Saturday, November 26, 2022

Advent 1


As we embark upon this season of Advent,
St. Paul exhorts us: “You know the time;
it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.”
Paul's words suggest that our lives 
are a kind of fantasy, a waking dream,
anesthetized by sensual pleasures
and worldly ambitions:
orgies and drunkenness,
promiscuity and lust,
rivalry and jealousy.
Even if we refrain 
from orgies and drunkenness,
can we really pretend we are free
from rivalry and jealousy?
But now it is time to wake up
and to clothe ourselves in Christ.

This passage from Paul
played a key role in the conversion
of the great theologian Augustine of Hippo.
Augustine had been a smart 
and ambitious young man
from North Africa, 
the hinterlands of the Roman empire,
who had made his way to Italy
and found his footing in the center of power.
But his restless heart kept telling him
that there must be more to life,
even as his lusts and ambitions
pushed him up the ladder of success.

He had become convinced 
of the truth of Christianity,
but found himself unable to break free
from those lusts and ambitions;
he knew what he should do,
but was unable to will himself to do it.
He describes his situation as being
“like the efforts of those 
who would like to get up 
but are overcome by deep sleep 
and sink back again.” 
We say, “Just a little longer please,”
but, Augustine notes, 
“‘Just a little longer, please’ went on and on 
for a long while” (Conf. 8.5.12).

One day, praying in anguish in a garden, 
he hears the distant voice of a child,
saying in a sing-song chant,
tolle lege, “take up and read.”
He goes and gets a copy of Paul’s letters
and, opening them at random,
reads the passage that we have just heard:
“put on the Lord Jesus Christ,
and make no provision 
for the desires of the flesh.”
Augustine tells us,
“I neither wished nor needed to read further. 
At once, with the last words of this sentence, 
it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety 
flooded into my heart. 
All the shadows of doubt 
were dispelled” (Conf. 8.12.29).

I tell the story of St. Augustine in some detail
not to suggest that reading a magic Bible passage
can make all our doubts and hesitations vanish,
can rouse us from our spiritual dream state,
but because the message that woke Augustine up
is a message that we need to hear today:
“put on the Lord Jesus Christ,
and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”
We, no less than Augustine 
and the Roman Christians to whom Paul wrote,
seek to indulge our desires—
to satisfy not only our bodily appetites,
but also our appetites 
for power and control and security.
We, no less than they,
drowsily respond to the call of God’s Spirit,
“Just a little longer please.”
Please let me linger just a little longer 
in this waking dream that I call my life,
in which I believe myself 
to stand stable and secure.
Leave me to my lust and my rivalries,
my self-indulgence and my petty ambitions.
Leave me in my old way of life.
We, no less than they,
have let “Just a little longer please”
go on and on for a long time.

But today Christ calls to us 
to wake up and to stay awake,
for the day of the Son of Man
will come like a thief in the night—
the day of judgment,
when the desires of this world 
on which we have spent our lives
will fade away like a dream, 
a dream that seemed 
so real as we slumbered
but which we 
cannot quite remember
in the bright light of day.
Those things that loom 
so large as we dream—
plans and programs, 
ambitions and awards,
grudges and gambits—
all will fade away
with the dawning of that day.

And what will remain?
What of this life can endure
the bright light of day?
Jesus Christ, 
in whom we have been clothed
through the saving waters of Baptism,
on whom we have fed
in the sacrificial banquet of the Eucharist,
through whom we have become 
friends of the living God.
He alone will remain,
who came among us in great humility
so many centuries ago,
who comes to us still 
in the guise of the needy stranger,
who will come in power and glory
to judge the living and the dead,
who reigns for all eternity
as the victorious lamb
giving light to the city of God.

The Church gives to us
these precious weeks of Advent
to let God’s Spirit wake us up,
so that we might not live a waking dream
but see the light of Jesus Christ,
the light that endures in God’s eternal kingdom.
Let us not spend these days drowsily murmuring
“Just a little longer please.”
For the time is now.
“Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

Saturday, November 5, 2022

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time


In this month of November—
adorned with falling leaves,
and begun with the commemorations 
of All Saints and All Souls—
the Church turns our attention 
to the passing away of this world
and our hope for the world to come.
But what is it that we hope for?
Certainly, we hope that 
whatever has given life in this world 
meaning and joy
will be somehow continued 
beyond this world,
that the things and people 
in whom we have delighted in this life
will continue to delight us in the next.

But in today’s Gospel 
Jesus seems to throw cold water on those hopes.
Asked whether those 
who will be raised from the dead
will still be married,
Jesus responds, “those who are deemed worthy 
to attain to the coming age
and to the resurrection of the dead
neither marry nor are given in marriage.
They can no longer die,
for they are like angels.”
Jesus seems to suggest that marriage
is a temporary provision 
necessitated by the fact that we all die, 
and if we did not procreate 
the human race would die with us.
His words also suggest that all those relationships
that are so important to our life in this world
are perhaps simply temporary provisions 
and will no longer be relevant in the life to come.

Maybe to think that God’s kingdom 
involves having husbands or wives
or parents or children or friends
is simply a failure of imagination
and an inability to grasp 
how different eternal life will be,
where we will no longer die, 
and will be like the angels,
who know and love God 
in a direct and unmediated way.
Perhaps to mourn the passing of those loves
is to be, as the philosopher Eleonore Stump suggests,
“like a child who reacts with dismay when he is told 
that he won’t be sucking his thumb when he grows up.”

Is it simply the case 
that the loves forged in this life
vanish into the love of God—
are something that we, as it were, outgrow?
Do we forget the personal histories
by which we became who we are,
in which spouses and parents 
and children and friends
played vital, irreplaceable roles? 
Is all of this simply swallowed up 
when God becomes all in all?

Maybe this is not the whole picture.
If our Gospel suggests that the life of the world to come
is radically different from our life in this world,
our first reading suggests that even in this radical difference
there remain threads of continuity 
between this life and the next.
We hear in this reading a part of the story 
of the torture and execution
of seven brothers and their mother 
during the Greek persecution of the Jews 
who remained faithful to the Law of Moses. 
Our lectionary spares us 
the gruesome details of their dismemberment,
but we do hear the words of the third brother,
who, as he extends his tongue and hands to be cut off,
says to his tormentors,
“It was from Heaven that I received these;
for the sake of his laws I disdain them;
from him I hope to receive them again.”

This story gives us an example 
not simply of faith and courage,
but of hope as well. 
Read alongside Jesus’s words in the Gospel,
it suggests that the life from God for which we hope
is somehow in continuity with the life
that we have already received from God,
and yet it is unimaginably more;
it is a blessedness toward which 
the blessings of this life gesture,
but which they ultimately cannot express.

In the case of the blessing of marriage,
St. Paul tells us in the letter to the Ephesians
that the love of husband and wife
is not only for the sake of procreation,
but is also a sign of the love 
between Christ and the Church.
Even amid struggle and misunderstanding,
the sorrow and the loss,
that seem to mark all our loves in this life,
our faithfulness to the bond of marriage 
gestures to the ultimate union with Christ in love
that we hope for in God’s kingdom come.
But in the blessedness of God’s kingdom
we will no longer need signs,
we will no longer need to gesture,
because we will possess that love in its fullness. 

And yet, while the sign of the marriage bond will pass away,
surely the love that forged that bond will not.
In this life, the bond of love between spouses,
always faltering and imperfect,
is a sign by which we orient ourselves in hope
toward the unimaginable love of God;
when we possess that divine love in its fullness,
surely we will find encompassed within it
the love had by spouses in this life,
no longer marked by struggle and misunderstanding,
no longer afflicted by sorrow and loss,
no longer faltering and imperfect,
but gloriously transfigured by the light of Christ.

And so too with all our loves forged in this life:
the love of parent and of child and of friend.
Our hope is that they too 
will be present in the life to come,
no longer as signs and gestures 
that dimly hint at the love of God
but healed, perfected, and transformed by the light 
that streams forth upon them from the very heart of God.

Jesus tells us in the Gospel that our God
“is not God of the dead, but of the living,
for to him all are alive.”
So as our minds turn,
amid November’s falling leaves
and remembrances of the dead, 
to the passing away of this world,
let our hope be renewed 
that the loves with which God has blessed us in this life
will not finally pass away but be restored to us,
for these loves are eternally alive 
in the God of love who is their source,
from whom we have received them,
and in whom we shall possess them in eternity.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time


This parable should come with a warning label.
On the face of it, it seems pretty clear.
There’s a bad guy and a good guy—
a Pharisee and a tax collector.
The one is bad 
because he exalts himself
and the other is good 
because he humbles himself.
You should aspire to be
like the tax collector, 
not the Pharisee.

Things get a little less clear, however,
once you recall that Pharisees 
were not notorious hypocrites
but were largely thought by their fellow Jews
to be sincerely pious people,
and that tax collectors 
collaborated with the Roman oppressors
and often cheated people to enrich themselves.
So perhaps the Pharisee is right to thank God
for all the good God has enabled him to do.
After all, he doesn’t sound any more boastful
than Paul in our second reading:
“I have competed well; 
I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith….
the crown of righteousness awaits me.”
And even if he seems a bit snooty
in thanking God 
that he is not like the tax collector…
well, even the tax collector 
doesn’t want to be like himself.
Can we really blame the Pharisee?
So things are a little complicated.

But things get even more complicated
once we place ourselves within the parable
and ask, whose side do we want to take?
With whom do we want to identify?
It seems clear that we are meant to identify 
not with the arrogant Pharisee, 
but with the humble tax collector;
we want to be those 
who humble themselves
so as to be exalted,
not those who exalt themselves
and end up humbled.
The parable almost invites us to say, 
“O God, I thank you that I 
am not like that Pharisee—
arrogant, proud, and self-satisfied.”

Of course, once we say this
we have fallen into the trap: 
we have become the Pharisee.
Even if we adopt 
the outward trapping of humility—
lowering our eyes and beating our breasts
and standing as far from God as we can get—
inwardly we see ourselves as the righteous ones.
We exalt ourselves in our humility,
and are proudly contemptuous 
of those who are proud.
Seeing that we have been caught,
we attempt to extricate ourselves,
and we find ourselves saying something like,
“O God I thank you that I am not like a tax collector,
who thanks you that he is not like that Pharisee,
who thanks you that he is not like that tax collector.”
But no, we are still stuck.
We are ensnared in a trap 
from which we cannot free ourselves.
Like I said: this parable 
should come with a warning label.

Is there any way out of this trap?
Perhaps the way out 
is to return to Paul’s words, 
words that he writes from prison
having suffered beating and abuse and rejection
for the sake of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Before Paul speaks 
of the crown of righteousness that awaits him,
he writes, “I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.”
A libation was an ancient form of sacrifice,
in which some valued liquid—
often an alcoholic beverage—
was poured out on the ground.
It is a practice found 
in cultures around the world,
including in ancient Israel.
Among the Romans it was common at burials,
because it was a sacrifice that could be afforded 
by even the poorest person.
Paul, imprisoned and facing death, 
compares his life spent in service to Christ
to the poor man’s funeral offering.
It is, in the words of Sirach,
the prayer of the lowly one,
that pierces the clouds
and does not rest till it reaches its goal.
Whatever good Paul has done 
has been because God’s Spirit
has stood by him and given him strength, 
has filled the empty vessel of his efforts;
the crown of righteousness he hopes to receive
is God’s crowning of his own work in Paul.

In other words, 
Paul does not make it all about him.
He makes it all about Christ.
The gifts with which God has filled Paul
are put to work in Christ’s service,
not turned into precious objects 
admired for their scarcity—
into things that God has given Paul
by denying them to others.

And if we too—
if we turn our eyes away from ourselves
and toward Jesus Christ and his Spirit—
can find a way out of the trap
in which this parable has ensnared us.
If we turn our eyes toward Christ,
if we let our lives be poured out in his service,
then we will no longer need to thank God
that we are not like other people,
we will no longer need to puff ourselves up
by putting others down,
and we will be freed from the vicious circle
of treating God’s love like a limited commodity,
a trophy that we gain and keep 
only by denying it to others.
If we let our lives be poured out in his service,
we will know Christ’s love in its abundance,
an abundance that can fill Pharisee and tax collector
and even we poor sinners who hope in his mercy.
May God have mercy on us all.

 

Saturday, October 8, 2022

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time


I like religion.
So when people tell me 
that they are spiritual but not religious
I am often tempted, in my annoyance, 
to reply that I myself am religious 
but not spiritual.
I don’t actually say it,
because I am from the South,
where our mothers teach us manners,
and to say “bless their hearts”
rather than what we are really thinking.
But, still, I am tempted.

The serious point behind this snarky remark
that I am tempted to say
is that things people often dismiss
as “religious” and seemingly therefore “unspiritual”—
things like rituals and creeds and institutions—
in fact have a vital role to play in our spiritual lives.
We human beings are embodied, social animals
who only flourish when we share our lives with each other,
but who need habits and rules and boundaries
in order to do this.
And this is no less true of the common life
that we live in the presence of God.
When we need to pray in times of crisis
a spontaneous prayer may not come to our lips,
but an Our Father or a Hail Mary might.
When we are lost in spiritual confusion
and do not know exactly what we believe,
we can draw comfort in words that express
the faith professed by the saints down through the ages.
When we find ourselves in times 
of cultural transition or upheaval
we can look to the Church 
for a sense of stability
and a source of guidance.
I like religion 
because it answers to a deep human need 
for structure and stability,
even—especially—as we seek to stand 
before the face of the living God.

And Jesus, 
contrary to what some will tell you,
also likes religion.
He lived his life immersed
in the rituals, creeds, and institutions of Israel.
He was a devout Jew who embraced
the traditions and Law of his people
as the God-given means by which 
one could live in God’s presence.
He was circumcised on the eighth day,
he visited the temple in Jerusalem as a boy,
he read Scripture in the synagogue as a man.
And we can see Jesus’ pro-religion views 
on display in today’s Gospel,
for in healing the ten lepers
he instructs them to do 
what the Jewish Law requires:
to show themselves to the priests
and to have themselves declared “clean.” 

So Jesus liked religion
and entered fully into the practice of Judaism.
But as much as he liked religion,
as much as he recognized its necessity,
he also recognized that it was not enough.
He recognized that religious practice itself
can so occupy us that we miss its whole point,
which is to sustain our relationship with the living God.
Nine of the ten lepers in today’s Gospel
are so focused on fulfilling the demands of the Law
that they fail to recognize in Jesus
the God who gave the Law 
and who has healed them.
It is notably the Samaritan, 
the foreigner who is an outsider,
the one who believes in God
but does not worship in the Jerusalem Temple,
who recognizes what Jesus has done for him
and returns to give him thanks.
As important as proper religious practice is,
its presence did not guarantee that the nine 
would recognize how the power of God 
was at work among them,
and its absence did not prevent the Samaritan
from glorifying God,
from falling at the feet of Jesus, 
from giving him thanks for his healing.

It is really no different among us Christians.
St. Augustine wrote: 
“Some people may indeed, 
through membership of the Church 
and acceptance of all her doctrine, 
be free from spiritual leprosy: 
but they fail to recognize 
the one who cleansed them, 
and become inflated with pride” 
(Questions on the Gospels, 2.40).
We can behave as if our religion
and its rituals and creeds and institutions
are all we need.
We receive our sacraments at the appropriate moments
and we go to Mass on Sunday, at least most of the time,
and perhaps we even pray before meals
and in moments of crisis.
And all of these are good things, holy things.
But they are the floor, not the ceiling.
They make possible an encounter with the living God,
but they are not a guarantee that we will recognize him
or even notice his healing touch.
And, at their worst, they can become, 
as Augustine noted,
a source of pride.
They can tempt us to think
that we have the God-thing 
managed and under control,
that we know where to find God when we need him
and how to obtain from him what we want.

But, as the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar noted,
“If we treat God as a sort of religious vending machine, 
he will show us that he is anything but that—
that he is a free, living God” (Light of the World, 355-356).
Religious practice is not a prison
in which we lock God up,
so that he is ready to be at our beck and call. 
As St. Paul put it in writing to Timothy,
“the word of God is not chained.”
And if we think our religion 
contains God in this way,
then perhaps we need outsiders,
maybe even those who claim 
to be “spiritual but not religious”
(bless their hearts),
to remind us of the unchained Word of God
who took flesh among us in Jesus Christ,
who scandalized the pious
and died on a Roman cross 
accused of blasphemy.

It is right and just that I like religion.
But while I like religion,
I should love Jesus,
for in the end it is Jesus who will heal me and save me,
not my adherence to rituals and creeds and institutions.
So let us practice our religion with joy and humility
for God has given it to us in freedom
so that we might recognize Jesus,
and let us pray that all of us,
insiders and outsider,
religious and spiritual,
might come to know the mercy of God.

 

Saturday, September 24, 2022

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Luke’s Gospel contains many 
of Jesus’ most memorable parables:
the unjust steward and the rich man,
the prodigal son and his sullen older brother,
the man fallen among thieves 
and the Samaritan who helps him.
But today’s Gospel reading is the only parable
in which a character is given a name: Lazarus.
Why might this be the case?

The name “Lazarus” is Aramaic, 
which was the language spoken by Jesus,
and is a form of the Hebrew name Eleazar,
which means “God saves.”
So it is certainly a fitting name for the poor man
who receives from God a heavenly reward.
But Jesus could also have given symbolic names
to other characters in his parables.
The shepherd who goes seeking the lost sheep
could have been named Adriel,
which means “flock of God,”
or the prodigal son’s older brother
could have been named Mara,
which means “bitter.”
But Jesus chooses not to give them names,
perhaps so that we would be more inclined to see them 
as representative kinds or types of people
with whom we might more easily identify.

Yet Lazarus is named.
Perhaps more significant 
than the meaning of his name 
is the simple fact that he has a name at all.
For to have a name is to have an identity
that is more than simply being
a kind or type of person.
To have a particular name is to be unique
and not reducible to an identity category 
like “shepherd” or “older brother.”
To be an individual person and not simply a type
is to be recognized as capable of acting in ways
that are not “typical” or “predicable”
but are surprising and free and often delightful.
To have a name is to become irreplaceable.

This is important in the parable
because the rich man’s sin 
is that he fails to see Lazarus as anything more
than one more poor person he steps over
on his way to another sumptuous meal 
in his purple garments and fine linen.
Though he seems to know Lazarus’s name,
this does not lead him to see Lazarus 
as an irreplaceable individual,
but simply as one more poor person
who is no concern of his,
unless it is to be his servant.

The funny thing is,
by his actions the rich man shows himself
to be nothing more than one more rich person,
behaving in typical rich-person ways:
stepping over the poor as he proceeds
to indulge his appetites and satisfy his desires.
It is the rich man who is locked into actions 
that are typical and predictable,
who has reduced himself to a mere category type
and, in a sense, made himself replaceable,
since there are many of the same type
who are ready to step into his shoes 
and act in the same way.
And when both he and Lazarus die,
and Lazarus is in the bosom of Abraham
and the rich man is in the fires of hell,
the rich man seems unable
to break out of that category type.
Even as he begs for mercy he still presumes
that the poor man should act as his servant,
bringing him water to slake his thirst 
and taking messages to his brothers.
His punishment is unrelenting
because he cannot cease acting in the way
that led him to his sad destiny.

In the Christian tradition, 
the rich man comes to be referred to as Dives,
which might seem like a name,
but is simply the Latin word for “rich.”
His individual identity has been completely lost
and he is nothing more 
than a parody of a human being.
Perhaps this is what hell is:
to cease being an irreplaceable individual 
with a name known by God,
to lose one’s capacity to act in ways 
that are surprising and free and delightful,
to be condemned to following the script
that we once chose for ourselves
but now determines our every action.

Of course, Jesus does not tell this parable
simply to inform us about the afterlife.
He tells it to get us to examine our own lives now.
As Abraham says to the rich man,
we don’t need a miraculous visitation 
from the realm of the dead
to tell us what God thinks of our self-indulgence
and our neglect of the poor.
We, like the rich man and his kind,
have Moses and the prophets,
and the prophet Amos says to us this day,
“Woe to the complacent in Zion!”
Woe to those reclining 
on fancy beds and couches.
Woe to those drinking fine wine 
and getting spa treatments.
Woe to those who see 
the poor one at their gate
as simply a category of human being
that can be dismissed and ignored
as a “panhandler” 
or “welfare queen” 
or “illegal immigrant,”
and not as someone with a name and a story
and an irreplaceable God-given identity,
an identity that we ignore at our peril.

Even more, Jesus is asking us
to look at ourselves and to see
if we have chosen to live our lives in such a way
that we have reduced ourselves to a mere category-type
and lost our capacity to act in ways 
that are surprising and free and delightful.
Do I simply conform to the expectations 
of my social class
or my political ideology
or my generational cohort
or my racial or ethnic identity,
rather than letting God call me by my unique name,
calling me out of any class or ideology or cohort or identity
other than that of “child of God,”
the irreplaceable brother or sister of Jesus
and of all those for whom he died?

Christ is calling us this day
to let ourselves be named by God,
and to learn the names by which he calls
the irreplaceable ones whom we would ignore.
Let this call give us hope that God, 
“the King of kings and Lord of lords,
who alone has immortality, 
who dwells in unapproachable light,”
will, in his boundless mercy.
have mercy on us all.

 

Saturday, September 17, 2022

A Reflection on the Occasion of the Celebration of Thomas and Courtney's Marriage

Reading: "Inversnaid," by Gerard Manley Hopkins 

Thomas and Courtney, 
as this celebration of your marriage 
has been approaching,
I have been thinking a lot, 
as one does,
about 17th-century philosophers.
Two in particular: 
Baruch Spinoza and Blaise Pascal.

Spinoza and Pascal
lived in a much larger universe than people
who lived just a few generations before them.
The inventions of the telescope and the microscope
revealed a world both much larger and much smaller
than the tidy, earth-centered cosmos
that humanity had lived with 
since time immemorial.
It was dizzying, and kind of threatening,
to be displaced from the center of the universe
into some undetermined place 
between the infinitely large
and the infinitely small.

For Spinoza,
this dizziness could be cured by thinking,
because he believed that 
as far as the universe extended,
thought extended just as far.
At least in principle, 
we could calculate all causes 
and understand the how and why of everything.
He seemingly found peace in this.

Pascal, on the other hand,
believed that thinking could only do so much:
we can think just enough to recognize
how fragile and uncertain our lives are,
how we might be taken out 
by something immensely big, like a class-five rapid,
or by something immensely small, like a virus.
But at the end of the day, this thought
seems only to increase our dizziness
or, as Pascal put it, our wretchedness.

But the limits of thought 
were not the end of the story for Pascal,
because he believed that in addition
to the thinking capacity of reason
we have a capacity that he called “the heart,”
and, as he famously put it,
“the heart has its reasons 
about which reason knows nothing.”

It is the heart that can acknowledge 
reason’s inability to master the universe,
and yet embrace that universe, 
in all of its danger and promise,
with a kind of humility. 
It is the heart that speaks 
in Hopkins’ poem “Inversnaid,”
in which words slip the bounds the reason,
abandon their mission of meaning,
so that our hearts can feel and know and love
the wet and the wildness of the streams
cascading their way down to a highland lake. 
It is the heart that seeks the still point
amid the rushing immensities
of the infinitely large
and the infinitely small,
the still point where we can stand
as we take the infinite into ourselves.

For Christians like Pascal and Hopkins, 
as for me,
that still point is found above all in Jesus,
whom Pascal described as “a God 
whom we approach without pride,
and before whom we humble ourselves
without despair” (Pensées 245).
But, as Hopkins says in another poem,
“Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

Thomas and Courtney,
I believe that amid the glorious chaos 
of this infinite world 
your hearts have found the still point
in one another’s faces.
You have found in each other 
that point of equipoise 
that turns the wildness of the world 
from threat into promise,
that point where you can stand 
to take in infinity,
to rejoice in the wet and the wildness,
the weeds and the wilderness.

May the one who plays in ten thousand places 
bless the love you have pledged to each other,
opening your eyes to the miracle of one another,
speaking to your hearts in times of hardship,
and giving you and those you love years of joy.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time


We human beings 
have a rather remarkable capacity
for self-deception,
a capacity to willfully overlook truths 
about ourselves and our situation,
truths that by all rights should be quite clear to us.
I think of myself as a kind and generous person,
always willing to help out and volunteer,
while somehow not noticing the way in which
I neglect my spouse and children.
I believe that others have succeeded more than I
because of favoritism and backroom dealings,
when in fact they are just better at their jobs.
I tell myself that I am a social media edgelord
unmasking hypocrisy and subverting paradigms,
when actually I’m just a jerk and a bully
spouting off on Twitter.
Truths about ourselves 
and our place in the world,
are denied and deflected,
often through strenuous effort.
The truth lies before us, 
and we choose not to see it.
We are not the people 
we think ourselves to be.

Self-deception not only pervades our world;
it pervades our Gospel reading today as well.
We see it at work 
in the younger brother,
who desires independence so much
that he drastically misjudges 
his capacity for “adulting,”
as they call it these days,
and seems also to believe 
that his inheritance is limitless,
though a little basic math 
might suggest that it is not.
We see it in the older brother as well,
who is convinced that he is a dutiful son,
showing true love and respect for his father,
when in fact he is seething with resentment, 
not simply toward his brother,
but toward his father as well,
whom he seems to have served out of hope for gain
rather than true devotion and affection.
The truth lies before them, 
and they choose not to see it.
They are not the people 
they think themselves to be.

Self-deception is a funny thing.
It is different from being ignorant or misled.
It is not a lack of information about ourselves,
since the truth about ourselves is readily available
and often perceived, and commented upon, by others.
It is also different from being lied to,
because in self-deception,
we are both the one deceived 
and the deceiver.
We willfully mislead ourselves,
which is quite the trick 
when you think about it,
since it seems to involve
both knowing and not knowing
what it is we are doing,
both seeing and not seeing
the truth we are avoiding.

We deceive ourselves by focusing 
on one truth about ourselves,
and letting the other truths 
that make up the total picture
fade into a kind of blurry background.
I focus on my immediate desires 
and my grandiose dreams
in order to overlook 
my limited skills and resources.
I keep in the front of my mind
years of dutiful service and obedience,
to divert myself 
from the anger and resentment 
that seethe within me.

Self-deception requires us to simplify the world,
to avoid seeing reality in all its complexity,
in order to avoid hard and painful truths.
It might seem like an effective coping strategy,
but it requires an immense outlay 
of psychological effort:
it exhausts us, 
and diminishes us,
and deadens our lives.
Plus, reality has a way of catching up with us.
Like the way that famine in the land 
left the younger brother hungry and penniless,
looking longingly at the food of pigs.
Our Gospel translation says that “he came to his senses”—
the original Greek says literally “he came to himself.”
His eyes were opened to the truth of himself,
the truth of his situation.
He encountered reality,
and reality was merciless in its truth telling
and humbling in its mercilessness.

We deceive ourselves 
because we fear the truth about ourselves.
We fear that if we let reality come into focus
we will not be able to carry on 
in the face of that merciless reality,
that we will see ourselves revealed
as unlovely and unlovable.
But the parable of the prodigal son,
is not simply a story 
of being humbled by merciless reality.
It is the story of the merciful God,
who rejoices that 
we who lay dead in self-deception
have come to life again,
we who were lost in lies
have been found by the truth.

For, in the end, to be found by truth
is not to be subjected to merciless reality;
it is to be found by the God
who came to dwell among us in Christ,
who is the way, the truth, and the life.
The face of reality is the face of Jesus Christ,
and the deepest truth about ourselves 
is that we are children of a loving father,
a father who runs out to embrace us
when our illusions collapse
and we see ourselves as we really are.
The reality of our situation 
is that even as we seethe with anger and resentment
God seeks us out and invites us to join the banquet.
God calls us out of self-deception 
not simply to humble us—
though learning humility is a part of it—
but so that we might come to see,
as the two brothers in the parable 
must come to see,
that we are beloved,
that we are embraced,
that we are invited to the banquet of life
prepared for us from all eternity.
God calls us out of deception and into reality
so that God who is merciful
might have mercy on us all.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time


I imagine that many of you 
did not come here today 
expecting to hear Jesus say,
“Do you think that I have come 
to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.”
With all of the division in the world right now,
did Jesus really come to make it worse?
Didn’t he come, as Zechariah said,
“to guide our feet into the way of peace”?
Didn’t he tell the disciples he sent forth
to let their first words upon entering a house
be “Peace to this house”?
Weren’t his first words to his disciples 
after his resurrection “Peace be with you”?
This is the Jesus we are used to,
and whose words captivate us.

Jesus’ words of peace captivate us because
they speak to our deepest desires in a divided world.
St. Augustine said, “peace is so great a good
that even in relation to the affairs of earth
and of our mortal state
no word ever falls more gratefully upon the ear,
nothing is desired with greater longing,
in fact, nothing better can be found” (Civ. Dei 19.11).
Everyone desires peace.
But despite this fact,
we live in a world of conflict and division.
St. Augustine says that this is because
while we all want peace, 
we want it on our own terms,
and those terms usually involve 
having someone else under our thumb.
Our desire for peace is often only satisfied 
when we win and others lose;
division and conflict are not healed but hidden
underneath the cloak of power.
We see this play out on the international stage,
within our own country,
and even within our own families
as we jockey to bend others to our will.

In such a world, those who herald true peace,
a peace built on justice and not on domination,
appear as a source of division and conflict.
And indeed they are,
for by embodying true peace
they unmask the false peace of the world
and make visible the conflict and division 
that lie just beneath its surface.
Jesus’ words today stand as reminder
that proclaiming the Gospel of peace in a divided world
might heighten conflict rather than alleviate it,
because it unmasks all those versions of peace
that depend on our side coming out on top.

Jesus is a realist, not an idealist.
He has no expectation that the Gospel of peace
will receive a warm welcome.
He doesn’t think peacemakers are blessed
because everyone likes a peacemaker.
He doesn’t think that the peacemakers are blessed
because they can magic away conflict.
He thinks peacemakers are blessed 
because they bear his image,
the image of the one who, 
as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us,
endured opposition from sinners—
endured the cross, despising its shame—
for the sake of the joy that lay before him.
They are blessed because they speak 
a word of truth in a world of falsehood,
a world in which wars are fought for peace
and peoples divided for the sake of unity.

In recent days we’ve seen a striking example of this
in Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Nicaragua,
a kind of modern-day Jeremiah,
who has not been lowered into a well,
but has been placed under house arrest 
by the government of his country. 
A long-time thorn in the side 
of Nicaragua’s authoritarian rulers,
bishop Álvarez was charged 
with inciting violence
and, in a curious turn of phrase, 
“crimes against spirituality.”
I can only presume that in this case 
“spirituality” is supposed to refer to 
a way of practicing the faith
that comforts troubled consciences
and numbs the pain of oppression—
a faith never causes offense,
never creates conflict,
never results in division,
never sets the world on fire;
a faith that aids and abets 
the false peace of domination.
Bishop Álvarez, like Jeremiah, 
rejects this sort of spirituality,
and so he is charged 
with being a source of conflict.

But we do not need dramatic examples,
like bishop Álvarez or Jeremiah, 
to know how faithfulness to Jesus’s gospel of peace
can uncover conflict, division, and tension.
We can look around our own nation and see
how faithfulness to the social teachings of the Church
on the dignity of all human life, 
migration and poverty,
the environment and war
will put you at odds 
with the platforms
of both major political parties.
We can look within ourselves
and feel the conflict between 
that part of us that is willing to settle
for a spirituality that comforts our conscience
and numbs the pain of life,
and that part of us 
that wants to follow Jesus no matter the cost,
knowing that, as the Letter to the Hebrews says,
“In your struggle against sin
you have not yet resisted 
to the point of shedding blood.”

But conflict is not the last word.
Even in the midst of the struggle
that comes with faithfulness to Christ
we can find true peace.
In a recent video message, bishop Álvarez said,
regarding those who have persecuted him,
“Our hearts are full of forgiveness. 
That’s why we’re at peace. 
Our hearts are full of the mercy of God, 
and so we’re at peace…. 
we are at rest in the hands of the Lord.”
Jesus, who passed through conflict into joy,
is “the leader and perfecter of faith,”
and has come to give us true peace—
not the false peace that hides conflict
beneath the cloak of power,
but the peace that the world cannot give,
the peace that overcomes conflict
through justice and mercy 
and self-sacrificing love:
the peace that sets the world on fire.
Let us pray that we would receive that peace,
that we would become that peace,
and that God would have mercy on us all.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

18th Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday

Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Matthew 16:13-23

God says through the prophet Jeremiah:
“I will place my law within them, 
and write it upon their hearts…. 
No longer will they have need 
to teach their friends and relatives
how to know the LORD.”
While this may not be entirely good news
for those of us who teach theology,
which in its better moments
seeks to help people see how to know the Lord,
it does seem to be good news for humanity as a whole.
It is good news that we will no longer experience God’s law 
as something external to us,
something alien and imposed upon us,
for that means that we will know God, as Augustine put it,
as interior intimo meo: closer to me than I am to myself.
And, as St. John Vianney said, 
“This union of God with a tiny creature is a lovely thing. 
It is a happiness beyond understanding.”

And what Jeremiah proclaims as coming,
our Gospel suggests has already arrived.
For when Peter confesses Jesus to be
“the Christ, the Son of the living God,”
Jesus proclaims, “flesh and blood 
has not revealed this to you, 
but my heavenly Father.”
Peter did not learn how to know the Lord
from friends or relatives 
or those who thought Jesus might be
John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah 
or one of the prophets.
The Father himself revealed Jesus to Peter
within the depths of his heart;
the Spirit, who is the new Law of the Gospel,
was written on Peter’s heart through faith.
The days that are coming
seem to have arrived.

But, of course, Peter’s faith is yet imperfect.
He still thinks not as God does
but as human beings do.
For he cannot accept that Jesus must walk
the path of rejection and suffering and death.
But this is the heart of God’s new covenant,
and to reject it is to become 
not the rock upon which Christ 
would build God’s Church,
but the stone of stumbling,
the obstacle that must be left behind.
What Peter could not accept,
what we so often cannot accept,
is that while God has promised 
to write his Law upon our hearts,
the instrument with which he does this writing
is the cross.

To have faith is to embrace the cross,
the cross upon which Jesus bore our sins,
and the crosses that we are called to take up,
the crosses through which we come, over time,
to be conformed to the one 
who laid down his life in love for us.
God’s promise is 
that “all, from least to greatest, 
shall know…the LORD.”
But to know the Lord is to know his cross.
Therefore, each of us, from least to greatest,
is called to take up our cross
so that God’s law, God’s Spirit,
might be written in our hearts.
And this is happiness beyond understanding.

 

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

18th Week of Ordinary Time, Tuesday

 
So, here’s the bad news:
your wound is incurable,
you bruise is grievous,
your running sore has no remedy
and your lovers have forgotten you. 
Your boat is being tossed by the waves
and the wind is against it. 
This is life under the condition of sin
when we justly suffer the consequences of our sin. 

Sometimes, of course, we get away with it,
at least for a time.
We don’t experience the consequences of our sin;
we even prosper and flourish and grow fat
on the fruits of our sin.
But, as God tells Israel through Jeremiah,
no one has escaped God’s justice:
“I struck you as an enemy would strike,
punished you cruelly.”
And when we are struck,
we come to a moment of realization
of exactly how dire our situation is,
exiles mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.

And this is also grace.
It is grace to recognize that we are in exile,
to recognize that our wound is incurable,
our bruise grievous,
our boat swamped
and the wind against it.
It is grace to awaken to the truth
that our sin has placed us in opposition 
to the very source of our existence.

But that is not the end of grace.
For Jesus walks toward us through the storm,
and calls to us:  
“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
And he calls us to come to him,
just as he called Peter.
He calls us to step into the storm unafraid;
as God says through Jeremiah:
“When I summon him, he shall approach me;
how else should one take the deadly risk.”
He calls us to trust that he comes 
not only in justice 
but also in mercy, 
to heal the wounds of sin
and to rebuild our ruined souls.

But, of course, the life of grace,
like life lived under the condition of sin, 
is not a moment but…well…a life.
And these two lives are intertwined.
We like Peter feel faith flow and ebb,
grow full and drain away,
flourish and whither
over and again.
We boldly step into the storm at one moment
and flail and sink the next,
and so our lives are a continuous calling out:
“Lord, save me!”
And this is right and just,
for the storm that rages 
is the flow of time in which we live,
it is our inconstant natures
that even under grace
suffer the sickness of sin.

But the glad tidings is that this sickness
is not a sickness unto death.
For Jesus has called us to him
and Jesus has grasped our hand and caught us
and Jesus will not let us go.