Sheer Grace


From a sermon by Saint Augustine, bishop
(Sermo 185: PL 38, 997-999)

Truth has arisen from the earth, and justice looked down from heaven

Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.

You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.

He has become our justice, our sanctification, our redemption, so that, as it is written: Let him who glories glory in the Lord.

Truth, then, has arisen from the earth: Christ who said, I am the Truth, was born of a virgin. And justice looked down from heaven: because believing in this new-born child, man is justified not by himself but by God.

Truth has arisen from the earth: because the Word was made flesh. And justice looked down from heaven: because every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.

Truth has arisen from the earth: flesh from Mary. And justice looked down from heaven: for man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.

Justified by faith, let us be at peace with God: for justice and peace have embraced one another. Through our Lord Jesus Christ: for Truth has arisen from the earth. Through whom we have access to that grace in which we stand, and our boast is in our hope of God’s glory. He does not say: “of our glory,” but of God’s glory: for justice has not proceeded from us but has looked down from heaven. Therefore he who glories, let him glory, not in himself, but in the Lord.

For this reason, when our Lord was born of the Virgin, the message of the angelic voices was: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.

For how could there be peace on earth unless Truth has arisen from the earth, that is, unless Christ, were born of our flesh? And he is our peace who made the two into one: that we might be men of good will, sweetly linked by the bond of unity.

Let us then rejoice in this grace, so that our glorying may bear witness to our good conscience by which we glory, not in ourselves, but in the Lord. That is why Scripture says: He is my glory, the one who lifts up my head. For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us than to make his only Son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become the son of God?

Ask if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace.

(From Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings for 24 December.)

The Oneness of God

The readings for the 31st Sunday Tempus per Annum (Year B):
– Deuteronomy 6:2-6
– Hebrews 7:23-28
– Mark 12:28b-34

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְיְ אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְיְ אֶחָֽד

Hear Israel the Lord Our God, the Lord is One. (Please note that LORD indicates the divine name was used in the Hebrew text.)


Reading the Gospel we are often used to hearing “the Scribes and Pharisees” as the Bad Guys challenging Jesus, trying to trip him up. But today we hear of one that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.” That may seem unusual if we miss the cultural clues here. There is a surprising conversation going on for those who have ears to hear: when the scribe asks what is the greatest commandment, he’s echoing a common story in the rabbinic literature which parses out the “party politics” of the time.

A man came to one of the great rabbis, Shammai (who was alive during Jesus’ time – he died in the year 30), and asked him to teach the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai sent him away thinking him to be irreverent. The same man when to Rabbi Hillel (who died in the year 10) and asked the same question. The Rabbi said this would be easy, and standing on one foot he said, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah,
the rest is the commentary; go and learn it.” It was said of Hillel that he taught with gentleness and that his gentleness brought many others to faith in the God revealed to Israel.

The conversation in today’s Gospel seems a parallel with the scribe asking to hear it all in one go. And Jesus – gently, like Hillel – responds with the commandment of Love of God, love of neighbor. The scribe recognizes that Jesus is right. Scribes are often of the party of Sadducees, in this case, it seems the scribe was a Pharisee – like Hillel and Shammai, both, and St Paul later – and Jesus answer (and the scribe’s reply) and be read as a sort of Pharisee-like greeting and reply. To be this underscores that Christianity grows out of a particular branch of rabbinical Judaism rather than out of the Temple worship (which was run by the Sadducees).

As I was listening to this conversation (and Moses’ teaching in the first reading) I found myself thinking about another line in Zechariah 14:9:

וְהָיָ֧ה יְיְ לְמֶ֖לֶךְ עַל־כָּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא יִהְיֶ֧ה יְיְ אֶחָ֖ד וּשְׁמ֥וֹ אֶחָֽד׃

In that day the LORD shall be king over all the earth, and the LORD shall be one and his name one.

What does it mean that in that day the Lord shall be one and his name one?

Jesus breaks this open with his parallel of Love of God and Love of Neighbor: that somehow Love of Neighbor is Love of God. (As we do to the least of Jesus’ brothers we do to him.) This process of mediation, that makes God present in the act of loving our neighbor is made real in our works of charity, of love. Worship of God (faith) without works is dead.

By a coincidence of timing, the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time is also the 31st of October and the eve of All Saints Day. The homilist today used language that would be familiar to anyone who has read certain authors in the “spiritual but not religious” section of the bookstore, speaking of how the separation between the worlds (of the living and departed) might seem thinner at this time of the year. He missed, I think, that the separation is entirely removed at the Mass. I think his constant patter of improv on the text of the missal made that clear, too: the Mass for the homilist today was only a banquet, not a miracle. But it is there, in the elevation of the Consecrated Host and Chalice at the end of the anaphora that the Liturgy is done – before eating happens. One communion of one body achieved and offered at the hands of Jesus (the priest) to the Father. We are one body of Christ, the living souls and the departed ones together around the throne at that moment which is in all moments, all times, all worlds, one: Calvary ever-present in the hands of the one priest.

In that day the Lord shall be one and his name one.

Then swing over to 1 Corinthians 15:28, “And when all things shall be subdued unto him (Christ), then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.”

The one revelation of God to Moses – the LORD is one – echoes through all of this in the action of Love: Love of God is love of neighbor. The Living and the departed are united in Christ. Christ is one with the Father, all things become one gesture of self-emptying generosity pouring out to all things.

In the synagogue liturgy after the Sh’ema is recited, the response, whispered in near silence in the heart is “Blessed be his glorious name…”

בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד

The Glory of God’s name… the glory of God… we know this. Hear St Ireneaus saying, “The glory of God is man fully alive…” but the whole quote in the Catholic Catechism (¶294) weaves all of this together for us. “The glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of God: if God’s revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word’s manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God.” Yes, here in Creation we can get a foretaste of God’s glory (as I write I’m watching the great display of Northern Lights on YouTube, live from Lapland) but that’s not it. Man is not fully alive – not fully the glory of God – until we participate in the vision of God. We can have a foretaste in the Mass, we can experience the oneness of it, but only on the Last Day, can we see the full glory of God – which will include us.

Hear, Israel, the Lord our God is one. And we shall love.

Consider What You Say


From the letter of Blessed Humbert of Romans On Regular Observance (Opera de Vita Regulari). This is the alternative Second Reading for the Office of Readings on the Memorial of Bl Mannes, the brother of St Dominic (18 August). This is from the Daily Office propers of the Order of Preachers.

A brother should never pass over in silence what needs to be said, nor say what should not be spoken. When a brother intends to speak, let him first consider his words in his heart that he may express honorably, moderately, truthfully and kindly what it is he wishes to say. For the tongue is deceitful, puffed up, inflamed with duplicity, and hateful to God and humankind.

Dearly beloved, consider carefully what you say, to whom, when or where, how or how much, and certainly why you say it. Otherwise, if the proper circumstances are lacking, your speech may give rise to a bad conscience in your own heart or to scandal in the heart of your hearer. You should aim for three things in your speech – gesture, voice, and meaning. Let your gestures be controlled, your voice well-modulated, your meaning always true.

Do not do battle with words, nor worry about gaining victory in disputes. Always avoid words which are damaging to the speaker or to the listener. One should keep away from speech which is not a credit to the one who speaks, or to the one who listens, or to the one about whom a person speaks.

Consider also the time for speaking, because at times one should keep silent and at other times something should be said. There is never a time when evil should be uttered; sometimes even good things should not be mentioned. When another has begun to speak, we should be silent, lest we appear to interrupt what the person has to say. When we sense that our audience is not prepared for what we have to say, we should refrain from speech. At times we should keep silence to avoid loquaciousness or because we have not yet formulated in a suitable manner what we wish to say, or even because the words that we have decided to you are no longer appropriate to the conversation.

Let the elderly speak of the wisdom of reflection, the young of a readiness for work, the wise of the mystery of the Scriptures, the simple of examples of good works, those concerned with business of the needs of the active life, those living quietly of the sweetness of the contemplative life, prelates of the management of temporal and spiritual goods, subjects of obeying commands.

When we wish to speak for our own building up, let us choose how we can bring others to Virtue, and by what teaching. When we speak for the building up of others, let us turn to those things that we hope to correct in ourselves through our exhortation. Furthermore, let our teaching tend toward this goal: to urge the timid to constancy, the proud to fear, the bold to reflection, the lukewarm to fervor, the boisterous to silence, the speechless to a word of exhortation, the impatient to gentleness, the careless to vigilance, the cruel to forbearance, the hasty and demanding to restraint.

In addition take care that when a brother speaks, he not move about inappropriately, nor destroy the charm of his speech by glancing about or making faces.

May you avoid every word that is bitter, proud, disparaging, flattering, vicious, sworn by oaths, superfluous, or careless. As you ought not speak ill of those who are absent, so you should not laugh at those who are present. Do not jest with those who are senseless, nor envy the learned.

Keep silent about trivialities; speak about what will bear fruit. In your conversation do not keep your heart on your tongue, but rather check your tongue with your heart. Surely when you come to speak, you can offer a few words that are intelligible. Love quiet reflection; flee the business of the world. Through silence the heart is quieted, pain is avoided, peace is maintained, and the mind is raised more quickly to contemplation. The more you withdraw from the noise of business, the closer will God be to you.

Love Hurts

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

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


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

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

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

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

Love (agape), however, is not sex.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rev’d Canon Edward N. West

The readings for the 29th Saturday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Putatis quod hi Galilaei prae omnibus Galilaeis peccatores fuerint, quia talia passi sunt? Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?


Back in 1985, I took a year off college. I really wasn’t sure what I was doing and by a twist of the post office and federal record-keeping no one could tell me where my financial aid forms were. Thus, three days before the school year started (I was already living on campus) as I was sitting in a student club office in the Loeb Student Center, I freaked out, filed for a leave of absence, and moved out of NYC to Atlanta. That worked for about 4 months. When I went back to my parents’ house for Christmas I stayed. Then, in the back of the (Episcopal) Diocese of New York newspaper, I found an advertisement for the Institute of Theology. It was a “late vocations” program as we would call it now. It met on Saturdays (and a couple of nights in the week) and was taught actual professors from actual seminaries. I begged permission from everyone to attend, got my pastor to write a letter, got references from some surprising folks, begged and got a waiver on paying for it… and off I went. A semester in “Seminary” to see if I liked it: a pre-vocations program if you will.

My favorite class was homiletics, taught by the Rev’d Canon Edward N. West. That’s him up there. He called me (and anyone else under the age of 70) “Ducky.” He was as familiar with Eastern as with Western Liturgy, and in terms of heros and people I’d like to be like when I finally grow up, he’s on the top of the list. He had a life-sized painting of the late Czar Nicholas in his apartment that was a gift from a scion of the Royal Family. His first public liturgy was the funeral of Mayor Laguardia. Ok, enough geekery.

My least favorite class was called, “The Problem of Evil.” “Theodicy” is the technical term for this.

I know this has bedeviled Christian theologians for two millennia – and it’s in the Books of Job and the Psalms as well. Rabbi Harold Kushner’s classic work, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, has given a cliched phrase as a talking point. This issue is best put this way: If God really loved us he would fix it so things did not suck. If there is a loving God, things shouldn’t suck. If there are sucky things (and there are) it proves that God is either not loving or not all-powerful.

We had a whole class on this. Two weeks in we had to discuss why people die. I blundered in with “Everything in nature dies, that’s just what happens. And we sinned. So we get to be natural too.” The professor countered with “What about good people?” And I responded with “There are no good people: we’re all sinners.” And he pushed back really hard. Then dismissed me as a young’n who didn’t know nothin. And I had essentially failed the course.

I’m kind of cold I think. Life sucks. Jesus offers us no reason at all why some folks were crushed by a tower and why others were turned into mortar for Roman masonry. And then he says, “Look, you know life sucks, so repent.”

This is God talking. It made sense to me, having lost my brother, his best friend, and the best friend’s sister within 1 year when I went to college in 1982, I find this oddly comforting. It was even more so when in 1984, I lost my grandmother. The world sucks. Yeah, so?

The Greek word most often rendered as “sin” is ἁμαρτία harmatia. It doesn’t mean “breaking the rules” but rather “missing the mark” as in not hitting the bullseye on a target or maybe better missing the target altogether. This is not a more-liberal reading of this verb: in fact, it expands it. It’s not just this sort of thing here – it’s a whole class of things! It’s not just a rule broken: it’s a relationship. With that idea in mind, we can see what St Paul means. An addict doesn’t just get drunk, doesn’t just shoot up: she ruins lives including her own in the present and future tenses. A moment of harmatia breaks communion.

St Paul doesn’t talk about breaking the rules: he talks about “sinful flesh” σαρκὸς ἁμαρτίας sarkos hamartias. What is in the flesh misses the mark. See that? Our flesh is not out and about breaking rules (although we do do that sometimes, yes). It is not being “bad people” that makes life suck: it’s being humans in the flesh. What we have here is a broken, dysfunctional thing. We should not be surprised that it is broken and dysfunctional.

This problem of evil raises another concern: what’s evil? I think we know what evil is: it’s anything we don’t like or – sometimes – don’t understand. We are convinced the Christmas Tsunami was evil, that the boss I hate so much is evil, that the diagnosis of cancer is evil, that having my car broken into is evil, that this election or that is evil. What we may mean is these seem wrong but we’re saying Evil not wrong.

Later in Romans 8 St Paul says, Scimus autem quoniam diligentibus Deum omnia cooperantur in bonum, iis qui secundum propositum vocati sunt sancti. We know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints. (We’ll get there on Wednesday next week in the lectionary.) And so, if all things work together for our good – even the things we call “evil” – is there anything actually evil that can happen to us?

We can be killed, we can become ill with cancer, we can have a tower fall on us, we can have our blood mingled with cement for the Empires building projects, but: if we love the Lord, if we desire to be saints, these things are not evil. They are mysteries leading us to salvation. I realize there was ways for humans to be evil, to miss the mark entirely, but even then God is working out his purposes. Who was more evil in recent history: those who killed millions of people or those who knew what was happening and did nothing? I would not like to face that question on Judgement Day.

The professor, I later found out, had – early during my 4 months in Atlanta – lost his wife to cancer. The entire class was, really, a way for him to work through that. His pushing back made sense after a while. But – legit question – is losing your wife to cancer an evil or just an example of the world being broken? Like I said, maybe I’m cold. But Christians don’t believe that death breaks communion. “For your faithful, Lord,” we say at Mass. “Life is not ended but only changed.”

Is there evil? I think so – but I think when we say something is evil we mean only, “that thing was surprising and confusing.” So many things arise from Natural Consequences, are they evil? If I drink to excess, I will possibly pass out on the subway. Then my wallet could be stolen during my long, sleeping subway ride back to Brooklyn. Is that evil? There’s a sin there, yes (theft) but is that better or worse than the sins of drunkenness and wasting the resources God provided for me to care for my needs and the needs of others? But is it evil? Or just the way the world is always missing the mark?

I don’t know, Ducky. But all things work for our good. I’ll take that.

The Israel of God


The Readings for Monday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (B2)

Popule meus, quid feci tibi? aut quid molestus fui tibi? Responde mihi. Quia eduxi te de terra Aegypti, et de domo servientium liberavi te, et misi ante faciem tuam Moysen, et Aaron, et Mariam.

O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 

These words are the refrain for the hymn, sung on Good Friday, called the Improperia or the Solemn Reproaches. The text is written as if spoken by God from the cross. For example:

I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, but you led your Saviour to the cross.

I led you from slavery to freedom and drowned your captors in the red sea, but you handed me over to your high priests. 

This is one of those hinge moments, however. We can’t have it both ways.

These sung lines are often cited as a case of antisemitism. That can only be true if you A) understand the teachings of the church; and B) assume we reject them whole cloth. For the teaching of the Church is that Israel is the chosen people of God and that in Christ, we Gentiles are grafted into that relationship. We become Israel not instead of but rather also. These verses and others which seem to criticize “the Jews” but, in fact, are read by Jews as a complex mea culpa for other things not dealing with Messiah, cannot then be read as only speaking of any perfidy of the Jewish people at the time of Christ, but must refer to the entire people of God and how we all constantly betray him. Yes, for we, too, have been led from slavery to freedom, yet we lead Jesus daily to the cross by our actions and our words.

God asks, today in Micah, that the mountains and hills listen to his argument against Israel (that is, us…) and he has one, surely. The common point in all these instances and in the Gospel where Jesus is talking to “an evil and unfaithful generation” (us) is that “Israel” means to wrestle with God. Yes, God would like us to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. But we are much more likely to struggle like Jacob did the night before God made him lame and changed his name to “he who fights with God.” That’s our expected function. Not that we ever win, really: but God wants us to submit even though he knows we won’t, because it’s hard. The wrestling always ends the same way it did for Jacob. God puts Jacob’s hip out of joint and blesses him.

There is but this required of us: do Justice, love Mercy, and walk humbly with God. For most functions today, Justice means “revenge”, mercy is unknown, and humility before God (or anyone) is brushed aside. Sunday’s post noted that Catholicism is hard. At Confession yesterday before Mass the priest’s comments surprised me and to be honest I spent much of Mass whining to Jesus about it. So, at least I was praying sorta… but as I was kneeling before communion I imagined this conversation: My Lord, this is too hard. What am I to do? And Jesus responded, “My child, it know it’s hard, but you are, still, alive.” The wrestling match ended that way.

All of that was demanding a sign. We want things to be different, yes, but we want them to be different in the way we want them to be rather than in God’s way.  We want Justice where “our side” wins. Mercy shown only when we feel like it. The only sign we’re going to be given – the Sign of Jonas – has been given to us already. The men of Nineveh are waiting for us to respond to God without grumbling. The Queen of the South wonders that we cannot hear wisdom when it is offered.

When will we stop struggling?

Filling All Things with Light


The Readings for Solemnity of the Ascension (B2)

Propter quod dicit : Ascendens in altum, captivam duxit captivitatem : dedit dona hominibus. Quod autem ascendit, quid est, nisi quia et descendit primum in inferiores partes terrae? Qui descendit, ipse est et qui ascendit super omnes caelos, ut impleret omnia.
Wherefore he saith: Ascending on high, he led captivity captive; he gave gifts to men. Now that he ascended, what is it, but because he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.

This is how the Byzantine rite praises Christ at Easter: 

In the tomb with the body 
and in Hades with the soul, 
in Paradise with the thief and 
on the throne with the Father and the Spirit, 
were You, O boundless Christ 

filling all things.

Today’s feast raises Christ again, from Earth to Heaven – and now with us as well. From this morning’s Matins in the EF, a Sermon from Pope St Leo the Great:

After the blessed and glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, wherein the Divine Power raised up in three days the true Temple of God which, in their impiety the Leaders of the peoples of Israel and Rome had destroyed (namely the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ), God was pleased to ordain, by His Most Sacred Will, and in His Providence for our instruction and the profit of our souls, a season of forty days which season, dearly beloved brethren, doth end on this day. During that season the bodily Presence of the Lord still lingered on earth, that the reality of the fact of His having risen again from the dead might be armed with all needful proofs. The death of Christ had troubled the hearts of many of His disciples their thoughts were sad when they remembered His agony upon the Cross, His giving up of the Ghost, and the laying in the grave of His lifeless Body, and a sort of hesitation had begun to weigh on them.

Hence the most blessed Apostles and all the disciples, who had been fearful at the finishing on the Cross, and doubtful of the trustworthiness of the rising again, were so strengthened by the clear demonstration of the fact, that, when they saw the Lord going up into the height of heaven, they sorrowed not, nay they were even filled with great joy And, in all verity, it was a great an unspeakable cause for joy to see the Manhood, in the presence of that the multitude of believers, exalted above all creatures even heavenly, rising above the ranks of the angelic armies and speeding Its glorious way where the most noble of the Archangels lie far behind, to rest no lower than that place where high above all principality and power, It taketh Its seat at the right hand of the Eternal Father, Sharer of His throne, and Partaker of His glory, and still of the very man’s nature which the Son hath taken upon Him.

Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us also rejoice with worthy joy, for the Ascension of Christ is exaltation for us, and whither the glory of the Head of the Church is passed in, thither is the hope of the body of the Church called on to follow. Let us rejoice with exceeding great joy, and give God glad thanks. This day is not only the possession of Paradise made sure unto us, but in the Person of our Head we are actually begun to enter into the heavenly mansions above. Through the unspeakable goodness of Christ we have gained more than ever we lost by the envy of the devil. We, whom our venomous enemy thrust from our first happy home, we, being made of one body with the Son of God, have by Him been given a place at the right hand of the Father with Whom He liveth and reigneth, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

– Emphasis added. This is how important Our Lord’s Ascension is: it is the Crown of our Salvation. For now, not only are we saved from our sins and ransomed from death, but are we also welcomed to Heaven, raised higher than even the angels and united to the Godhead in the person of the Christ; who is of one substance with the Father and with us. 

So, about this wall…


The Readings for Friday in the 5th Week of Easter (B2)

Vos autem dixi amicos : quia omnia quaecumque audivi a Patre meo, nota feci vobis. 
I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you. 

One thing I often heard in dating relationships was that I have “bad boundaries”. After many years in failed relationships I finally learned what these were in the course of two conversations divided by 5 years. In one, a friend was telling me about a certain “Creepy” sort of person who one might meet who wants to become close friends as a result of a sexual encounter. In another conversation, a different friend, was telling me he was never that sort of person. He always had “good boundaries”. Both of these folks wondered why anyone wanted to be emotionally intimate just because sex had happened. I realized I was the person they were speaking about: the one that thinks sex must imply some sort of connection.

In The Lost Language of Cranes the protagonist, Philip Benjamin, has a falling out with his romantic partner who tells him “you need me too much. Half way across this city in the middle of the day I can feel you needing me.” Or words to that effect. I saw this once when it was on PBS in the early 90s, so I may not have the worlds right, but that scene stuck with me. Haunted me. In fact in my memory it’s the only words I can remember from the movie. But exactly what’s wrong with needing someone? Decades later when relationships were ending I’d still say I don’t get it… what’s wrong with needing someone? 

I have called you friends because whatever I’ve learned from my father I’ve made known to you.

As a hopeless romantic, I always had bad boundaries. And I have often wondered why that was (even before I had the terms down). Why did I “fall in love” or become emotionally attached? What if, however, these terms are intentionally in divine logic? What if what is generally seen as an enjoyable biological function is, in fact, a deeply spiritual and kenotic act of self-destruction? Would it not be natural for there to be no boundaries after it?

Jesus shares literally all of himself with us: body, blood, soul, and divinity. He shares with us all that the Father has given him and names us as friends, using a Greek word (philos) that implies non-sexual relationships based on common experience. The implication that there is a huge amount of intimacy, of union, that comes long, long before physical intimacy happens. Letting sex come first (which does happen from time to time) and yet denying the rest of intimacy: that is the odd choice. As Robert Anton Wilson makes clear in the Illuminatus trilogy, as well as in Schrodinger’s Cat: the Universe Next Door, sex is the ultimate breaking down of the boundaries, the end of the division, the unitive wholeness of humanity. Saying, at that point, “you need me too much” is like the river saying it shouldn’t need water. Having opened that door, slamming it shut again is the real bad boundary. 

At the end of this Gospel reading, Jesus says we should love one another, using a different Greek word now: agape. Unlike philia which is based on common experience, Agape is an act of will, and it is not something we can do alone: it is possible only by God’s love through us. Our love tends to be about gratification and validation. God’s love is about self-pouring out – into us, to overflowing and then out of us into others.

The intimacy offered to us in friendship, or even in the sexual union, is only a foretaste of the intimacy made available to us in the act of Eucharistic Communion. Here the divine fire of heaven enters our spiritual and physical bodies to destroy all that is not of the same divine origin. Uniting us fully and finally to the source and summit of that fire. The act of communion is the sacramental union of your soul with the divine dance at the end of Dante’s Paradiso XXXIII

ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l vellesì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle. (Par. 33.143-45)

but my desire and will were moved already—like a wheel revolving uniformly—bythe Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

A final note. When Dante reaches the end of his vision and is granted the sight of the universe bound together in one volume, what entrances him is not plain Oneness but all that multiplicity somehow contained and unified. His heart is set on seeing and knowing that multiplicity, an otherness that is still stubbornly present in the poem’s penultimate word. God is the love that moves the sun and the other stars: “l’amor che move ’l sole e l’altre stelle”.
Much has been written about the transcendent stelle with which the Commedia ends; let us give due weight as well to the adjective that modifies those stars, the poem’s penultimate word, altre. Dante believes in a transcendent One, but his One is indelibly characterized by the multiplicity, difference, and sheer otherness embodied in the “altre stelle”—an otherness by which he is still unrepentantly captivated in his poem’s last breath. (Source)

We, dear sisters and brothers, are to be those altre stelle, the other stars moving in God’s light. The act of theosis will burn down all the walls left. We move from friends to lovers of the Divine source of Love. Heaven is an infinite dance without boundaries. 

I am divine, you are dibranches.


The Readings for Wednesday in the 5th Week of Easter (B2)
St Athanasius, BDC

Omnem palmitem in me non ferentem fructum, tollet eum, et omnem qui fert fructum, purgabit eum, ut fructum plus afferat.
Every branch in me, that beareth not fruit, he will take away: and every one that beareth fruit, he will purge it, that it may bring forth more fruit. 

The Clash paraphrased this verse very well in 1982, singing: If I go there will be trouble and if I stay it will be double. For those of an earlier generation (or different genre), Lynn Anderson was a bit more poetic with I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden. Both artists reminding us that  Our Lord taught: love is not about warm fuzzies, but rather about a lot of work.  Jesus expects that our relationship with him will be rocky – for us. He’s already done the hard work though. He could not love us any better: he loves you just the way you are.

Still, there is something required of us. He likes our praise and worship, but he wants more than words. One of the Desert Fathers said, if you will it you can become wholly fire. This is what Jesus wants. If you’re on fire, he says. Show me. But we are, perhaps rightly, scared of fire. We know it’s going to burn. We know it’s going to not leave us unharmed, unchanged, unscathed. Jesus knows that life is not tried, it is merely survived if you’re standing outside the fire. It may look good to live fast, avoiding attachments, but it is the attachments, the pain, the struggle that grind down our edges, that make us into smooth, reflective surfaces to return his light.
We want, pardon the analogy, vegan love: warm feelings, romance with no meat, no death, no struggle. Jesus bled and died for this love. And wants us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. And to be honest, he expects us to die for it too. So like he says, it’s gonna be tough to stick around here, but it’s tougher still for the sticks that get cut off. When it comes to love, it’s not moonlight, it’s fire, or it’s fire.

Thing is, we’re prone to go the easy way. Jesus knows that when we can’t be with the one we love, we will love the one we’re witheven though that just gets really old after a while.  When we do it my way find ourselves craving more and more but getting less and less. We suffer from this silly idea that love will fill me up, complete me, make me all the me I’m supposed to be. Real love does that, yes, but only by destroying all of you, making you into the full human being God made you to be. You’ll be you, alright, but you’ll be totally changed, totally different. Because you’ll be Christ.

Love hurts. Yes. So why not pick the love that lasts forever?

A family like yours or mine…


The Readings for TuesdayToday is  in the 5th Week of Easter (B2)
St Joseph the Worker

Quoniam per multas tribulationes oportet nos intrare in regnum Dei. 
Through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God. 

Today is the Memorial of St Joseph the Worker. I think Joseph knew tribulations: there was the mystery of his not-yet-wife who was with child, the trip to Bethlehem that became a three year sojourn in Egypt, Herod’s soldiers, snoopy neighbors, and a business to run.

Today’s feast is one of the most powerful reminders that the Holy Family was a normal, every-day family. Filled with the presence of God and the actions of God, yes; like your family or mine is supposed to be.

Today’s feast is a reminder of the dignity of human labor. Pope St John Paul the Great said that work is one thing we share, as humans, with God the Creator: 

THROUGH WORK man must earn his daily bread and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family. And work means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work, in the midst of all the many activities of which man is capable and to which he is predisposed by his very nature, by virtue of humanity itself. Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God himself, and he is placed in it in order to subdue the earth. From the beginning therefore he is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.

We forget this thing: this mark of a person acting within a community. For many of us it is a struggle: we don’t have work, or we want different work, or we think we should be getting paid more, or we can’t earn enough to care for our families. More and more, today, the idea that work at all can be honored is giving rise to multiple layers of class within our society. The “elite” and the “blue color” spurn each other. Within tech companies engineers and operations folks can be seen on opposite sides of a huge divide. In San Francisco, in the wee hours of the morning, it’s interesting to me that the buses heading west bound on their routes are filled with blue color labor, while across the street and headed easterly, are white color folks earning many times more than the blue color folks. They want very little to do with each other, engaged in each their own struggle.

A friend of mine spends her day working with the Homeless of SF. Many of the Homeless lost their apartments because a greedy landlord took advantage of a loophole in the law. The newly rich move into the building, the newly homeless end up on the street. But then the newly rich complain about the newly homeless on the streets and the cycle begins again. My own industry seems to spawn folks who are both afraid of the homeless and quick to call the police. According to Christian Teaching. we have an obligation to bring the Gospel to everyone, rich and poor We have an obligation to heal the wounds in our society as well. We are called  to unite the broken bits into one. This is not an easy task when the sides are not only alienated, but are also made to be at odds with each other.

This is where the Church is needed, I’m convinced, and perhaps not only in SF.  She needs to be an advocate for Justice, and a salve on the societal wounds. St Joseph, as the universal patron of the Church, is needed: respecter of the poor, advocate for the laborer – even one who is unemployed, model of protective care for the family and for the Church, his intercession as we work to resolve these issues in our world is needed. 

Some random trivia: the Main Feast of St Joseph is 19 March, the traditional day (and Pre-schism, for what it’s worth). But that is always in Lent – and sometimes in Holy Week. So it often gets played down and, sometimes, transferred to another period after Easter. In a desire to give St Joseph a proper feast… (quoth the wiki):

Between 1870 and 1955, an additional feast was celebrated in honor of Saint Joseph as Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Patron of the Universal Church, the latter title having been given to him by Pope Pius IX. Originally celebrated on the third Sunday after Easter with an octave, after Divino Afflatu of Saint Pius X (see Reform of the Roman Breviary by Pope Pius X), it was moved to the preceding Wednesday (because Wednesday was the day of the week specifically dedicated to St. Joseph, St. John the Baptist and local patrons). The feast was also retitled The Solemnity of Saint Joseph. This celebration and its accompanying octave were abolished during the modernisation and simplification of rubrics under Pope Pius XII in 1955.
At the same time, Pope Pius XII established an additional Feast of “St. Joseph the Worker”, to be celebrated on 1 May, in order to coincide with the celebration of International Workers’ Day (May Day) in many countries.

This extra feast was a First Class Feast among the Dominicans at least in 1962 (as it is in the Extraordinary Form, still)… not sure what it is now. In the General Roman Calendar, this is an Optional Memorial which means it hasn’t any readings assigned to it. So it takes the readings of the day.

Through many tribulations… Joseph had those. But St Joseph embodies two other virtues that make him difficult to swallow for those who might otherwise celebrate 1 May: silence and patience. The walk to justice is not achieved by stealing from either side to give to the other, but rather by coming together to work for a resolution. Repentance and forgiveness are needed for healing. St Joseph’s patience, prayer, and labor, make a difficult model for us to follow. But he is no different than any other Christian saint in this respect. 

A blessed feast!