Sunday, December 08, 2013

Prepare the Way

Isaiah 11:1–10; Romans 15:4–9; Matthew 3:1–12

We have two messages in today’s readings. The first message is that salvation is coming to all of us—Jews and Gentiles alike—in the form of a savior, the Messiah or Christ. The second message is that we need to prepare his way through repentance.

When we talk about the Gospel message, we’re talking about a new answer, a new solution to the problem of sin. The Israelites had been given an answer: the Law of Moses. By fulfilling the Law of Moses, Israel was to find its way to the Promised Land and to salvation. But in their journey, in their walk with Moses, they seemed to get further and further away from the purpose of the law and from God, even as they drew nearer to the lands of Canaan promised to Abraham. Every fall, every bad decision they made, led them further from God’s plan. You see, that is how sin progresses. It takes us further and further from what we know God wants. It might start with a little failing, and that weakens us. But with each small failing, we get closer to a big one, and with each big failing, we turn away more and more from God.

Where Israel sinned most was when they imitated their neighbors, the pagans or Gentiles. That’s sort of like how we forget what the Church teaches us and instead follow the whims of our contemporary culture. God’s commandments to Israel were directed at breaking this bad habit of imitating the Gentiles so that they could be an example to the whole world. Yet Israel limped along with the burden of the Mosaic Law, unable to keep it, and continually falling back into their old sinful habits.
But the Law is not the totality of God’s plan, and God’s plan includes both Jews and Gentiles.

We hear that word “Gentile” in both the reading from Isaiah and the reading from Romans. “The Gentiles” simply means “the nations”—essentially anyone who is not a Jew. Isaiah prophesies a shoot from the stump of Jessie, a king from the line of David, who will bring justice and peace to all, including the Gentiles. Paul talks of Christ’s coming as a servant. The Greek word Christ means the same thing as the Hebrew word Messiah, and both relate to Jesus as king. Christ came to confirm God’s promise to the Jews but also so that Gentiles would praise Him for His mercy.

So, to put it plainly and simply, God wants to save us all: Jew and Greek; slave and free; man, woman, and child. But we need to cooperate, and we cooperate by repenting, by turning away from sin, and by turning toward God.

In the Gospel reading from Matthew, John the Baptist exhorts everyone to repentance. The Jews knew about repentance because it was part of their culture, but the idea that you could repent and be cleansed of sin was a new one for the Greeks. They didn’t have the same concepts of repentance and atonement that Jews did. This is why John came down so hard on the Sadducees and Pharisees—the educated elite of their time They knew what was required for repentance and forgiveness, but they didn’t do it, clinging to the external acts without truly changing in their hearts. And John also tells the pagans that they too can prepare for the Messiah’s arrival by repenting of their sins and preparing the way.

And that message brings us to the point of Advent.

Last week, Fr. Jerome talked about Advent as a penitential season. It’s a detail we seem to have forgotten. We need to remember to do the same penitential acts as part of our Advent preparation that we do for Lent: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving—doing acts of charity.

This parish is pretty good about the almsgiving. You all have a very generous spirit. Fasting, well, we could probably all do better on that part, especially when the temptations of early Christmas celebrations are all around us. The reason we fast, pray, and give to charity is to show the fruits of repentance—the results of our turning away from sin and back to God. Advent gives us a chance to follow John the Baptist’s call to prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight His paths. To that end, Christ, through the Church, has given us a tremendous gift, the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

This sacrament is truly one of the most beautiful gifts we have as Catholics, but it seems that few of us take advantage of it. I know that I probably only went to confession a handful of times when I was a child, and it so often seemed an occasion for guilt. But that’s not what the Sacrament of Reconciliation is about. Back then we only used to call it “confession,” but the Church now calls it “reconciliation.” Why? Because the point of the sacrament is not to draw a confession out of us and condemn us. It is to heal the wounds or rifts between us and our neighbor and between us and God—to reconcile us to them. It is to draw us closer to God so that his grace can work on us and heal us.

I left the Church when I was in my late teens and was absent for about 20 years. When I returned, I had the formidable obligation to seek reconciliation—to confess 20 years of sin to a priest. You can bet that I was nervous when I went to face him, and you can bet that it was a long confession. But when I walked out, I didn’t leave shuffling my feet and hanging my head, feeling overwhelmed with guilt and shame. I felt as if an infection had been drawn from me. I felt relieved of a tremendous burden.

I think some of the most beautiful words I hear in our sacramental language are these, and I am always so blessed when I hear them:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you…

That is grace. That is love. That is our faith.

This season, you have several opportunities to attend reconciliations services throughout the city. The times are listed in the bulletin. You can also go to regular reconciliation times here at the cathedral on Tuesdays or Saturdays or at other parishes. I urge you to make use of this beautiful sacrament. There is no better preparation during Advent for Christmas, and no better preparation for the Eucharistic feast.

It’s Advent, and it’s time to prepare the way of the Lord. Lay down your pride, lay down your regret, lay down your burden, and let the Lord set you free.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

White Knight

A small tribute stamped in leather
I played down as sentimental.

When I tooled those letters
I held in my mind that image
of you in a white lab coat
bustling through the clinic
giving the care I wished to have:
saving the world when I wanted saving.

But you did what you could do
you worked with what you had
and here I am
a testament of what
you’ve given to the world.

Thank you, father,
for what you have given to me
for these gifts you have passed to me.
Thank you, father,
for making me who I am.

You are that white knight
I wished for after all.


That silly rubber face
reminds me of kewpies
but I’ve never heard
of a kewpie bunny.
Could be the first
one-eared varmint
who ever weaseled its way
into our toy chest.
But it’s your story
of a loved toy
its lobe lost among shoppers
that warms us
when Joy came through
and stitched on that remaining ear
a kewpie curl to replace
one missing ear.


Sometimes the echo
rings all night
and I wonder
should I shout again?

If I sing a verse
will a voice join in
or will I be left
to harmonize alone?

This wide expanse
I want to bridge
to reach across
with an unsteady hand.

I fear the fall
but fear more that
which follows

So I reach into the void
and pray you will reach back.


“The depth and breadth and height” she wrote.
How, I wonder, she fathomed
a love as deep as that one
and timeless as any Truth.

Beyond that league is this love, I know
and sound it daily to be sure.
Does it shrink? Is it constant? No.

It grows with every day
and soundings affirm
it strains the bounds
of my paltry soul
and swells to bursting.

I welcome the break
to release this grace to you
and let it flow like a river
and wash over as the tides
endless, timeless, beyond measure.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

‘Stang Heaven

My eyes follow as
your white blur streaks by
I hear you singing Molly Hatchett
and flirt with disaster again.

A silver sliver of a dream
and you hold it tight
a bright place
to call your own.

In Van Morrison’s head you’d live
in gardens wet with rain
on cobblestone streets
a blue-eyed brown-eyed girl.

But for now you have
’stang heaven
your twenty-minute refuge
a fence to give shelter in the storm.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Long Arms of God (32nd Sunday—Cycle C)

2 Maccabees 7: 1–14
2 Thessalonians 2:16–3:5
Luke 20:27–38
Our first reading is about seven sons who die unspeakable deaths. Our third reading is about seven brothers who all have the same wife. Wow! Who says scripture doesn’t make for good reading?
2 Maccabees 7 relates the story of a mother and her seven sons. This book is in the Greek Old Testament for Catholics and Orthodox, what is formally known as the Septuagint, but Protestants in general do not consider it to be scripture because it’s not from the Hebrew canon. That’s a shame because they miss the allusion that the Sadducees make in Luke’s gospel to what would have been a well-known story to many of the Greek-speaking Jews of Jesus’ time—a story about Jewish patriots.
The woman and her seven sons are being impelled to violate the tenets of their faith for no other reason than to allow the King to demonstrate his power. They refuse to acquiesce despite the force of the King’s authority because they follow God’s law, and they willingly accept the consequences because they believe that God will raise them from the dead and reward them. The sixth son, whose words are not part of this reading today, proclaims as his end nears,
“Do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!”
These seven sons and their mother have been celebrated as martyrs for their faith since the early days of the Church.
Their courage contrasts dramatically with my own. Paraphrasing Flannery O’Connor, I’ll just say that I could be a martyr… if they killed me quickly.
Let’s leave aside that we might consider the restriction on eating pork as an unimportant law. The word in Hebrew for such laws is mitzvah for one or mitzvot for more than one. This word means commandment, and the Torah details 613 of them, like the ones we acknowledge in the Decalogue (that’s a fancy word we have for the 10 commandments). To a Jew, holding each of these 613 mitzvot is a way to express gratitude and love to God. They live the law as a way of giving God their assent, their “yes.” By saying “no” to an easy temptation, they were saying “yes” to the God of the universe.
We don’t really think of the moral commands in that way: that saying “no” to sex outside of marriage, to contraception within marriage, to lying, or to any other sin is really a “yes” to God, or that saying “yes” to sin is saying “no” to God. But our bodies and our mouths tell the truth. What we agree to do and what we refuse to do, these choices are our response to God. Virtue is a way of saying “yes” to God. Sin is a way of saying “no” to God. It’s as simple as that.
We do have Divine help in our choices, if we only accept it. The grace we receive in baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist can strengthen us,
if we let it.
Paul tells us in the second letter to the Thessalonians that “the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” We have the grace to rely on God’s strength, but we have to allow it to work in us.
I will be the first to acknowledge that I try to go it alone way too often, and that route so frequently ends in frustration. Have you ever had one of those conversations with God where you are trying to explain your thought process to God…
To God, who knows you better than you know yourself?
And then you catch yourself and have one of those facepalm moments?
I was going to say, “Neither do I,” but I would be fibbing.
In our gospel reading, Jesus is speaking to the Sadducees, the priestly caste of Jerusalem, who were attempting to trap Jesus in this controversy about eternal life. The Sadducees only accepted the five books of the Torah and rejected the other Old Testament texts, including 2 Maccabees, which we read first today. That book and many of the books of the Old Testament indicated that God would raise up the faithful in the last days.
The Sadducees rejected the belief in eternal life,
which made them sad, you see?
I swiped that joke from Jeff Cavins, so I have to give him credit for it.
There are two ironies in this gospel story. First, as Jesus points out, the Sadducees don’t even know their own scripture. Jewish Rabbis were very particular in how they handled every word, every letter of scripture. When Jesus said in Matthew 5 that not a jot or tittle of the Law would pass away, he was emphasizing that every mark, every word, and every letter mattered. So when he says that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of the Living because the words from Exodus are in present tense, he is not splitting hairs. He’s arguing the way rabbis always argued about the Word of God. The Sadducees who were very literal in their reading of scripture didn’t understand the obvious implications of the very literal words.
The second irony is that the Sadducees are unknowingly arguing with God. They’re trying to convince God that they’re right about the truth. They’re telling the Word Incarnate what the word of God means. They’re ridiculing the Author of Life while the Author of Life wrote the rules by which the Sadducees claimed to live. Of course, the Sadducees didn’t know who Jesus was, so we have to give them a bit of a break.
But what’s our excuse? How often do we do the very same thing? Argue with God about what’s true? About whether what we’re doing is according to His plan or according to our own?
We tend to read our preferences into scripture, to impose our understanding on the readings from mass, and to split hairs where the Church doesn’t give us much hair to split. But understand that Jesus was not joking when He told Peter and the Apostles that they had the power to bind and loose. Jesus was not misspeaking when He said to the Apostles in the Gospel of John, “He who accepts you, accepts me.” He left us a Church to guide us in our lives, and in our understanding of Scripture and of God’s will, but we too often treat the Church’s teachings as if they are one big “No”—
a “no” to all those things that seem like fun,
a “no” to all those things that our culture tells us to put first,
and a “no” to the so-called good life—living for myself, living the dream, living to find my destiny.
In reality, the Church’s teachings are one big “Yes”—a “yes” to God, a “yes” to abundant life, and a “yes” to life everlasting. Accepting God’s will is accepting to be who God made you to be.
When we choose to live by our own rules rather than God’s plan, things turn out about the way we should expect. I can personally attest to that. We can fight God all we like and protest about our freedom, but God made us and knows us better than we know ourselves.
Our arms are too short to box with God,*
and His arms are long enough to wrap us up and embrace us until we stop fighting Him.

*I've heard this statement from a number of sources, so I'm not sure whom to credit with it. However, apparently it's now the title of a Broadway musical.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Contracepted Marriage

A few days ago, I posted a link to a post on some advice that a father gave to a son about marriage that he eventually found compelling. The point is that marriage is not for you, or more precisely, about you. It's about your commitment to your future spouse and your children.  The way that the message was conveyed perhaps made it sound a bit too self-sacrificial, but the idea intended was that you don't go into marriage with the attitude that it's about meeting your needs.

I'll double-down on this young man's point and say that there is only one way to go into a successful and that is by giving yourself completely to it. If you are not ready to give yourself completely to your spouse, then don't get married.


I think that was the young man's point. I read a post of a friend of mine (a fine person, but with whom I disagree on a number of opinions politically and spiritually) who took issue with the idea that one must put yourself completely at the service of the other. He (and some others who responded to him) took it to mean that one essentially would stop having any concerns for his or her own needs. They considered it to be a detriment, even destructive to a marriage.

Frankly, such a criticism misses the point. Naturally, people need to have their needs met, and a one-sided relationship where one partner gives and the other only takes is certainly doomed. And it is precisely the kind of relationships that develop when people enter marriage concerned only about what they get out of it. Putting yourself at the service of your spouse is not in and of itself codependent behavior, because ultimately, codependency is itself an attempt to get your needs met, whether you're the problem child who demands all the attention or martyr who suffers not so silently. Nobody gets sucked into a codependent relationship who feels ther needs are being met.

I shared the post with the understanding that there are differences in how my Church and the church of the young man who wrote the article see the marriage covenant, the notion of sacramental marriage, and of self sacrifice. Even in the Catholic Church, many married Catholics don't have a proper understanding of the sacramentality of marriage, its permanence, and its self-sacrificial essence.

Now, that sounds really idealistic, but the Catholic view is that marriage is not merely a human reality but the reflection of a Divine reality—the complete self-giving love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Trinity. In Genesis 1, God creates man in His own image: "in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (1:27). How do we get the threeness of the Trinity with man and woman in holy matrimony? Simply this. A marriage is not simply between the man and the woman but man, woman, and God. Marriage, like the Trinity, is a communion of persons in love. Moreover, it reflects the complete gift that God makes to man in His Son.

Blessed John Paul II wrote that the "analogy of the love of spouses (or spousal love) seems to emphasize above all the aspect of God's gift of himself to man who is chosen 'from ages' in Christ.... a gift that is in its essential character, or as a gift, total... and irrevocable" (Man and Woman He Created Them, 95b:4).

Scripture uses the image repeatedly of God as spouse to Israel, and Christ as spouse to the Church. St. Paul doesn't admonish men to keep their wives in line and demand their respect and service. He admonishes men to give their lives for their wives, as Christ did for the Church. He says "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21). So this is not codependency. It is mutual self donation.

One of the evils of artificial contraception is that it allows couples to tell a lie with their bodies. The sexual act is supposedly one of complete self giving to the other (which, again, is why the Church reserves it to married couples). By contracepting, the couple refuses part of themselves to the other. There might be very pragmatic reasons for it, but it turns an act of self giving into a partial gift. But literal contraception is merely a symptom of a larger problem in marriage—the withholding of the self from the other.

A marriage in which a man and woman withhold themselves from complete self-donation is in this sense contracepted. It removes part of the mutual gift from marriage. When two people enter into marriage concerned more about what they get in return than they do for the welfare of their spouse, they are entering marriage with a contraceptive attitude.

If nothing else, Christian marriage must be about helping your spouse get to Heaven and doing whatever it takes to aid them. Is it easy? No, but it's also not impossible. You can find such marriages in surprising places— for example, between an Austrian emperor and his wife. I have no doubt these two are standing in God's presence now.

Marriage is not about you. We have lost sight of this fact in our modern age, which is why we have the crisis in our families. We need to look again at God's plan for marriage—modeled on His own image. Man and woman he made them, and they became one flesh.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Don't sell yourself short. (Reflection for 31st Sunday—Cycle C)

Wisdom 11:22–12:2
2 Thessalonians 1:11–2:2
Luke 19:1–10

When I was sitting in the deacons' space at the parish office yesterday, I was thinking that I'd better prepare some notion of a reflection on the readings for this Sunday in case Fr. Henry wanted me to preach. (We usually know well in advance, but he had an awful lot on his plate this weekend.) However, he did preach, so no need for me to wing it. Having thunk up this stuff (or more precisely, let the Holy Spirit inspire me), I thought I should not let it go to waste.

The Book of Wisdom has always been one of my favorite books, and it's a shame that this wonderful text is not part of the Protestant canon. The passage from today's reading has this beautiful, prayerful reflection on God's mercy: "But you spare all this, because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls,
for your imperishable spirit is in all things!" (Wis. 11:26–12:1)

What a beautiful reminder this passage is—perhaps something we should call to mind when we feel puny, unlovable, worthless. God holds us in being by His will and loathes nothing He has made. And of course, we have to remember that this applies not only to us but even to those whom we struggle to accept.

It ties in very well with the passage from Luke and the story of Zaccheaus. Here, the reviled chief tax collector goes to great lengths just so that he can get a glimpse of Jesus—climbing a sycamore tree because he is too short to see over the crowds. (By the way, this tree is actually a type of fig tree rather than the European Maple that we in the U.S. call a sycamore, but still quite expansive.)

When Jesus calls him down from the tree and says that He will stay at the tax collectors' house, the other grumble that Zacchaeus is a sinner. Now, remember that in last Sunday's reading, we have a Pharisee and a tax collector in the temple, one self-righteous, and the other begging for mercy. And now we have a group of people walking with Jesus, very likely some Pharises and others who are disciples, and this tax collector whom they scorn. Luke has this fantastic way of setting up these moments. First, Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Plain about judgment, then he tells a parable about the same subject, and here He gives His disciples and example of mercy to follow. This is a common pattern in Luke: first, Jesus teaches, and then he gives an example of practice.

No doubt Zacchaeus knows he is reviled by the crowd, but he is so happy to be accepted by Jesus that he promises to give half of his belongings to the poor and to compensate anyone he has defrauded. If he's half as bad as the crowds think, he would no doubt find himself penniless! We don't get to hear the rest of the story, so we'll never know what actually happened. However, we do know that Jesus' call to him brings about repentence and conversion.

The passage speaks to me because at times I have felt like that public sinner, the one reviled by the crowd (imaginary or not), someone unredeemable.

But that's not how God sees us. He looks beyond our sin to the person whom he created, loving all that are, and sparing us because we are His. He loves us this much.

In fact, He loves us this much.

He came for the lost, and He found us.

We have a job to do. There are a lot of people in this supposedly Christian country who have never heard this good news. They've heard things proposed as good news that sounded like nice ideas, or something that sounded like a get-rich scheme, or they've heard something called the gospel that didn't sound like very good news at all. So we have to take the message out to them in a new way. This is what Blessed John Paul II, Pope emeritus Benedict, and now Pope Francis have been telling us and calling us to—a new evangelization. There are people who still don't know that there is good news, and we need to tell it to them.

He came for the lost, and now we need to help find them.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Blessed Children of God (All Saints Day—Cycle C )

Revelation 7:2–4, 9–14
1 John 3:1–3
Matthew 5:1–12a

The gospel reading from Matthew for today is commonly called the Beatitudes, and it occurs at the beginning of Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.” I was pleased when Fr. Henry asked me at our monthly clergy meeting to preach for this holy day because I wrote my thesis on Luke’s version of the sermon. But then he added, “Bill, please… please don’t read your dissertation to them.”

So at Fr. Henry’s request, you’ll be spared the pain of listening to a reading of my thesis this evening. But I am going to talk about the Beatitudes and the sermon, and what they mean for Christian living. Matthew’s sermon is often considered the basis of Christian moral teaching. Properly understood, it contains everything you need to know how to live a moral Christian life. But the beatitudes really go beyond just the basics. They teach us how to live as saints—how, in our day to day lives, we are sanctified.

The word “beatitude” comes from the Latin word for “bless,” and this word “blessed” is repeated nine times during this passage. We use the word “beatitude” for the highest form of blessedness—the form of blessedness of being in God’s presence. That’s why the Church calls a saint a beatus, refers to a saint’s beatification, or talks about being in Heaven as the Beatific vision. A beatitude, then, is simply a heavenly blessing. It’s a six-dollar word for something basic to our faith, a belief in sanctifying grace, Heaven, and eternal life.

That little vocabulary lesson is all fine and good, but look again at what Jesus says causes us to be blessed in this way. We’re blessed
  • when we’re poor in spirit
  • when we mourn
  • when we are meek
  • when we hunger and thirst
  • when we’re merciful, pure of heart, persecuted, reviled
That doesn’t sound like a good time to me. That sounds painful… even downright inconvenient. It sounds a bit like a burden. Yet Jesus says that we are blessed right now when these things happen to us. Not only when we are in God’s presence at the end of our lives, but right now when we experience these things…

And when we rejoice because of them. That part is important.

You see, experiencing poverty, mourning, revilement, and persecution are not our reward. We don’t give mercy just so that we can get it. These trials are the means of our sanctification—the way that we become saints in our own right. If we walk this path and fight this fight, we too will see the face of God. Today, All Saints’ Day, we’re celebrating those who fought the fight and won, and are now standing in God’s presence.

It’s easy in our American culture to get the idea that grace is cheap, that salvation doesn’t require sacrifice, that prosperity is God’s demonstration to the world that we are His chosen people. But scripture doesn’t give us that option, and our Catholic tradition has never told us that the road is easy.

Jesus did not tell us to pick up our gold-plated golf clubs and follow Him. That’s not a burden. Jesus told us to deny ourselves and pick up our cross.


Not when it’s convenient or fits into our schedule but every day. Pick up that burdensome cross of mourning, persecution, meekness, hunger, and thirst; and you are blessed.

That is how we are sanctified. That is how we become holy. That is how we become saints! That is how we are beatified! Lives of challenge lead us to a life of glory. That’s what this feast day is all about.

John repeats this point in his letter. He wanted to encourage the faithful not to give up in the face of persecution and heresy. “We are God’s children now,” he says. We have not seen what it will be like in God’s presence, but we are already His children, here and now.

See? We’re blessed not because everything is perfect, but because we are God’s children.

Revelation speaks of those who survive the time of great distress, or the time of “Great Tribulation.” Revelation is talking about the Communion of Saints—those whom we celebrate with this feast today, the saints with whom we join our prayers daily and at every celebration of the Eucharist. These saints used to be just like us—right here, who experience joys, sorrows, sadness and pain. Saints don’t become saints because they are somehow impervious to suffering or shielded from temptation. They come through the path of sanctification just like you and me—through a trial of fire. But the reason the Church calls them saints is because their lives are a testimony to us of how to accept difficulty and suffering with grace—even joy—and to recognize ourselves as blessed and as God’s children.

For every saint we celebrate by name today, there are millions more who have lived silent lives glorifying God in their everyday tasks. And that is how every one of us is sanctified—not only by writing a great treatise like St. Thomas Aquinas, or by extraordinary service like Blessed Mother Teresa, but by offering our everyday lives to the glory of God.

That is the path to sanctification.

Today we celebrate this Eucharist in honor of the Communion of Saints: those great ones we know by name and the millions we don’t know who are also in God’s presence. And we pray for their intercession to aid us and the hundreds of millions of saints-in-the-making who share this earth with us now that we will all persevere, run the race to the end, and enter into God’s presence as they have done.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

What has changed?

I've had several people come up to me in the past few days and ask, "Do you feel any different?"

No. And yes. Do I feel more confident of my opinions, more holy, more virtuous? Not really. But I do feel a sense of joy at being able to impart blessings on people, and I do have to say that I am feeling a lot more love for people. I have had very few down moments in the last few days, and Mac (the other new deacon at our parish) and I got to attend the weekly RCIA class for the first time as deacons this week. I'm sure the shine will fade eventually, but for now, I'm enjoying it.

I am amazed by the outpouring of support and love from parishioners, other Catholics in the diocese, friends, and social-media connections who know me only through my blog and Facebook. The comments have been very kind and supportive. I had more page views on my post "Weeping and Laughing" than I think I've ever had. (This blog has never been very high traffic.) I hope that I will be inspired to write more, and I will definitely finish the story of my spiritual journey now that these other matters have been wrapped up. A new homily will be coming tomorrow evening after the All Saints Day liturgy.

Here are some of the photos from ordination. Our very gifted photographer is putting the finishing touches on the others this weekend.

Here's a black-and-white version of us during the Litany of Saints.

And here I am giving my promise to the bishop of our diocese.

Dang, all that core work hasn't done a bit of good. Glad the dalmatics are roomy, even if they are a bit hot.
I have started a new blog, The Deacon's Diner, which will be strictly for homilies and reflections pertinent to my ministry. I've had requests for the homily I gave on Sunday, so this new blog will be a place where I can share them without all of the theology essays, poems, stories, and other stuff getting in the way.
Grace and peace to you all!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Pharisees, Tax Collectors, Beggars All (30th Sunday, Cycle C)

Sirach 35:12–18
Luke 18:9–14

“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

That’s the prayer of the tax collector, and it’s the basis for a common devotion of the Eastern Church called the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” a prayer that is repeated continually. It’s a great reminder that despite all that we do, we come as beggars to God. We come with nothing of our own because everything we have is from Him.

Marc Barnes, a brilliant young man who has a blog titled “Bad Catholic,” has this to say about our condition:
Surely we recognize that the universal postures of prayer are identical with those of the homeless man who begs by the gas station? Kneeling, pleading with fingers interwoven, imploring with hands folded, bowing, weeping, rocking, extending open palms — this is the dialect of the poor and the faithful, the common ground between the wealthy churchgoer and the beggar outside the door. Both are engaged in radical honesty about the nature of their existence.

That’s incredible wisdom from a 20-year-old college student, incredible all the more because of his recognition that he, too, is a beggar.

One of the dangers Christians throughout the ages have often fallen into is to think that somehow we are solely responsible for our spiritual growth, our piety, our personal holiness. This was also the problem that many of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time had—the idea that keeping every detail of the Law would save them. Theologians have an old word for this belief: Pelagianism— a 5th century heresy that proposed that we can work our way to Heaven on our own merits without the assistance of God’s grace. It was a heresy in the 5th century no less than it is today, and it seems just as popular now as then.

Luke presents to us two opposing images in this parable: the Pharisee, who believes his pious practices justify him in God’s eyes, and the tax collector, who recognizes his sinfulness. One is rich with his own accomplishments, and the other is a spiritual beggar.

Now, I’m going to take this moment to confess that at times, I am a first-class Pharisee: self-righteous, quick to judge, unwilling to mix with the ritually impure—that has been me at various times in my life. How many other Pharisees do we have here today?

One of my father’s favorite stories to tell is about how I would always try to get my older brother in trouble for picking on me. “See how bad he is and how good I am?”

So I am guilty of being just like that Pharisee in the temple—of pointing to that guy over there who is so much worse than I am—I, who say my prayers, abstain from meat on Fridays, go to reconciliation every week, practice numerous devotions faithfully. I do such holy and pious things, and I go to Mass every Sunday, unlike those Christmas and Easter Catholics. See, God, see how holy I am? Unlike that guy in the back pew who works for the IRS. I’m so glad I’m not like the rest of those people.

I am guilty as charged. And that helps me to remember that I, too, am a spiritual beggar. I didn’t come by my practice of faith because I’m holy through my own natural ability. If I do any good, it is God who does it through me.

Now, I’m not saying that devotions are wrong, or that we shouldn’t pray, abstain on Fridays or perform penitential acts, or to practice devotions with love. These are good things to do out of love for God, just as acts of charity are good to do out of love for our neighbor.

However, when these acts become matters of pride for me, when I assess myself approvingly in comparison to that sinner over there, when I take my acts as being from my own merit, I am that Pharisee Jesus warns us about in the Gospel of Luke.

It’s sadly easy to slip into the complacent mindset that it’s all about my doing things. But it’s really about letting something be done to me.
  • It’s not about how often I go to confession, but whether I let Jesus heal my sinfulness.
  • It’s not about whether I pray the rosary every day, but whether I let the mysteries of Christ’s life change me into Christ.
  • It is not about whether I darken the door of a church every Sunday. It’s about whether I let Christ lighten the doorway of my heart.
Jesus isn’t telling us not to be concerned with outward holiness and outward practices, but He is saying that we need to have the inner disposition to match, and that comes through humility, through recognizing that it isn’t all about me and my doing through recognizing that I am the one who usually avoids picking up my cross through seeing myself as someone who begs to God daily for the grace to not lie, steal, and cheat my neighbor in those subtle ways that we modern people do.

Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me... a sinner.

We are beggars for every gift we have, especially for God’s grace. For that reason, God in His mercy gave us His only Son. We are beggars at the table of His Eucharist, this Holy Communion in which we are about to share. Verse 17 of today’s first reading from Sirach 35 is a good reminder of how we should approach our prayer. I especially like the RSV version of it: “The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds.”

So let’s pray like the beggars we are, and let us show our gratitude for God’s mercy, by giving back generously to Him.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Weeping and Laughing

The alarm went off at 6:00 so Gina could get up and have time to curl her hair. I had set my iPhone alarm for 7:00, but that was pretty pointless. I was wide awake. That gave me enough time to work in a short run this morning—which probably helped to burn off what would otherwise have been nervous energy. So I finished up my coffee, prayed my morning hour, walked and fed the dog, and hit the road.

I don't get out for morning runs often, but they are so good for clearing the head, cleansing the lungs, and focusing the thoughts. (It has other effects, too, so I was grateful that the coin-op on 28th was open, since the Elm Grove Park toilets were locked.)

As I was finishing the last 1.2 miles of the run down 28th, I considered God's mercy (particularly because my homily tomorrow will touch on that subject). I thought about the last 30 years of my life and where I have wound up. Karen, a friend at my parish whom I've known since high school (and a fellow air force brat), stopped me and Gina on our way out of mass and said, "Look where we are?" I don't think either of us would ever have thought we'd be working at the same parish and devoted to our faith.

So as I ran and considered this, and what God's mercy and love has done for me, and I began to weep... and to laugh.

Weeping and laughing. That's been my day. Intermittent weeping and laughing.

First, I imagine many of the people who have known me in the past would be floored to know that I have been ordained. The contrast between my life then and now is stark beyond the darkest and the most bright. Second, I'm a bit amazed that I made it through the formation process at all. The academic aspects weren't an issue, but I tell you, when you have a head for theology and a temperament for lawful goodness (my D&D/geek creds intrude here), it is really easy to be harsh in applying the cure. And I was zealous enough at times to give my future colleagues at the parish pause (rightly so). Third and most importantly, I know my frailties, vices, and nasty dispositions.

Why the heck would God choose someone like me? And here I am. At every moment in today's ordination, I thought about my bumbling way along the path. And here I am. Laughing and weeping at this joke God has played on the Diocese of Boise. (I didn't mention that I was baptized at the air base just 50 miles southeast of here.) This diocese welcomed me into the Body of Christ. It sanctified my marriage. It baptized all of our children. And now it has welcomed me into the order of the diaconate. Weeping and laughing.

When I wasn't just smiling, or praying, or doing something on the altar, I was weeping and laughing. (Okay, I was more accurately chuckling silently during the liturgy.)

The ordination rites went so much more quickly than the rest of the liturgy. We came up, knelt down, prostrated ourselves, and it was over so quickly. And it was done. Gina and my mentor, <fe>Deacon Bill</fe>, came and vested me. No undoing this! They can't take it back! Weeping and manical laughter!

(Not really. Weeping, yes. No maniacal laughter.)

It was a beautiful liturgy. Most of us who were ordained had family members assisting, and we also had so many people who traveled just to see the moment. I had family and friends, including another great friend, whom I won't name, and who did more than he suspects to help me back into the Church.

Weeping and laughing. All day.

I could go on all day about the love and grace from my fellow parishioners, friends from youth ministry, first and third-order religious, non-Catholic friends who came to celebrate)... and on. I am so grateful for all of you!

But I'm going to jump forward a bit to my family celebration. We had a simple little party at Smoky Mountain Pizza. The restaurant put us next to a soccer party, and I recognized a couple of the kids as members of our parish. They were a pretty rambunctious bunch, yet we managed to celebrate, eat, and communicate well enough. I was able to give some of my first blessings to family members, and I told them that I would likely be blessing people and things with abandon. After all, I'm just the human instrument. God gives the blessing. I'm just trying to be generous with God's grace (as if).

We left the restaurant, and everyone wended their way out of the parking lot. As I was turning out of the lot and into the adjoing alley, I remembered that just a little over 20 years ago, I used to pull into that same alley for work. The building that now houses Smoky Mountain Pizza once housed the Blue Note Cafe and the Blue Unicorn, a "metaphysical" bookshop. The place where my family celebrated my ordination was also the place were I, twenty years earlier, sold New Age books and supplies. Twenty years ago, I sold tarot cards and books on the occult in that very spot where we dined. Today, I blessed my family members at the same spot in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Our Lord and God has an amazing sense of humor.

Weeping laughing I began my day. Weeping and laughing I began my ministry. With God's aid, weeping and laughing it will end.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Three days

In three days, my life changes forever: I will be ordained as a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Boise. Last night I woke up around 3:00 AM (which is not unusual), but where I usually dwell on some issue concerning work, this time I was wondering about whether I would be ready for this ministry.

Am I going to blow it on the altar? Yes, many times over.

Am I going to tick some people off with my homilies? Undoubtedly.

Am I going to let some people down? Almost certainly.

I think the only time I don't have doubts about whether I am meant to be in active ordained ministry is when I am assisting at the altar, at RCIA, or otherwise doing ministry. I think people will be more free with their critiques about my performance, though.

If I had gone down this route earlier in life, I don't know that I would be ready. In my early professional and academic life, I was a bit more thin skinned, a bit more in need of approval from peers and students. While I still like to have agood rapport with peers and the people I instruct, I've gotten much better at not personalizing their responses to me. But occasionally, I still hear the nagging, whiny little voice and still feel like that simpering grade schooler. But I've also learned how to put that side of me in its place, if for no other reason than that it gets in the way of getting something done. In the business world, that has paid off. We will see how it serves me in ministry.

But there are real fears as well: that I won't have the stamina, that I will fail God, that my relationships will suffer, that my other dreams will not be fulfilled. I've rarely taken on anything at which I've failed, and this could be a blazing catastrophe waiting to happen. Or it could be the most grace-filled adventure.

In three days, my life changes forever.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Tuesday, Twenty-Fourth Week in Ordinary Time —Cycle I

This passage in chapter 7 of the Gospel of Luke is a bit like a bookend. It closes off a section of the gospel that begins with Jesus reading in the synagogue in Nazareth and being rejected by his neighbors. There He refers to the prophet Elijah and the miracles he performed for the widow of Sidon. Sandwiched between these two passages is Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,” a basic primer of Christian moral teaching. When Jesus enters Nain, He is still accompanied by His disciples and the crowds who were with Him on the plain where he preached.
Nain lies about 8 miles southeast of Nazareth and is not far from Sidon where Elijah the prophet raised the dead boy to life in 1 Kings 17. Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son in Nain would have immediately evoked the story of Elijah. These people proclaim Jesus to be a prophet, the first such proclamation in Luke’s gospel. The language Luke uses here is identical to the language used in 1 Kings, so clearly the parallel is intentional. His disciples and the crowds are both being given a signal—that the prophecies He made in the sermon are coming true here and now. He is a prophet—and more.  “God has visited his people” the people proclaim.
It’s a great story, and there is so much going on with all of Luke’s careful crafting of the parallels with Elijah and with Moses that it’s easy to miss the point. Luke is great for drawing parallels and for those typological connections, and it’s really easy for a scripture geek like me to get caught up in all of that—obviously, since I’ve been expounding on those very notable elements.
Buried in the middle of that passage, though, is a theme that spoke to my heart.
What motivates Jesus to raise the widow’s son? Does He plan this great PR stunt back when He’s at Nazareth being rejected by His own community? Does He see the crowd of mourners mixing with His own followers and see this as a great opportunity to fulfill scripture?
No, He acts because He feels compassion for this widow. He is moved with pity for the woman’s loss. He recognizes the position this puts her in economically, of course, but He also sees the wound that needs to be healed—that whole in her being where she once held her son. She has lost her son, and He returns him to her.
“Blessed are you who weep, for you will laugh.” Do you suppose that amid the clamor there might also have been some laughter that day?
The passage speaks to me because, analogically, I was a lost son and because my daughter and my stepchildren are in some ways “lost.” I’m sure I’m not alone in this experience. Our kids find that the world seems to have so much more to offer—much more than the Church and religion with their long list of NOs. Why listen to a bunch of old men when you could be having fun? It’s common for people have a crisis of faith as adolescents or to be dazzled by material pleasure. So we lose our children—despite our best efforts—to a culture that sells cheap, fake grace. Our children die spiritually.
We’re the ones who mourn and weep. And Jesus responds to that pain—Jesus, a prophet and more, yes—but most of all Jesus, our compassionate savior, who came to mourn and weep with us and then to save us. He will hear our mourning and weeping, and He will bring our loved ones back to life—both in this world and the next.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tues. Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time—Cycle I

A reflection on 2 Corinthians 8:1–9; Matthew 5:43–48

Do you have those mornings when you get up and don’t want to give an inch to anyone? I have days where my patience with life is thin, and it takes a bit more than one full cup of my industrial-strength coffee to be on speaking terms with the waking world. The last adjective I would use to describe myself in those times is “generous of spirit.” But generosity of spirit is vital to the Christian life, and that is part of the message in today’s readings.

In 2 Corinthians, St. Paul exhorts the people of Corinth to demonstrate their spirit of repentance by giving generously to the support of the saints in Jerusalem. This passage just goes to show you that capital campaigns enjoy a long tradition in our Church. No doubt we would have met our goals much sooner if St. Paul had been involved in our fund-raising efforts. All kidding aside, though, St. Paul speaks here to our obligation as Christians to aid those who are less fortunate—giving from our need, not from our excess. If we give only of what we have in excess, we’re simply giving someone what they should already have. If all goods are given to us in stewardship, then our obligation is not to hoard but to act justly and to give all people what is due to them—at very least, the basic necessities for life.

This principle is what the Church calls the universal destination of goods. Paragraph 2405 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says specifically that “Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor,” and the same teaching has been presented in encyclicals from Pope Leo XIII through Benedict XVI. I am my brother’s keeper—not the state or the US government. I am personally to see to the welfare of those in need. Sometimes I do better than others.

The gospel passage today comes from Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” which is essentially a recasting of the giving of the Law on Mt. Nebo—a reinterpretation of the Mosaic Law by the giver of that Law, the Word Himself. Matthew wrote for a Jewish Christian audience, which is why his version of this sermon varies so dramatically from the sermon as presented by Luke. In this particular instance, Jesus is countering a contemporary interpretation of Jewish Law. He wasn’t alone in this particular interpretation. In fact, another influential rabbi of His time, Hillel, taught something very similar: “That which is hateful to you, do not to others.” Jesus inverts that and gives us what we now know as the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” But here, Jesus goes even further. We’re not to return good for good. Even sinners and tax collectors do as much. This is not a quid pro quo. We’re supposed to return good for evil. We’re supposed to love those who treat us with contempt and those who wish us harm. We’re supposed to pray for those who persecute us. We’re supposed to love others as God has loved us.

The Jews held up the Law as their standard of conduct. Jesus is telling His disciples that it is not enough to follow the Law and to conform our lives to it. In fact, He frequently condemns the literalistic application of the Law touted by the Pharisees. Jesus’ standard is Jesus Himself. God blesses the righteous and unrighteous and makes the sun and the rain fall on both. Jesus forgives those who crucify Him.

That is generosity of spirit, and that is what we are called to do. If the disciples’ standard for behavior is God, God who is love, then our spirit must be guided and inflamed by that perfect love.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Tues. Week 9 of Ordinary Time—Cycle I

A reflection on Mark 12:13–17

The Pharisees and the Herodians were trying to trap Jesus in the story Mark tells today. Both groups represent the clear interests of the times in First Century Judea. The Pharisees, of course, represent Jewish religious authorities over and against the various Jewish factions, and the Herodians represent the puppet Tetrarchy put in place by Rome. They are often presented as being on the two opposite sides of the question, but in reality, both parties submitted to Rome and paid the census tax. They are trying to get Jesus to reveal Himself as a Zealot, one of a party of patriotic Jews from the Galilee who resented Roman rule and refused to pay taxes to a pagan ruler. Pharisee and Herodian probably agreed on little else, but the Pharisees were perfectly happy to coax Jesus into the Herodians’ pit, where the Herodians could then take over and condemn Jesus as a revolutionary. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” as the Arab proverb goes.

Of course, Jesus outwits them. He knows that they simply want to draw Him into controversy for their own ends. He does not deny the tribute owed to the government, but He also affirms the obligation we have to God. We have things of this world and things of God. We need to be able to distinguish between the two and meet each obligation appropriately.

What a challenge that is these days, when government regulations and doctrines of faith seem to be at odds in so many ways. We’re told to keep our faith to ourselves, not to legislate morality, to keep our noses out of people’s bedrooms. Oddly enough, many of the same people who say we should stay out of their bedrooms still think we should pay for what happens there. The old rule about never discussing politics and religion in polite company has become more about not mentioning the two in the same breath, and of course not allowing religion to taint our political opinions.

We can also be pulled in this direction by our own patriotic impulses. I will be the first to admit that I have always had this patriotic streak in me. I grew up with stories of George Washington and John Paul Jones, of the colonies and the War of Independence. I grew up with a sense of self as an American—with pride of being in this blessed country with a unique commitment to personal freedom. But that belief in personal freedom can often be twisted into an idolatry of license over liberty: a belief in the right to do whatever we wish instead of the right to follow our faith-formed conscience. Pope Leo XIII warned Cardinal Gibbon in 1898 of the dangers of what was then called Americanism—a focus on individual initiative over obedience to authority, a tendency toward assimilation into this country’s generally Protestant culture, and a division between Church and State that puts them essentially at odds to each other.

We as Catholics, of course, need to remember that we are called first to obey Christ and the Church He founded. To paraphrase St. Thomas More, we are citizens of this nation, but of God’s first. Sometimes, we get those two obligations switched around, giving allegiance first to the political ideologies of our times, then subordinating our faith to them. This happens on both sides of the political spectrum, and it unfortunately reverberates into our communion and causes divides. We attempt to enact our view of heaven on earth through our own obscured vision. Like Tobit in our first reading, we’re so convinced by our own virtue that we’re unaware, in our moral blindness, to the virtue of others.

But we’re not called to remake heaven on earth. We are called to be heavenly on earth.

Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, formerly of Denver, wrote a book a few years ago titled Render Unto Caesar, in which he argues that our role as Catholics and US citizens is to inform our lives by our faith and the teachings of the Church, and to carry that faith out into the political and social realm. That is the job of the laity, and that is one way in which we can take part in this New Evangelization. We can live our faith in active witness in our public lives, proclaiming the Gospel in both our words and deeds.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Wed. Sixth Week of Easter

I graduated on Saturday, and I have to say it feels really weird not to have a thesis or major paper looming in my future. I have one more paper to write for canon law (my last for diaconal formation), but other than that, I just have my own personal projects.

Oh, and homiletics. I have a few more of those in the next few weeks. Here's a reflection I gave off the cuff yesterday at sung vespers with the chancel choir (mostly boys between the ages of 7 and 15). Actually, I can only approximate what I said because I went in only with my personal reflections on the readings and no notes.

Acts 17:15, 22—18:1
John 16:12–15

In the reading from Acts, Paul is talking to the Athenians, and he recognizes that they are a pretty sophisticated bunch. They had a lot of great philosophers—people like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle—guys who had really big brains. Paul pointed out that they had discovered through reason, by using their brains, that there was One God, and Plato even came to recognize that that One God had a certain aspect of threeness to it, similar but not quite like the God we know to be One in Three.

But the Paul goes on to say what the Athenians can't know by reason—that God has revealed Himself to us, and that He rose from the dead. So Paul is saying here that we know God by both faith and reason. We need both.

In the gospel reading, Jesus explains how this revelation works and how it is guided by the Holy Spirit—the paraclete or advocate. Now in our Church, we believe that we have two streams of revelation: sacred scripture and sacred tradition. Sacred scripture is, of course, the words we have in our bible, while sacred tradition is what the Church has lived and practiced for the 2000 years of its existince: our prayers, our liturgies like this one, our devotions, the way we live our daily lives. And we also have something else—the teaching authority of the Church, what we call the magisterium, which in interprets scripture and tradition but is always at their service, never changing what is passed down. These three pillars are like three legs of a stool. If we have only one leg on our stole—scripture—our stool isn't very stable. But with all three we have a solid foundation. All of these are led by the Holy Spirit to lead us.

Now our Church teaches that we can find bits of the truth in many traditions, just as many of our Protestant brotehrs and sisters also teach bits of the truth, but the Holy Spirit guarantees His guidance of the teaching authority of our Church, which Paul calls elsewhere the "pillar and bulwark of Truth."

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Last Homiletics Assignment: Palm Sunday—Cycle C

For my last homiletics assignment, I drew Palm Sunday, which means I got a double dose of gospelly goodness! And it worked out pretty well. Because I had four readings with which to work, I decided to focus on the gospel accounts, and added only a passing reference to the epistle: Luke 19:28–40; Philippians 2:6–11; Luke 22:14–23:56.

Jesus has a one-way ticket to the cross, and He is selling seats for the tour. That is the story that we hear in these two gospel accounts from Luke.

As Jesus makes His way into Jerusalem, the people proclaim Him king and even the stones apparently recognize who He is. Yet in one week, many of these same people will call for Jesus to be crucified. When we place these two Gospel passages side by side, we sense a bit of funny business here. The rocks know who Jesus is, but the people who were expecting an earthly king, don’t. Even Peter, whose very nickname means “stone” or “rock,” doesn’t fully recognize who Jesus is, even after he, John, and James saw Jesus transfigured on Mount Tabor. I think Luke is putting us on, showing us that Jesus’ closest apostles are dumber than rocks when it comes to Jesus’ true identity.

Now, we can’t really blame them or the people of Jerusalem. Jewish tradition had conditioned  them to expect a political, military savior who would throw out the Romans and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel. Even Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is itself an allusion back to Solomon’s entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, an allusion everyone would have instantly recognized. The people were expecting an earthly king in the line of David. No one told them that the Messiah would be a Heavenly King, much less the Son of God. In a way, you can almost understand why so many in Jerusalem then turned on Jesus. Judas, one of the Twelve, was so disenchanted that he betrayed Jesus to the Jewish authorities. Maybe he thought he was doing his part? Maybe he thought, yes, then Jesus will reveal who He truly is.
And Peter, the rock who says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” the one we think gets it, he still denies Jesus three times. He has an idea of who Jesus is, but somehow he misses the mark. He only gets part of the story. He doesn’t see the big picture.

But we know the rest of the story. We know the greatest tragedy that befalls the God Incarnate and humanity—His crucifixion.  We also know the greatest triumph that comes through the cross. We know that He dies and is resurrected and will come again. We know Jesus as the Son of God, the one through whom all creation was made, the one whose sacrifice atoned for our sins. We know Jesus better than the stones did, right?

Don’t we?

Sometimes, I’m not so sure. I think our idea of Jesus, and of God, is far too small. We forget about what He can do with a few measly loaves of bread and two fish, of what He can do with a jar of water, of what He can do with spittle and mud, or with bread and wine—which He transforms into His body and Blood. He is the God of surprises. He is the God of transformations. But we still act as if He can’t heal or multiply or unify.

Jesus prayed that we may be one (John 17:21). But we’re a church divided, both physically and spiritually. We divide ourselves and align ourselves with one faction or another. I suppose that is simply human nature:

• boys vs. girls
• sophomores vs. freshmen
• Boise State vs. Idaho
• gay vs. straight
• black vs. white
• left vs. right

We come up with these divisions, these reasons why we’re right and they’re wrong, and naturally, Jesus sides with us. We project onto Jesus all of our preferences, our thinking, our desires, our world view, and our biases.

We remake Jesus in our own image and fashion for ourselves a god, a false idol, that looks and thinks just like us.

When scripture talks of idolatry, it may be talking about worship of a god fashioned out of wood or stone, or maybe a god we have fashioned of some other material good like money or fame. But the idols that can be most harmful to us are the false images that we create of God. These false idols are the ones that lead us to point our fingers at that sinner over there—that ominous “them” that constantly threatens our peace of mind.

Do you ever wonder who “they” are? “They say this,” or “they say that,” and whatever it is that they say, it doesn’t fit with our image of Jesus. And so we divide. We build our little fortresses. We cast out the sinner so that we can be pure. But if our first response is to point the finger at them, we don’t really get Jesus’ point, do we?

We’re so fixated on that speck in our brother’s eye that we miss the plank in our own, and neither of us sees any better for it.

We’re so busy dividing up this earthly pie that none of us will ever be filled or satisfied.

We fail to see that when we point our finger at them, three fingers are pointing back at us.

But fortunately Jesus is not like us, and thank God for that. Jesus forgave and said, “Go and sin no more.” He accepted people where they were, then said, “Come with me and have life more abundantly.” He came to heal the sick, not those who were well. He dined with sinners and tax collectors.

In other words, Jesus came and lived and ate with people just like us. I’m not saying that Jesus didn’t hold an objective moral law, or that we shouldn’t call sin what it is, but He saw that the law was a guide, and that we have to be willing to travel with each other and bear each other up on the way.

Sometimes the crosses we bear are each other.

The two gospels today tell us that the road ahead is not without struggle. Jesus promised us that we would find suffering on that road. Jesus showed us that there is only one way to the Father, and that is through the cross.

Oddly enough, He called this burden light and this yoke easy. How do we make sense of this? The cross—the scandalous, shameful, humiliating implement of His death—is light and easy? It’s no wonder we have a hard time knowing Him. He stands our expectations on their heads and tells us exactly the opposite of what we want to hear. As Paul’s letter to the Philippians says, He emptied Himself to suffer death, even death on a cross, and the Father highly exalted Him for it. If we believe only in the image of Jesus that we fashion in our imaginations, we have made Him too small…

…just like the people of Jerusalem.

We have to empty ourselves to be open to who He truly is.

And we have to embrace the cross. We have to put away our desire for ritual purity and be willing to do the hard work needed to build the Church. We need to accept that not all of us live ideal lives, and we need to exhort each other to keep going, to keep striving for holiness, to keep traveling with Christ, and to be uniters rather than dividers.

If we want to make it to Easter, then we have to reckon with Good Friday.

If we want to have it all, we only get it by way of the cross.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Reflection—Christ the King, Cycle B

This reflection was written for my homiletics training and addresses John 18:33b–38, Daniel 7:13–14, and Rev. 1:5–8. I included John 18:38 because it contrasts with the theme of the Gospel and really helped me to delve into the irony of Pilate's question.

“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. What we do not hear in today’s reading is Pilate’s response to Jesus—three simple words: “What is truth?”
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 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. 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 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 torture enemy combatants or disregard their dignity as human beings.
But our personal opinions are not the standard for our conduct. We have as our standard a 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? Have we put the Truth foremost in our lives? Will we recognize the Truth when we come to see Him face to face?
Do we belong to the Truth and listen to His voice?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Papa Francesco

Habemus papem! Deo gratia!

Wow. What a surprise! I had a lot of names tucked in to different papal competition tiers (just kidding), but Bergoglio was not one of them. But the more I read about him, the more I see how well he matches the needs of this time.

I am already seeing the narrative emerge that he was somehow a rival of Pope Benedict XVI because he was the runner up in the last election, as if he intended a challenge to Cardinal Ratzinger (who had no desire for the job). As it turns out, Cardinal Bergoglio was one of the strongest supporters of Ratzinger in that conclave. I can hear the popping sound of MSM talking heads exploding even now. They simply don't get the Church.

St. Francis of Assisi is my and my daughter's confirmation saint. I pray that this pope will give an example to the world that will draw them to Christ—like the example he has given to the people of Argentina in his love of the poor.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Reflection on Luke 11:14–23—Gathering and Scattering

Today, I presided over my first communion service to fulfill a requirement for formation. This is the reflection I gave on today's gospel reading.

What does it mean to be “dumb”? Maybe that’s a dumb question. One can be dumb, as in clueless, and one can be dumb as in silent. One can be deaf and mute literally because of physical impairment or figuratively because of willfulness. In the context of this gospel, we can see that the healed man is physically unable to hear the good news, and unable to transmit it. He is cut off from others, cast out, scattered from communion. Jesus reaches out to the dumb man in this gospel and gathers him back into communion.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, are willfully dumb. They attribute Jesus’ power to Beelzebul, who was a Philistine god and one whose name was particularly offensive to Jews of the time. This tactic is what philosophers call “poisoning the well.” You associate someone arbitrarily with something so commonly repulsive that people can’t help but shrink back. We see this all the time in our political discourse. How many times was our Pope emeritus Benedict tarred with such a brush for the accident of his birth and early life in Nazi Germany? Sadly, it’s such a common tactic because it so frequently works.

What did Jesus do to warrant such a charge? He did something undoubtedly good. He gave someone who was cut off from most human discourse the ability to hear and speak. To credit such good as the work of evil is itself offensive. Scripture warns about such speech in Isaiah 5:20: “Woe to those who call good evil, and evil good.” We see the this at work in our news and in our political speech, when evils that the Church condemns are proclaimed to be good because they are expedient: contraception, abortion, euthanasia. We hear popular figures denigrating Mother Theresa because of her radical ministry to the poor and dying in Calcutta. We hear our Catholic bishops slammed as misogynists because of their opposition to various modern trends. We hear messages on left and right of our political discourse condemning the wisdom of the Church as antiquated or naïve or oppressive. Of course, we should expect the Church and its teaching to be a challenge to us. It is, as Jesus was in His time, a sign of contradiction.

As Jesus frequently does, He turns the tables on the Pharisees. If Jesus drives out demons by the power of demons, Satan’s divided house cannot stand for long. The Pharisees reveal that their own houses are divided if they make such claims. Their sons also cast out demons. Does Beelzebul also aid them? Jesus warns the Pharisees, “He who is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

We also are in a time when the forces of this world attempt to scatter rather than gather, even forces within our Church. In this uncertain time before the conclave, the forces of those who scatter will try their best to scatter us. We need to resist their efforts. Instead, we can gather with Christ. We are not deaf or mute. We can hear the Word, and we can share it with others. That is, after all, the mission of the laity: to make the Word present in the world in our words and deeds.

During this interregnum, it is good that we come together to celebrate this Eucharist, even when we can’t do so in its highest form, the Mass. The Eucharist is what draws us into communion with Jesus and each other, if we let its grace touch us. During this time of uncertainty, let us put our trust in Jesus’ promise, in the gift of His Body and Blood, and in His Divine mercy.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Danke, Papa. Auf Wiedersehen

IC asked us to share our favorite lines from Pope Benedict XVI. This is from his address to the College of Cardinals at the pro eligendo summo Pontifice prior to the last conclave. There's one phrase that sticks out (and I'm guessing everyone will recognize it), but I remember being struck by the beauty of the context in which it occurs. I was already a fan of Cardinal Ratzinger, but this homily exemplified just how different he was from the media's portrayal of him:
Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and “swept along by every wind of teaching”, looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today’s standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.
However, we have a different goal: the Son of God, true man. He is the measure of true humanism. Being an “Adult” means having a faith which does not follow the waves of today’s fashions or the latest novelties. A faith which is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ is adult and mature. It is this friendship which opens us up to all that is good and gives us the knowledge to judge true from false, and deceit from truth. We must become mature in this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith – only faith – which creates unity and takes form in love.
I have loved his books written before and after his elevation, particularly The Spirit of the Liturgy, Introductuion to Christianity, and Salt of the Earth, and of course, his three books on Jesus of Nazareth (the third of which I'm still reading). I will miss him greatly.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Rite of Election and an Added Blessing

Wednesday Evening was the Rite of Election for our deanery. I had just finished up sung vespers in the downstairs chapel (with a required video shoot for my homiletics training) and had to join the catechumen that I am sponsoring upstairs. We have 32 catechumens and candidates in our parish RCIA program. The largest parish in our deanery has somewhere close to 130! So we've got some good programs going in our area.

I am doing some short presentations this year—not the full sessions that I have done on scripture and revelation in the past. However, I'm happy to be involved in whatever way I can be. It's one of those ministries that is close to my heart.

I received an additional blessing by being there. As part of our diaconal formation, my class was requirered to attend a Marriage Encounter weekend. It was probably not quite fair for the other attendees as more than half of the couples were in formation. (We were told that we should not act like a club that weekend and to spend time with our spouse rather than our group.)

Anyway, there was one couple I noticed who did not seem to be doing well. The wife was particularly upset after one of the breakaway sessions, and they did not finish the weekend. I prayed for them at the time because they seemed so clearly unhappy. Every now and then, for some reason, that couple would come to mind, and I would say another prayer for them.

Flash forward to Wednesday evening.

I saw a woman and was trying to place her. She was a candidate, so probably either converting to the faith or finally getting confirmed. Then I remembered the couple, and I saw that her husband... the same... was there as well. Not only were they still together, but they are both coming fully into the Church this Easter Vigil. And they looked happy.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Reflection: The Sign of Jonah

Daily Readings: Jonah 3:1–10; Luke 11:29–32
This reflections was given in the context of sung vespers, so it is shorter than what you would normally here at daily mass.


Jesus calls the crowds that surround him an evil generation. They are evil for various reasons, but foremost because they demand to see a sign from Jesus to prove His authority. At this point in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has been in active ministry for some time healing the sick, casting out demons, even feeding thousands with a pittance—five loaves and two fishes. They demand to see a sign from Him who has given sign after sign. In this chapter, He has just cast out a demon that caused a man to be mute. Yet those Pharisees who witness the sign claim it is the work of a demon casting out another demon. How many more signs would such people need? We already know the answer. Jesus tells us later in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, where Father Abraham says to the rich man: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

The only sign Jesus says he will offer is the sign of Jonah. Jonah’s sign was to be swallowed up by a whale, only to emerge again three days later. And Jesus, crucified and dead, went into the belly of the Earth and emerged again three days later. Jesus will be a sign to this generation, greater than Jonah and greater than Solomon, but Jesus already knows that the hearts of the Pharisees are hardened and will not hear him. He is a sign of contradiction, and they contradict Him at every opportunity.
The people of Nineveh only needed to hear the words of Jonah to know that he spoke God’s truth, and they repented. The Queen of Sheba only had to hear Solomon’s words to know that he spoke with God’s wisdom, and she gave Solomon vast treasures. To the heart that is ready, the truth is always available, always accessible, and it calls us to return everything to the source of truth—God. These Pharisees were not ready, and their hearts were not open to the truth. They were blinded by pride to the point that they called good evil and evil good. So they rejected God incarnate and the obvious signs He gave to them.

So we find ourselves in today’s culture, where good is called evil and evil, good. Gluttony, lust, envy, and greed are celebrated in popular television, movies, and fiction. Selflessness, chastity, temperance, and true charity are derided as old fashioned. How can we hear the voice of truth in the noise of our twisted culture? And when we hear the truth, how do we recognize it for what it is? When we have been taught to value those things that pass away, how can we hear and accept the truth that leads us to what will not pass away?

We can start by paying close attention to the guide that Jesus gave us—our Mother the Church. It takes some effort these days to hear Her voice. Catholics used to grow up in somewhat self-contained communities, where a Catholic identity was encouraged and fostered, but that isn’t the case these days. We’ve spread out and mixed in, which in itself is not a bad thing. But we have also become too willing to allow ourselves to be defined by politicians, by the news media, and by popular trends. We have forgotten that the school of faith is our family, the community of saints, and that we learn virtue by studying virtuous lives. Is it any wonder that we mistake evil for good if we don’t study what is best in our Catholic tradition?

Next, we need to re-evaluate the things that we value. If we put more emphasis on what we own, what we wear, and what we eat than we do on how we treat others, we have missed the mark. We have lost track of what it means to be a Christian. We need to model our behavior on our Savior’s example. In this same gospel, He asks his disciples, “Why do you say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but not do what I say?” Why do we say “Lord, Lord,” and not follow His example?

Finally, we need to remember that nothing we have is gained solely by our own efforts. No good we do is done apart from the grace that God has given us. And no one of us is more esteemed in God’s eyes. We are all sinners and, with God’s grace, wanderers on a path seeking the truth. What we are now we see darkly, but then, face to face.