Friday, April 28, 2017

"Forever, watching love grow"

I couldn't go two weeks without posting a traditio. So, for this Second Friday of Easter I am putting up Radiohead's cover of Joy Division's song "Ceremony." According to the caption on the video, Radiohead performed this seminal song during a webcast they did in 2007. Now I need to dig up my copy of Radiohead's OK Computer album.

It was 37 years ago today that Joy Division filmed the video for "Love Will Tear Us Apart."

Over the past few weeks somebody has been painting lyrics on the streets of Manchester, England

I have posted "Ceremony" before, but with video of Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" on or around Bastille Day. Of course, "Ceremony" has nothing to do with the French Revolution, at least not discernibly. This is the music of my people. For us "Ceremony" is a kind of hymn.

This is why events unnerve me
They find it all, a different story
Notice whom for wheels are turning
Turn again and turn towards this time

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Divine Mercy Sunday

With Vespers this evening we bring to an end the great Octave of Easter. Of course, the Second Sunday of Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday. Our Gospel reading today, taken from the Gospel According to St John (20:19-31), is about the risen Lord appearing to his disciples, not once, but twice. In between Christ's first and second appearance St John writes about Thomas not being present the first time he appeared and his refusal to believe other disciples' testimony about seeing Jesus risen from the dead in the interim.

St John is careful to note that Thomas was present when Jesus next appeared. It is when Thomas encountered the risen Christ that he was invited to probe the wounds of love. In response, Thomas proclaimed: "My Lord and my God." It was then that Jesus proclaimed those, like you and me, who believe without seeing blessed. Faith saves. If Easter ought to have any effect on us it should be to break through the façade of our often deep-seated Pelagianism, the all-too-human idea that somehow, in the end, you'll save yourself.

Like the fearful disciples in St John's Gospel, in our day it is easy for us, as Christians, to remain inside, or, to use a contemporary phrase, to create a safe space. But just as the risen Lord appeared seemingly out of nowhere, which manner of appearing tells us that Christ, risen from the dead, is with us anywhere and everywhere, in the Eucharist he comes into our midst in an unusual way. He bids us, too, "Peace be with you." It is important to note that in St John's Gospel there are no apostles as such, only disciples. But in today's Gospel we encounter a most apostolic moment. In his first appearance to his frightened, hiding, disciples, after bidding them Shalom, the Lord tells them: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." He sent them to proclaim mercy- the forgiveness of sins in and through Christ.

Feast Day of Divine Mercy, by Stephen B. Whatley

An apostle is one who is sent. We call St Mary Magdalene apostolorum apostola, which translated means, "apostle to the apostles." We call her this because, as the first one to see Christ after he rose from the dead, he sent her to tell the others this amazing news. Last night I attended a clergy appreciation dinner, which always dicey as a deacon because, despite being invited, the evening usually passes with nobody expressing appreciation for those of us who, while clergy, are "at the lower end of the [church's] hierarchy" and whose existence is living the tension of clerics who live largely lay lives. At the end of the day, I suppose it isn't a big deal because deacons don't serve in order to be praised. We serve to make Christ visible and even tangibly present through our service. In any case, an elderly man, who is high up in state Knights of Columbus hierarchy, gave a talk. In his remarks he tried to explain what it means for the church to be apostolic. As might be expected in a Roman Catholic milieu, his exposition of what it means for the church to be apostolic began and ended with apostolic succession.

At least to my mind, understanding apostolic succession as the sum total of what it means for the church to be apostolic is to get it half right. Moreover, such an understanding has the effect of reducing the mystery of faith to our measure by turning apostolic succession into a history lesson, one with more twists, turns, and wrinkles than than most Catholics are prepared to accept or admit. At the end of each Mass we are sent to make Christ, who we have received in communion, present wherever we are. This is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to the church being apostolic. While not all of us who, by virtue of our baptism, share in the priesthood of all believers, can forgive sins (the church reserves this authority to ministerial priests), like the frightened, holed-up, disciples, we are sent to proclaim Divine Mercy.

The name of God is mercy. As recipients of Divine Mercy, we are sent to spread God's mercy by extending mercy. We do not practice the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy to earn God's mercy. We live in this way in gratitude. Living this way is what it means to worship Jesus as our Lord and our God. When it comes to sometimes feeling slighted as a deacon I need to see such moments as opportunities to bear the perceived slight patiently, which is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy, giving thanks to God that my service is transparent. I want those I serve to see through me in order to see Christ. I want them to see the face of mercy.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Urbi et orbi- Easter 2017


Easter 2017

Dear Brothers and Sisters, Happy Easter!

Today, throughout the world, the Church echoes once more the astonishing message of the first disciples: “Jesus is risen!” – “He is truly risen, as he said!”

The ancient feast of Passover, the commemoration of the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery, here finds fulfillment. By his resurrection, Jesus Christ has set us free from the slavery of sin and death, and has opened before us the way to eternal life.

All of us, when we let ourselves be mastered by sin, lose the right way and end up straying like lost sheep. But God himself, our shepherd, has come in search of us. To save us, he lowered himself even to accepting death on the cross. Today we can proclaim: “The Good Shepherd has risen, who laid down his life for his sheep, and willingly died for his flock, alleluia” (Roman Missal, IV Sunday of Easter, Communion antiphon).

In every age, the Risen Shepherd tirelessly seeks us, his brothers and sisters, wandering in the deserts of this world. With the marks of the passion – the wounds of his merciful love – he draws us to follow him on his way, the way of life. Today too, he places upon his shoulders so many of our brothers and sisters crushed by evil in all its varied forms.

The Risen Shepherd goes in search of all those lost in the labyrinths of loneliness and marginalization. He comes to meet them through our brothers and sisters who treat them with respect and kindness, and help them to hear his voice, an unforgettable voice, a voice calling them back to friendship with God.

He is Risen!!

It is finally Easter Sunday. Khristós Anésti! Alithós Anésti! Alithos anesti! Alleluia! Allelulia!
Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.' Behold, I have told you (Matt 28:5-7 )

Jesus' Easter victory is our Easter victory. Alleluia! At least for me, it would be Easter without Keith Green's "Easter Song."

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday homily

Readings: Isa 52:13-53:12; Ps 31:2.6.12-13. 15-17.25; Heb 4:14-16.5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

It doesn’t take too many years of preaching to figure out that preaching is probably one of the least effective ways to reach people. It seems to me that when it comes to the homily many people distract themselves mentally, waiting for it end, while others listen to it as a “talk,” or a prepared speech, designed to be of interest for the time it lasts with little or no lasting relevance.

No doubt there are reasons for these responses. In the first instance, one of the things Catholics in the pews report year-after-year is the need for preaching to improve. All of us have been subjected to inadequately prepared homilies, many of which seem endless and on never get around to making a point. It’s difficult to listen to such preaching. On the other hand, in a society that offers us so much constant entertainment, or what we might we might call infortainment, like TED talks and the like, we can easily privilege style over substance and grade the preacher on his performance, not giving it a thought beyond its entertainment value.

The reason for preaching is simple: to help you gain a deeper understanding of the Sacred Scriptures in order to better follow Jesus, or, perhaps stated a bit more plainly, to be clearer about where he is leading you. With regard to the readings for any given Mass or celebration of a Liturgy of the Word, there are a variety of different ways of getting the point(s) of the readings across. But Good Friday presents the preacher with a unique challenge because his job is to bring his sisters and brothers, as well as himself, face-to-face with the great mystery of our redemption.

Just as the church is stripped down on Good Friday, so must the preaching be. As we stand before the cross of Christ, which we always do here at St Olaf in a profound way, and prepare to venerate it in a few moments, the question is as simple as it is obvious: “Why the cross?”

Jesus did not go the cross in order to satisfy the anger, vindictiveness, or blood lust, of the Father. In other words, the Father did not inflict the punishment you and I deserve onto his beloved Son. In the branch of theology that concerns itself with Christ’s cross, which is known as soteriology (the study of how God saves us through Christ’s death), there are different atonement theories that have been set forth. What these theories seek to explain is precisely how Christ’s death reconciles us to God. Penal substitutionary atonement is one such theory. This theory holds that God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and so he bore the punishment that we deserve. It is important to note that while this theory is widespread in the United States, it is not a Catholic understanding of the atonement.

Crucifix over the altar, St Olaf Church, Bountiful, Utah- taken 25 March 2017

So, why did Jesus have to die on the cross? First, he didn’t have to die on the cross. He freely chose to do so in obedience to the Father. Why, then, was it the will of the Father that his only begotten Son die on the cross? I think theologian Owen Cummings answered this question as well as it can be answered:
God did not predetermine that Jesus would have to suffer on the cross, just as God does not predetermine that any of us has to suffer on our own crosses. That would turn God into a cruel tyrant [and us into something like marionettes acting out a script]. What God did in the whole event of Jesus, in the incarnation and crucifixion, was to enter into the messy details of our world, a world marked by arbitrariness and unpredictability. The God who is nothing but unconditional Love, embodied and made visible in Jesus, lets the consequences of being Love in our flawed human world happen without evasion or avoidance. He did not turn away from pain and suffering. Perhaps we could say that through Jesus, pain and suffering are absorbed into the life of God, and, if absorbed, then finally transformed (The Dying of Jesus 52)
This transformation is one way to understand what is meant when, in our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is described as our "great high priest." Just as a priest transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ, in turn, transforms pain and suffering into salvation.

Jesus went to the cross out of love for the Father and you. And so, as scholar Terry Eagleton noted a number of years ago in a review of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion: “The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you.”

My friends in Christ, this is what Jesus meant when he said that anyone who would follow him must take up his/her cross. It is not optional. One way or another the cross will find you. This is not in question. What is in question is whether you will bear the crosses that come your way for love of God and neighbor and do the work your baptismal priesthood calls you to, which is to work with Christ turning pain and suffering into salvation. The only way to resurrection is through the cross. Following Jesus is not a formula for worldly wealth, health, or even happiness as it is popularly understood. It is the way to salvation, which alone is true happiness. Faith means trusting that this is true and hope means living your life like it is true.

"Not everyone can carry the weight of the world"

Far from not posting a traditio today, Good Friday is a day that positively screams out for one! Since I didn't post anything on Holy Thursday, I think it's okay to post twice on Good Friday. I can't think of a better song than REM's "Talk About the Passion" off their 1983 album Murmur. Before cutting to the chase, I want to share something I read last night while keeping vigil in our parish's Chapel of Repose. It is from a book I highly recommend for prayer and reflection: Owen Cummings' The Dying of Jesus.

In particular, the passage comes from Cummings' reflection on the Fourth of Jesus' Seven Last Words as he hung dying on the cross. This "word" is taken from St. Mark's Gospel (15:34)- Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?, or, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Of course, these are the opening words of Psalm 22. Pressing forward a little from Christ's intelligible cry, Owen moves forward a few verses, to the words "Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last" (Mark 15:37), writing: "Mark's Jesus dies in agony with a wordless cry." Citing John Barton, he points out that, unlike the other Evangelists, "Mark does nothing to relieve the 'unadorned brutality' of the death of Jesus."

Crucifixion, by Bartolomé Estebán Murillo, ca. 1675

Here is what I found particularly valuable:
God did not predetermine that Jesus would have to suffer on the cross, just as God does not predetermine that any of us has to suffer on our own crosses. That would turn God into a cruel tyrant [and us into something like marionettes acting out a script]. What God did in the whole event of Jesus, in the incarnation and crucifixion, was to enter into the messy details of our world, a world marked by arbitrariness and unpredictability. The God who is nothing but unconditional Love, embodied and made visible in Jesus, lets the consequences of being Love in our flawed human world happen without evasion or avoidance. He did not turn away from pain and suffering. Perhaps we could say that through Jesus, pain and suffering are absorbed into the life of God, and, if absorbed, then finally transformed
I find this valuable because, to state the matter indelicately, it calls bullshit on all Christians who seek to dismiss suffering as part of some grand plan to which we are not privy and, once we are, it will all make sense. Concretely, this results in the uttering of worse-than-useless pious platitudes in the face of someone else's suffering. When I think about these matters, these lyrics from Rich Mullins' song "Hard to Get" come to mind:
And I know you bore our sorrows
And I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained

The Friday Christians call "Good"

For this Good Friday, which comes for me at the end of perhaps the most difficult Lent I have personally endured, I offer a poem Welsh priest and poet R.S. Thomas (1913-2000):
In Church

Often I try
To analyze the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs

Crucifixion, by Eric Gill

Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
To which I add, "But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit" (Matt 27:50).

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Passion (Palm) Sunday: Holy Week begins

When writing about or preaching on the readings for Passion (Palm) Sunday one can choose either to go long, normal length, or short. Given that there are two Gospels, my tendency is to go long, but for this post my aim is to go shorter. Since I am composing this off-the-cuff, we'll see (I need to be a little light-hearted in the beginning because my thoughts are heavy).

At the Vigil Mass yesterday evening, as I was reading the Narrator's part of the Passion According to St. Matthew, I became choked up as I read these words:
Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, "I have sinned in betraying innocent blood." They said, "What is that to us? Look to it yourself." Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself (Matt 27:3-5
After Mass I found myself wondering, "What if?"

"What if instead of trying to return the money, Judas had gone to the Lord and expressed his remorse? What would this have cost Judas?" In pondering the second question, I thought to myself, "It couldn't have been worse than the punishment he inflicted on himself." Maybe I am projecting, but it seems to me we are good at eschewing God's mercy, preferring instead the punishment we think we deserve and that, in some sense, we might actually deserve.

Even though Jesus' life was not taken from him- he laid it down of his own will, which was the will of the Father to which he resigned himself- Jesus proclaimed woe on the one whose betrayal led to his death. Since Jesus died for our sins- mine and yours- it is our betrayal, too, that led to his death on the cross. While not seeking to completely exonerate Judas, or putting myself at odds with Sacred Scripture, it is important that we not use Judas as our personal scapegoat, seeking to excuse ourselves for our complicity in Christ's crucifixion. I wish to call attention here to something the author of the Letter to the Hebrews pointed out to his readers- "In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood" (Heb 12:4). If you have, I beg your pardon. I know I haven't.

Fresco from Vienna, Italy, shows Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss

Idle speculations? Hardly. As John Donne noted in his poem No Man Is An Island,
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee
Because of my personal and, I don't mind saying, traumatic, experiences with suicide, and as someone who struggles quite often with depression, it would be impossible for me to explain in words the emotion that swept over me as I read out loud, "Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself." Only a deep breath, taken at the wrong moment, saved my voice from cracking. Faces of people I know and love who have either taken their own lives, or have made serious attempts to do so, came before my mind's eye. I guess if I had to put it into words those words would be sorrowful grief.

Given the fact that most of us Christians have betrayed Jesus for far less than thirty pieces of silver, what better way to end this post than by invoking this prayer given by our resurrected Lord to St. Faustina: "For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world," or perhaps this prayer, given by Our Lady to the blessed children at Fatima: "O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy."

I believe that Pope Francis is quite right, "The name of is Mercy." If it isn't, then we're doomed. Another name for Mercy is Jesus.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Quia caritas Dei

According to St. Matthew, Jesus insisted it was on his two Great Commandments- love God with all your heart, might, mind and strength; love your neighbor as you love yourself (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27)- that "The whole law and the prophets depend..." (Matt 22:40).

It is certainly not incidental that loving God is the first of the Lord's two commandments. I don't mind saying that I believe there are ways we are to show our love for God that are distinct from how we are to love our neighbor. First and foremost, I would say, we love God by worshiping God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. It is through our worship that we acknowledge God as the one God living and true, who for us men (Greek anthropos- "human beings"- a neuter noun distinct from both masculine and feminine nouns) and for our salvation became incarnate in the Virgin's womb, was born, lived, taught, suffered and died, rose for us, ascended to heaven, sent his Spirit; it his return we joyfully await.

I think we have to be careful, however, not to make too hard and fast a distinction between loving God and loving our neighbor. To do so is very dangerous because it plays to an all too human tendency. But then there are many ways we must be discerning when it comes to revelation. For example, "God is love" (1 John 4:8.16) cannot be inverted to "love is God," at least not without fairly disastrous consequences for what God has revealed (unveiled) about Mystery of the divine. Loving God and loving one's neighbor, while distinct in some ways, are so inextricably bound together that you can't have one without the other: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother" (1 John 4:20-21).

Ideally, orthodoxy (right confession/profession/worship) leads to orthopraxis (right practice/conduct/living). But we all know, likely from our own experience, that this is often not the case. For those many times, Kyrie eleison. It is in St. Matthew's Gospel that Jesus said to the Pharisees, who were complaining (again) about him consorting with those who were considered unclean, citing the prophet Hosea: "Go and learn the meaning of the words, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' I did not come to call the righteous but sinners" (Matt 9:13).

Christianity is never just plug and play, which is to say it is never a matter of fulfilling an obligation, checking a box, or performing a duty. To live that way is, in a very real sense, to be a pagan. This is why to understand the sacraments strictly in terms of ex opere operato deprives them of their power to convert us (see "Dengenerate language; degenerating faith"). By seeking to reduce these powerful means through which God seeks to communicate divine life to us to a kind of "pure objectivity" we remove ourselves, the "subject" of God's communication, from the "blast" zone, thus making the sacraments something that happens "out there," working on their own, having little if anything to do with me- this is the all too human tendency. This mode of understanding, which run deep, not only leads us to make too hard and fast a distinction between loving God and our neighbor, but runs the risk of actually severing what is inextricably woven together, not by God, but in God. What is the change effected in us by the sacraments if not becoming more like Christ? If to be like Christ is anything at all it is to love perfectly.

In light of what revelation tells about the lie of loving God without loving one's neighbor, I think it is fair to say that loving one's neighbor is a necessary but insufficient requirement for loving God with one's entire being. Hence, we must proceed with extreme caution whenever we seek to make a distinction between loving God and loving our neighbors.

Becoming a living cross

Having finished reading Guardini's short, but very impacting, book The Rosary of Our Lady, I started reading the short book The Dying of Jesus, by Owen Cummings. Owen, who is a permanent deacon, is a teacher, mentor, and, I daresay, friend of mine. I would be hard-pressed to think of anyone, with maybe the exception of Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, who has influenced me more not only theologically, but spiritually. Theology that does not nurture spirituality, that is, help you draw closer to God as well as to your sisters and brothers, your neighbors, is worse than useless and perhaps even dangerous.

The Dying of Jesus contains Owen's reflections on the Stations of the Cross and our Lord's Seven Last Words. In his conclusion on the section in which he reflects on the Stations of the Cross, which I finished just this morning- I am saving the Seven Last Words for Holy Week, Owen quotes at length a passage from Benedict Canfield's Rule of Perfection on what it means to follow Jesus to the cross:
Therefore our own pains - insofar as they are not ours but those of Christ- must be deeply respected. How wonderful! And more: our pains are as much to be revered as those of Jesus Christ in His own passion. For if people correctly adore Him with so much devotion in images on the Good Friday cross, why may we not then revere Him on the living cross that we ourselves are?
Being in no position to comment on how anybody else conforms herself to Christ in this way (being conformed to Christ means becoming cruciform), I can say that for me what the sixteenth century English recusant Capuchin friar asks here remains merely an aspiration. Most of the time, including this very morning, I grumble, complain, stew, even explode in the face of the slightest difficulty, inconvenience, or perceived slight.

Bearing wrongs patiently is not merely one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. Bearing wrongs and other sufferings that come my way, not merely passively, but consciously using them to unite myself to Christ, "offering it up," to use the old words that these days are usually invoked in a sarcastic way, is what it means to follow Christ. In the Christian calculus, you add by subtraction and you win by losing. While the path of following Christ ultimately leads to the glory of the resurrection, it passes inevitably through the cross. In the words of a hymn:
Take up your cross, the Savior said,
if you would my disciple be;
take up your cross with willing heart,
and humbly follow after me
Lord, give me a willing heart.

Perhaps the central paradox of the Christian religion, which is a religion of paradox, is that of the cross of Christ (see 1 Cor 1:18-25). Stated simply, if I am to be salt, light, and leaven, I must become a living cross. A six word sentence is easy to write. How far away I am from realizing those words! Too often I resist the death Jesus himself insists I must endure with every fiber of my being. Instead, I frantically scramble to save myself. Especially this last week, I keep hearing the question Jesus asked Martha when, after telling her he is resurrection and the life and that everyone who believes in him will never die, he said to her, "Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26).

Pondering the Lord's question "Do you believe this?" all week led me to make an important, even necessary, distinction between wanting him to be the resurrection and the life and actually believing that it is true. After all, wouldn't actually believing him lead me to follow him, to imitate him in the way he insists I must? Grasping the necessity of this distinction enables me to understand two things. First, faith is much more than intellectual assent. Even I believe in the sense that I give my assent. Second, hope is not synonymous with optimism. We often speak of hope and optimism as if you can't have one without the other, but my experience teaches me again and again that hope lies beyond optimism. I think this is the lesson of Christ's cross.

What the Cross of Christ shows me is my my inadequacy, my refusal to become fully human. However, reading the words of Benedict Canfield this morning reminded of something vitally important: the need to gaze on myself with the same tenderness with which Christ gazes on me. Too often I am content to just beat myself up, accuse and condemn myself, or, in the words of the late Passionist priest, Harry Williams: "to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee [within that I] call God and who despises the rest of what [I am]." Such a god is an idol, a diabolical one.

My wounds are dear to Jesus' Sacred Heart and so they should be dear to me and offered lovingly to him. In the end, it's all I have to give to him who loved me, not just to the point of death, but to the extent of rising of from the dead. Just as love is the reason for creation, love is the power that raised Christ from the dead: Christus resurrexit quia Deus caritas est.

Who crucified Jesus? I did. But I rely on his words, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Despite the fact that I often know full well what I am doing, I trust in Christ's mercy. I am convinced that Jesus never looked on us with more tenderness than when he hung dying on the cross.