Saturday, February 17, 2024

Lent 1


In celebrating the first Sunday of Lent
we hear each year the story 
of Jesus’ temptation in the desert.
The Gospel of Mark’s account, however,
which we have just heard,
seems quite brief and spare
in comparison with the versions
we find in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.
It makes no mention of Jesus fasting,
or of the great hunger he felt at the end of forty days,
or of the dramatic threefold temptation by which
the devil seeks to exploit his hunger.
It may strike us as lacking something 
by comparison with the accounts 
found in the other gospels,
but I believe its stark simplicity
has at least two advantages.

First, its spareness is both
evocative and provocative.
Phrases like “tempted by Satan”
or “he was among the wild beasts”
or “the angels ministered to him”
describe little but suggest much,
and they provoke us to ponder 
what they might mean.
How was he tempted?
What were those wild beast?
What could it mean to be 
ministered to by angels?
These words provoke the imagination,
because they have so much space in them
that the imagination might fill.

And as our imaginations fill in the story,
drawing upon our own experience,
we become a part of it:
our story merges with Jesus’ story.
The temptations of Jesus become 
my temptations:
my compulsive and chaotic hungers,
my overweening pride and ambition,
my desire for admiration and control.
The wild beasts around Jesus become 
the challenges and perils that I face:
my inability to do the good that I know I should do,
my discouragement in the face of disappointed hopes,
my struggles with misunderstanding, conflict, and rejection.
The ministrations of the angels become
my experience of the many and varied ways
in which God’s fills me with his grace:
friends and family who continually
support me in my struggles,
strangers who speak to me 
just the right word at just the right moment,
the Church and her sacraments,
in which and through which
I have fellowship with Jesus himself.

The evocative and provocative simplicity
of Mark’s account of Jesus’ sojourn in the desert
suggests that what Lent invites us to do
is to join our stories to the story of Jesus;
to let the story of his journey 
from cross to resurrection
envelop our stories,
to let Jesus be the Ark in which we make
our forty-day journey,
so that our weakness might become strength,
our struggle might become victory,
our dying might become living.

Though Mark’s story of Jesus’ temptation
invites us to enter imaginatively into it,
and through it into the story 
of Jesus’s cross and resurrection,
it also has the advantage of reminding us
that we are not the heroes of the story.
God is.
The story’s silence 
on what Jesus does and says in the wilderness 
reminds us that what we do 
through our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving
is not really what Lent is about.
Lent is about what God does for us.
If Mark’s story included 
Jesus’ extraordinary feat 
of fasting for forty days,
or his oh-so-clever responses 
to the devil’s temptations,
then the invitation to enter into the story
might itself become a temptation:
the temptation to imagine that our fasting
and our responses to temptation
are what Lent is all about.
But Mark’s story of Jesus in the desert
focuses us instead on the action of God:
the way God shelters us and provides for us,
and through our Lenten discipline
makes us partakers
in the victory of Jesus,
who, as St. Peter says,
“suffered for sins once,
the righteous for the sake 
of the unrighteous,
that he might lead you to God.”

The early Christian theologian Irenaeus
wrote that God created human beings
not because he needed us 
to do something for him 
that he could not do for himself,
but because he wanted 
to bestow on us his blessings; 
he calls us to serve him
not because he needs our service
but because by becoming servants
of so glorious a master
we come to share in his glory.
The disciplines of Lent are not
something we offer to God
but rather something God offers to us.
They are a chance to turn our focus 
away from ourselves 
and toward God,
away from what we can to
and toward what God can do.

So let us enter with Christ 
into the Lenten wilderness;
let us confront temptation and peril
with him to protect us
and his angels to minister 
to us in our need.
Let us pray and fast and give alms,
confident that God, who is merciful,
will have mercy on us all.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Feast of Thomas Aquinas


The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle
wrote that “all people by nature desire to know.”
Aristotle thought that what it meant to be human
was to be the kind of animal whose greatest desire
was to answer the question “why?”
Why does fire make things hot
and ice make things cool? 
Why do crabs move the upper part of their claws
and not the lower part?
Why do we judge some actions 
to be worthy of praise
and others to be worthy of condemnation?
Because this constant asking of “why?” 
is built into our nature,
it appears in us
pretty much as soon as we learn to speak,
as any parent of a toddler can tell you.

St. Thomas, 
who referred to Aristotle
simply as the Philosopher, 
agreed with him on this,
as he did on many things.
He too thought that what makes us different 
from all the other animals in the world
is that we ask questions,
and we ask them because we want to know things,
and we want to know things because, ultimately,
we want to understand ourselves 
and our place in the world.
We human beings desire wisdom
because wisdom leads to happiness.

But Thomas did not need Aristotle 
to tell him this.
He already had King Solomon,
who in today’s first reading 
compares wisdom to a beautiful woman,
and says, “I preferred her to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her…
I chose to have her rather than the light, 
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.”
Both Solomon and Thomas recognized
that we humans will never understand 
ourselves and our place in our world,
until we know the whys 
and the wherefores of things,
and not just of this or that thing,
but of everything;
not just the why of heating and cooling
and the claws of crabs
and human praise,
but why there is anything at all—
why there is something 
rather than nothing.
And to know the why 
and the wherefore of everything
is to know God,
for he is our creator and, 
as Solomon tells us,
“both we and our words 
are in his hand.”

So Thomas Aquinas devoted his life to asking “why?”
and to teaching other people how to ask “why?”
until they arrived at the end of “why” 
and there found God.
He sought wisdom everywhere:
in ancient pagan philosophers 
like Aristotle,
in Jewish and Muslim thinkers 
like Maimonides and Avicenna,
in Christian theologians 
like Augustine and Gregory the Great,
but above all in the pages of Sacred Scripture,
where he found Jesus Christ,
the way and the truth and the life,
God’s wisdom in human flesh.
The story is told of a time 
near the end of Thomas’s life
when he was praying in front of a crucifix
and Christ spoke to him from the cross:
“You have written well of me, Thomas. 
What reward would you receive 
from me for your labor?”
Thomas responded to the image of the crucified:
Non nisi Te, Domine— “nothing but you, Lord.”

For all his great learning,
for all his scholarly accomplishments,
Thomas, like Paul in our second reading,
in the end “resolved to know nothing…
except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
Nothing but you, Lord.
Nothing but you, 
not because I no longer desire 
to know the whys and wherefores of things,
not because I no longer yearn 
to understand myself 
and my place in the world,
not because I have fallen out of love
with the beautiful Lady Wisdom,
but because I am more deeply in love with her
than ever before,
and have come to see that God’s wisdom
is not the wisdom of the rulers of this age
but is a wisdom mysterious and hidden,
a wisdom wrapped within your cross, O Jesus,
a wisdom that seems like foolishness to the world
because it says that the greatest among us
must become the servant of all,
that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled; 
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

All people by nature desire to know,
and what St. Thomas desired to know
was the wisdom of the cross.
All our knowing amounts to nothing
if we do not take for our teacher
Jesus Christ and him crucified;
for he is the why 
and the wherefore of everything.
St. Thomas says in one of his sermons
that whoever wishes 
to live a fully human life
must reject what Christ rejected on the cross
and embrace what he embraced: 
we must reject the false wisdom of the world
and embrace a wisdom 
that might look like foolishness, 
a wisdom that rejects pride and embraces humility,
a wisdom that rejects the desire to dominate and control
and embraces faith in the power of God.
For to embrace the wisdom of the cross
is to know the God who can sustain us
at the lowest points in our lives:
when it seems that hope is lost
and darkness has eclipsed the light.
To embrace the wisdom of the cross
is to know also the resurrection
and the power of God to save;
it is to know the light 
whose splendor never yields to sleep.

All people by nature desire to know.
As we seek to grasp 
the why and wherefore of all things,
let us learn from St. Thomas,
not because he knew 
how to draw subtle philosophical distinctions,
not because he knew the writings
of Aristotle and Avicenna and Augustine,
not even because of his superb knowledge 
of God’s revelation in Sacred Scripture;
let us learn from him 
because he knew the wisdom of the cross.
Let us learn from him how to say to Jesus,
Non nisi te, Domine—nothing but you, Lord.
Let us learn to live in the light
whose splendor never yields to sleep.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Holy Family


My son and his wife are awaiting the birth 
of their first child, any day now.
More importantly, 
my wife and I are awaiting the birth 
of our first grandchild, any day now.

Awaiting the birth of a child—
or a grandchild—
is a funny thing.
You know that this will be
a life-defining relationship:
this person you are waiting to meet
will be someone who, God willing,
you will know for the rest of your life;
this person will play a role in your life
unlike any other.
Your anticipation is so intense,
you feel as if you already know them.

In fact, however, you know very little
about this person you are awaiting.
What will they look like?
Will they be tall or short?
Slight or stout?
What will their personality be like?
Will they be quiet and bookish
or an extroverted thrill-seeker,
or—what is most likely—
will they possess a unique combination 
of interests and talents and quirks and traits
that combine to make them 
completely and utterly themselves?

You have some ideas, 
some guesses you can make
based on family traits and interests,
the lineage from which the child comes
and the environment in which they will grow.
But, to utter what may be 
the biggest understatement ever, 
children have a way of surprising you.
Their lives take paths unexpected 
as they become the person they will be,
paths that are not set for them
by their parent’s hopes and dreams.
And so you await a stranger
whom you must come to know,
someone who remains a mystery 
that must unfold itself in time.
This is why parenting
is one of life’s great adventures.

In today’s Gospel, 
Simeon and Anna also await a child.
The child they await is not their child,
nor even their grandchild,
but it is still a child of their family:
for they are Jews,
descendants of Abraham,
and the child to be born 
is to be the fulfillment 
of the promise made by God to Abraham
that through him and his offspring
all the families of the earth 
would be blessed;
the child they await will be 
the consolation and glory 
of the people of Israel.
Simeon and Anna 
have awaited this child
not for weeks or months
but for the whole of their lives;
the Jewish people
have awaited this child for centuries.
This child so long awaited 
is for the people of Israel 
a life-defining relationship,
he will play a role in their life 
like no other.
Their anticipation is so intense,
that they feel as if they already know him.
For this child is born of Abraham’s lineage;
he will grow and develop
within the stories and rituals and laws 
of the covenant God made with Abraham;
he will bring that covenant to fulfillment.

But Simeon and Anna also know 
that they await a stranger,
one whose unique existence
can in no way be anticipated,
can in no way be contained 
within their hopes and dreams.
Will he come as judge or a savior?
Will he defeat Israel’s enemies
or gather them into God’s covenant?
Will he restore David’s earthly kingdom
or transform the very fabric of the universe?
This child, like any child 
newly born into the world,
remains a mystery
that must unfold itself in time.
But even more so than other children, 
this child will burst the boundaries
set by any human expectation,
for the mystery his life will unfold in time,
is the mystery of the eternal God himself.

Simeon, filled by the Spirit 
with holy anticipation,
is able to truly welcome this child
because he embraces him as a mystery,
as one “destined for the fall and rise 
of many in Israel,”
as one who is “a sign 
that will be contradicted,”
as one through whom, 
“the thoughts of many hearts 
may be revealed.” 
Simeon embraces the child 
not as one who fits neatly 
into his hopes and dreams, 
but as the divine mystery 
who overturns his hopes,
so as to give to him a better hope,
a deeper grasp of the strangeness 
of a salvation that flows 
from God made present in the flesh,
and dwelling among us as a child.
Holding the very mystery of God in his arms,
Simeon prays, “Now, Master, 
you may let your servant go in peace,”
for he knows that, 
whoever this child turns out to be,
in him Simeon’s hopes and dreams 
have found their place of rest.

Though Jesus was born many centuries ago,
we too await his arrival in our lives.
Already born in us through baptism,
he also remains to us the stranger
whom we must come to know.
Though he is present to us
in his word, in his Church, in his poor,
in his sacramental signs,
we, like Simeon, embrace him as a mystery,
the one who will overturn our hopes
to give to us a better hope.
The life of each of us reborn in him
becomes part of the unfolding 
of God’s eternal mystery in time,
an unfolding whose outcome we await.
This is why the life of faith
is the ultimate adventure,
for it is a journey into 
the eternal mystery 
of God himself,
a journey in which we come to know
the one who has loved us into existence.
As we continue on that journey
let us pray that God who is merciful
will have mercy on us all.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Christmas: Mass at Dawn


At least for some of us,
Christmas disappoints. 
We hope to receive a gift that we will love
but did not know we even wanted.
We hope ourselves to give gifts 
that will delight the ones we love the most.
We hope to sing songs that will lift our hearts
above the sorrows that shadow every life
not just for a moment, but forever.
We hope to prepare a meal that will fill
not just our bellies with food
but our hearts with joy.
But as the morning passes
and turns into day and then into evening,
we might find our shining hopes turn bitter, 
like the aftertaste of too many sweets. 
Sylvia Plath, in The Bell Jar,
her memoir-disguised-as-a-novel,
wrote, “I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, 
the way I always do the day after Christmas, 
as if whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles 
and the silver and gilt-ribboned presents 
and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey 
and the carols at the piano promised 
never came to pass.”
Christmas disappoints 
as hopes grown great in anticipation
are gradually deflated with the passing of the day.

Were the shepherds disappointed in Christmas?
After the angelic array and the celestial songs
and the proclamation of good tidings of great joy
and the promise of peace to God’s people,
were they disappointed when they found
a quite ordinary looking infant
and his ordinary and no doubt exhausted parents
who probably were not at that moment
terribly excited to receive guests,
especially not a bunch of scruffy shepherds.
Did they look at the humble surroundings
in which their supposed savior was found
and wonder how this could possibly be
the fulfillment of their hopes—
hopes that had grown in anticipation
not just for hours or days or weeks
but through centuries in which 
their people had longed 
for a kingdom of God?
Did the shepherds leave there deflated,
their hopes disappointed 
by the ordinariness of it all,
regretting that they had ever 
hoped in the first place?

But Luke tells us that 
“the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God 
for all they had heard and seen.” 
Perhaps the shepherds were graced 
with sight to see beyond the ordinary.
Perhaps they could see already here,
in this tiny infant in the manger,
the light that had come into the world,
the light that enlightens all people,
the light that the darkness could not overcome.
The seventeenth-century poet Richard Crashaw,
imagined the shepherds speaking to the child:
We saw thee in thy balmy nest,
       Young dawn of our eternal day!
We saw thine eyes break from their east
       And chase the trembling shades away.
We saw thee, and we bless’d the sight,
We saw thee by thine own sweet light.

Christmas is not simply 
our feeble human endeavor
to find a bit of hope 
amid the dark days of winter’s gloom;
it is not simply our desperate attempt 
at convincing ourselves
that people are not so bad after all,
that we are not so bad after all.
It is not simply pine boughs and candles 
and presents and birch-log fires 
and the Christmas turkey and carols.
If that were all it was,
then, yes, we should be disappointed.
But if we can see the newborn Jesus 
by his own sweet light,
the light that he sheds abroad in our hearts
to chase the trembling shades away,
then Christmas will not disappoint.

Sylvia Plath, after recounting 
her disappointment in Christmas,
adds wistfully, 
“At Christmas I almost wished
I was a Catholic.”
It is as if she recognizes
that the only way 
that Christmas will not disappoint
is if we find in it the mystery of faith 
that we proclaim each week:
that God from God and light from light
has come down from heaven
and taken flesh
for us and for our salvation.
Christmas will not disappoint
only if we can see in it
what the shepherds saw:
the young dawn of our eternal day.
Christmas will not disappoint
only if Christ gives to us, here and now,
the unanticipated gift of eternal life;
if he fills our hearts with angelic song
that is endlessly delightful,
if he spreads for us the feast of his love
that is our foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

Christmas does not disappoint 
because it is the great act of God in Christ,
making himself what we are
so that we might be what he is—
beloved children of God,
and heirs in hope of eternal life,
“not because of any 
righteous deeds we had done
but because of his mercy.”
So let us pray 
on this Christmas morning
that God, who is merciful,
might show us Christ 
in his own sweet light,
chasing all shades 
of disappointment
from our hearts,
and revealing 
his mercy in us all.

 

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Advent 4


King David has big plans.
He has conquered the Canaanite city of Jebus,
renaming it Jerusalem—“vision of peace”—
and making it the royal capital.
He has brought the Ark of the Covenant,
containing the tablets on which
God had inscribed the ten commandments, 
to Jerusalem and placed it in a tent,
making his capitol city the religious,
as well as political, center of his kingdom.
And now he dreams of raising a noble Temple
that would house the Ark—
indeed, would be the House of God.
David, of course, couches his big plans
in pious terms of doing something for God:
“Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent!”
And maybe David even believes 
his own pious rhetoric;
perhaps he sincerely wants 
to do something great for God.

But God knows David’s heart
better than David himself.
God knows how often our big plans
of doing something great for God
are tied up with our desire 
for greatness for ourselves:
for renown in our own day
and a legacy that will last into the future.
And God knows the lengths 
to which we will go 
in order to secure 
that renown and that legacy.
In the version of this story found
in the First Book of Chronicles,
God says to David:
“You may not build a house for my name, 
for you are a man who waged wars 
and shed blood” (28:3).
God reminds David that it is not he
who has done great things for God,
but it is God who has done
great things for him:
taking him from his humble status 
and making him a king of great renown
ruling over God’s people.
Moreover, God promises him
that God will secure his legacy,
that God will ensure that his line 
of descendants shall not die out,
that God will raise up from his lineage
a kingdom whose throne will endure forever.

Mary has no big plans.
She is just a young woman
betrothed to a carpenter,
probably planning a simple wedding
and hoping for a happy marriage.
Whatever dreams she has
are dreams not for herself
but for her people—
seemingly impossible dreams—
dreams that God’s promises 
will come to pass,
that God will raise up from David’s line
one who will restore God’s kingdom,
will free God’s people from Roman occupation,
will make a world where people like her,
people who rule nothing and no one,
can serve their God
and live their lives in peace.

Mary has no big plans,
but God does.
Indeed, it is precisely because 
she has no big plans for herself,
no dream except the dream of God’s kingdom,
no hope except the hope of serving her God,
that God can draw her 
into his plan,
into his dream,
into “the mystery kept secret for long ages,”
but now about to be made manifest in her.
“Hail, full of grace!... 
you have found favor with God…
you will conceive in your womb and bear a son…
and the Lord God will give him 
the throne of David his father…
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
These words will upend Mary’s life
and any plans she may have had,
for who could plan for such a thing?

Yet while Mary has not planned for this,
she is prepared for it,
because God’s grace has cultivated in her
openness to whatever God will do,
acceptance of however God might act in her life.
What God had promised to David—
a kingdom that would endure forever—
will come to pass within Mary,
because her plans are God’s plans,
her hopes are God’s hopes,
her dreams are God’s dreams. 
Indeed, something greater
than what was promised to David
will come to pass in her.
For she herself will become 
the Ark of the Covenant, 
the tabernacle enclosing God in the flesh,
the womb of God’s eternal kingdom.

And what about our big plans?
Probably most of us 
aren’t much like David;
we don’t think in terms of building 
an empire and an everlasting legacy.
But how much are we like Mary?
How much do we set aside 
our plans for securing our own, 
small-scale renown and legacy
within our own little empires—
our jockeying for promotions,
our amassing of nest-eggs,
our seeking of recognition,
our bending others to our wills?
How willing are we 
to hope God’s hopes
and dream God’s dreams,
to suspend our planning
so as to prepare our hearts 
to receive the living God,
to let him dwell in us
and upend our lives?

The Advent season is almost gone;
only a few hours are left.
But in God’s grace there is still time.
There is still time to prepare 
by setting our plans aside,
so that we might let grace open us up
to the eruption of mystery into our lives,
God’s dream kept secret for long ages,
but now revealed to us in Christ.
There is still time 
to dream God’s dream
because God is merciful.
So may the God of mercy
have mercy on us all, 
and to the only wise God, 
through Jesus Christ
be glory forever and ever. 
Amen.

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Advent 2


We hear today from the Second Letter of Peter,
“The earth and everything done on it 
will be found out.”
St. Augustine, picking up on the idea
of everything being revealed, 
wrote that in the new heavens 
and new earth that we await,
“The thoughts of our minds will lie open 
to mutual observation…; 
for [the Lord] will light up 
what is hidden in darkness 
and will reveal 
the thoughts of the heart.” (Civ. Dei 22.29).

Now that’s a terrifying prospect.

Think of how you would feel about someone
looking at your internet search history.
Even if it contains nothing 
outright illegal or immoral,
it likely contains some things 
that are acutely embarrassing,
like when we searched for recent pictures 
of a high school girlfriend or boyfriend,
or when we Googled some stupid question
like “who is the governor of Maryland?” 
or “who would win a fight 
between Batman and Superman?”
or when we searched for 
some scrap of celebrity gossip, 
or even Googled ourselves to find out
if the world is taking notice of us 
(this apparently is known as “ego-surfing”).
And some of our searches 
are not just embarrassing;
some of our searches are heartbreaking,
revealing sorrows we hold deep within:
“How do I know if my spouse is cheating?”
“What are the signs of child abuse?”
“What is the survival prognosis 
for pancreatic cancer?”
“What happens after we die?”

Contrast your internet search history
with what you see on social media.
Whenever I look at Facebook or Instagram.
it seems like everyone I know
is living their best life.
They are eating in restaurants that serve
exquisitely prepared dishes;
they are visiting places 
of cultural importance
or great natural beauty;
they are celebrating significant milestones
and impressive career achievements;
and their kids and grandkids
are saying the cutest things imaginable.

The world of social media allows us 
to curate the self that we show to the world,
to hide our thoughts and actions 
so that no one knows our pettiness,
our vanity, our foolishness, our triviality
or the deep sorrow on which we put a brave face.
But, Peter tells us, everything done on earth—
every action taken, every thought thought—
will be found out on the day of the Lord,
which comes like a thief,
dissolving the elements in fire,
dissolving the pretenses behind which we hide,
dissolving the curated self-image 
that we show to the world,
and revealing the search histories of our lives 
for what they are:
searches for meaning and love and fulfillment
that have often been futile and misdirected
and tragic and sorrowful.

On the day of the Lord 
everyone will know
that I’m just faking it.
I’m not living my best life;
in fact, my life is a mess,
my dinner is burnt,
my vacation was stressful,
my career feels like a dead end,
and my kids drive me crazy.
And on the day of the Lord I will know
that everyone else is also faking it,
that they’re not okay;
that their lives are no less messy than mine.
The day of the Lord promises to be
profoundly uncomfortable for everyone.

But in the midst of our messy lives,
in the midst of our fears 
about them being unveiled, 
the word of God says to us today, 
“Comfort, give comfort to my people…
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”
God is coming:
racing through the desert of our pretense,
crashing into the wasteland 
of the carefully curated lives 
we present to the world;
filling in the valleys and leveling the mountains
that we use to hide our messy realities
in all their vanity and foolishness, 
their triviality and sorrow.
God comes not to condemn
but to comfort;
not to scold or shame us 
for the messiness of our lives,
but to join us in the mess,
to show to us the love for which 
we have been searching, 
to bear the sorrow of our sin 
so that we might be saved,
to know the brokenness of our hearts 
so that they might be mended.

Everything done on the earth shall be known
because until it is known it cannot be healed.
Shame and secrecy are evil’s greatest weapons,
because they allow evil to hide from the light
that would destroy it.
It is no accident 
that the sacrament of Reconciliation
involves bringing into the light
everything that we would like to keep hidden,
laying openly before God, 
present through the ministry of the priest,
the search history of our lives,
the misdirected desires and foolish choices,
the secret sorrows and unspoken regrets.
Dorothy Day said of confession,
“You do not want to make too much 
of your constant imperfections and venial sins,
but you want to drag them out to the light of day
as the first step in getting rid of them” (The Long Loneliness).

In Advent we celebrate 
the coming of light into the world,
the light that reveals everything done on earth:
the search for love and meaning, 
the search that has so often gone astray
into vanity and foolishness, 
triviality and sorrow.
We celebrate the light
that comes to guide us to the truth,
the truth about ourselves,
and the truth about the God
who turns shame into glory 
through the power of his mercy.
So let us pray in this Advent
that God who is merciful
would have mercy on us all.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Prv 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; 1 Thes 5:1-6; Mt 25:14-30

“Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting.”
The Book of Proverbs offers this 
as advice for finding a wife,
and it is not bad advice.
In fact, it’s pretty good advice
for finding a husband as well.
Childhood tales of a happily ever after
with a Prince Charming 
or a Sleeping Beauty
may have lodged deep in our psyches,
and good looks and smooth talk
can give us a momentary romantic thrill,
but over time looks fade, 
and the challenges of daily life
are not typically met
by sweet nothings 
whispered in our ears.
Far better, Proverbs tells us,
to find someone 
who has practical skills
and a generous heart,
someone who possesses inner beauty
that time cannot bear away.

This, of course, is not just 
good advice for seeking a spouse;
it’s also good advice for living a life.
For experience tells us 
that time runs in only one direction,
and as it runs it takes its toll
on the superficially charming 
and the passingly beautiful.
And our faith tells us 
that time itself will one day end,
that “the day of the Lord will come
like a thief at night,”
and that we will not be judged
on the basis of our charm and beauty,
but on what use we have made of the time
that God has entrusted to us.
Like the master in the parable,
God has given us a measure of time,
and on the day of Christ’s return
we will have to give an accounting
of how we have spent that time:
whether we have hidden it away
in a futile attempt to preserve it,
or have taken the risk of spending it
in service to God’s kingdom,
reaching out our hands to the poor,
and extending our arms to the needy.

We know our time is limited.
We believe we will be asked 
for an accounting of that time.
Why, then, do we not feel 
more urgency about our lives?
Why do we continue to say, 
“peace and security”
as the tumultuous day 
of Christ our Master 
draws ever nearer?
Why do we dig a hole in the ground
and bury our lives beneath trivialities,
which may be charming and beautiful
but which time bears inexorably away?

This is a question that I ask myself.
If I truly believe the things I say that I believe—
things that I say every week in the creed,
things like “he will come again in glory 
to judge the living and the dead 
and his kingdom will have no end”—
why then does my life look 
pretty much like the lives of those 
who do not believe this?
Why, if I am a child of light and day,
do I live my life like a child of darkness and night?
I don’t mean by this that I am some great sinner;
in fact, my sins are somewhat embarrassingly mediocre.
No, to live like a child of darkness and night
is simply to live a life of drowsy indifference,
a life that might have a kind of 
superficial charm and beauty,
but which lacks a sense of urgency,
lacks a sense that eternal life itself is at stake
in what transpires in this brief span of time
that God has entrusted to me.
Why is God not at all times my top priority?
As one of the early desert fathers put it,
“Why not be utterly changed into fire?”

This is one of the great mysteries of the spiritual life.
What is holding me back from living a life
like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Ignatius Loyola,
like St. Teresa of Calcutta or St. Oscar Romero,
like venerable Mother Mary Lange 
or servant of God Dorothy Day?
How can I see the power of God at work in them
and not want God to work in me in that same way?

But I do want God to work in my in that way.
And I suspect you do too. 
We human beings, however, 
are complicated animals.
We are somehow completely captive 
to deceptive charm and fleeting beauty
even as we feel an urge 
toward a goodness that is true 
and a beauty that is eternal.
We say to ourselves “peace and security,”
even as we suspect that the Lord is coming
to overturn our lives.
We bury our time beneath trivialities
even as we long to hear those words,
“Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
How do I let the part 
that hungers for holiness
direct my life,
and not the part 
that drowses in indifference?

Alas, I fear I don’t have an answer.
Like I said, we’re complicated animals.
But I do know this:
I know we must lean 
upon the grace that comes to us 
through Jesus Christ. 
I know we must pray that his grace 
would grow in us a yearning for him,
a hunger for his holiness, 
a longing for the day of the Lord,
the day when Christ will speak to us
the truth about our lives.
I know we must pray 
that these will not have been lives 
of deceptive charm and fleeting beauty
but lives utterly transformed 
by the fire of divine love.
I know we must pray that God, 
who is merciful,
might have mercy on us all.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Writing to the Christians in Thessalonica,
converts from paganism,
St. Paul commends them for having
“turned… from idols
to serve the living and true God.”
Idol worship was common in the time of Paul;
indeed, the Jewish people 
were thought to be oddballs
because the temple where they worshipped 
contained no representations of their God.
But the Jews were adamant that their God,
the living and true God, 
could not be represented 
by something made by human hands,
and that those who practiced idolatry
worshipped gods who were dead and false,
glittering products of craft and ingenuity
that could neither see nor hear,
could neither give love nor receive it.

For St. Paul, as for all Jews,
the problem with idolatry 
is not that God has no image.
Indeed, the book of Genesis tells us
that human beings are created 
in the image and likeness of God,
so images of God are all around us.
The problem with idolatry 
is that it ensnares us in the illusion
that the images of God that we create
are the true image of God,
so that we are relieved of the burden
of having to honor
the image of God that God creates,
the human images of God 
we encounter in our daily lives.

The Jewish alternative to the worship of idols
is summed up by Jesus in today’s Gospel:
the true way to worship God
is to “love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind,”
and to “love your neighbor 
as yourself.”
Love of God and love of neighbor
constitute, in their unity,
what it means to worship God.
All other acts of worship—
prayer and fasting,
ritual and sacrifice—
are nothing without these two,
because we find the true image of God,
the image not made by human hands,
in the person of our neighbor 
and in ourselves.

Of course, avoiding idolatry
is nothing so simple 
as not making physical images of God.
We can craft idolatrous images of God
with our minds as well as with our hands.
We can imagine God 
as a heavenly police officer
enforcing our rules,
or a divine therapist
salving our consciences,
or as cosmic life-coach
telling us that we can have it all.
We can imagine God 
to be a god who suits our needs,
a god who serves us
rather than the God whom we serve.
Such a god, no less than a statue of Zeus,
is an image fashioned by human beings,
and to set up such a god
in place of the living and true God
is no less an act of idolatry.
Indeed, for most of us
it is a much more common, 
much more tempting, 
form of idolatry.

But even if we banish 
these false images of God 
from our minds,
this is not enough to avoid idolatry.
We must not only avoid honoring false images;
we must also properly honor the true image.

We honor the true and living 
image of God in ourselves
when we give up on the idea that we are self-made:
that our accomplishments are somehow our own,
that we owe nothing to anyone,
perhaps not even to God.
This is a false image of ourselves,
for a true image is one that always reflects
and is dependent on that of which it is an image.
No less than the human-made idols in a temple,
the image of ourselves as self-made 
is an image that is lifeless and false,
a glittering product of human craft and ingenuity
that can neither give nor receive love.
To know myself as an image of God
is to know my true worth and dignity,
it is to know my own existence as a gift
that I neither earn nor deserve.

We honor the true and living 
image of God in our neighbor
when we see that they too exist as divine gifts:
gifts to themselves and gifts to us.
Among the first laws that God gives to the Israelites
after they have been freed from captivity in Egypt
are laws protecting widows and orphans
and foreigners living among them.
These, whom scripture describes 
as the “little ones,”
are groups uniquely vulnerable:
foreigners have no tribe to protect them,
widows have no husbands,
orphans no father.
Each of them is subject 
to abuse and exploitation,
to being used by the powerful
to enrich their coffers
or indulge their appetites.
Even if not actively exploited,
they are all too easily 
overlooked and abandoned
by those who ought to come to their aid.
But God does not overlook them;
he says to the Israelites,
“If ever you wrong them 
and they cry out to me,
I will surely hear their cry.”

Perhaps the problem is that we presume 
that the image of God
is to be found only 
in the great and powerful—
in those self-made people
who have clawed their way 
to the top of the heap—
and not in those 
weak and vulnerable ones 
who lie crushed 
and shattered in their wake.
But this too is idolatry,
for it fails to see that the image
of the true and living God, 
is to be found in these little ones 
above all others.
For God has shown their image 
to be his image
by taking vulnerable flesh 
and dying on a cross,
abused by the powerful
and abandoned by his friends,
abandoned by all but his Father,
who heard his cry and raised him to new life.

God calls us today to turn away from idols:
the idol of a god who suits my needs,
the idol of myself as self-made,
the idol of my needy neighbor 
as one whom I am free 
to exploit or overlook.
God calls us to turn 
to the true and living God,
to love that God with all of our 
heart, soul, and mind
and to love our neighbor as ourself.
May this God—
living, true, and merciful—
have mercy on us all.

 

Saturday, October 14, 2023

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time


I am always struck, 
when reading Matthew’s version
of the parable of the wedding feast,
by how violent and disturbing it is.
Luke’s gospel includes the same parable,
but there it is a pretty straightforward story
of people refusing an invitation to a great feast
and other people being invited in their stead.
But in Matthew’s version
we have emissaries murdered,
cities destroyed,
and guests who are underdressed
being cast into the outer darkness.
Luke’s simple story of the abundant feast 
to which God invites us,
and the importance of accepting that invitation,
takes on in Matthew a dark and somber coloring.

Matthew’s parable shows a world 
in which people act 
against their own self-interest:
what do the unwilling invitees gain
by killing those servants
who brought them the invitation?
It shows a world in which people
more than match evil for evil:
why destroy the innocent
alongside the guilty
in retaliation for murder?
It shows us a world beset by,
as the prophet Isaiah puts it,
“the veil that veils all peoples,
the web that is woven over all nations.”
It shows us a world 
enclosed in the shroud of sin 
and entangled in the mesh of mortality.
It shows us, in short, our world.
It shows us how we reject and react and retaliate.
It shows us how even the joyous event
of a wedding banquet
can be turned into 
one more manifestation
of the evil in which we 
are enclosed and entangled.

But the parable does more that,
for if that was all it did 
then it would hardly be good news.
The image of the wedding feast
draws our minds to God’s promise
that this sad, violent world 
will one day be transformed.
It draws our minds to Scripture’s promise
that God “will provide for all peoples
a feast of rich food and choice wines,”
the promise that God 
will wipe the tears from every face
and that death itself will be destroyed.
And it draws our minds 
to our liturgy’s promise that, 
even now, 
in the midst of all this sin and sorrow,
we are blessed to be called 
to the supper of the Lamb,
who bears away the world’s sin
and gives to us his peace.
Even now, beneath the veil 
and within the web that death has woven,
the Lamb of God feeds us with himself,
sustaining us each week in his banquet of love,
a feast of rich food and choice wine.

Matthew’s version of the parable
weaves together in a striking fashion
the promise of the wedding banquet
with the violence and sorrow 
that shrouds our world,
as if to remind us that death’s defeat,
which is already won for us 
in the resurrection of Christ,
is something that is not yet 
fully realized in us.
It reminds us that the Lamb’s peace
is truly present to us in this meal,
but veiled under sacramental signs
that only faith can discern.

But what about that 
underdressed wedding guest
who is cast into the outer darkness?
How does he fit into the picture?
It does seem strange that someone
who was dragged in from the streets
should be faulted for not wearing
something suitable for a royal wedding.
But in Scripture, clothing 
is never merely clothing.
The Psalms speak repeatedly 
of the righteous being clothed
with joy and salvation,
and the wicked being clothed
with shame and dishonor.
In the New Testament, St. Paul speaks
of clothing yourself with compassion, 
kindness, humility, 
meekness, and patience.
He speaks, above all, 
of clothing yourself with love,
which, he says, 
“binds everything together 
in perfect harmony” (Col 3:12-14).

If the wedding banquet 
is the Lamb’s high feast,
then surely love is the festive garment
in which we should be clothed.
It is not enough to be invited
out of the sad world of sin and death
and into the joyous banquet of life; 
it is not enough even to accept the invitation
and to gather with others to celebrate.
As St. Paul says, 
“If I comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge…
but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own… 
but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-2).
For it is love that carries us out of this world of death
and into the banquet of life,
and it is the lacking of love that leads
out of the banquet into the outer darkness.
In the face of the violence and sorrow of the world,
we who have been invited must clothe ourselves in love.

But where do we find this love?
After all, are we not those 
who have been called in from the streets,
who arrive unprepared and unworthy?
But, St. Paul says in our second reading today,
“My God will fully supply whatever you need,
in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
We come to the banquet with nothing,
but if only we ask 
God will clothe us 
in joyful wedding garments 
of compassion, kindness, humility, 
meekness, and patience.
Above all, God will clothe us in his love.
And finding ourselves in such bright array,
we can reflect the light of God’s love
to a world enclosed in the shroud of sin 
and entangled in the mesh of mortality,
so that every tearful eye might hope to see
that day when all the saints will sing
“This is the LORD for whom we looked;
let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!”

 

Saturday, September 16, 2023

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Does anybody lie on his or her deathbed and think, 
“Gee, I wish I had spent more time being angry”?
Do people reach the end of their lives
and regret not holding more grudges 
or exacting crueler revenge?
Maybe some people do,
but I suspect that most of us, 
facing the end of life,
find the things that angered us 
suddenly seem trivial,
and the grudges we held 
and the revenge we exacted
look like a petty waste
of our precious time.
These things, like us, 
are swept away by time.
So why do we live our lives 
cultivating anger, 
holding grudges,
and seeking vengeance?
For it seems as if our world
is awash in an epidemic of anger.

Perhaps this has always been the case,
but the public expression of our anger,
of our grudges and vengeance,
seems particularly prevalent in our day.
We live in an era of performative anger,
where what we call (without irony) “social media” 
is often the arena for 
the most anti-social sorts of behavior.
We have declared open season
on those who differ from us
in their political affiliations,
and in their racial and cultural identities
and vent our spleens at people
whom we don’t really know.
This epidemic of anger 
has even infected the Church,
with people hurling 
accusations of heresy at others,
turning difference into division
and positioning themselves 
as defenders of the true faith.
I can hate you because of
who you did or didn’t vote for,
what you did or did not do 
during the pandemic,
how you do or do not respond
to what I think is the most pressing issue
in the world or in the Church.
We live in a time
when unforgiving anger 
has become a virtue.

St. Thomas Aquinas said that there is 
a kind of zealous anger that is not sinful,
and may, in fact, be praiseworthy,
because it shows that we have 
a finely-tuned sense of justice.
But even if he is right about this,
let’s be honest:
most of the anger 
that we encounter in the world today
is not of the zealous, praiseworthy sort,
but is simply the impulsive aggression
that results from too much dopamine
and too little serotonin in our brains.
It can be addictive, however, 
since we tell ourselves it is
a manifestation of righteous zeal,
and don’t we relish feeling righteous?
Don’t we use our displays of anger
to proclaim to the world our righteousness?
I have a hunch that the unmerciful servant 
in the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel
was convinced that he was simply 
displaying his commitment to justice,
even as he clamped his hands on the throat
of his fellow servant.
As the book of Sirach memorably puts it,
“Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.”

Perhaps we could medicate ourselves
out of this impulsive aggression,
out of our anger and grudge-bearing.
But the wise man who speaks 
in the book of Sirach 
offers a different sort of remedy:
“Remember your last days…
remember death and decay.”
He knows that few of us 
will lie on our deathbed 
and think, “Gee, I wish 
I had spent more time being angry.”
He calls us to live our lives 
conscious of that moment 
when all of our anger
will seem kind of pointless,
all of our grudges 
will seem kind of petty,
all of our vengeance
will seem merciless and cruel.
He exhorts us, as the old Latin adage goes,
momento mori—“remember that you will die.”
Remember that moment 
when everything will melt away,
including the pretense of righteousness
that is rooted in the poisoned soil of our anger,
and we will stand before the righteous judge.
“Could anyone nourish anger against another
and expect healing from the LORD?”

Remember death…
Not simply because it reminds us
of how everything ends,
even our anger and grudges.
Not simply because it reminds us
that we will one day face the righteous one
whose mercy will be measured out
according to the mercy we have shown to others.
Remember death because it reminds us that
“whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”
Sirach bids us “remember your last days…
remember death and decay”
so that we might remember Jesus Christ,
who “died and came to life,
that he might be Lord of both 
the dead and the living.”
We remember death 
so that we might remember
that Christ has conquered death,
has conquered wrath and vengeance,
and has made us his own.
We remember death because 
even there Christ claims us,
and to belong to the Lord Jesus
is to let his mercy flow over us 
and through us,
washing away our anger 
and its phony righteousness
and filling us with his gifts
of faith, hope, and love,
gifts that we are called 
to share with others.
To belong to the Lord Jesus 
is to show to others
the mercy he has shown to us.
May God, who is merciful,
have mercy on us all.