Sock it to me, God

The Readings for the 23rd Sunday, Tempus per Annum (A)

Jeremiah 20:7-9
Romans 12:1-2
Matthew 16:21-27

JMJ

AYEAR AGO I weighed 300 lbs. This was a symbolic weight for me as sometime in the 1980s, in my mid20s, I had said to someone, “If I ever get to 300 pounds you can shoot me.” At the time I had gone from wearing 34″ pants to wearing 36″ pants and this was entirely a joke, but we say things that get stuck on auto-replay sometimes. Stepping off my scale in August of 2019 I was more than depressed. Truth be told, it was an old-style spring-loaded scale that had to be manually calibrated and I probably weighed more. But let’s be thankful I didn’t think of that then. I was disgusted enough. Nevermind the fact that I could not put my arms down fully at my side or comfortably clasp them in front. The vision I presented to myself in the mirror or in pictures horrified me. This was not who I wanted to be. One day standing in the shower I asked God, “Please give me a new relationship with my body.” That was it. I didn’t want to break up with my body, but I didn’t want to go on like this. I knew my food choices were not the best. I knew my other health choices were, equally, not the best. Knowing this of course made it worse, and making it worse made me fatter in the long run. More than knowing, I needed doing and doing the right things.

A year later and 70 lbs lighter, I’m still working out the implications of this new relationship. All I knew was I didn’t want to be where I was: I wasn’t sure (I’m still not sure) where the journey will end up. My food choices have changed as have my exercise choices. My blood pressure is lower. My blood sugar is healthy. My pants are smaller. We shall see.

In 2002 I entered the Orthodox Church. All I knew was I couldn’t go on with God the way things were. The only thing that horrified me was being theologically out of step with the historic Christian faith. I could see it right over there, as it were. I was afloat, getting further and further away. One day I asked for a new relationship with God. I wasn’t sure where the journey would take me. 18 years later I’m still not sure.

The NABRE says Jeremiah was “duped.” That doesn’t seem quite right to me. The Hebrew word is “open” and “spacious” but in a metaphoric sense. In another passage, the same word is used of a wife enticing her husband. Meaning no scandal the word has implications of sexual availability.

The Greek text in the LXX renders it “deceived” and that comes closer. St Jerome’s Latin Vulgate uses the word “seduced.” Seduxisti me Domine et seductus sum. That’s pretty dead-on if you ask me. God uses beauty and truth to get us to buy into his vision the same way that go-go dancers get us to buy cocktails or ad agencies get us to buy new cars. But God is actual beauty and truth – the real thing itself. When we get close enough, the “sock it to me” moment is a revelation of blinding love, not a cheap trick. He’s reality itself: Truth wrapped in goodness, inside beauty.

Unlike my dietary journey, however, I did not go in with my eyes closed or with any sense of disgust. One Sunday, sitting in the back of Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral watching Father Victor pass back and forth through the Holy Doors in preparation for Liturgy, I stroked my beard and wondered to myself, What in tarnation am I doing here? I knew then – before I started – that whole swathes of my life were out of step with God. Yet I also knew he was “enticing” me forward into that beauty and I’d have to change.

“God, you were like a dancing girl seducing me… and I let myself be seduced. You were too beautiful.”

I knew going in that if I were to be serious about this God and our relationship, I was going to have to give him my physical life as well as my theological life, my heart as well as my brain, my libido as well as my ego. While there are many that depart from it, the Christian teaching is quite clear about what sex is for, how and when it is to be experienced, and to what ends. I walked in with my eyes wide open, knowing that. 18 years later I’m still learning what it means to live that knowing on a daily basis.

Paul’s letter to the Romans asks us to make of our bodies a “living sacrifice” which he calls a type of worship. Almost all English translations call this our “spiritual worship” but the Greek calls it our “logical worship” where “logical” means “in imitation of the Logos.” Our bodies are offered as living sacrifices exactly as Jesus offered his body, which is on the Cross. Our flesh is crucified or, as one Byzantine prayer has it, “Nail my flesh to the fear of thee.” This is the meaning of “take up your cross” in the Gospel. Not “carry it” so much as “be nailed to it. Offer your bodies as the Logos did his.” We, however, will not die – only live more. Elsewhere St Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ and yet I live, not I but Christ who liveth in me.” We offer ourselves, our souls, and bodies to be nailed to the wood of the Cross and the resurrected Christ lives in and through us, continuing his work in the world.

Paul says don’t be conformed to the world of this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. You’re thinking about this all wrong, he says. If you’re open to this logical worship, your mind will be changed: you’ll eventually think different. You will know “what is the will of God” which he describes as “good, pleasing, and perfect.” That “perfect” is the Greek word τέλειος teleios meaning ordered to the right end. In God’s plan, everything is ordered to its perfect end. We don’t get to choose things just because they’re fun or what we feel like doing: everything including us, too, must be ordered to its perfect end. If we lose our life for his sake – meaning if we give up what we only imagine to be life, including our self-definitions, petty desires, and our departures from his plan – then we will have the more-abundant life that he offers us. We will reach teleios. It’s neither instant nor easy. Death never is. But after death resurrection is very easy indeed.

You seduced me… but I totally let myself be seduced. To get more of the beauty you offered me I needed to give myself wholly to you. Partake of the love you were dancing I needed to give myself wholly to the music you called.

There are those for whom weight loss will not be a good analogy: weight can be a matter of medical issues, for example. But for me, it was a matter of choice – a choice that I was unwilling to make until about a year ago. At 300 lbs I was not using food or my body to its properly ordered end. This required a new relationship with my body and a new relationship with God. Going from 300 pounds down to 180 – which is my goal although I am not there yet – requires an act of God’s grace, as well as an act of will in concert with that grace. It requires a renewal of my mind which is ongoing.

Everything else about the Christian faith is exactly the same: an ongoing choice we need to make. We can choose to stop thinking with bodily desires, fleshly cravings, and worldly thoughts and, instead, choose to offer logical worship, thinking in concerted harmony with God rather than demanding he do so with us.

When we move in time to the tune that God is piping, the whole dance becomes a reflection of his beauty which is, in truth, our only beauty as well.

The Kingdom is Like a Trigger Warning

The Readings for the 16th Sunday
Tempus per Annum

Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
Romans 8:26-27
Matthew 13:24-43

JMJ

ALL OF THESE PARABLES in Matthew 13 begin “the Kingdom of God is like…”and they always leave me wondering, is the Kingdom like the whole image in the story or like the first symbol in the story the actor or the one to which things happen. In today’s collection of parables each “main thing” is
– a man who sowed good seed in his field;
– a mustard seed;
– yeast.
There are actors in each story – men and women – and they do things like planting a seed or making bread, but which part of the story is the kingdom?

Each of these parables also addresses what should be the action of the Church (God’s Kingdom) in the world. They address evangelism and “church growth” in ways that are unexpected but are very necessary in today’s situation. The actors in the story could each be Jesus (even the woman making bread) or the Holy Spirit, but they are also us, the Evangelists who announce the Good News in the world.

The Mustard Seed is probably the most familiar one in our post-Christian culture. Everyone knows if you have faith “like a mustard seed” you can get a car on Oprah’s show or earn money like Joel Oralsteen. The open secret is, of course, that’s not what Jesus is offering us here. Jesus says the Kingdom starts small and then grows into something huge that even protects others.

The Parable of the Yeast is even more exciting: the woman, of course, is not using dry, powdered yeast from the grocer, but rather sourdough starter. When you mix that with three measures of flour and let it rest the entire thing becomes starter which you can use in the next batch. (The normal thing is to save only a bit of the dough as the yeast for the next batch, but the whole mix is the same thing.) Thus, the Kingdom starts as this small thing – that changes everything! You can take any part of the Kingdom from here and set it over there and it will grow more!

The first being last, the series opens with the Wheat and the Tares or Weeds. You can’t tell the tares from the wheat, the food from the garbage. Tares are, in fact, poisonous and look like wheat so much so that they often get saved, ground as flour and baked. In a small dose can just make the bread taste bad – they can also make you sick. The experience of the Church can be like that: there are bad places where you can get quite sick. There is sexual abuse, yes, but there are also well-meaning folks who just water the faith down enough to be dangerous. There are rigorists who make it so hard to enter the Kingdom that they damn everyone. There are politicians who claim the name of Christian only for their political ends. And there are clergy who play the same game for the sake of power. Yet (especially from the outside looking in) it’s heard to tell the wheat from the tares, until you taste and your stomach is turned.

As Jesus was speaking the Church was 12 men (one of whom would turn traitor), the Blessed Mother, and a handful of other men and women. By the middle of the First Century, there were only a few thousand out of the entire world. There were – at each stage – already some who were tares. No less then than now. Jesus tells us not to worry. Yes, there are tares, but don’t be one of those. There’s a whole process here that is really none of your concern: God’s working this all out. But there is also hope: the whole thing will be leavened. The entire world will be changed, the kingdom will shelter even the birds of the air.

The Church now fills the whole world but truth be told she seems to reflect the world as much as she leavens it. How can she fill the world with hope? Can she purge out the tares so that the crop is pure? The Gospel says she can’t: for they – like the poor – will always be with us. Only at the end of the age… but Jesus puts an interesting spin on it: it’s not only sinners that are tares. He says the angels “will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin.” That’s actually pretty strong language: for we can all do that if we’re not careful. Even in what we imagine to be righteous acts we may cause others to sin. The Greek word used there is σκάνδαλα skandala. The Angels will gather out of the kingdom all the skandala. It literally means “trigger” or “bait”. Jesus is telling us don’t trigger each other.

Saint Paul will later tell us don’t do anything that will make the weaker brethren stumble. He acknowledges that some people might stumble because he eats meat. He said he would rather give up meat than keep others from entering the kingdom. How often do we do things – even things which might be good, in and of themselves – that cause other people to stumble? How often are our actions scandals? The Byzantine Rite has a prayer asking for forgiveness for sins we did not know we had committed: “things known and unknown, voluntary and involuntary.” These are called venial in the Latin rite (CCC ¶1862) “without full knowledge or without complete consent”. Yet they damage a relationship with our weaker brothers and sisters – and so with God. I don’t think God will keep out of his kingdom those who feel compelled to run away by our scandals. On the other hand, those of us who are scandals may have trouble.

The reader may or may not know that sometimes Orthodox monastics can be viewed with suspicion by lay people or by parish clergy. This is a cultural thing in the East. I remember that the late Metropolitan Philip, may he rest in peace, once said, “I don’t want monastics in my church they cause trouble.” I remember hearing of two Orthodox nuns were visiting a parish on behalf of their religious community. One member of the parish took it upon herself to follow the two Sisters around to make sure they didn’t “do anything”. I’m sure that they did nothing, but this member of the parish accused them of stealing food out of the kitchen, since there was a lot of food in the Parish’s kitchen and certainly none at their convent. She called several other members of the parish together to hear the accusation. One of the nuns offered a defense, saying that they had done no such thing. The other nun fell to the ground prostrate and begged forgiveness of the member of the parish for whatever she had done to cause such a scandal.

That prostration, my brothers and sisters, is not causing the weaker Brethren to stumble. In the Gospel the only Sinners we’re given to know is our own self in the first person. Everyone else reacts to my sins, but they are not sinners: I cannot know the state of their heart. So when we see churches burnt, or statues torn down. We should not be like the first nun or the tares amidst the wheat. We should wonder what our sins are: what did we do to trigger this? We should pray for forgiveness – as well as beg forgiveness of the others against whom our sins were committed.

We should evangelize in love.

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.

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.

Every Fire Burns Differently

By Hans Memling, Public Domain, Link

The Readings for the 33rd Sunday, Tempus per Annum (c1)

Et morte afficient ex vobis : et capillus de capite vestro non peribit.
They will put some of you to death…but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.

JMJ

Our readings today are from very apocalyptic texts. They struggle to share with us a vision of the future, and yet they also strive to remind us it is the present that we must always be concerned with.

Let’s start with the epistle to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul with his “If you don’t work you don’t eat.” This can be played politically if you like: poor people can’t eat because they can’t work. That would be contrary to literally everything else in the Bible – and would be projecting onto ancient cultures our capitalist values of exchanging work for money and money for necessities. Paul wasn’t talking about politics or economics. Rather Paul was talking about disorder in the Church community. People thought the world was about to end so they were giving up on their daily responsibilities. Paul was saying, “If you think the world’s about to end then you don’t need to eat do you?” He was directing his people away from some abstract future back to today. We don’t know when the world will end. We are not saved at some mystical, future endpoint. Today is the day of salvation, stop all this prepping for doomsday.

The prophet Malachi shares with us a rather gruesome vision of the last day ending in fire. We are used to this, I think: hellfire is a very common trope stretching from jokes about the stereotypical Street Preacher to the Left Behind books and movies. Yet there is also hope in this passage: for notice that the Day of the Lord is coming like fire but that general fire of terror will, for the righteous, come into focus as the rising of the Sun of Justice. The fire is still real fire it’s just a different sort of fire for the people who are expecting it, indeed living for it. We know this from other places in the church’s teachings where some of the fathers say eternity in hell and eternity at God’s Throne are the same thing. Scriptures say our God is a “consuming fire”. The righteous, however, want to be consumed in that fire. It is the unrighteous who do not wish to be consumed and will be burned. But it is the same fire. We will all be eternally roasting in the warming fires of God’s love. But someone want to be there.

The Gospel ends with a glorious promise from Jesus. As he was facing his own death he prophesied the death of (some of) his followers. Yet, mindful of his own Resurrection he said no part of you will be destroyed. We die yet we live.

Jesus’ communication of the Last Day cannot be comforting to everyone. He does not address this as prophecy to the unconverted but rather to the Believers. He predicts all kinds of violence against the Believers. He predicts hatred and destruction for the Believers. Yet like Malachi, Jesus invites Believers to see this with hope. No matter what they do to you, no matter how hard they persecute you, no matter how painfully they deal with you, no part of you will be destroyed.

This puts the lie to those who imagined something of a Rapture before the end of the world (like the Left Behind books). Those who believe in the Rapture think God is supposed to take the church out of the world before all this trouble begins. But Jesus says the church is going to go through all this trouble and, in real ways, will be the target of all this violence. We will die but we will not be destroyed. I think the words Jesus said about the temple could be said about the church today. No stone will be left on top of another stone when the world is finally done with us. But the church will not be destroyed for the church is not a building it is the people and the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the church.

The righteous have nothing to fear. This is not doom and gloom for those people of faith who dance with Jesus: but only for those people who do not share the same hope.

Like Hanukkah in November

The Readings for the 31st Sunday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Parati sumus mori, magis quam patrias Dei leges praevaricari.
We are ready to die rather than to transgress the laws of God, received from our fathers.

JMJ

Here are sons of whom a Mother can be rightfully proud! The Story of the Seven Maccabee Brothers is a wee bit of a misnomer: they are 7 Brothers whose tale is told in the book of 2nd Machabees, as it is called in the Vulgate. Readings from 1st and 2nd Maccabees have also been coming up in the Daily Office. So it’s like Hanukkah coming early in a way. This story is one of particular meaning to me. The Greeks, having set up idols in the Temple are now going around Israel inviting the townspeople to worship idols and eat pork. These seven brothers, along with their mother and their teacher all refuse and are killed. It’s the last in a line of stories about the barbarism the Greeks committed against the Jews. The last line of Chapter 7 is “Enough has been said about the sacrificial meals and the excessive cruelties.”

Pardon a slide into Bible Geekery: these 1st and 2nd Maccabees are in the Catholic Canon, linking the historical period just before Jesus (c. 160 BC) with the Gospels. There are actually 4 books of Maccabees in the Orthodox Bible, but only 2 in the Roman Catholic Bible. The Wiki says that the Moravian Brethren rather liked 3rd Maccabees and 4th Maccabees was printed in some Romanian Catholic Bibles in the 18th Century. There’s an interesting discussion about why these books are not in the Jewish Canon here.

What do these martyrs (indeed, the entire story of the Maccabees) teach us as Christians?

In the first 3 centuries of the Christian Era, the Church endured serious persecution and at the same time, found ways to care for the poor, to house widows and orphans, to take exposed babies off the street and raise them in their own houses. The Church grew despite imprisonment, death threats, laws passed, and murderous rampages. Certain writers said that the church was growing because of the martyrdom. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” said Tertullian. The Church had inherited these books from the Jewish tradition and read them the same way: stirring stories inspiring her children to give up their lives rather than “transgress the laws of God, received from our fathers.”

For the early Church poverty was the norm. For this Church, powerlessness was also the norm. Although there were slaves and patricians all in the same Church communities they were all under a ban from the government. They were strange at least, ostracized often, hunted down sometimes and killed. The Church was not tax-exempt, the Church did not own huge swaths of property or giant buildings, and the Church was not given to splashy quasi-militarisic shows of liturgical triumphalism. This is not the case today, especially in America and Europe: the Church is largely white, middle class, and wealthy. When the Church thinks of people of color at all it tends to be in a rather colonial, paternalistic manner. This is even true of American Catholics for whom, in a real way, the Spanish, Latin American Church is our origin. We reject the poor on a regular basis: we hide from the differently-colored incursions in “our churches” even when those churches are dying. We take refuge in the fact that “this culture was ours at one time” and we think to reclaim it in the future.

For the early Christians the 7 Maccabee brothers were a sign that when the whole world was literally out to kill you still, God is in control. We think we’re being persecuted when we’re asked to yield cultural space to others. We confuse evangelism with expanding “Democracy” and Wal*Marts. We want to be in control and we will fight to keep that power. When so many American Catholics reject the Church’s teaching on economics, sex, and political morality, perhaps today these seven are not a useful sign. Their willing martyrdom seems meaningless to us.

Let us pray for a day when that meaning returns.