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.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Truth is our King: Solemnity of Christ the King (Cycle B)

Note: I wrote this homily as the final homiletic assignment during my diaconal formation. For some reason, even though it was not a weekend designated for the deacons to preach, I thought that I should have this ready just in case. I have no idea why since it's not common for our priests to ask us to preach that the spur of the moment. But sure enough, after the first mass I served with our parochial vicar, he told (not asked) me to preach for the next mass. To my knowledge, he did not know that I had anything ready. So I thank the Holy Spirit on two accounts: for inspiring me to write this in the first place, and for prompting me to take it this morning.


Daniel 7:13–14; Revelation 1: 5–8; John 18:33b–37

“You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
These words Jesus speaks to Pontius Pilate. Pilate has the earthly authority to send Jesus to His death, but Jesus doesn’t seem concerned that He may pay for his words with His life. He simply speaks the truth.
I think it's interesting how they block out our readings, what they choose to include and not include, and I'm fascinated by Pilate’s response to Jesus—three simple words: “What is truth?” Quod est veritas?
What is truth?
Did Pilate want to know the truth? I don’t think he could have cared less. Pilate wanted to assess the facts of the matter, to determine whether this Jesus of Nazareth was a threat, a criminal, a nuisance, or if these Jewish leaders were manipulating the facts for their own reasons. He didn’t care about truth. He wanted facts. But instead he got the truth.
We get a lot of facts in our daily lives, a lot of data. The news is full of facts, and the pundits all along the political spectrum are happy to provide their interpretations and opinions of what the facts reveal. More often than not, the facts are simply used to further their own agendas. The same facts are used to explain why we need high taxes and more government as well as why we need to eliminate taxes and reduce the government. There are legitimate arguments on both sides of every issue based on the facts, and it just takes a clever person to bend the facts to their will.
Facts are useful things. Facts can sometimes tell us a lot about what is, but they don’t tell us much about what ought to be. They don’t tell us the truth. But the truth is sometimes not very useful and can often be downright inconvenient.
You can measure things and produce a fact. You can weigh things and produce a fact. You can record sounds and videos of events and see a sequence of facts. The facts are used by many who argue against the existence of God because facts can be verified scientifically. Many apologists for secularism and atheism try to tell us that morality can exist apart from a belief in God simply by assessing these empirical facts. But anyone who knows how the world works can see that we don’t know what we ought to do based solely on facts.
There must be a standard to measure against to determine what we ought to do. Facts can only tell us what is. They cannot lead us to a moral life and they do not, on their own, tell us what is the truth.
The facts are used to justify just about any grave evil in our world:
·       The reason we why can’t feed the hungry
·       The reason why we can’t protect the unborn
·       The reason why we have to allow same-sex marriage
·       The reason why our Catholic hospitals have to provide coverage for contraceptives and abortifacients
·       The reason why have to go to war yet again
But what is truth?
The truth is something that doesn’t come from this world. The truth predates our empirical studies and rational philosophy. The truth was established long before modern physicists hammered out the theory of quantum mechanics, long before our constitution was hammered together by a bunch of fallible men after a nasty civil rebellion, long before a misguided priest hammered a list of 95 theses on the church door of the Wittenburg Castle, long before a Roman emperor accepted Christ and hammered a stake in the heart of paganism, and long before Roman soldiers hammered spikes through the hands and feet of an innocent man and before the procurator named Pontius Pilate sent that man to his death after asking him a simple question: What is truth?
The truth was there in the beginning: the Word with God, the Word Who is God. And He became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus came to testify to the Truth because He was the only one who could truly witness to Himself, the Truth enfleshed.
You see, Pilate didn’t recognize the Truth as He stood there staring Him in the face. He didn’t recognize the difference between what is and what ought to be. In fact, Pilate was a slave to the “is”—to the powers of the world and to the politics of his situation. He knew that this man Jesus was innocent—a fact. He knew that the Jews would riot and possibly start a rebellion—a fact. And he knew the fact that a certain emperor in Rome would not want to hear that the procurator in Jerusalem was unable to keep the peace. So Pilate crucified the Truth to serve his master.
But the truth is not some thing. The truth is some body. The Truth is Jesus Christ. The Truth is the Word, the Logos, the immediate eternal thought and image of the Father. The Truth is here with us in His sacred word, and in a few minutes He will be with us again in His body, blood, soul, and divinity.
That is the truth.
How many of us live with this truth in mind? How many of us treat this truth as the absolute driving factor in our everyday plans and decisions? How many of us live as if one day we will have to face the Truth?
Daniel recognized that there would come a day to face the Truth, when one like a Son of Man would come with everlasting dominion and eternal kingship. The Book of Daniel points forward like all of Old Testament scripture to the revelation of Christ the King. Roughly 300 years later, the beloved Apostle John predicted the same return of the Son, the firstborn of the dead who freed us from our sins by His blood. John was the first to write that word logos in reference to Jesus, a word taken from the Greek philosophers who knew that there must be one transcendent Truth, even if they didn’t know who or what it was—that unknown god that the Athenians had memorialized on the Areopagus (air-ee-o-pah-gus) as mentioned in Acts 17:23. John looked the Truth in the face, dropped his fishing nets, and gave his entire life to Him.
We sometimes treat our personal opinions as if they are the truth, but then we turn around and claim, “Well what’s true for you isn’t necessarily true for me,” as if truth can be one thing and its diametric opposite at the same time. And we live these contradictions as well, claiming the right to pick and choose what we believe to be the truth.
·       Whether life begins at conception
·       Whether it’s okay to have sex outside of marriage
·       Whether it’s okay to deny basic needs to someone on the street
·       Whether it’s okay to prevent refugees feeling religious persecution from crossing our borders
But our personal opinions are not the standard for our conduct. We have as our standard a God-Man, the Son of Man, the king not of this world, the Truth incarnate. Our standard is not the factual brutishness of this world, but the fact that the Truth came to die for us—the fact that our king humbled Himself to be one of us; the fact that He desires mercy and not sacrifice, that He says we will be blessed when we are persecuted, that He says we should love our enemies and not just those who will love us back.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of our liturgical year. While we profess with our lips that Jesus Christ is King, the real question is whether we recognize the Truth and make it king in our lives—that we seek the Truth in all that we do, and we not only profess the Truth but make it the guiding factor in our actions, that we preach that Truth, the Gospel, in our words and deeds.

Will we be ready to face the truth? Do we belong to the Truth and listen to His voice?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Prepare to Be Underwhelmed!

Why? Because I finally gave Holy Apostles College and Seminary permission to list my thesis in their special collections.

It's titled A Law to the Gentiles and is an analysis of St. Luke's "Sermon on the Plain." I had considered submitting parts of it to journals (reworked to stand on their own, of course). However, after two years, I thought it was time to move on to other projects—like the moral theology text that I'm going to start working on with a former classmate, and the Patristics radio show that might be kicking off in a couple of months.

If you would please pray for me to overcome the inertia (and the occasional fatigue) to get moving on all of these projects, I would be grateful.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Communication of Idioms and the Blessed Mother

On my birthday in 2010, I posted a paper of mine on communicatio idiomatum or the communication of idioms. This is a Christological concept that posits that because the person of Jesus possesses both human and Divine natures, properties of the Divine can be attributed to the man Jesus, and properties of the human can be attributed to the eternal Word. For example, we can say that God became man or that God's blood was poured out for us, because we understand these statements pertaining to Jesus as a person.

The practice of attributing Divine properties to the person of Jesus or human properties to the Word came into scrutiny during the 5th century. A bishop of Constantinople by the name of Nestorius began to preach against the use of the name Theotokos (God bearer) for the Blessed Mother or to refer to her as the Mother of God. While Nestorius insisted that he was not suggesting two persons in Christ, that was the logical consequence of his overemphasis on the distinctness of the two natures of Christ.

This position was condemned at the First Council of Ephesus in 431 and again at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, where the opposed view of the Monophysites and those who followed Eutyches that the two natures of Christ became a single nature (although these heresies disagreed on what resulted) were also condemned.

As I was flipping through the FM channels the other day, I was surprised to hear someone talking about the Eutychian heresy and the communicatio idiomatum. He did a fairly good job explaining it, although he stumbled theologically whenever he talked about the Divine and human natures of Christ, trying to avoid using the term nature and falling back on the term "properties" instead (which is inadequate since human nature includes many properties). Anyway, I looked up the station and confirmed my suspicion that the speaker was indeed Matt Slick.

But what struck me about his discussion was that he only invoked the name of Eutyches and not Nestorius. He emphasized the hypostatic union of two natures unmixed and unchanged in the person of Christ but completely left out (from what I heard) any discussion of the term "communication of idioms" in relation to the most clear example cited at the Council of Chalcedon—Nestorius and the controversy concerning Theotokos.

Now, the reason is fairly obvious. If he brings up Nestorius, he has to explain the Chalcedonian Creed. Here's that creed, which was pronounced at the Council of Chalcedon (the fourth of the first seven Ecumenical Councils):
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us. 
Note that in this very creed, the council uses the name "Mother of God for the Virgin Mary. Oddly enough, the statement appears on the CARM site (and is linked above), where Slick posts many of his apologetics articles. In fact, in another article, Slick himself addresses the heresy of Nestor and explains (rightly) that it calls into doubt the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Yet also on this site is another article of his that claims that we should not call Mary the Mother if God! So he essentially dismisses the two ecumenical councils' findings and asserts that Roman Catholics invented the name with no scriptural basis (which is true if you mean that it does not literally state this but false if you mean that nothing in scripture warrants this conclusion--sort of like the doctrine of the Trinity or the institution of the seven sacraments). Never mind that the Eastern Orthodox Church also refers to her as Theotokos, or that as far back as Ignatius of Antioch (d. 110 AD) was this notion espoused. In fact, he posits several "facts" about Catholics and the Blessed Mother with no context or explanation of what the terms mean, taking references from the Catechism without noting in the least their Patristic foundations. (He also gets some things flat out wrong and takes anecdotal reports from "some Catholics" as representative of the actual teachings of the Church.)

The CARM web site even lists the Chalcedonian Creed with its list of early Christian creeds and notes:
Creeds and Confessions are written summaries of the Christian faith. Different Creeds have different reasons for coming into existence, and they don't always agree with each other 100% of the time. However, they divulge the truth of the Christian faith in the essentials.
Of course, I would dispute the second clause of the second sentence in relation to the early Christian creeds. They differ, yes, but they emphasize different aspects of the faith precisely because they were clarifying the beliefs of the Church in order to combat heresy. They do not "disagree" with each other until you start getting into the reformed creeds!

I don't listen to Matt Slick, but I know many people who do, and they report the same things. First, he picks and chooses among the councils and early Church Fathers for those positions he thinks support his. I say "thinks" because by removing particular statements from their context, you cannot establish a particular father's meaning, any more than you can point to Romans 3:20[a] without interpreting it in light of Romans 2:6-8[b] or 2:13[c].

Second, he employs sophistry to score points with his listeners. Someone will call in to refute some claim he makes about Catholics, and he'll bring up everything but the disputed point. He'll shift the goal posts and do everything he can to "win" the argument. What suffers is the truth. If you look to this person to support your faith, look elsewhere, for the good of your soul.

a. Romans 3:20: "For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin."

b. Romans 2:6-8: "For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury."

c. Romans 2:13: "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified."