Sunday, August 16, 2015

We are what we eat—Sunday: Twentieth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Proverbs 9:1–6; Ephesians 5:15–20; John 6:51–58
Over the last few weeks, we have been reading from some of the most critical texts for us as Catholic Christians—foundational passages in scripture that go to the heart of what it is to be Catholic. The Bread of Life discourse is central to our Eucharistic theology, and the Old Testament prefigurements of the Eucharist that we've seen in Exodus and in 1st and 2nd Kings help us to see how God has revealed Himself to us throughout  salvation history.
Wisdom is represented as a great lady in Proverbs who invites everyone to come to the table she has set. Now, Sacred Tradition has always identified the person of Wisdom as a prefigurement of the Christ, Son of God—the Logos as John calls him. Logos is Greek for word. It can be the spoken word, but is also the Word as the thought of God. So you can see Wisdom here is a pre-Christian notion of God's thought, His concept. The seven pillars mentioned in the reading, some commentators say, represent the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit or even the Seven Sacraments. So this is, in a sense, also an image of the Church.
The Torah is especially rich with these allusions. Two weeks ago, we read of the manna in the wilderness, the bread from Heaven that fed the people of Israel all the years that they wandered in the desert. This bread was a mystery to them. They looked at it and asked, מָן הוה (man hu)—What is it? And from that question they got the name manna. That, at least, is how St. Jerome explained it.
This mysterious bread in the desert prefigures the Bread of Life that Jesus speaks of in the gospel. And of course, the Bread of Life is even more mysterious to us than the manna. What is this Eucharist in which we take part every week? Our Church teaches that it is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. When we receive the Eucharist, we receive and consume Christ Himself. That not only binds us to Christ—but binds us to one another as the Body of Christ. So that connection is both vertical and horizontal—we with Christ and we with one another.
This discourse from John is one of those passages we as Catholics should know in and out, especially if we have non-Catholic family members and friends who ask us to explain our belief in the Eucharist. Jesus begins this passage by saying, "[T]he bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world." We believe that Jesus means what He said: that in some mysterious way, His body and blood are present in the Eucharist we celebrate on this altar every week. Most of our Protestant brethren believe that Jesus is speaking metaphorically here. They believe the Eucharist is only a symbol.
But look at His words here. Jesus says something that any first century Jew would find repulsive: that they would have to eat His flesh and drink His blood, acts that are absolutely forbidden in the Torah. "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" They take him at his word. They don't say, "Well, he's only speaking figuratively, so we'll give him a pass." They take him seriously and are disgusted. And Jesus' response is more shocking. He not only doesn't back down; He ratchets it up a notch: "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life." We get a weak-kneed translation of the Greek. In the first statement, Jesus uses the Greek word "φάγῃ" (fage), the regular word for eat. In the second statement, He uses the word "τρώγων" (trogon). It means to chew or to gnaw. You have to gnaw on his flesh to have eternal life. That's not someone backing down. He's challenging them head on.
His flesh is our bread. Our food. What else would we expect from someone born in Beit Lechem or Bethlehem, as we pronounce it? The name literally means "house of bread." He was born and laid in a manger—which is a feeding trough for animals. He offers Himself as the lamb of God and dies on the cross at the very same hour when the Passover lambs were slaughtered in the temple. At so many major events in the gospels, Christ provides food from a few loaves and fishes or offers Himself as our food. So Jesus came to give us His life and offers Himself to us not merely to be contemplated but consumed.
We used to hear a common adage that isn't so common these days: You are what you eat. Whatever you consume is what you become. That's a very sacramental, Catholic notion.
What if we had some kind of external representation of this reality—that we become what we eat? Maybe a holograph floating over our heads: maybe my daughter, a vegetarian, has a leaf of kale; another, myself perhaps, has a nice rib-eye steak; I thought maybe Fr. Jerry would have had some golden arches over his head, but he assures me it would be pork ribs and sauerkraut.
The thing is, we should want whatever we take in here—what we hear and what we eat—to transform us. Fr. Antonio said something similar in his homily last week—that we should have the odor of Christians. We should radiate and smell like Christian love and mercy. It should be like a cross floating over our heads and visible to everyone. When we come to this altar every week, what we consume should make us into whom we were meant to be. Jesus came to feed us his Divine substance so that we would become divinized by it. As St. Athanasius in the fourth century said, "God became man so that man might become God." Now that simply means that God's intent in the Incarnation of Jesus is to adopt us into His Divine life. That is the whole point of the Eucharist we celebrate every week. The Eucharist is supposed to transform us and elevate us into the Divine life to which we aspire. That's why it's not okay to approach the altar as if this were simply a symbolic act, as if it had no more significance than eating a sample at Albertsons. That's why the Church doesn't have open communion. We believe something very specific about Christ's revelation to us, and we expect everyone who comes forward here to understand and accept precisely what the Church teaches and what the Church has always taught about the Eucharist.
Jesus delivers a difficult message, and when his disciples draw back, he doesn't try to soften the message. He intensifies the message. He delves into the detail. He says, I want you to gnaw at my flesh. Jesus doesn't ask us to nibble at his flesh, but to chew it, to gnaw on it, to consume it. This isn't the posture of someone trying to soften the blow but someone challenging us. He wants us to know exactly what we are about.
Notice that the way of the world is just the opposite. They compose sterile terminology, euphemisms to lessen the impact of the truth—to soften the reality of what they're talking about. Those homeless people were merely relocated. Those prisoners only experienced enhanced interrogation. Those products of conception were simply extracted and donated for research for a recovery fee. No harm done, no foul. That's the language of the worldly: not meant to reveal but to conceal what is really happening.
It's the opposite of what Jesus came to do. He came to reveal. He came to show us who He is and who the Father is.
What do we do with that revelation? What do we do with the light that Christ instills in us here at this altar? If only we had that holograph above us to say, "I'm a child of God." If only we had that odor of Jesus, the smell of the shepherd as Pope Francis calls it. If only we had the smell of the roses we place at the feet of the Blessed Mother. But I know that's not always my odor. I know that I don't always have that cross hovering over my ever-balding pate. I know that I don't always reflect the Divine presence that I consume here.

Let's pray that the offering here draws us further into God's love, that we become what we eat, that we are divinized by this heavenly bread, this Divine feast. And let's pray that we reveal that Divine presence to everyone we meet.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

You are a Prophet: Fifteenth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Amos 7:12–15; Ephesians 1:3–14; Mark 6:7–13
Whom do you think of when you hear the word "prophet?" Do you think of the Old Testament prophets and how they hounded the kings and people of Israel for turning away from the God of Israel? Do you think of self-appointed prophets on their literal or figurative soapboxes ranting about Hellfire and brimstone? Well, I want to say that many prophets, perhaps most, don't even know that they are prophets, and many of them have not even begun to answer God's call.
Amos is a great example because he fits no one's notion of a prophet during the first testamental period. He doesn't earn his living as a prophet but as a shepherd and "dresser of sycamores." In Israel, this is likely to mean a person who cultivates sycamore figs or fig-mulberries. In the reading from Amos, Amazaiah, the priest of Bethel, dismisses Amos and tells him to go prophesy elsewhere. To me, this sounds a bit like when Catholics and other Christians are told to keep their beliefs private and not share them. Amos had the audacity to prophesy in the king's sanctuary. Amazaiah is there speaking because he enjoys the benefits of the king's court, and Amos threatens it. This happens in our political world all the time, where the Church's teaching is not welcomed because it doesn't jibe with a party's agenda. And that cuts many ways: Green, Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian. There are no truly Catholic political parties in this country of which I'm aware, but I would gladly welcome correction on that point.
Sadly, this kind of partisanship even occurs in our Church, when people adhere to and act upon their own interests rather than the truth that the Church proclaims. A prophet is rarely welcomed in his or her home, as Jesus said in the Gospel of Mark last week. Yet a true prophet is driven to speak, despite the cost. And many of the faithful—lay people, clergy, and religious—pay the price if they dare to speak up.
In this week's Gospel reading, Jesus sends out the Twelve to preach the good news. Notice that he gives them no time for preparation. He even tells them not to take anything for the journey. Is it because they will have no needs while they go out? No. It's because their needs will be met by means outside of themselves. They have to depend completely on God. Even the words they carry are not their own but the words of the one who sent them. The signs they produce are not of their own power but of the one who sent them. But the reason for the signs, both for the Apostles and for those to whom they are sent, is not in the power itself but in the words they preach. Jesus wants the good news to be heard, and to accomplish that, there must be people who can be sent. That is what the word Apostle means—one who is sent.
The epistle reading from Ephesians gets to the heart of what those who are sent should proclaim: that "he—God—chose us... before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him" (1:6). It was always His plan. Even seeing what a mess we would make of things, He chose us... made us for relationship with Him through His Son. Was it done to rule over us as a dictator? Was it to ruin our fun with a bunch of rules and regulations? Was it so He could indulge in His wrath against us?
He made us because of love, through love, and for love. It's hard to respond in love to God if we don't know that He loved us first. We need not only to know what to do, but the why behind it.
We have a problem in the Church today. Admittedly, we have many problems, but I think they all come back to this one problem. Many of us not only don't know what our Church professes, but why it professes it. We have forgotten our story, as Fr. Robert Barron likes to say. We don't know the basics of our faith. Recent polls say that fewer than 40% of Catholics understand that the Church teaches the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist—that the body, blood, soul and Divinity of Christ is present in the Eucharist we celebrate here every week. Many of us don't know that our Church is built on the foundation of Divine Revelation that has been delivered completely and immutably in the person of Jesus Christ. Many of us cannot explain why our faith is true or why we are Catholic and not Baptist or LDS or Muslim or Zoroastrian or Atheist.
And that's really a problem because our commission as a Church is to evangelize. Jesus sent the Apostles and he sends us to go out in the world and to proclaim what he commanded. By our baptism, we are made priest, prophet, and king. But how can we prophesy if we don't know what it is that He commanded? He gave us Divine Revelation, and He gave us the Church to help us to understand it. But few of us take the time to know what our Church actually teaches.
How do we give to the world something we don't have ourselves? How do we explain the faith to others if we haven't bothered to learn it ourselves? How do we hand on to our children what we ourselves do not possess? Simply speaking, we can't.
Some of that is the fault of people who stand right up here preaching to you on Sundays. If we preach nothing but stories about how you should just be nice to others, we're missing the boat. If we never suggest that your faith makes demands on you beside what you learned in kindergarten, we have failed you.
But part of the blame is also in ourselves. Many of us have succumbed to a false religion which some sociologists refer to as "moralistic therapeutic deism." This is the notion that God is like a benevolent servant who is just waiting to make us feel good about ourselves, wants us to be nice to each other, and doesn't make any real demands on us other than that. It's a prevalent set of beliefs in our society, but it is absolutely not the Gospel that Jesus preached. And we would know that if we spent time studying our faith the way people study to do anything worthwhile. For some reason, we have this notion that faith and religion should be easy, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Faith and religion are no exception. Would you want to drive over a bridge built by someone who believed engineering should be easy? Would you want to have surgery by a doctor who studied at the McDonald's School of Easy McMedicine? Of course not. But when it comes to faith, we check our discipline at the door and expect easy.
But faith and religion are not easy, and they require discipline, diligence, and study. We have to invest ourselves. We have to respond to the Gospel. Our God made us in love to be in relationship with Him, and that means that we can freely choose to respond back. To do that, we need to seek to know God so that we can love Him.
And all love requires sacrifice. If that crucifix there doesn't remind you of anything else, remember that the crucifix means that all real love requires sacrifice. If the Eucharistic sacrifice reminds you of nothing else, let it be that. Here's the paradox: understanding the sacrifice is what leads to true joy.
Like many married deacons, I run all of my homilies by my wife, and she gave me two great insights in response to this homily. The first is the paradox I just mentioned. The fact is with true sacrifice graciously offered comes true joy. Think about it. A woman sacrifices her body in childbirth. A man sacrifices his life for family. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the joy. In fact the greatest sacrifice, right there on that crucifix and right there on that altar, takes us to our greatest joy. Without sacrifice, life is merely going from one moment of temporary contentment to another: temporary contentment because it is temporal. It brings no lasting joy.
The second insight is that we are made for sacrifice. It is written into our bones. Sin has made us forget. And that is why our Lord came and gave us the model of His life and death, to show us once again how to offer ourselves as a sacrifice.
Today I am inviting you to take your faith a step further. I would like you to make the sacrifice to engage your faith more deeply. I would like to invite you to open up your Bible to the Gospel of Matthew and read it. And then to read the next gospel... and the next. I would like to invite you to listen to Catholic radio on 1140 AM. I would like to invite you to get a copy of the Catechism or a book on the Catechism and read what our faith actually teaches. Don't expect the mainstream media to tell you what Pope Francis is saying. They get it wrong most of the time anyway. Read the documents yourselves. Ask your priests and deacons questions. Get into a Bible study, or a small faith group, or some program that can help you learn what it is that this Church teaches. Pursue your faith in God as if it were the most important thing you have to do, because it is. And then take the joy of the Gospel out to the world.

The  world is filled with lost people, and Jesus wants to send you to them—to speak the gospel, and to help Him to save them. What will you say to them?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Be a Sower of Good Seed—Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Ezekiel 17:22–24; 2 Corinthians 5:6–10; Mark 4:26–34
When I was in fifth grade, I had a rather unpleasant teacher. She was on any given day harsh for one reason or another. I remember one day in particular when she had had enough from all of us and proceeded to go desk by desk to dress each of us down. When she got to me, she asked, "What do you want to do when you grow up?"
At the time, I was still very much identifying with my father, who was a pediatrician, and so I said, "I want to be a pediatrician."
She sneered at that and responded, "Heh. I would never take my children to you."
Now whether her comment truly dissuaded me from pursuing medicine, I don't know. But I don't think I ever considered medicine again after that day. The seed had been planted.
I had other teachers—far better teachers—who planted in me a love for music and literature. My father, too, encouraged me, especially in music. They planted seeds that later became important elements in my life and shaped my education and direction for many years. They might not have caused the gifts in me to take root and grow, but they planted the seeds, and God supplied the rest. God made the ground fertile for the reception. God created the process by which a seed receives what it needs from the soil, the sun, the air, and the water.
And God determines the purpose for each. In Ezekiel, the purpose of the tree is not the tree itself. The tree doesn't exist for its own sake but for the purpose God has ordained for it. If it does not grow toward that purpose, it withers and dies. But even the weakest cutting, if it grows toward the end ordained for it, can attain its purpose. It can grow into a large bush or shrub or tree that gives shade, that bears fruit, or that gives a place for the birds and animals to seek shelter. Jesus uses the same image to show how something as small and insignificant as a mustard seed can grow into something much larger. The kingdom of God starts not as some grandiose project but by planting one seed.
The farmer sows his fields and tends them, but he doesn't know how God makes the field sprout and grow. He simply does what he can until the harvest. And when the harvest comes, he works to bring in the yield, a yield he helped to produce but can't explain and certainly cannot claim as his doing alone.
That's the way it is with the kingdom of God. We don't understand everything that our actions here do, what seeds they plant, what shoots they water. We just muddle through and hope that we plant something that is good and useful.
Some of us are challenged in that area. I seem to raise a new crop of broadleaves and puncture vine every other week. I hope that's not a reflection of my pastoral efforts.
But seriously, we have so little notion of how our actions affect the lives around us, how our example as Catholic Christians plants seeds in the lives of other people, or how they stir others to action. And sometimes the people in whom we plant these seeds go on to do things so far beyond what we have done that it puts us to shame.
How many of you parents and educators out there have encouraged a young person and watched them grow into an amazing human being (raise hand)? Sometimes those very same kids struggled with challenges that might have taken them the wrong direction. But people fostered them, planted seeds of hope in them, and gave them courage to overcome and excel.
It is the same with faith. We plant seeds in the hearts of others that take root, and with the grace of the Holy Spirit, bring conversion, faith, and virtue. We may never know what we said or did to cause this to happen, but I think everyone of us can remember someone in their lives who planted a seed of faith in them that led them to a deeper understanding of and relationship in Christ. It may have been through something they said or through a very specific act. Or it may simply be how they lived their lives in Christian joy. We often don't know what we did or said, but God can take everything we do and multiply it like Christ did with loaves and fishes. God can take the smallest, most insignificant seed and raise up from it a tree. We just have to be there to plant the seed. That's the way it is with all of our efforts, as small as they may be. They would be nothing except for God's ability to magnify them and do great things with them.
But we don't always plant seeds of faith, or hope, or love. We don't always show the joy we should as children of God. Sometimes we show our disdain for others, our pettiness, our selfishness, our worldliness. Sometimes we self-righteously proclaim our seed to be good because "Jesus never said anything against it." Or maybe it's good seed that we ourselves poison because of our bitterness. Sometimes we toss that seed around with no consideration of where it lands or what damage it does. My 5th-grade teacher probably didn't know how here words cut and thought she was just redirecting me to be more responsible. Maybe the anger I vented at the driver who cut me off made an impression on the child in the back seat—especially when he sees the Salt & Light Radio bumper sticker on my car. Maybe the children who live with the ultra-conservative or ultra-progressive parents see that their parents' words don't match their actions. Maybe we need to be careful about the seed that we plant.
St. Anthony of Padua, a 13th century doctor of the Church, said this in a homily over 800 years ago: "It is useless for a man to flaunt his knowledge of the law if he undermines its teaching by his actions."
Our actions are the seed we have to plant.
The quality of the seed matters and how it is handled matters. No doubt, God can make great things happen out of the most awful circumstances, but that is in spite of the bad seed, not because of it.
Be a sower of good seed and tend your seedlings well so that we can hasten the coming of the kingdom.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Why I came back to the Catholic Church

Elizabeth Scalia is asking bloggers to tell why they're Catholic.

Long story short—Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

That explanation is rarely sufficient for nonbelievers, and I don't blame them. I was a nonbeliever for 23 years and a cradle Catholic. I received wholly inadequate catechetical instruction from age 8 on, but my early formation was close enough to the end of VII that some of that traditional doctrine got into my head and lay dormant. My parents were very active in the charismatic movement, which was high on emotion but not particularly useful for formation. And so I took the whole thing less and less seriously. By junior high school, my moral formation was pretty much undermined (having no solid foundation and some experiences that left me in a dubious state). I chose not to be confirmed, and I drifted little by little into agnosticism. My course work at a regional Catholic university pretty much sealed the deal. (While historical-critical method might be useful for scholars, it's not something you spring on poorly formed Catholic freshmen.)

When I started my way back, I had spent a a good deal of time in progressive academic circles and thought of myself as being educated and rational. I knew I needed to have some kind of spiritual community but wasn't sure which. I started attending Mass with my then wife and next-door neighbors. I wouldn't recite the Credo or receive communion because I knew that I didn't accept Christ as Son of God, although I hadn't really analyzed arguments for His Divinity. I'm not sure why I didn't receive communion at the time, but I suspect something remained of my early formation. I knew it wouldn't be right.

I piddled around with a Unitarian Universalist congregation for a while, but that never seemed to work. Half of them were agnostic, and others were more pantheistic or panentheistic with a tendency toward New Age cafeteria-style spirituality. And I found more than a few of them to be rather mean spirited (although there were certainly also some very kind people there). (My own dalliance with New Age nonsense can be found here in the post following my ordination.)

My neighbor (the one who went to Mass with us) actually helped me to open myself again to the possibility of the Catholic faith. He loaned me some short apologetic books he had, and I started to digging more deeply. I scheduled a meeting with the pastor of the local parish to discuss my re-entry. What I recall is his openness to my questions (and I came loaded for bear), his lack of sanctimoniousness, and his sense of humor. I told him, "I can't just turn my brain off at the door and accept these teachings."

He said, "Good, because the Church teaches that we should have faith, but not blind faith." He explained that we are supposed to engage reason and faith in our search for truth. Now, I have to admit that while my father had introduced me to some of St. Thomas's arguments for the existence of God, my mother tended to eschew rationality in regards faith. Since she had had more influence on my faith formation, I assumed that the Church was also anti-reason. To hear that the Church actually encouraged us to grapple with Truth was stunning. I decided to give it another try.

And what I found was a system of belief that began in reason and then applied it to revealed truth to construct a system that was rational, consistent, and beautiful. And I came to believe that Truth is not something but somebody. I saw reverberations in Greek thought. I saw the same notions in Buddhist and Hindu spirituality. But here was a historical figure who claimed to be the Son of God... to be the thought (conception) of God, and who altered human history by His incarnation.

My search was not for faith that felt good but for faith in the Truth. If I came to learn that the Church did not have the fullness of the Truth, I would be gone immediately, but I don't believe that will ever happen. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Body and Soul, Flesh and Spirit: Third Sunday of Easter (Cycle B)

Acts 3:1315, 17–19; 1 John 2:1–5a; Luke 24:35–48
            We get an interesting juxtaposition this week in our first reading from Acts and the Gospel reading from Luke. Acts addresses the ignorance of the Jewish masses that Jesus was the Messiah and the Holy and Righteous One, the Author of Life. The Jews' lack of faith lie in their inability to see in Jesus anything more than temporal messiah, which is what they were expecting. They could not see that He is the very the Author of Life.
            The Gospel presents just the opposite—the Apostles' lack of faith in accepting that Jesus died yet lived again. They could believe that He was now spirit, but could they accept that He was physically raised? Could the Apostles or anyone else in the early Church even accept that He was truly man?
            Both of these books—Acts and the Gospel of Luke—were written by the same author, purported to be a physician by the name of Luke. While scholars don't necessarily agree that this is the same Luke mentioned by St. Paul, they are almost unanimous that one person wrote both books, so unanimous that they refer to the books together as Luke-Acts—a two part work for the same audience. So you can see Luke's work here as an attempt to address some of the mysteries of the day. And these mysteries were central to the struggles of the early Church. How can a man be God? Or better yet, how could God become man and die? Different groups came up with different answers to the question. The Pharisees simply called Jesus an imposter. Other Jewish groups said He was an inspired man, but not God. Still others thought He was semi-divine but created. We call those sects Arian, for the most part. Still others believed He was Divine with no true humanity. These were the Docetists (doketists), who believed that Jesus was never truly a physical being.
            In regard to the last group, it's important not to confuse them with the Donutists      who believed in the divinity          of Krispee Kremes.
            This heresy is still rampant among us.
            I might have made that last part up. There was a heresy called Donatism, but it didn't have anything to do with donuts.
            In any case, one of the constant conflicts in the early Church was with the very question of who Jesus was. Was He God or was He man? And the answer to that question is       yes.
            Yes, Jesus is God and man. Completely both at the same time. Now, do you see why this was a problem for the Jews? They struggled with this notion because God is supposed to be one, immortal, unlimited, and far beyond our understanding. Yet a man we could know. A man is mortal, finite, and limited. How could a man be God? And how could a man crucified be both righteous and God? To many of them, the story didn't add up. Some Jews who continued to follow Jesus' teachings still never accepted that Jesus was God. However, we also know that many Jewish followers of Jesus accepted that He was the Son of God and God incarnate. The 12 Apostles were all Jewish, and we understand Christ's Divinity because of their teaching.
            The Church's understanding of Christ's revelation took time to clarify. Clearly, St. John the Evangelist made clear what the Church understood about Christ by the end of the 1st century, and other Apostolic writings make clear that Jesus' Divinity is without question. But it was Jesus' existence as both God and man—as a spiritual and physical being in one hypostatic union, which means that He was a single person with both a Divine and human nature—that revelation took the Church a time to understand and define. But what is absolutely crystal clear in scripture and early Church teaching is that we are body and soul together. We are both physical and spiritual, as God created us, and God Himself looked upon this creation and found it "very good."
            The reality is that when we diminish one aspect over the other, we get ourselves in trouble, just as the followers of early heresy did. When we deny the spiritual and affirm only the physical, we eliminate so much of what makes the human experience meaningful. And that is a common problem especially with those who want to make claims for science and materialism. However, over-emphasis of the spiritual is just as damaging—perhaps even more so.
            You might have heard people claiming to be spiritual but not religious, essentially dismissing bodies of organized religion for their own personal spiritual experience. This subjective, individualistic attitude toward faith and truth is especially harmful. The temptation is to think, "I'm more spiritual than those who accept religious dogma, and more enlightened than those who follow a creed and put their trust in human institutions."
            It is, simply, the height of arrogance. Artur Rosman, a blogger on the Patheos Catholic portal, recently wrote the following in response to such notions: "What else is the Devil than a purely angelic... spirit who tempts us into thinking we are much more spiritual than others?" He wrote this in response to another philosopher and Catholic convert, Fabrice Hadjadj, who said in a recent interview, "Thus evil is not first located in the body, but is instead connected to the spirit."
            In claiming to be spiritual and not religious, one separates from and dismisses the body as unimportant.
            I don't need a Church. I don't have to do all of these physical rituals to show that I have a relationship with God. Yet what is it to deny religion than to separate oneself from the physical. When we claim we don't need a church, we reject the very Body of Christ.
            This was the attitude of the Docetists. This was the attitude of the Gnostics. This was the reason the Greeks at the Areopagus ridiculed St. Paul in Acts 17, and derided the notion that a man could or would even want to be raised from the dead.
            Yet our faith insists on the goodness of the body. Jesus, in Luke, proves to the Apostles that His body has been raised by eating in front of them. It is His insistence not only that we are raised from the dead spiritually but that we will be resurrected physically. And we profess that truth every Sunday in the creed.
            We are an Incarnational people. We are a sacramental people. Christ and Our Church are the greatest signs of our Sacramental and Incarnational faith.

We believe that we will be raised bodily as Christ was. We believe in the sacramental efficacy of matter and form in baptism, in confirmation, and in the Eucharist which we will celebrate in just a few minutes. We are not merely spiritual. We are religious because we are body, soul, and spirit. And God looks down on us, His creation and the pinnacle of visible creation, and says that it is very good.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

La Divina Misericordia—Segundo Domingo de Pascua (Ciclo B)

Hechos 4: 32-35; 1 Juan 5: 1-6; Juan 20: 19-31
            Llamamos este segundo domingo de la Divina Misericordia Pascua el domingo para conmemorar el encuentro Santa Faustina Kowalska con Jesús. Ganamos una indulgencia plenaria hoy si hemos recibido los sacramentos de la Reconciliación y de la Eucaristía y han recitado algunas oraciones adicionales para las intenciones del Santo Padre. Si usted no tiene idea de lo que significa todo esto, no dude en ponerse después de la misa, y lo explicaré. En cualquier caso, es una gran celebración instituido y promovido por el Papa San Juan Pablo II. Si usted no está familiarizado con la Coronilla de la Divina Misericordia, es una hermosa devoción, y se puede sintonizar en Sal y Luz Radio 1140 AM a las 3:00 PM todos los días para aprender y recitar. Era uno de los favoritos de mi padre, a quien está dedicada esta misa hoy.
            Misericordia Divina es el tema, y  las lecturas de explicar cómo se manifiesta esta misericordia en la Iglesia primitiva. Como Hechos notas, los miembros de la Iglesia compartían lo que tenían entre sí, incluso hasta el punto de vender sus propiedades y llevarlo a la Iglesia a dispersarse. Ahora, tal vez algo en nuestra cultura podría mirar lo que está pasando aquí en Hechos y pensar: "Bueno, los primeros cristianos eran un puñado de comunistas sin Dios," pero creo que la reacción es más un síntoma de nuestros tiempos. Nuestra cultura americana del individualismo en ocasiones nos impide ver lo obvio. Cuando la gente en libre asociación con los demás decide compartir lo que tienen para el bien común, que es simplemente bueno caridad cristiana en exhibición. Eso es lo que la caridad motivados a través de la Iglesia primitiva y la Edad Media. No llegó una mala relación hasta que el gobierno comenzó a exigir nuestra caridad con base en lo que ellos pensaban que debemos dar. Pero tenga en cuenta en los Hechos que la caridad cristiana era siempre voluntaria. De lo contrario, en realidad no es la caridad y no un acto de amor. Más tarde, en Hechos, un par de propietarios de la tierra decidió fingir que estaban dando todo lo que tenían, mientras que oculta algo. Así que aprendemos de los Hechos que toda caridad debe ser voluntaria y que no debemos tratar de recoger favor al darle. Dé a sus limosnas en silencio, y usted tendrá su recompensa en el Cielo.
            La primera carta de Juan aborda la cuestión de la misericordia desde un ángulo muy diferente. La primera carta de Juan es como sus otros escritos del Nuevo Testamento. Después de leer cualquier cosa de Juan, ya sea la conclusión de que o bien es una tontería absoluta, o si es la teología más divino. Estoy dispuesto a admitir mi propia ignorancia y aceptar que esto último es cierto. Mi falta de entendimiento refleja mi propia necesidad de crecimiento espiritual. Pero las palabras de Juan encajan tan bien con Cristo mismo. Ambos hablan con adivinanzas y parabolas: tenemos que ser pobre para ser bendecidos; tenemos que morir para vivir realmente. Suena absurdo, pero que en realidad no llegan a conocer la vida y la verdad hasta que nos pusimos nuestras vidas a un lado y vivir para los demás, en otras palabras, hasta que morimos a nosotros mismos y vivir para los demás.
            Primera de Juan destaca y defiende lo que uno comentario de la Escritura llama a las tres disposiciones inseparables: amar a los hijos de Dios, a amar a Dios, y guarda sus mandamientos. En estas disposiciones, captamos lo que la comunidad cristiana primitiva estaba a punto. Hemos de amar a Dios amando a sus hijos y obedecer su mandamiento de cuidar unos de otros. Tenemos que ponernos a un lado y ofrecer lo que tenemos para todos los gustos. Esa es realmente la enseñanza que debemos tomar de la Iglesia primitiva, y tener cuidado de aquellos que optaron por no aceptar esa enseñanza. Arzobispo Charles Chaput lo puso muy simple: si ignoramos a los pobres, vamos a ir al infierno. Arzobispo Chaput nos está diciendo lo que la Iglesia siempre ha enseñado: estamos obligados a ayudar a los pobres.
            Nuestro relato del evangelio relata dos eventos: el primero es la aparición de Jesús a los 10 de los apóstoles, y la segunda es su reaparición a los apóstoles, incluyendo Thomas. A menudo nos referimos a este apóstol Tomás el incrédulo debido a su negativa a aceptar el testimonio de los otros que Dios les había aparecido. "Si no veo en sus manos la señal de los clavos y no meto mi dedo en el agujero de los clavos y no meto mi mano en su costado, no creeré." La duda de Tomás es un reflejo de nuestra propia tendencia a quiero verificación visible antes creeremos. Sin embargo, he leído una opinión diferente sobre esta cuenta por Russell Saltzman en First Things, un diario en línea, y tengo que decir que me hizo repensar el escepticismo de St. Thomas.
            El artículo señala que Thomas descubre los otros apóstoles todavía colgando en el aposento alto, a pesar del hecho de que Jesús los envió para perdonar los pecados de la gente y para difundir el evangelio. Tal vez lo que Santo Tomás se encuentra increíble es que los demás serían testigos tal evento y aún agujero en el aposento alto, acobardados por el miedo. Sin embargo, cuando Jesús aparece a St. Thomas, él responde con la afirmación más potente y directa de la fe! "¡Señor mío y Dios mío!" Esa es la única declaración absoluta de la divinidad y de la igualdad de Cristo con Dios Padre en cualquiera de los evangelios. Y lo que es más, sabemos por la Sagrada Tradición que Santo Tomás fue el primero en salir de Jerusalén para difundir el Evangelio. Y no basta con ir a Alejandría, en Egipto o en Antioquía de Pisidia. Él fue todo el camino de Jerusalén a la India. Hay cristianos allí, la Nasranis, que a este reclamo día en que fueron fundadas por él en su visita, y fue martirizado cerca de Chennai y enterrados allí.
            Eso no ejemplifica duda de compromiso. Si alguno de los apóstoles ejemplificar absoluta fe en el Señor Resucitado, usted tiene que admitir que Thomas puso su dinero donde estaba su boca.  
            Usted ve, eso es lo que demuestra la fe. No son las palabras que decimos, pero si nuestras palabras coincidan con nuestras acciones, si actuamos como si las palabras de Cristo en realidad nos mueven a la acción. Un sacerdote franciscano con el nombre de Brennan Manning dijo una vez lo siguiente:
La mayor causa de ateísmo en el mundo de hoy son los cristianos que reconocen a Jesús con sus labios y con sus acciones le niegan por su estilo de vida. Eso es lo que un mundo incrédulo encuentra simplemente increíble.
Eso es lo que un mundo incrédulo encuentra simplemente increíble. Ese es un desafío para todos nosotros. Si salimos de esas puertas y decir: "Señor, Señor", a medida que pasamos por la madre soltera mendigando para que pueda comprar pañales o fórmula para su hijo, sin responder, nuestro "Señor, Señor" es increíble. Si descuidamos a los pobres en medio de nosotros y disfrutar de estilos de vida lujosos, nuestra fe es increíble.
            Si llegamos a este sacrificio aquí en la Divina Misericordia el domingo o cualquier otro día del año y nos acercamos a esta Eucaristía con cualquier otra disposición que gratitud y admiración absoluta, si barajamos aquí y decir: "Sí, sí. El Cuerpo de Cristo o algo así, "nuestras acciones hablan por sí mismos. Si así es como nos enfrentamos a la fuente y la cumbre de nuestra fe, entonces no realmente tienes fe, y nuestros hermanos protestantes y hermanas que ven esto y nos ponen en duda una buena razón.

            Si vamos a ser testigos de nuestra fe, nuestras acciones deben coincidir con nuestras palabras. Tenemos que predicar con el ejemplo. Tenemos que ser lo que profesamos, o nuestra fe no tiene vida. Nuestra caminata diaria debe ser un icono y ejemplo de nuestra fe.

Divine Mercy—Second Sunday of Easter (Cycle B)

Acts 4:32–35; 1 John 5:1–6; John 20:19–31
            We call this second Sunday of Easter Divine Mercy Sunday to commemorate Saint Faustina Kowalska's encounter with Jesus. We gain a plenary indulgence today if we have received the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist and have recited some additional prayers for the intentions of the Holy Father. If you have no idea what any of this means, feel free to catch me after Mass, and I will get you caught up. In any case, it's a great celebration instituted and promoted by Pope St. John Paul II. If you are not familiar with the Divine Mercy chaplet, it is a beautiful devotion, and you can tune into Salt & Light Radio 1140 AM at 3:00 PM every day to learn and recite it. It was a favorite of my father's, to whom this mass this morning is dedicated.
            Divine Mercy is the theme, and the readings explain how this mercy is manifested in the early Church. As Acts notes, the members of the Church shared what they had with each other, even to the point of selling their property and bringing it to the Church to disperse. Now, maybe some in our culture might look at what's happening here in Acts and think, "Well, those early Christians were a bunch of godless Commies," but I think that reaction is more symptomatic of our times. Our American culture of individualism occasionally blinds us to the obvious. When people in free association with each other decide to share what they have for the common good, that's simply good Christian charity on display. That is what motivated charity through the early Church and the middle ages. It didn't get a bad rapport until the government started demanding our charity based on what they thought we should give. But note in Acts that Christian charity was always voluntary. Otherwise, it's not really charity and not an act of love. Later on in Acts, a couple of land owners decided to pretend they were giving everything they owned while holding something back. So we learn from Acts that all charity should be voluntary and that we should not attempt to glean favor by giving it. Give your alms in silence, and you will have your reward in Heaven.
            The first letter of John approaches the question of mercy from a very different angle. John's first letter is like his other writings in the New Testament. After reading anything from John, you either conclude that it is either utter nonsense, or it is the most divine theology. I am willing to concede my own ignorance and accept that the latter is true. My lack of understanding reflects my own need for spiritual growth. But John's words fit so well with Christ's own. They both speak with riddles and paradoxes: we have to become poor to be blessed; we have to die to really live. It sounds absurd, but we don't really come to know life and the truth until we set our lives aside and live for others—in other words, until we die to ourselves and live for others.
            First John highlights and espouses what one commentary on scripture calls the three inseparable dispositions: to love the children of God, to love God, and to keep his commandments. In these dispositions, we capture what the early Christian community was about. We have to love God by loving His children and obey His commandment to care for one another. We have to set ourselves aside and offer what we have for everyone. That is really the teaching we should take from the early Church, and beware to those who chose not to accept that teaching. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia put it very simply: if we ignore the poor, we will go to Hell. Archbishop Chaput is telling us what the Church has always taught: we are obligated to help the poor.
            Our gospel account relates two events: the first is the appearance of Jesus to 10 of the apostles, and the second is His reappearance to the apostles including Thomas. We often refer to this apostle as Doubting Thomas because of his refusal to accept the testimony of the others that God had appeared to them. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The doubt of Thomas is a reflection of our own tendency to want visible verification before we will believe. However, I read a different take on this account by Russell Saltzman at First Things, an online journal, and I have to say it made me rethink St. Thomas's skepticism.
            The article points out that Thomas finds the other apostles still hanging out in the upper room, despite the fact that Jesus has sent them to forgive the sins of the people and to spread the gospel. Perhaps what St. Thomas finds unbelievable is that the others would witness such an event and still hole up in the upper room, cowering in fear. Yet when Jesus does appear to St. Thomas, he responds with the most powerful and direct claim of faith! "My Lord and my God!" That is the only absolute statement of Christ's divinity and equality with God the Father in any of the gospels. And what's more, we know from Sacred Tradition that St. Thomas was the first to leave Jerusalem to spread the Gospel. And he didn't just go to Alexandria in Egypt or Antioch in Pisidia. He went all the way from Jerusalem to India. There are Christians there, the Nasranis, who to this day claim they were founded by him in his visit, and he was martyred near Chennai and buried there.
            That does not exemplify doubt but commitment. If any of the apostles exemplified absolute faith in the Risen Lord, you have to admit that Thomas put his money where his mouth was.
            You see, that is what demonstrates faith. It's not the words we say but whether our words match our actions—whether we act as if Christ's words actually move us to action. A Franciscan priest by the name of Brennan Manning once said this:
The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable. That is a challenge for all of us. If we walk out those doors and say "Lord, Lord" as we pass by the single mother begging so she can buy diapers or formula for her child without responding, our "Lord, Lord" is unbelievable. If we neglect the poor in our midst and indulge in lavish life styles, our faith is unbelievable.
            If we come to this sacrifice here on Divine Mercy Sunday or on any other day of the year and approach this Eucharist with any other disposition but absolute gratitude and awe, if we shuffle up here and say, "Yeah, yeah. The Body of Christ or something," our actions speak for themselves. If that's how we face the source and summit of our faith, then we don't really have faith, and our Protestant brothers and sisters who see this and doubt us have good reason.

            If we are going to be witnesses for our faith, our actions must match our words. We have to walk the talk. We have to be what we profess, or our faith is lifeless. Our daily walk must be an icon, an image of our faith.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Commandments, Not Suggestions—Third Sunday in Lent (Cycle B)

Exodus 20:1-7; 1 Cor. 1:22-25; John 2:13-25

            The lectionary has given us a lot to chew on and digest this weekend: first, the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, then St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, and finally, Jesus clearing the temple. All three are challenging and evocative.
            Our first reading, the first seven verses in Exodus, are, of course, the 10 commandments or alternatively, the Decalogue. In Hebrew and Greek, they are called the 10 words. Now, we as Catholics recognize them as 10 commandments and not merely 10 suggestions as many modern Christians seem to believe these days. We are commanded to follow them as basic tenets of our faith, as the Jews were when Moses delivered the commandments to them.
            The divisions between the commandments have not always been clear. Jewish and Catholic sources divided them differently, and Protestant and post-Protestant denominations followed the Jewish practice. What's important, though, is that both lists include the same essential content and can be divided in roughly the same way. The first three address love of God, and the remainder address love of neighbor. In the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, there are another 613 mitzvot or commandments that ancient Jews and Orthodox Jews still try to follow, both out of a sense of obligation and duty but also to express their love for God. But all of the commandments fall under either the commandment to love God or to love neighbor. So we as Christians and those who practice Judaism both in our own ways attempt to honor the two greatest commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. All of our actions as Catholics should be directed toward these two greatest commandments, and we follow them not by following our own whims and preferences but by learning how the Church teaches us to follow the commandments in modern life.
                Now it can be a challenge to us in this culture to commit to being guided by the Church's teachings. Paul's letter makes it pretty clear that we are no different from the Jews and Gentiles of his time. They also struggled with the message and saw it as foolishness. Jews asked for signs and Gentiles for wisdom: The Jews had had signs aplenty, but they kept asking for more. The Gentiles had wisdom from their own philosophers. The virtues that Pagan philosophers praised were many of the same ones that Jesus preached. But Gentiles sought the novelty. And something about praising weakness and humility didn't sit right with pagan cultural sensibilities. It seemed unreasonable, contradictory.
            This common temptation, ever ancient but ever new, is exemplified in the New Age movement of the last 50 years. People constantly seek some new form of wisdom and ignore the wisdom that is part of their own heritage. The wisdom of their Judeo-Christian culture is foolishness to them. But they are perfectly willing to invent some new Jesus out of whole cloth. They respect, or at least use, the name of Jesus, but completely disregard His person, and they fashion an idol that they then name as their own personal Jesus, to borrow a line from Depeche Mode.
            We as Americans really tend toward this consumer mentality about faith. We often don't look for the truth but instead shop for a comfortable half truth. This happens not only in denominational Christianity, where people gravitate to the church with the best music or the pastor who has those electrifying sermons, but also in our own fold, where we move from parish to parish to find the music we like, or the priest who holds our attention. It's natural for us to seek what is comfortable, but as Catholics we should always remember that the Eucharist is here just as much as it is in all other parishes across Boise.
            Our gospel reading today presents a Jesus that a lot of people would rather didn't exist, or at very least, they down play this aspect of Jesus: the one who confronts and acts out of righteous anger. There's a meme that makes its way around social media these days that says, "If you want to know what Jesus would do, keep in mind that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is not out of the question." Now, it's a humorous poke at a common and somewhat self-righteous statement people often make to remind others that they're not being Christ-like, but it does touch on an important fact about Jesus. He was, as Fr. Robert Barron has said in his videos, a deeply unsettling personality. He came and got in the face of the religious authorities of His time and called them out on their hypocrisy. He dared to reveal people's deepest, darkest secrets to them, as He did to the woman at the well. He called the Pharisees and scribes "white-washed sepulchers." Jesus didn't pull punches, and He was not afraid to call people out. He Himself said, "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."
            Not peace, but a sword.
            Now, we see nothing in scripture to suggest that Jesus walked around armed, so we have to assume He meant something else. What He meant was that He came to force people to make a choice. We are either with God, or we are against God. We are either with Jesus, or we are against Jesus. And those are not my words, but His. We cannot deny what He commanded and claim to be on His side. And the Apostles said the same thing in the epistles of the New Testament. We would like to look at the moral teachings in the New Testament—whether it has to do with turning the other cheek, or visiting the imprisoned or sick, or sexual morality—and we try to say that Christ doesn't judge us on any of those concerns. But I'm here to tell you that that is unmitigated nonsense. Jesus called us to make a choice, and He says very clearly that He didn't come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. We can choose His will or we can choose our own will, and turn our backs to God.

            That doesn't mean that Christ isn't merciful or that He's not love. His love and mercy are beyond our comprehension. What we think of as judgment and condemnation may very well be His mercy. After all, His justice is His mercy. He will not force us to choose Him. If we decide not to follow His commandments, He will let us have our way. He doesn't condemn us, but He will acknowledge our self-condemnation. He has given us free will to choose one path or the other. And His mercy and justice require that He let us walk away from Him if that is what we will to do. We can either say, "Thy will be done," or He will say, "Thy will be done."

Friday, March 06, 2015

Almsgiving as an aid to detachment

            The last talk was on fasting, and fasting is certainly an important aspect of Lenten penance. Fasting helps us to subdue our passions and bring our appetites into proper expression, and it helps us to set aside the outward things that excite our appetites and to focus on our other nonmaterial needs. But as good as fasting is, it can sometimes be too focused on self: on what I'm giving up, what I'm doing, and what I'm refraining from. Those are not bad things to have in mind, but it can inadvertently narrow our spiritual focus to ourselves, and that focus can turn us to much inward.
            Lenten penance should help us to focus more on the two greatest commandments that our Savior gave us: to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. All other commandments, all virtues, and all discipline are geared to aid us in living these two great commandments because they are at the heart of the gospel. Almsgiving in particular can help us to live out these commandments in a radical way. We're going to talk about almsgiving and its relationship to detachment, but I want to start first with our obligation to give alms.

A Basic Obligation

            First and foremost, we give alms because it is a basic obligation of Christians. In fact, it's obligatory in all three of the major Abrahamic religions. The fundamental reason for this is that everything we have comes to us not from our own creative power but as pure gift from God. Life itself is a gift, and our capabilities that allow us to sustain life are gifts as well. One of the Psalms I pray regularly in the Liturgy of the Hours begins with this line: "The Lord's is the earth and its fullness, the world and all its people" (Ps 24:1). To put that in plain English, everything on earth belongs first to God. We are born into a particular time in a particular place, and none of that is something we can take credit for. When you think about all that had to happen to put you here in the wealthiest nation on earth at this time in history, you can get a sense of just how little our worthiness had to do with it and just how much God's graciousness did. And for that you should feel some gratitude for God's gift.
            The Old Testament Law has commandment after commandment on providing for the poor and alien. These commandments, or mitzvot, dictated the obligations of the people of Israel for the widow and the orphan, and people did follow these laws out of a sense of obligation. However, the primary reason for practicing a mitzvah was love of God. You follow God's commandments because you love God. So while giving alms is a basic means of showing love to neighbor, it is also a way to show your love to God for the gifts that He has bestowed on you.
            One of the best books in scripture about the virtues of almsgiving is Tobit, which as some of you probably know, is part of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Tobit is sending his son Tobias to Media to collect some money he had left in trust. To his son, he imparts this wisdom: "Give alms from your possessions to all who live uprightly, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you" (Tobit 4:7). So not only are we to give, but we're supposed to be happy about it. Jesus tells us to go even further and give more than people ask of us! He goes so far as to tell the rich man to give away everything and follow Him.
            Finally, our Church has two important social teachings called the "universal destination of goods" and the "preferential option for the poor." These concepts are discussed in the Catechism in paragraphs 2402 through 2406 and 2448 respectively. The first concept posits that all the goods of the earth are universally destined to all people and that we, as stewards, are obligated to seek the greatest good for the most people in our use of these goods. This doesn't preclude private ownership. It actually requires it, but it obliges us to share what we have to those who have not. Pope Leo XIII taught in Rerum Novarum paragraph 14 that proprty ownership is a right with a complementary obligation of almsgiving. The second concept, the preferential option of the poor, simply notes that the Church recognizes the poorest among us and puts a priority on their aid.

The Effect of Almsgiving on the Giver

            Almsgiving can, if we are conscientious, involve all of the disciplines of Lent. Mike Aquilina pointed this out in an interview a few years ago for Our Sunday Visitor. He said this:
Why is almsgiving better than prayer and fasting? Because it is prayer, and it involves fasting.... Almsgiving is a form of prayer because it is ‘giving to God’ — and not mere philanthropy. It is a form of fasting because it demands sacrificial giving — not just giving something, but giving up something, giving till it hurts. (Poust, 2010)
So almsgiving can direct us, in a sense, toward a concrete expression of our faith, and it naturally corresponds with and involves both prayer and fasting. And it should be done with the same spirit of longing in which we engage in prayer. A homily on prayer attributed to St. John Chrysostom states:
[W]hen  it is carrying out its duties, caring for the needy, performing works of charity, giving generously in the service of others, our spirit should long for God and call Him to mind, so that these works may be seasoned with the salt of God's love, and so make palatable offering to the Lord of the universe. (68)
So when we give alms prayerfully, our works are an offering to God, not simply charity to our neighbor. So again, we see that almsgiving appeals to and exemplifies love of God and neighbor.
            But it also has effects on us. When we give alms in the proper spirit, our actions mold and shape us. Just as all works of faith form us and help to shape us, so does almsgiving. If you think of it this way, when you perform an act intentionally on a number of occasions, you build a neural pathway for that action—a habit, in plain terms. Just as working out regularly becomes a habit that improves our physical health, exercising a virtue like charity helps to develop habits that improve us morally and spiritually. But almsgiving has a double effect. First, we get used to being generous. Second, we get used to letting go of our material possessions. And it gets easier as we do it more often. When we get into the habit of tithing, for example, we adjust to our new circumstance and live with what we have left. We come to realize that we can afford to give that first 10 percent of our income to the Church and charity. We might need to adjust our other purchases and expenses a bit, like eating out less often, buying cheaper brands, or simply forgoing certain items that we recognize we don't really need. And suddenly, a habit becomes a spiritual discipline: detachment. We have learned to let the unnecessary slip out of our hands.
            It doesn't stop there if we are diligent. If we cultivate the habit of almsgiving, we come to understand a number of facts. First, that what we own truly comes to us from God's graciousness. We could just as easily have grown up sleeping on a dirt floor in a favela in Rio than in a middle-class home in Boise, Idaho. What would our experience of need be then? Would we need another new pair of shoes? Would we need the latest iPhone? So as we come to understand God's graciousness, our understanding of need changes. What we once thought of as necessities are revealed as mere desires, until we finally come to see that the item is not only unnecessary, but truly not important to our well being or happiness. We even begin to see that many of the things we possess burden us to a degree. People have to maintain households in which to keep their stuff. They have to put the stuff they don't use often enough in storage. Now, for those of you who are currently in a fairly transient time of life, it's understandable. But what about those of us who are established and own our own homes? Our stuff becomes a liability. We can't move without knowing what to do with our stuff. We are preoccupied with getting more stuff. But by cultivating a true sense of value, by practicing detachment, we can let go of the stuff we don't need. Better yet, we can see someone else in need and give our stuff to them. And when we really master charity and detachment, we can give it away with real joy.
            This detachment frees us for both service to others and for greater intimacy with God. It is what Thomas Dubay calls in his book Happy are the Poor, "a radical readiness for the kingdom" (44). Sadly, he notes how few of us are ready to put this into action. He writes:
If the goods of the earth are extensions of my person and if I love my neighbor as myself, I naturally share my good things. It is idle for me to proclaim concern for the poor, the homeless, for example, and at the same time indulge in elegant dining and drinking, pleasure traveling, and an extensive wardrobe. My life belies my rhetoric. (51)
To be fair, he recognizes and stresses that not all of us can be called to the same degree of detachment. The religious take vows of poverty, and many religious are what we call mendicants: they depend on alms for their food and shelter. Dominican and Franciscan orders are both mendicant orders. That is radical poverty, but that is also a degree of detachment that most people cannot sustain for various reasons. If you are a parent, you have to provide a certain material standard of living so that your children can thrive. DO they need every new gadget or cable television, or time in every afterschool sport? No, but they do require appropriate clothing they can wear to school, tools like computers on which to do homework, and the ability to socialize with their peers, which usually costs money. Or what about those of us who have children who are older but have aging parents who rely on us? I need to have a decent vehicle to help them get around or so I can go visit them when they can't get out. As a business man, I am expected to dress to a certain standard. Where detachment comes into our lives is in our ability to possess such things appropriately. Not to seek what is fashionable or desirable, but which serves the purpose. And most of all, when we have enough of something and see someone without, we know well enough that we are merely stewards. If I have two shirts and someone has none, my extra shirt belongs to that individual. If I have two bacon double cheeseburgers, and that guy with a sign hasn't had anything to eat, one of those burgers belongs to him. And if I truly cultivate a spirit of detachment and charity, I give him both.
            When we talk about virtues, we're talking about these very habits that form us and shape us. Thos habits that shape us for the good are virtues, and those that deform us are vices. All virtue is aimed at perfection, and so habitual detachment perfects us and prepares us to be fully open to God. We can't be free to intimacy with God if we are too tied to the things of this world. A true spirit of detachment and humility helps us to be radically ready for the kingdom.

More than Material Giving

            Finally, I want to make clear that not all almsgiving involves giving away your possessions or money. What the Church asks of you is your time, talent, and treasure. We take up a children's collection every mass at St. John's. When it is my turn to call for the collection, I always say, "We invite the children to come forward with their offerings of time, talent, and treasure." Some children do bring money, but they can also bring their drawings, or a note with an act of service they did for someone else. Think about it. A child's drawing really is the essence of almsgiving: something offered out of pure love. And that is how our almsgiving should be: actions motivated by love for God and neighbor. Your actions can be material gifts, or it can be the donation of your time to a ministry, or of your talent as a musician in the liturgy. Some people have the gift of hospitality, which makes them great as hosts at coffee hours or other parish events. Whatever gift you have to offer, start with that. Even a gift of time requires a detachment. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, God loves a cheerful giver. So give of your time, talent, and treasure with love and true joy, and you will store up for yourself treasure in heaven.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Lepers Among Us—Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Lev. 13:1–2, 44–46; 1 Cor. 10:31–11:1; Mark 1:40–45

We live in an era in which our fears are constantly pricked by the mainstream media, in which we must constantly be on guard for all those little catastrophes that were accepted as the lot of humans in history. Whether it's a measles outbreak at Disneyland or whooping cough at the whooping crane preserve, the media makes sure that we are constantly at the peak of anxiety about every potential threat to our well being, regardless of how remote. A bad case of eczema in our neighbor could send anyone of us into a paranoid paroxysm of pugilistic pugnacity.
My alliteration aside, our current tendency to anxiety mirrors with some fidelity the fears of ancient Israel. In our first reading from Leviticus, the law concerning the treatment of those with leprosy is stark and cold. Those who have any indication of uncleanliness must be set apart and must identify themselves as unclean. Now, it's important to note that leprosy was not a clearly defined condition. Bad acne, baldness, eczema, or skin cancer might all be categorized under that label in ancient times because they had no means by which to distinguish such ailments from a deadly contagion.
And it was a horrifying categorization! The people who were outcast were likely to be condemned to live with those who were seriously ill! Imagine if you had seasonal allergies or a head cold and you were forced to live as exiles among people with bubonic plague. That was the plight of anyone with a noticeable blemish under the old dispensation.
Now the intent of the Law was merciful. They wanted to contain contagion and to corral corruption. But it came at the cost of isolation. The people who most needed to be healed were made to wait until healing was no longer necessary. So the Law was merciful in theory, but in harsh practice. Instead of carefully investigating the nature of the illness these people suffered, the Jewish priests of that time simply declared such people unclean, and they were outcast until they could present themselves to be otherwise. They were separated and alone.
I don't think it takes much of a stretch for us to look at the outcast among us and see the same dilemma. We have, most notably, the homeless. But we also have the chronically ill, the disabled. As difficult as it is in our eyes to reach out to them, they are the easy cases. We know we are commanded—not requested, but commanded by Christ—to visit the sick and imprisoned. I have to admit that in my Christian life, I have not put this into practice as I should, not for any lack of opportunity but for a lack of conscious effort. And for that I had better make up for lost time, or I will have to answer why I did not visit Christ when he was sick or imprisoned.
Notice in our gospel reading that Jesus sets aside the ritual law. The ritual law was erected to put a fence around the Jews, to protect them from ritual impurity and moral error, but it did nothing to reconcile Jews with each other. In fact, the way that different sects in the 1st century interpreted the law—and there were many of them, from the Pharisees, to the Sadducees, to the Essenes and others—they separated themselves from the Gentiles and the Hebrew am haaretz or people of the land—the other Jews who were not considered righteous. They erected walls between themselves and anyone who thought or lived differently from them. The story of the good Samaritan exemplifies this separation and isolation, when the priest and Levite cross the road to avoid the man who appears to be dead in fear of becoming ritually impure. So the desire for purity overrides the recognition of a clear need for compassion.
That thought should give us all pause. Don't we often avoid the sick? Don't we also often avoid people of differing religious or political opinions as if their beliefs might somehow taint us or make us unclean? Don't some of us in the Church do the same to our separated brethren in other denominations or even to Catholics who have a different understanding of the faith?
The gospel, though, shows a very different approach by Jesus.
We might not have a Heaven on Earth, but we can choose to be heavenly on Earth. St. Paul tells us how in 1 Corinthians—by being imitators of Christ—by looking at others with a compassion that will not let us hold back from someone who is hurting.
Jesus did just that. In numerous places in the gospels, we see the clause, "And Jesus looked on him with compassion" or "looked on her" or "looked on them." The God-man who healed the blind could do so because He was not blind to their need. The God-man who cast out demons from the possessed could do so because He did not deny their possession. The God-man forgave the tax collectors and prostitutes because He could see their inner poverty and alienation. It takes nothing of us to be compassionate for the people who suffer like we do—with our smart phone bills, our expensive mortgages, and our aging parents. But it takes something more for us to look on the sufferings of another wholly different than ours, perhaps even repugnant to us—the addict, the ex-con, the former prostitute—it takes something more for us to look on their suffering with compassion...
and yet more still to do something about it.
So what do we do about the lepers in our midst? The first step is in recognizing that all of us are touched by it. All of us, spiritually, are lepers in one way or another. We might sense a very great "ick" factor in approaching the homeless, but God has all the more standing to find us "icky." Yet He touched people's tongues, put His fingers in people's ears, and smeared mud made from His spittle on people's eyes. And most of all, He died in a horrible way on that cross for us. If anyone had an excuse, it was Him, and He chose to help us nonetheless.
The second step is to slough off our complacency and look for those who need us. The homeless are easy. We all know where they stay, and we see them on the street corners. Be cognizant of them. Don't pretend that they don't exist. Once you recognize the homeless, think of the other marginalized and neglected and where they live: hospitals, retirement homes, the county jail. Recognize that they are alone and pray for them.
The third step is to respond in some fashion. It does not have to be dramatic. When you pull up to someone on a corner holding a sign, introduce yourself and ask for their name. They are then no longer just a nobody to whom you toss a couple of dollars. You will be acknowledging them as a human being. You might carry some granola bars, pairs of socks, or even small copies of the New Testament with you in your car to hand out. You might volunteer in our prison ministry, or with our Eucharistic outreach to the homebound, or in our other outreach programs. You might advocate for victims of trafficking. You might volunteer at a shelter. And you might be changed in ways you can't imagine right now.
Our faith is not bound by the foundation of this cathedral. In fact, we explicitly send you out after every Mass with a command: Go and proclaim the gospel to the world; Go and glorify the Lord with your Life.

So do it. Go and proclaim the gospel. Proclaim it with your lips, but most importantly with the way you live your life.