Preternatural Hangries

JMJ

The Readings for Friday in the 8th Week of Ordinary Time (B2)
Memorial of St Justin Martyr, First Friday of June

Jam non amplius in aeternum ex te fructum quisquam manducet. 
May no man hereafter eat fruit of thee any more for ever. 

Jesus curses the fig tree because it bears no fruit when it was needed – at that moment when he was hungry. This may seem like a reminder that even for Jesus, “You’re not you when you’re hungry”. But the fig tree is intended as a visual parable, an acted out teaching moment. When Messiah comes, it’s already too late to blossom and grow fruit. You should be fruitful now. We never know when the fruit will be sought for.

In case the reader misses it, the curse of the tree and then the witness of the withered tree is the bracket for the cleansing of the Temple. Messiah arrived and the tree was fruitless, Messiah arrived and the Temple was purged. Far from a case of the Hangries, Jesus is acting in love for you and me to learn how dangerous it is to only pretend to be something. A fruitless tree is certainly worth nothing to the hungry. A fruitless vine is fit only for making cheese from the ashes. 

St Peter’s epistle addresses us strongly too:

Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another….Hospitales invicem sine murmuratione.

I have, three times been involved in conversations where there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the noise made in Church by children. I confess I was the instigator once (circa 1999) although I have only been the defuser each time after that. My main weapon is the one that was used on me that first time (which was a catty comment having to do with unmarried men of a certain age…). Certainly that’s not always the case because even online I can read much wailing and gnashing done by other folks whose “mother would have slapped me into next week for acting like that” or who were “certainly never that poorly behaved as children.” St Peter tells us all to learn to love each other now because the end is coming and, well… hey, you know about that fig tree? Loving certainly involves parents and children. But not always.

I thought about this yesterday at Mass where I was Mr Cranky Pants, not at children, but at two Grandmothers who chatted calmly with each other through the sermon and the prayers of the people from the pew behind me. To be honest, Father’s sermon was not quite as engrossing as possible and my ears are to the point where almost any background noise is too much, but these two Lolas were as loud as Father. So, surrounded by a familial babble, I fell asleep. I awoke to the laughter of a joke and shushed the two… with a look that was rather more like Jesus to the fig tree than St Peter’s idea of Hospitality.

It was not exactly the best moment I’ve had at Mass. 

How often is it that way? That one person who would have been in the choir but for that sense of timelessness about their singing. Or the party who constantly says their prayers 3 seconds in front of everyone else. What about that family that comes late every week and leaves from the communion line? Yes these are my list of gripes that can pull me out of prayer, but do you have your own? Do not we all have our own? These preternatural cases of the hangries all seem to end when Mass ends. I never find myself thinking about them again (especially when I’m in confession and then it just goes right out of my mind) until the next time I’m at Mass. 

Why is it so easy to get if not angry, then disgruntled at Mass? I’ve slammed choir books, and – when I’m in a good mood – I’ve used the Mid-Mass Hangry on other folks. It’s especially easy to trip up the pious, but there it is.  I’ve used the word “hangry” (which is either a portmanteau of “hungry” and “angry” or else a Ukrainian slang term for Lent) because we are exactly that. Except we are not hungering for food. 

Today is the memorial of St Justin Martyr who was slain for his faith in AD 165. His writings are amazing documents not only of his religious journey but also of the practices of the Early Church. Justin spent his youth searching for something until, one day, meeting an elderly man walking on the beach, his eyes (and his heart) were open to the Hebrew Scriptures which in turn opened his soul up to the teachings of Christ. He spent the rest of his time learning, teaching, and defending this new faith, even writing letters to Caesar defending the teachings and creating a new discipline: Christian Apologist. 

Justin realized this is what we’re hungry for: Christ. His love, his hospitality. We are called always forward into this one thing. We may spend our entire life thinking that we need to get money, or power, or sex, or love, or 2.5 kids and a white picket fence yet until we find the one thing worth having, all this other stuff just leads to more hangries.



Give up Wut?

JMJ

The Readings for Tuesday in the 8th Week of Ordinary Time (B2)

Et coepit ei Petrus dicere : Ecce nos dimisimus omnia, et secuti sumus te.

Behold, we have left all things, and have followed thee. 

When it comes to giving up all things, the Apostles actually did, right? To follow Jesus, for them, was a physical choice as well as a spiritual one. They gave up homes and families, they gave up jobs and community standing, they gave up their chances to go back – especially after their Rabbi was named as apostate by the Elders and tortured and slain by the Roman state. And, to follow was to move around a lot to sleep in odd places, to walk for hundreds of miles – in addition to changing their minds about politics, morals, religion, and a whole host of other things. Follow was, perhaps, too weak a word for us to read. It really means “changed worlds for you,” right? How can we compare that to what it costs us, in America, to follow Jesus today – when even the most casual observer expects nothing out of a “Christian” than to vote Republican and bemoan all the sex and abortions people are having?

What do we give up these days, in America? There are places where it is hard to be a Christian and keep your job, yes, but most of us are so neutral in our affect that our presence is rarely noted.

Think of the Great Reformers who challenged the world around them as well as the Church to return Jesus to the center of the stage: St Anthony and St John Chrysostom, St Benedict and St Gregory the Great. Think of Saints Francis of Assisi and St Dominic, think of St Catherine of Siena, or St Maria of Paris, think of millions of martyrs under the Communists in the Soviet Union and world wide, or of the martyrs slain by the Nazis, or American-backed right wing dictators in Mexico and Central America. They challenge the political status quo, yes, but also the Church herself, as she becomes too complacent with her place power and connections in the world. Yet there were millions (even in the Church) who wished those folks would just keep quiet.

Pope Francis is making uncomfortable some who put “America” before “Catholic” in their world, forgetting the fullness of Catholic teaching. Pope Benedict did the same, angering those who put “PC” before Catholic in their thinking. Pope Francis’ major “failing” seems to be his soundbites are more quotable by the left than the right. But the bites, themselves, are rather meaningless platitudes without the teaching of the Church heard behind them. His talk of the poor, of the environment, of charity, of the wealthy, of peace is all within the bounds of the Gospel: just that he sounds less “American” and more “Foreign”. We’re used to being the center of attention (especially the wealthy). Francis won’t grant us that stage.

In his First Epistle (written a few years after his cry about giving up everything) the leader of the Apostles says to the Church, 

Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, You shall be holy, for I am holy.

We have to gird up our minds: to face facts. We’re not to be thinking of worldly things any more. Politics, wealth, position, influence, or even connection with those things. This is why St Dominic had his preachers take an oath of poverty: because the unbelievers he wanted to reach didn’t respect anyone who lived in wealthy status and dared to try to tell them what to do. The Gospel must be communicated in humility: not from the Papal Palace, but from a quiet shack in the poorest Favela. The rich must humble themselves to hear it (as we read yesterday). The poor are the only ones pre-qualified. The powerful must humble themselves, the marginalized are already set up. 

Now: don’t get me wrong. There are some who are poor and marginalized that want to take the Gospel as a sort of political banner, allowing them to steal and cheat and become wealthy and powerful. But no… the rewards of this world are, themselves, corrupt. And they absolutely corrupt us if we seek them for themselves they are like Sauron’s ring, and we find we can’t use evil for good.

But if we seek to use the goods of this world (which God made, yes) in the manner God intended, then we are all made a little more poor that all may be justly shared together. We cannot use people and love things, but rather we love people and use things to make all things better for all. I must seek the goods of this world exactly to give them to those who don’t have them, to the poor. God puts success and wealth in my hand only so that I can build a more just world around me in my acts of personal piety and in my political choices.

However: this premise puts us at odds with the world. The landlords who want to shut out the poor, the wealthy who don’t want the poor on their streets, the powerful who want to “seal the border” and yet traffic in slaves for personal and corporate profit will all begin to see us as their enemies in our very mode of life. Those who seek to hoard all the things into their little estates where they can enjoy hedonism without consequence and even pretend to be Christians at the same time will see us as their accusers in our very mode of life. Those who seek Justice and Equality without reference to Divine Revelation will by default build inequity and injustice into their projects. They too will see us as their enemies for in the end we are working towards different goals. 

In the end, a Christian can have no enemy and so cannot call any one human in the world “my enemy”. We cannot not love – equally – anyone God puts in our path. There is no political construct in the world today that does not have named enemies. So, in the end, no Christian can follow any political construct of this world to its logical conclusions.  At best, we can only be resident aliens in any political system or party, in any philosophy or action constructed outside of the Church.

In the end, we have to give up everything to follow Jesus.

I hear the Grand Slam is good.


JMJ

The Readings for Trinity Sunday (B2)

Et videntes eum adoraverunt : quidam autem dubitaverunt.
And seeing him they adored: but some doubted. 

This is my favourite verse in the New Testament. It’s huge. Because it’s the end of a pure church. The Apostles have been with Jesus for 40 days since Easter, here we are on a distant mountain, the veil between the worlds is so thin that Jesus is about to pass bodily into heaven. They worship… but some doubt. Even now? Really?

The Greek for this doubt is not a simple opposite to “Trust”. It is διστάζω distazo meaning “to waver”.  To be of two minds about something, to stand at a crossroads or a fork and want one or the other choice. It’s to waffle. It’s used one other time in the New Testament, also in Mathew: When Jesus grasps Peter’s hand in the middle of the ocean. “O you of little faith, why did you “distazo”? Then Jesus pulls Peter out of the water and puts him back into the boat (which some read as a symbol for the Church). Here on the mountain, though, Jesus sends those of little faith out into the world as evangelists.

What a risk! What a God who loves us.

When I left the Episcopal Church I went looking for a pure church: one that was free of waffling. This was the wrong thing to go looking for. Father Victor, of blessed memory, warned me, even then, that I was not coming into a perfect church, or a pure church, but rather the True Church. It took me a while to realize the truth of that statement. Protestantism seems to come in two modes: to either fix the wafflers (by suppression or expulsion) or to celebrate them (by changing doctrine at the drop of a hat). What I found in the better places of Orthodoxy, and what I find continually in those same sort of places in Catholicism, is a challenge to waffling. 

Come in. Yes. Hear the fullness of the faith. Yes. Be taught, be formed in it. Yes. Struggle to grasp it, to understand it, to inculcate it into your life. Yes. And be honest about the struggle. The writings of many saints, including journals of St Theresa of Calcutta and Alexander Schmemann and the Dialogues of St Catherine of Sienna, show us that waffling continues.  Although the waffling may, by God’s grace, lessen over time, the only unwaffled Catholic is a dead one. 

And on this mountain, God does what? And he takes this batch of wafflers and sends them out into the world to teach and to make disciples! Glory to God! Jesus says to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” That’s the answer: we don’t have that. Jesus does. The prayer at Mass says, ne respicias peccata nostra Regard not our sins but the faith of your church. Don’t look at the places we each mess up, but rather look together on us all (which includes us, the living, certainly, but the vast majority of the Church is not us…). Look on all of us in your Body.

We have a job to do, despite our troubles grasping the fullness of the faith. When we have trouble, though, ours is not to demand the church change to please us for we are not Protestants. Nor is ours the place to publicly proclaim our waffling as the “real” Catholicism, for that is heresy and schism. Struggle away. As long as the struggle is to the eventual conforming of yourself to Christ (and not the reverse) it is a lifelong struggle and no one expects less. Most of us will need an even longer struggle than that. 

So for this lifetime we are doubting evangelists, wafflers. We are called to proclaim that which, because of our very human frailty, we can only glimpse from time to time, can only manage to live in certain moments. We are called to “taste and see”, but the banquet must wait until heaven.

Meanwhile, there’s a place for us off of nearly every highway exit. You should join me for breakfast there on Sundays and don’t forget to tip your server.