Now Luke and the other gospels vary slightly from the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy. In Luke, the scribe says, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being (or soul, which is perhaps a better translation), with all your strength, and with all your mind." Yes, Jesus adds, "mind" to this passage. I won't get into the technicalities of scriptural redaction here, but suffice it to say that the word mind doesn't appear in the Hebrew. But its presence here is important from a Catholic perspective.
            You see, love is not merely an emotion. It's not just that warm feeling we get in our core when we really desire or prefer one thing over another. It's not merely a heightened state of spiritual awareness of something's importance and value. It's not just an internal experience. As DC Talk used to sing, love is a verb. The word love is used in scripture almost exclusively as a verb. So love is an act of the will.
            And an act of the will is an act that one chooses with the mind fully engaged. Your feelings are all well and good, but if you don't make an act of the will to do something, your feelings are inert. They go nowhere and accomplish nothing.
            In the context of the parable, this is important. To pious Jews, the mitzvot or commandments of the law are not done simply to check boxes off of a form or for external adherence to a code. You perform the commandments as an act of love toward God. And to act, you must engage the will. But to refuse to act, you must also engage the will. So priest and Levite in the story of the good Samaritan choose not to perform an act of love to God, while the Samaritan chooses to perform this act of love by loving his neighbor.
            In a way, the Pharisees get sort of a bum rap in much of our scripture because the whole point of the law for them was to show their love for God in their daily lives. And what Jesus is really calling out here is not those who adhere to the law in letter and spirit, but those who choose not to follow the law when no one is watching. In fact, the parable is about just that disconnect. You cannot show love for God if your love stops at your neighbor's doorstep. You cannot show love for God if it refuses the mercy that justice requires. Love of neighbor is itself an act of love for God.
            The greatest act of love that we know is the act of mercy that Jesus performed up there and in his offering, in which we will take part in a few moments. And mercy often requires us to take up the cross and follow our savior. We are passing through what seems to be a horrendous time of hatred and senseless violence, of partisan rancor, of disillusionment. And instead of trying to find solutions, too many of us are simply content with pointing fingers in the other direction. Well, that's not working. As Dr. King wrote in his book Strength to Love in another time of unrest and rancor, "Darkness cannot drive our darkness. Only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only love can do that."
            So will we embrace mercy and cross the road? Will we allow our love to pass over the doorstep of our neighbor and embrace the other? Will we let our own flickering flame dispel some of the darkness in this difficult time?

            I pray that God will have mercy on us, and that we will have mercy on each other.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

God doesn't want you to be happy—Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

2 Samuel 12:7–10, 13; Galatians 2:16, 19–21; Luke 7:36–8:3

God doesn't want you to be happy.

God doesn't want you to be prosperous.

God doesn't want you to be successful.

God doesn't want you to "be nice" to others.

            These are not by any means bad things, mind you, but God doesn't want them for you, at least not as ends in themselves. These are not the goals of a Christian life. God's plan is much bigger than this.
            Yet many American Christians believe that this is what Christianity is about: being nice to one another so that God will be nice to them and help them be happy. In many Christian circles, these are the aims. We live a life of prosperity, happiness, and success, and if we're "nice" to others (that is, if we're not judgmental and cranky), those are all signs that we're a good person and are going to Heaven. And God's role in this schema is to help us be happy and to answer our prayers for prosperity.
            This distortion of Christianity, this heresy, is what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton refer to as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This is the faith of most Americans who claim to be Christian or who just claim to believe in God. God is reduced from the Lord of All Creation worthy of our absolute love and devotion to a genie who pops up whenever we rub His bottle the right way and say the right incantation. And His main job is to help us be happy and then convey us to heaven.
            But that's not the faith of the Church, and that's not how our God operates. Christ himself sets out for His disciples what they can expect in this life: poverty, persecution, and the cross. And actually there are very good reasons for this, because we human beings tend to get caught up in our own delusions about ourselves and forget the gratitude we owe to God. Prosperity numbs us to our own shortcomings, to our need for redemption and forgiveness.
            In the reading from 2 Samuel, Nathan condemns David for having committed adultery with Bathsheba and then covering it up by bringing about her husband Uriah's death. Now, notably, Nathan doesn't dwell in this passage on the objective sinfulness of the actions, which is obvious enough. Instead, he points out all that the Lord has done for David up to this point. He brought him out of an obscure life as a shepherd and made him king of Israel. He has given David victory over all of his foes. He has made him prosperous.
            Surely David praises the Lord and writes these Psalms to him, but he's also out for all he can get. He takes the wives and concubines of Saul and many more. He takes Saul's palaces and no doubt adds to them. He has everything he could possibly want, certainly far more than he needs. Yet he has to go even further and take what doesn't belong to him.
            That's the problem with the prosperity gospel and with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. We never recognize when we have enough, and we justify everything based on what we think we lack. Our moral reason becomes an after-the-fact rationalization of what we've done rather than a critical process of evaluating our immediate life choices. Our ability to discern the difference between I want and I need is destroyed. What belongs to the other becomes our need. That is the very essence of what it means to covet.
            Fr. Damien Ference posted a great article on the Word of Fire blog this week about how celibates often idealize married life and the married vocation. Based on some of Fr. Jerry's comments, I don't think he experiences this dilemma, but apparently other priests do. And of course, people in married vocations sometimes also idealize the celibate vocations. Fr. Ference shared some of his notions with his pastor prior to his ordination. His pastor responded, "Kid, the grass is brown on both sides."
            What Fr. Ference came to realize was, as he put it, that "whatever vocation you are called to, the cross is there, " and that "the door to salvation is the cross." The celibate priest or religious in loneliness might imagine having a life partner with whom to share their life experience.
            If only.
            The husband might be thinking, "If only I were a priest, I wouldn't have to hold anyone's purse at the mall."
            The wife with children might be thinking, as I suspect many of you are this week, "If only I were a nun, I might not have to hear the words 'I'm bored' every 20 minutes all          summer         long."
            If only.
            This is our constant temptation, our constant trap. We succumb to it just as our original parents succumbed: if only we knew good from evil; if only we were like God.
            If only.
            If only we were content with the blessings we have. Now there's a path to joy right there. But our abundance becomes a blindness in us of our blessedness. The Gospel reading is a case in point. The Pharisee invites Jesus to dine with him. No doubt, given that he allows all kinds of people, including the sinful woman, into his banquet, he clearly has more than he needs, so much so that his dinner parties are public events. But he assumes that his prosperity is a sign that he is holier, cleaner, more righteous than others. He uses the metric of his own imagined righteousness to judge the sinful woman.
            But Jesus measures by a different standard. The Pharisee doesn't think of himself as dependent on God or beholden in any way. He's righteous! He deserves the fruits of his success.
            But the sinful woman recognizes her utter dependence. And mind you, the sinful woman was by no means a poor woman. She has just anointed Jesus' feet with a costly ointment or nard—the Greek word is actually the same word we use for myhhr. Where else have we heard of myhhr in the gospel accounts? From the gifts of the three wise men. So this sinful woman certainly wasn't poor in material wealth...
            But she was poor in spirit. She recognized her need for God, for his mercy, and for his grace—something the Pharisee did not recognize. And you can't ask for forgiveness when you don't know you need it. Her debt is great, and she knows it. Because she is forgiven much, she loves much.
            Let's circle back to this idea I mentioned earlier: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, this notion that you just have to be a nice person. You sometimes hear people put it this way: "I'm a nice person! I haven't killed anyone."
            That's not really setting the bar very high, is it?
            The problem is that we have forgotten what constitutes sin. Certainly it includes murder right up there at the top, but it also includes not honoring father and mother, coveting what belongs to others, and not giving proper respect and worship to God. You see, the 10 commandments are not about being nice. They are about being just, about being loving, about being merciful—as it turns out, merciful just as God is merciful. And sometimes justice, love, and mercy do not coincide with being simply "nice."
            Imagine that you wake up at 1:00 AM, and you notice that the corner exterior of your neighbor's house is burning. The fire is already too big for you to put out, and the fire fighters will take at least 10 minutes to respond. Someone needs to wake the neighbors! But wait! It's 1:00 AM. You'd be waking them from a dead sleep. That wouldn't be nice.
            Now, that illustration is farfetched, I admit. But how often do we use being nice as a reason not to tell someone the truth in love? We have a country that at times seems to be burning down around us. I like to think it's more those other states on the coasts, but let's face it: we have our problems here in Idaho as well. We're so worried about not being perceived as "nice" that we won't point out simple truths, simple facts: the fact that families and society grow when men and women marry permanently and have children; the fact that identity is not something we invent or choose ourselves but something endowed to us by God; the fact that paying a CEO a salary in the millions while their employees live on food stamps might just be an injustice; and that intentionally taking an innocent life in utero, by weapons of mass destruction, or by euthanasia are all crimes that cry out to God for justice.

            God doesn't want us to be nice. He doesn't want us to be happy. He wants us to be holy, and he offers us the way of the Cross because the cross is the only means of salvation. The door to salvation is the cross.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Sunday: The Ascension of the Lord

Acts 1:1–11; Ephesians 1:17–23; Luke 24:46–53
If you've read the four gospels—and I surely hope you have—you know that each of the gospel writers takes a unique perspective and recalls certain details differently than the others. The first three, the synoptic gospels, are pretty similar to each other but have some small variations. That's why they are called the synoptic gospels, since synoptic means "seeing with the same eyes." The Gospel of John, of course, varies dramatically from the first three. It reminds me of a funny image I've seen on Facebook. Jesus is sitting with the Apostles, and he says to them, "Guys, I need you to listen very carefully. I don't want four different versions of this going around." Yet, that's what we have—four versions of essentially the same story but each with unique perspectives.
This weekend, as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension, we have two readings by the same author that not only don't match each other but vary from the other gospel accounts.
Luke's writings relay the event of Jesus' ascension. St. Luke is the only one of the evangelists who goes into detail here. Note that in the Gospel of Luke he tells them to stay in Jerusalem until the spirit comes to them. Jesus seems to ascend on the same day that he appears to them, after he has opened their minds to the scripture. In Acts, which was also written by Luke, Jesus stays with them for 40 days and teaches them, and only then ascends.
Matthew says that Jesus is going before them to Galilee and makes no mention of the Ascension. Mark makes a general reference to Jesus being taken up but doesn't mention where or when. John mentions all of them going to Galilee but doesn't mention the Ascension. Why such variation between the accounts on this point?
As I mentioned, Luke and Acts were written by the same evangelist. Very few scholars disagree on that point. Both address their writings to this figure Theophilus, which means "God-lover." Some speculate that this might be a generic reference to all the Christian faithful, except that in the Gospel of Luke, the evangelist says, "most excellent Theophilus," which suggests that it is someone whom the author knows and esteems. But one thing that is very clear from Sacred Tradition is this: Luke is the only one who is getting his whole story from one of the people who did not follow Christ in his life time. He is the companion of St. Paul, who came to be an apostle after Christ's death and ascension.
It may be possible that Luke was missing a small part of the Gospel tradition simply because his primary source was someone who was not a primary witness. And it may also be the case that he had a different audience and simply focused on different elements, perhaps some that the other evangelists did not think were necessary for their audiences. That's something for the biblical scholars to debate. For our purposes, we just have to accept that we have four different witnesses, and like all eye witness testimony, different perspectives result in slightly different views.
But we do have this one event, the Ascension, that connects Luke and Acts. Where Luke ends, Acts begins. It is the hinge on which the door to the early Church swings open. Jesus notes that He must return to the Father so that the Father will send the advocate, the Holy Spirit, to remind the Apostles of all that had been revealed to them. Shortly after the Ascension, the Apostles return to the Upper Room, where the Holy Spirit descends on them at the Feast of Pentecost, an event commonly referred to as the birth of the Church. That event is St. Luke's primary concern. In Acts, he is providing a history of the early Church. The style of writing, with this prologue to a particular audience, is precisely the sort of thing that a history of that time would include. But it's a history with a particular aim—to communicate the truth about Jesus and to share His gospel.
So what does the Ascension mean for us as 21st century Christians? What did it mean for the 1st century Christians? Well, we can understand it a bit better if we think about how Jesus turns everything upside down. He reverses the human experience in order to invite us to enter into it, and then we experience it in the opposite order. Let me use a few examples to explain what I mean. First, He exists eternally, then becomes incarnate, while we become incarnate naturally to be born again into eternity. He is baptized to sanctify the waters of the earth, whereas we are sanctified by them. Even his method of speaking shows these same reversals: in the Beatitudes, where he tells us that the poor and persecuted are blessed; in the Gospel of Luke, he says that those who try to gain their lives will lose them, but those who lose or let go of their lives will save them. He speaks in these paradoxes with such frequency that the Gospel of Mark suggests that the Apostles are actually afraid to question Him. This is what scripture means when it says that he will be a sign of contradiction. He will force us to reexamine just what it means to live a good life.
The Ascension is yet another of these reversals. He has come down from heaven to assume a human nature—a human form. He's still Divine and all-powerful, but he takes on the form of weakness—of the temporary and passing flesh. And then, God the Son does something no one would expect from a Divine being: He allows Himself to be killed brutally. But in this single person both human and Divine, He has done something truly miraculous: He has joined human nature to the Divine, so that the human nature now overcomes death, and He Himself rises from the dead. Of all the reversals, this is the most stunning we can imagine.
But Jesus is not the God of average expectations. He's the God of mind-blowing outcomes. He's not finished with His work of redemption. The last step is His Ascension. He returns to where He was before, but there's a difference. He returns with His resurrected human nature—a transformed human nature, a deified human nature—one joined to the very life of God. And again, with these reversals in mind, the baptized ascend at death and then are later resurrected. His resurrection is a promise, and the Ascension is its fulfillment. Our ascension begins at baptism and ends with the resurrection. We are experiencing our own salvation in reverse. We are already saved. We just need to realize it... and act like it. If we did that, the world would be transformed.
St. Athanasius, whose feast day was last Monday, famously wrote that "the Son of God became man so that we might become God." Many of the early Church Fathers from Irenaeus to Clement of Alexandria to Augustine wrote similar statements. But what does this mean? We don't actually become God. That job is taken for ever and ever, amen. What it means, though, is that we are brought into eternal participation in the Divine life of God. We are together with Him and seeing Him directly and understanding Him without our earthly limitations in the way. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:12: "We see in a mirror darkly, but then, face to face." John wrote in chapter 3 of his first letter, "[W]e shall be like him, for we shall see Him as He is." All of the obstructions will be gone, and we will comprehend, as well as human nature can, the mind of God.
That is what the Ascension means for us. He will bring our bodies back to life, but more importantly, He will bring us into His presence forever, and there can be nothing greater than that.

Today, we also remember our mothers. Coincidentally, we all have them. But let's first recognize the greatest of our mothers, the Blessed Mother, whose image all of you as women and girls carry. Her experience is the experience of each of you: whether it's in her life without a child before the Annunciation, or in the raising of a child, or in loss and grief. You all share in her experience, and we are blessed by you. Happy Mothers' Day.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Praying for Vocations

Hebrews 6:17–7:2; Matthew 9:35–38
The readings today reflect two different elements of religious vocation, whether to the priesthood, diaconate, or religious life. One is that eternal mystery of Christ's royal priesthood, in which all bishops and presbyters take part, and other is that call to service that those of us in the diaconate and religious life make our primary ministry.
The first reading from Hebrews talks about this mysterious figure Melchizedek from the book of Genesis. He was a priest, it says, of God Most High who offered bread and wine and blessed Abram after Abram had defeated the kings who has attacked his kinsmen. Abram gave him a tenth of the spoils from his victory. So while the order is a little different than our liturgy, the principle is the same. The priest offers bread and wine, and you give a tenth to the priest.
Now, I would quibble with one detail of the translation I just read, and that is that the translation of Melchi'-zedek is not "righteous king" but "king of righteousness," which has a slightly different feel to it. But what we see here is a reference to Christ's priesthood. He is the King of Righteousness and King of Peace, and as Psalm 109 says, "You are a priest forever, a priest like Melchizedek of old." Christ's priesthood is eternal, and those who are ordained to the priesthood are, in effect, exercising that same eternal priesthood in persona Christi, or in the person of Christ. That is a great honor for men who exercise this ministry, but it also causes some trepidation. Am I good enough to exercise Christ's priesthood? Am I worthy? Of course, none of us are, but God will that we come with our weaknesses, and He provides the strength we need.
In the gospel reading, Jesus sees the people in the villages in their illness and disease, and they seem to him like lost sheep. And so he says, "Ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest." The RSV translation says, "Pray... to the lord of the harvest." And so we are doing this today. We are praying for those laborers, for vocations to priesthood, diaconate, and religious life. Notice that they are described as laborers, perhaps even servants. And that is what ministry involves—particularly diaconal ministry. The word diakonos itself is the Greek word for service. An ordained or religious vocation is a call to serve, to labor, to bring in the lost sheep, to gather the harvest of evangelization. It is not a call to people who wish to be elevated but to people who are willing to get their hands dirty, to smell like the sheep.

That is truly what Christ calls us all to, but especially to those in ordained ministry and religious life. May we pray for more laborers. May we encourage those among us and in our households to consider a vocation. May we ourselves also consider whether God is calling us.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Broken Road Back: Third Sunday of Easter (Cycle C)

Acts 5:27–32, 40b–41; Revelation 5:11–14; John 21:1–19
I have a special place in my heart for the Apostle Peter. It’s clear in many gospel passages that he is completely clueless about what is happening. He wears his heart on his sleeve and impetuously responds to whatever happens in front of him. In this gospel passage, he hears that Jesus is on the shore. In his joy, he puts on his clothes... and then he jumps into the water. He can’t even think straight enough to keep from getting soaked. The text drily adds, “The others followed him in the boat… for they were not far from the shore.”
But the real scene here that tugs on the heart strings is the conversation between Peter and Jesus. Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” The third time is really the clincher. Peter is distressed that Jesus has asked him a third time, and responds, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” I can hear the pained expression in those words. For me, it’s one of the most memorable gospel passages.
So I want to talk about two slightly different theological approaches to this exchange between Peter and Jesus and what they reveal to us.
First, what is the significance of the three questions and responses? There is a long tradition of Peter’s three affirmations and their connection to Peter’s three denials during Jesus’ passion. If you recall (and you should recall since you repeat the very text every Palm Sunday and Good Friday), Peter says that he will go to die with Jesus, and Jesus tells him, “You shall deny three times that you know me.” We might not recognize just how much of a betrayal this truly was: the Apostle who said, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God" essentially turns his back on God. But that is the epitome of mortal sin—to know God and to turn your back on Him nonetheless.
The understanding of many theologians is that these three affirmations are Jesus’ way of reinstating Peter, of allowing him to undo the denials, of basically doing penance for his rejection of Christ. For each, “I do not know him,” Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” And Peter responds, “You know I love you.” He has been forgiven, of course, but each restatement of his love for Jesus helps to heal him. That is essentially what penance does. It helps us to undo the effects of sin, like salve on a wound.
So let me tell you a story. There was a boy raised in a Catholic home by devout parents, who grew up in a time of, well, let’s call it less-than-sufficient catechesis. By the time he was in high school, he differed considerably from the Church in his opinions about morality and reality. By college, he was well out the door and wandering to find some kind of meaning, but looking for it in the world of experience… or perhaps the experience of the worldly. At a certain point, he came to realize that he needed something that the material world wasn’t going to provide: a life of meaning. So he searched in all of the popular places one searched at that time for enlightenment—existential philosophy, eastern mysticism, anywhere but the gospel message.
He finished graduate school summa cum laude around Thanksgiving one year and found work, first, detailing cars at a used car lot, and then at a local New Age bookstore. Of course, this is the last place where a Catholic boy should end up: selling sage wands, crystals, tarot cards, books on new age mysticism and divination—many things, by the way, that the Church flatly condemns as spiritually dangerous and immoral. But oddly enough, he was still searching for truth.
That boy, then a man, was me.
It took another 10 years for me to find my way back to the faith, after I set aside my skepticism and fear and was astounded to learn that the Church doesn’t expect us to check our brains at the door. And so I began an intellectual process of conversion, which led to a spiritual conversion. And so I returned to the faith. And of course, now I’m up here at this ambo preaching to you.
The day of my ordination two and a half years ago—and a bit more than 20 years after that job in the New Age bookstore—was a bit like Peter’s experience seeing the Lord on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. I went for a run that morning, and I was alternately laughing and crying at the amazing journey I had taken, that broken road on which God had blessed and protected me. I probably looked every bit like the holy fool who jumped into the water fully clothed.
The ordination mass was like a welcome home. And so in that spirit, my family and I went off to a local restaurant, Smoky Mountain Pizza, to celebrate. As we began to wrap up and our various nuclear family units started to leave, I gave them each a blessing: first, my brother in law and his family; then my daughter and her mother; then my brothers, sister-in-law, and parents.
As I drove out of the parking lot, I slipped down the alley, which seemed like a faster exit, and I remembered, “Oh, yeah. I used to park back here when I worked here.”
The restaurant was in the same building that used to house the Blue Unicorn, the new age bookstore where I had once worked. And I realized that the very house where I had once sold tarot cards and sage wands, and books on Wicca and divination—the very room in fact where the front desk and register had been—was the very place where I had given my family my blessing—not once... but three times.
Tell me that God doesn't transform lives, and I tell you that I am a walking refutation of that claim.
And tell me that God doesn’t have a sense of humor.
Now what can we make of this? Of my experience and Peter’s experience? I think both incidents speak of God’s incredible mercy. You recall that Judas also betrayed Jesus. But the difference between Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s betrayal, and even my betrayal, was that Judas despaired. He gave up. Instead of repenting and turning back, he stayed the course to his destruction. Peter, on the other hand, did not. He sought forgiveness. And I did so, too, knowing that I did not deserve it, but that Jesus would forgive nonetheless.
Pope Francis, in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia which he released on Friday, wrote, "True charity is always unmerited, unconditional, and gratuitous" (296). You cannot earn it.
In addition, it highlights for me the fact that every choice we make is in some way a choice for Jesus or not: a yes or a no to our Redeemer. Do our choices say yes to Jesus? I try to choose Him always, but I fail from time to time, maybe more than I’d like to admit. But every fall is a chance to get up again and to say yes again.
The second point I want to touch on, is Jesus’ response to Peter’s affirmation. Recall that Jesus predicted that Peter would turn back even before he predicted that Peter would deny Him. He said, “Satan has demanded to sift you all like wheat, but once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
And here on the shore, Peter responds, “You know that I love you,” and Jesus tells him, “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” When Peter turned back, Jesus didn’t say, “Okay, now you're back at ground zero and have to earn my trust again.”
He knew as he said elsewhere that one who has been forgiven much loves all the more and that he could trust Peter precisely because Peter had failed and turned back… and that Peter knew the value of forgiveness. And Peter knew that however he might fail, he could always turn again and strengthen his brothers and tend the sheep whom Jesus entrusted to him. And he also knew that he never wanted to fall like that again.
Peter knew that he was being given a mission—a charge. After Jesus’ last request to feed his sheep, He commands, “Follow me.” The path would not be easy. Jesus would demand all the more from Peter, but now Peter understood that it was worth it.

And it is completely worth it to pick up your cross and follow Him.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Who are you going to trust? Fifth Sunday of Lent (Cycle A)

Ezekiel 37:12–14; Romans 8:8–11; John 11:1–45
            A man is running late for an important meeting. He hurries to the office, and arrives in the parking lot with only minutes to spare… only to find that the lot is entirely full. He circles around looking for parking, somewhere, anywhere, but to no avail. Finally, in a moment of desperation, he cries out, “God, I know we don’t talk much, but if you open up a parking space for me, I promise that I’ll go back to church. I'll go every Sunday, and I will tithe my gross income and give even more when the Idaho Catholic Appeal comes around.” Immediately, a car pulls out, and a parking space opens. Quickly, the man adds, “Never mind. One just freed up.”
            Now, you might be wondering how this is relevant to the readings today. It has to do with the nature of faith, trust, and disbelief. To paraphrase one writer on the subject, if you have faith, no proof is necessary. If you don't have it, no proof will suffice. The problem comes when we misinterpret what we see. The driver in the joke clearly doesn't see God intervening, but that's because he doesn't want or expect or maybe even accept anything but an obvious physical intervention in the world. That seems to be the way of our modern atheists, who would dismiss any and all evidence that can't be observed and measured.
            That's the dilemma with which we're faced: we can believe only what we see, or we can believe what God reveals to us. This was the dilemma faced by the Prophets of Israel like Ezekiel and the problem faced by Christ Himself.
            The Book of Ezekiel contains one of the few allusions to resurrection in Hebrew scripture. The doctrine of the afterlife becomes more pronounced in the Greek books of the Old Testament, which were written in the centuries just prior to Christ's birth. Before the prophets, you don't see much mention of eternal life, and you see nothing of this in the first five books, what we call the Pentateuch or Torah. Most of the allusions we have to an afterlife come to us from the Greek books of the Septuagint that we Catholics  and the Orthodox churches use but the Protestants reject. So Ezekiel's text is rather unique.
            And his imagery is concrete, physical, and evocative. The passage just prior to this describes dry bones rising and coming back to life: "I will lay sinews upon you, and I will cause flesh to come upon you." It's like a complete reversal of the process of decomposition.
            Some commentaries will explain that Ezekiel is not referring directly to bodily resurrection here but to bringing back the Hebrews to the land of Israel, and that is true to a degree. The literal sense of the text, which is always the first line of interpretation,  addresses the House of Israel prior to the Babylonian captivity. Ezekiel is saying that as a nation, or at very least a kingdom, Israel shall die. But he speaks in this current reading as one seeing the future state of Israel in death, which is really Israel's exile in Babylon. Their dry bones will be raised, enfleshed, and God's spirit will revive them. He will bring them back to inhabit their own land
            Now, this literal reading is one aspect of scripture, but the tradition of the Church has long admitted four levels of reading in scripture: the literal sense and three other levels of meaning collectively referred to as the spiritual sense. While the literal sense of the text certainly addresses the Nation of Israel, the spiritual senses clearly do allude to bodily resurrection, just as the water crossings in the stories of Noah, Moses, and Joshua all allude to and point forward to baptism. This is precisely how the Church reads scripture—always with a mind toward how the new lies hidden in the old and the old is revealed in the new, to paraphrase St. Augustine.
            One of the reasons the Church has always declared itself to be the final and authoritative interpreter of scripture is because we weak, self-interested human beings like to twist God's word to our own ends. But the best of us can simply misunderstand what the original authors meant to say. Even St. Peter commented on how difficult Paul could be to understand. But scripture does have a definitive interpreter, and it isn't you or me, but the Church.
            And speaking of Paul, we get a rather interesting passage from his letter to the Romans to illustrate the point. Paul is writing to the Christian Jews of Rome, whom he has never met. On face value, what he says in this letter sounds very un-Jewish because he distinguishes between flesh and spirit in such a way as to suggest that they're separate aspects of the human person—as if we're just spirits inhabiting a body. But what he is saying is that we can either be preoccupied by those earthly things that are temporary, or we can be focused on the things of God, which are eternal. And just as the Gnostics misinterpreted the letters of Paul in the first century, Christians are still doing the same today without the guidance of an authoritative voice to interpret scripture. So scripture needs a final judge, and that is the Church.
            In our Gospel reading today, we get one of those apparent non sequiturs that sort of stops us in our tracks or raises what Scott Hahn calls the "Holy Huh"? It's one of those passages that, when we read it, makes us stop and go, "Huh?" Let me read the one I mean.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.  But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
Now, when I read that passage, my immediate thought is, just what does the number of hours in a day have to do with the Jews stoning Him to death? What is Jesus trying to say here? There must be a way to understand His words. And of course, there is. The letter from Paul has already set the stage for it. The twelve hours on either side simply represent the choice we have to make: the half of the day that's light or the half that is dark. Those in darkness follow after the things of the flesh. Those in the light follow the things of the spirit. If you are walking in the light, you can trust that you are safe. It's only if you walk in darkness that you need to fear.
            Recall our first reading again. Ezekiel predicts the Babylonian captivity. Why did the Jews have to go into exile? Because they had stopped following the ways of God: the God who had brought them out of Egypt and given them the land of Canaan; the God who made promises and kept them, even when the Jews complained and then rejected Him. The last line is key: "'I have promised, and I will do it,' says the Lord." They had stopped trusting in the very God who had repeatedly delivered them. Even then, God fulfills His promises.
            Paul is saying something similar: who are you going to trust? Are you going to put your faith in the eternal, or are you going to ignore all the signs God puts in your way and trust in things that don't last? The parking lot joke is pretty much the story of most of our lives. We overlook the many miracles of our very existence and see nothing other than chance. But much of what we think of as chance is simply the miraculous working of God. A 19th-century French writer, Théophile Gautier put it this way: "Chance is the pseudonym God uses when he does not want to sign." Now if you read a lot, you can almost always recognize the writing of an author you love. Their writing voice is their signature. And so it is with God. He creates little miracles in our lives every day, but if we don't have the eyes to see them, we miss His signature in our lives.
            This story from John is all about this matter of trust and proof. Jesus even says in the opening verses, after he is told about Lazarus' illness, that this illness will not end in death but is for the glory of God the Father. Notice that he says "will not end in death." He doesn't say that Lazarus will not die but that the illness he will not end in death.
            I've always found this story about Lazarus intriguing. The name Lazarus is the Greek form of the name Eleazar, which we see throughout Hebrew and Greek Old Testament scripture, and it means, "God is my help." So it's a fitting name for someone who is a friend of Jesus. Lazarus is also the name of the poor man in the story in Luke. If you recall, in that story, the poor man Lazarus is lying in the street in front of the rich man's house. The rich man is indifferent to him and walks by him without helping him. They both die, and Lazarus is taken up to Abraham's bosom, which is a good place to be, and the rich man goes to a place that is not good, where he is essentially tormented. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to the world of the living to warn his brothers. Abraham responds to him, "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead."
            And now, in our Gospel reading, Lazarus dies as well. Then Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Is Jesus sending Lazarus back to warn others? Will they hear him? Those who witness it have one of two responses. Some begin to believe, so they respond to Jesus in faith based on what they witness. But others report back to the Pharisees, the party of Jews who believe that they uphold the teachings of Moses and the prophets, and they are certain that Jesus' raising of Lazarus is a bad thing. They want to destroy Jesus. So just as Jesus predicts in Luke, these people witness someone who has come back from the dead, and they respond with disbelief. Will they trust Jesus, who has raised the man, or will they follow Caiaphas and have Jesus put to death?
            All of us have to make this decision about whom we trust. We can put our trust in the fleeting things of this world, or we can put our trust in a truth beyond this world. As Catholics, of course we should put our trust in Christ, but faith doesn't stop there. Christ did not leave us as lost sheep.  He gave us a Church to guide us in our understanding of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. The Church brings us together here at the altar and preserves for us the sacraments of our unity in the Body of Christ. But we often act as though its authority is arbitrary and meddlesome. But could anything our Savior gave us be intended solely as a stumbling block? Do we look at the gifts of the Church as impediments to us and our relationship with God, or do we trust the gift that Christ has given us?

            Who are you going to trust?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

You've got to serve somebody—Sunday: First week in Lent (Cycle C)

Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-3; Luke 4: 1-13
Today is the official first day of Lent, even though we've already spent one day fasting and two abstaining, and many of you came last Wednesday for the imposition of ashes. Ash Wednesday is perhaps the best attended liturgy we celebrate that is not on a major feast of the Church: it is rather what is called a major feria and it supersedes any solemnities or feast days that would normally occur on that day. I love that we in the Church embrace Ash Wednesday with so much vigor. Let's hope that we embrace the rest of this penitential season with as much spirit. Rites like these go to form us as much as the overt instruction that we get in religious education or through spiritual reading, because we take part as a people in a memorial that binds us to the faithful who lived before us, much like the rituals of the Hebrews bound them to the people of Israel whom the Lord led out of bondage in Egypt.
The first reading describes just one such ritual. Deuteronomy 26 outlines the offering of first fruits in gratitude for deliverance. As the Israelites make this offering, they declare themselves to be descendants of a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt and grew into a vast nation. Now the wanderer could be Abram or Jacob, since both fled to Egypt during times of famine. The land of Aram is what we now call Syria, and the Greek translation puts a slightly different spin on the story here and suggests that the father deserted or abandoned Syria. And after growing into a great nation, they were mistreated and enslaved by the Egyptians. When the Lord hears their cries, he leads them out of Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey—the land of the Canaanites and further. In fact, the top-most portion of the land of the twelve tribes of Israel was well into the land of Aram. The Lord, in essence, leads them right back to where they started.
When we see the story condensed like this to its basic elements, it sounds a bit like the story of the prodigal son. The son leaves home, lives the high life for a while, then dwindles into servitude and remembers how it was when he was subject to his father. In away, that makes sense. Jacob leaves his patrimony in Aram to go to Egypt, where he and his descendants become rich. But being away from their own lands, they become subject to the pagan Egyptians, and we assume they also become poor again. When they cry out to the Lord, He delivers them with a strong hand. But there's a detail missing. Deuteronomy 26 takes place before the Israelites pass over the Jordan to the land flowing with milk and honey and after they spend 40 years wandering in the desert. The Lord has brought them out of Egypt and slavery, but only after they have wandered 40 years in the desert does the Lord lead them out and welcome them back to the land of their patrimony.
That 40 years of wandering was the temporal consequence for the Israelites' lack of faith—for not trusting in the Lord's promise. And by the time the forty years are up, the generation who left Egypt have all died off. Only Joshua and Caleb remain and get to enter the promised land. An interesting note here is that Caleb isn't even Hebrew by birth. His father was a Kenezzite and a convert, and the name Caleb, or kalev (כלב), is the Hebrew word for dog—not exactly what we would consider a proper name. Caleb has been grafted, so to speak, on to the tree of the Hebrew people, just as we as Catholic Christians have been grafted onto the people of Israel. Remember that when you read about the gentile woman who begs for Jesus to heal her daughter. He says to her, "It is not fair to throw the food of the children to the dogs," to which she replies, "Even dogs eat from the scraps that fall from the table." Her faith is greater than the children of Israel, and Jesus rewards her, just as the Lord rewarded Caleb for his faith.
Paul tells us today in the letter to the Romans, "[E]veryone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." There is no distinction between Jews and Greek, of Jew and any gentile. We as gentile Christians have also been grafted onto the tree of Israel, as Paul says in this same letter.
In Luke's Gospel today, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the desert. These forty days and nights in the desert are the preparation He undergoes for His earthly ministry. Notice that Satan begins to tempt Him, in this gospel, with the most basic of needs: food. Jesus has been fasting for 40 days—certainly enough to justify breaking his fast. But Satan wants Him to do it for the wrong reason: he wants Him to prove Himself, to justify Himself. In short, Satan tempts Him with something good but attained in the wrong way and for the wrong reason. So it's not really the food that's the problem. Food is good. But not all means to food or uses for food are good.
Next, Satan takes Him to a high place and shows him all kingdoms and offers all earthly power. This one is rather ironic, given that all the power of creation already rests in Jesus. So is Satan really offering power to Jesus, or is he tempting Him again to prove Himself? Finally Satan tempts Him to throw Himself down and let the angels catch Him. Again—prove that you are the Son of God. Make your time here all about you and your power.
But that's not why Jesus came and not why he spent 40 days and nights in the desert. Luke even tells us that Jesus returns from the Jordan filled with the Holy Spirit! But to be like us, He has to become weak like us. To show us an example to follow, He must become like us in our frailty. So He goes to the desert to empty Himself. Satan wants Him to make a show of it all, but Jesus chooses the path of meekness. As Paul writes in Philippians, "Though He was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied Himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men."
And if a man can assert His own power, and command the angels, and live independent from the power of God, he is no slave. He doesn't need God. So Satan is tempting Jesus (or trying to tempt Jesus) with the very temptation he used to entice our first parents: "You will be like God," which is in truth less than who Jesus already is.
Jesus' mission wasn't about Him. It was and is about us. Like Adam and Eve, we'd like to be masters of our own destiny. We'd like to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and be like God. We don't want to be in servitude to God. But as the story of Jacob and His sons shows, you will always wind up serving someone. As Bob Dylan put it, "You've got to serve somebody."
Jesus' time in the wilderness is a self-emptying to join us where we are and to show us a better way. In every action He performed, Jesus tells us, "This is the way. Follow me on the path of weakness. Don't be distracted by the fleeting stuff of this world."

This 40 days is about remembering our weakness, need, and utter dependence on God. Sure, we could allow ourselves all kinds of loopholes and exceptions in this penitential season. But as always, Jesus calls us to be like Him. He calls us to follow Him into the wilderness so He can lead us back to our patrimony as sons and daughters of God. In these 40 days, let us return with Him to that wilderness and empty ourselves out so that we can be filled again and returned to the place of our fathers.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Turn Around—The Baptism of the Lord (Cycle C)

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7; Like 3:15-16, 21-22

            The Sacrament of Baptism is one of my favorites at which to preside, and it's one that probably stirs me the most emotionally, even more than weddings, at which I also love to preside. I think part of my love for the Sacrament of Baptism is the sheer gratuitousness, the sheer generosity of it—that God uses these material things to simply wipe our slate clean, to cleanse us from the stain of original sin, and to adopt us as His own children; that He bestows this life saving grace on us in such a simple, mundane act—the act of bathing.
            I suspect some of the parents of children I've baptized also find it a bit unbelievable. A few have even called me up and said, "Deacon Bill, I don't think the baptism took. This child is just off her rocker."
            And I always tell them the same thing. I say, "Look, the baptismal water didn't sizzle and evaporate when I poured it on her head, so I'm sure it's all good."
Last week, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. The scriptural context of our celebration was the visit of the Magi to the house of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph some time after Jesus was born. But the feast itself represents something greater: the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. The shepherds who visited the Christ child on Christmas day represented the am ha-arez—the people of the land. These were the unschooled Jews of the time, most likely considered unrighteous by the teachers, scribes, and religious authorities.
            Those two events together represent the revelation of Christ to those who are traditionally outsiders to the righteous Jews. Today’s celebration is the baptism of the Lord—the revelation of Jesus to everyone. At one time in our liturgical calendar the Feasts of the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord were celebrated on the same day. The feast day commemorated not two but four events, and their order of importance was different than we would expect: first, the Baptism of the Lord—today's celebration; then Jesus' miracle at the wedding of Cana, which was the first of His miracles; then the nativity of Jesus; and finally, the visitation of the Magi.
            So this feast day is important in the life of the Church primarily because it celebrates Christ revealed to the whole world. With His baptism, with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him, and with the Father's words, the final revelation has become manifest in the world. His Incarnation was, very literally, a turning point in history.
            I was cooking in the kitchen this last Friday evening, and as I usually do, I plugged my iPhone into our little kitchen stereo and put on Pandora so I can cook and sing and maybe play a little air guitar. And a Matt Maher song came on—I know a lot of you like Matt Maher—this one was Turn Around—which is pretty much the story of my life, and the story that many of us have. A line from the chorus is this: "If you're looking for a savior, all you gotta do is turn around."
            Turn around. Your savior is right behind you.
            Now, it's a catchy tune, but Maher is a very clever songwriter. He's actually playing on a Greek theological term we use: metanoia. It's used in the original Greek of the Gospels and the book of Acts in the call to conversion to which Jesus, St. John the Baptist, and all of the Apostles call us; and it's frequently translated into English as repent. But the word itself means: change of mind, and in Latin, the same word is translated as coversionem—turning around. So our English word—conversion—means turn around.
            That makes perfect sense, in context, because the Greek and Hebrew words for sin both suggest being pointed in the wrong direction. Our aim is wrong. We want a happy life, but we keep aiming at the wrong targets. The Gospel message—the one we get on this day when we celebrate Jesus' revelation to ALL of us—is to turn around: turn away from sin and turn toward Him.
            The people of Israel were looking for and longing for the Messiah, a savior. And they turned to many who matched their ideal of salvation: a military savior, a political savior, a material savior. And all of those people were pretenders, false targets, false prophets. But one came whom St. John the Baptist predicted, whom the prophet Isaiah predicted, whom Moses and David and the other prophets predicted. And in our Gospel reading, we see the Holy Spirit come down to rest on Him, and God the Father to claim Him as the one. John denied that He was the Christ, and when the time came, John himself pointed to His cousin Jesus and testified: there is the Lamb of God, the one whose sandal I am not fit to loosen.
            If we're looking for a savior—turn around. He is right there.
            We celebrate today the one sacrament that all Christians recognize, although not all understand its significance. It's the one that signifies our connection to the Church, the Body of Christ and to Christ Himself. When Jesus comes to John to be baptized, note that John in the Gospel of Matthew says, I should be baptized by you!" But Jesus is baptized so that all righteousness will be fulfilled. He's obviously not baptized for His own salvation. He doesn't need cleansing. But we do.
            And Jesus' directive to us, more simple than all of His other messages to us is this: follow me. Do what I do. It starts here at baptism. It leads us to share in a communal sacrifice. And it ultimately leads us all right there. He sacrificed Himself for us, and we are called to sacrifice as well. Our baptism is a call to that cross.
            I know that sounds heavy at times, but have you noticed how those who have embraced their baptism most ardently; those who follow Jesus' example day in and day out; those who bear up under unimaginable burdens for the sake of the Gospel all seem to have that unmistakable joy and aroma of holiness? They're so holy that they smell of it! At times, their goodness and sanctity is overwhelming. That must've been what it was like to be in the presence of Jesus—to let His goodness wash over you and cleanse you, purge you, renew you.
            That is the difference between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus. John's baptism was typical of many Jewish and far Eastern rites: a ritual and symbolic washing to represent a cleansing of impurity. But something changed when Jesus came into those waters. Many of the early Church Fathers taught that His baptism actually sanctified the waters of the earth for our baptism.  St. Proclus, a bishop of Constantinople, described it this way:
Come, consider the new and wonderful deluge, greater and more important than the flood of Noah's day. Then the water of the flood destroyed the human race, but now the water of baptism has recalled the dead to life by the power of the one who was baptized.
The baptism of Jesus is not simply symbolic: as a sacrament, and like all sacraments, it enacts what it represents.
·       Baptism doesn't symbolize cleansing; it actually cleanses.
·       Reconciliation doesn't just represent absolution, cover over our sins, and kick them off into a corner; it actually removes the stain of sin.
·       The Eucharist doesn't just symbolize Jesus' salvific sacrifice: it engages us in the very same sacrifice.
These sacraments give us the grace we need to turn our hearts back. When our power fails, the grace of the sacraments renews us and returns us to friendship with God.
            And the Gospel message is just that simple. If you're looking for a savior, turn around. If seeking money and power has failed to satisfy you, turn around. If self indulgence and material excess has failed to quench your thirst or sate your hunger, turn around.
            Turn around.
            Repent.

            Be converted. Jesus didn't need baptism to be saved, but we do if we are to truly follow him. And we need to be converted daily. You see, conversion is not something we do once and are done with. Our hearts must be converted daily. We have to turn back from so many distractions, so many worldly concerns, so many preoccupations. We have to reform ourselves every day for the rest of our lives. The process does not stop until that final step at the very last, when with God's grace, we will look into His face and hear the words, "well done, my good and faithful servant."

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Forge of Vocation—Feast of the Holy Family (Cycle C)

            Yesterday was the feast of St. Stephen, a special day for deacons because St. Stephen was one of the first deacons, and the first Christian mentioned in scripture to be stoned—and by that, I mean martyred. So whatever connections you make between deacons and St. Stephen's being stoned I will leave on your conscience.
            Today is the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, and it's a day on which the Church reflects on foremost on the Holy Family, but also on the gift of family in our lives and the role that family plays in the formation of our character.
            In the first reading, Hannah names her son Shmuel (שמואל), which we pronounce Samuel in English. The name has no precise meaning but has been translated variously as—heard of God, asked of God, His name is God, or namesake of God. What we get in this passage is essentially a folk etymology. His name is Samuel because Hannah asked the Lord for him. Hannah takes Samuel to the temple and dedicates him to God's service. It's important to note here her motivation. Out of gratitude to God for His gift of a child to her, a child she had longed for and whose birth removed the stigma of barrenness from her, she gives Samuel back to God.
            Now, if you've studied this book before, you already know that Samuel is literally called by God, and he becomes a great prophet and judge of Israel. It is he who anoints first Saul and later David as kings of Israel. But imagine how different his life had been had he not been in the temple. Would he have heard the call to his vocation if he were not in a context where he was constantly exposed to God?
            In our Gospel reading, Jesus is left behind in Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph search for him for three days only to find him in the temple. To us, this story sounds a bit like the family that left the kid at the rest area, and our parental judgment apparatus springs into action. But keep in mind that in that time, extended families and neighbors would travel together to and from Jerusalem for the three major festivals. Mary's presence on the journey indicates her personal dedication to her faith, since the journey was only required for Jewish men. They assumed that Jesus was traveling with the other members of their large contingent from Nazareth, which was a completely legitimate assumption for them in their time. So let's not take this as a sign that Joseph and Mary were anything other than exceptional parents. They were devoted in the observance of their faith, and if anything, it is Jesus who has done something unexpected and out of character for their culture.
            When they find Jesus, he is sitting in the temple asking questions and responding to the teachers, and the teachers are astounded by his wisdom. You see, at that time, a Jewish boy's religious education did not culminate in a bar Mitzvah at age 13. They didn't start until they were 12. So Jesus' understanding is so completely out of the norm for the time and place. At the age when most of us started junior high, he is teaching the teachers.
            Mary questions Jesus. She has a legitimate grievance: "Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety."
            And Jesus answers, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" And this, likewise, is a legitimate question.
            Now why do I make that claim? Because Jesus does here what we are all called to do: to respond to the vocation to which God calls us. He recognizes his vocation and sets out to practice it. That sounds a little odd to us in our secular culture—a 12-year old disregarding his parents' concerns and embarking on a vocation. How many of us would stand for something that radical? But this is in a culture where parents regularly committed their children at an early age. In fact, one explanation for Mary's marriage to Joseph was that she had been dedicated for service to the temple until she was of age and then needed a patron after she was no longer qualified to serve. Samuel's call likewise came at an early age. It is simply something that is foreign to our modern sensibilities and context.
            So how do these two stories touch on the meaning and purpose of family? Our Church, of course, has something to say about that.
            The Church calls the family, in paragraph 1656 of the Catechism, the ecclesia domestica—the domestic church. It is the primary place of faith formation for children—the primary place of faith formation. As I said in last year's homily for this feast, family is the oven in which the bricks of civilization are cured. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and many popes prior to him have stressed the foundational importance of the family not only to civilization but also to the transmission of the faith.
            In this context, children see whether or not the faith makes a difference in family life and in all life. If our faith isn't taught and demonstrated in the home, it will not find a home in the human heart. Both of our readings show that faith begins at home, and then the children take it out to serve God in the greater society. What would Samuel have done without his mother's commitment and gratitude to God for His gift to her? And while we can presume that Jesus would carry out his mission regardless of whether Mary and Joseph were on board, the gospel writers—particularly Luke—make it clear that Mary and Joseph are pious and observant Jews. That could not have hurt his mission by any means.
            So family is important for faith formation, and part of formation in the faith is discerning one's calling. Because of his mother's sacrifice, Samuel discerned his calling while he served in the temple. Undoubtedly, Jesus was able to respond to his calling because of his parents' observance of the Jewish high holy days. In both cases, we see that the child is aided in discerning and following a call through his parents' support.
            Now, I'm sure I don't need to explain that the word vocation comes from the Latin verb that means to call. A calling is a vocation, and all of us are called to some mission. As Catholics, we believe that this calling is not just a personal preference but something that God has knit into our fabric—into our very being—and if we ignore the call or if we do not take the time to listen for it, we miss the very purpose for which we have been given life. All of us have a vocation, and if we do not find that vocation, we will find our lives unsatisfying. We will fill up our time with frivolous and meaningless endeavors.
            It used to be the norm for Catholic families to encourage their children to discern whether they had a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. My uncle attended minor seminary for just that purpose, and I know more than one of our parishioners who spent some time in the discernment process. Some discern instead that they have a firm commitment to the vocation of marriage, and that is good as well. The point is that they discern where God is calling them to mission.
            "What do you want to do with your life?" That is a question we often ask our children. What do you want of your life? There's a problem with this. First, it confirms the tendency we have in our culture to think that we live solely for our own self satisfaction, and that is quite simply not true. Second, it assumes that we are given gifts for our own use alone. Scripture teaches us that our gifts must be used for the purpose for which they are given, and that purpose is not under our determination, but it is under our stewardship.
            We do not ask our children the right question. We should not be asking them, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" We should be asking them, "What do you think God is calling you to do when you grow up?" We should be encouraging them to consider their mission in terms of God's will for them, not their own will for themselves. It should be no surprise to us, then, if our grown children are focused solely on their own personal self-fulfillment than on serving God or anyone else. Their self-centeredness is something our culture will implant in them if we do not take the time to inculcate in them a knowledge of their obligation to discern God's will in their lives—in directing their lives according to His will and not their preferences.
            This concern about vocations is not just an abstract exercise. Our Church needs priestly and religious vocations. And vocations begin in the home. If we are going to have priests to serve at the altar, to bring us the Eucharist daily, weekly, or even monthly, we must raise boys to pursue the priesthood. If we are going to have religious brothers and sisters to provide service to the Church and to the impoverished, elderly, and disabled, we must raise children who seek to serve rather than to be served. We have to look at the generosity of Hannah, who gave her much desired child back to God in His service; and to the Blessed Mother, who accepted her own vocation to be the Mother of God. We have to look back on the generosity of the fathers and mothers of past generations who encouraged their children to seek God's purpose for their lives, parents like Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, who gave not just one but five daughters to serve religious vocations, including a doctor of the Church, St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

            We have to recall why we are here, and it doesn't hurt to start with the basic proposition from our catechism. We are here to know, love, and serve God, in this life and the next.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Rejoice! Third Sunday of Advent (Cycle C)

Third Sunday of Advent (Cycle C)

Zephaniah 3:14–18a; Philippians 4:4–7; Luke 3:10–18
            Today we celebrate the third Sunday of Advent, which is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin translation of Philippians 4. "Rejoice in the Lord always." Always rejoice. We depart from the somber tone of this penitential season for a bit to celebrate the light that is dawning on us.
            The readings today give us our marching orders for Advent and beyond. The Latin word adventus, the source of our English term, indicates an approach or onset. Advent is the onset of Christ's coming again. As our readings suggest, it is a time of hope, of looking forward to a joyous event, but not necessarily from the perspective of people who are now experiencing joy. Often the expectation of the Messiah's coming dawns when His people are at their lowest, when they feel bereft and oppressed.
            Zephaniah prophecies during the reign of Josiah, a time when the king is attempting to bring the kingdom back from its fall into idolatry. The Assyrians have been chipping away at the Kingdom of Judea and demanding their tribute, which always means an oppressive tax on the people. All of these events are considered to be the result of the sins of the People of Israel. But Zephaniah tells them that God is letting go of that penalty and that they will be delivered from their oppression. In the midst of their strife, they are called to rejoice in their deliverance.
            The letter of St. Paul to the Philippians is much the same. Paul is writing from prison, as Fr. Jerry mentioned last week. Now Paul wasn't exactly a popular figure in Philippi, at least not with those outside the Church. If you remember the account in Acts, he expels a spirit from a slave girl who is constantly prophesying in a loud voice that Paul and his companions served the Most High God. Her owners weren't too happy about that. St. Paul was pretty adept at ticking off the local populace and bringing their wrath upon him. But even he is telling the Philippians, whom he obviously loves, to be joyful. He knows that all of this tribulation has a purpose. We can obsesses about our trials, or we can rejoice because we know the one who has overcome the world.
            And then there are those of us who perhaps dwell too much on where we've been rather than where we're going. John the Baptist's message in the gospel reading addresses these who have come to recognize their need to repent from their past lives. John doesn't shake his head and say, "Tsk, tsk. I'm sorry, but you guys are toast." He gives them concrete steps on the right path. First he tells them to repent, and then he gives them their marching orders.
Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry. Give what you have in excess to the poor.
            And these actions help the penitent to grow in holiness. St. John Chrysostom said that "the poor are physicians, and their hands are an ointment for your wounds." And if you've ever worked with the truly poor, or if you've ever visited the sick, or fed someone who was hungry, you've experienced it—that sense that what little you've done actually helped you more than it helped the other because it helped you to move outside of yourself and to recognize Christ in the other. Regardless of where you've been, your sins are old news, and they are swept away. John is saying, "All of that past stuff was true, but you are forgiven. Now go and leave all of that behind. Go and sin no more." That is the very message of mercy that the Holy Father has challenged us to proclaim in this Jubilee year of mercy.
            It's a message that hits home for me. I myself have been in this position. I was not always that man you see in front of you now—holy, righteous, and dashingly handsome.
            But seriously, I am a far different person now than I was in my young adult life. I drifted away from the Catholic faith in my late teens, and I wandered for a long time—about 20 years. I did plenty of things of which I'm not proud. And I could go on carrying those failures as many of us do. But the call to repentance is not a call to self-judgment and condemnation. It is a call to recognition and conviction and then, ultimately... to mercy... to forgiveness... to healing. To letting go and moving on.
            That's what Advent and Lent are all about—helping us to recognize our brokenness; helping us to recognize our need for healing; helping us to recognize our need for salvation. Thank God that salvation has come, and in this season, we celebrate the fact that He is coming again.
            But like it was for the Israelites in our first reading, there are plenty of reasons for anxiety. If we look around our world, we can find many reasons to be fearful and anxious. The last year has seen a mass exodus of refugees from areas of conflict, and areas that have been historically Christian since the first century are seeing their native Christian populations disappear. We're seeing an increase of terrorist violence all over the world, even in our own back yard. Our political rhetoric has become increasingly bombastic and intolerant. It seems like we can't have a civil conversation in a public arena without someone barging in, not to engage in dialogue, but only to disrupt. We seem to have less and less of a shared culture and shared morality on which to base our decisions.
            Our world is more chaotic than ever.
            Or at least than we remember in our lifetimes.
            The fact is, every era encounters these moments of chaos and doubt. Look at the letters of St. Paul. Look at the words of the prophets like Zephaniah. Plus çe change, plus c'est le même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
            We're not really seeing anything new. We're seeing version 21.15 of the same old thing.
            Which means we're still seeing the same result of our fallen nature playing itself out. We're still seeing those same human failings that we've always seen. We're still seeing the effects of sin and the wounds they create in our lives and the lives of the people we love.
            But we still also encounter the effects of redemption in our world. We still encounter those moments of grace individually and collectively. We have that moment of grace when we set aside our own needs to take care of the homeless, or to visit the sick, or to comfort others who are in pain. We watch those flash mob videos of people singing the Alleluia chorus in a midwest mall or in a European market square.
            We have those moments when we collectively stand up and say, "No, we will not engage in persecution of the others in our midst."
            "No, we will not tolerate the neglect of the homeless in our midst."
            "No, we will not euthanize the old and weak, or abort the young, or neglect the alien."
            We have moments of grace, and we have to remember that the story is not over. Advent is here to remind us of that. The man who came here and suffered that defeat (point to the crucifix), has overcome the world. And He is coming again on the clouds in power and glory to make an end of all defeat. And He comes to this altar today to make us one.

            And that is why we rejoice.