Saturday, October 16, 2021

Saturday of the Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time

 Lectionary: 472

Jesus said to his disciples: “I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others the Son of Man will acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.

The writings of the Fathers of the Church attest to the troubles and persecutions of the early church, and to the infidelity of some self-professed Christians who found it more convenient to obey civil authorities than to stand by the hard truths of the faith. Everyone knew of the savage torture and death of the martyrs, many people preferred an easier route to salvation. 

I have met many who assure me that God loves everybody unconditionally, and everyone is assured of salvation. There was no need for the Lord to die on the cross, or for martyrs to follow in his footsteps. A good and loving God really should not send anyone to Hell! 

If I saw that everyone is indeed on the road to salvation I might believe it, but my eyes tell me differently. I meet too many whose habitual bad choices destroy their bodies, minds, and spirit; and wreak havoc on their families and neighbors. Given their choices and stubborn refusal of the better opportunities we offer them , what can God's mercy do for them? The one thing God will not do is deprive them of their power to choose. 

In today's gospel, Jesus pronounces his most severe warning, "...the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven." He assures us that he will not take affronts against himself personally, "Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven...." But slamming the door against the Holy Spirit cuts one off from life, peace, unity, healing, forgiveness, and salvation forever. "Made in God's image" means we are free as God is free to choose, and our choices have consequences. 

The faithful are called first to make the better choices of fidelity, in the courage of hope, with the strength of love. Perhaps our presence, example, and witness -- which seem obnoxious to some -- will persuade those on the road to perdition to try our holy way of life. We have little choice in the manner, for we cannot save others by joining in their sin. 

Friday, October 15, 2021

Memorial of Saint Teresa of Jesus, Virgin and Doctor of the Church

 Lectionary: 471

For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. A worker’s wage is credited not as a gift, but as something due. But when one does not work, yet believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. 

Abraham appears more often than Moses in the sayings of Jesus and the writings of Paul. The "Friend of God" had enjoyed an intimate relationship with God long before there was a Law to govern his thoughts and actions. He was like Adam and Eve in the Garden before they were told not to eat of the tree. His concern, if we could call it that, was to wait upon, listen to, and abide by the very specific directions of the Lord. He left his fatherland, traveled to Palestine, and then to Egypt, and back to Palestine. He circumcised himself, thus creating a physical bond with the Lord. He offered the sacrifices God demanded; he stoutly fought against the four kings who opposed him; and finally, he offered his only son Isaac in sacrifice. He believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness

In the face of the overwhelming Pharisaic reading of the Jewish tradition, with its heavy reliance on a peculiar interpretation of the Law of Moses, the Christian movement appealed to the original relationship of Abraham and God. Long before all those statutes, decrees, and ordinances with their confusing and contradictory demands, there was Abraham's remarkable friendship with God. If it began with God's terrifying presence which could only leave a human paralyzed with fear, it resolved into an intense loyalty between the Lord and the Patriarch.

The disciples enjoyed that same intimacy with Jesus; and then the Spirit gathered succeeding generations who had never seen the Lord face to face into the fellowship. Through Baptism and Eucharist we experience the Risen Body of the Lord. The Acts of the Apostles describes how the followers of Jesus announced the Gospel -- beginning at Jerusalem and moving toward the ends of the earth -- at the very specific directions of the Holy Spirit. 

In the following centuries the tradition would be more clearly defined as they determined which documents should be called canonical scripture, how the Christian liturgy would worship God, how the teaching authority of the Church would be passed to the next generation, and what deference members owed to the leadership. 

Always they retained a healthy skepticism of pharisaic attitudes and behavior. Every Christian should know the Lord as Abraham did, and wait upon his Spirit for guidance. However, that intimacy would never settle into a warm, comfy feeling of Jesus and me; intimacy wants to share in his sufferings, which were never warm and comfy. As Saint Paul said of righteousness in his letter to the Philippians:

More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  

Finally, Christians find our righteousness through obedience to the teaching and authority of the Church. In community we learn to consult about every good idea and hide no secret plan. The fellowship which "tests every spirit" knows the difference between diabolical impulses and divine initiatives.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Optional Memorial of Saint Callistus I, pope and martyr

Lectionary: 470 

“Woe to you who build the memorials of the prophets whom your fathers killed. Consequently, you bear witness and give consent to the deeds of your ancestors, for they killed them and you do the building.

On this feast of Pope Saint Callistus -- who established the first Christian cemeteries in Rome -- we hear Jesus acerbic remarks about the "memorials of the prophets." Apparently Jerusalem had innumerable memorials, plaques and steles to honor the great prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. The monument builders had conveniently forgotten the uncomfortable truth that those same prophets had persistently accused the citizens of every kind of sin. 

The controversy is all too familiar to Americans today, as the Black Lives Matter movement has targeted the monuments of Civil War "heroes." Many were erected during the last decade of the nineteenth century; many lionized the military and political leaders who defended the peculiar institution of slavery. 

These monuments were obviously more than historical artifacts, they sought to shore up the losses of the Civil War and maintain the segregated class system which survived the collapse of slavery. A system so admired by Adolf Hitler and racists around the world. These celebrated individuals may have demonstrated remarkable military and political abilities but they flagrantly betrayed the basic principles of the American Constitution. They could be admired only by those who also despised our most cherished ideals. 

Hypocrites is not too strong a word to describe the monument builders in Jesus's Jerusalem or many American cities. They could, with a straight face and an honest gaze, claim to be patriotic while actively sabotaging the freedom and rights of African-Americans and other minorities. Many, with the same cant, promote Mr. Trump's Big Lie and sacrifice children for the sake of their "gun rights." And then they say to protesters, "America: love it or leave it." 

It's enough to make the Son of the Virgin Mary curse. 

When Catholics celebrate our beloved dead we also pray that God will forgive their sins. We don't need to pretend that they were always kind, generous, and patient. We can acknowledge their accomplishments, their courage, and their shortcomings. We can admit that their memory is tainted by their worst inclinations. 

I was consulted once by a woman who said her house was haunted. I asked had anyone died recently. She spoke of a very unhappy aunt who had lived in their home, a woman who demanded much of everyone and never thanked anyone. However, when she died, they uttered only pious platitudes about her. 

So I suggested, "Go home and talk about the woman who died, and how relieved you are that she is gone. You don't have to be unkind but you do have to be honest."

The niece never came back; perhaps she took my advice. 

There is a reason why Catholics believe in Purgatory. We have some reconciling to do with our ancestors. As we pray for their souls we pray that we will forgive them for the insults that still hurt and the neglect that left an insatiable vacuum in our hearts. We pray that we will at last love them with that affectionate mercy which...

is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account." Hebrews 4:12


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Wednesday of the Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 469

Or do you hold his priceless kindness, forbearance, and patience in low esteem, unaware that the kindness of God would lead you to repentance?
By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God...

In his zeal to describe the great mercy of God Saint Paul pulls out all the stops to persuade his readers and hearers that they must willingly, freely receive this grace. God's mercy is not like your birthday or Christmas when you know you're going to get some presents. If you habitually give presents to others on their birthdays and at Christmas, you know they owe you! And they will come through!

God's mercy is not like that; God owes us nothing. Not even an apology for our creation (... if you happen to be one of those sad sacks who feel like that.) Our fashioning from mud might have been as much as the Lord chose to give but he elected to give his Only Begotten Son for our salvation --  more than anyone could ask, expect, or imagine. 

So is it like winning the lottery? And all you have to do is buy a ticket; or in this case, believe in Jesus? Again, no. As Saint James said, "even the demons believe in God."

In his Letter to the Romans -- and the second chapter in particular -- Saint Paul must persuade us that we cannot be saved unless we receive his grace, and that can happen only as we recognize our truly desperate and wretchedly pathetic need for mercy. It's one thing to sit back and watch televised stories about victims of war, famine, and disease knowing that they need help and no help is coming. 

It's quite another to recognize the Enormity of my sin and that I am among those televised wretches precisely because I cannot and will not help them. We're in this together -- as the pandemic is teaching us -- and my best efforts amount to no help at all. 

True, the sins I am aware of don't amount to much. They seem harmless peccadilloes, hardly worth the eternal fires of hell. But I realize that the System works for me and it doesn't work for most people. And I tremble knowing that the System is entirely man-made. 

Finally, my faith tells me that God's merciful and just kingdom will set things right. On That Day of righteousness, equality, and fair play I should expect that my properties, privileges, and entitlements will be redistributed and given as their just due to the needy. 

How gracious will I be on That Day? Will I cling to my stuff as it's wrenched from me, and lose my hand in the process? Will I cling to my property as its cast into a fiery furnace, and me with it? Will I be like the citizen who was herded into the Nazi death camp, pleading, "...but I've done nothing wrong?" 

Perhaps I will remember the words of Job, "The Lord gives; the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

Perhaps I will admit that "All have sinned and are deprived of the Glory of God." 

Perhaps I will remember that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, clutched, or defended. It was, to him, so much rubbish.  

For, in the end, God is my only possession, and I am owned by no one else. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Tuesday of the Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 468

I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes:
for Jew first, and then Greek. For in it is revealed the righteousness of God from faith to faith;
as it is written, “The one who is righteous by faith will live.”

Recently a former drug addict and drug pusher, now in recovery, asked me if I had read the Talmud yet. I don't quite recall when he assigned this reading to me but I didn't take it too seriously; lots of people tell me I should read something they find fascinating. 

His particular interest is a couple of anti-Christian verses buried within its thirty-six volumes of esoteric literature. For reasons I cannot imagine this fellow needs to think that the Christian faith --which he does not practice -- justifies antisemitic rants on the Internet. Nor is he impressed when I remind him of unfortunate interpretations of Saint Paul's oeuvre and Saint John's Gospel. The Catholic Church has only recently begun to address the antisemitism found its art, literature, and teaching. 

Reflecting on these infrequent encounters with this very intelligent, sorely misled fellow, I should like to tell him, "If the Jewish people were to disappear, the Church and Christianity would disappear with them." 

God's covenant is forever; it is founded upon the prehistory of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, the history of Moses and David, and the facticity of Jesus of Nazareth, Mary, the Apostles, and all the saints and martyrs. Erase that ancient, unfinished story and our faith vanishes. There is no salvation without Jesus; there is no meaning, purpose, or depth to human experience without God's fidelity to the Covenant. Human life becomes as many suspect it might be, an anomaly in the vast, empty universe. Some Buddhists describe our human existence as a bubble on the foam of being, insubstantial and brief. Our joys and sorrows, hopes and disappointment are the illusions of "a passing shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more."

Saint Paul was keenly aware of this even as he sometimes ranted against his own Jewish people. But anyone who would quote him or the Gospel of John in a quarrel with Jews or an antisemitic screed should recognize they are seriously violating boundaries. 

Anyone can tell me a crude joke about priests so long as they are priests, and anyone can tell me a crude joke about Catholics so long as they are Catholic. But Protestants, Jews, and atheists need not apply; the same joke in their mouths is an insult. 

Similarly, we cannot take a stand with Jesus in his quarrels with Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians. Were anyone to do so the Lord would certainly tell them to, "Butt out; this has nothing to do with you!"

We can, however, read these stories as Christian criticisms against fellow Christians. There were in Paul's time, as there are in ours, people who think they can enforce their version of God's law. They suffer the same condemnation as Simon the Magician

I am quite sure my young friend will not listen to my final advice: he should join the Catholic Church and forget his own ideas. He should learn and trust our tradition. No one's personal interpretation of the Bible, liturgy, or religion is reliable -- least of all my own -- if it is not deeply and daily informed by the Magisterium. The Internet is no safe place to seek the truth unless one turns to the most reliable Catholic sources. 

Misreading the Talmud is not acceptable. I fear for my young friend. The law will not be so kind to him as he falls again into the vortex of evil. 

Monday, October 11, 2021

Optional Memorial of Saint John XXIII, pope

Lectionary: 467

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an Apostle and set apart for the Gospel of God, which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, the Gospel about his Son, descended from David according to the flesh, but established as Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

As we enter Saint Paul's major opus, the Letter to the Romans, I can't help but notice his preferred title, "a slave of Christ Jesus." The Douay-Rheims Translation, (which was the Catholic Bible until the mid-70's), and the King James Version, preferred the more palatable word, "a servant of Christ Jesus." But Saint Paul knew about slavery, the majority of those who lived under the Roman empire were slaves. The system was not half as savage as the American form of slavery but the less fortunate were not citizens. When the Apostle chose to describe his relationship to the Lord he could think of no more apt title, and nothing more delightful, than slave of Christ Jesus

As he introduces himself to the Romans he adds to the word slave his particular calling, "set apart for the Gospel of God;" and then he goes on to describe this new usage of the old Greek word, evangelium. This good news was not just fresh fish in the marketplace, a military victory, or the emperor's decree of a holiday. This Good News concerned the Lord God who was born of a woman, died as a man, and raised up like the Son of God; a savior, redeemer, healer, and deliverer of everyone who accepts his Holy Spirit. 

Saint Paul knew himself as a servant and administrator of the mysteries of God. He knew where he was and to whom he belonged and what he must do every day of his life. 

His self-assurance might amaze lost souls of the twenty-first century who know themselves only as consumers, debtors, and -- if their employed -- fortunate despite their uncertain future. Hammered continually by loud, demanding marketers, seduced by exciting promises which only disappointment, they are haunted by the persistent question, "Why should I not kill myself?" Only the noise can drive it away. 

Many turn to the Bible for consolation and find their place with Saint Paul in a history that reaches into the prehistoric era of Abraham and Sarah. Catholics find their place within Saint Paul's congregation, united through the Eucharist to the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord. Our past remembers beyond the pandemic, or the present epidemics of gun violence, drug abuse, and suicide. 

We remember both when the Catholic Church and its faithful were persecuted, and when we were welcomed. We look forward to an age when people will be judged with mercy and justice; when there will be neither, war, pestilence, nor famine; when politics will be driven by God's preference for the least among us. If no one expects to see that day in their own lifetime, it is nonetheless real and assured. 

Saint Paul operated with that kind of assurance. His calm, peaceable manner was maddening to those who scoffed at his teachings and challenged his preaching. They might have said, "That's just your opinion in a universe of opinions!" 

His response was always the invitation to know, trust, and believe in the Lord as he did -- as you and I do these many centuries later. 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 143

How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" 

Anthropologist Agustin Fuentes, in his book about the evolution of the human species, The Creative Spark, suggests that the emergence of cities and the development of specialized labor created the ever widening gap between the wealthy and the poor. Individuals responsible for storing and preserving stores of food developed records to account for income and outgo. But few could read or understand their accounts. In good times and bad, these specialists could protect their families and themselves against want -- and who would blame them for that?

It's no surprise that bankers are often wealthy, since they hold everyone's treasure. But money is a kind of fluid; currency ebbs and flows with the economic currents. But water is also a fluid, and people who manage water mains are not known to keep extra supplies of water for themselves and their loved ones. Why are bankers permitted that freedom with the common fund of currency? I suppose it's because they can. Because they always have. Because only "Communists" have ever raised the question or challenged the system.

Today's gospel concerns the tragedy of a wealthy man who rushes up to Jesus, all in a hurry to be saved. Like the disciples who wanted to seat at his right and left hand, this fellow has no idea what he is asking. Nor is he remotely prepared for the answer.

We're not told what his conception of "eternal life" might be. He seems to know that some people might not enjoy that blessed opportunity, and that there is something he should do to inherit it. Can he be adopted by someone who owns, manages, or distributes eternal life out of some heavenly store? Can he count eternal life among his assets, and listed in his portfolio? 

Jesus answers the young man very directly; he must liquidate his assets, pour it into the bottomless cistern of human need where not one fluid penny can be retrieved, and follow the Lord. 

His immediate decision to leave Jesus indicates he had assumed the prize was not very costly, nor the road very difficult. He'd only heard it was something wonderful and might be obtained for the asking. 

The story is tragic. There can be no doubt about that as we see how Jesus loved the man and was saddened by his departure. Not everyone whom Jesus (or God) loves will enjoy eternal life. 

Witnessing the man's regret, Jesus said, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! And the disciples were amazed at his words."

They had not really thought about what they had signed up for. Perhaps some still had vague intentions of returning to their homes, families, and villages after their tutelage to the remarkable rabbi. Perhaps they were delighted at the approach of "a man of substance," and dismayed by his immediate dismissal. For hadn't the Lord sent him away with his demand? 

Jesus had not so precisely spelled out the cost of discipleship to the fishermen, tax collectors, or farmers. He'd only said, "Follow me!" and they did. But if their entire future was described with Jesus's reply, they might never return to the old normal. There might never be a normal! Where are we going, anyway?

I wish I knew the answer to that question, as Covid continues its harvest of unfortunate and unwary Americans, as specter of slavery haunts the nation, as climate change threatens everything we thought we knew about life, as partisan polarization deepens daily, as the wealth-poverty chasm widens, and as more people disappear in the vortex of depression, addiction, and suicide. 

Saint Peter speaks for you and me as he says to Jesus, "We have given up everything and followed you." 

We know no more than anyone else what "eternal life" means, but the Spirit who draws, directs, and drives us knows, and we follow Jesus willingly.