Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas: Mass During the Day


The Web browser programs that we use
to navigate the World Wide Web on the internet
typically have an option under the "view" menu
that is called something like "source" or "page source."
If you click on this, it reveals to you
that the beautiful and elegant (or ugly and confusing)
web page that you are looking at
is actually made up of a series of codes
written in a language called HTML
(hypertext markup language)
that web designers use to tell your computer
where to insert pictures,
what text to bold or italicize,
where to break paragraphs, and so forth.
It doesn’t have the "user-friendliness"
of a well-designed web page,
it doesn’t have the attractive details
that catch the eye,
but there is something fascinating,
at least for those with a certain type of mind,
in getting a glimpse "behind the scenes,"
to see the web page from the perspective of its designer,
to get a sense of the complexity underlying
what presents itself so attractively on our computer screens.

Today’s Gospel is a bit like clicking
the "view page source" menu on the Christmas story.
According to the tradition of the Church,
on Christmas morning we do not read
Luke’s familiar account of the Christmas story,
but rather the prologue with which John’s Gospel opens:
"In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God."

John does not offer us the eye-catching, user-friendly details
that we find in Luke:
no inn without a vacancy,
no Christ child placed in the manger,
no angels,
no the shepherds.
Instead of Jesus, we are told of the Word:
the Word who is in the beginning with God
and who, at the same time,
in some mysterious manner,
is God.
We are told that the world
came into being through this Word,
and yet does not know him.
And, perhaps most bafflingly of all,
we are told that the Word has become flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and has given power to become children of God
to those who believe in his name.

It can seem, at first, as baffling as HTML code.
But what John is offering us
is a glimpse "behind the scenes" of the Christmas story,
an opportunity to see from the perspective of its designer,
to get a sense of the deep mystery that underlies
what presents itself so attractively in Luke’s Gospel.

Most of us find our hearts moved
by the story of Joseph and the pregnant Mary,
homeless and unprotected.
We find attractive the simplicity of the image of Christ
born amidst the animals in the barn.
We thrill to the angels’ announcement to the shepherds:
"Glory to God in the highest
and peace to God’s people on earth!"

In comparison, John’s Gospel might seem cold and cerebral:
Luke gives us baby Jesus;
John gives us the eternal Word.

But we ought to realize
that they are both telling us the same story.
The child in the manger is the eternal Word,
who has taken on our flesh, our human nature,
so that we too might be God’s children.
John’s Gospel shows us the eternal source that lies behind
the moving, attractive, thrilling events in Bethlehem of Judea.

With a story as well known and pleasing
as Luke’s account of the nativity,
there is always the danger
that we might sentimentalize the entry of Christ into our world.
We can begin to think that Christmas is all about
babies with rosy cheeks
and shepherds with cute lambs
and angels that look like pretty ladies with wings and halos.
Our Gospel this morning reminds us
that Christmas is about God transacting
the serious and unsentimental business
of the world’s salvation.
Our glimpse behind the scenes in Bethlehem shows us
that Christmas is about God taking on our human nature
so that God,
through the bitter suffering of the cross
and the glory of the resurrection,
might bestow upon us a share in God’s own immortality.
As St. Athanasius of Alexandria put it:
God became human
so that human beings might become divine.

John’s Gospel reminds us that this is the real Christmas story.
And this glimpse behind the scenes
should lead us to marvel even more
that God would transact
such serious and unsentimental business
in the little town of Bethlehem,
by means of a young mother,
and some shepherds,
and a child.

Christmas: Mass at Midnight


In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola
develops a method of prayer
that involves the imagining of a biblical scene,
and then locating ourselves within that scene
and observing what transpires and how if affects us.
With regard to the story of the nativity,
Ignatius begins by suggesting that we imagine Mary,
nine-moths pregnant and riding on a donkey,
journeying to Bethlehem with Joseph,
a servant girl
and an ox
to pay the tribute Caesar had imposed on the land.
He suggests we imagine the road:
is it level or hilly, smooth or rough?
He suggests we imagine the place where Christ is born:
is it big or small, high-ceilinged or low?
Then we are to imagine the people present:
Mary, Joseph, the servant girl,
and eventually the Christ child himself.
Finally, we place ourselves within that scene.
Ignatius writes:
"Making myself into a poor and unworthy servant,
I watch them, and contemplate them,
and as if I were present, serve them in their needs
with all possible respect and reverence; . . . .
notice and consider what they are saying. . . .
watch and consider what they are doing:
for example, their journeys and labors,
so that Christ comes to be born in extreme poverty
and, after so much toil, hunger, thirst, heat and cold,
insults and affronts, he dies on the cross —
and all of this for me.
Then I will reflect and draw some spiritual profit."

Ignatius offers us here a suggestion
for internalizing the events of the Christmas story,
and a way of realizing
that all of these things were done "for me."
Surely it would be worth our while if each of us
took 15 minutes or half an hour tomorrow,
amidst the presents and meals and family and friends,
to engage in this exercise in prayerful imagining.

But there is one point on which Ignatius
doesn’t offer us guidance:
when I place myself in the scene, who should I be?
He suggests that we take the role
of "a poor and unworthy servant,"
but doesn’t say which unworthy servant.
Are we to invent a persona for ourselves,
or should we inhabit one that is already in the scene?

My suggestion is this:
why not, this Christmas, imagine yourself as the donkey?
Now the donkey and the ox,
whom Ignatius imagines Mary and Joseph
bringing with them to Bethlehem,
are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth.
They seem to have gotten imported into the scene
from the Old Testament:
a passage from the prophet Isaiah that says,
"An ox knows its owner,
and a donkey, its master’s manger" (Isaiah 1:3).
Perhaps it was this passage’s mention of the manger,
the food trough,
that led Christians to imagine
the ox and the donkey present
at the manger in which the infant Jesus is laid.
In any case, they have been inextricably incorporated
into the traditional scene,
and so I make my suggestion:
this Christmas, imagine yourself as the donkey.

St. Augustine loved the image of the Christian as the donkey:
both the donkey present at Christ’s birth
and the donkey that carried him
into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
He particularly loved this image
because the donkey is a beast of burden:
the donkey carries Christ
in his mother’s womb into Bethlehem,
the donkey carries Christ
in his mother’s arms on the flight into Egypt,
the donkey carries Christ
into Jerusalem, where he will meet his destiny
in cross and resurrection.

And this is the role of the Christian: to carry Christ.
St. Augustine writes, "Look at the manger:
do not be ashamed to be the Lord’s beast of burden. . .
Let the Lord sit upon us,
and let him direct us whither he will" (Serm. Ben. No. 189).

OK, imagining yourself as the donkey
is not particularly glamorous,
but then Christianity
is not a particularly glamorous undertaking.
Like the donkey,
we depend on our rider to guide us to our goal;
like the donkey,
we are pretty much in the dark
as to where our rider is guiding us;
like the donkey,
we sometimes grow weary
and even, on occasion, resentful and stubborn.

Indeed, it is sometimes during this season of joy
that this burden of faith weighs most heavily upon us.
I was reminded of this two days ago
when I heard from some neighbors
that they would be out of town attending the funeral
of the infant child of friends in New York.
I was reminded of this again yesterday
when I received an email from a student
telling me that her grandmother had just died and that,
while other people were planning Christmas celebrations,
her family would be planning a funeral.

The gift of new life that we see in the Christ child can be,
even in this season of joy,
shadowed by the sorrow of death and loss.
We may declare a holiday,
but the business of life and death goes on,
the journey continues.
Our Christmas faith is that in Christ
God shares in the business of life and death.
Even as you imagine yourself
in the joyful scene of Christ’s birth,
you know that it is your task to carry the one
who, as Ignatius put it,
suffers "toil, hunger, thirst, heat and cold,
insults and affronts," and ultimately death on a cross.

We look at the child in the manger and we ask ourselves,
can one who seems so small, so weak,
one who has shared so fully in human mortality,
really save me from death, really redeem my suffering?
And our faith answers, "yes."

And so, tonight, we donkeys stand at the manger,
ready to take up again the burden of faith’s "yes."
We only dimly understand
the great mystery taking place around us —
the mystery of God made flesh —
and we are perhaps frightened at the prospect
of taking that mystery upon ourselves.
And yet the burden of the mystery,
the burden of Christ,
the burden of faith,
is not in the end something we carry,
but something that carries us.
Christ takes upon himself our mortal nature
so that we might share in his immortality.
As Augustine writes:
"With him sitting upon us,
we shall not be burdened down, but raised up.
With him leading us, we shall not go astray.
We shall be going to him,
we shall be going through him,
we shall not perish."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

2nd Sunday of Advent


After the kingdom of Judah was conquered
by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar,
the Jewish people lived in exile in Babylon
for the next two generations,
until Babylon itself was conquered by the Persians
and the exiles were allowed to return.
For two generations the Jewish people
remained faithful to their God —
studying God’s Law, keeping God’s Sabbath —
as they awaited God’s salvation
and their return to their homeland.
Our first reading is an announcement of that return:
"Comfort, give comfort to my people. . .
speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her that her service is ended."

Many of us are familiar with these words
from the opening of Handel’s Messiah,
which places them in the context of the Christian faith,
so that the waiting of Israel in exile
becomes a sign and symbol
of humanity’s long wait for Christ, the world’s redeemer.
And our Gospel reading today
presents us with John the Baptist,
a voice "crying out in the desert,"
who announces that redeemer:
"One who is mightier than I is coming after me. . . .
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
And so the redeemer whom the world had awaited
arrives in the person of Jesus of Nazareth,
and the words of Isaiah are fulfilled:
"here is your God!"

And yet. . . and yet. . . aren’t we still waiting?
Has the rugged land been made into a plain?
Has the rough county becomes a broad valley?
Has the glory of the Lord been revealed?
If we look at the news,
don’t we still see the rugged land of terror and violence?
If we look at our own lives,
don’t we still find in ourselves
the rough country of pride or sloth or greed
or just plain thoughtlessness?
If we look at our world,
can we see even a glimpse of God’s glory being revealed?
We believe that the world’s redeemer has come;
why then does our world look so unredeemed?
If in Jesus God has spoken God’s definitive word of comfort,
why do we so often feel that we are still in exile in Babylon,
far from the homeland of God’s promise?

The way theologians sometimes put the matter
is that in Jesus we experience a salvation
that has already come to us,
but is not yet realized fully in our world.
Through faith in Jesus we are already
in the homeland of God’s promise,
but still have not yet completely left behind
our exile in Babylon.

Already. . . but not yet.
It’s a nice theological formulation,
but does it help us solve the problem
of how we live with that "not yet"?
Our second reading tells us that
"with the Lord one day is like a thousand years
and a thousand years like one day"
and this may help us to grasp intellectually
why we can’t expect the world’s redemption
to follow our human timetable,
but it doesn’t tell us how we are to endure
the passage of those thousand-year-long days
as we await the new heavens and new earth
in which righteousness dwells.
What we really need to know
is how to cultivate patience as we live in the "not yet."

I sometimes think that in our world today,
patience is one of the most under appreciated virtues.
It seems like we need everything to have been done yesterday,
that our computers never boot up fast enough,
checkout lines at stores never move speedily enough,
change in Washington never comes promptly enough,
and those with whom we must live and work
never adapt to our needs briskly enough.
But I suspect that it is not simply today
that we find patience so difficult.
Our second reading testifies to the fact that in the first century
people were complaining about the delay
of the world’s final redemption,
and I suspect that those same people complained
that their ox carts ran too slow
and their crops took too long to grow.

We find patience difficult because patience is hard;
indeed, the word "patience" comes from the Latin patior,
which means "to suffer."
We don’t like being patient because we don’t like to suffer.
But patience is precisely what we need
to live in the "not yet."
It is the form that faithfulness takes
as we await the new heavens and the new earth.
It is a faithfulness that allows God to act
according to God’s own schedule,
in our world and in each one of our lives.
It is what allows us to take action to make our world
a better place and ourselves better people
while allowing the fruits of our actions
to remain in hands of God,
who judges our actions and our lives
in terms of faithfulness and not results.

And so in this Advent season
we should try to cultivate patience.
We should let this season of spiritual anticipation
become a time in which we strive to live
with all of the "not yets" in our world.
I would make one concrete suggestions.
Our patience, our faithfulness,
is founded on God’s patience and God’s faithfulness.
Our second reading tells us
that what we perceive as the delay of God’s promise
is in fact God being patient with us,
God giving us time to change,
so that we can live joyfully in God’s kingdom.

As we try to be patient with God,
we must recognize that God is the source of all patience,
and so our cultivation of patience
must involve prayer, asking God for the gift of patience.
One way to cultivate patience is to make the world stop
by taking time each day, even if only five minutes, to pray.
And in your prayer, ask God for a share in God’s patience.
Ask God to enable you to see yourself and others
through God’s eyes,
those eyes for which a thousand years are but a day,
those eyes of infinite patience.
And then listen.
Listen for the glad tiding that are already here,
listen for God’s word of comfort,
spoken tenderly to you and to our world.
And then speak:
become the voice that cries, like John the Baptist,
"make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God."
Become the one through whom God speaks
words of comfort to a world in exile.

Ask. . . listen. . . speak.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Dedication of St. John Lateran


OK, why are we celebrating the anniversary
of the dedication of somebody else’s church?
And why this church?

The Basilica of St. John Lateran was given to the Church
by the Emperor Constantine
shortly after he legalized Christianity in the early 4th century.
It was dedicated as a place of Christian worship on November 9, 324 AD.
It, and not St. Peter’s Basilica, as many people think,
is the cathedral of the city of Rome
and thus the home church of the bishop of Rome — that is, the Pope.

St. John Lateran is obviously of great historical significance.
But, if I can be honest with you for a moment,
it is a building that just doesn’t do much for me.
St. Peter’s Basilica has the kind of glitzy baroque appeal
that wouldn’t be out of place in Las Vegas.
Particularly the elements designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini,
while certainly over-the-top,
expresses a certain characteristically Catholic exuberance
that will not be held back by the bounds of good taste.
St. John Lateran, though a very ancient building,
got a baroque make-over by Bernini’s great rival,
Franceso Borromini, in the 17th century.
Perhaps this shows my preference for the passionate Bernini
over the rather cerebral Borromini,
but I find his redesign of St. John’s rather cold and uninviting.
While grand, it is too calculated, too lacking in feeling —
it is big in a way that dwarfs the human soul, rather than inspiring.
So, while I hate to say it, it just doesn’t do much for me.
Indeed, I must admit that I much prefer
our own beautiful and tasteful and human-scaled Corpus Christi
to either St. John’s or St. Peter’s.

But, of course, the Church doesn’t ask me, or you,
to join in celebrating the anniversary
of the dedication of St. John Lateran
because it "does something" for us,
because it appeals to us,
because we happen to like it.
The Church asks us to join in this celebration
because St. John Lateran in Rome,
no less than Corpus Christi in Baltimore,
is our church.
This feast is one of those that reminds us that we are Roman Catholics —
that we are children of the Church of Rome and heir to her history.

The Church asks us to join in this celebration
because the cathedral church of the city of Rome
is a symbol of our unity as Catholics,
a unity that extends throughout the world
and down through the centuries.
The Church asks us to join in this celebration
because those who have worshiped at St. John Lateran,
from the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century
down to the humblest Roman worker worshiping there on this day
are our brothers and sisters in the faith.
Their church is our church, whether we like it or not.

It is, I think, a happy accident of the Church’s calendar
that the feast of the dedication of St. John Lateran
falls seven days after All Soul’s Day,
so that when we celebrate All Souls on a Sunday,
we celebrate this feast on the following Sunday.
Last week we celebrated the unity of the Church in its threefold form:
the Church triumphant in heaven,
the Church militant on earth,
and the Church suffering in purgatory.
As Fr. Rich preached last week, All Souls day reminds us
that we are invisibly united in prayer with those who have died.
This week we celebrate another sort of unity:
a unity that we have through time and space
in our shared adherence to the Catholic faith,
in our common celebration of the sacraments,
and in our recognition of the apostolic leadership
of the bishop of Rome and those bishops in communion with him.
This unity is not the invisible, spiritual unity
that we celebrated on All Souls Day.
Rather, it is the visible, tangible unity
of doctrines and laws and institutions and even buildings
that are for us the outward signs of our inner unity.

Of course, we do not join in this celebration
because this visible, tangible unity is always easy
for us to accept and celebrate.
Indeed, our Catholic faith is sometimes hard for us to believe,
and often even harder to live;
our sacramental celebrations sometimes seem flat and lifeless;
our Church leadership can at times seem obtuse or cowardly
or more intent on making the Church
a marketplace for various agendas
than a house of prayer for all people.
Sometimes the Church in her visible, tangible form
strikes me as being as unlovely as the church of St. John Lateran —
cold and uninviting,
unsuccessfully remodeled over the years,
enlarged beyond the human scale,
not living up to my expectations,
just not doing much for me.

But this feast reminds me that my life as a Catholic
isn’t really about what I find appealing,
either in buildings or institutions.
This feast reminds us that part of our faith is that the Church,
in both her inward reality and her outward forms,
is the temple in which God’s Spirit dwells.
The celebration of this feast is a challenge to love our fellow Catholics
as those who, along with us,
are the stones that are being built into that living temple.
And the stones of this temple are bound together
by a love that we live not just inwardly,
but also in the sometimes clumsy outward forms
that are our visible bonds of unity.

In the Baptistry of the unlovely church of St. John Lateran,
where the Christians of Rome have been baptized since the 4th century,
there is an ancient inscription that reads:
"There is no barrier between those who are reborn and made one
by the one font, the one Spirit, and the one faith. . ."
It is this unity that we are called to celebrate this day.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time


On Friday, the good news
was that the trading day on Wall Street closed
with the Dow Jones Industrial Average down only 128 points.
The bad news
was that this ended a week in which the Dow lost 1874 points,
over 20% of its value.
This week Russia, Indonesia and the Ukraine
suspended trading on their stock exchanges
to try and prevent the instability of US financial markets
from infecting their economies
and the country of Iceland teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.
And, in what is certainly the most ominous sounding bit of news,
the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index,
known as the "fear gauge,"
climbed to a fifth-consecutive record level.
I must admit that such news makes my own "Volatility Index,"
my own personal "fear gauge," begin to rise,
not least because I’m not exactly sure
that I completely understand the financial news
with which I’m being bombarded,
nor do I really feel that I am in a position
to even begin to evaluate the proffered solutions:
should the government intervene
and, if so,
is the right amount of money being spent on the right things?
I just know that when I made the mistake this past week
of opening the quarterly report
from my TIAA-CREF retirement fund
it seemed that I had somehow lost a lot of money
without ever having the pleasure of spending it
and I could feel my volatility index — my fear gauge —
rising to record heights.

Why regale you with news of the business world
and of my own personal anxiety?
Because I suspect that many of you
have also looked at your retirement plans
or stock portfolios this week,
or at least been subjected to the ever-rising tone
of anxiety about the economy in the news media.
Some might even have more immediate worries
of losing a job or a home.
And I suspect your fear gauge is also rising.

What consolation can the word of God offer us today?
Our Gospel reading for today seems to depict a situation
in which the volatility index is off the charts,
with invited banquet guests
killing those who bring them their invitations
(wouldn’t a simple "no thank you" have sufficed?),
and the king who is throwing the banquet retaliating,
not just by killing the invited guests,
but by destroying their entire city.
You just want to say, "OK, everybody take a deep breath."
But our other readings sound a quite different note,
a note of confidence,
a note of faith
that we will be able to weather the storms of life,
a note of hope
that our fear gauge does not have to grow inexorably higher.
In our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians,
Paul tells us that he has learned the secret
of living in abundance and of being in need,
of being well fed and of going hungry.

Of course, the ups and downs of Paul’s fortune
do not have to do
with the ups and downs of the stock market
but with the fact that he writes from a Roman prison
and does not know if he will ever see freedom again.
Still, as different as Paul’s problems may be from ours,
we might be interested in knowing
what the secret of his equanimity is,
what the secret is
that keeps his fear gauge in the lower numbers,
despite the rather dire situation in which he finds himself.

His secret is not, as we might first suspect,
that he has simply detached himself from life,
so that he does not care and has no opinion
about how he would like things to turn out.
Paul would have been quite familiar with such a strategy,
since it was the one taught by the Stoic philosophers of his day:
one preserves oneself from life’s fortunes
by not clinging and not caring.
But it is not this path of stoic indifference that he takes;
rather, his secret, which he quite openly shares, is this:
"I can do all things in him that strengthens me."
Paul’s secret for controlling his fear gauge
is not to keep himself from caring,
not to keep himself from clinging,
but to care passionately about and cling tightly to
the one who, as he puts it,
"will fully supply whatever you need."
Paul believes, with Isaiah in our first reading,
that "the Lord God will wipe away
the tears from every face."
Paul believes, with our psalmist,
that "the Lord is my shepherd" and "I shall not want."

But notice that this hope about which Paul cares passionately
and to which he clings tightly
does not promise that Paul will not be in need
or that he will not be hungry;
it does not promise that he will ever be released from prison.
Paul’s secret is his faith that in Christ he has a hope
that can never be defeated by life’s circumstances,
because in Christ God has come to share our circumstances,
so that in all our circumstances —
whether imprisonment or financial loss
or any other situation that sets our fear gauge rising —
we can find the presence of God that will sustain us.
If we can fix our eyes on what Paul calls
God's "glorious riches in Christ Jesus,"
if we see the circumstances of our lives
as pervaded by God’s sustaining presence,
then we can find hope and we can conquer fear,
no matter what storms batter us.

This, of course, is easier said than done;
it requires that we cultivate a capacity
to pay attention to God’s presence in our lives,
a capacity that is planted in us by God’s grace,
that grows through prayer,
that is nourished through the sacraments.
But perhaps we might start
by simply attending to our own personal volatility indexes,
and when we feel our fear gauge rising,
to make our own prayer be the words of Paul:
"I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me."

Sunday, September 21, 2008

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Once, while boarding an airliner in Turkey,
I noticed a round blue and white and black object,
about four inches across,
hanging on the wall of the aircraft’s cabin .
I had seen similar objects, in a variety of sizes,
all throughout Turkey:
hanging from rear-view mirrors and around necks,
kept in pockets and purses.
When I asked, I had been told
that they were amulets to protect against the evil eye.
You see, throughout the Mediterranean world
there is widespread belief in the evil eye:
the belief that by looking enviously
upon someone else’s good fortune
one could curse that person with the evil eye,
even if one did not intend to do so.
Being the modern, Western, sophisticated,
academic type person that I am,
I of course scoff at such folk beliefs. . .
though I think I felt just a little bit more secure
knowing that my flight from Istanbul to Kayseri
was protected from the evil eye —
a sort of backup safety system.

Apparently people in Jesus’ world
believed in the evil eye as well;
indeed, the evil eye crops up
in our Gospel reading for today,
though our translation hides it.
Where it says,
"Are you envious because I am generous?"
the original Greek actually says,
"Is your eye evil because I am good?"
As today, so in Jesus’ day,
the eye that looked upon another’s good fortune with envy
was thought to be an evil eye
that brought tragedy upon others.

In fact, in Matthew’s Gospel,
Jesus mentions the evil eye twice:
in addition to today’s Gospel reading,
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that,
"The eye is the lamp of the body.
So, if your eye is single,
your whole body will be full of light;
but if your eye is evil,
your whole body will be full of darkness."
Notice that Jesus contrasts having an evil eye
with having a "single" eye,
which means, more or less,
the same thing as being "single minded"
or "keeping you eye on the ball" or,
to use another phrase from the Sermon on the Mount,
being "pure of heart."
Being "single-eyed" is a way of characterizing those
who live their lives focused on God.
So what Jesus is saying
is that if you live your life focused on God —
if you are "single-eyed" —
then you will be filled with light.
But if you are evil-eyed —
if you live your life resenting the good fortune of others —
then you will be filled with darkness.

Notice that what Jesus is saying
is something different
from the standard belief about the evil eye,
according to which
looking upon someone with envy curses them.
Jesus is saying that the evil eye,
in fact, only harms the one who is envious,
the one who casts an evil-eyed glance at another.
When we resent the good fortune of others,
it does no harm to them;
rather, we are the ones who are harmed,
we are the ones who are filled with darkness,
who lose our focus
and so experience a kind of blowback of our own envy,
who find ourselves being made miserable
by the happiness of another.

We can see this at work in today’s Gospel.
Those who worked all day and were paid a fair wage
are so filled with envy at the landowner’s generosity
toward those who came at the end of the day
and were paid the same amount
that they can not see
that they have been justly rewarded for their labors,
and cannot rejoice in the generosity bestowed on another.
The evil eye is blind
to the magnificent, glorious generosity of God,
which means that it is blind to God,
because God is nothing else
but pure, unbounded generosity —
or, as the first letter of John puts it,
God is love.
And if we are evil-eyed,
if we can see the good fortune of others
only as a injustice to ourselves,
then we find ourselves filled with darkness so deep
that even the pure light of God’s love
looks like darkness to us.

Of course, we ought not be too hard
on those laborers who had worked all day.
After all, the evil eye seems to be part
of the fallen human condition in which we all share.
Which of us has not on occasion felt
that twinge of jealousy at the good fortune of another?
Which of us has failed to see God’s generosity
simply because it fell upon someone else?

But thanks be to God that God is so generous.
In the end, today’s Gospel
is less about the envy of the workers
than it is about the generosity of the landowner.
And we know that God is generous
in bestowing light upon us,
in prayer,
through the sacraments,
and in our encounters with others.
The Gospel — the good news — for today
is that God’s grace, God’s generosity,
is powerful enough
to overcome the darkness with which the evil eye fills us,
powerful enough to burn away the envy and resentment
that blind us to God;
for God’s light shines brightly
even in the darkest places of our lives.
Our Gospel gives us hope that it is God’s generosity,
and not human envy,
that will have the last word.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples two questions:
First, he asks them, "who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
In this question, he is asking for information;
he wants a report concerning the facts of the situation;
he wants to know what they hear people saying.
But his second question is different: "Who do you say that I am?"
With this, he is asking a different sort of question:
not a question about the facts of the situation,
but a question about their faith.

But what is "faith"?
Sometimes it is easier to say what something is not that to say what it is,
and this seems to be the case
when we are trying to understand the nature of faith.
St. Thomas Aquinas says that there are two things that faith is not.
First, he says, faith is not knowledge,
or at least not the kind of knowledge we have
when we see that something is true,
like the disciples seeing or hearing what people are saying about Jesus.
Rather, faith is holding on to something that we cannot see the truth of,
something that remains obscure and mysterious.
But, second, Aquinas also says that having faith
is not the same thing as having an opinion —
such as, "yellow is a nice color" or "isn’t that a cute baby?" —
because faith isn’t just a matter of expressing our feelings about something,
but has to do with things that we believe are true,
things that are so true that we are willing to stake our lives on them.

When Jesus asks his disciples, "who do you say that I am?"
he is not asking for their opinions about him or how they feel about him.
He is asking for their faith;
he is asking whether they believe that he really is
the one that they can stake their lives on.
And in Peter’s reply, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God"
he is not reporting something that he sees,
nor is he merely stating an opinion;
rather, he is confessing his faith;
he is saying that he has staked his life on Jesus
as the fulfillment of God’s promises,
even though he cannot yet see them fulfilled.
He is saying that Jesus is the truth in whom he trusts.

We have another example of what faith looks like
in our second reading.
So often in our Sunday readings the second reading is from Paul
and is a snippet of a much longer letter
and we need to read a bit more to get the full sense.
So for those of you who have not read
Paul’s letter to the Romans in its entirety this week,
let me give you the larger context:
Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome
to introduce himself and his understanding of the Gospel.
Our reading today is the conclusion of a lengthy section of Paul’s letter
in which he grapples with what is for him a central question of faith:
if Jesus is in fact the Messiah of Israel,
for whom the Jewish people have been waiting,
why, then, have so few recognized him as such?
Paul considered himself to the end to be a Jew,
so for him this is a very personal question:
why has the messiah been rejected
by the vast majority of his fellow Jews?
More importantly,
what is God doing through this unexpected turn of events?
How can this possibly fit into God’s plan of salvation
for the Jewish people and the whole world?

Paul wants to see what God is doing in history
and so he wrangles with these question for three long chapters
in which intellectual struggle combines
with personal anguish over the fate of his people.
In course of those three chapters of struggle
Paul gains at best a very misty view of what God is up to:
hints, analogies, metaphors —
answers that will do, perhaps, for the time being.
But the real answer to Paul’s anguish
arrives in his recognition that,
though he cannot see a clear answer to his questions,
through the gift of faith he is able to remain
absolutely confident of one thing:
God is at work in history to fulfill his promises to the Jewish people
and God is working
with a wisdom that surpasses
our human powers of comprehension
for their salvation.

This is not Paul’s opinion; this is the truth that he holds onto by faith
because, like Peter,
he has found in Jesus Christ the truth in whom he trusts.
And so Paul concludes his mighty struggle to understand God’s ways
with a confession of faith
in which he acknowledges that he cannot see
and yet still will stake his life and ministry
on the truth of God’s justice and mercy:
"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How inscrutable are God’s judgments
and how unsearchable God’s ways!"

Paul makes this confession of faith in the context
of his struggle to understand
how God’s ultimate plan of human salvation is working itself out
amidst the obscure and confusing events of history.
And we, too, who gather here this morning,
are invited and empowered by God’s grace
to make this confession of faith our own
as we struggle to see how God is working
in the obscure and confusing events that surround us.
How is God at work in the deaths of 153 people
in this week’s plane crash in Spain,
or the over-2000 civilians who have died
in the conflict between Russia and Georgia?
Or, what is God up to in the protracted and painful illness
of my husband, my wife, my child, my friend?
Where is God’s justice and mercy?
Or, how does this unforseen opportunity, this new friendship,
this sudden move across the country, or even across the world,
fit into God’s plan for my salvation,
and God’s salvation of the world?
These are questions to which we often cannot see the answers —
and we may for the rest of our lives
have nothing but hints, analogies and metaphors —
but because, like Peter and like Paul,
we have found in Jesus the truth in whom we trust,
we can say,
"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How inscrutable are God’s judgments
and how unsearchable God’s ways!"

Sunday, July 20, 2008

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Last week we heard a parable from Jesus about sowing —
and saw that in the kingdom of God how one sows
might not be what we would normally expect.
Today we hear a parable from Jesus
about tending crops once they sprout —
and see that how one tends crops in the kingdom of God
is also not what one might expect:
rather than pulling up the weeds
that have been maliciously sown in the field,
and risk pulling up the wheat as well,
the owner of the field says to let the wheat and the weeds
grow together until harvest time
when they will both be pulled up and can then be separated.

Later in the section of the Gospel of Matthew from which we read today
we find an interpretation of this parable
in which the field represents the world,
the enemy who sows the weeds is the evil one, the devil,
the weeds themselves are the children of the evil one,
the wheat is the children of the kingdom,
and the harvest is the final judgement,
at which point the children of the world
will be separated out from the children of the kingdom
and cast into the fire of perdition.

This interpretation of the parable reminds us that,
while good and evil are realities in this world,
we should not judge too quickly and be too ready to uproot
what we perceive to be evil
because in doing so we may in fact harm the good.
We have seen in our own lifetimes the result of utopian schemes
to create a world free from those
whom one particular group perceives as the "weeds":
cultural revolutions, ethnic cleansings, and killing fields.
The parable shows us that,
while we must make judgements about good and evil,
we ought not act on such judgements too quickly,
because our perception is too often clouded,
leading us to pull up the wheat as well as the weeds.
It is God’s task to cleanse the world of evil,
to make the field free of weeds,
and God, whose "mastery over all things makes [God] lenient to all,"
as our first reading puts it,
chooses to leave the judgement to the harvest time,
because what at first appears a weed
just might, with God’s grace, ripen into wheat.

This interpretation has served Christians well through the centuries,
helping them to understand
how Christians should practice forbearance toward others
as we await God’s final judgement.
However, this interpretation is not the only possible one.
As Pope Gregory the Great said,
scripture "grows through reading" (Moralia 20:1),
and as Christians have read this parable in new times and places
they have discovered new aspects of it.

One such new interpretation arose in the 4th century,
in the midst of a controversy in Northern Africa
between St. Augustine
and a group of Christians known as Donatist
(not because they had any great love for donuts,
but because one of their early leaders was named Donatus).
The Donatists understood the holiness of the Church
to be constituted by the holiness of her members,
and thus, in the terms of our parable,
saw the Church to be wholly made up of the "wheat."
Thus the members of the Church,
while they may have had to live
surrounded by the weeds of the world,
could at least have the consolation of knowing
that they were part of a community of holy people.

Augustine, in contrast, saw the Church not as an enclave of purity,
but as what he called a "mixed body" of saints and sinners,
saints and sinners who could not always
be easily distinguished from one another.
Appearances can be deceiving,
and someone who appears saintly
can in fact be the worst of sinners
and someone who seems to be a sinner
could be destined by God to become a great saint.

For Augustine, the field in which weeds were mixed with wheat
was not simply the world
but also the Church in which saints and sinners grew up together.
And the forbearance shown in uprooting the weeds from the wheat
must be applied within the Church as well as in the world,
because the holiness of the Church
depends not on our goodness but on God’s grace.
Just as we can succumb to utopian schemes
designed to create a perfect world
so too we can succumb to utopian schemes
designed to create a perfect Church.

I sometimes say that the only thing worse than the Church as she actually is,
is the Church as I would have her be if I but had the power,
a Church consisting of only "good Catholics,"
as I would imagine "good Catholics" to be.

I suspect that for some of us,
we imagine a certain sort of "conservative" or "traditionalist" Catholic
as being particularly subject to this temptation:
the sort of Catholic who is enthusiastic
about excommunicating the "bad Catholics,"
meaning the ones who dissent from,
or simply struggle with,
certain Church teachings
or who vote for the wrong candidate
or who fail to be enthusiastic soldiers in the culture wars.
Such a person can succumb to thinking
that the Church would be better off without the "bad Catholics."

But I don’t think anyone is really immune from this temptation.
Those who see themselves as "progressive" Catholics
can be no less enthusiastic
about declaring their own vision of the Church to be the "true" one,
the one that embodies the spirit of Vatican II,
or the discipleship of equals,
or the Church of the future.
They can be no less quick to write off their fellow Catholics
as weeds among the wheat of progressive Catholicism
simply because they love the Tridentine Latin Mass or the rosary,
because they have large families
or think the issue of legalized abortion
is a non-negotiable in casting their vote.
Someone who thinks of themselves as liberal or progressive
can also succumb to thinking that the Church,
the Church as they would have it be,
would be better off without such people.

My point is not to single out any one group within the Church
but to point out the temptation that we all have
to think that the Church would be better off
without all the "bad Catholics," whomever we think they might be.
These thoughts are the seeds sown by the evil one
in the field of our heart.
From these thoughts spring the weeds of malice and division,
when we claim for ourselves
the ultimate judgement that belongs to God alone.
The weeds that need to be uprooted are not our fellow Catholics,
but these weeds of malice and division
that we find in ourselves, in the field of our own heart.
This does not mean that we ought to deny
that there are weeds among the wheat;
there is good and evil, right and wrong,
in the world and in the Church.
But we ought not to presume that our judgements in these matters
are God’s judgements,
that the person we see as a weed,
suitable only for uprooting and casting into the fire,
has not be chosen by God to bear much fruit.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

This week’s Gospel reading picks up
where last week’s left off:
Jesus is sending out the twelve
with the instruction to proclaim
that the kingdom of God is at hand
and to "cure the sick, raise the dead,
cleanse lepers, drive out demons."
And in today’s Gospel reading,
he gives them further instructions:
"Fear no one. . . . do not be afraid."

Years ago, back in the 1980s,
the Baltimore Oriel pitcher Dennis Martinez was seen by a reporter
talking with the Oriel’s manager, Earl Weaver,
just before the start of a game against the Yankees.
The reporter, anxious to know what wisdom
Weaver had imparted to Martinez,
asked him what special instructions Weaver had given him.
Martinez replied: "He said, ‘Throw strikes
and keep ‘em off the bases’. . . and I said, ‘O.K.’"
The reporter, needless to say, was a bit disappointed,
and puzzled by how this advice —
which we might call slightly obvious —
could be of any help to Martinez.

In overhearing Jesus’ advice to the twelve
I can’t help but feel a bit like the reporter.
OK, we should fear no one —
just like a pitcher should throw strikes
and keep runners off base —
but wouldn’t it help to have a little bit of advice
on how we should go about doing this?
Shouldn’t he give them some more practical instructions
on how they might conquer their fear,
some sort of technique — perhaps breathing exercises —
for courage in the face of opposition?
Why does he simply give them
the obvious instruction to fear no one?

But what more can he say at this point?
For that matter, what more could Earl Weaver have said?
Right before the start of a game
is hardly the time to acquire pitching skills.
Rather, Weaver simply reminds Martinez
of the essence of pitching a baseball game:
"Throw strikes and keep ‘em off the bases."

A baseball game is about many things,
many things that might be worried about,
but Weaver reminds Martinez
of what he is to be about as a pitcher:
"Throw strikes and keep ‘em off the bases."
And with this reminder
he summons everything that pitching is about:
long hours of practice on the pitching mound,
studying the technique of great pitchers,
time spent acquiring the skills needed
to throw strikes and keep runners off the bases.
In essence, he reminds Martinez of who he has become
over the course of those long hours,
and what his role is in the game that is about to unfold.

And it is the same with Jesus and the twelve.
As Jesus sends the twelve out
he doesn’t try to give them the skills they need to fear no one;
rather, he reminds them of who they have become
over the course of the time they have spent with him
and what role they are to play
in the drama of salvation that is about to unfold.
He reminds them of the essence of being a disciple:
fear no one. . . .do not be afraid.
And in saying this, he summons everything that the Gospel,
the good news that he has brought them,
is about: "Fear no one. . . do not be afraid."
In saying this, Jesus reminds them
that the death of the body
is not the worst thing that can happen;
that there are things that are to be valued
more than physical life itself,
things that no human opponent can destroy.
Jesus reminds them
that they shall never fall out of God’s sight,
and that as long has they are seen and known by God,
death cannot have the last word.

"Fear no one. . . .do not be afraid."
In saying this, Jesus reminds them
of the days and weeks they have spent with him,
learning to trust him even when others have turned away,
finding in him the source of life and meaning,
a life and meaning that cannot be quenched by death.

"Fear no one. . . .do not be afraid."
In saying this, Jesus reminds them above all
of his own example:
because he is willing to cast everything else aside
in his zeal to do the will of the one he calls "Father,"
because he knows that in him life with triumph over death.

But in telling the disciples to fear no one,
Jesus is not telling them
that there is nothing to be afraid of;
indeed, he goes out of his way to remind them
both of those who can kill the body
and the one who can kill the soul.
The opposition and the trials that they are not to fear
are real trials, real opposition.
He tells them
that God’s eye is on the sparrow that falls to earth;
but he doesn’t tell them that the sparrow does not fall.
Rather, he tells them that
if they acknowledge him before others —
if they accept what Paul in our second reading calls
"the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ" —
then they have the one thing necessary to face without fear
whatever life sends them,
whatever opposition or trial that they face
in the mission that Jesus imparts to them.
He reminds them that he can carry them through,
whatever it is that they fear,
even death itself, because he is life itself.

So what do you fear that keeps you
from playing the role that God wants you to play?
What do I fear that keeps me
from being the disciple that Jesus calls me to be?
Economic fears?
Am I afraid that with rising oil and food prices
and falling housing values
I will not be able to support myself,
to support my family,
if I do not focus my energies solely on making on money?
Social fears?
Am I afraid that if I openly profess my faith in Jesus
I will be seen by others, whose opinions I value,
as unsophisticated or naive or intolerant
or, God forbid, uncool?
Or some deeper fear?
Am I afraid that in the end,
when I am the sparrow that falls to earth,
that God’s eye being upon me won’t be enough
to transform that death into resurrection?

As in baseball, so too in our lives as Christians,
there are many things to worry about.
There are many things that hold us back
from throwing ourselves
into the role to which Jesus calls us.
And this is why in today’s Gospel Jesus reminds the twelve,
and reminds us,
of what is essential:
"Fear no one. . . . Do not be afraid."
As Paul puts it in our second reading,
the reign of death, the reign of fear, has ended
because "the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ" —
the gift of risen life — "has overflowed for the many."

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pentecost 2008

He breathed on them and said, "receive the Holy Spirit."
He breathed on them, of course,
because the Hebrew word for "spirit," ruah,
is also the word for breath.
And he breathed on them, of course,
because in the beginning God breathed into Adam
and made him a living being,
and so now Christ breathes into them
the Spirit of his own resurrected life,
overcoming the guilt and fear that kept them in a locked room.
The Spirit poured out on Jesus in his baptism —
the Spirit that Jesus drew in, like drawing breath into his lungs —
he now breathes out upon his disciples
so that they too might draw it in,
so that they too might share in his Spirit.

Some of you have probably hear about Caesar’s last breath,
an example commonly used in Chemistry classrooms
to explain molecular diffusion:
The average human breath,
including the last breath exhaled by the dying Julius Caesar,
contains 1022 molecules of air
and the world as a whole contains 1044 molecules of air.
Presuming a number of things,
such as a relatively even diffusion of air molecules over time,
and by means of a series of calculations
that my brain cannot quite follow,
we find that there is a 98.2% chance
that at least one of the molecules of air in your lungs
came from Caesar’s last breath.
I presume that this also means that there is a 98.2% chance
that at least one of the molecules of air in your lungs
came from that breath
that Christ breathed out upon the disciples
in the upper room —
a 98.2% chance
that you have taken in his breath, his ruah, his Spirit.

How do you like those odds?
They sound pretty good.
There is a 98.2% chance
that at any given moment we have the Spirit of Jesus.

But of course God doesn’t really leave such things to chance;
the Spirit’s work, mysterious as it is,
is not really like the random diffusion of molecules,
and thanks be to God for that.
Thanks be to God that we don’t have to wonder
if we have a molecule of Christ’s breath in our bodies,
because the Spirit of Christ has drawn us into his body.
As Paul reminds us in our second reading,
"in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body."
All of us here today who are baptized
have been drawn into the body of Christ,
and now live in that place where the Holy Spirit dwells,
the Spirit that fills and gives life to Christ’s body.
But there is more to say about this Spirit, this breath of Christ.
Unlike Julius Caesar, Christ never breathed a last breath.
It is not like Christ
breathed the Spirit out on his disciples in the Upper Room
and has been holding his breath for the past 2000 years.
His body continues to breathe the Spirit in and breathe it out,
diffusing that Spirit in the world.

And we, who have been baptized in the one Spirit,
who through baptism have been drawn
into the one body of Christ,
are breathed out with the Spirit;
we are carried by the Spirit out into the world.
The breathing in and breathing out of the Spirit
is the rhythm by which Christ’s body lives.
From the scattered places of the world —
Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Phrygia,
the Philippines, the Netherlands, New Orleans,
Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County,
21217, 21210, 21212 —
we are drawn into unity
and we are breathed out in mission to the world.
Each Sunday, we are drawn on the currents of the Spirit
into the one body of Christ,
the body that we receive at this altar,
and each Sunday we depart
to live the life of the Spirit that we have received.
We are drawn from the scattered diversity of our lives
into the unity that Christ’s Eucharist creates,
and from that unity we are sent out into a new sort of diversity,
the diversity of the Spirit’s gifts,
the Spirit who, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said,
"delights in multitude"
and "lives a million lives in every age, . . .
[who] passes like a restless breath from heart to heart
and is the Spirit and life of all the Church."

Because the Spirit delights in multitude,
the holiness that the Spirit creates
is lived out in an uncountable multitude of ways.
There is no one way to be holy.
The prodigal risk of the vowed religious
is not the same as the persistence of the parent;
the courage of the martyr
is not the same as the careful stewardship of the political leader;
the fervor of the recent convert is not the same
as the sometimes exasperated love for the Church
of the cradle Catholic.
There is no one way to be holy,
but there is one Spirit from whom all holiness comes,
and thus our differences build up
rather than tear down Christ’s body.

If in the diversity of our lives
we live out the unity of the one Spirit
from which we drink at this altar,
then perhaps it will be through us
that those whom we meet in our daily lives
will sense, perhaps only faintly,
or perhaps in very dramatic ways,
the presence of Christ’s Spirit,
will feel the breath of Jesus upon their faces,
and will drink in the one Spirit
and join in that multitude in whom the Spirit delights.