Saturday, January 23, 2021

3rd Week of Ordinary Time


“Time is running out…
The world in its present form is passing away…”
Paul tells us in our second reading today,
so we should set aside worldly concerns.
And in our Gospel Jesus arrives proclaiming, 
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Already the old world is crumbling
and the new world is being born.

But two thousand years later,
with the world seemingly still firmly in place,
what can such words mean for us?
Was Paul simply wrong about the timing of things
or was Jesus merely mistaken 
about the nearness of the Kingdom?
Can we safely ignore Paul’s advice 
about how to live in a world that is passing away?
Can we put off responding to Jesus’ call 
to repent and believe in the Gospel?

I don’t think so.

For Paul is surely correct: time is running out.
Indeed, that is all time ever does.
Time’s arrow ultimately moves in only one direction,
and the world as we know it 
is simply one long process of passing away.
Both for us as individuals and for the world as a whole
the end is, if not exactly in sight, 
at least predictable with some certainty.
You and I will one day die,
and the cosmos as we know it will one day end.
Everything that we seek to hold onto
decays and slips through our fingers.
Our loves and our labors,
our tears and our laughter,
all are passing.
We know this on some level,
which is why we expend 
so much energy trying to deny it.
We engage in fruitless attempts
to hold on to what is passing
and to exert control over 
what is in fact beyond our control.
And these attempts are often purchased
at the expense of others.
We are willing to deceive and destroy
in order to maintain the illusion
that we have mastery over our own destinies
and can change the direction of time’s arrow.

But we do not have to think that way.
Indeed, when Jesus says 
“repent and believe in the Gospel”
he issues a call to think differently
about our lives and our world.
To repent means literally “to think again,”
to change one’s mind,
to rethink and reevaluate 
and to see the world in a new way
so as to live in the world in a new way.
Time’s arrow need not point us toward death
and the ultimate dissolution of all that we love;
for those who believe in the good news Jesus brings,
it can point us toward the victory of life over death,
toward a new birth from above.
It can point us to a life that is more
than the endless clawing after control
of a world that is passing away.
This is the life to which Jesus calls
Simon and Andrew and James and John
in today’s Gospel,
when they abandon control of their own destinies
by placing their lives in the hands of Jesus.
This is the life to which Jesus calls us.

But what does all this look like concretely?
Let me offer an example.
Recently the Chinese embassy in the U.S.,
seeking to manage the bad public relations resulting
from the Chinese government’s repression of the Uygurs,
the Muslim minority in northwestern China,
tweeted out this message: 
“Study shows that in the process of eradicating extremism, 
the minds of Uygur women in Xinjiang were emancipated 
and gender equality and reproductive health were promoted, 
making them no longer baby-making machines. 
They are more confident and independent.”
What the embassy clothes in the appealing language
of emancipation, equality, and health
are in fact practices of forced sterilization and abortion
carried out as part of a program of genocide 
against a religious and ethnic minority. 

This is obviously something horrific.
But what is particularly striking
is the claim that Uygur women
are in this process gaining control over their lives,
a seductive claim that is used 
to try and sell this genocidal program,
not simply to us Americans,
who are heavily invested to our own autonomy,
but to the Uygur women themselves,
who are forced into re-education camps
where they are told that the abortion of their children
is in fact making them masters of their own destinies.
If this reeducation works,
the government will no longer have to resort
to the crude methods of forcing Uygur women 
to abort their pregnancies.
If it works, Uygur women will confidently choose 
to do so themselves,
in the name of emancipation, equality, and health.
In other words, they will have become just like us.

But what if this sort of control is an illusion?
What if we cannot kill our way 
to emancipation from fear,
the fear that we will not be able to hold onto
the future that steadily slips through our fingers?
What if the only hope 
in a world that is passing away
is to place our futures in the hands of Jesus?
Can we change our ways of thinking,
repent and think anew,
so that true emancipation is found
not in autonomy but in community,
not in self-assertion but in mutual service,
not in violence against the weak
but in welcoming the stranger?

I think one reason why the issue of abortion
remains so intractable in our own nation—
along with issues of poverty and immigration, 
the death penalty and racism—
is that all of us cling too tightly
to this world that is passing away
and to the illusion of control.
Indeed, we are willing to sustain that illusion
at the expense of others.
If we can just eliminate 
one more unwanted pregnancy,
one more hardened criminal,
one more undocumented alien…
well, then time’s arrow might change direction, 
the world might stop passing away
and be as we would like it to be.

We need to hear together the call of Jesus to repent.
For the words of Jesus remain true:
the kingdom of God is at hand.
It is just on the other side 
of a different way of thinking
which can lead to a different way of living.
May the God of grace
grant us a spirit of repentance
and have mercy on us all.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Baptism of the Lord


I had a very nice homily in mind for today:
something about ancient Israelite cosmology
and the symbolic role it plays in Mark’s story 
of Jesus’ baptism.
But, as so often in life and ministry,
events interrupt our plans,
and I feel compelled to say something
about the assault on the Capitol building
and about what light the Gospel of Jesus Christ
can shed in these dark days.

I feel compelled to say something,
but I speak with trepidation,
since I cannot really say anything 
about these things
without saying something 
about the role played by our President. 
I know that 50% of Catholics 
who voted in the last election
voted for Mr. Trump,
for a variety of reasons, of course,
and with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Still, odds are that some of you 
might not like what I must say.
But say it I must, 
so I hope you will hear me out.

It is hard to deny that this past Wednesday
the words of President Trump were a spark, 
falling upon the fuel 
of weeks of unsubstantiated 
and repeatedly debunked claims 
of a stolen election,
a spark that ignited an insurrection that led
to an attempt by some to derail 
the peaceful transfer of power 
and ultimately to the deaths of five people.
The resignations of numerous people 
from Mr. Trump’s administration make it evident 
that even the most ardent supporters of his policies
have been forced to recognize his role
in inciting these shameful and deadly actions.
Even those who rejoice in his support
for the pro-life movement 
have been forced to see in his actions 
a blatant disregard
for the sanctity of life and for the common good.

I will admit that his words and actions have made me angry.
But they have also made me profoundly sad.
They have made me sad because I see in Mr. Trump
a dark truth about human beings in general. 
Donald Trump, despite some residual bluster, 
now stands defeated:
not by circumstances,
not by his political foes,
not by the media,
but ultimately by himself.
He has been defeated by an aversion to truth
that all of us, in our own ways, share.
I do not know if his false claim 
to have won the election by a landslide
is a cynical deception or a sincere delusion,
but whether deception or delusion
it is certainly evidence of something
that is true of all of us to some extent,
whatever our political persuasion:
in our desire for mastery over our lives,
and the lives of others,
we will believe and promote falsehoods;
we will deny and suppress the truth 
to bolster our egos,
even when doing so deadens our souls
and harms those around us.
As the poet T.S. Eliot put it,
“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

You see this aversion to reality in Scripture, 
in the story of our first parents,
who chose to believe the serpent’s lies
that they could steal the wisdom of God
and so become the source and meaning 
of their own existence.
You see it today in the allure 
of elaborate conspiracy theories that we embrace 
because they support our worldview.
You see it in our resistance to new information
that might challenge our beliefs or lifestyles.
You see it in the tenacity with which we cling
to the conviction that our side, our party, our tribe
should be completely identified with the forces of light
and that those who disagree or oppose us
must be cast as the forces of darkness.

To recognize in Mr. Trump something that is,
to one degree or another,
true of all of us
is not to excuse his actions.
He had a choice,
just as we all have a choice.
We have a choice 
because into the darkness 
of deception and delusion
a light has shone,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
When Christ is baptized,
the heavens are torn open 
and the Spirit of truth descends upon him
and, through him, is unleashed upon our world.
Writing of Christ’s baptism,
St. Gregory of Naziansus said,
“Christ is bathed in light; let us also be bathed in light.”
Christ did not go down into the waters of the river Jordan
in order to be cleansed of sin,
but rather to purify the dark stream of human blindness
that flows from the sin of our first parents.
He plunges into the waters of deception and delusion
to transform them into waters of light and life.

In these enlightening waters we find
not just our salvation,
but an invitation, a call, a summons
to reflect in the world the light of truth
that has shone upon us.
St. Gregory writes, “God wants you
to become a living force for all humanity,
lights shining in the world. 
You are to be radiant lights 
as you stand beside Christ, 
the great light,
bathed in the glory of him 
who is the light of heaven.”
We must live as light in a world of lies.
We must first and foremost proclaim the great truth
of the world’s redemption through Christ, 
but we must also guard the more ordinary truths
from which our daily common life is woven.
We must resist the impulse to believe and promote
falsehoods that offer our egos 
temporary comfort in the illusion of mastery.
We must bear witness to the truth,
even when that truth discomfits us,
because without truth we are doomed.

We have seen this week one more example
of the destructive force of deception and delusion,
and we have heard in our Gospel a call
to be bathed in the Spirit of truth.
May Christ our way heal and bless our country,
may Christ our truth enlighten and empower his Church,
and may Christ our life have mercy on us all.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Tuesday after Epiphany--St. John Neumann


“His heart was moved with pity for them.”
We have, I think, a deep ambivalence about pity.
Saying that you pity someone can be taken
as an underhanded way of asserting your superiority.
And how many of us have heard people say,
or said ourselves,
“I don’t want your pity.”
We feel that to receive pity is demeaning;
to feel ourselves pitied is to feel shame.
And yet, don’t we also want 
our suffering to be recognized?
Don’t we want others to grasp 
what it is we are going through?
Don’t we want what we are going through 
to move them in some way?
Is there a better way to put this than “pity”?
Perhaps we should call it “compassion”—
which literally means “to suffer with.”

But, whether we call it pity or compassion,
what is striking in today’s Gospel
is that this is what Jesus feels toward us.
He feels pity and compassion
because we are “like sheep without a shepherd.”
We wander in futility, 
motivated less by purpose than by fear.
He feels pity and compassion
because we are hungry—
not necessarily physically hungry,
though he pities that as well,
but spiritually hungry for the bread of life.
He feels pity and compassion
because that is who he is:
he is the divine pity who comes to guide us,
God’s compassion made flesh to feed us.
“In this way the love of God was revealed to us:
God sent his only-begotten Son into the world
so that we might have life through him.”

The saint we remember today, St. John Neumann,
like all the saints,
was made holy in giving himself over entirely
to this divine pity, this Godly compassion.
The saints know without shame
that they are saved by God’s pity,
and this knowledge allows them in turn
to live lives of divine compassion for others.
John Neumann, who spent a number of years in this area
ministering at St. Augustine’s in Elkridge
and St. Alphonsus here in Baltimore, 
poured out his life 
for the newly arrived immigrants to America,
who faced strong nativist prejudice
and anti-Catholic hostility.
Whether as a parish priest or as bishop of Philadelphia,
he sought nothing else but to lead lost sheep to Christ
and to feed them with the bread of everlasting life.
In his diary, he wrote the following prayer:
“My heart is pierced with sorrow 
when I hear of the loss of one of my sheep. 
Lord Jesus, have mercy. 
Permit not that any one of those 
whom you have entrusted to me should be lost. 
O my Jesus, I will pray, fast, suffer,
and, with the help of your grace, sacrifice life itself.”
When he died in 1860, at only forty-eight years of age,
God welcomed home one whose life 
was shaped by the pity of Christ,
who achieved great things
only because he knew himself to be
enfolded within the divine compassion
that has shown forth in Christ.

May we too embrace 
God’s pity and compassion,
and may God have mercy on us all.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas


After living more days that we can count 
amidst death and desolation,
the cure has been announced,
the promises of an end 
to the deadly contagion
that has afflicted our world.
This happy news is greeted 
with skepticism by some
and with joy by others,
but even those who believe this good news 
know that there are still dark days ahead.
Victory is assured,
but it will take time—
and we do not know
how much time—
before we can let down our guard
and live and move freely, 
as we are meant to live.
But the corner has been turned,
the deadly foe has been defeated,
and a better day is coming.

This enemy of which I speak, 
of course, is sin—
the deadly contagion that has spread
throughout the human race 
down the centuries—
our primal alienation from God 
that is the yoke that has burdened us.
It is sin that has separated us from others,
sin that has robbed us
of the sustaining breath of the Spirit,
sin that has condemned us to eternal death.
But today we celebrate
the glad tidings of victory,
the announcing of sin’s defeat
by the one who is called
“Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace,”
the “good news of great joy
that will be for all the people,”
the news that 
“a savior has been born for us 
who is Christ and Lord.”

Yet, even as we celebrate good news,
we know that sin still stalks the world;
we see its effects around us 
and feel its power in our souls.
The new age has dawned 
and defeat of our ancient foe is assured,
but we still, as St. Paul writes,
“await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory 
of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.”

In our waiting, we can fall prey 
to one of two temptations.
On the one hand, we can be tempted
to disbelieve the good news of so great a victory
because the signs of triumph
are so small, 
so easily overlooked—
as obscure and hidden 
as a newborn child 
laid in a feeding trough in a stable.
It is easy to doubt news so astounding:
the eternal God 
has come to dwell with us in time.
It is easy to doubt a victory
that our eyes cannot yet see.
On the other hand, we can also be tempted
to think that God’s victory means
that the struggle for justice and mercy is over,
that it doesn’t matter what we do, 
that we no longer need to guard ourselves from sin
or work for a world that is less cruel,
less marked by the yoke of sin.
We can forget that we still have a role to play,
still have the path of cross and resurrection ahead of us,
still have an unknown length of days before us
until the reign of Christ arrives in its fullness.

Christmas calls us to resist both these temptations
by being people of hope and patience.
Hope and patience should not be confused
with optimism and resignation.
Hope is not the belief 
that things will work out fine on their own,
but rather that God is even now,
in ways that may escape our eyes, 
at work in our world to defeat evil.
Patience is not throwing up our hands
and sinking into resigned desolation;
patience is rather the chief remedy for desolation,
the active choice to wait for the God
who can heal our lacerated souls.
This is always a hard discipline:
to genuinely believe that God has won the victory,
and yet to recognize that we must still live and labor
amidst the ruin that sin has made of our existence.

This Christmas more than most
we need this hard discipline.
We need to be people of hope and patience
as we hear news of vaccines 
that can protect us from the novel coronavirus,
even as we continue to live amidst a global pandemic
that has killed 1.7 million people worldwide
and over 330,000 people in our country alone,
that has turned our lives upside down,
that has isolated and separated us 
precisely when we most need each other.

This Christmas more than most
we need the gift of hope 
to believe better days are coming,
and the gift of patience 
to combat the desolation 
of hard days still ahead.

This Christmas more than most
we need to hear the good news of great joy
that God is with us in our waiting;
we need to hear 
the message of the angel to the shepherds:
“Do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid to hope and believe.
Do not be afraid to patiently wait.
Do not be afraid
because God in Christ 
has plunged into the depths 
of human desolation and pain
and planted there the seed of the kingdom,
the seed of hope and patience
that can sustain us through our darkest days.
Christ is born for us today.
Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice,
for he comes to save us from our ancient foe.

May the joy of this day 
make us people of hope and patience,
and may God have mercy on us all.

Friday, December 18, 2020

3rd Week of Advent--Friday

Readings: Jeremiah 23:5-8; Matthew 1:18-25

What exactly did Joseph think was going on?
Having discovered that the woman he was to marry
is now pregnant, and he is not the father,
an angel then appears to him in a dream,
and tells him “it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived…
you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”

Did the term “holy spirit” mean anything to him?
He was surely aware that the prophets
were said to have been inspired 
by the “spirit of the LORD,”
but what could that possibly have to do
with the girl to whom he had been betrothed?

Did he grasp the meaning of the angel saying,
“he will save his people from their sins”?
Joseph, like many in his day, no doubt hoped 
that God would send a savior to deliver Israel
from the degrading subjugation to Rome
under which they groaned—
a king sprung from David, 
as Jeremiah had foretold,
who, “shall reign and govern wisely,”
so that “Judah shall be saved,”
but what could any of that possibly have to do
with an unplanned and unexplained pregnancy?

Did he recall the prophecy of Isaiah: 
Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel
,
which means, “God is with us”?
While Joseph certainly believed 
that God was with his people,
what could that possibly have to do
with a child born out of wedlock to a young girl?
How could this be a sign that God is with us?

The dream of the angel did not really explain things.
If anything, it rendered the whole situation
that much more perplexing.
I suspect Joseph had very little idea 
of what was going on.
He probably didn’t have notions 
like “virginal conception”
or “pascal mystery” 
or “incarnation.”
But even in his perplexity, he had faith.
He had faith enough to heed 
the angel’s words: “Do not be afraid.”
He had faith enough to ignore 
what other people might think and say.
He had faith enough to take Mary into his home
and to be a father to a child he knew was not his own.

Of course, we don’t really grasp these things
any better than Joseph did.
The Holy Spirit is for us too 
a mystery that blows where it will,
bringing with it new life.
Salvation through Christ is for us too,
as Thomas Aquinas said,
“so tremendous a fact that our intellect 
can scarcely grasp it” (Comm. Symb.).
God’s presence among us in the flesh is for us too
something before which our understanding
must simply bow in reverence.

As we approach the celebration at Christmas
of the mystery of the Incarnation,
let us imitate Joseph in his faith and obedience
even in the midst of not knowing,
let us not be afraid,
and may God have mercy on us all.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Advent 3


On this Gaudete Sunday—the Sunday of rejoicing—
our scriptures seem most insistent that we should rejoice.
Isaiah tells us, “I rejoice heartily in the LORD, 
in my God is the joy of my soul.”
Paul commands us, “Rejoice always…
In all circumstances give thanks.”
Yet as the year 2020 stumbles to a close
many of us might look both outward and inward
and wonder if there is any joy to be found.
What joy is there in over a million and a half deaths
in a worldwide pandemic?
What joy is there in the prospect 
of another socially-distanced holiday?
What joy is there in the rancorous bickering 
and outright lying
that have become our public discourse?
“Rejoice”?
We might hear this as more oppressive than encouraging,
a demand that we squeeze out one more drop
from a sponge that was long ago wrung dry.

But God knows that we, on our own, 
are but dry sponges.
God knows that after many hard months
the reserves of joy within us
are depleted, and we are weary. 
It doesn’t matter if our reserves of joy are depleted,
because we are not the source of our own joy.
This is why Paul assures us that 
“The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.”
The God who calls us to joy 
will accomplish that joy within us.

Now I know that it runs counter to our American ethos 
to say that our happiness can or should
depend on someone or something other than ourselves.
We Americans practically invented the notion of “self-help,”
the idea that we can, through hard work,
pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps 
into health, wealth, and, yes, even into joy.
To quote just one 
randomly chosen writer from the internet:
“Regardless of your personal circumstances, 
it is possible to find internal happiness, 
that form of happiness that feeds on nothing, 
except your own desire to find it.”
In my experience, such statements 
are typically followed by a list of imperatives:
eat healthy,
get exercise,
take a walk,
get off social media,
keep a journal,
declutter,
get a dog,
and so forth.

It’s really all just repackaging of the advice given years ago 
by that most American of self-help gurus, Henry Ford: 
“There is joy in work. 
There is no happiness except in the realization 
that we have accomplished something.”
Joy is only found in what you yourself can do.
It all seems to come down to this:
if your life feels sorrowful and joyless,
you’re just not trying hard enough.
There is nothing wrong with you
that a little more effort won’t fix.
So get to work: grab those bootstraps 
and pull.

But this is not the Gospel.
The Gospel is that none of us
finds joy from within ourselves
or through our own efforts;
we find it in the kingdom of God
that has drawn near in Christ.
The Gospel is not a call 
to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.
The Gospel is that while we lay dead
in the sorrow of sin
God has come to our rescue.
The Gospel is not that things are not really that bad,
that they are not really beyond our capacity to repair.
The Gospel is that, yes, things are that bad,
but God is greater.

Despite what the self-help gurus will tell you,
we are not our own saviors,
we are not our own source of joy.
We are like John the Baptist 
who confesses that he is not the Christ,
but only points us to the Christ;
who proclaims that he is not the light,
but only bears witness to the light.
In confessing our inability to save ourselves
we can hear the words “rejoice always”
not as some shallow assurance that we can be okay
if we just try a little harder,
nor as some command that we cannot possibly fulfill,
but as the announcement of glad tidings of salvation,
the announcement that one is present in our midst,
whom we may not yet recognize,
who has come to fill us with joy and light
and peace that passes human understanding,
one in whom we can rejoice always, 
in every circumstance,
because in Christ there is 
no human circumstance
from which God is absent.
In Christ God has placed himself
in the midst of disease and death,
of sorrow and separation,
of conflict and division.
We rejoice always
because Christ is always with us,
even in our joylessness,
to share with us his joy.

Paul tells the Christians at Thessalonica,
“Do not quench the Spirit.”
Perhaps in our anxious efforts 
to bootstrap our way into joy
we smother the Spirit of genuine rejoicing.
Perhaps we need to let the darkness be dark
so that we can see the light 
that is coming into the world,
coming to save us.
In these remaining days of Advent,
let us pray that God’s Spirit would burn within us,
consuming our sorrow and bringing us light,
so that at Christmas we may see the one
who is already dwelling in our midst,
enabling us to share his joy.
And may God have mercy on us all. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

34th Week in Ordinary Time II—Tuesday (Vietnamese Martyrs)


Readings: Revelation 14:14-19; Luke 21:5-11

We are all familiar 
with images of the Grim Reaper,
the hooded figure of death 
carrying a scythe in its hands
and coming to collect the harvest of souls.
This figure is rooted in the imagery 
of the Book of Revelation,
which depicts a final harvest 
in which first “one like a son of man”
and then “another angel”
use their scythes to reap the earth,
after which the angel throws his harvest 
“into the great wine press of God’s fury.”

This is pretty terrifying stuff.
And puzzling as well.
Interpreters differ as to exactly what
the writer of Revelation is telling us.
The one like a son of man 
seems to be Jesus himself.
But who is this second, 
grimly reaping, angel?
We don’t really know.
And what do the two harvests symbolize?
Does the first represent the righteous,
whom Christ takes to himself
and stored like wheat in barns,
and the second the unrighteous,
who are crushed in God’s anger?
Again we don’t really know.
Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel
that it is perfectly right 
that we should not know.

Apocalyptic visions of the end
are not given to us 
as a timetable or itinerary
but to fire our imaginations
with a vivid sense of God’s power to save
and an urgency about our own lives,
a reminder to be prepared at every moment
to give an accounting before God
of what we have done with our lives.
Living as we do 
amidst war and rumors of war,
amidst plague and famine,
we should take comfort 
in God’s almighty power and loving mercy.
We should remind ourselves 
that the time of reaping come for all of us
and pray that it may be for us a time of grace.
If we live at every moment seeking Christ’s reign,
then we have no need to fear.

We should look to the example 
of St. Andrew D┼źng-Lac,
a Vietnamese priest in the 19th century
who lived in a time of persecution of the Church
and who ministered, often in secret,
to his fellows Vietnamese Catholics.
Arrested several times, 
he persevered in his ministry
until finally he was beheaded in 1839.
St. Andrew lived his life knowing
that the time of harvest would come,
and yet he trusted that Christ, 
the one like a son of man,
would on that day gather him to himself.
May the prayers and example of St. Andrew
help us to live our own lives
ready at every moment
for the harvest of Christ’s kingdom.
And may God have mercy on us all.


Saturday, November 21, 2020

Christ the King


The folk singer Woody Guthrie 
once wrote a song
entitled “Christ for President”
that goes, in part, like this:
“Let’s have Christ for president,
Let us have him for our king.
Cast your vote for the carpenter
That they call the Nazarene…
Every year we waste enough
To feed the ones who starve.
We build our civilization up
And we shoot it down with wars.”

Guthrie’s words find an echo in, of all places, 
the words of Pope Pius XI from 1925, 
when he instituted this feast of Christ the King,
partly in response to the growing secularism of society,
but also in response to fascist movements
that substituted worship of the nation and its leader
for the true worship of Christ.
Both the open disbelief of secular atheism
and the manipulation of religion 
by fascists and nationalists
are seen by Pius as rejections of the reign of Christ
in the hearts and lives of people.
He paints a picture of a world consequently in crisis:
“seeds of discord sown far and wide… 
bitter enmities and rivalries between nations,
which still hinder so much the cause of peace… 
insatiable greed which is so often hidden 
under a pretense of public spirit and patriotism…
a blind and immoderate selfishness… 
the unity and stability of the family undermined; 
society, in a word, shaken to its foundations 
and on the way to ruin” (Quas Primum n. 24).
Woody Guthrie and Pope Pius seem to agree
that our private and public lives would be better
if Jesus were in charge.

While we might take some comfort in the fact 
that we seem to have navigated the last century
without the world falling into utter ruin,
we ought also to be sobered 
by how the ills enumerated by Pope Pius
find such familiar echo in our own day.
We still see seeds of discord 
sown far and wide;
we still see bitterness and rivalry 
between and within nations;
we still see the pretense of patriotism 
used as cover for greed and selfishness;
we still see families struggling to stay together
amid political, economic, and cultural forces 
that would tear them apart.
And we might add to this a global pandemic
that has not only killed 1.4 million people worldwide,
but has also revealed, as it runs its course,
some of the darker aspects of human nature,
as well as a presidential election that promises 
to leave people in this country
ever more divided, 
ever more entrenched in their ideologies,
ever more unwilling to presume 
good will in their neighbors.

But this feast of Christ the King 
offers us more than simply an occasion to reflect
on the dreary catalogue of the world’s ills and failings.
It also offers us a vision of a world renewed
by the royal power of the risen Christ,
who presents to his Father, 
as our liturgy today says,
“a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.”
This feast proclaims Christ’s kingdom
present even amid the sorrows of our world.
Indeed, this is a kingdom 
that is present most intensely
in the places of greatest sorrow.
It is present in the hungry homeless person
waiting for a meal.
It is present in the convicted criminal
confined in isolation.
It is present in the unwelcomed refugee
waiting at our border.
It is present in the Covid patient 
struggling to draw a breath.
It is present in these places of sorrow 
because Christ is present there.

This is the great scandal of the Gospel,
over which so many of us stumble.
We think that Christ the King 
must be sought among the sleek and strong
and cannot possibly identify himself
with the wayward, the wicked, or the weak.
But that is precisely what he does 
throughout his ministry.
As the prophet Ezekiel foretells:
“The lost I will seek out,
the strayed I will bring back,
the injured I will bind up,
the sick I will heal, 
but the sleek and the strong I will destroy,
shepherding them rightly.”
And we who would be servants 
of Christ our King must seek him out,
not in places of power
but in those places of sorrow:
by feeding the hungry,
visiting the captive,
welcoming the stranger,
caring for the sick,
seeking to share their lot
so that we might have a share in Christ.
For it is in doing these things
that we find ourselves heirs to his kingdom:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you 
from the foundation of the world.”
As Pope Pius writes, the Kingdom of Christ,
“demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment 
from riches and earthly things, 
and a spirit of gentleness.” 
Those who serve Christ as King,
“must hunger and thirst after justice, 
and more than this, they must deny themselves 
and carry the cross” (Quas Primum n. 15).

The great scandal of the Gospel
over which we stumble,
both as individuals and as societies,
is that true power and authority
are not found in the sleek and the strong
but in the crucified and risen one,
the one whose glorified body 
still bears the marks of torture
so that he might unite to himself 
all those who suffer 
the torments of hunger and thirst,
of rejection and captivity,
of illness and deprivation.
To embrace the Kingdom of Christ
is to embrace such weakness;
it is to deny ourselves and carry the cross,
serving Christ in those places of greatest sorrow.
This is the way to true life in Christ’s kingdom,
for Christ our king has come 
to vanquish death by his cross,
and has been raised up 
as sign and promise of that victory.

So let’s have Christ for president,
let us have him for our king,
let us ask him for the grace
to seek him out in places of sorrow
so that when he comes to judge the world
we might hear him say to us with joy,
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father.”
And may God have mercy on us all.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

33rd Week in Ordinary Time II--Tuesday


In the Book of Revelation,
Christ dictates to John the Seer 
letters to seven churches.
While offering to some words of encouragement,
these letters are not entirely good news.
Today, we hear perhaps the two harshest:
to the Christian community at Sardis—
“you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead”—
and to the Christian community at Laodicea— 
“because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold,
I will spit you out of my mouth.”
In both these cases we have communities
that are smug and self-satisfied,
thinking themselves on fire with the Spirit
when in fact their spirits have cooled.
These are perhaps the toughest nuts to crack:
those who are convinced that they know 
what God wants of them
and are equally convinced 
that they are doing it in exemplary fashion.

But the letters end on a hopeful note.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”
Christ is not deterred by our spiritual coldness;
he does not give up on us.
He keeps pounding on the door of our hearts;
he keeps asking us to let him in. 
And he promises, 
“If anyone hears my voice and opens the door,
then I will enter his house and dine with him,
and he with me.”
It is not too late even for those 
whose hearts have grown cold.
But to heed his knock, 
we must first know our neediness.

Unlike the self-satisfied churches of Sardis and Laodicea,
Zacchaeus, in today’s Gospel, 
knows that there is something wrong with his life.
A tax collector who had grown wealthy
off of the pain and misery of others,
he recognizes in Jesus a call to conversion.
Jesus stand at the door of his heart and knocks:
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house.” 
At these words 
the self-satisfied, righteous people
in the crowd begins to grumble
that Jesus is, once again,
hanging around with sinners.
They think their lukewarm piety
is somehow superior to Zacchaeus’s 
heartfelt repentance.
But Jesus can see that Zacchaeus
has truly opened wide the door to him:
“Today salvation has come to this house.”
Unlike the grumbling crowd,
unlike the spiritually dead church of Sardis,
unlike the lukewarm Laodiceans,
Zacchaeus knows himself to be lost,
and so can also know what it means to be found.

Jesus still stands knocking at the door.
Can we hear him?
If we open the door,
if we remove from our hearts
the obstacles of sinful self-satisfaction,
then we truly will feast with Christ
in our sacramental sharing in his eucharist;
he will truly enter into our hearts
and into the heart of the Church.
“Whoever has ears ought to hear
what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

32nd Week in Ordinary Time II--Wednesday (Martin of Tours)


Today is both Veteran’s Day
and the memorial of St. Martin of Tours,
a 4th-century monk and bishop 
who was himself a veteran,
though, according to the accounts of his life,
a highly unusual one.
As a young soldier he gave half of his cloak to a beggar,
only later to have a dream in which he saw Christ,
now clothed in the half-a-cloak,
telling him that in clothing that beggar
Martin had clothed Jesus himself.
This prompted Martin to be baptized 
and, eventually, after his baptism, to tell the emperor,
“Up to now I have served you as a soldier: 
allow me now to become a soldier to God…
I am the soldier of Christ: 
it is not lawful for me to fight” (Life of St. Martin ch. 4). 
When he was accused of cowardice for this,
he volunteered to stand unarmed 
on the front line of battle.
In God’s providence, the enemy army surrendered
before Martin had to face such a trial.
An unusual veteran indeed.

Martin then became a monk and later a bishop,
serving his flock with great dedication,
especially the poor and the suffering,
for he knew from experience 
that in serving them he was serving Christ.
His friend and biographer, Sulpitius Severus,
writes that, as the end of his life approached,
Martin placed his life in God’s hands:
“unconquered by toil, and unconquerable even by death…
he neither feared to die nor refused to live” (Ep. 3).
Martin, I dare say, had learned 
the great secret of the Christian life:
to know that in life or in death 
we belong to the Lord.
Such faith frees us from fear, 
so that we can pour ourselves into
the life to which God calls us,
and we can pour ourselves out
even into the mystery of death.

I think of St. Martin and his example of courage
as I ponder the newly released Vatican report 
on the case of former-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick,
a cleric who rose to great heights of power
and who used this power to abuse a series 
of seminarians, young men, and boys,
aided and abetted by others in the Church
who turned a blind eye to his crimes.
I think of the contrast 
between St. Martin and these false shepherds.
I think of the contrast between his courage
and their cowardice,
between his dedication to the people entrusted to him,
and their use of their office to satisfy their own lusts, 
between his ability to see Christ in the least of these
and their blindness to the abuse of the defenseless.

I have no ready explanation for such evils,
nor any easy remedy for what ails our Church,
nor words sufficient to comfort
the victims of clerical abuse.
But we do have the promise 
of Christ’s enduring love 
and power to heal,
and we have the intercession 
of St. Martin, Christ’s brave soldier. 
Let us ask him to pray for justice 
for victims of abuse,
and conversion for our Church’s pastors,
that they might serve Christ’s flock
with courage, dedication, and insight,
and may God have mercy on us all.