Sunday, April 11, 2021

Easter 2



The risen Jesus seems to show a marked preference
for sinners and skeptics.
At least, as we see in today’s Gospel reading, 
it is to such as these that he in his mercy
entrusts the tasks of forgiveness and faith.

First, the sinners.
It is perhaps understandable that the fickle crowd
who had hailed Jesus upon his arrival in Jerusalem
would quickly turn against him and called for his crucifixion.
The disciples of Jesus, however, had been with him for a long time:
they had heard his teachings and seen his miracles;
they had made the journey with him from Galilee to Jerusalem;
he had called each by name 
and given them the joyful task of witnessing to God’s rein.
But by abandoning him in his moment of greatest need,
they committed the sin for which the poet Dante 
reserved the deepest circle of Hell: 
they had betrayed their benefactor.
And in the aftermath of their betrayal 
they now cower in hiding, behind locked doors,
And yet it is to these cowardly sinners that Jesus 
comes and speaks the words “Peace be with you”
and to whom he entrusts
the power of the judgment and forgiveness of sins:
“Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Then, the skeptic.
Thomas the doubter
was perhaps by nature one of those people
who suspects that if something seems
too good to be true
then it probably is false.
 He was one who would not believe the testimony 
of even his closest companions,
who would not believe unless he was given 
concrete—literally tangible—proof.
And yet it is to this skeptical doubter
that Christ appears and bids him to believe
and gives to him the grace to utter 
the New Testament’s boldest confession 
of faith in Jesus Christ,
the words that state most plainly 
the mystery present in the person of Jesus:
“My Lord and my God!”

Sinners and skeptics.
They may seem like odd choices
to become vessels of forgiveness and faith.
But in the upside-down world 
inaugurated by Christ’s resurrection
this is precisely what they become.
And it is in fact only fitting once we grasp 
the revolutionary mercy of God
revealed in Jesus’ resurrection.

Who better than this frightened band of betrayers
to be entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation?
Who but a sinner knows how deeply we suffer from sin,
and how desperately we need forgiveness?
Who but one who knows from within
the evasions and self-deceptions we employ
to excuse our sins
would know how to apply, 
with both mercy and rigor,
the just judgment of God upon the sinner?
Who but one who has committed the worst betrayal,
and yet still hears from Jesus the words “Peace be with you,”
would know how deep into the hell of sin God’s mercy can reach?

And who better than Thomas the skeptic
to be entrusted with the confession 
“my Lord and my God”?
Who but one whose restless mind 
will not rest content with simple answers
could receive the grace to press beyond 
the joyful moment of encounter with the risen Jesus 
to see what is unseeable,
and to speak something as mysterious and hidden
as the presence of the invisible God 
in the human flesh of Jesus?
Who but one who has doubted 
knows the time it can take to come to faith,
so as to bear with patience the doubts of others?
Who but one who in their doubt keeps seeking Jesus
can know that even amidst our doubts
the seeds of faith planted by grace can still live?

We hear in the First Letter of John,
“the victory that conquers the world is our faith.”
This statement might sound to our ears
like a triumphalist affirmation
that faith allows us to trample underfoot
the enemies of God, 
that faith is a weapon in the arsenal
of those who are strong and destined for success.
It is a phrase that might bring to our mind’s eye 
images Christians striding confidently 
through the halls of power
and passing judgement upon all 
who succumb to sin and skepticism.

But what if faith’s conquest of the world
looks not like the successful
going from strength to strength,
but like the sinful and the skeptical
grasped by the crucified and risen God?
What if it looks not like those 
who wield God’s word as a weapon,
but like people being reborn 
through the blood and water pouring forth 
from the pierced side of the crucified Christ?
What if it is mercy’s conquest won through suffering?
What if it is Easter?

According to the logic of Easter 
it makes sense
that the victory of forgiveness and faith
would be made manifest 
in the sinful and the skeptical.
And this is the great hope Easter offers us.
For all of us are, let’s be honest,
sinful and skeptical—at least some of the time.
All of us know ourselves to have abandoned Christ—
at least some of the time.
All of us know ourselves to have doubted Christ—
at least some of the time.
So Easter is for us.
Easter is the great feast of God’s mercy,
the great feast of forgiveness and faith,
spread before us sinners and skeptics.
Easter is the invitation, 
“come and eat, for all is prepared.”
And blessed are we who are called 
to the supper of the Lamb. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Easter Octave: Wednesday


When Peter heals the man crippled from birth,
St. Luke tells us, “He leaped up, stood, 
and walked around,
and went into the temple with them,
walking and jumping and praising God.”
I think he is doing more than simply
giving his newly-healed legs a test-drive, 
taking them for a spin,
to see what they could do.
I think that his heart is so full of joy at being healed
that he simply cannot contain himself,
so he stands and walks and leaps and jumps.
He leaps in praise of God;
he jumps in joy for having received
a gift more precious that silver or gold,
for in a very real sense he has been given a new life.
And those who see him 
are “filled with amazement and astonishment
at what had happened to him.”

What about those two disciples fleeing Jerusalem,
who encountered a stranger on the road,
only to discover, as he broke bread for them,
that it was in fact the risen Jesus?
We are told that they “set out at once
and returned to Jerusalem.”
Do you think they walked at a leisurely pace?
Isn’t it more likely that they ran?
Isn’t it even possible 
that they leaped and jumped as they ran,
so filled were they with joy
that the one who was dead now lived,
that the one whom they had abandoned 
had not abandoned them,
that the hungers of their burning hearts
could continue to be fed by fellowship with Jesus?
And those who saw them returning to Jerusalem,
where their master had just been killed,
from which they had just fled,
were they too 
“filled with amazement and astonishment”
at what had happened to them?

And what of us?
We may think of ourselves as dignified people
who are not prone to leaping and jumping
and other forms of enthusiastic religion.
We’re Catholics, after all,
with our orderly liturgy 
and our relatively restrained demeanor.
But perhaps as we encounter Christ 
in broken bread this day,
just as the disciples did in the village of Emmaus,
we should at least let our hearts leap and jump
at the good news that Jesus lives,
that he is with us to heal us and feed us
and to give us new lives.
Let us pray that, having received today the risen Christ,
we should go out into our daily lives transformed,
to live in such a way that those whom we meet
will, like those who saw the man healed by Peter,
be filled with amazement and astonishment
at what has happened to us.
And may God have mercy on us all.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Lent 5


As some of you might know,
in my life outside of the Cathedral
I am a professor of theology at Loyola University.
And what I do as a professor of theology
is not simply to make students learn 
the content of Christian faith and practice—
doctrines, history, rituals, moral teachings—
but also to help them think through the Christian faith,
to show them how reason can illuminate
the doctrines, history, rituals, 
and moral teachings of Christianity.
I try to get them to see how 
the extraordinary claims of the Christian faith
can be understood in a way that fits 
with our ordinary way of reasoning about the world,
so that the faith is not seen as something
that you need to kill your intellect
in order to embrace.

And I think this is a pretty worthwhile endeavor.
One of the glories of the Catholic approach to faith
is our insistence that faith and reason 
are not opposed to one another,
and that we number among our saints
not only those who devoted themselves to prayer
or to serving the bodily needs of their neighbor
but also those who devoted themselves
to the life of the mind, 
scholar-saints like Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas,
or the philosopher and Carmelite nun Edith Stein,
better known as St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross.
These saints show us that thinking and holiness
are not opposed to each other,
that indeed thinking rigorously about the faith
can be its own sort of path to holiness.
These scholar-saints show us the value 
of applying the same mind that we use 
to grasp a mathematical proof
or the laws of physical motion
or the psychology of human behavior
to the mysteries of the Christian faith.
They show us that the power of thought
that we use to think about mundane realities,
can, by God’s grace, help us to better grasp
supernatural truths.

But, at the end of the day, all our efforts 
to understand the heart of Christianity
can only take us up to the edge of faith,
so that we peer over into an abyss 
that human reason cannot fathom.
All our efforts at explanation
run up against the reality that 
in Jesus—in his words and actions—
we are confronted with the very mystery of God,
a mystery that cannot be “solved,”
cannot be explained,
but must be embraced by the light of faith,
a light so dazzling that it looks like darkness
to our ordinary ways of thinking.

In our Gospel today we hear stated 
with absolute clarity and precision
the mystery that lies at the heart of our faith:
“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.”
As the hour of Jesus approaches,
the hour in which he will be
lifted up from the earth 
on the wood of the cross
so as to draw all people to himself,
he reveals to his followers the mystery:
our life can bear no fruit
except through death;
the life that seeks 
to preserve itself at all cost
remains a sterile, fruitless life.
And from this fundamental mystery
of life gained through death
further paradoxes pour forth:
if you love your life you will lose it,
but if you hate your life you will find it;
the world’s condemnation of Jesus 
is God’s judgment passed on the world;
the shame of the cross is the glory of Christ.
These are words that scandalize our reason
and over which our attempts at explanation stumble;
these are words that dazzle and blind our minds
but through the grace of faith enflame our hearts.

Let me be clear: 
I am not saying that we should not apply our minds
in order to understand our faith as much as possible.
Stupidity is not a virtue,
and we should work as diligently 
to understand the doctrines, history, rituals, 
and moral teachings of the Church
as we do to understand 
the natural world or human behavior.
After all, God gave us our minds
and expects us to use them 
to ponder God’s mysteries.
But, as all of the great scholar-saints
of the Catholic tradition knew, 
our understanding can only take us 
to the edge of mystery
and it is love that must peer over that edge
into the depths of God.
The mystery of life through death 
of which Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel
applies in a certain way 
to the life of the mind as well.
We may not have to kill our intellects
in order to be believers,
but when we have exhausted our minds 
in pursuit of God,
we must then plant them in the soil of love
so that, dying, they can bear fruit.

As we prepare to celebrate 
the great mysteries of our faith
in the coming days of Holy Week and Easter,
as we prepare to ponder Christ’s passing over
from death to life,
let us pay heed to the words 
of another great scholar-saint, St. Bonaventure,
who bids us, once we have spent our minds
in seeking understanding: 
“Let us then die and pass over into darkness; 
let us impose silence on cares, desires, and images; 
let us pass over with the crucified Christ 
from this world to the Father.”
And may God have mercy on us all.

 

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Lent 3


“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”
I think we Catholics today can congratulate ourselves
on having avoided this.
Well, apart from bingo and raffles 
and bake sales and holiday craft fairs
and sales of fairly-traded coffee and chocolate
and also Lenten fish fries.
But apart from those, we’re doing really well.
And even those things are relatively harmless,
and may even serve salutary purposes
of raising money for good causes 
and of building a sense of community.

But Jesus is, I think, criticizing 
something more than mere commerce.
He is offended by something more
than money changing hands in a sacred place.
Throughout his ministry,
both in his words and in his actions,
Jesus teaches that our relationship with God
should not be thought of as a transaction
in which I give something to God—
some slice of my time and attention,
some thing that I give up as a sacrifice, 
some number of good deeds—
in order to receive some benefit,
whether this be a crude expectation
of prosperity and material gain
or, perhaps more likely, 
the more sophisticated desire
for peace of mind and spiritual consolation.
This is the idea that I can give God 
some determinate amount of my love,
or at least of my obedience,
in order to receive some specific reward.

The entire life of Jesus is an assault on this idea.
In embodying for us the God who is love,
the God with whom we can strike no bargain
but to whom we can give nothing less than everything,
and from whom we can only receive with gratitude,
Jesus seeks to drive from the temple of our hearts
the idea that our relationship with God
is an exchange or transaction,
lashing this idea with the cords 
of God’s mercy and love,
offered to us free of charge.

Jesus does this just so that we 
can come to know God truly,
to grasp what it means 
to love and be loved by God.
We generally don’t approach as transactions
the relationships that matter to us most.
I don’t offer me wife a kiss
just so she will mow the lawn;
I don’t take out the garbage
just so she will do the laundry;
or, at least, if I do, 
I feel slightly ashamed of myself.
Because love is not a matter 
of calculating costs and benefits.
Love is a matter of giving everything 
when you have nothing to gain in return,
of receiving everything
when you have nothing of your own to give.
In love’s economy 
we are all both generous donors 
and humble beggars. 

And this is true above all with God.
Jesus teaches us through his life
that God’s love cannot be purchased,
that God’s laws are not 
the price sticker on divine favor,
that our obedience is not the currency 
with which we purchase prosperity 
or inner peace 
or even our salvation. 
Jesus teaches us this 
with agonizing clarity
in his death on the cross,
when he gives himself totally 
into his Father’s loving hands
to win for us the precious gift of eternal life.
The shocking message of the Gospel
is that the love that is God 
is most fully shown forth
in the pain and shame 
of Christ crucified,
which St. Paul tells us is
“a stumbling block to Jews 
and foolishness to Gentiles.”

As anyone who has ever fallen in love can tell you, 
love can make you look weak and foolish
in the eyes of the world.
It can make you look weak and foolish
because it pulls you out of the economy
of reasonable exchanges,
of calculating costs and benefits,
of giving in order to get.
Spouses, parents, or anyone blessed
with a true and lasting friendship
all know the weakness of being overwhelmed by love,
the foolishness of not caring whether what you give
is balanced out by what you get.

And Jesus tells us that this is what God is.
Think of the deepest 
and most enduring love you have known.
Think of the sacrifices 
you have made for that love.
Think of the unrepayable gifts 
you have gained from that love.
Think of the ways that love 
has broken open your heart.
God is all of that and more.
On the cross God embraces 
weakness and foolishness
because that is simply what love does.
And in that embrace God reveals 
the power and wisdom of love,
for, as St. Paul says,
“the foolishness of God 
is wiser than human wisdom, 
and the weakness of God 
is stronger than human strength.”

Our souls are God’s temple;
our hearts are God’s house.
Let us not make them marketplaces
in which we seek to transact the business
of bargaining with God for our salvation.
Let us rather let Jesus cleanse them.
Let us allow ourselves to be weak and foolish
for the sake of crucified love.
Let us make our hearts into homes 
within which we welcome
the power and wisdom of God.
And may God have mercy on us all.

 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Lent 1


For some reason, when my children were babies,
they were given numerous pictures of Noah’s Ark.
Maybe you have seen the sort I mean:
a smiling Noah, along with pairs of cuddly animals,
and, of course, a rainbow in the sky,
everything rendered in bright, happy colors.
Just the thing to hang up in a nursery.
Until, that is, you stop to recall
that the story of Noah’s Ark is the terrifying tale
of the near-complete destruction of the entire human race
on account of how their exceedingly wicked ways
had angered God and stirred him with righteous indignation.
And while I think reminders of the wrath of God
might be useful when dealing with teenagers,
I am not convinced that they make 
appropriate decorations for a baby’s room.

But while the story of Noah can’t be reduced 
to a happy tale about a boat trip 
with a bunch of cute animals,
it is also not simply a story of divine wrath.
It is above all a promise of divine patience.
For at the end of the tale 
God promises to never again destroy the earth,
and the bow that is hung in the sky
is not simply a colorful decoration
but a weapon of war that has been retired from use.
After the flood, this disarmed God makes a covenant 
with the whole of creation:
a promise to endure the evil we people do
until we can be wooed back into relationship with God.
This does not mean that divine wrath 
disappears from the story of God’s people,
but it does mean that that wrath is always enclosed
in God’s ultimate desire that all people be saved
and come to knowledge of the truth.

This disarmed God promises to be patient with us,
and the rainbow that emerges 
as sunlight pierces the clouds
is a sign of that divine patience.
Of course, the supreme sign of God’s patience with us—
God’s desire to woo us back into relationship with him—
is not a rainbow, as spectacular as those may be,
but Jesus Christ, God present with us.
Indeed, in one of his sermons, 
St. Thomas Aquinas see the rainbow itself
as a sign that points us to Christ:
just as the rainbow is light 
refracted through water droplets,
so Jesus is the light of the divine nature 
refracted through human nature,
humanity and divinity bound together in one person,
the love that is God made visible in a human being,
establishing an unbreakable bond of peace (Ecce rex tuus, pars 2).
Jesus is the definitive sign of God’s patience
with unrighteous humanity.
For God in Christ does not inflict suffering on sinners,
but takes the suffering of sin upon himself;
as St. Peter writes in today’s Epistle:
“Christ suffered for sins once, 
the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, 
that he might lead you to God.”
In Christ crucified, 
the disarmed God has taken human flesh:
God’s patience is displayed before our eyes
in a sign more compelling than any rainbow.

And yet, today, Christ the patience of God
announces to us with shocking urgency: 
“This is the time of fulfillment.”
Christ the patience of God
warns us that the time is short:
“The kingdom of God is at hand.”
Christ the patience of God
implores us not to wait:
“Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
He announces, warns, and implores us
not because God’s patience is running short,
but because God’s love desires so urgently
that we return to God,
that we live the fullness of life
that God desires for us,
the fullness of life that we call God’s kingdom.
Fresh from his forty days of testing in the desert,
Jesus knows the dangers that beset our souls.
He has confronted the powers 
arrayed against God’s kingdom.
He has looked into the face of temptation
and he knows the urgency with which our enemy
seeks our destruction.
So he calls to us with urgent patience:
repent, 
believe,
let me lead you to God.

God has given us this season of Lent:
so that we too might learn
how to be urgently patient.
We begin these forty days
by receiving ashes on our heads
as a sign of our mortality,
a reminder of the fragility of our lives,
a call to turn back to the Lord
and receive the life he offers.
God has given us this season 
to remind us of our weakness,
of the shortness of our time on earth,
and of the urgent need to prepare our hearts
so that we might receive the living God.
But God has also given us this season
to remind us that the eternal God
acts according to his own schedule,
and that we must patiently allow 
God’s gracious mercy to work within us
and within those around us,
not when and how we think it should,
but in God’s own time, as God wills.

So let this be a season of patient urgency,
a season in which we seek to embrace
the peace God offers us,
the peace of the disarmed God 
who has hung up his bow in the sky,
the disarmed God 
who has hung for our sake on the cross,
the disarmed God 
who calls to us and woos us
to turn back to him and live with him eternally.
Let us pray that we might let God’s grace 
accomplish this work within us
when and how God wills it,
and may God have mercy on us all.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

5th Week of Ordinary Time


I feel like pretty much every time 
I step up to the ambo to preach these days
I end up saying the same thing: 
“Wow, things sure are tough.”
I may be accused of belaboring the obvious,
but I don’t think I can be accused 
of saying something that is untrue.
In my nearly sixty years I cannot recall a time 
so marked by collective loss:
loss of life-sustaining relationships,
loss of simple daily activities that brought joy,
loss of a certain carefree confidence 
that the future will probably be okay,
that problems will find solutions,
that fairness and justice will prevail,
that divisions will be healed.
I know that people around the world
suffer death and disease, 
discrimination and deprivation,
on a daily basis and on a scale far surpassing
anything I have personally experienced,
but even my own small miseries 
cause today’s reading from the book of Job
to find an echo in my heart:
“I have been assigned months of misery,
and troubled nights have been allotted to me.”
At this point, 
it’s been just about eleven months of misery:
eleven months of disrupted lives,
eleven months of disrupted work and school,
eleven months of disrupted plans and relationships.
Even if we have not ourselves gotten sick
or suffered through the sickness of a loved one,
or been estranged from family or friends
by the divisions that beset our world,
these months of misery have affected all of us.
They have washed out the colors of life’s fabric,
rendered the world a grayer place,
a less joyful place.
And we may be tempted to say with Job,
“My days…come to an end without hope….
I shall not see happiness again.”

But then there is Jesus.
Even as I am tempted to focus once again
on the past months of misery,
there is Jesus in our Gospel for today, 
in the midst of sickness,
in the midst of spiritual and psychological distress,
healing illnesses, rebuking the powers of evil,
bringing solace and consolation to the brokenhearted,
shedding light in a world grown gray with sorrow.
There is Jesus reaching out to grasp 
the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law, 
pulling her free from her joyless world of pain
and pulling her into his world, 
the world of God’s reign, 
where sickness is healed
and the forces of darkness are put to flight.
There is Jesus raising her not simply from her sickbed
but from a life that had grown narrow with suffering,
and drawing her into a new life 
that is as broad and bright as God’s merciful love,
a life in which she is free to rise again
to serve the cause of God’s reign.

There is Jesus, whose human life 
is nothing but this divine mission 
to heal and enlighten:
“For this purpose have I come.”
There is Jesus who comes as the light of God 
in the midst of darkness,
as the joy of God
in the midst of sorrow
as the life of God 
in the midst of death.
There is Jesus who comes to live this mission
even to the point of cross and tomb,
filling the darkness of death with light
and breathing forth his Spirit of life upon his friends.
As the 5th-century bishop Peter Chrysologus wrote,
“Where the Lord of life has entered, 
there is no room for death” (sermon 18).

There is Jesus amidst the people of Galilee.
But what of us here, today,
in the midst of months of misery,
who feel in our hearts
the echo of Job’s words: 
“My days…come to an end without hope….
I shall not see happiness again”?
Does he come for us as well?
Faith in the resurrection of Jesus
and in the sending of his Spirit
is faith that for us, 
no less than for those people in Galilee,
Jesus comes as light and joy and life.
For us, no less than for them,
Jesus grasps our hand to pull us up,
to pull us into the world of God’s reign.
He grasps us through words of encouragement
spoken to us through the Scriptures;
he grasps us through his grace 
made present to us through the sacraments; 
he grasps us through the bonds of love and unity
that his Spirit forges among the members
of his body the Church.
In these, and in countless other ways,
the living Christ, made present through the Spirit,
grasps the hand of each one of us to give us hope,
to restore for each one of us 
the color of a world grown gray,
and he says to each one us, 
“for this purpose I came:
I came for you.”

And what do we say back to him?
How to we respond to so great a love?
We can respond with the words of the psalmist:
“Praise the Lord, who heals the brokenhearted.”
We can respond with our lives, 
rising up, like Simon’s mother-in-law, 
to serve the cause of God’s reign.
The one who comes for each one of us 
now frees us to be his light and joy 
and life for the world.

Let us pray that, through God’s grace, 
those who have endured months of misery
and have been allotted troubled nights—
whose days end without hope
and who fear they shall not see happiness again—
may hear from us a word of divine consolation,
may feel in the touch of our hand the grasp of Jesus,
many see in our lives a reflection of the Spirit’s flame.
And may the God who comes for us 
have mercy on us all.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

3rd Week of Ordinary Time


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

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

I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Baptism of the Lord


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Tuesday after Epiphany--St. John Neumann


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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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