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.

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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.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Reflection: God is Love

This reflection addresses the readngs for Wednesday after the Feast of Epiphany: 1 John 4:11–18; Mark 6:45–52. It's another short reflection delivered in the context of sung vespers.
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Our readings today touch on two of the theological virtues: faith and love (also called caritas or charity in classic texts). Many scripture scholars believe that the author of 1 John is also the author of the Gospel of John, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find themes from the gospel in this letter—in particular, the theme of love. He makes two points that are important to remember.

First, God loves us, so we should love each other, or as Jesus said of the second greatest commandment, we should love our neighbors as ourselves, or as He said in the Sermons in Matthew and Luke that we should love our enemies and pray for their good. If we do not, how can we claim to love God? Dorothy Day, an American Catholic and a possible candidate for sainthood said once that we love God only as much as the person we love the least. So we must go further than merely tolerating others. We have to love them. We don’t have to love what they do—especially if it involves sin, but we have to love the person as Jesus commanded.

Second, John says that there is no fear in love and that perfect love drives out fear. Now, what does this mean? It’s a bit cryptic. What do love and fear have to do with each other? Well, those of you with more experience know that love often means making yourself open to being hurt by the one whom you love. Perfect love is complete giving of self to someone else. Jesus did this, and look at how we repaid Him? We crucified Him! Yet He gave Himself completely.

And that brings us to the second virtue of faith. If faith means trusting that God loves and cares for us, fear shows a lack of faith in God’s love for us. The reading from the Gospel of Mark exemplifies the effect of fear on those whose faith is not yet complete. Jesus means to pass by the disciples who are crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat. He’s walking on the water, and a wind is blowing against the disciples who are rowing. They see Him, and they are terrified. This is their response to perfect love. “It’s not Jesus but a ghost!” they think, but then He says, “Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.” He gets into the boat, and the wind stops. Yet, Mark tells us that their hearts were hardened. They don’t understand that only God could feed the multitudes, and only God—perfect Love—could still the winds.

They can’t see Jesus for who He is, and so they fear Him who is Love. If we are all made in the image and likeness of God, doesn’t that also mean that somewhere in each one of us is a reflection of God as Love? Sometimes it is difficult to see, and we fear because we look at the exteriors: the teacher who seems to always be yelling; the boss who criticizes our efforts; the homeless person with the sign on the corner. But look through the eyes of faith with a heart of love, and maybe you will see some reflection, some small glimmer of that love looking back.

Reflection: Stewardship

This reflection is based on the readings for Wednesday in the 29th week in Ordinary Time, cycle 2: Ephesians 3:2–12; Luke 12:39–48. Because I gave this in the context of vespers, I kept it shorter than I would for a mass or communion service.

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I’m a father of one and stepfather of four. As a parent, I have come to know my children’s strengths well. I can tell when my daughter is not making the most of her gifts. I can see when she doesn’t give 100% or even 20%. Of course, I have to encourage her as I am able and help her to learn the value of using her gifts to the best of her abilities.

Of course, as a person
—as a father and husband
a business professional
an amateur musician

I often get a glimpse of when I don’t make the most of my abilities and opportunities. I fall down as a father and husband all the time. So when my daughter fails to do the most with her talents, I can understand because I’ve been there: sometimes too lazy to give my best, but often, I’m just tired.

In the “Letter to the Ephesians,” Paul acknowledges the people’s recognition of his “stewardship of God’s grace” that has been given to him through God’s revelation. Remember that Paul didn’t experience Jesus in the same way as the other Apostles. Christ revealed Himself and the Gospel to Paul directly and in dramatic fashion while Paul was still Saul, a persecutor of Christians. But Paul does not boast in it. “Woe to me if I do not preach it!” he says in 1 Corinthians. He recognized that this stewardship of revelation was given to him for the benefit of those to whom he preached. A steward is not an owner or possessor. He has been given something to tend on behalf of and for the sake of others. Grace likewise can’t be owned by us, but is given to us by God—a pure gift, and something that must be passed on to others.

In the gospel reading, Jesus warns his apostles to be prepared for His return, and he tells them the story of the unworthy steward: one who squanders his position and abuses the privilege he has been given. Instead of distributing the food to the household, he gets drunk and beats the other servants. Notice here that a servant who is given power is abusing it and beating his fellow servants. When the master shows up again, he’ll be treated in accordance with his actions. A good steward will earn reward; a bad steward, a beating.

Of course, Jesus is speaking to the Apostles, those to whom He entrusted His Church, and the Church has had good and bad stewards throughout the centuries. Both Divine and human, the Church has suffered its share of drunken stewards, but also its worthy shepherds and servants, most of whom serve in anonymity.

God has given each one of us talents. Some talents are dramatic and noticeable: a talent at art, academics, or sport. Others we may not recognize as talents: hospitality, administration, or humble service. We must remember that these talents are gifts. We did not earn them, and ultimately, they don’t belong to us, nor are they meant solely for our personal enrichment. We are all stewards of the talents given to us by God. We must use them to lift up each other and to do the work of God and the Church.

Homilectics Assignment 1: Bread of Life

For our last year of study, we have been working and reading on homiletics. We've presented one to our classmates, and I have been giving reflections on the readings when I act as precentor at sung vespers. I'm going to post the ones I've delivered so far, and will post others after I deliver them. This one was my first. It was based on the readings from August 12, 2012 (19th Sunday in Ordinary Time): 1 Kings 19:4–8; Ephesians 4:30–5:2; John 6:41–51.

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If you watch any television at all, you might be familiar with a series of commercials for the Snickers candy bar. One that I find amusing is with Joe Pesci, who’s at a party with a younger man, and they’re talking with a couple of young ladies. One looks away at another man walking by, and Joe Pesci takes offense. He makes some harsh comments.

“What, we’re not good enough for ya? Are you supermodels or something?”

His friend drags him into the kitchen as says, “Brad, chill out. Eat a Snickers. You get a little angry when you’re hungry.”

The tag line is “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”

Joe eats the Snickers, and moments later, he’s a decent-looking 20-something guy again. I only wish a candy bar had that kind of power in my experience.

I know that I get a bit cranky when my blood sugar is down. I’m not myself either, although if I turned into Joe Pesci that might be an improvement. I get a bit whiny, maybe even a bit belligerent—definitely not obedient and not good prophet material.

In today’s reading from the Old Testament, Elijah isn’t really acting like himself either. He’s just wiped out all of Queen Jezebel’s false prophets, and she plans to kill him for it, so he’s on the run. Exhausted, he plops himself down by a broom tree—which is a kind of shrub—and he asks God to take his life from him.

He’s weary. He’s whiny. He seems defeated.

In actuality, it’s not physical exhaustion that troubles him. It’s that he cannot bear to see the idolatry and lack of faith in the People of Israel. He is exasperated with their faithlessness, and he can’t find a way to restore his own faith in his calling. And so he falls asleep there in the shade of the shrub hoping that he doesn’t have to wake up again.

But God is not finished with him. The Lord sends an angel, a divine messenger, who wakes Elijah and prompts him twice to eat from a hearth cake and drink from a jug of water that are there when he wakes. Then Elijah gets up and walks forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. That’s some hearth cake—don’t you wish you could just pop into 7-11 and grab a 960-hour Energy Cake?

More seriously, scripture scholars will tell you that this heart cake points to or is a figure of the Eucharist—what St. Jerome called our superstantial bread... epiousion—the same Greek word used in the Lord’s Prayer for our daily bread. To Jerome, this means that it is more than what we need to sustain ourselves for a day or even a lifetime. It is the source of our eternal life.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus has just called Himself “the bread that came down from heaven,” and the Jews murmur against Jesus, saying, “How can he say ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
“Stop murmuring among yourselves,” He responds. He’s not exactly trying to be gentle or cautious. Then He says something next that really blows their minds. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Those are bold words, and we know from the rest of the passage that it was too much for many of His followers to take. They couldn’t accept this hard saying, which they understood quite literally. And make no mistake about it: Jesus wasn’t speaking figuratively or symbolically. He meant what he said.
They couldn’t accept his words, which means that they couldn’t accept the Word, Christ Himself. They would not let themselves be nourished so that they could run the race as to finish, as St. Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians.

We need to be fed.

We need to be fed spiritually to sustain ourselves when our faith wanes or when we become weary of witnessing to the truth.

We need to be fed—not just on hearth cake and water, which was substantial enough for Elijah. We need to be fed on the Word Himself, Jesus Christ, the living bread. Elijah’s hearth cake enabled him to walk for forty days through a desert. What, then, could we do after being fed on Christ’s Body and Blood? What do we do now when we come to the supper of the Lamb? Do we come to fill ourselves up with Christ, or do we simply come to engage in a nice communal ritual that really doesn’t mean much after we walk out those doors? What is the point of having this living bread if it doesn’t inform and transform our lives?

In a few minutes, we are going to come to the supper of the Lamb—not just to eat the Lamb’s supper, but to eat of the Lamb Himself. Paul says in the Letter to the Ephesians that we are not to grieve the Holy Spirit; that we need to be cleansed of bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and malice; that we must be kind, compassionate, and forgiving—imitators of Christ. We are to be what we have eaten—and not just here and now but out there in the world. We need to be bread to the world, to take the Bread of Life in word and deed to others.

To take the Bread of Life in word and deed doesn’t mean, as James says, just to tell the poor to be warm and be fed

It means that we are to feed them
and to clothe them
and to pray for them
and sometimes to correct them

Guess what? We aren’t just to do this for our friends, but even for those who don’t like us much
and those we don’t like much.

Especially for them.

The Living Bread gives us life. And we can squander it here, or we can take it out into the world and be Christ’s hands and feet.

Which do you plan to do?