Sunday, November 09, 2014

The Body, the Temple: Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

Ezekiel 47:1–2, 8–9, 12; 1 Cor. 3:9c–11. 16–17; John2:13–22
            Today, we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica, the building that Constantine gave to the Roman Church and which has served as the Cathedral Church of Rome since that time. It might seem a bit odd to be celebrating a building, but our faith has always valued sacred space, just as our Jewish elder brothers did. Our readings today shed some light about why this might be the case.
            In the passage from Ezekiel, we hear that the waters flow out of the temple into the Arabah. The Arabah is what we these days call the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth and one of the saltiest bodies of water as well. Because of its salinity, not much can live it. Yet Ezekiel says that water will flow from the temple toward the Arabah and make it fresh and that the water gives life wherever it flows. So this temple is a font of living water. Compare that to Jesus' words in John 4 about living water welling up within us. Keep that verse in mind. The temple is both a source of purification and a source of life. These two qualities are linked. Often purification is necessary for life to take root.
            In the Gospel reading, Jesus gets righteously angry with the sellers in the temple. There's an internet meme that makes its way around Facebook these days. It says, "When someone asks you 'What would Jesus do?', remember that throwing tables and chasing people around with a whip is not out of the question."
            Canon Frasier just the other week explained that Jesus was responding to the fact that the vendors in the temple were selling their wares in the Court of the Gentiles, essentially denying the gentiles access to a place in the temple where they could worship. This was an injustice to the gentiles—denying them the grace of being permitted into the Lord's temple.
            We have those who today would inadvertently do the same to people who are less fortunate. One of the charges often leveled at the Church is that it possesses too much wealth. The remedy, it's claimed, is to sell all the art, architecture, and real estate of the Church  and distribute the proceeds to the poor. What people who adhere to this thinking fail to understand is that the beauty and riches of the Church belong to all—rich and poor alike. Where else can a homeless Catholic go to pray in this kind of beauty? Where can a poor man go to stand and worship his God in a place that aspires to heavenly glory? If the Church did such a thing, it would spiritually deprive the poor, who have the least materially. Wouldn't that be an injustice like the one posed by the vendors in the temple? This is what results from considering material wealth before spiritual. Latching on the former eventually leads us to the loss of the latter.
            Finally, Paul's first letter to the Corinthians associates the temple in Jerusalem to the human person. The body, he writes, is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and anyone who destroys this temple will answer to God. So looking back at the first reading and the Gospel, we can assert a number of things about this temple, the body. First, it is a source that should purify and give life to other things. What flows from this temple, from my mouth and yours, should be a source of life and a source of purification to others. Jesus confirms this truth in Matthew 15 when he says that it is not what goes into the mouth that corrupts but what comes out of the mouth.
            It is not what goes into the mouth that corrupts but what comes out of the mouth.
            Second, allowing material concerns to enter and take root in a place of holiness is unjust. That went for the temple in Jerusalem; it went for the Church during the time when some abused indulgences; and it goes for our times now when we allow the concerns of the world to push aside the concerns we should have for our spiritual well being and the well being of our loved ones. If we're more concerned about making soccer practice than observing a Holy Day of obligation, then our priorities are in the wrong place.
            As St. Paul says, the body is a temple, and as the two other readings note, temples have a particular sacred purpose. We have a moral tradition in the Church called Natural Law, and it is the basis for much of the moral reasoning that the Church proposes for your guidance. Note that I said "proposes" rather than "commands." That is because the Church can only propose what should be done. We have to choose what we will do. I don't see any cardinals or bishops following anyone around and preventing us from skipping Mass or from doing anything else we choose to do, so I think I can rest my case on that point.
            This notion of Natural Law says that we should use our bodies as they were designed, that we should look to our natural purpose to know how to act. When we fail to consider the natural purpose of our bodies, we suffer natural consequences. For example, we have an appetite that prompts us to eat when we need sustenance. The purpose of the appetite is to help us seek the nutrients our bodies need to survive and thrive. If we eat more than we need, we suffer natural consequences—weight gain, intestinal discomfort, or diabetes. If we ignore the appetite, we suffer natural consequences—weight loss, brittle bones, anemia, or other maladies. If we choose to indulge in things that satisfy our sense of taste but provide little sustenance or even contain things that are detrimental to our health, we suffer natural consequences—gout, alcoholism, and other chronic illnesses. The evidence is so obvious, but we humans are adept at looking past it.
            Our culture is in denial about Natural Law, but its effects are so painfully obvious. It is also safe to say that when we ignore Natural Law, we suffer both physical and spiritual consequences.
            In 1968, Blessed Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae, a much maligned but stunningly prophetic encyclical. In it, he outlined the natural consequences of separating sex from marriage and procreation. Let me go back to the language of Natural Law and point out that the sexual appetite has clear purpose: it is intended for emotional bonding and for producing children. It is obvious to everyone that sex has a biologically natural and intended result—children, which are a tremendous blessing. Sex also has the result of emotional bonding, which is naturally present to encourage couples to stay together to address the natural and good effects of their actions.
            These two purposes cannot be separated from each other without natural negative consequences But that is what happened in that era 50 years ago—sex was separated from its natural purpose, and what we have seen in the last 50 years is the natural consequence: devaluation of marriage and children, the treatment of people as objects, the debasement of sex, and the deterioration of the family, and more recently, the redefinition of marriage from its natural and almost universally accepted character. Most of these natural consequences were predicted in detail by Pope Paul's encyclical, and every prediction has come to fruition. In fact we've gone beyond what he predicted.

            Our bodies are our temples, and we will suffer if we don't treat them as such. We suffer the more when we allow the temple to be crowded by worldly concerns and forget the purpose for which the temple exists. But most of all, others will suffer because we are not sources of life. We are called to evangelization—to spread the good news of Christ. Remember the purpose of your body the temple: to be a spring that purifies and brings life to the dryness in the souls of others.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

True Mercy: All Souls Day

Wisdom 3:1–9; Romans 5:5–11; John 6:37–40

            I remember when I was about 10 years old, my family was out camping. My father had gone down to the river to do some fly fishing. At some point when he was casting, he managed to put the hook of the fly through his finger, and so he came back without any fish and with a fly embedded in his pinky.
            Now the fly was in his right hand, so there was not a lot he could do, so he handed me a pair of pliers with a wire cutter and instructed me to cut the barb off of the hook. I made some half-hearted attempts, and those, of course, hurt worse than if I just bucked up and cut the darn thing. Finally, I got up the spine to remove the barb, and he was able to remove the hook.
            When I look back on that event, what I see clearly now is that decisively dealing with a situation might cause some pain but is sometimes the only way that we can also deal with that situation with mercy. A lot of medical interventions hurt a lot more than the conditions they address, but they alleviate the problem in the end. So sometimes mercy comes with some necessary pain and discomfort.
            Today we are celebrating All Souls Day—the day that the Church sets aside for us to remember and pray for those who have died. Yesterday we celebrated those who have died and have lived such lives of holiness that the Church is certain of their attainment of Heaven. But those are a very small percentage of us. For the rest of us, we might have some final preparation before we enter into God's presence. For that reason, we pray for the souls of those who have left this world and are in the process of final preparation that we call Purgatory. Today is our special day for remembering and praying for our loved ones and others who may be in Purgatory. This is one of the seven corporal works of mercy that we as Catholics are called to perform.
            The perpetual teaching of the Church has always indicated that this process involves some suffering, if only because the process of healing is often uncomfortable or even painful. So it is sometimes an unpopular teaching, particularly outside of the Catholic faith. This is a shame, because this extension of God's mercy is looked at, instead, as a sign of His wrath and portrays God as being more interested in punishment than salvation.
            Even in the Church, it has become commonplace for us to speak of the departed as if they are immediately in the presence of God when they die. It's a lot easier to console our friends and loved ones by saying that the departed is in a better place, or is certainly "singing with the angels." But it is like the kind of mercy that I would have dispensed to my father if I had told him not to worry about that hook in his finger. It does not attend to the injury but distracts from it. In fact, it's not true mercy because mercy must always begin with and be rooted in truth. Mercy sometimes requires us to recognize and communicate the truths of our faith, and one of the truths of our faith—a dogma of our faith—is that those who are destined for Heaven but are not yet in a state of perfection, need to undergo the process of purification. And they need our prayers during that time. They need our intercession here so that they can be purified and can attain God's presence. We are not being merciful if we fail to intercede for them. We are not being merciful if we don't acknowledge that most of us... are not yet saints and will need all the help we can get.
            Now, Purgatory has gotten a bad reputation here in the American Catholic Church, and I think that it comes from our largely Protestant American history. We question why a merciful God would require this punitive process if Jesus' death canceled our debt of sin. But we have to balance that truth with the fact that nothing imperfect can enter into God's presence.
            Nothing imperfect can enter the presence of God. That is right out of Revelation 21. I certainly go to confession regularly, and I believe that I have been forgiven, but I am far from perfect. I suspect many of us are in the same boat. Being Catholic and being Christian means a lifetime of conversion daily, of changing more and more into that person who reflects perfectly the image of God. And that process occurs both now and in the afterlife, if we are not yet ready. We may very well limp into the afterlife with our baggage, our scars, and our woundedness... truly contrite but also still in need of cleansing.
            What would be God's merciful to response to us in our woundedness and imperfection? It would be to heal us, and that is precisely why God extends His mercy to us in Purgatory.
            Our readings today underscore one important truth. God will not let anyone go who truly wishes to be with Him. God's mercy and love extends to all, if only they recognize it and accept it. Isaiah writes that the souls of the just are in the hands of God, but that they may be chastised and proved as gold in a furnace, an image Paul also uses in 1 Corinthians. In our reading from the letter to the Romans, Paul points out that God went to all this trouble for us even while we were still sinners. A good man might find the courage to die for a just person, but even while we were sinners—while we were enemies of God—we were reconciled through the death of His Son.
            In our gospel reading, Jesus says, "I will not reject anyone who comes to me." Jesus has already done the heavy lifting. How much further would he need to go to prove that he will do everything He can to reconcile us to the Father? He did that (pointing at the crucifix) quite literally for Heaven's sake and for ours. Jesus came to heal us, and He gives us every opportunity before and after death to make that happen. Purgatory is just one more sign of His love for us, and it is also one more reason for us to pray for each other, both here and in the life to come. We pray for those in Purgatory, and they, in turn, will pray for us. That is how the Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints are supposed to cooperate.
            In the coming month, we can put our faith into practice in a remarkable way—by remembering our deceased loved ones in prayer and doing our part to help them in Purgatory. Here are a few ways we can accomplish this.
            We have a book up here on the altar for the entire month of November, where you can list your deceased relatives and friends. Please put their names in the book. As a parish, we will remember them in prayer. You also can remember them daily in your prayers and offer prayers for all souls in Purgatory, especially those most in need of God's mercy.
            Next, you can take advantage of any indulgences that are available for the remission of temporal punishment. Despite the bad reputation indulgences got during the Reformation, they are another sign of God's mercy that he gives to the Church. By performing certain acts, the Church dispenses grace that aids us by releasing us from temporal penalties. We can offer our actions for the remission of penalties to souls in Purgatory. That has always been the point of indulgences—to seek assistance for someone else.
            Finally, consider requesting a Mass for your loved ones. We offer prayer requests for the deceased at most masses. You can contact the parish office to make such requests.

            We are all part of the Body of Christ in this world and the next. Let us pray for the souls making their final journey into God's presence, and they will pray for us.