Jonah’s New Signs

From my old copy of “The Sign of Jonas” by Thomas Merton

Readings for Wednesday in the 1st Week of Lent (A2)

No sign will be given except the sign of Jonah.

JMJ

Wake up this morning was to news about the Pope’s Lenten Retreat on the Holy Prophet Jonah. This story from the scriptures was, therefore, on my mind as I went to Mass. A fund thing to note (props to Fr Anthony not-on-twitter-now) Catholics don’t cite scripture, but we know the stories. So to remind us of two-thirds of the story (in outline):

  • God said, Jonah, go to Nineveh
  • Jonah said, “nope” and went the other way on a boat
  • God tried to wreck the boat in a storm
  • The sailors threw Jonah over the side
  • Swallowed by a fish
  • Fish spat him up
  • God said, Jonah, go to Nineveh
  • Jonah said, “Nope, if I go there, they will repent and you’ll forgive them”
  • God said, Right. Go to Nineveh.
  • Jonah said, “ok” and went
  • Jonah preached a little.
  • They repented.
  • God forgave them.
  • Jonah got all “DAMN IT I KNEW YOU WOULD DO THAT”

Jesus says the only thing he’ll give is the “Sign of Jonah”. Now… the Church tends to read the following text in Jesus’ voice and I will not correct that… but the Greek text has no quotation marks. Matthew and Luke have this story in slightly different versions although Jesus says “no sign except the sign of Jonah”. But then is the rest of the passage Jesus? Or Christian rabbinical conversation? It doesn’t have to be the former. It could be the latter. I want to think of it this way:

  • Rabbi Luke says Jesus means this: as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.
  • Rabbi Matthew says Jesus means that and also a prophecy of the Resurrection.

Accepting that as a given truth, are there possibly other signs for us in our present Generation? I think the answer is yes. I’m not fleshing these out but offering them as meditation points. I think there’s a lot of room for digging in:

  • Jonah tried to dodge vocation by going the other way. God fixed that: do we run away at any excuse?
  • The Ninevites only needed a tiny push to repent: is it possible that even those “heathens” you work with need only a gentle whisper of truth to breakout the sackcloth?
  • Nineveh’s conversion was so total that it made Jonah angry: we don’t want to see our opponents converted. We like hellfire from heaven better.
  • Jonah was an outsider in Nineveh yet his power was multiplied because he was following God: how many times do we go looking for someplace to “fit in” as a missionary rather than just going where God wants us?
  • Another way to think of that point: When Jonah was following God’s will it didn’t even matter that he didn’t speak the language. Everyone heard him: Jesus is also an outsider in most of our world yet this crucified criminal overthrew all of Rome and changed history.

That’s it. Some different signs to chew on. Feedback is welcomed.

Love Hurts

The Readings for the 7th Sunday, Tempus per Annum (A2)

Your heavenly Father… makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

JMJ

I wanted to talk today about the Curious change when Jesus quotes from Leviticus. For in Leviticus it says be holy as God is Holy. But Jesus says be perfect as God is perfect. In the Septuagint, the Greek in Leviticus uses the word agios which means holy, but in Matthew Jesus uses the word telos which doesn’t mean perfect (as in our English) so much as it means ordered to the right ends. As a budding Thomist-in-training, I would be terribly interested in that “ordered to the right ends”.

However, when I woke up this morning, the radio (as is often the case with analog tuning) had drifted from my Catholic radio station to a pop-music station. So instead of opening my eyes to the Sunday Angelus from Rome, I was greeted with the following lyric: “I had to hate you to love me.” it was a jarring way to wake up, let me tell you. And it’s highlighted to me the need to talk about love.

Evidently the artist had just broken up with her lover – in not a particularly abusive relationship – and had discovered that she had been pouring out herself and getting nothing in return. So she left him and moved on. This song is a part of her “healing”.

What’s missing, of course, from the pop-song is it they were not married and therefore it was an abusive situation. When there’s no commitment when there’s no arrangement when there’s no permanence to fall back on little foibles become the death of the people involved. Just having sex does not make a “relationship”. It is actually the promise, the commitment to stay together no matter what that makes the relationship. A relationship where there is sex is a contract. Sex outside of this context easily becomes abusive simply by virtue – if you’ll pardon the word – of the way sex wraps us up in each other, tears down our boundaries, and makes us vulnerable to each other and open to new life. Once sex begins if someone pulls back and says “this is just for me” it becomes abusive sex.

Love (agape), however, is not sex.

Now, Jesus says we are to love our enemies. Jesus used the Greek word agape which means not love your enemies like they’re your best friends but exactly pour yourself out to them in love regardless of what you get back from them. In fact especially if all you get back from your enemies is abuse you are to continue to pour yourself out to them in love.

When agape takes over, the other content steps aside. Eros (sexual attraction/action) is a form of love, of course, but as anyone who has ever engaged in sex – even in a marriage – can tell you, this waxes and wanes. Philia (friendship), another form of love, may be present in some relationships but it is not required. Likewise, storge (familial/marital love) is part of some relationships – but not all. Jesus wants us to make agape part of every relationship, even the negative ones.

I find myself second-guessing relationships all the time. I’ve never been able to read what we might call sexual signaling. Is this person coming on to me? Do I want them to? Is there an expectation of “something else”? So many times the answer was yes and I missed the point of hours of conversation. One woman informed me after 10 years after we shared a cup of coffee that we had been on a date (in her eyes) with the simple line, “You never called me.” But Jesus calls us to love.

To overcome all of these ways our relationships fail to be perfect (to be properly ordered… ah the Thomist gets back to his topic!) – Love is the answer. Not our “love for each other” or even “God’s love for all of us” for both of these are vague theological abstractions that must be made really present. To make them present we need active love in the first person for the other. Your active love for the other. Love, in the first person, directed to second and third persons everywhere. Agape, the Christian idea of love that is understood to be most like God’s love for us, is not, of course, one-directional, but it never requires two directions. Agape is to always be present, even when it is only one way – from the “I” to the “you”. Offering all our intended actions on the altar of agape weeds out selfishness, ego, manipulation, and passive aggression.

The noun, agape, comes from the same Greek root as the verb, agapao. The latter means to entertain or to show hospitality. That will give you an idea of what agape should be as a noun. To be a lover, an agape-er, is to show hospitality, to actively agapao, to be deeply concerned with the wellbeing, the safety, the honor of the guest. That person, that icon of God in front of you, is the guest. In the first person, we are always the host, it is the second person that is the guest: always. You are the guest, never me.

It’s interesting to weave hospitality into this discussion because some Bible scholars see the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a violation of hospitality. They often do this to get away (or avoid) the discussion of any sort of sex action in that story. Yet it is a valid reading: for the intended rape of the angels by the men of the city was exactly intended as a display of power, of destroying the rights of Lot’s guests to hospitality – a life or death matter in that culture and environment. This ethical, hospitality reading is also part of the traditional Jewish understanding of this text. There – as in the traditional Christian reading – the ethical point of hospitality must be woven in with the moral point about sex.

This hospitality, this agapao, is a function of the virtue of chastity. When all of our relationships are given their proper telos by including God’s love then we can entertain strangers often and, at times, entertain angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2), just like Lot in Sodom. The Epistle to the Hebrews uses other words for “entertain” there, but the point is well made: as we welcome and venerate the icon of God in those around us we enter into what the Byzantines call “the angelic life”. We move through the world in Love, not hindered by sex, certainly, but also not hindered by our demands on the other, our pride of place, our “rights”. Instead, in love we give way before the other, and offer veneration to God.

This is what it means to be holy as God is holy. This is what it means to be telos as God is telos: to love as God loves. To love both the just and the unjust, to pour gifts on the loving and the unloving, to be equally present and self-sacrificing to all, even if they want to kill you.

Certainly to engage in sexual sin is to have a broken relationship but all sins are intertwined. The loss of the virtue of chastity can be predicated on simple lust, but in our culture it’s woven into a huge fabric of inhospitable actions; the inhospitality of relationships not built on holiness, purity, health, truth, and honor at all times. To enter into a relationship with a guest for the purpose of getting something out of the relationship – a contract, a better job, a position in the choir, sex – this is equally the sin of Sodom.

So, to get back to the pop song at the top of this post: the artist says that she lost herself in this other person and that she had to learn to hate him in order to get herself back. The fact is she didn’t get herself back that way. Attract all she got back was an isolated and lonely cry. Makes a beautiful song but they’re disturbing words. They should not be an Anthem of self-love as it often is described but rather a descriptor of our entire culture.

Our entire culture is predicated on this odd idea that I have to be complete and full in myself alone. I must own my own things, I must do my own will, I must be me. In Christian terms, this is hell not love.

Think Different

The Readings for the 3rd Sunday, Tempus per Annum (A2)

Paenitentiam agite; appropinquavit enim regnum caelorum.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

JMJ

Repent, says Jesus. Jerome’s Latin renders this poenitentiam agite which means “do penance” but it may be a typo of sorts as “paenitentiam” – with the “o” changed to an “a” – means “repent”. This last is what’s in the Nova Vulgata used in more recent liturgical texts. Jerome may have had an axe to grind, however. The Douay text has Jesus saying “Do penance for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” That seems oddly wrong. The Greek is μετανοέω metanoeó. Repent! When we hear this word we think of people in sackcloth and ashes. Sometimes we may think of people weeping in the streets. Yet, as I have pointed out many times before the Greek word does not imply any of these things. It means to “think beyond” or to “think different”. Strong’s dictionary says that meta means “changed after being with” and that noeo means “think”, so regardless of “beyond” or “different” it means our thinking is changed. Our thinking now takes on a new pattern after being with… Jesus.

Repent means to let our thinking be changed.

Once, when discussing a new relationship with a group a friend of mine was asked what she loved about her new beau. “I like the way he makes me feel,” she said. The oldest of us in the group laughed. He said, “That’s not love, that’s a peculiar species of narcissism.” It seems that romance always is this peculiar species of narcissism. We have to learn to have our thinking changed in order to experience love. Then suddenly we discovered that love is about sacrifice and about suffering. These are not two things we imagine in our relationships, but we think our relationships are about self-comfort rather than self-sacrifice. We think our relationships are about narcissism rather than about love.

At the Walk For Life in San Francisco on Saturday my friend Kathy spoke movingly of her oldest son. He was conceived in rape. She gave him up for adoption in an open adoption. He is a vibrant part of their family even though he was raised in another part of the country. As she spoke about the sexual assault that brought this new life into her life and about the choices she made to keep the baby, I begin to realize that motherhood means something completely different to Kathy then it had ever meant to me. Brotherhood is not the choice to raise kids it’s the choice to say my kids are more important than I am. Motherhood is not the willingness to give up one’s freedom for children. Motherhood is the reality of giving up everything for one’s children. I began to see why some people might be threatened by this, might want to run away. This was not the first time I had heard Kathy’s story but it was the first time I began to understand it. And it was then but I began to understand her son’s own story of self-sacrifice and success. We learn so much from our parents. When parents think outside of our culture’s boxes their kids do as well.

In how many places of our lives do we think wrongly, need to think differently? What if work is not about making money to pay the bills, but about a struggle to work out our salvation? What if, in fact, all of our lives are about this same struggle?

Jesus says to some fishermen, “Come after me and I will make you Fishers of Men.” If Jesus were with us now would he say to someone fixing a drainpipe, “Come after me and I will make you a plumber of men’s souls.” Does he say to the doctor, “Come after me and I will make you a healer of men’s hearts.” Does grace build on nature, changing what we are into what God needs us to be? When we experience pain, when life gives us something that we didn’t want, when we lose how does God turn this into an act of our salvation? This happens when we begin to think with different minds about our lives. The Daily Grind becomes the daily life lived for God. The same things are experienced but to different ends. Marriage becomes about sacrifice. Sex becomes about self gift. Love becomes about death. Death becomes life.

Does God change our minds, or does he simply open the door and show us that another way of thinking is possible? I think this last is true. God cannot change our minds as that would be contrary to human freedom. God can show us a better way whenever and – with infinite patience and love – wait for us to go into it.

Repent! Think with a new mind. God has always been drawing closer, but now we can see it. When the light dawns on Zebulon and Naphtali it is not a new thing that is happening oh, it is only that we can see it clearly for the first time.

You’re doing it wrong

Bl. Stanley Rother saying Mass in a traditional chasuble with a Guatemalan scarf.

The Readings for the 1st Tuesday,
Tempus per Annum (A2)

Factum est autem, cum illa multiplicaret preces coram Domino, ut Heli observaret os ejus. Porro Anna loquebatur in corde suo, tantumque labia illius movebantur, et vox penitus non audiebatur. Aestimavit ergo eam Heli temulentam, dixitque ei : Usquequo ebria eris? digere paulisper vinum, quo mades.
As she remained long at prayer before the LORD, Eli watched her mouth, for Hannah was praying silently; though her lips were moving, her voice could not be heard. Eli, thinking her drunk, said to her, “How long will you make a drunken show of yourself? Sober up from your wine!”

JMJ

Among the Orthodox, I’m sure it will not surprise you to learn, there are Liturgy Wars. I found this to my great horror after a while in Orthodoxy. There is a phase for converts (it took me about 2 years to outgrow) where “my parish does it right” and everyone certainly does it the same way. My time was compounded by visiting very similar places when I traveled. This led to “My parish is right and anything else is clearly wrong.” But that was followed by about 8 years of “there must be someone who does it right…” because I began to develop a list of things that are clearly wrong: pews, first and foremost. Skipping parts of the liturgy – everyone does this – was increasingly horrifying to me. A part of the morning service of Matins which at my on parish took 15-20 mins to do might take 3-5 mins at some places, or even less! Then I discovered that my own parish skipped a bunch and that part of the service should take about 45 mins on a short day – say a normal Sunday – and maybe 1h15 or even more on a Holy Day! We were all doing it wrong. Listening to us Orthodox criticize each other you might think we were all Eli yelling at Hannah for being drunk.

The third phase of this was the realization that doing what your Bishop told you to do was the right way to do it. Some Bishops allowed more latitude than others, but as long as one was within the limits established by Episcopal oversight, no pun intended, one was ok. Things got hella wonky when I drifted into the Orthodox Western Rite communities where seemingly anything goes and every pastor is his own liturgical Episcopos. The Latin phrase sui generis, meaning “alone of its class” and usually applied to special exceptions to general rules, was invented for the Orthodox Western Rite. No one really does what the Bishops say – although everyone starts with the same collection of books.

All this by way of lead-up to my becoming Catholic. The alleged post-conciliar chaos was one thing that had kept me from becoming Roman Catholic when I fled the Episcopal Church in 2002. But here it was in Orthodoxy too. There are even some Orthodox Churches with altar girls and – roughy speaking – open communion. There are “liturgical archeologists” who make stuff up because “the ancient church” did it. Orthodoxy had all the same mess as the Roman Church, so why fight it? I became Catholic. I also mellowed a lot.

I love a good Latin Mass: I go to one almost every week. I find praying my way through 2 hours of intense liturgy to be quite wonderful. There are those partisans of the Latin Mass who say that the other form of the Mass, the Novus Ordo, is not valid at all. There are even some who say the 1962 Missal is wrong and that we have to go backward in time to the next missal (or the one before that…) Sadly, there are some vice versa feelings too. And there are some in either camp who freak out when they see the Novus Ordo done with elements of traditional liturgy at all. As much as I love the Latin Mass, it’s this last – Novus Ordo with all the trad stops pulled out – that is my favorite. I was Episcopalian for long enough that this most Episcopalian of Catholic liturgies feels like “home” to me.

Go to a Christmastide Mass at St Patricks in SF and see all the blue LED lights and gobs of fake flowers. Try the Chinese New Year Mass with the Dragon. There’s the dancing Gospel at St Paul of the Shipwreck, and the two guitars and a flute at St Dominic’s at 5:30 PM. See the Divine Liturgy in (mostly) Russian style at Our Lady of Fatima and the Latin Mass at Star of the Sea. This is only the beginning: the glory of the Catholic Church. While there are some who would insist that they are right and all the others wrong but each liturgy is filled with Catholic hearts raised heavenward.

Yet we are all Eli convinced the others are Drunk Hannahs who are doing it wrong. The joke was on Eli because it was his own sons who were doing it wrong and it was Hannah’s son who was to replace them. Those in power were about to be thrown down, as is God’s way.

What shall we do with our liturgical diversity as blessed by our bishops?

Give thanks to the Lord our God for it is right and just.

Manifest Destiny

The Readings for the Epiphany (A2)

Gentes esse cohaeredes, et concorporales, et comparticipes promissionis ejus in Christo Jesu per Evangelium
Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

JMJ

Rome knew what it was like to be the Chosen One. They ruled almost the entire world. Sure: they didn’t know about the Americas or even China, but if they had known they would have tried to conquer them as well. Stop being Marxist about your history: every empire has tunnel vision. In their Tunnel, by the grace of Jupiter and the might of Caesar, they ruled the world. God, however, had other plans. They had only cleared the field. They had only laid out the roads, networked the mass transit, taught two common languages to everyone. Rome had done their part. The plan was not about them.

King Herod knew what it was to be the chosen one. He had been chosen King of the Jews by the Senate of Rome. Granted, he had finagled it. But still he was chosen. When the folks back home decided to complain about it he killed them all. Herod was known for killing them all. So when these three wise men showed up and asked for the king of the Jews, yet not Herod, Herod was upset.

King of the ‘oo? No, Majesty: King of the Jews. What? I’M THE KING OF THE JEWS! Caesar said so! A baby? In a Small Town? SAD! I can wipe him out with a drone! He’s the number one enemy in the world!

In the end, as we all know, Herod lost. To a baby. Sad. For Herod. Herod was part of the plan: but the plan was not Herod.

Paul says Israel was chosen, but she misunderstood the why and the mechanics of being that chosen nation: Israel had a place in the plan but Israel’s place was not for Israel’s sake. It was for the sake of the plan. John the Baptist says God could raise up sons of Abraham from the stones if it was needed. Israel is part of the plan: but not the plan itself.

We totally understand why Herod would be so annoyed that three heads of government and three heads of state walked across his boarders and totally ignored him. I’m not comparing Donald Trump to King Herod at all. I mean, you know, the judges… but we – as a people – totally understand why Herod would be annoyed at being ignored. We The People will not be ignored. Even those of us who take a principled stand against various politically objectionable things… we hate it when we’re ignored. I don’t mean we dislike it in the way someone might dislike liver. I mean we dislike being ignored because NO ONE HAS A RIGHT TO IGNORE ME!

America knows what it means to be the Chosen One. We love to play up being God’s chosen, God’s savior who runs to the rescue of the weak and the lost. Is your country being attacked by pirates? We’re on it! Is the island being invaded by communists? We’re on our way! Are the Guerrillas or Juntinistas bothering you? We’ll be right there! We can fix anything: just ask. Sometimes you don’t even have to ask: we have agents, drones, and client countries that can rush in… hold on we can do this covertly if you want. You know, because what would the neighbor say if you needed help from US? Shhhh.

We need to learn that we have a part in the plan, but the plan is not for our sake: rather we are here for the sake of plan.

God’s Epiphany, God’s response to this is a crying baby in a food trough.

Again, this is not something Americans (maybe Westerners in general) like to hear. We’re quite convinced – like Rome – that we’re too big to fail. Culture needs us. Already, the Church in the West is dying and corrupt from our attention to power and, well, the Judges, you know. But the Church in the Global South and other places we like to bomb is growing stronger, more powerful and more evangelical. I am thankful for African Priests who come here to teach us the Gospel!

Each one of us is a part of the plan, but the plan is not about us. As Paul realized talking to the Ephesians, God had just revealed something that wasn’t clear to the ancients. God hadn’t set aside Israel to be set aside, special: rather God wanted to bring everyone up to Israel’s level of relationship with God. What is revealed or manifested here in this baby, this manger is not just a cool thing, but the Manifest Destiny of the entire human race: not just the Israelites, not just Americans, not just Westerners, not just Whites, but rather everyone.

When God was done with Rome, he cast it off like an old overcoat but keeping what is good in the Roman Church. When God is done with America, he will do the same and we need to be ready. When God is done with you, you will be in union with him – like it or not. Liking it will be heaven, not liking it will be hell.

Where will you be? Come kneel at the manger and find out.

Indefectibili Foedere

The Readings for the 3rd Monday in Advent (A2)

Dixit auditor sermonum Dei, qui visionem Omnipotentis intuitus est, qui cadit, et sic aperiuntur oculi ejus :
The utterance of one who hears what God says, and knows what the Most High knows, of one who sees what the Almighty sees, enraptured, and with eyes unveiled.

JMJ

Does it strike you as odd that Balaam is not Jewish and yet he is a Prophet? This has always bothered me. At most he must be a Ba’al worshiper who got things right for once once, right? But no. He seems to be quite connected with the God of Israel – even if he is not a member of the tribe. The thing with the donkey (a couple of chapters earlier in the book) makes it clear that he’s on speaking terms with the same God as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. How does that make sense?

The Dominican Tertiaries have been reading our way through the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is not a teaching document, per se, but a source document: intended for teachers, clergy, and magisterial officials (eg Canon Lawyers) this long document of 2856 numbered paragraphs is intended to list out all the teachings of the Church. It is not, however infallible and some sections can be changed or even removed. The teaching on the Virgin Birth of Jesus, for example, does not have the same magisterial import as the teaching on the death penalty. The latter, therefore, can be sifted to more fine detail as the Church grows in her understanding of God and the world in which we live. (I see Pope Francis’ teaching on the Death Penalty to be less a “change” in teaching then a realization that no government in the world today – especially the USA – has shown itself to be just in the use of this punishment.)

This month we began reading Part Four: Christian Prayer. I was counseled to read this portion by Daniel Glaze who urged me to read Part 4 right after I was brought into the Catholic Church. OK, so now I’m getting around to reading it. This Part 4 has the answer to my Balaam question, I think.

Prayer is lived in the first place beginning with the realities of creation. The first nine chapters of Genesis describe this relationship with God as an offering of the first-born of Abel’s flock, as the invocation of the divine name at the time of Enosh, and as “walking with God. Noah’s offering is pleasing to God, who blesses him and through him all creation, because his heart was upright and undivided; Noah, like Enoch before him, “walks with God.” This kind of prayer is lived by many righteous people in all religions. In his indefectible covenant with every living creature, God has always called people to prayer.

CCC ¶ 2569 Emphasis added

It’s the indefectible covenant (Indefectibili Foedere) with every living creature that lept out and grabbed me tonight. God is always calling all people to prayer.

At the end of today’s reading, Balaam even prophesies about Messiah: I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel. Here is this pagan through whom God is indicating not only his present plans but also his future plans: a reason why he cannot curse Israel at all.

God has an “old testament” up and running amid the peoples of the middle east outside of the Israelites. God is getting everyone ready for what, or rather who is coming at Christmas.

In later books, Darius the King of Persia is called “Messiah” and God has plans for him. And the Apostles will discover that God’s been working through everyone getting them ready. When the first evangelists get to China, they will find that Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha have prepared the way for the Gospel, just as Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah did in Israel. See, while we might want at Christmas to focus on an ever-smaller circle (All Israel > Southern Kingdom > Tribe of Judah > Jesse’s family >Joseph and Mary > Jesus) God is, in fact, aiming for nothing less than all of us. This is his Indefectibili Foedere cum omnibus animabus viventibus, his Indefectible Covenant with every living creature.

Evangelism, done properly, is this: to enter into relationship with another person so deeply that, in that communion of Love, the two of you discover how God has worked with them in their life to prepare them for the Gospel. This is their personal “old testament”, a record of God’s covenant with them. Then we walk, carefully accompanying them, through the record of their life to the point of decision: can they trust enough to let go and enter into a relationship with this God that has called them to prayer?

He’s calling all of us to prayer. So we explore, we grow in prayer, we wait expectantly for the Answer to come. There is only one answer, which is Jesus. For, ultimately, there is only one prayer: that of the Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

Gaudete

The Readings for the Third Sunday of Advent (A2)

Tu es, qui venturus es, an alium exspectamus?
Art thou he that art to come, or look we for another?

JMJ

You know what? Life is not like we post it on Facebook. It’s ugly. The vast majority sees the world rather different than we do as wealthy westerners. I’m assuming that if you have a computer and an internet connection to read my ramblings, you’re wealthy by global standards. Prove me wrong. Most of our Christian ancestors lived on much less than you can imagine. Many of them died early of just living in their poverty. Others were killed outright for their faith. We complain about parking and the oppressions of our taxes. We also have fresh, clean water indoors (unless your in Flint, Michigan, under the Obama or Trump administrations) and until recently, freedom.

Do you ever have doubts? Your life may not be at all like someone from Flint or who lives in total poverty on the street outside your door, but do you ever wake up at night and wonder, What, exactly, am I doing? Have you ever gotten to the end of your chain and had to turn around and go back because, No, really. What am I doing? Have you ever bet literally everything on the course of events and yet still, Have I gone too far?

John the Baptist did.

The Fathers really go out of their way to find a reason for this scene in prison. John had known and recognized Jesus before they were born. From within the womb until now, he’s known who Jesus is and what he’s doing.

Are you really the one?

John the Baptist is in prison for calling out the adultery of the ancient world’s equivalent of Donald Trump, Jr. He’s not quite as bad as his father, but he’s still driven by passions and very petty. In the end it was Junior’s lust and pride that put John in jail, and the jealousy of Junior’s illicit bed partner – his brother’s wife. Today John would have been called a hater for denying the love of two consenting adults. We’d ban him from Twitter, and the president would add “Sad” to a few late-night binges.

But Herod put John in jail: that’s nothing like our idea of jail today. It’s more like being sent to “Special Detention” under President Obama. Where you’re in the dark, alone, except for a guard who tortures you in the dark so you can’t see his face, and you wonder if you’re family is alive or dead. Eventually, you wonder even if you’re alive or dead and you wonder how a Nobel Laureate gets you here. Herod’s jail is more like a dark hole where they can’t even see to take pictures of you and post them on social media.

All of the prophets have their moments of doubt. Moses breaks faith with God, Abraham can’t quite wait for his wife to have a child, the chains of slavery entered into Joseph’s very soul, it is said. And John’s faith weakened a bit. I can’t imagine how dark a hole it must have been, but my faith gets weak when there’s a cloudy day. So I can totally imagine this Obamian/Trumpian nightmare might be bad enough to make the greatest of prophets ask one – but really only one – question.

Are you the one or should we wait for another?

Gaudete. Rejoice! The introit for today begins, “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.” Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with Eucharist, let your requests be known to God.

That’s the real lesson. Things suck, but rejoice.

John might have had doubts (so did Peter and the others). But Jesus says, look: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

And exactly what is that good news?

The Latin says “pauperes evangelizantur” the poor are evangelized. That might make you think of Billy Graham preaching pie in the sky, by and by when you die, or Joel Osteen preaching, “give me the money in your wallet so God can make me rich”. The poor are sucker-punched.

But the Greek says something more radical than Antifa, and more powerful than a signal-boosted occupation chant.

Jesus sas, πτωχοὶ εὐαγγελίζονται ptoxoi ewangelizontai. The poor are Gospelized. You’re going to want to know what a Gospel is first: it’s not a religious text. It’s a political text. When Augustus Caesar or, by this time, Tiberius Caesar conquered your area, his soldiers showed up at your city gates and “read you the good news”: Tiberius Caesar is now in charge and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll open these gates and give over peaceably. Jesus is not just saying “Oh, you know, peace, joy, love… can’t we all get along?” He’s actually saying, “I’m in charge here now. And you’re free – really, truly free – in ways that are going to make your former fellow slaves rather angry at you. Caesar is not Kyrios any more. I am.

The poor are made into the largest citizen army ever: for the kingdom of God.

And all the crap in this world – the sickness, the anger, the oppression, the slavery to Caesar – are done away with because while their accidents remain, their substance is changed: your marriage bed is now a sacrament of salvation, your wage slavery is a key to the virtue of humility, your status as the lowest of the low is now superseded by God going even lower to raise up everyone.

This is the Kingdom of God: tents on the street where saints dwell in their own light, communing with the Divine in prayer, saving even the wealthy around them.

Gaudete means “rejoice” and the Greek word (in Philippians) is Χαίρετε, chairete. It’s the first word spoken by the Angel to Mary when he brings her the Good News of the Incarnation. Χαῖρε, chaire. Rejoice! It’s the first word of the Gospel! Rejoice!

Can you stand to be this happy?

Doubts happen. Questions happen. The key is not to cave in to them. You need to ask your questions and then let the answers be given.

I wish we’d all been ready.

The Readings for the 1st Sunday of Advent

Induamini Dominum Jesum Christum, et carnis curam ne feceritis in desideriis.
Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.

JMJ

In case you’ve missed it, I’ve been on a diet. After trying several different sorts of diets, including caloric restriction and exercise, I remembered that in the 1990s I was able to lose weight on the then-called Atkins diet. Nowadays we call this Keto. Sometime in mid-August, I weighed 300lbs and now I weigh 40 pounds less. The other diets did not work for me but ketosis does. Everyone has a different metabolism and so different diets work for different people. This seems to be mine. It’s also quite tasty. It makes me happy.

However, after I’d lost 35lbs or so the last 5 pounds stayed. I couldn’t get below 260. I tried and tried. And I finally reached the assumption that I’d have to begin actually exercising (beyond the 5 miles or so a day I walk). I mentioned my frustration to a friend of mine over lunch one day. We were eating smoked ham and onions. He said that when he had plateaued in the past he would take himself out eat carbohydrates. Once he remembers eating 10 Donuts. This always reset his ketosis and sent him into a new decrease in weight. Yes, he said, you gained weight when you started eating carbs but over the week your net loss would make up for it.

He was right. I had spumoni ice cream (a particular vice of mine at this season) and three biscuit sandwiches. And the next time I weighed myself I was finally at 259… dieting is very odd.

Paul says, “Put on the Lord Jesus and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” In a way, ketosis is all about the desires of the flesh. It’s basically meat and leaves, and all the dairy fat you can find. My morning coffee has coconut oil, cocoa, and butter… it’s so good. Anyway, it’s all the unctuous foods, all the umami, all the salt, and the weight literally melts away. Until you need a day off. Fry up some pancakes, make some tuna melts, have some french fries, and sweet tea! Then start over. Everything is tasty. The spiritual life, though, has no such provision.

Please don’t think I’m implying that a diet is opposed to our salvation. “The Kingdom of Heaven is not food and drink.” Rather, we don’t get a break from our spiritual diet. We can’t decide: Today, I shall take a break from virtue. We cannot reset our barometer of sin. Nor can we decide that while we’re on vacation we can take a break from our struggle for purity. I mention these things because I have done them in the past. I also know they’re quite common. People on vacation behave rather differently than they do at home.

More importantly, we cannot decide that one or another virtue is not important. To successfully entered ketosis you have to avoid almost all carbohydrates. They should make up about 5% of your daily caloric intake. You cannot say I will avoid rice, potatoes, and bread. But, as they are fried, I shall eat a dozen donuts for my daily breakfast. Likewise, we cannot pick one or two doctrines from the church and avoid them. Sexual sin is sexual sin. The entire Creed must be believed. All of the sacraments are miracles on a daily basis. The entire catechism is magisterial. We cannot just pick and choose.

A la carte Catholicism is a provision for the flesh. St Augustine rather famously found himself praying, “Lord make me chaste but not yet.” Jesus says, “Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.” Make no provision for the flesh because in doing so, it might be too late.

In Romans, St Paul warns us against a whole list of fleshly provisions. The Douay translation uses the quaint word, “chambering” which is a verb describing things done in the bedchamber. The NABRE, however, had us say in Mass today, that we should avoid, “orgies and drunkenness, …promiscuity and lust, …rivalry and jealousy.” Note: Paul makes rivalry and jealousy equal to orgies and promiscuity; that is equally bad. While it would be fun to blog about sex (again) I think it’s important today to focus on the latter parts. We make a lot of provisions for the flesh in the area of rivalry and jealousy.

The Latin gets closer to the Greek, here. Non in contentione, et aemulatione… μὴ ἔριδι καὶ ζήλῳ me eridi kai zelo. Eridi means a contentious spirit, spoiling for a fight and zelo implies zealousness and jealousy, think of it as taking sides. So, basically, St Paul is telling us not to be trolls and not to get all hot under the collar in comment boxes. He’s destroying the internet here – and calling it a provision for the flesh.

But I’ll go further. Lumen Gentium, the Vatican 2 document on the Church, says “The laity should, as all Christians, promptly accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church. Let them follow the example of Christ, who by His obedience even unto death, opened to all men the blessed way of the liberty of the children of God.” Speaking of the Pope and the Bishops… we have a lot of rivalry and jealousy. I don’t think it’s spared by the Pope, though, nor the bishops.

Cardinals Sarah and Burke often get held up as default rivals to Pope Francis and, at times, even Pope Emeritus Benedict is held up as “the real Pope.” Each of these holy men swears obedience to Francis, however. The rivalry is imposed from the outside: The Marshal Vortex, as I’ve described it in the past, of Americans with political axes to grind who hold up rival flags and call the faithful to rally around them. They claim that the Pope cannot speak about certain topics and he should “stick to religion”, but Lumen Gentium says, “Even in secular business there is no human activity which can be withdrawn from God’s dominion.”

Against these provisions for the flesh the same document teaches the universal call to holiness:

[A]ll Christ’s faithful, whatever be the conditions, duties and circumstances of their lives—and indeed through all these, will daily increase in holiness, if they receive all things with faith from the hand of their heavenly Father and if they cooperate with the divine will. In this temporal service, they will manifest to all men the love with which God loved the world.

Lumen Gentium 41

Mindful that nothing is secular except sin (Robert Hugh Benson) we are called as Catholics, following the teachings of the Church in all areas, to follow our shepherds and to manifest God’s love – which will change everything in the world.

The problem is, we’re bad at doing so, causing scandal and ill-repute to fall not only on ourselves but on the Gospel itself. Enough cheat days! It gets later and later, and the Thief is nearly at hand.

Are you awake? Are you ready?