In the Shell of the Old

JMJ

ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.

Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.

Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)

This thorn has been interpreted in many ways: from a hot temper to an annoying physical or even Satanic opponent, from a medical malady to a spiritual anguish, and – which interests me most – temptation to impiety. Not only is this my favorite because it seems to be preferred by many Roman Catholic writers (at least according to the reference linked above) but also it parallels well with other Saints who note that they struggle with doubt and Atheism until their death. The general temptation is just to throw up your hands and walk away. What makes it all worth this? This, of course, can differ from person to person.

I suspect that this – whatever this may be – might well be based on one’s past. This Thorn in the Flesh with which each of us struggle is some part of the old man (pre-conversion life) that God leaves in us for his own purposes: the addict with her addiction, the dissolute with the ease of such a life, the Scholar with the knowledge of his discipline and pride, the rich their skills in the service of Mammon, the magus with her desire for control. Yet all things are for our good – the salvation of our souls and of the world. Our individual thorns then serve a purpose.

One purpose seems to me very personal: if everything from my old life were to suddenly vanish would I even know who I am? Much of my old life was used to craft a (fake) image of who I am; an understanding of my very being and person. Yes, I must depend upon God for my identity and my life but it seems it would a special act of grace, indeed, to take away everything from the past and leave me healthy and whole. I don’t see much record of this happening in the lives of the Saints or in the scriptures. Psychologically, it seems we must build the new man in the shell of the old. Parts of the old go away instantly but other parts take a whole lifetime to dissolve or repurpose: they are the scaffolding for this new construction, the crane towering over the building site that becomes the elevator shaft.

There is something else as well. The struggle is not just a struggle for virtue. It is a struggle for the enrichment of the faith. Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh is not just something he has to struggle with: it’s something that God uses to make the fullness of his power known not only to Saint Paul but also to us. We are surrounded with a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1): not just the Saints and Angels but also those who see our life and our struggle. As someone once said, “Your life may be the only gospel that someone ever reads.” What will they read there? Will they see there a one-and-done conversion moment or will they see struggles for sainthood to which they can relate? When you tell the story of your conversion will it be one of dropping your baggage off and running forward or one of an ongoing journey that was filled with hope and loss?

In a recent movie about his life, Paul struggles not with specific sins but rather with the memory of his early life killing Christians. He wakes up from nightmares wherein he’s ripping children out of their mothers arms. At the end of the movie, after his death, Paul is standing in heaven alone. Over the hill comes a crowd of people, the first line of whom he recognizes as people he has slain. They rush to him and you can – momentarily – feel the fear from the Apostle. They embrace him as their brother in Christ and it is perhaps the most moving moment in the film as fear becomes joy. Your host realizes this is entirely speculation on the filmmaker’s part but this is what happens to our thorns in the end. God does not take them from us: but rather reveals what they have done for us and others. As St. Catherine of Siena prayed, “Do not take this temptation away from me but give me victory over it.” The Victory, though, will be more grace.

This is the Christian hope: that our dry lives become deep wells for others, and that God can take our old and mouldy grain, grind it up, and make of it bread for the Body of Christ.

Only asking hearts our Lord comes
Mine I would freely give
But made of stone and mortar’d sin
too heavy for me to raise
Take this rock and shatter it
Give me a heart of flesh like yours
On fire with love for those
You send to me
To find the damaged icons
To seek the lost and serve
Then burning with your passion’d love
From shards of stone and pride
An altar builded whereupon
At last my heart can rest.

Gotta Start Somewhere

OVirgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.
O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

JMJ

ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.

Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.

Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)

SPOILER ALERT: the answer to the question, “Mary, did you know?” Is yes, in no uncertain terms. God told her, through the Angel, everything she needed to know. Further, you would not know to ask (or sing) the question at all if she did not know in the first place. You’ve got to start somewhere and God started here. Every human being is born into the world carrying Original Sin. Properly understood this is a weakness or an illness. You may have seen a sunflower turning towards the Sun as the latter moved across the sky. This is caused by some Curious change in the cell structure of the stem which enables the plant to always receive the full force of available sunlight. Imagine, if you will, or sunflower that was missing the gene that allowed it to always turn towards the left. That would be original sin in a sunflower. For all that we would expect it to move, it cannot. For all that we might imagine it to stand in a field with its brothers and sisters desiring to move like them, it cannot. The analogy breaks down here for in reality there is none of us that can turn towards the light: all of us are missing the gene, if you will, that allows us to do so. All the flowers – human souls – in all of history since our first parents failed has been like this: parents cannot pass on more genes than they have.

This failure leaves us unable to turn to God at our weakest moments without his help and inclined to say “no” when the help is offered. It’s a weakness that we all share and – like any social pressure – we feel a “natural, human urge” to not break ranks, to blend in, to be like everyone else: no one wants to be the one sunflower in the field pointing in another direction from everyone else – even if that direction happens to be right.

Jesus was sent to save us from this spiritually congenital failure – and more. In his life, death, resurrection, and ascension he reconnects humanity to the one source, the one life, the one love we all must have in order to live and love properly at all. In the gift of baptism he lets us be open to his grace. In the Eucharist he lets us embody the temple of his flesh in our lives. But it all had to start somewhere.

This is the Divine Mystery of the Holy Virgin.

God came to her and asked her if she would participate in this divine action. He knew the truth of the saying, “My body, my choice.” He would never force her hand in this action. But He also knew that all humans, congenitally, were unfree to make that choice. All humans were slaves to the failure that we are all born with. Mary could say “Yes” but it wouldn’t be a free, open, and full yes. The song “Mary did you know” would be perfect there. And so the Mystery of the Immaculate Conception: from the moment of her conception God gave Mary the grace of Baptism, preserving her free of original sin from the very moment her life began. When Gabriel came to Mary to invite her to participate in salvation, her gift of self was free and total. Her yes was a true yes, a submission to the will of God in a way that we – even after baptism – often have trouble with.

And that yes changed the world.

The story of Jesus starts further back that Mary, of course. We’ve just walked through all the “O” Antiphons and so you know: Jesus comes from Jesse’s family. But even before Jesus is Adonai, the one who spoke to Moses. Jesus is God’s wisdom, forming us out of the dust.

Jesus is the Logos ordering the Chaos, the meaning of all, in all, and through all.

But for everything that Jesus is, Mary is the vessel, the container, the gate. Jesus is the Dawn, Mary the morning star. Jesus is the King, Mary the gates lifting high their heads. Jesus is the water of life, Mary is the well from whence he is drawn. Jesus is the bread of life, Mary is the field in which the grain was grown. Jesus is the new wine, Mary is the chalice. Jesus is the Life, the Zoe, Mary is the womb in which Zoe is birthed for the world.

Her choice for life, for God, for yes had to be freely offered – neither cajoled, nor tricked out of her. And so, it was. Yes, it took God’s grace even so: but it was the grace that makes us truly free from even our own mental misgivings. God gave Mary the freedom to the yes we all need.

And that freedom sets us all free.

Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
O Sapientia (11/15)
O Adonai (11/20)
O Radix Jesse (11/25)
O Clavis David (11/30)
O Oriens (12/5)
O Rex Gentium (12/10)
O Emmanuel (12/15)
O Virgo Virginum (12/20)

This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.

We have reached the end of another series of Advent postins on the Great O Antiphons. Thank you for reading along! I pray you and your family will have a blessed feast – and may 2021 be a tad less interesting for us all.

This Changes Everything

OEmmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

JMJ

ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.

Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.

Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)

GOD WITH US: what can that mean? How can the infinite be with us? How can there even be a God – as most folks understand that word – and him be “with us”? Nietzsche rightly point out that having a God With Us means that he can die. He goes on to suggest there for God is dead and that Christians killed him by insisting he enter history. What is this God With Us stuff?

I mentioned in the last post that your very being is a sign that God loves you: you would not exist without that love. I also mentioned the heart or soul, the core of your being. This is actually where God lives in you: the wholy Holy Trinity, living in you, sustaining your being. You cannot be without this. God is with you, like it or not. But that’s not what “Emmanuel” means here. Or is it? In the East, at Compline before the Nativity, the Choir sings “God is with us! Understand all ye nations and submit yourselves. God is with us!” That sounds rather martial until you realize that “understand and submit” is the primary action of faith. The act of belief to which we are called is not merely a doctrinal affirmation. The creed is not a checklist of things: it is descriptive of reality. We commit to a lifetime of growth in “understanding” and ever more deeply “submitting” to this reality in which we find ourselves where “God is with us.” God with us has ever a new meaning:

If God’s first sign of love is our being, what can we say about the world around us, which clearly shares in beingness? Yes, God is present there – albeit in a different order. Only humanity shares fully in the image and likeness, but angels and rocks, seraphim and dolphins, Brother Sun and Sister Moon, everything that lives and moves and has its being in God. All that is is grace. God is with us. It was this way in the Garden and we lost it – or more rightly gave it up.

So then something new had to happen. And it did and God is with us has a new meaning: a Baby. One of us. The God who slobbers. The God who forgets eternity and nurses on his mother’s breast. The God who loves us so much that he poured out all of infinity and became a cell, then two, then four, then eight. How can he love us so much? This is God with us. And acne, and changing voices, and hormones. Neighborhood bullies who won’t let him forget that his mother was pregnant too early. Soldiers that won’t let him forget he’s only a Jew. Traveling Romans who won’t let him forget he’s a hick and the son of a tradesman and that he smells like fish.

God. Wiping his butt with his hand. God with us.

We killed him. And so a new thing had to happen. And it did and God is with us has a new meaning: our daily bread. If this seems like a RETVRN (as the cool kids say) to the way it was in the garden, it is. The very stuff of Creation, the work of human hands, is God. God everywhere and here, walking with us in the shard of the evening or sitting down with us to a nice Sunday brunch.

Now think it through: God, the infinite, eternal, and radiant IS, can enter time, space, and darkness. Yet he is still infinite, eternal, and light himself. He is truth, life, the way, and yet he dies and we consume him. The smallest part of infinity is still infinity though: God is with us and what we are what we eat.

Take, eat. Understand and submit yourself for God is with us! Merry Christmas!

Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
O Sapientia (11/15)
O Adonai (11/20)
O Radix Jesse (11/25)
O Clavis David (11/30)
O Oriens (12/5)
O Rex Gentium (12/10)
O Emmanuel (12/15)
O Virgo Virginum (12/20)

This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.

Power of the King

O REX Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

JMJ

ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.

Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.

Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)

MODERN DEMOCRACIES from Athens and England, to latecomers like France and America, are pretty much brainwashed into thinking we have finally gotten it right, politically speaking. We have finally figured out the best, purest, and most just form of government. Those who came before us may have had a few good ideas, which we’re happy to claim for ourselves, but overall democracy is the best way to go. We are quite happy to have crawled out of the slimy pit of our darkest past to the new light of this political system. Never mind, of course that democracy is hardly new: it was discovered in ancient Athens (at least). Further, since it involves a tyranny of the majority over the minority it is almost never actually just – meaning “giving to each what is his due”. The majority has the power to inflict pain if they feel like it whether it is just or not. They have the power to inflict pleasure if they feel like it whether it is just or not and history is filled with examples of majorities doing exactly that, but we are trained to ignore those and, instead, to point at the gross errors of dictators, juntas, and monarchs. So strong is our brainwashing that even these dictators insist on democratic elections and we must resort to saying, “No no! That’s not democracy you’re doing it wrong.” Now, however, the King is coming.

We really have no idea of Kingship any more. Even in countries where there are monarchs, they have sort of become cartoons of their ancestors. Some are comic, like Mel Brooks and feel more like fake kings, but with real crowns. Some are far more serious. Her Britanic Majesty is, really, quite Majestic and Britanic. But she is reduced to a mere shadow of the power that even her father had, and one daren’t compare her to the previous monarch of the same name. Anti-Catholic though she was, she was, at least, a real Monarch and entirely not democratic.

In fact, so strong is our brainwashing about democracy that speaking of a governing authority like this could get one labeled “Fascist” – a word with nearly no content at this point, although we all agree it’s bad. It seems to really only mean “anti-democracy.” Now, however, there is a King coming and many look like the Old Woman talking to Dennis in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “I didn’t vote for you!” We’re appalled when the answer is, “You don’t vote for kings.”

At the core of this political debate is a question of self-rule. I should have the right to do what I want, when I want, and as I want. And right now I want to have a new elected leader. We think of power as arising from the self and, when collected with other selves, forming power blocks. That block can then (by a collective action) bestow power on an individual or group of individuals. Later that power can be removed. This conception of the self as source of action and power is the root of our political conceptions now and also, our theological ones. For we think that we can freely elect to give ourselves over to a religious path, to freely choose to follow – or not. And we imagine that free choice to be constitutive, constructive: that nothing was before that and, should elect to end it, it will be over. We enter into all personal and business relationships with this mindset and we hold God to the same standards: I’m here because I like you, but don’t cross me. But a King is coming. You don’t vote for kings. They rule by divine right.

In the King James Bible, the word “heart” is used 826 times. It is important to note that it seems interchangeable with “soul”. It’s also important to note that’s not the original language. The Hebrew for this inner part of us is heart: Lev (לֵב) and for soul: Nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ). Together they are used a total of 1,347 times in the Hebrew text of the scriptures. This part of the human (whatever it is) is very important! For Christian Anthropology this is the part of us that lives in communion with God. For some of us we never get to this. The communion is always there (one would cease to exist at all, otherwise) but we never engage in this communion, we never draw from it or strengthen it. It is (and cannot but be) the very source of our very existence, but we can freely elect to shove it away, lock it away, cram it away and drown out its voice. In place of the Heart, we build a “self” and we get very prideful of it. We build into it cosmetic decorations, we make choices, we create an entire “life” and then – in our mistaken Anthropology – if we should happen to get religion, we may deign to offer this self to God and say, “Here look what I’ve built for you. Now, don’t touch it or play with it as you may break it. I’ve still got more work to do.” We never realize that this self – which we have constructed – is a false self. This face we present to God, inviting him to make use of (but not break!) is a false offering, a blemished sacrifice. The offering he wants is the one he formed out of clay, not the fake one we’ve built out of ego. A divine King is coming. And he will rule without our votes.

The source of us, in our heart or soul, is not the fake self we’ve built. But rather it is the very act of communion which we cannot break. God is the ground of all being, the source of existence itself. In that you exist you are in communion with this loving God – like it or not, choose it or not. The choice we all must make, though, is what to do now? I’ve described the first option already. I spent 45 years or so living out that pattern – and most of it quite consciously. I was fully aware that I was making choices, performing actions, engaging (or not) with other people both in and out of religions. I was fully aware that I was “constructing my life”, “being my best self”, and “following my bliss.” Occasionally I would turn, raise it up like Mufasa in The Lion King and say, “Look what I’ve birthed, God! Bless it.” Then I’d go about my business. I can tell you it was a lot of fun: but it was not joy, it was not happiness, and, in the end, it nearly killed me. I don’t mean I would have died any sooner (we all die). I mean there was no “me” left. I nearly killed the core.

But a king is coming who made me out of clay – long before I got around to ruining things into the ground.

For a Christian the heart is the source and summit of all that happens: it is the place of communion with God. Even if you never go there – never enter your own heart – the very being-ness of you is connected to God irrevocably. God loves you or you wouldn’t even be. And God will never unmake you – even when that beingness and love become for you the sheer torture of hell. You will still be and be loved.

From this heart flows all actions: you cannot “create a new self” you can only create a false self if it does not arise from this communion with the King who already reigns in your heart. There’s no being arising from your actions, there’s no other person possible other than the one he’s making for you. And though we can break that person and add scars for an eternity by our addiction to sin and self direction, we can never destroy our heart.

And the person we become constantly bears this heart up to the King. Who is coming. But is already here.

He has formed you and me out of clay – literally the humus of the earth, we are humans. Adam means “earthling”. We are little creatures of dirt. And God lives in us.

The king is here: will you serve him or try to walk away? To walk away ultimately is to destroy your heart – which will destroy your ego as well, making it a hollow shell, a Qliphoth into which Satan can move and have his being. But to stay, well: your self will die then so that you can live forever, your heart in communion with the King. But then you will know – finally – your True Self. You too, will reign.

Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
O Sapientia (11/15)
O Adonai (11/20)
O Radix Jesse (11/25)
O Clavis David (11/30)
O Oriens (12/5)
O Rex Gentium (12/10)
O Emmanuel (12/15)
O Virgo Virginum (12/20)

This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.

Power of light

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.
O Rising Dawn, splendour of light eternal
and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.

JMJ

ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.

Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.

Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)

RBUCKMINSTER FULLER, aka Bucky, was an American architect whose gigantic, dome-shapes are probably familiar to you. You’ve probably seen a photo, at least, of Epcot Center at Disney World. He thought we could cover cities with domes to protect us from the elements. He never thought about the expense of his amazing ideas, but you’ll notice he only wanted to cover the rich, powerful business-center of Manhattan with his dome. Over the course of his life, he wrote a series of essays on how science – especially Geometry – could help humans solve all the world’s problems. There is no energy crisis, food crisis, or environmental crisis, he said. Only a crisis of ignorance. Because he was using geometry instead of test tubes and microscopes his work tends to sound more esoteric, spiritual. It is from Bucky’s work that we get the word “Universe” as a replacement for “God” in many a popular usage. “Looks like the Universe wanted me here now.” Or, even more esoterically, “Looks like Universe wants me here now.” For most folks, that’s meaningless pop drivel that fills in for saying something religious, but Fuller thought the universe was complicated enough to run on its own and be quite a magical place. We only needed to apply our intellect to it to discover root causes and ways to manipulate it, to make its complications easy to understand, predict, and use. He assumed the root was geometry.

But his ideas always seemed fear-based: if the universe is based on geometry, why do we need to use geometry to protect ourselves from the universe and its elements? Why not use geometry to fix the universe so it’s not always attacking us? One of his essays was the “Omnidirectional Halo” which sounds like it might be spiritual-but-not-religious enough, but he wasn’t talking about Light: he was talking about a geometrically constructed dome (like Epcot). Do we need halos of steel and concrete to close us in and protect us from this wonderful Universe?

I will admit the universe – while amazing and beautiful – can be a sucky place. This is 2020 after all. Many ancient religions seemed to think the universe was a sucky place. Pope Benedict XVI writes that all of the gods of the modern world are either Bread, Sex, or Power. Gods needed to be placated. Powers like the wind and the rain needed to be manipulated to do our bidding sometime divinities needed to be invoked or moved out of the way politely. These divinities fought with humanity for a place in a limited resource, for a seat at a table with limited food.

To this the Hebrew Prophets respond, “Codswallop.” A new light is dawning.

The ancient Hebrews worshipped the ground and source of all being. He chose the pronouns he/him in his own self-revelation to his people. He spoke from fire. He rained down food. Water flowed from rocks and the land flowed with milk and honey. He was not in competition with us for limited resources. He was the source of unlimited life – even for those who rejected him. We are not suffering from a crisis of Intelligence, but rather a crisis of faith in the source of all. We look at the all, itself – the Universe – and think it is enough. We must look beyond until we come to the source of unlimited love.

A new light is dawning.

The thing about light is it always starts dim. Even if you turn on a light switch it doesn’t just pop on: the filament for a microsecond or two begins to glow and brighten. If you could slow it down you would see the light dawn in each of the bulbs in your house. There was a moment before our Central Star, Sol, was lit. And even in the explosion microsecond by microsecond the light grew and dawned. Until for each of us the light of Faith doesn’t just turn on one moment. It grows. As it grows everything around us can be seen more clearly.

Our professor, Dr Anthony Lilles, showed us this clip yesterday. While this conversation between Dr Tolkien and Dr CS Lewis never happened this way, the movie shows us exactly the process Tolkien used to bring Lewis to Christ.

I love how the friends call each other “Jack” and “Tollers”. Then Lewis described how the light dawned slowly:

WHEN WE SET OUT I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did.” So wrote C.S. Lewis, describing his conversion to Christianity in the sidecar of his brother Warnie’s motorbike, which took place on this day, 22 September 1931. 

Lewis had been reaching this understanding for some time. Reared an Irish Protestant, he rebelled against Christianity following the early death of his mother. While obtaining his education, he slid into outright atheism. However, encounters with Christian friends and reading the works of George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton drew him back to theism (the belief in God). He wrote of that return to God, “You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” But he did not yet believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. 

Three days before he came to that belief, he had a long talk with two Christian colleagues: J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. Tolkien argued that some myths might originate with God, as a means of preserving a rudimentary level of truth. Lewis said he did not believe there was any truth in them at all. They were still talking at 3AM when Tolkien had to go home. Dyson continued the conversation, pointing out the practicality of Christianity—a religion with power to actually free from sin, instill peace, and provide genuine outside help to change one’s character. 

Evidently, these ideas were percolating in Lewis’s mind as he rode to the zoo. Three months later, on Christmas Day, he expressed his new faith publicly by returning to the Anglican church in which he had been confirmed, joining his local parish and taking Communion for the first time since his childhood.

It Happened TodayChristian History Institute retrieved on 6 Dec 2020

The light dawns.

We have this process: we are convinced we must “make converts” when, in fact, we must only make disciples – people who are learning. It is God who makes converts, God who dawns, God who shows the way forward.

Tolkien saw the light dawning in his own heart from the Catholicism of his youth, he wrote in On Fairy Stories (1947), “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.” As the light grows, we see that our past was wrongful: but now we are seeing more-clearly. “The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.” Tolkien, again. He knows that even the ways we are broken – the ways we rejected the light in the past – become ways for the light to grow in the world!

We follow the same gods today: food, sex, and power. They are as capricious as they ever were. They give us hunger and disease, encourage selfishness and pride, and leave us addicted to things that do us no good – even as they fail to kill us, so we only consume more. And we now think we can fix it, only with different sciences: psychology, drugs, and data. We need to be computers now, instead of mathematicians. God actually wants to make us more human: so much so that he became one of us.

Bucky thought his artifice would fix a broken Creation and make it manageable. Tolkien knew that we humans are the broken parts: it we who need fixing. We humans (particularly one human, Jesus) are the tools God is using to fix us. God is fixing things exactly how they were broken. That’s how he works: nothing is lost, rejected, or left behind. Everything of value is redeemed, given purpose, and used to save others.

Christmas is dawning, off in the distance. I’m a day late as I get this posted. But it’s coming! Not just the failed retail holiday that this year will have no holiday parties, not only the celebration of a day off and far too much food. The real Christmas is dawning if you can but see it with the eyes of faith. The light is growing stronger, always.

One day: it will burst in and all that is not light will burn away like so many fading ashes. And Christmas will finally come, for real and forever.

If you are still, you can see the dawn rising now and you can almost hear the angels singing the carols.

Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
O Sapientia (11/15)
O Adonai (11/20)
O Radix Jesse (11/25)
O Clavis David (11/30)
O Oriens (12/5)
O Rex Gentium (12/10)
O Emmanuel (12/15)
O Virgo Virginum (12/20)

This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.

NOTE: Apart from the fact that I saw this video in class yesterday, Tolkien was on my mind. I lean so heavily on Tolkien for this essay because this antiphon is one of the ways God drew me to him and his church. I have been a Tolkien geek since junior high school. In Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, one of the great messianic figures is Earendel. The name, Earendel, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word used to translate this Antiphon: the Latin O Oriens is rendered, Eala earendel. Read more here.

Power of the Keys

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

JMJ

ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.

Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.

Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)

LET US SEE How the world is overthrown. What is the Key of David? It’s a reference to Isaiah 22:22 – which is said of Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, but fulfilled in the Messiah. I’ve been wondering about this “key” though. What is it? Walk everything back to King Saul, David’s immediate predecessor and the first King of Israel. The Israelites had been ruled only by judges – and that only when necessary. The Torah was their governance and it was enforced by everyone (including the priests and Levites) with an appeal to the Judges or Prophets as needed. Then the people decided they wanted a king. The Prophet Samuel said he wouldn’t do it, but God told Samuel to go ahead and do it. The people were not rejecting Samuel’s judgeship – but rather God’s Kingship over them. So Samuel followed God’s command and gave the people King Saul who turned out to be a right putz.

Then came King David whom God described as “A man after my own heart.” God seemed to use Saul to prove a point but then used David (and Solomon) to raise Israel to previously unknown heights. What is the Key of David? How is it fulfilled in Messiah?

While these Antiphons for Advent are based on Scripture, they are not actually scripture – this one verse, sung once a year, pulls from three different places in Isaiah and weaves in some images later used in the Gospels. They are, more than anything, meditations. So they are worth mulling over with that in mind: they are like Dream Images, subject to many readings.

This is 2020 and what has happened has happened, so that’s where my brain is now. This year, for me, has raised the question of governance and how God participates in human actions. So at this point in time, the Key of David seems to be governance of the social order. The Messiah is named here as exactly the ruler of Temporal Order, what we now call mistakenly the “Secular” order. I say mistakenly for there was literally no concept of this “secular” order until the time between the American and the French Revolutions. There was no concept anywhere of “Church and State” prior to that time – even in places that were not Christian. For everywhere, the social order was governed by Authority and that Authority was partially religious.

Ancient Rome had laws and religious taboos had did all cultures until the modern mind broke these apart. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon he was not being “revolutionary” but rather he was committing an act of impiety – which signaled revolution. He was disrupting the divinely-instituted structures of Roman society. Likewise, Jesus was fully aware that his actions of impiety against both the Jewish and Roman structures would be seen as “politcal” as well as “theological”. These are the same things. Christianity teaches that all authority is God’s and he graciously allows men to participate in that. Only we moderns try to divorce Divine and Human Authority – and we fail. American has her own secular religion. We are unable to govern without it.

So, I think the “Key of David” signifies this joint rulership of “Church and State” which were not divided in Jesus’ day nor at any point in history until the latter part of the 18th Century amid the people of the “Enlightenment”.

The King of Israel held a religious function, an eternal as well as temporal one. And so the Key of David, the rulership of both the Sacred and the Secular, falls into the hands of Messiah. From him it passes to his body, the Church. Only modern, enlightened people in our pride imagine that these two things can be ruled separately. Most of the world and all people have known to the contrary for all of human history. And has our delusion done us so much better? Hardly. Our people are uncared for, our economy has run amok, the unrestrained content of our dreams, imaginings, and nightmares pours forth around us with never a thought to “should” only “could”. And when asked why “because it’s there” or “I wanted to” is the only answer possible. Because all other options have been removed from the table.

This is the darkness and the shadow of death in which we live and move and lose our being.

We need someone with the Key of David to close and lock away those things which are unhealthy for us, to open those ways which are good, true, and beautiful. We need someone with the Key of David to come and lead us from the prison house we have made for ourselves with – as the Orthodox/Byzantine prayer says – our “slavery to our own reasoning”.

This is prayer the Church offers here to the Messiah who is coming: rule us, lead us, take us out of our own traps and set us free.

Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
O Sapientia (11/15)
O Adonai (11/20)
O Radix Jesse (11/25)
O Clavis David (11/30)
O Oriens (12/5)
O Rex Gentium (12/10)
O Emmanuel (12/15)
O Virgo Virginum (12/20)

This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.

Jesus: the Great Reset

Central image from O Root by Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ.

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

JMJ

ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.

Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.

Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)

WALKING THROUGH the Great Os this year, a pattern I’m seeing is (1) opening prayer, (2) God responding, then 2 parts describing exactly who and how this response is coming – invoking Jesse & David (Father and Son). So we’re at Jesse – the root of Jesse. It’s logical, knowing biology, to think of root as meaning the start of a tree. In fact in the present usage it is metaphorical and Jesse, himself, is root that we’re talking about. Jesus arrises from Jesse: but Jesse’s “root” goes all the way back to Adam. We are all descended from our common parents, one family, one people.

I’ve read Catholic and Orthodox writers who are biblical literalists, who think the Earth can only be about 6,000 years old and that humans have only been around for about the same amount of time. I’ve read others who simply graft Genesis onto a copy of Darwin’s work and shrug their shoulders at “mystery”. However, my first exposure to actually Catholic teaching on the subject came from a Dominican whose lecture on the topic explained that literalism (and Young Earth things) are right out. But we must accept that all humans are descended from the same two parents. So I struggled with this for a while.

Then, listening to Fr John Nepil on the Catholic Stuff podcast (back in February), I found a way to wrap the two concepts together – both evolution and two parents. Fr John suggested that as primates evolved, God picked two and gave them something: Father suggested it was the gift of speech/language. These two continued their evolutionary journey as animals, as bipeds, as mammals, as primates, and now as humans. Fr John discusses the possibility of this human family marrying others, teaching them speech, interbreeding, this all makes perfect sense. You don’t need 2 humans to be the physical genetic source of humanity – only the intellectual and spiritual teachers of what became humanity. The intent was something else, but things fall apart, and so now we continue our evolutionary journey as animals, as bipeds, as mammals, as primates, and now as fallen humans.

I like the symmetry of this pious theological opinion: it includes all the things the Church says we need and excludes all the nutters who want to deny things like millennia of evolution, Pangaea, and a round earth. It accounts for a lot of things that make no sense as merely physical phenomena like the fact that Original Sin is clearly evident to anyone – even someone who is an atheist and rejects the idea of “sin”. Things fall apart: it’s scientific.

And that’s why we need a reset.

St Paul says, “Since by man came death by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor 15:21-22). We did this and it is fitting that one of us undoes this. Yet this is a curious mystery: A Son of Adam must undo Adam’s Fall, but Adam’s Fall prevents any Son of Adam from being able to undo it. So we need to root of Jesse: a Son of Adam who is also the Son of Promise.

As in Adam all fall, even so in Christ are all started over again.

Christmas is the Beginning of Something New and the passing away of something old: For in Christ, the Son of Adam, the Son of Promise, is also the Son of God and God Himself. The solution to the Mystery of the Fall is a newer and greater Mystery: the Incarnation. As we learned last time, this is Adonai himself. The world becomes silent, then, for two reasons: that we should all fall down in prayer before God Himself makes sense. But now all the kings of the earth fall silent before the son of a sheep farmer and – in the person of Jesus – a carpenter. I’ve heard several times (but I don’t know if it’s true) that shepherds like King David were considered unclean. I assume they smelled like their sheep, either way. I’ve also heard that in Roman times men who worked with their hands such as carpenters were also considered lower class even if they had successful businesses. Again, I don’t know that this is true, but it says a lot about the God we worship: that he would pick the lower class to become a King and then would come among us himself as the lower class son of that same King.

Jesus, the Carpenter Son of the Shepherd, the smelly and sweaty lower class God of all heaven and earth, has reset everything by making the sons and daughters of our fallen first parents what we could not become otherwise.

And let us see how the world is overthrown.

Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
O Sapientia (11/15)
O Adonai (11/20)
O Radix Jesse (11/25)
O Clavis David (11/30)
O Oriens (12/5)
O Rex Gentium (12/10)
O Emmanuel (12/15)
O Virgo Virginum (12/20)

This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.

Jesus is in Control

O ADONAI, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

JMJ

ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.

Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.

Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)

The First antiphon warned us of a choice ahead. We prayed for wisdom to make that choice. This antiphon either assumes that we have made that choice – correctly or not – or else continues to warn us of what is ahead. Yes, this antiphon like all the others is sung before Christmas. However the historical event of Christmas has already passed so this antiphon is more of a commentary than a prophecy. We read/sing it knowing how the story turned out. So, no matter how you made the choice in O Sapientia, we are here confronted with a warning or a commentary: the End-User Legal Agreement as it were, the Terms of Service. Click here to continue…

Jesus is God.

Quite simply, there is no Christianity without this. The man recorded in the New Testament is either a complete nutcase who constantly alluded to himself being one with the Father and God himself, or else he is that thing that he claimed to be. And yes, it is possible to edit the texts of the Gospels to make one feel more comfortable in them, it is possible to find other documents, or to argue that the Church is biased in her opinions. But then you’re not playing Christianity you’re playing Whatever-I-made-up-today. That’s ok, actually. You do you. But admit it – confess it even – you’re doing something else.

Jesus is God. Full Stop. This text says the same Jesus is the God who appeared on Sinai giving the Torah to Moses and who appeared to him in the burning bush. Take off your shoes in the manger in Bethlehem: you are standing on Holy Ground.

Now. What does this mean for us here in Advent 2020?

This has been quite a year, has it not? So many people have said that that it’s now a cliche. Shrug. 2020, you know? It is an excuse, a way to step away from events and just kind of laughed them off – even as we are crying inside, dying a little bit each time we shrug. I won’t lie: this year has sucked. I cannot help but think of the Holy Prophet Job, minding his own business when all his children were killed, all his flocks stolen, all his goods destroyed, and his health vanished. And this all at the permission of God. Then Job’s “friends” show up and say, “Well, you must have done something to anger God or he wouldn’t have done this to you.” (With friends like this, who needs enemas?) Job is quite sure he has done nothing. So are we – the readers – for we know even God was bragging about how righteous Job was. And Job was a gentile!

We read Job recently in our chapter of Dominican Laity and I was struck as I was reading: so often Job is pushed forward in homilies or in liturgical readings as a sort of answer for why is there evil. But, really – having read the book end to end – there is no answer to these sorts questions, in fact the book sort of un-asks them. Rather than provide an answer it says – baldly – “Bad things happen. Who are you to ask questions like this?”

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (as he then was) points this out in his Introduction to Christianity:

Trust God – things happen.

Rumbling around on this Advent verse and on Job (since I’ve just read it) and on 2020, it’s come to me that I do not understand “evil”. By “evil” (in quotes like that) I do not mean the mystery of human sin – so evident at literally every turn. I mean what we call evil every day: a family member’s death, a war, a disease, a political loss or victory, an oppressive law, a murder. Yes, some of these can be sins, per se, but that doesn’t make them evil. They are the result of human failings. Certainly the “problem of evil” cannot hinge on this rephrasing: “If God is Good and Loving and All Powerful then why are humans stupid, meddlesome, and selfish?” Or worse: “If God is Good and Loving and All Powerful then why are some humans able to do things I do not like?” To be honest I think that second line is what “evil” usually means: things I do not like, things that make me uncomfortable, things that make me feel bad, things that make me want to yell, “LET ME TALK TO THE MANAGER!”

Karen, honey…. that impulse itself… bless yer heart: that’s the real evil.

That’s saying – like Job does: “How DARE you?”

Jesus is God. Full stop. Corollary: you are not God. Full stop.

What’s up with 2020 then?

The Bible – including the Book of Job – is filled with the answer to this question. Yes, the world is broken: we learn this in the first few chapters of Genesis. It’s broken because we did it. You surely can see this if you look out your window. We did this the first time we tried to be God on our own terms and shattered the whole crystal. The resonances are broken and nothing is tuned quite right.

But that did not disempower God who is still omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent – and living in your heart even if you don’t pay him any mind. The Holy Patriarch St Joseph says of his slavery in Egypt, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:20). Even when people intend evil, it works out for good in God’s providence. St Paul says “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28). Sts Paul and James tell us to rejoice in all things and to make thanksgiving (the Greek is literally, “make eucharist”) in all things. The Eastern Church says, “Glory to God for all things”. It can sound like a sucky irony, but it’s the literal truth.

This Baby, in this manger, this one that cannot defend himself, feed himself, that needs his fundament cleaned by his parents when he does the necessary, this one is God.

And you are not.

Give up your mania for judging everything. Let go. It’s all good. Can you trust him?

Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
O Sapientia (11/15)
O Adonai (11/20)
O Radix Jesse (11/25)
O Clavis David (11/30)
O Oriens (12/5)
O Rex Gentium (12/10)
O Emmanuel (12/15)
O Virgo Virginum (12/20)

This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.

Discerment and FOMO

Original Icon by Betsy Porter.

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

JMJ

In the Serenity Prayer, we ask God to give us the wisdom to know the difference between the things we can change and the things we cannot change. This verse asks for wisdom to teach us prudence: in a way exactly the same. But prudence is more than that.

For a Christian, the act of the will (in conformity with Christ) is seen in the action of choice. Jesus says, “Let your yes be yes, and your no, no.” There’s nothing there about waffling. He says if you put your hand to the plough and look back, you’re not fit for the Kingdom. Prudence is the way of making the choice so that you never have to look back.

But prudence is exactly making a choice. Many people are terrified of making a choice at all. If they choose one thing they will have to give up another. If I pick marriage, I will miss out on ministry, but if I pick ministry, what if I want to date someone. Can I work here? What if I want to live elsewhere? Can I leave home? What if my parents die? This is called “Fear of Missing Out” or “FOMO”.

This is a huge problem. It’s often assigned as a generational problem to Millenials, but Xers show it (I had a boss who wanted others to make all the choices so he could blame them) and Boomers are famous for it: it’s the whole premise of 70s era feminism.

The original video tape is from 1984 so it’s a bit wonky (stretch marks) but you get the point.

Thing is, you have to choose. All of life is about choosing. In fact, the Christian journey begins with a choice: a renunciation of Satan, and an acceptance of Christ. It’s a conversion, a turning around, a choice.

The way of prudence is the way of making choices and sticking by them. It’s a course of action: not of thinking too much.

Now… can you do it? Well, I’m typing in a new apartment terrified it was the wrong choice for any number of worrying reasons, but can’t back out: signed the lease, paid the money. It will be fine, but right now, I’m scared because I’ve made a choice. It’ll pass.

That’s the whole thing: adults make choices and take responsibilities for them. Some part of life is painful: and that may be because of your choices. Accept that, grow and learn.

Why are we asked to make choices at the beginning of our preparation for Christmas? I’ve pointed it out already. The journey of a Christian begins with a sharp choice. The liturgy of the Church is telling us that the breaking point is coming. In the west, this verse will be sung just before Christmas on Dec 17. It’s the first blinking yellow light on the highway: there’s a huge split in the traffic up ahead. You have to make the choice. There’s no way to have it all. Some things will just not bring you to God.

God is the all we are choosing in the Christian Journey. Everything else must fall into line behind that. But he gives us everything we need to choose him: if he thinks you need a new job to know him better, you will get it. There’s nothing wrong with diving in: this world is the things God has given us to know him better. But we have to choose.

Pray for the wisdom to make the right choice.
Then make the choice.
And don’t look back.

Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
O Sapientia (11/15)
O Adonai (11/20)
O Radix Jesse (11/25)
O Clavis David (11/30)
O Oriens (12/5)
O Rex Gentium (12/10)
O Emmanuel (12/15)
O Virgo Virginum (12/20)

This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.

3 Rules that Always Apply

JMJ

ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.

Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.

Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)

This is the text of a presentation on ¶1789 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. These are just notes, but the talk was good!

My paragraph comes in the section of the catechism dealing with the human conscience.

Very briefly – for the sake of this presentation – the conscience is that part of you which – in the moment of choice – tells you which choice is right and which choice is wrong.

This paragraph, 1789 is asking (or answering) When things are not so clearly black and white how can I make a choice? Prayer and consultation with wise friends are suggested and then this paragraph gives us three rules that apply in every case.

These are practices but you should follow always when asking questions of your conscience. But they are rules that apply to all parts of our Christian life and, for us as men who want to be teachers of the faith, they apply to our preaching.

The first rule is very solid.

One may never do evil so that good may result from it;

Catholic teaching is clear: the ends do not justify the means. It is never acceptable to do something evil in order that a good result might happen. This plays out differently than you might expect. While it is never possible to kill someone in order good things might happen (Grandpa is sick and suffering, let’s kill him to put him out of his misery). But then in her meditation on the idea of a Just War the Church has discerned that sometimes it may be that killing the enemy is not an evil thing, but a class of Good, that a greater Good may arise.

The second rule turns inward: the Golden Rule: Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.

This is common teaching in many religions and philosophies around the world. In your heart of hearts, you know how you would want to be treated in a given situation and so, in a way, you know how to treat others in that same situation.

But then comes the third rule which turns outward. Choices of my conscience are never just about me.

The rule of charity. This goes all the way back to the prologue and ¶25: without charity everything else is useless. And ¶1827 The practice of all the virtues is animated and inspired by charity, which “binds everything together in perfect harmony”; Charity is the form of the virtues.

In this ¶1789 charity is manifested by one of my favorite sayings from Saint Paul: do not cause the weaker brother to stumble.

The choice of your conscience cannot cause another person to stumble. What does that mean? This is where this paragraph opens up in application to our Christian lives and to our teaching of the faith.

These rules, especially #3, are really the heart of how Christianity is intended to be lived.

Look in the Book of Acts for the times when the good news is being shared with folks who are not yet Christian. For the Gentiles, the Council of Jerusalem lays aside the onerous burdens of circumcision and keeping kosher. Saint Paul and the other evangelists are gentle with the heathens.

In addressing pagans in the marketplace of Athens St. Paul does not call them idolaters. Rather he compliments them for their various religious practices and says let me show you a better way. When Saint Philip is addressing the Ethiopian eunuch he offers to explain a confusing scripture that is being read. Over and over again, evangelism walks non-believers forward from where they are to where the gospel can be received.

Throughout the New Testament, the strong words addressing sins and failures are spoken to Christians, to those already schooled in the faith.

For the contrary point, think of a Street Preacher yelling at people walking by and accusing them of various sins. Which one of these two methods of preaching do you think would least cause someone to stumble?

I think of a fight I had with a co-worker back in the 90s. We were both liberal, mainline protestants – worshipping in the same parish. We were arguing over religion at work: we worked in a Christian bookstore. And she used a few words that pushed a few of my buttons and I hauled off and use a word to make a point that I regret to this day, which actually made her cry.

We made up, we’re friends still to this day. But that’s making the weaker sister stumble. the choices in our faith, in our preaching or teaching, should never hit someone else like a punch to the gut. that’s not acting in charity.

You’re making a choice in your conscience you can never let it hurt someone else that’s rule 1. Rule two shows you how best not to hurt others. You know inside.

Then rule 3 shows you the deeper meaning. This rule assumes everyone is being drawn forward to God. If you make a choice or say something that makes someone stumble in their forward motion, you’ve hindered their salvation.

This stumble, this hindering, becomes “the evil we do in order that good may come out of it.”

As my pastor, Fr Michael Hurley, says on his weekly YouTube this week, we should be “not shouting at error, but inviting it to come to the truth of the Gospel”.

I will leave you with one thought to explore applications: making people stumble seems to be our Prime political tool.