Sunday, September 26, 2021

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time


The letter of James is pretty scathing
when it comes to the rich.
“You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.”
A day of judgment is coming, and the rich are invited
to weep and wail over their impending miseries,
when their fine clothes will be in tatters
and their silver and gold corroded.
All that they trusted in,
all their wealth and power,
which had been gained through exploitation 
of the poor and the weak,
will be a testimony against them
and will devour their flesh like fire.

Boy, those rich sound like terrible people,
and their fate equally terrible.
I’m glad I’m not one of them.
Or am I?
I tell myself that I’m not rich,
that I am only “comfortable,”
while ignoring the fact that my standard of comfort
includes two cars, regular meals out, 
and numerous video streaming services to entertain me—
all luxuries by the standards of 99% of the world.
Could these words actually be addressed to me?
Is my heart the one being fattened for the day of slaughter?
The temptation to hear these words as addressed to others, 
and our difficulty in hearing them as addressed to ourselves,
is actually pretty typical.
We human beings can often direct our critical eye 
outward rather than inward.

But today’s Gospel reading suggests the opposite:
that I should be generous in my judgment of others,
whose hearts I cannot know, 
and strict in my judgment of myself,
whose heart I do know.

The disciples object when a stranger,
someone from outside their circle,
begins performing exorcisms in the name of Jesus.
We are not told who this person is
or where he got the idea of doing such a thing.
But the disciples are appalled at the temerity of someone
who would do a good deed in the name of Jesus
without being part of their group.
Perhaps the disciples are suspicious of this person’s motives
or his sincerity in using the holy name of Jesus.
But Jesus seems quite generous 
in assessing his motives:
“whoever is not against us is for us.”
Jesus knows, of course,
that it is possible for people to be deceptive—
to appear to be doing good 
when they are in fact doing evil.
But he wants us to see 
that we put ourselves in considerable peril
when we take up the role of judging others,
for the hearts of others are hidden from us,
and we should presume that God’s Spirit is at work
in the most unlikely people and places.

But after Jesus calls us to forbearance in judging others,
he then commends stringent self-judgment.
We cannot see into the hearts of others,
but we can see into our own hearts,
we can see how they have fed on sin,
fattening themselves for the day of judgment.
We are to examine our own lives,
and whatever causes us to sin,
whatever causes us to separate ourselves from God,
we should cut off or pluck out,
even if it is a hand or a foot or an eye.
Of course, it is usually not your hand or foot or eye
that causes you to sin—
that would be a comparatively simple problem,
easily, if painfully, solve with a sharp knife.
It is our twisted wills and ungoverned passions
that cause us to sin,
and these are not so easily dealt with
as a hand or foot or eye.
These are remedied only by long 
and often painful spiritual therapies
of honest self-examination and confession
by which they are excised from our souls.
And the cost to us if we fail to do so
is exclusion from God’s kingdom,
and an eternity in that place,
“where ‘their worm does not die, 
and the fire is not quenched.’”

This is terrifying stuff.
This may be why most of us think of hell, 
if we think of it at all,
as a place for other people to go:
the Hitlers and the Stalins and the Pol Pots.
But Jesus speaks here of Hell as a possibility 
that we should contemplate for ourselves,
as a possible fate for our sin-fattened hearts,
the hearts whose gluttony for vice
we know only too well.

Perhaps it is because the truth of our own sin
is so fearful to contemplate
that we project our judgment outward onto others,
terrified at what we might find
if we look into ourselves.
But fear cannot have the final say,
for the Gospel is ultimately a word of hope,
not a word of fear.
Jesus’ call to self-scrutiny and conversion
is not a call to beat yourself up.
It is a call for hopeful honesty.
For an honest acknowledgement of our sins,
joined to the practice 
of generosity and charity toward others,
can serve as the therapy needed to heal our souls.
If we can learn to see in others
the new creation that grace brings about,
if we can learn to see the Spirit’s work
in the most unlikely of people and places,
then we can find hope for ourselves as well.
If we can come to see in God 
a boundless love and generosity toward others,
then we can see that same love and generosity
as something given us as well,
sinners though we are. 

May God who is merciful
have mercy on us all,
even on me, 
a sinner most in need of his mercy.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time


On this Catechetical Sunday, 
when we are also celebrating a baptism,
it is probably good to ask,
what point Jesus is making in today’s Gospel
when he places a child in the midst of his disciples.
Is he simply using the child as an example
of someone without power or status, 
in order to shame his disciples,
whom he has caught red-handed 
discussing who is greatest?
Mark’s Gospel is well known 
for portraying the disciples of Jesus 
as stunningly dense,
and this seems no exception:
their conversation is somewhat ridiculous.
It is not like they are jockeying for position
within the Roman colonial government
or within the religious establishment
that ruled the city of Jerusalem.
Did anyone really care about who was number one
in the scruffy dozen who followed Jesus around Galilee?
Perhaps, having heard reports of Jesus’ transfiguration, 
the disciples are hoping to get in 
on the ground floor of the next big thing;
or maybe it is simply an example of how 
it is in the smallest and most insignificant groups 
that the power struggles are most vicious.

So is Jesus simply saying, “Woah! 
Slow your roll there, fellas.
Don’t get ahead of yourselves,
thinking you are more important than this child.”
He does, after all, say,
“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
And this certainly resonates with the view
expressed in the letter of James:
“Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist,
there is disorder and every foul practice.”

But I think there is something more going on
than Jesus simply using a child to point out
the selfish ambitions of his disciples.
As he is always doing,
Jesus is pointing us to the kingdom of God
that his words and deeds make powerfully present. 
He is, as always, trying to show us
that the reign of God arrives in a way
that turns the ordinary course of events upside down,
and turns our lives upside down along with them.
If you want to know what it is like to welcome God’s reign
think about what it means to welcome a child.

Think of what welcoming a child means for parents.
It is giddy excitement at each new milestone
combined with bone-crushing weariness at each new demand;
it is the joy of a love deeper than any you ever thought possible
combined with a new-found fragility 
in a heart always on the verge of breaking;
it is a constant stream of insight gained by seeing the world
through the eyes of someone for whom everything is new
combined with an exhausting stream of questions 
that you are expected to answer.

We might also think of what it means
to welcome a child into a community, like a parish.
It means having your most solemn moments
punctuated by noisy, rambunctious behavior
that deflates all pomposity;
it means having to revise your agenda 
to accommodate those with a different agenda;
it means having to reflect on and grasp anew
your beliefs and traditions
in order to satisfy the questions of those
who won’t accept “just because” for an answer.

In welcoming a child,
we are welcoming a disruptive presence
that makes us realize how little we actually know
and how much we have yet to learn.
We are welcoming someone who might make us
change the way we have always done things.
We are welcoming a future 
that we cannot anticipate or control.
Welcoming a child is a lot like welcoming Jesus,
who comes to disrupt and change our lives
and point us to a future beyond our imagining.

But Jesus is not simply saying that welcoming a child
is like welcoming him,
is like welcoming the one who sent him;
he say that to welcome a child is to welcome him,
it is to welcome the one who sent him.
And here we enter into something deeply mysterious:
Jesus tells us that he has joined himself to the human race 
in such a way that whatever we do for the least
we do for him.
Jesus lodges himself in places most unlikely
for one who is the king of kings.
He joins himself to the weak and defenseless
so that he can receive our love and compassion.
And who is weaker and more defenseless than a child?

This is one reason why we baptize children.
This is why we are baptizing Felix this morning.
Sacraments are signs that bring about what they signify,
and in the baptism of a child we see enacted
the desire of the eternal God who creates the universe
to lodge within the most unlikely of places.
We believe that in baptism the God who took flesh in Jesus
will, through the grace of this sacrament, dwell in Felix,
not because he has earned it 
by attaining some standard of human greatness,
but because that’s just who God is
and that is how God wants to be present among us.
And this should give each of us hope
that God can also dwell in us.

So let us pray that we as a Church 
will always welcome and honor and protect
those children entrusted to us,
because in receiving them
we receive the real presence of Christ in our midst.
And let us pray that God who is merciful
would have mercy on us all. 

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Memorial Mass for Angela Christman (1958-2020)


Readings: Wisdom 3:1-9; 2 Corinthians 4:14-5:1; John 12:23-26

Angela was my friend and my colleague,
and I am not quite sure 
how to separate those things.
From the day we met in the Summer of 1994,
new faculty members at Loyola College,
our friendship grew within a matrix
of studying, teaching, and arguing about
the Catholic intellectual tradition: 
a tradition of inquiry we believed
to be liberating and lifegiving.
No one who ever worked with Angela,
whether in the Theology Department, 
the Honors Program,
the Catholic Studies Program,
or on the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee
could possibly doubt her fierce commitment 
to that tradition of inquiry.
But she was no less fierce 
in her commitment to her friends,
her care for her students,
and her love for her family.
To be her friend or student or family member
was to be invited into her passions.

Because Angela knew that “catholic”
means “according to the whole,”
she understood that one 
could not place arbitrary limits on what 
the Catholic intellectual tradition encompassed.
Her passions were truly catholic: 
art and music and literature ancient and modern,
thoughts of the intellect and crafts of the hand,
bees and butterflies and native plants.
All of these were for her part of her vocation
as one called to love God with both heart and mind.

Her love and concern for the natural world
stands out in particular,
and I can’t help but think that she approves
of Tom and Sidney and Cecilia’s choice
for today’s Gospel reading,
in which Jesus uses nature’s pattern of life and death
to speak of the call of the Christian: 
“unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
Angela, of course, would want to insure
that this was a non-GMO, native species of grain,
and that the ground to which it fell
would be free of chemical fertilizer.
She would also note how the natural world,
carefully and studiously observed,
can point us toward the mystery of God,
the mystery of faith, hope, and love
that death cannot defeat.
Angela believed that there is wisdom 
in the dying grain of wheat,
in all the rhythms and cycles of nature,
wisdom about life and death, 
about sorrow and sacrifice.

But Angela also believed 
that nature itself was not enough—
that the book of nature remained a volume
of obscure hieroglyphs dimly perceived
apart from the light shed by Jesus Christ 
and the grace and glory of his cross.
In Christ, the natural world 
that Angela loved so much
has a destiny beyond itself,
lifted beyond the rhythms and cycles 
of birth and death.
The natural world, 
no matter how studiously observed,
cannot free itself from death and decay.
But Angela had a better hope,
a hope “that the one who raised the Lord Jesus
will raise us also with Jesus.”

One of Angela’s great intellectual passions,
an expression of her catholic mind,
was to search for echoes of classical literature
in early Christian writings,
particularly in her beloved Ambrose of Milan.
So I think she will not disapprove
if I quote from Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon:
“Zeus, who sets mortals on the path to understanding, 
Zeus, who has established as a fixed law 
that ‘wisdom comes by suffering.’ 
But even as trouble, bringing memory of pain, 
drips over the mind in sleep, 
so wisdom comes to men, 
whether they want it or not. 
Harsh, it seems to me, is the grace of gods 
enthroned upon their august seats.”
Aeschylus, observing nature’s laws of birth and death,
recognized that wisdom is born of suffering,
a suffering and a wisdom given 
by the harsh grace of the gods,
who impart it to us indifferently, 
whether we want it or not.

The biblical book of Wisdom also speaks of suffering:
of the souls of the just being tried by God
like gold being refined in a furnace.
But these just ones are not being tried
by the harsh grace of the gods of Aeschylus,
but by the one who desires 
that we abide with him in love,
who has mercy on his holy ones
and cares for his elect.
Indeed, the wisdom of suffering is dispensed
not by deities enthroned upon their august seats,
but by a God who has made the cross his throne,
a God who has joined himself to our nature,
so that he might become the grain of wheat
that falls to the earth,
so that he might be ground 
into the bread that gives us life.
Aeschylus saw a truth—
that wisdom comes by suffering—
but only through faith can we see
that divine Wisdom itself 
has come to dwell among us
as one who suffers,
to suffer beside us and within us,
to save us and redeem us.

We know that Angela suffered.
We know she suffered physically,
as cancer consumed her body.
We know she suffered spiritually,
as she worried 
about how Tom and Sidney and Cecilia
would carry on without her,
as she felt herself torn
from the people and things she loved so much.

But we also know that in the midst of her suffering
she believed that the affliction of our present moment
is, as St. Paul writes, “producing for us 
an eternal weight of glory 
beyond all comparison.”
She believed that even as her earthy dwelling
was being destroyed,
she had in Jesus Christ,
“a dwelling not made with hands, 
eternal in heaven,”
a dwelling in which all that she loved in this life
would find a place, transfigured by divine glory.

The greatest wisdom 
is often expressed very simply.
In the early weeks of the pandemic shutdown,
a few days before Angela died, 
a group of Loyola colleagues 
gathered with her virtually via Zoom
to pray with her and to say our goodbyes.
Her very last words to us were simple words,
words of wisdom born of suffering, 
words of faith nourished by the bread of life,
words of hope that bears the eternal weight of glory,
words of love for her friends and her family:
“I will see you on the other side.”
A simple promise to which we can cling.
I am holding Angela to that promise.

But until that day when all the saints
are joined together in the eternal sabbath rest of God,
we say to Angela, farewell on your journey.
Farewell as you enter God’s eternity.
Farewell until we are reunited in that heavenly city
toward which we make our pilgrimage,
that city where at last 
we shall rest and see,
we shall see and love, 
we shall love and praise.

May God grant the gift of rest to our friend Angela,
and may God have mercy on us all.
 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

24th Week in Ordinary Time


You may have been struck, 
as I have been struck,
by the oddness of the claim
that our eternal destiny depends 
on believing something—
namely that there is a God
and that this God so loved the world
that he sent his only Son to redeem us.
Jesus says in John’s Gospel,
“that everyone who believes in Him 
shall not perish but have eternal life.”
But how can assenting to an idea,
thinking something true,
embracing an opinion, 
determine our eternal destiny?
What sense does this make?

Well, it doesn’t really make sense,
not if we think of belief or faith
as merely assenting to an idea
or embracing an opinion.
After all, as Scripture notes,
even the demons that Jesus casts out
assent to the idea that Jesus 
is the “holy one of God,”
even the devil knows that there is a God 
and that God has sent Jesus for our salvation.

Clearly what Scripture means by the belief we call “faith”
is something more than—something different from—
assenting to an idea or embracing an opinion.
What Scripture means by faith 
is not embracing an opinion,
but rather letting ourselves be embraced by God
in such a way that a new horizon opens before us,
a new way of living and moving and having our being.

This is why the letter of James tells us today, 
“faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
James is not saying that faith 
needs to be supplemented with good works,
so that we can earn eternal life,
but rather that a faith that does not entail
the works of love that grace empowers,
that does not open up new possibilities 
for how we live and act,
is not true faith, but merely the holding of an opinion.
St. Paul says much the same thing when he writes,
“if I have all faith so as to move mountains 
but do not have love, I am nothing.”

True faith is not private,
since it involves visible, public actions
and we believe together as members of Christ’s body.
But faith is deeply personal,
in the sense that we find ourselves grasped by God
in the very depths of our existence as persons.
It is, as Thomas Aquinas says, 
something that weds the soul to God
and allows eternal life to begin in us,
even in this life.
Through faith we become new people
because we begin to live out of our conviction 
that God has come to our rescue through Jesus Christ,
that death has been defeated,
and that we do not have to live our lives in fear.

We see this difference 
between embracing an opinion
and making a true act of faith
in our Gospel reading for today.
When Jesus asks his followers, 
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter responds: “You are the Christ.”
This response is, of course, correct:
Jesus is God’s anointed savior.
But eternal life does not depend
on our ability to give correct responses;
it depends on our faith that in Jesus 
the victory of divine love makes it possible
for us to live now in God’s saving presence.

Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction
of his impending rejection, death, and resurrection
shows that he does not yet have living faith,
that his assent to the idea that Jesus is the Christ
is merely his embrace of an opinion
and not yet his having accepted the embrace of God.
Perhaps Jesus says to him “Get behind me, Satan”
because even the devil can say “You are the Christ.”
What both the devil and Peter cannot accept
is that the suffering love of Jesus on the cross
is stronger than the powers of evil 
that would seek to destroy him.
Peter embraced the opinion 
that Jesus was the Christ
with great passion and assurance,
but for all that passion he still lacked faith
because he was not yet willing
to embrace the path of cross and resurrection
to which Jesus called him.
Indeed, it is only once he encounters the risen Jesus—
the embodied sign of love’s victory—
that Peter finally surrenders to the embrace of faith.

In the Gospel today Jesus calls all of us
who would be his followers,
to walk with him the path of cross and resurrection,
to let ourselves fall into faith’s embrace.
Jesus does not simply want our mind’s assent
to the truths of the faith.
Jesus wants it all:
“whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.”
Jesus wants our mind and our will,
our flesh and our bones,
all that we do and all that we suffer.
True faith, living faith,
calls us to lay our entire life
at the feet of the crucified.
True faith, living faith, 
calls us to enter with Jesus 
into the world’s suffering,
trusting in the power of his resurrection.
True faith, living faith,
calls us to fearlessly let ourselves
be embrace by God
and to follow Jesus 
on the path to eternity.
May God grant us such true and living faith
and may God have mercy on us all.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

22nd Week in Ordinary Time


Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

We know we live in a fallen world—
a world haunted by evil, sin, and pain—
but some weeks you feel it more than others.
There is, of course, the ongoing pandemic,
which persists with wearying tenacity,
and the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti,
where misery is piled upon misery
and deaths number in the thousands.

But we feel the sorrow of our fallen state most acutely
in those events where deliberately chosen human actions
are the source of the pain and suffering of other humans.
And this is what we have watched 
unfolding in Afghanistan.
Some of the harmful actions 
seem to be matters of miscalculations,
errors in judgment about how events might unfold.
Some seem to be acts of garden-variety callousness,
in which those who are not of our own tribe
receive less of our care and concern.
But some of these choices—
such as the bombing of the airport in Kabul
in which over 170 Afghan civilians were killed,
along with 13 U.S. service members—
seem to deliberately embrace cruelty,
deliberately desire to inflict pain.
It is in these acts, these choices,
that we see the evil that afflicts our world
as not merely a patina on the surface of things,
but something that has planted its roots deeply in us,
something that reaches into the human heart 
and turns us not simply into victims 
of evil forces afoot in the world,
but into co-conspirators with evil.

In these events, these choices, 
we are confronted with what Saint Paul called 
“the mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess. 2:7),
the mystery of how human creatures
that God made in the divine image 
and declared “very good,”
could harbor within them a capacity for cruelty
that is chosen, deliberate, and planned—
the mystery of how beings who have at their core
a desire for God and the good,
could also be the source of such evil. 
As Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel,
evil is not an external stain that we can wash away;
rather, “the things that come out from within 
are what defile.”

What motivates such cruelty,
such willful taking of life 
and deliberate inflicting of suffering?
Is it a quest for some imagined higher good,
some noble cause used to justify evil means?
Is it a desire to usurp God 
as the one who holds in his hands
the power over life and death?
The mystery of iniquity remains a mystery;
it remains a void that we 
cannot wrap our minds around,
cannot fully grasp.

Evil remains a mystery to us
even though it is a reality 
in which we are all implicated.
Events of obvious horrific evil,
like the bombing of the airport in Kabul,
can tempt us to refuse to acknowledge
our own share in the mystery of iniquity:
it is those people—over there—in whom evil dwells.
We turn evil once again into something outside of us,
something alien to us.
But Jesus offers an extensive and varied list
of the fruits of evil,
lest we think that somehow
evil has not sunk its roots deeply into us: 
“from within people, from their hearts,
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit.”
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.”
We may not steal or murder or blaspheme,
but who of us has never been arrogant or foolish—
I’m pretty sure I’ve been both 
several times already this morning.
Who of us has not been deceitful or envious,
lustful or mean? 
An act of lust or envy is, of course, 
not the same as an act of murder,
but they all come from the same source:
“All these evils,” Jesus says, 
“come from within and they defile.”

So where is the good news in all of this?
What hope do we have 
in the face of the mystery of iniquity? 
Our hope is clearly not in ourselves.
Captive as we are to sin, 
there are no efforts we can make on our own
that can uproot the sin in our hearts,
that can stem the tide of evil
that come forth from within us.
No, our hope is, as the letter of James says,
in the Father of lights,
“with whom there is no alteration 
or shadow caused by change,”
from whom comes down every perfect gift.
Our hope is in the God who has planted in us
the word of truth,
“that we may be a kind 
of firstfruits of his creatures,”
signs of God’s grace dawning already 
in the dark night of sin.
Only the Word of God joined to our human nature
can restore that nature to what God would have it be:
that which God declared to be “very good”
at the dawning of creation.
Only the mystery of divine love
can save us from the mystery of iniquity.

This does not mean
that we have no role to play
in the inward purification 
to which Christ calls us.
After all, the letter of James says quite clearly, 
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only.”
The word of truth that the Father of lights plants in us
is something that we nurture 
through prayer and penance,
through the grace of the sacraments,
through following the way of Jesus on a daily basis,
through seeking to repair the damage sin has wrought.
What can I do to comfort those
whom sin has made suffer?
What can I do to heal the wounds inflicted 
by my own arrogance and folly,
by my own deceit and envy?
How do I live a life of on-going conversion
to the way of Jesus?
These are the questions that must define our lives
if we are to be doers of the word and not just hearers.

Let us pray that the Father of lights
would show us the mystery of love
that can defeat the mystery of iniquity,
and let us pray that God 
would have mercy on us all.

 

Sunday, August 1, 2021

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time


I learned a new term this week: “the twisties.”
A friend of mine who is a former gymnast explained to me 
that this is when you lose what they call your “air sense”—
your awareness, after you have launched yourself into the air,
of exactly where you are located,
which way to are oriented,
how you are going to land—
the sense that allows the gymnast 
to turn what for most of us 
would be a chaotic tumble through space
into a graceful, gravity-defying dance.

A gymnast with the twisties is in considerable peril:
suddenly, in mid-arc, you are lost,
you literally don’t know which way is up
or how you are going to come down.
And once you lose your air sense
it is not certain when, or if, it will return.
Apparently, it was a bad case of the twisties
that led Simone Biles to withdraw 
from the team gymnastics competition
this past week at the Olympic Games.

I, obviously, am not a gymnast,
but I can relate to the twisties.
We all have dreams and aspirations 
that guide our choices
and, in a sense, give us our identity.
We launch ourselves, as it were, on various life-projects:
I am going to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher;
I am going to be the best parent possible;
I am going to be famous, rich, powerful;
I am going to be an Olympic athlete,
a professional musician,
a successful student.

Some of these aspirations,
these life-projects, 
are worthwhile,
and others not so much,
but whether worthy or not,
they come to define not just what we do
but who we are, our sense of self.
This sense of self is like the gymnast’s air sense:
having launched ourselves into pursuit of our dreams,
it is how we locate ourselves,
how we keep ourselves oriented,
how we know how we are going to land. 
But we can lose this sense of self.

We all know of people—
and maybe have experienced this ourselves—
whose aspirations are thwarted,
whose dreams do not work out,
whose dedication does not pay off.
I may be a hard-working pre-med student 
who does not do well enough on the MCAT
to get into medical school.
I may be an athlete who has spent years in training
but who is sidelined by a career-ending injury.
I may be a parent who has poured myself
into providing my children 
with a happy and secure life
but now watch then struggle 
with problems that I simply cannot fix.
If I am not a doctor, an athlete,
a parent who can protect my children,
then what am I?
Who am I?
We get the twisties.
We are dislocated, disoriented,
and we don’t know how we will land.

The poet Dante begins his work The Divine Comedy
with the words, “Midway on our life’s journey
I found myself in a dark woods, the right road lost.”
In a moment of profound dislocation and disorientation,
Dante is not exactly sure how it is that he come to this point.
He too had aspirations: to be a great poet,
to achieve a kind of immortality through art,
to be a man of influence in his native city of Florence.
But these dreams seem to have come to nothing,
and he awakens in the middle of the arc of his life
as if from a dream to find 
that he has no idea how he will land.
He has the twisties.

But what Dante comes to see in his great poem
is that the one thing to which we should aspire,
the one great dream that should give us our sense of self,
the one lodestar by which we should orient ourselves,
is nothing so paltry as being a great artist or a person of influence,
nothing so fragile as having a career or honor or wealth,
but only being a follower of Jesus Christ.
Of course it is a fine thing to have aspirations—
our world would be impoverished 
without the passion of artists,
without the drive of athletes,
without the dreams of parents for their children.
But none of these aspirations is enough
to give us a sense of self that can survive
the twists and turns of fortune,
none of these can locate and orient us
in a way that will allow us to land in God’s kingdom,
none of these can make for us a self
that will be eternal.

In the Gospel today Jesus says,
“Do not work for food that perishes
but for the food that endures for eternal life.”
We should not base our sense of self 
on aspirations for passing things.
St. Paul speaks in our second reading 
of a self “corrupted by deceitful desires.”
We are deceived by any desire for worldly achievement
that promises to give us a self that is secure,
because the world is constantly passing away
and the self that is based on worldly achievement
passes away with it.

This is why Paul tells us this morning 
“you should put away the old self 
of your former way of life…
and put on the new self.”
When we find ourselves with the twisties—
when in the middle of our life’s journey
we find ourselves dislocated, disoriented, 
with no idea of how we will land—
God’s grace can relocate and reorient us,
give us a new aspiration that will not fail,
an aspiration for eternity.

When the people ask Jesus
“What can we do to accomplish the works of God?’ 
He responds,
‘This is the work of God, 
that you believe in the one he sent.” 
When we launch ourselves into the life of faith
we are not launching ourselves into a void
where our sense of self can slip from our grasp,
but into the hands of God.
We are launching ourselves into a new self
that is, as Paul says, “created in God’s way 
in righteousness and holiness of truth.”
We are launching ourselves 
into companionship with Jesus
on the journey to the kingdom.

It is not the case that on this journey
you will never feel dislocated or disoriented
or doubtful as to how you will land,
but in faith we trust Jesus,
the one whom God has sent,
the one who comes to meet us 
in the middle of our life’s journey
to grasp ahold of us,
to located and orient us, 
to bring us safely home.

So let us aspire to share in God’s eternity,
let us trust that God will be there to catch us when we fail,
let us pray that God will have mercy on us all.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

17th Week of Ordinary Time--Saturday (St. Ignatius Loyola)


What has always struck me 
about the story of the death of John the Baptist
is just how tawdry the whole thing is.
This man of God is killed 
because Herod’s step-daughter,
who is also apparently his niece, 
performs a dance that so delights 
the guests as his birthday party
(I’ll leave it to your imagination 
as to why it might have been delightful)
that Herod engages in what medieval romances
called a “rash boon”:
you promise to grant whatever someone asks,
having no idea of what that might be.
So this girl, manipulated by her mother,
whose feelings have been hurt by John,
brings about John’s death.
It’s got everything that is wrong with our world in it:
deception and violence, power and pettiness.
It shows us how the world all too often works
when it is in the hands of the powerful,
as it always seems to be.

But our first reading gives us a different vision
of how the world might work.
The year of jubilee pushes the rest button
on a world that has been divided up 
according to the principle that the rich get richer
and the poor get poorer.
It is a reminder that the world is God’s gift 
to the whole human race,
not just to the rich and powerful.
It is a reminder to not deal unfairly
but to stand in reverent fear of your God.
This vision of the jubilee year,
the year of forgiveness and freedom, 
is something that the Church enacts in her Eucharist,
which is not a feast, like that held at the house of Herod,
to which only the rich and powerful are invited.
It is the wedding feast of the lamb
to which no amount of money,
no degree of power can gain admittance,
but only the words, “Lord I am not worthy.”
It is the feast in which we celebrate
the liberty found in humbling ourselves before God,
in acknowledging that we are all beggars.

St. Ignatius Loyola,
whom we commemorate today,
devoted his life to helping souls
by guiding them to true liberty.
His entire spirituality was directed toward the jubilee
in which true freedom is given to us through Christ
so that we might choose to fight under his banner
in the cause of God’s kingdom.
St. Ignatius celebrated the Eucharist daily 
with tears of gratitude,
because he knew it was the feast of true freedom
in which we give to God from God’s own gifts to us,
and receive back from God 
the flesh and blood of God himself.
So let us today make St. Ignatius’s prayer our own:
“Take, Lord, receive all my liberty, 
my memory, my understanding, my whole will, 
all that I have and all that I possess. 
You gave it all to me, Lord; 
I give it all back to you. 
Do with it as you will, according to your good pleasure. 
Give me your love and your grace; 
for with this I have all that I need.”

Saturday, July 24, 2021

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time


A few weeks ago, 
my wife and I were driving 
through the hills around Harper’s Ferry,
listening to National Public Radio,
as college professors tend to do.
They were reporting on the on-going conflict
between Ethiopia and Eritrea,
which has been raging for eight months
and has led to severe and widespread famine.

As our car made its way 
along the winding road,
the radio station kept fading out,
lost in a wave of static,
and another radio station kept fading in.
This was one of those evangelical religious stations
that college professors tend not to listen to.
The signal was buried in static,
and hard to make out,
but after a minute or so
I realized that this station was discussing 
the story of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude,
the story that we have just heard in today’s Gospel reading.
As we wove our ways through the hills,
the two stories wove their way around each other:
at one moment reports of war and famine 
in a distant part of the world,
in the next moment the ancient tale
of Jesus feeding the hungry multitude,
stories bouncing back and forth 
in a dialogue between conflict and communion,
between hunger and plenty.

What gets said in such a dialogue?
What does the story of Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes
have to say to a world of war and famine?
Certainly it speaks a word of rebuke 
to the story of the world’s sin,
the story of the way that the world all too often operates.
It presents a striking contrast to the violence and hunger
that is found not only in distant foreign lands
but right here in our own city,
where most years we average close to a murder a day,
and one in four residents lives in a “food desert,”
without ready access to places to purchase healthy food.
And to such physical violence and hunger we must add
the spiritual violence of various forms 
of factionalism and discrimination and racism—
the refusal to see the image of God 
present in those who are different—
and the spiritual hunger of those who are fed a steady diet
of empty aspirations for fame or wealth or physical sensation
all the while starving for the bread of life
that only God can give
and only faith can receive.

Everything about the feeding of the multitudes
stands as a rebuke to these realities that afflict our world.
The story of the feeding of the multitudes
is the story of human beings caught up
in the goodness of God
and receiving abundantly from that goodness.
It is a story that interrupts 
the world’s story of hunger and violence,
a story that pierces through 
the static of sin,
the static of the world’s business as usual,
and says to us that something else is possible,
that something else is even now making itself present
through the power of God taken flesh in Jesus Christ.

And yet, so often 
we can only dimly perceive this new reality;
it hovers at the edge of our awareness 
like ghostly voices on the airwaves,
obscured by the world’s static
and only discernible if we play close attention.
And even when we see it,
we often misperceive it.
The gospel-writer John concludes this story 
of divine abundance made present in Jesus 
with the statement:
“Since Jesus knew that they were going to come 
and carry him off to make him king,
he withdrew again to the mountain alone.”
The multitude saw 
the power of Jesus to satisfy hungers,
but could not see that this was a power
different from that of earthly kings.
As Jesus will later say to Pontius Pilate,
“My kingdom does not belong to this world,”
and when the multitude in Jerusalem hears this
they will say, “Crucify him…
We have no king but Caesar.”

The power of God to defeat the world’s violence,
to feed the world’s hunger,
takes flesh in the one who is rejected and crucified.
And God wills this to be so 
because God knows how we are drawn to worldly power.
We believe that violence will end
once we have a ruler who can crush our enemies.
We believe that our hungers will cease
once we have a leader 
who can get the economy humming along.
But Jesus has no armies, no police force, 
no Federal Reserve, no Internal Revenue Service;
he has only five barley loaves and two fish
and the power of crucified love.
But for those with ears to hear,
ears that can discern it through the static of the world,
this is the true story of peace and abundance.

This is what it means to live the life of faith.
It is to see in the sharing of gifts 
in our Eucharistic celebration
the abundant banquet that God offers us 
in Jesus’ body and blood.
It is to see in our small efforts to feed the hungry 
in our Loaves and Fishes ministry
a sign of God’s abundance breaking through
the static of the world’s violence and hunger.
These actions might seem like small things—
as small as five barley loaves and two fish—
but if Christ takes them into his hands
to offer them to the Father,
they can become the seeds of God’s kingdom sown in us.

The story of that kingdom is being told in countless way,
interrupting the story of the world’s sin.
Listen for it.
Don’t let the world’s static obscure it.
And may God have mercy on us all.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time



The opening of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians,
which we have heard today in our second reading, 
is a magnificent act of praise and thanksgiving to God
for the grace he has shown in calling Christians
into his plan for the world’s salvation,
a plan that is in some mysterious way
older than creation itself,
a plan that is carried out through the blood of Christ
and the grace that he has lavished upon us,
a plan in which the entire universe to shown
to find its purpose and meaning 
in Christ and his redemptive work.
It is an amazing vision 
of the cosmic significance of Jesus Christ
and of our place within the eternal plan of God,
we who have been created and redeemed 
to show forth God’s glory.

On this day, in this glorious cathedral,
that might not seem like so implausible an idea.
Here a vast multitude can gather—
people from all walks of life,
from the humble to the great,
the simple to the wise—
in beauty of sight and sound 
that gives some sense 
of the cosmic sweep
of the drama of salvation
and the riches of God’s grace 
lavished upon us in Christ.

But the church in Ephesus to whom Paul wrote
was not a vast multitude.
It was at most a few dozen people. 
They did not gather in a magnificent structure
but probably in the home
of whomever had the most space.
Their worship, 
while no doubt both solemn and joyful, 
would, by comparison with ours,
have seemed simple and unadorned:
reading scriptures, 
praying for the needs of the world, 
and, in the broken bread and the shared cup of blessing, 
celebrating the Lord’s death until he comes.
And those few dozen who gathered 
were not a particularly impressive bunch:
as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, 
“Not many of you were wise by human standards, 
not many were powerful, 
not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26).
What is so striking throughout Paul’s letters
is how he sees the vast scope and glory of God’s work
in such small and inauspicious gatherings.
Their small numbers 
and humble surroundings
and unadorned worship
do not prevent him from seeing,
through the eyes of faith,
that those whom God has called in Christ
are at the center of a drama
that concerns every single creature
in every corner of the universe.

To non-Christians in the first century,
if there were any who noticed 
a movement as tiny and marginal as Christianity,
Paul’s words would have seemed insane.
After all, it was pagan Rome that had an empire
spanning the known world;
it was pagan Rome that had impressive temples
and elaborate religious rituals and festivals;
it was pagan Rome that had an obvious claim
to be the chief actor in a drama of cosmic scope:
its armies triumphant,
its rulers made into gods.
Paul’s belief in the cosmic glory of Christ
would have seemed clearly delusional.

Jesus, sending out his disciples two-by-two,
without food or sack or money in their belts
or even a second tunic,
probably also seemed delusional.
He does not allow those he sends to preach
to take even the most rudimentary necessities 
for their journey
or the task of preaching God’s reign.
Yet Jesus sends them anyway,
equipping them with
a share in his own authority
over the cosmic forces
that have rebelled against God,
to heal the sick and cast out demons.
He sends them to show forth 
in their words and actions
the reign of God breaking into our world.
For may it was no doubt unsurprising 
that one who was so foolish
would have ended up on a Roman cross.
The cross, Paul tells us, 
is scandal and foolishness
to those without the eyes of faith,
but for those called and chosen by God
from the foundation of the world
it is redemption and forgiveness.

And what of us?
What do we see?
Do we who sit in this glorious cathedral
see with the eyes of faith the glory of the gospel? 
It is a great gift of God that we have inherited
a grand space and beautiful liturgies
that can speak to us of the cosmic drama 
of which grace has made us partakers.
But while such beauty can aid us in the life of faith,
we must never forget the true beauty that is found 
only in redemption through the blood of Jesus,
beauty that the eyes of faith can discern
even in the horror of the cross.
If we, like St. Paul, truly see with the eyes of faith
then we will know that, 
even should the Church be stripped
of all outward manifestations of grandeur,
she still exists for the praise of his glory, 
for she is still filled
with every spiritual blessing in the heavens.
For those with the eyes of faith,
the gospel was glorious 
before there were magnificent cathedrals
and it will remain glorious 
should the time of cathedrals pass away.

So let us pray that in all circumstances—
in plenty and in poverty,
in triumph and in tragedy,
in a multitude and in a little flock—
we might see at work in us
what Paul saw at work 
in the humble church at Ephesus:
the power of Christ crucified and risen
transforming the very fabric of the cosmos
through the work of the Spirit,
in accord with God’s eternal plan.
May we remain faithful to our calling
and may God have mercy on us all.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time


“We walk by faith, not by sight.”
St. Paul’s reminder to the Christians at Corinth
is a reminder to us as well.
In part it is a reminder that all of us
navigate our day-to-day lives 
on the basis of things we believe to be true
although we cannot prove them:
that our parents have given us an accurate account 
of where and when we were born,
that our spouses are faithful and our friends honest,
that our 401k accounts will still have value when we retire.
These beliefs are more than simply 
unfounded convictions about what is true;
they are convictions that grow 
from a judgment of trustworthiness:
that our parents are reliable reporters 
of events we cannot remember,
that our spouses and friends 
are the people that they present themselves to be,
that people in general will behave in such a way
that societal collapse will not happen in our lifetime.
Without this kind of trust, we simply cannot function
on a day-to-day basis.

But Paul here is speaking not about this day-to-day trust
that we depend on in walking through life,
but about a trust that can take us to the very edge of life,
a faith by which we can pass over from this life 
to our destiny in God’s kingdom,
destination to our journey that we cannot see
but in which we believe 
because we trust Jesus,
who came into our world 
proclaiming the news of God’s reign.

We walk by faith and not by sight,
not simply because our sight is defective—
limited by our finitude and wounded by our sin—
but because the destination toward which we walk
is so surpassingly glorious, 
so dazzling in beauty 
that our minds are blinded by its light.
We can use terms like “heaven” 
or “eternal life” or “kingdom of God,”
or, if we really want to sound impressive, 
“beatific vision,”
but the fact is that we don’t have clear sight
of exactly what those terms might mean,
so far does the reality of which they speak 
surpass our ordinary experience.

In the parables in today’s Gospel, 
Jesus underscores both 
the hiddenness of God’s kingdom
and its surpassing glory.
In the first parable, the growth of God’s kingdom
is compared to the growth of plants
that begins beneath the earth, 
out of our sight
and, above all, out of our control.
If Jesus were preaching in Baltimore today,
he might have spoken about the Brood X cicadas,
which lie hidden in the earth,
only to emerge with shocking suddenness after 17 years.
But whether cicadas or plants the point is the same:
we must trust that the reign of God is growing, 
even if we cannot always see it,
even if we cannot control it,
and that we must make ourselves ready
for the day of its appearing.

In the second parable, 
Jesus compares the kingdom of God
to the mustard plant that grows from a small seed.
For most of us, a seed is a seed,
and tells us little about the plant that it will produce.
The size of the seed does not correspond 
to the size of the plant that will grow from it,
so you need to know more about the seed
than what your eyes can tell you
in order to know that the mustard seed 
will become a plant that “puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
If, however, those that you trust 
to know more than you do about plants
assure you that such a thing will come to pass,
you should believe it 
even if you can only dimly grasp 
the reality they are describing.

To walk by faith is to put your trust Jesus,
the Word of God made flesh,
when he tells you God’s reign 
is both hidden and glorious.
For he alone has seen the eternal kingdom
that will spring from the seeds of faith
that he has planted;
he alone walks by sight 
and can lead us to that glorious destiny,
a destiny we cannot control or even imagine.
We have no map we can look at
to give us an overview
of the way we must walk 
to God’s kingdom.
But we do see Jesus, 
who is the Way that we follow.

In planting a seed, you surrender it to the soil,
and hand over control of its development.
The promise is that the plant that grows
will be unimaginably greater than the seed,
but only if you first consign the seed 
to the hidden places of the earth.
On the journey to God’s kingdom
we surrender ourselves to Jesus,
the one in whom we trust.
We let our lives be hidden in Christ;
we hand over control of our lives in faith,
the faith that Jesus is the Way
that leads to a life far surpassing 
the tiny seed of faith from which it grows.
Let us walk with Jesus to the reign of God,
walk by faith and not by sight,
and may the God in whom we trust 
have mercy on us all.