Saturday, March 17, 2018

Naomh Pádraig - St Patrick

St Patrick (in Gaelic Pádraig) is a pan-Celtic figure. Hence, he does not solely belong to the Irish. Nonetheless, likely living in the fifth century, his life is more than a bit shadowy, which provides fruitful opportunity for myth-making and legends.

Patrick, the son of a deacon, was most likely a native Welsh-speaker. It's easy to forget his story. He was captured and enslaved in Ireland. He escaped, went to France, was ordained a priest, and eventually returned to Ireland as a missionary.

One cannot show greater love for former captors than sharing with them the love of God poured out for us in Christ Jesus, our Lord. In essence, St Patrick's Day is a religious day. If you use it as a reason to get piss-pants drunk, God bless you still, even though you've missed the point entirely, which is not to say, "Celebrate it like a Puritan." In any case, Venerable Matt Talbot, pray for us!

Happy St Patrick's. I am still kicking myself for letting the feast of Dewi Sant (St David of Wales- 1 March) pass without posting anything. Every day is a great to be Celtic, even those days when I am afflicted by Wales's own Rowan Williams, referring to his own experience, called "the Celtic gloom."

The two men I want to be like should I ever grow up are Rowan Williams and Owen Cummings.

I love this version of Bob's 'Redemption Song,' featuring his son Ziggy (who I've seen live) with, who else?, The Chieftains!

From Lúireach Pádraig or, in English, St Patrick's Breastplate:

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise

Friday, March 16, 2018

"So please, please, please ... Let me get what I want"

Our Friday traditio for this Fourth Friday of Lent is a beautiful cover of The Smith's song "Please, Please, Please (Let Me Get What I Want)" by Suzi & Alex. I have to say, I cannot love their version of the song enough. "Please, Please, Please..." is one of a number of Smith's songs I have loved for decades.

The Agony in the Garden by Filippo Lauri

Life is strange in that I am most dissatisfied when I don't get what I want and when I do. I can either remain frustrated and resign myself to settling for less, thinking- "I guess this is as good as it gets" - or see my perennial dissatisfaction as pointing me to something more, to what will satisfy me. Sometimes I am able to do the latter but I spend a lot of time grinding away at the former.

When listened to from a Christian perspective it can be understood as a song of bedrock honesty. Too often, in my view, we are very pseudo-pious - I won't sully the word "pious," which is a good and important word but one that runs the risk of suffering the same fate as the word "righteous," which people now substitute for the word "self-righteous" - and so easily write, say, and pretend to pray the words Jesus prayed to the Father in the Garden: "not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42).

If we're honest, much of the time our use of these words either comes close to or actually constitutes blasphemy. What we usually "say" in our thoughts, words, and by our actions, if not in our prayers, is: "So for once in my life let me get what I want."

I am not chiding anyone. I am as guilty as the next person. It's a difficult thing, which is why we should use these words of Jesus much more sparingly. I am going to let this realization guide me through the rest of Lent and the Triduum.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Second Scrutiny - Year A Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: 1 Sam 16:1b.6-7.10-13a;- Ps 23:1-6; Eph 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

A prophet, a king, two anointings, the LORD as a shepherd, light, darkness, awakening, Jesus, a blind man, a washing, a healing, a warning of judgment- our readings for the Second Scrutiny of our Elect contain enough material to write a good-sized book! Maybe it will be an international best-seller. We can call it "the Bible," which means "the Book."

Looking at Samuel's response to the LORD's prompting to head to Bethlehem to the house of Jesse in order to find and anoint Israel's new king, which was necessitated by Saul's, the current king, disobedience, we see that it was only after Samuel considered six of Jesse's seven sons that he found God's anointed in the seventh, that is, the least among them- even though, biblically-speaking, seven is the number of completeness or divine perfection.

The episode we hear about in our first reading dramatically highlights the fact that God often (as in almost-always) chooses the least likely person to accomplish his purposes in and for the world. Of course, Jesus himself, the only begotten Son of the Father, is the ultimate proof of this divine tendency. Why does God work this way? In my view, it's so that there is no doubt that it is God who is at work reconciling the world to himself and not something done by human effort.

In order to see that God chooses the least likely of people to accomplish his purposes, you don't have to take my word for it, nor even that of Sacred Scripture, just look around, not only at the Elect, but look at the rest of the assembly, the ekklesia, that is, the Church, and not just in the pews, but up here on the chancel too. I believe that what St Paul wrote about to the ancient Church in Corinth still applies today:
consider your own calling... Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God. It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor 1:26-30)
In short, the people of God is and remains the original motley crew.

Tiffany, Dahliana, Magnin, and Brennan, each of you has been called by the Lord from darkness to live in the glory of his magnificent light, which illumines you from within and is the very power of the Holy Spirit, who is the way our risen Lord remains present, not just to us, but in us until the consummation of all things at his glorious return, for which you need to stand ready by being ever watchful. Heed the apostle's exhortation: "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light" (Eph 5:14).

In his book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Fr Jim Martin noted, "original sin is the one verifiable Christian dogma" (100). Accordingly, in a very real sense, we're all born blind. Like the man Jesus heals by restoring his sight, without doing all the required theological parsing, there is a scriptural sense in which our blindness is not necessarily the result of either our sin or that of our parents. St Paul, in his magnum opus, The Letter to the Romans, noted that
creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:20-21)
This is wonderfully and gloriously sung about at the beginning of the upcoming Paschal Vigil in that great and ancient hymn, the Exsultet:
O felix culpa,
quæ talem ac tantum méruit habére Redemptórem!

In English:
O happy fault,
that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
My dear Elect, Christ has chosen you, which election was confirmed by Bishop Oscar at the Rite of Election we just a few weeks ago. Like the blind man in today's Gospel, you are chosen so "that the works of God might be made visible through [you]" (John 9:3). You've done nothing to earn your election. Our lovely God is nothing if not gracious and gratuitous. Your chosen-ness, like David's, like mine, is a mystery. But we are chosen to bear witness to others about what Jesus has for us and to invite them to meet the Savior that they, too, might see more clearly.

Again, like the blind man in today's Gospel, who immediately began to pay a price for being chosen (another of those great mysteries- that of the Cross), you will be washed in Baptism, anointed in Confirmation, and further drawn into the very life of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when you receive Christ in communion for the first time. Then you can truly say, "I was blind and now I see" (John 9:25).

Saturday, March 10, 2018

"Even if I made my bed in Hell/Still there You would find me"

Because yesterday afternoon and evening I did something I rarely do - go out with co-workers for some social time - I did not post a Friday traditio. Nonetheless, our weekly traditio was very much on my mind. As I was straightening up our bedroom yesterday morning, I found my CD copy of the late Rich Mullins's last album: The Jesus Record.

Mullins did not record this album in the studio. He only left behind very rough demos of the songs that comprise the album. But the album was substantially composed and complete at the time of his death. Rich recorded the demos in an abandoned church building on 10 September 1997, a mere 10 days before his untimely death in an auto accident. Conceptually, the album was to consist of songs about Jesus's life. He intended to call it Ten Songs About Jesus.

After his death by a Ragamuffin Band consisting of Rick Elias, Mark Robertson, Jimmy Abegg, and Aaron Smith recorded the songs Rich left behind. There were numerous supporting musicians who pitched in on many of the songs. A double album, entitled The Jesus Record, was released by Myrrh records on 21 July 1998, just a little over 10 months after Mullins's death. The first of the two albums, The Jesus Demos, consists of those recordings Rich made in the abandoned church. The second album, recorded in studio by the Ragamuffin Band, featuring guest vocals by Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Ashley Cleveland, and Phil Keaggy, consists of the same songs and is called The Jesus Record.

Rich Mullins, gone but never forgotten. Pray for us Ragamuffins still making our way...

Lent and Advent are nearly always excruciating seasons for me. This Lent the Lord is reminding me that a great of my life and approach to life is penitential, perhaps too much so. In fact, I agonized over whether or not to take the rare opportunity to go out with friend/co-workers rather than come home and then go to church to participate in the Stations of the Cross, which we walk each Lenten Friday. It was listening to Amy Grant sing Rich's song "Nothing Is Beyond You" that made me decide to go out.

What long wind-up for this week's very late Friday traditio, which is (you guessed it!) Amy Grant singing Rich Mullins's "Nothing Is Beyond You" -

I don't mind saying that listening to this song yesterday brought tears to my eyes. It reinforced that fact that I am never outside of God's love, even when I am miserable and find it difficult to love and even more difficult to let myself be loved. Or, as Mullins's put into lyrics: "And You'd cut through all my pain and rage/The darkness is not dark to You/And night's as bright as day." Not only would Jesus go to hell for you. He went to hell for you.
In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins (1 John 4:10

Sunday, March 4, 2018

First Scrutiny- Year A Third Sunday of Lent

Readings: Ex 17:3-7; Ps 95:1-2.6-9; Rom 5:1-2.5-8; John 4:5-42

Because at this Mass we are celebrating the first of three scrutinies for our Elect, we are using the readings from Year A of the Lectionary. These readings are geared towards Christian initiation. Since we are all preparing to renew our baptismal promises at the great Paschal Vigil, these readings speak to each one of us and all of us together.

Our reading from the book of Exodus tells about when Moses, under great duress, struck the rock, making water flow from it to give drink to the parched Israelites and their livestock. Taking the near mutiny to the LORD in prayer, Moses said, "What shall I do with this people? a little more and they will stone me!" (Ex 17:4) Thirst in the desert, it seems, was getting the better of everyone. After striking the rock with his stick and making water flow from it, Moses named this place "Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled there and tested the LORD, saying, "Is the LORD in our midst or not?'" (Ex 17:7).

Our responsorial Psalm, Psalm 95, is the Psalm with which the Church traditionally begins the Liturgy of the Hours each day. "Today listen to the voice of LORD, do not grow stubborn as your fathers did in the wilderness, when at Meribah and Massah they challenged me and provoked me although they had seen all of my works." Massah is Hebrew for "the place of testing" and Meribah is Hebrew for "the place of strife, or of quarreling." So, by opening each day with Psalm 95, the Church, the people of God, are invited to remember what the Lord has done for us, which remembrance eases our anxiety about the present and the future.

Commenting on Mary's encounter with the Archangel Gabriel in his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Fr Jim Martin noted that during the Annunciation, which solemnity we will celebrate on 25 March, Gabriel, in convincing the Blessed Virgin, called to mind what God had already done. Martin pointed to Gabriel reminding Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, had conceived a child despite, like Sarah, being beyond child-bearing years, saying, in effect: "You have doubts about what God will do? Then just look at what God has already done." Looking backward helps Mary to look forward. "Awareness leads to trust" (39).

It's interesting in our first reading that, while the people invoke being led out of Egypt, attributing their being led out to Moses, not to God ("Why then did you bring us up out of Egypt? To have us die of thirst with our children and our livestock?" Ex 17:3), Moses does not remind them that is was God, not him, who delivered them, nor does he bring to mind the many signs and wonders that were part of their deliverance.

Our reading from St Paul's Letter to the Romans is an exhortation to hope. Of the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love), hope is the least understood. While one who hopes aspires to something not yet realized, hope is distinct from mere wishing. Hope is the flower of faith and love is faith’s fruit. Hope, far from being a mere wish, is attained through experience. The hope we have, which can be described as thirst, "does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Rom 5:5).

In our Gospel this morning, which tells of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, what the woman said to the Lord indicates that Jews and Samaritans, while closely related, did not like each other very much. Usually, Jews going from Galilee, from where Jesus hailed, to Jerusalem, rather than walk the direct route through Samaria, by-passed this region by going east and walking along the west bank of the Jordan River to Jericho and from there heading up the mountain to the Holy City. The mere fact that Jesus, along with his (clearly very uneasy) disciples, is passing through Samaria, is no small thing in and of itself. The unusual nature of this episode is further brought home when Jesus begins to speak, not only to a Samaritan but to an unaccompanied woman, two things an observant male Jew would assiduously avoid!

This woman went out to fetch water, not at the usual time, toward evening, but at midday, presumably a time she knew she would be alone. Likely due to her having been married five times and currently living with a man who was not her husband, she was viewed as a bit of a hussy, someone to be shunned by decent people. Not only did our beautiful Lord not shun her, he engaged her. He did so by appealing to what it was she was really thirsty for- unconditional acceptance, life-giving love. His pastoral skills are unmatched. He offered her the water that will slake her deep, existential thirst, the water that becomes in the one who imbibes "a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:14). She eagerly accepted it.

Jesus then bids her go fetch her husband, which occasions her oblique confession, "I do not have a husband" (John 4:17). Upon this admission, we see Divine Mercy at work when Jesus said to her, in what I can only imagine with the greatest of tenderness: "You are right in saying, 'I do not have a husband.' For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true" (John 4:17-18).

My friends this is very good news: the Lord knows everything about you and still loves you with an infinite, deep, passionate love that you cannot comprehend. While Jesus takes you as you are, He is not content to leave you where He found you. If you were fine, why would you feel so unfulfilled? Why would you bother being here today? Jesus is leading you to the fulfillment of what you truly desire - "the life that is truly life" (St Augustine, Letter to Proba).

As a result of her encounter, the Samaritan woman was clearly changed. Jesus revealed to her that He is the Messiah, the one for whom both Jews and Samaritans awaited, the one in and through whom God would no longer be worshiped either on Mount Gerazim or in Jerusalem, but be worshiped by true worshipers, being temples of God's Spirit, anywhere and everywhere. Like those who also encountered the Lord up close and in person, she could not keep it to herself, she was compelled by love to tell others what Jesus had done for her.

Jesus invites our Elect - Tiffany, Brennan, Dahliana, and Magnin - to the water. Specifically, to the water of Baptism. He invites you not only to drink but to be immersed in the very life of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As a result, you are to worship God in spirit and in truth, witnessing to what God has done for you in Christ by the power of their Holy Spirit. He gives this living water, which is His very self, freely to all who desire it. Your presence here today is an expression of your desire. You must never forget what led you here. Remember always not merely what the Lord has done for you, but the particularity of how He did it, this is especially important when life seems impossible and when you find yourself starting to thirst.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

One more note on salvation in Christ

Addressing the recent letter from the Holy See's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to Catholic Bishops "On Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation," Placuit Deo, I dealt only with one of the two ways, according to the letter, that salvation in Christ Jesus is distorted.

The two ways the CDF identified as distorting salvation in and through Christ, used with proper caveats and as a kind of doctrinal short-hand, are "Pelagian" and "Gnostic." In both my initial post and the follow-up, I wrote about what the CDF referred to as the Pelagian distortion. This morning, while praying the Office of Readings (something I usually only do during Lent), the second reading was from St Ambrose's treatise "On Flight from the World." I am sure both the title of Ambrose's piece and having Placuit Deo fresh in mind, I detected at least a hint, or a tendency, towards the Gnostic distortion.

According to Placuit Deo, the Gnostic distortion of the Christian understanding of salvation holds that true liberation, true salvation, occurs when one's "spirit" or "soul" is freed from the body and from material reality, both of which are viewed as coarse and constricting. Like the secular aspect of the Pelagian distortion, the Gnostic distortion has a secular variant as well as many religious variants, including "Christian" ones. The fundamental issue with a Gnostic understanding of salvation is that it dismisses the importance of Christ's bodily resurrection, the fruit of which is the Christian belief that Christ will return and raise us from the dead.

The Resurrection of Christ, by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1565

As St Paul noted towards the end of his First Letter to the Corinthians when correcting a very distorted understanding of the resurrection that had come to be accepted among the Christians of ancient Corinth, Christ's resurrection is the foundation of Christian faith:
But if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. Then we are also false witnesses to God, because we testified against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all (1 Cor 15:12-19)
While Ambrose's theology, on the whole, is fairly well-balanced, even in the excerpt provided for the Office of Readings on the Second Saturday of Lent, there is this passage, which is the kind people easily distort:
Let us take refuge from this world. You can do this in spirit, even if you are kept here in the body. You can at the same time be here and present to the Lord...

Since God is our refuge, God who is in heaven and above the heavens, we must take refuge from this world in that place where there is peace, where there is rest from toil, where we can celebrate the great sabbath...
Is the Lord, by his Holy Spirit, not present in the world? Is he not present, by virtue of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, in you? Is God not at one and the same time immanent and transcendent? Christ is the concrete universal.

I also recently finished Rowan Willams's treatment of Cyril of Alexandria in his book The Wound of Knowledge. Of course, it was Cyril who was serious about the idea of the Christian Gnostic, which, at least in some respects, has something to recommend it. I prefer Bernard Häring's The Christian Existentialist, which prioritizes the imminent over the transcendent without doing away with the transcendent, the concrete over the abstract, etc.

For better and for worse, Platonism and Gnosticism, over which Platonism had a large influence, were and remain part and parcel of Christian theology. St Augustine, for example, while he forsook Manicheanism, held fast to Platonism. This is why Augustine viewed sexual relations even between spouses, when in engaged for enjoyment, what the Church, since Humanae Vitae, has recognized as the "unitive" dimension of conjugal relations, was merely a remedy for concupiscence and a safeguard against the greater sin of adultery.

Anyway, now I feel like I've done Placuit Deo blogging justice, which, at least according to many, is no justice at all.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Another note on salvation in Christ, a papal one

Almost immediately after my last post a Crux News article from early last November came to my attention: "Salvation is free, not a ‘pay to save’ deal with God, pope says.". I think this homily of the Holy Father's is enlightening in terms of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's Placuit Deo: To the Bishops of the Catholic Church On Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation. As noted in my previous post, the document warns against two erroneous ways of understanding salvation in Christ.

The ways of misconstruing salvation in Christ Jesus are termed by the Congregation as Pelagian and Gnostic. As also noted, the use of these terms is done in a caveated manner. In other words, they are employed as a kind of doctrinal short-hand. The papal homily, which is the subject of the article, strikes me as a good exposition of what is meant in the document by a Pelagian understanding, at least from he perspective of practicing Christians:
A Christian who complains of not receiving a reward for going to Mass every Sunday and fulfilling certain obligations 'doesn’t understand the gratuity of salvation,' the pope said Nov. 7 in his homily at Mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae.

'He thinks salvation is the fruit of ‘I pay and you save me. I pay with this, with this, with this.’ No, salvation is free and if you do not enter in this dynamic of gratuity, you don’t understand anything
Why would anyone understand Mass as anything other than entering more and more deeply into the divinely-initiated dynamic of gratuity? In other words, participation is its own reward. What a rich reward it is! It is not what God will do for you because he's done an incomprehensible "amount" for you in Christ. Christ himself is the gift of eternal life!

Another, perhaps more secular way, of understanding salvation in what Placuit Deo calls a Pelagian manner is to think, "I am a good person. Therefore, God will save me." Not only is this presumption, it also implies that you're going to save yourself. This, too, is a way of refusing to enter into the dynamic of gratuity. In fact, believing you save yourself is to utterly refuse to enter into this dynamic altogether, preferring a pay-as-you-go approach.

"Pain and sorrow in my mind"

It's difficult to believe we're already in the third month of 2018; tempus fugit. I had a good intention of posting one more time by the end of February but that intention fell victim to busy-ness. But then blogging not only is not a full-time job, I don't even attempt to make remunerative. Whatever I have to offer I offer for free. This also helps me keep blogging in perspective. Now in my twelfth year of putting up posts here on Καθολικός διάκονος I have learned to pace myself. One of the ways I have done that is by not chasing current events. This is not to say I don't or won't post on issues of the day whenever I think I have something to say worth passing on. Most recently, I posted on my opposition to hate crimes laws. Prior to that, I posted at the beginning of the #MeToo Movement.

Without a doubt, these days the news provides ample material to go on about. Flying home this morning from a business trip, I took the opportunity to re-read the Holy See's Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons. This seminal document on the diaconate was promulgated jointly with papal approval by Congregations for Catholic Education and Clergy just over 20 years ago, on 22 February 1998. The word "ideologies" is used three times in the document.

The first time "ideologies" is used the Directory makes it clear "Deacons are strictly prohibited from all involvement with political parties or trade(s) union movements which are founded on ideologies, policies or associations incompatible with Church doctrine" (sec. 13). Next, the Directory points out that deacons ought to "strive to serve all the faithful without discrimination, while devoting particular care to the suffering and the sinful. As ministers of Christ and of his Church, they must be able to transcend all ideologies and narrow party interests, lest they deprive the Church's mission of its strength which is the love of Christ" (sec. 38). Finally, the Directory notes that deacons are to grow in the love of Christ for humankind, which love "surpasses all ideologies — is thus an essential component of the spiritual life of every deacon" (sec. 49).

So, while I am not forbidden from expressing my views on the news of the day, as a deacon, I must be careful in how I do that and do it through my understanding of the Gospel as expressed by the Church's magisterium and for the sake of the Gospel. For example, pointing out that more firearms, which has been empirically proven to lead to more violence, given that violence, especially lethal violence, is contrary to the Gospel, is not an ideological viewpoint, which is why it is a viewpoint expressed by individual bishops and by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. But I agree with those who insist that a steady diet of political commentary from a member of the clergy compromises not only the witness of that cleric but potentially, at least for some, the message of salvation in Christ.

While I am on the subjects of magisterial documents and salvation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on 22 February 2018 (22 February being the universal Feast of the Chair of St. Peter), promulgated, again with papal approval, Placuit Deo. This document is a note to bishops "On Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation." It warns against two contemporary tendencies when it comes to human destiny. These two tendencies, with important caveats, are identified as Pelagian and Gnostic. The Pelagian tendency, which, believe it or not, is rather prevalent in advanced Western societies that are quite secularized, holds that you attain salvation by and through your own efforts. Without a doubt the most prevalent variant of this, "I will be saved ('go to heaven') because I am fundamentally a 'good' person." The Gnostic tendency, which is also quite widely spread and often by many who also hold a Pelagian view. Gnosticism understands salvation as something achieved when the spirit is "freed" from the constraints of the body and the material world. The Pelagian view has no need for the salvific sacrifice of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Gnosticism either explicitly or implicitly rejects the bodily resurrection, which means rejecting Christ's own rising from the dead and/or its effect on us (i.e., we will also be bodily raised from the dead).

With all of that plus the fact it is Lent, a good Friday traditio, it seems to me, is Peter Schilling's "The Different Story (World of Lust and Crime)" with a video from back when making music videos was an art form:

Sunday, February 25, 2018

What does it mean to rise from the dead?

Readings: Gen 22:1-2.10-13.15-18; Ps 116:10.15.16-19; Rom 8:31b-34; Mark 9:2-10

In today's readings there are two mountains: Mount Moriah and Mount Tabor. Two fathers summon their sons, one to one mountain and the other to another mountain.

In the first instance, the father, Abraham, is instructed to sacrifice his only son with his wife Sarah on Mt. Moriah. This son, Isaac, was improbably conceived well after Sarah had passed through menopause it seems. His name, Yitzak in Hebrew, means laughter and refers to Sarah's response when informed she would conceive and bear a son in her old age. It seems reasonable to infer that it would be through Isaac that God would fulfill his promise to make of Abraham's descendants "a great nation" (Gen 12:2). Great nation aside, it seems an abominable request that God made of Abraham in order to "test" Abraham.

The Hebrew word translated as "test" in Genesis 22:1, which transliterates as nse, literally means "probed." I take this to mean God issued a call to Abraham to see what his response might be. The Hebrew word nse has been translated into English using a variety of words, including "tempt," as in "God did tempt Abraham" (KJV). Whether God tempted Abraham to kill his son or tested him by requesting that he do it, this passage is troubling. It remains troubling despite the fact that Abraham, in the end, is not required to actually kill his only son. Frankly, it is difficult to determine which is more disturbing, God's directing the murder of Isaac or Abraham's willingness to carry it out. The deeply disturbing nature of this story is not wholly mitigated by our recognition, as Christians, that it is a foreshadowing of the Father permitting his only Son to be sacrificed on yet another mountain: Calvary. If this story doesn't bother you, doesn't get under your skin a bit, then you're not paying attention or you don't care. It's an excruciating encounter with the Mystery whom we call "God."

As the Buddhist axiom states it - to live is to suffer, at least to some extent and some of the time. This axiom is verified by universal human experience. I can only chalk what God demanded of Abraham and his response up to what God revealed through the prophet(s) whose oracles constitute deutero-Isaiah:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways ... For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts (Isa 55:8-9)
The great Christian spiritual master of the last century, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, in his always-relevant book Beginning to Pray, noted:
To meet God means to enter the 'cave of a tiger' - it is not a pussy cat you meet - it's a tiger. The realm of God is dangerous. You must enter into it and not just seek information about it
That the story of Abraham's attempt to murder his son is a foreshadowing of the Father sacrificing his Son is borne out by our second reading, taken from St Paul's Letter to the Romans: "If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?" (Rom 8:31b-32). We know that, unlike Isaac, who seemed an unwitting and uninformed participant in the event that occurred on Mt. Moriah, Jesus undertook his passion and death in full awareness and voluntary obedience to the Father out of love for our sake.

Transfiguration of Jesus, by Andrei I. Ivanov, 1807

Rather than an account of Jesus's crucifixion for our Gospel reading today, we have St Mark's account of his Transfiguration. Jesus's Tranfiguration was a preview of the glory of his resurrection. It is also a sure sign that he is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. This is attested to both by the appearance and subsequent disappearance of Moses and Elijah. After Moses and Elijah disappeared, Peter, James, and John heard the voice of the Father say, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him" (Mark 9:7). Then "they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone..." (Mark 9:8).

I like St Mark's account, which was probably the earliest written, because it shows how confusing this was for the three men who accompanied Jesus up Mt. Tabor. Mark makes clear that Peter suggested building the three booths because he had no idea what else to say (Mark 9:5-6). As they made their way down from the mountain, Jesus charged them to not say anything to anyone about they witnessed until after he had risen from the dead (Mark 9:9). This made Peter, James, and John wonder "what rising from the dead meant" (Mark 9:10).

Each time we ascend the mountain to participate in Mass we, too, witness a Transfiguration; the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Does your participation leave you awestruck?

As noted last week, "Lent" means "springtime." Spring is the time when what appears to be dead comes back to life. The miracle of this is not negated by the fact that we know so much about how this cycle works. In fact, our wonder should be enhanced by such knowledge.

I think a good question to ponder over this next week of Lent is "What does rising from the dead mean?" You need to ask yourself this question in a serious way, which is the only appropriate response to such serious readings and not in some superficially sentimental way. Asking this in a serious way may take this form: "What needs to die in me so that I can rise to new life?"

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Remembering Billy Graham with mixed emotions

For better and sometimes for worse, Billy Graham was a giant striding across the religious landscape of the United States. Graham passed away this past Tuesday, 21 February, at the age of 99. Like many religious figures who enjoy popular acclaim, Graham, at least for a time, came to believe in his own power and wisdom. This led him to become more wrapped up in politics and attempts to influence governance than any Christian leader ought to allow him/herself to be. The apex of Graham's political influence occurred during the disastrous presidency of Richard Nixon.

It seems to me that Graham learned from this experience and for the last roughly 45 years of his life he largely eschewed seeking the kind of influence he sought prior to and during the Nixon administration. In short, being that politically involved compromised his integrity and, in a serious way, his Christian faith. It this compromise with worldly power that many people will remember most about him. But it is clear to me that Graham learned from this and repented by changing the way he engaged.

Graham's change was not a dramatic shift. It was marked more by what he ceased doing than by what he did. His change entailed going back to what he was - an evangelist. A herald of the Good News of Jesus Christ. I must admit that I scoff at the idea that Graham was "America's pastor." I scoff for two reasons. The first reason, I've already mentioned: his attempts at pastoring presidents were pretty much disasters. Such attempts are inherently disastrous because more likely than not the would-be "pastor" is being played, that is, co-opted. In seeking "pastoral counsel," presidents and political leaders are generally looking for moral cover. Graham's 13-page letter urging President Nixon to bomb North Vietnam (see "A Prince of War Exposed") must certainly count as the nadir of his long career. My second reason for scoffing in Graham's case is that he was not a pastor, but an evangelist, which is a very different calling. If anything, a pastor must, at least to some extent, be an evangelist but evangelists in no wise require pastoral skills. Hence, I think Kenneth Woodward's "America's Preacher" is far more apt than "America's Pastor."

True pastoring requires the willingness to confront and challenge as well as the ability to comfort and console. The Church must maintain some distance and independence from worldly power if we are to remain true to our prophetic calling. To employ a worn out phrase, like the prophet Nathan (see 2 Samuel 12:1-25) and John the Baptist (Mark 6:17-29), the Church must always be able to speak the truth to power.

Rev. Billy Graham

On the positive side, I think about the reflections Bob Dylan shared about Billy Graham's ministry several years ago:
This guy was like rock 'n' roll personified — volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution — when he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved, sometimes 30 or 40,000 of them. If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever," he said...
Nearly seven years ago, on a Sunday, I posted on Billy Graham (see "Christ can fill that cosmic void in your heart," which features a video of Graham preaching).

Reading David Gushee's recent memoir, Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism, I was reminded that "Evangelical" (with a capital "E") in the American context was, at least initially, a Protestant identity that sought to exist between the extremes of Fundamentalism and theological liberalism. Fundamentalism, based what were articulated as "the fundamentals in about 1920. To make a Catholic analogy, "the fundamentals" can be viewed as something akin to U.S. Protestantism's syllabus of errors. The fundamentals were formulated to combat theological liberalism. Gushee's point is that Evangelicalism was either high-jacked by Fundamentalists or was nothing but a thinly-veneered attempt to forward Fundamentalism under a more moderate guise.

Gushee, who, at least for a time, was a prominent voice among the Evangelical left, writes deftly in his memoir about being played and the compromise inherent in serving as a Christian religio-moral advisor to politicians and political movements.

There can be no doubt that Billy Graham, while an Evangelical, always remained somewhat rooted in his native fundamentalistim and so tilted towards the fundamentalist side of the Evangelical spectrum. His son, Franklin, is a fundamentalist and not an Evangelical in the least.

Among advanced Western societies, no nation builds myths like the United States. Billy Graham's death has led to no end of myth-making, of hagiography, about this legendary preacher, both in the religious and secular media. We seem to have a difficult time dealing with the complexity of reality, especially when it comes to a person whose public career spanned some 60 years. Like most people, including Christian leaders, Billy Graham leaves a complex and mixed (i.e., human) legacy.

Requiscat, Billy Graham, in pace.