Fourth Sunday of Advent/Christmas Eve
Here is a link to this week’s readings
As we enter the Christmas season, many of us think about family. For some, this brings warm feelings of comfort, peace, and joy. For others, the thought of family brings heartache, either because of loss of loved ones, which becomes poignant this time of year, or because of longing for a loving family that we have not genuinely experienced. There are also those who have families that don’t match the Church and society’s ideal, or who feel hurt by prejudice or the lack of recognition: blended families, interracial families, families headed by gay parents, families headed by grandparents, single-parent families, families affected by divorce, etc.
People often say things like, “Blood is thicker than water,” “Family first,” and “Family above all.” Although well-meaning, these expressions can represent an unhealthy “cult of the family” that turns family itself into an idol. If, for example, these sayings indicate an insular understanding of family, then they stray from the Church’s teaching. Family, to the Church, should be the great symbol of God’s family. It should lead us not inward, into seclusion from the world and narcissistic tribalism, but outwards into the family of God.
Pope St. John XXIII said “the family is the first essential cell of human society.” No cell in a human body exists for itself; it exists for the good of the body. Likewise, the Second Vatican Council called the family the “domestic Church,” (Lumen Gentium #11) and, like the Church universal, it cannot be self-referential, concerned only about itself and looking out only for its own best interests. It must have an ad extra orientation—a recognition that it has received blessings in order to share them, and a commitment to the common good. The family, as the domestic Church, is inherently evangelical. It exists to bring the Good News of salvation and mercy into a world that desperately needs to hear this message of hope, the Christmas message.
In the Gospels, we see that Jesus rejected the “cult of the family.” He challenged it, sometimes shockingly so. For example, when his own mother, the “handmaid of the Lord who was “full of grace,” arrived with other family members to speak with Jesus, he said, “‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.’” (Matthew 12:48-50). It’s not the only time he surprises us with his views on family. Faithfulness to Jesus, he himself said, would lead to a situation where “Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death” (Matthew 10:21). Loyalty to Jesus is clearly more important than loyalty to family in his teaching: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Blood is not thicker than water. It is not family above all. This is why Jesus said, “…if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?” (Matthew 5:46-7). He teaches us to think of all God’s creation as family, “the bad and the good” alike (Matthew 5:45), and to call God “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9).
The reading today from Second Samuel says that David’s descendent, the Messiah, will himself have God as a Father: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.” The Psalmist echoes this theme: “He shall say of me, ‘You are my father, my God, the Rock, my savior.’” St. Paul begins his writing with words we are so familiar with that we easily overlook their significance: “Brothers and sisters…” Taken together, these serve as a reminder that our relationship with God and one another is always in Christ Jesus. Every human family imperfectly symbolizes and points toward this perfect relationship between the Father and the Son, in which we share by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love and unity. In other words, family points to God’s family, which, in turn, points to the inner life of the Trinity.
As we remember and celebrate the Holy Family of Bethlehem and Nazareth—itself an unconventional family by any estimation!—we remember that individual families exist for the good of the whole human family and are meant to draw us into the life of love that is the Trinity. Whether family brings us comfort, or pain and loss, or longing during this season especially, the Christian approach is to turn our gaze outwards, and to see sisters and brothers everywhere, all children of the same Father. The beautiful Christ child will ultimately shed his blood for this family out of faithfulness and love for the Father and for us. This blood is our salvation. This Precious Blood alone is thicker than water.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
Third Sunday of Advent
Here is a link to this week’s readings.
At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, he opened the scroll in the synagogue to the passage from Isaiah that we hear today in the first reading:
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.”
Luke reports slightly different words (cf. Luke 4:18-19), but the passage is the same. Jesus claimed, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21), which caused his own local people to become indignant and angry. Jesus responded with his famous saying, “Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place” (Luke 4:24). This infuriated the people even more, so much that they intended to kill Jesus: “When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away” (Luke 4:28-30).
Do you think Jesus would be treated any better today? Let’s reimagine the passage with an internal dialogue added in. I think we might recognize that Jesus’ words are just as radical now as they were then. We might be provoked to kill him too! If we don’t recognize that, then we are either blinded to our own sin, individual and social, or we have not taken the radical nature of his words seriously. We have domesticated Jesus. For, the Jesus of the Gospels threatens the social order that makes us feel safe and secure; he threatens our sense of justice; he threatens our sense of who’s in and who’s out. There is a reason he got crucified. It wasn’t because he was always just so nice, making everyone feel good and never rocking the boat! He challenged—and continues to challenge—the social order with the values of the Kingdom of God.
So here’s the internal dialogue for our reflection on this third Sunday of Advent. I’ll use both Isaiah and Luke:
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me”—Indeed, You are the Son of God!
“because the LORD has anointed me”—Yes, the Christ (So glad I’m not a Jew or a Muslim).
“he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor”—Well the poor are poor because they are lazy, have broken homes, and don’t value education, so let’s not get carried away; and don’t forget the rich and the middle class with Your glad tidings. We earned it after all!
“to heal the brokenhearted”—Yeah, I’m good with that, just not those whose hearts are broken by deportation and having their families split up, or whose hearts are broken by racist violence, or whose hearts are broken by being driven from their own native land.
“to proclaim liberty to the captives”—Let’s not get carried away. They got what they deserve.
“and recovery of sight to the blind”—CONSERVATIVE!! I’ll follow science not your faith healings, thank you very much.
“and release to the prisoners”—LIBERAL!!
“and to let the oppressed go free”—Oh, here we go about “the oppressed!!” Everyone’s a victim nowadays and I’m to blame, right?
“to announce a year of favor from the LORD”—Yes, finally, God favors US!!
“and a day of vindication by our God”—Now we’re talking, smite THEM, Lord!!
“I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian”—Wait, wait, wait!! Charity begins at home. Us first! There is no salvation outside our faith community!! Heretic!! Kill this man!!
As we approach Christmas, it is important to remember why this baby’s life was threatened right from the start. The Kingdom of God threatens every other kingdom, political party, government, and ideology. St. Ignatius of Loyola said there are only two standards, or flags; and ALL our loyalty must be with either Jesus and His Kingdom or with the powers of this world.
Second Sunday of Advent
At a conference recently, I brought an acorn along with me and kept it in my pocket. When the appropriate point in the talk arrived, I took out the acorn and reminded the audience of one of my favorite sayings: “There are two ways to get to the top of an oak tree: climb to the top, or sit on an acorn and wait.” To me it always suggests that we have work to do. Sitting around and waiting doesn’t make much sense.
Advent, of course, is a time of waiting: “…we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.” In the past, I have written about this theme, remembering that the word patience comes from patior, meaning to suffer. We endure the period of waiting with faith and with a firm anchor in hope, because love demands it, and love is worth the wait!
Still, Advent is more than just sitting on an acorn. There is some climbing to do! For us, though, it is not an oak tree but a mountain we must climb:
“Go up on to a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him.”
We are climbing that holy mountain so that like John the Baptist we might “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” For as surely as Christ came as a helpless little baby in Bethlehem, so too will He surely come as the All Powerful King and Judge. The Church is the “herald of glad tidings” and the “herald of good news!” The very nature of the Church is to proclaim the Gospel, the Good News, to all creation until Christ comes again. This is why Pope Francis has so clearly reminded us that as Christians we are “missionary disciples.”
Most of us, I imagine, focus more on the “disciples” part of that equation. We are familiar with the demands of discipleship, even if we fail to live up to them. We recognize the need to grow in virtue and to deepen our prayer lives and our commitment to the works of mercy. “God must be served first,” St. Joan of Arc said, and we agree, though we struggle with sin and temptation.
Still, we have that “missionary” part of the equation that Pope Francis wants us to take seriously. We are the Church, the “herald of glad tidings” and the “herald of good news!” Last week, we focused on God’s pedagogy of incrementally preparing us for Christ and the Kingdom through gradual Divine Revelation. This week, perhaps we can think about ways to adopt that same teaching technique in our attempts to evangelize. I am sure you have ideas and experiences of your own for doing this. For what they are worth, here are three of mine:
First, we should remember that the focus is “joy” and “good news.” The Peter Maurin character, played by Martin Sheen, in the 1996 movie about Dorothy Day Entertaining Angels says it well: “We must be announcers, not denouncers!” Second, the pope calls us to “accompany” people on the journey, smelling like the sheep, embodying God’s unconditional love in all the messiness of life and in all the brokenness of the human situation. Accompaniment, though, involves sacrifice of time and emotional energy. It means witnessing to love even when we may not be loved in return. After all, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Third, as we accompany people, let’s not expect that people get it all at once, or that their salvation depends on our depositing the entire treasury of Catholicism into their lives in one fell swoop! In the words of the religious education scholar Tom Groome, “It is better to bring people along than to turn them away.”
It’s already the Second Week of Advent… and this year there are only three (the Fourth Sunday is Christmas Eve). It’s time to start climbing the oak tree, “the rooftops” (Matt. 10:27), and “the high mountain” to prepare the world for coming of the King! There’s work to do. We can’t just sit and wait passively. We are not just disciples; we are missionary disciples! It’s time to get off our acorns.
First Sunday of Advent
Several years ago, when I was teaching middle school math, I learned an important lesson about curriculum. There are larger goals and objectives that may not be immediately obvious in any given lesson. For example, when learning about fractions, a student may solve a problem by converting the fraction to a decimal and then performing the required computation. Although fraction-to-decimal conversion is an important skill, it may not be the point of the lesson. A math teacher may ask the student to correct their work by demonstrating knowledge of working with fractions as opposed to decimals. Occasionally, a parent gets upset about this, arguing that the student reached the correct answer and shouldn’t be required to do the work over. It takes patience to explain that in the big picture of the curriculum we are not concerned right now about computing the correct answer so much as demonstrating knowledge about working with fractions. This skill will become critical when students begin working with algebraic equations involving fractions. In those classes, they will no longer be able to convert the fraction to a decimal because the fractions involve variables and not just integers. In short, getting the right answer now with the wrong skill set will end up hurting them later on.
In educational theory, we often talk about scaffolding—a process of helping students to develop in knowledge and skill over time by gradually introducing them to new challenges as they are ready. When they become secure in a new skill, we remove the scaffolding, so to speak, and build upwards, allowing for incremental growth.
Advent gives us an opportunity to reflect on what the bishops, in the General Directory for Catechesis, call “the pedagogy of God.” Like the classroom teacher, God, it seems, takes time to prepare us for each new stage of growth and revelation. God promised a Savior at the very beginning of Creation, immediately after the original sin. We call Genesis 3:15 the protoevangelion, or first Gospel, because it contains this promise of redemption. Yet, Advent reminds us that thousands of years passed before Christ was born. The Incarnation would be an astounding event, and it would require that we be prepared for it. God did not “delay,” but instead began immediately to ready us for the Redeemer.
In today’s reading we hear Isaiah ask, “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” St. Paul’s answer, reflecting on the long period of time leading up to Christ, was to recognize God’s pedagogy. God gave us the law, in part, to help us to see how desperate for a Savior we were. We could not save ourselves. We could not be righteous, fully obedient to God’s will, even when it was spelled out for us in the law. And so Paul wrote, “the law was our disciplinarian for Christ” (Gal. 3:34). Everything that came before was preparing us for Christ, including the law and God’s willingness to “let us wander.” As we await the Second Coming, it may seem again that God is delaying, but this, too, is the pedagogy of God. St. Peter spoke about it this way: “The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
With God, the pedagogy is Divine Revelation over time, incrementally forming a people ready for the Redeemer and prepared for the Kingdom of God. In some sense, this learning process will go on forever. Even in Heaven, we will not be capable of grasping fully the immensity and glory of God. Instead we might imagine ongoing revelation of the depth of the mystery of God, a revelation that never ends, an eternal sharing of God’s self with us, a spring that never runs dry (cf. Is. 58:11). Each new unveiling fills us anew with wonder and awe, and evokes the depths of love that are the proper response to a God who is Love (1 John 4:8). Heaven will be anything but static and boring. It will be the very essence of loving dynamism. We will be caught up in Love itself, ever new, ever exciting, ever creative, ever faithful and true, ever beautiful, ever good, and ever worthy of praise and thanksgiving!
Learning, especially when it is learning about someone we love, is life-giving and exhilarating, isn’t it? We always want to know more. We always want a deeper intimacy. With God, as the mystics teach us, we have already begun this eternal joy and ecstasy of learning about our Beloved, of falling deeply in love. “Because Christ is the Way,” said St. Catherine of Siena, “all the way to Heaven is Heaven!”
Sunday, November 26, 2017
The Solemnity of Christ the King
Today is the Solemnity of Christ the King. Our Gospel reading is taken from Matthew 25, where Jesus describes the Last Judgment, a scene that many artists have rendered over the years, most famously Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Our own age, though, may need to reflect on Matthew 25 anew. In the age of social media, the scene changes. I offer my worried, exaggerated interpretation below.
When I was hungry, you thought about the surprised and the angry emojis, but settled on the sad emoji. When I was thirsty, you commented that you were praying for me. When I was naked, you didn’t report me for inappropriate content. When I was sick or in prison, you were one of my 5 friends who copied and pasted my status. And when I was a stranger, you accepted my friend request.
When I was hungry, you took my picture and posted it with an appropriate social justice quotation from Gandhi. When I was thirsty, you added me to your story. When I was naked, you covered me with a location indicator and an embarrassed emoji. When I was sick, you came up with the best hashtags. And when I was a stranger, you got me over a hundred likes.
When I was hungry, you tweeted about it. When I was thirsty, you tweeted about it. When I was naked, you tweeted about it. When I was sick, you tweeted about it. When I was in prison, you tweeted about it. And when I was a stranger, you retweeted from someone else’s account.
Of course, there is still the world outside of social media (although the lines are blurring). So let’s look at one last contortion of Matthew 25.
When I was hungry, you zoned me out of view. When I was thirsty, you stole my water and bottled it for profit. When I was naked, you arrested me. When I was sick, you made healthcare too expensive for me. When I was in prison, you dehumanized and forgot about me. And when I was a stranger, you scapegoated me.
These caricatures of social media, politics, and corporate culture are hyperbole and satire, of course. Social media, for instance, can and has been used to generate genuinely caring responses that bring direct relief to victims of disasters, illnesses, and the like; and many business people operate with concern for the common good. But is there an element of truth in the caricatures? Have we become so accustomed to responding in virtual space or with political and market ideologies that we have grown weak in our basic human ability to see the personal need right in front of us and to care? Have we felt powerless to do much more than to click on a sad emoji?
Akin to our social media responses that lack real human contact and genuine care, St. James admonished the first Christians (and us), saying, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15-17). It is not enough to comment that we are praying for someone. We must also find ways to act. In the words of the African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet.”
The Last Judgment scene as Jesus described it is full of (or neglectful of) genuine human interaction and caring:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.”
Our job as Christians is to evangelize our culture and to convert our own lives, by God’s grace, so that all the tools and technologies of our society (social, print, and broadcast media; internet; political, educational, and business institutions; etc.) are employed in nurturing human relationships and caring for basic human needs. In short, we have become much more aware of all the suffering in the world because of technology, but unless we find ways to humanly act, we are not yet ready for the final judgment.
Sunday, November 19, 2017
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
The weather in Massachusetts has been unseasonably warm this fall, and so it was perfect for a boat ride with a friend last month, even though it was a mid-October Sunday evening. In fact, this is a great time to be on the water, since the foliage is beautiful. But something strange happened while we were out on the lake, watching the sunset. I noticed several figures dressed in black in my friend’s yard. “Who’s at your house?” I asked her. “Nobody should be there,” she said with anxiety. “Well, it looks like there are a bunch of ninjas in your yard!” There were several strange men, all dressed in black as if they were part of a bank heist. I immediately put the motor full throttle and headed towards the house. The men, it turned out, were wearing black wet suits because they were hired to take her dock out of the water. Luckily, we arrived at the shore before they disappeared, and although they were unable to reassemble the dock, they did help tie down the boat so that it wouldn’t drift off during the (very windy!) night.
This incident gives me a new perspective on Paul’s words that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.” Concerning the dock removal, any reputable company would have called the house first and made an appointment. They certainly wouldn’t show up on a Sunday evening without any warning and remove the dock while the customer was still out on the water! They came like thieves (and they looked like thieves too!) and we were entirely unprepared for their arrival. (Needless to say, my friend ended her business with them. The Lord might arrive unannounced, but the guys in wetsuits had better make an appointment!)
The interesting thing about the men who came to remove the dock is not that we didn’t expect them, but that we didn’t recognize them. In fact, if they had made an appointment, then we would have recognized who they were precisely because we expected them. All this makes me think about Christ’s second coming a bit differently. Perhaps the point of an unexpected arrival has to do with recognition. If we knew when Christ would come again, we would expect him and would surely recognize him. Not knowing when he is coming, though, makes it less likely that we will recognize him in this superficial way. We will have to know him deeply in order to recognize him.
Here is another way of thinking about it. When I travel, I send for an Uber or a Lyft, and a driver whom I don’t know is dispatched to me. Yet, because I expect him/her and they expect me, we recognize each other. I know this is my ride. They know I am the customer. With Jesus, we do not have an appointed time and place. We won’t be able to get by with such a cursory and impersonal knowledge of him. Only those who really know him will recognize him. “I know my sheep,” he said, “and my sheep know me” (cf. John 10:14).
This gives us a different sense of how to be prepared for his coming. Instead of thinking, “Have I been good?” or “Have I been bad?” (the Santa Claus questions, I like to call them), we might begin to examine our consciences this way: Do I really know Jesus? Am I getting to know him better through prayer and the sacraments? Am I becoming familiar with him through Scripture, especially the Gospels? And, perhaps most of all, do I recognize him in the people around me?
What if Jesus comes back and looks nothing like our statues, paintings, and holy cards? Will we recognize him? Will we recognize him in his “most distressing disguise,” as St. Teresa of Calcutta referred to his presence in the poor and rejected? Colin Raye asked in a song, “What If Jesus Comes Back Like That?” where he imagines Jesus returning as a homeless person or a crack baby. He asks, “will we let him in or turn our back?”
When Jesus comes as a thief in the night, we won’t be expecting him. Perhaps that doesn’t refer to timing at all. Maybe it refers to recognition. If Jesus comes back as that panhandler whom we ignore and try to avoid, we won’t be expecting him that way, so will we recognize him? If he comes back as that family member we no longer talk to, will we recognize him? If he comes back as that boss or that ex whom we can’t forgive, will we recognize him? Picture your worst enemy or the person you look down on the most. If you and I are not learning to acknowledge and love that person, to see Christ in that person, then we might not recognize Christ when he returns!
Theologian Johann Baptist Metz refers to the “apocalyptic goad” of these end-of-time Scripture passages. They should give us a jolt towards greater conversion. In other words, we had better learn to love more completely, so that we don’t completely miss Love when He comes again.
Sunday, November 12, 2017
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
As a ninth grader, I encountered the story of Romeo and Juliet for the first time. Of course, I had heard the names Romeo and Juliet applied to teenage couples caught up in the romance of young love, and so I was prepared for a love story. I had no idea how tragic the story would become. My tender teenage heart was traumatized! I still think of Romeo and Juliet not as a tragedy, but as a love story gone tragically wrong.
I prefer the story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) called “How the Brigadier Saved the Army.” In that story, the French Colonel Etienne Gerard accepted a mission after other junior soldiers failed—being captured, tortured, and killed by Portuguese militia. The mission demanded going through the dangerous territory where the Portuguese were positioned in order to get to the high ground and light a beacon at midnight, which would signal to the French army to retreat. Without this signal, a contingent of French soldiers would be left surrounded by the enemy and helpless.
The story describes the great adventure that ensues as Gerard made his way to the mountain peak. At last, though, like the aides-de-camp before him, he is captured. He is brought to the chief of the Portuguese militia, a man known as Manuelo “The Smiler,” whose cruelty was known and struck fear into the French and English armies alike. The meeting, it turned out, took place on the very mountaintop where the colonel was supposed to light the beacon. The Portuguese had already claimed the high ground. Manuelo sentenced Gerard to death, and with his death, the French army itself would fall. Thus, Gerard bargained with Manuelo, asking that he at very least be allowed, as a sign of respect towards an officer, to choose how he would die. Manuelo agreed, and so Gerard requested that he be burned at the stake. Thus, by his death, the signal fire was lighted on the mountaintop and the French army escaped destruction.
What is the difference between the two stories? In Romeo and Juliet, a love story goes tragically wrong; but why? The plan seemed perfect: Juliet would take a potion that made its seem like she was dead, but which would wear off and allow her a new life, one in which she and Romeo would live happily ever after. It was supposed to be a story of resurrection and new life! She sent a messenger to get the word to Romeo, but the messenger failed. Romeo thus found Juliet and thought she was dead. Grief-stricken, he took his own life, only to have Juliet do the same when she awoke from her slumber and found him dead. The love story went tragically wrong for only one reason: the messenger failed!
In contrast, the Brigadier saved the army and prevented a tragedy precisely because he got the message through. Even at the cost of self-sacrifice—a willingness to give his own life out of love for others—he made sure the fire was ignited on the mountaintop that would alert the French army to the danger and allow them to escape. When the messenger succeeds, the story shifts from being a tragedy to being a heroic tale of unselfish love.
This is the Christian mission. Even at great cost, perhaps even martyrdom, we are entrusted with Good News that absolutely must be delivered to the world. Saint Paul, one of the first great messengers, wrote to the Thessalonians, “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Yes, hope!! That is what we bring to a desperate world. God does not intend that the love story should go tragically wrong; yet, God does entrust a lot, like the story of Romeo and Juliet, to the messenger. How well are you getting that message out there? How am I doing? Are we willing to risk it all so that the fire on the mountain gets ignited? There is no time to waste. Jesus warns us, “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In the time that we have left, before midnight approaches, we must get that fire kindled in the world, even if the fuel is—as it very often is—the very wood of the cross.
Sunday, November 5, 2017
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
There is an insightful Peanuts comic strip in which Charlie Brown says to Snoopy, “I hear you’re writing a book on theology. I hope you have a good title.” Snoopy thinks to himself, “I have the perfect title…” and then begins typing, “Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?” It is an important reminder that a fundamental virtue, in imitation of Christ, is humility. Theology, because it dares to make claims of an ultimate nature, is particularly susceptible to the dangers of pride. We do well to make the words of the Psalmist our own: “O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty; I busy not myself with great things, nor with things too sublime for me.” God will always be more than our theology, our doctrine, and our human understanding can comprehend or express.
The most recent iteration of the dangers of certitude involve the development of doctrine that has taken place concerning the death penalty. Many Christians, including the last number of popes, have come to see capital punishment as incompatible with a consistent ethic of life. A pro-life Church, in other words, simply cannot uphold the death penalty as legitimate. On October 11th, Pope Francis indicated that changes will have to be made to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) to reflect this development of doctrine. Currently the CCC teaches that capital punishment may be employed only as a last resort, when there are no other means to protect human lives—a situation that the CCC also considers to be “very rare, if not practically nonexistent” in today’s world (#2267). Pope Francis has moved us beyond even this carefully delineated construction, saying, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person” and that it “…is, of itself, contrary to the Gospel…” The death penalty is morally wrong, in other words, not simply because we have other ways of protecting ourselves, but because it is intrinsically evil: “of itself, contrary to the Gospel.”
To those who like to believe, against all the evidence of history, that Church teaching never changes, this change comes as a challenge. It is clearly a 180° turn from the position the Church once held when it, in fact, employed the death penalty. It takes humility to acknowledge that, as Snoopy said, we “might be wrong,” and to allow the Spirit to lead us to a more authentic Christian place. In this particular case, the rub is especially strong because the theological case for the death penalty makes perfect sense within a Thomistic philosophical system. Our philosophical systems, though, are not the Word of God. They are human constructs, and are susceptible to fallibility. St. Thomas, as brilliant as he was, made mistakes (consider, for example, his understanding of women as deficient human persons and therefore lesser than men).
The overwhelming sense of the faithful, it seems, as well as the papal magisterium have been moved by the Spirit to a deeper understanding of the implications of the Gospel. It makes sense that a Church which follows a man who was unjustly executed by Roman authorities should have problems with the death penalty. A Gospel of Life, as Pope St. John Paul II called it, simply cannot make room for executions. While this may upset those who cling to the logic of a particular philosophical system, we must remember that the Gospel is “not a human word but… the word of God.”
Pride in our own logical and philosophical systems could harden our hearts and make us hold on with certainty to things that the Spirit is moving us to let go. Doctrine is always at the service of Truth; but it must never be seen as synonymous with Truth. Humility is the prevailing virtue here. Only in humility can we let go of human formulations that no longer serve Christ, or which never served Christ, who alone is the Truth, and against whose Gospel all doctrine must be measured. Doctrine is a servant, not a master: “You have but one master, the Christ.”
Humility is the virtue by which we remain docile to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as Mary was at the Annunciation and throughout her life. Without this humility, we risk doing what Pope Francis warns against: “One cannot conserve the doctrine without making it progress, nor can one bind it to a rigid and immutable reading without humiliating the Holy Spirit.” Humility prevents us from humiliating the Holy Spirit. It is the sure way to be a follower of Christ, and to avoid being followers of our own ideas-made-idols. The Spirit, Christ promised, “will guide you into all the truth (John 16:13). We, on the other hand, with all our highest thinking, philosophizing, and theologizing, might be wrong. I’m with Snoopy on that one.
Sunday, October 29, 2017
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Hallowe’en this year will be the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On that day in 1517, according to legend, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door. Europe and Christendom would never be the same.
In the last century, especially, we have made significant gains in overcoming divisive prejudices, stereotypes, and, most importantly, violence toward one another. Catholics and Protestants alike have come to see one another as fellow Christians. Still, there is a lot of work to do. On one end of the spectrum, there is still fear and suspicion. The words “heretical” and “papist” still get thrown around like weapons. On the other end, there is a temptation to indifferentism, as if there were no significant differences between Catholics and Protestants and “it’s all good.” Neither extreme is helpful in promoting Christian unity.
Over the past year, I have used this anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on unity writ large. I have explored Christian unity, but also racial unity, unity with Jews and Muslims, and unity with immigrants, refugees, the sick, and those devastated by natural disasters. I have written about the unity of the human family, and the need to acknowledge each other as brothers and sisters across all differences, lest we pray “Our Father” with hypocrisy and scandal. Today, I would like to bring us back, once more, to the document on Ecumenism from Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio.
“[I]t is from newness of attitude of mind, from self-denial and unstinted love, that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way,” the bishops observed. A bit further on, they wrote, “The faithful should remember that they promote union among Christians better, that indeed they live it better, when they try to live holier lives according to the Gospel. For the closer their union with the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, the more deeply and easily will they be able to grow in mutual love” (UR #7).
These elements of ecumenism are precisely what we find in today’s readings. In Exodus, we hear God say to the Israelites: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan… If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset.” Living this way is—i.e., with the poor and marginalized, the vulnerable and suffering at the heart of our concerns—indeed requires and demonstrates “self-denial and unstinted love.” Our closer “union with the Father, the Word, and the Spirit” is coupled with this “unstinted love” in fulfilling the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Christian unity, in other words, is forged in the spiritual fire of Christian life together, jointly living the Great Commandment of love.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together against the prideful attempt to create a “wish-dream” community instead of accepting humbly the community God gives us, with all its various tensions and wrinkles. Life together under the Great Commandment is the only road to Christian unity, a communion like the Trinity, in which oneness does not destroy difference. In a wish-dream community, difference is overcome by flattening it out. Although this type of unity appeals to some people, it is a false communion. It employs force to compel uniformity and compliance. It is a human project, and unknown to God. Summarizing Pope Francis on the issue, Crux wrote the headline, “Don’t confuse Christian unity with uniformity, Pope urges.”
How, then, shall we proceed? Most fundamentally, this is our charge: “Cooperation among Christians… should be developed more and more… It should contribute to a just appreciation of the dignity of the human person, to the promotion of the blessings of peace, the application of Gospel principles to social life, and the advancement of the arts and sciences in a truly Christian spirit. It should use every possible means to relieve the afflictions of our times, such as famine and natural disasters, illiteracy and poverty, lack of housing, and the unequal distribution of wealth. Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth” (UR # 12).
Sunday, October 22, 2017
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
An important transition in Judeo-Christian-Islamic history took place during the Axial Age, when true monotheism appeared on the scene. Prior to this, the tribes of Israel worshiped the God of Abraham, but they appear to have been henotheists, not true monotheists. That is, they worshiped only one God, but they had not yet come to the realization that there is only one God. In those early years, the God of Israel is perceived to be supreme over other gods, and to be the only god worthy of worship, but the existence of inferior gods was not denied. Thus, what the readings present to us today is a monumental transition: “I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me.” It represents a development of doctrine and a further self-revelation by God. This would continue to develop, of course, when Christ revealed the inner life of God as Trinity. In the General Directory for Catechesis, the Church calls this long process of revelation “the pedagogy of God.” Each new revelation was prepared by what came before. God, it appears, was scaffolding long before the term became popular among educators.
Despite this common history in the Axial Age, there is not always agreement among Jews, Christians, and Muslims that we worship the same God. Some (maybe most) Jews and Muslims have difficulty accepting the Trinity as consistent with monotheism. (In practice, many Christians have trouble with this mystery as well and fall into deficient understandings such as modalism, partialism, and Christomonism.) Language also adds a layer of difficulty. Muslims pray to God, but God in Arabic is Allah. Arabic-speaking Christians also pray to Allah, but outside of Arabic cultures, Allah sounds like the name of a different God instead of simply the word for God.
In working for unity and peaceful coexistence, it is important to break down tribal barriers that serve no purpose except to define an us and a them. In his brilliant book, “Allah: A Christian Response,” Yale scholar Miroslav Volf carefully approaches the question whether Christians and Muslims (and by extension of his argument, Jews) worship the same God. He argues the we do, in fact, worship the same God, though we understand the reality of that One God differently. This difference of understanding is akin to comparing his own understanding of God, as an adult Christian theologian at an Ivy League university, to his child’s. Surely they conceive of God differently. The mental images and even some of the words and concepts are different. Yet, who would deny that they are addressing the same God when they pray?
A lot of the problems between religions, when looked at more carefully, are not religious problems primarily, but are political problems. Religion can easily exacerbate these problems, or be manipulated for political purposes. These cases, which are very common, make religion itself a target of those New Atheists and others who think religion is the fundamental cause of division and violence in the world. I reject this view. A world without religion would still have to face its divisions (language, race, culture, economic disparity, etc.) and would continue, tragically, to employ violence. A look at atheistic Communism gives quick evidence that leaving God or gods out does not result in peace.
Religion, on the other hand, has the power to mitigate differences and to promote love, compassion, and peace. This is one reason that recognition of our One God, differently understood, but nonetheless calling us to emulate God’s own characteristics of mercy and compassion (something commonly understood in all 3 major monotheistic religions) is so important. Working together as agents of peace and justice, seeking to glorify the One God, we thus “give to God what is God’s” and refuse to allow religion to be corrupted by an unhealthy admixture with politics. Indeed, we have political work to do as well—we “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”—but a careful separation of Church and State is important for preserving the integrity of both.
The lived reality is more compelling than theory. In the critically acclaimed film, “Of Gods and Men” and the book, “The Monks of Tibhirine” by John Kiser, which I quote below, we see Catholic monks (Trappists) and Muslim neighbors living peacefully, respectfully, and lovingly together in late 20th century Algeria. We also witness the tragedy that ensues when political hijacking of Islam results in violent extremism, destroying this beautiful coexistence. On the eve of the deadly violence, Brother Christian, the Trappist Prior, worried that “this people whom I love will be accused, indiscriminately, of my death.” “The price is too high,” he wrote, “this so-called grace of the martyr, if I owe it to an Algerian who kills me in the name of what he thinks is Islam… It is too easy for…people to dismiss…this religion as something hateful by associating it with violent extremists…” Then, he says some final thank-you’s, including this powerful conclusion: “And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank-you, this ‘A-Dieu,’ whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father. Amen! Insha Allah! [i.e., God willing!]”
Even in the moment of martyrdom, the holy Trappist monk recognized “our common Father” and was not afraid to use the Arabic word for God to express his deepest hope for forgiveness. I have the weak power to write about our One God, but the witness of the martyrs continues to be the most powerful witness of all, testifying that there is One God, “there is no other.”