Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

When the LORD smelled the sweet odor, he said to himself: 
“Never again will I doom the earth because of man 
since the desires of man’s heart are evil from the start; 
nor will I ever again strike down all  living beings, as I have done. 
As long as the earth lasts, 
seedtime and harvest, 
cold and heat, 
Summer and winter, 
and day and night 
shall not cease.” 

As we reflect on the challenge of otherness, we hear the conclusion of the story of the Deluge. The Lord has repented of the terrible destruction and resolved never again "to strike down all living beings, as I have done."
There is a "life-sized replica" of Noah's Ark in northern Kentucky, not far from Cincinnati. A religious theme park, it promotes a creationist version of Christianity. In response to this absurd display, some critics ​have described the God of Genesis 6-8 as an insane, mass murderer. They get a kick out of that sort of thing.
I'll let that controversy be and just reflect on the mystery of otherness. The Lord's repentance in Genesis 8 reflects a human reaction to emotional upheaval. Meeting disagreement and opposition, feeling angry frustration, we brand our enemies as evil and anoint ourselves as Avengers of Righteousness. But when the anger passes, as it always does, and we see our enemies wounded and overwhelmed with grief for the punishment we have exacted, we regret our hastiness.
Clearly that method of dealing with evil fails miserably and consistently. As tempting as it is to respond to opposition with violence, as "natural" and "necessary" as it might seem, it accomplishes nothing and must be undone. The destroyed city must be rebuilt, the orphaned children must be adopted. The dead must be buried and grieved.
We cannot overcome the otherness of other people with violence. Whether we use catastrophic flooding, confusion of languages or fire from heaven, the effort is counterproductive, disappointing and disgraceful.
We must finally do as God has done, befriend the enemy – even if “the desires of man’s heart are evil from the start.” But that judgement may also be too hasty. As we get to know our enemies we realize their concerns are real although their perspective is different. Their desires are not so diabolical. Neither, for that matter, are our desires so pure.
In Genesis 8 we learn the origin of the rainbow. It’s multiple colors remind us that people too come in many colors. Just as the arc in the sky stretches over all people as a sign of mercy, God’s church must be a rainbow coalition to cover every nation.

Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

When the LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how no desire that his heart conceived was ever anything but evil, he regretted that he had made man on the earth,
and his heart was grieved.

Nihilists would agree with the LORD's assessment in Genesis 6, the Earth would be better off without this human creature. We seem only to make a mess. Where the 19th century nihilist saw economic and political forces wasting human life, anticipating the senseless carnage of the 20th century wars and 21st century terrorism, the modern nihilist wonders why we're on this planet at all. (Nihil in Latin means "nothing") 
If the 19th century nihilist was a philosopher, the 21st century nihilist is an alcoholic or drug addict. Or perhaps she just tweets, facebooks, games and watches mindless television shows hour after hour. The intro to "Big Bang Theory" raised the question: "Several billion years of evolution led to this?"
The question is not new. It's there in the Book of Genesis. God "regretted that he had made man on the earth and his heart was grieved."
But perhaps this vapidity is not the real issue. Perhaps this ennui is born of disappointment: "What's the point of life if I cannot have what I want? Why should I exist if I have to deal continually with other people who don't give me what I want?"
The God of Genesis 6 is disappointed with the way things are going with his creature. He expected something different and much better of molded mud enlivened by his breath.
In my meditation yesterday I concluded that Cain was not prepared to recognize the otherness of his brother Abel. Where Cain preferred to plow the earth, Abel tended sheep. Discovering that God inexplicably favored Abel, he grew impatient and jealous, and then vicious.
This challenge of otherness is continual; it is really the world we live in.
The Christian revelation, appearing many centuries after Genesis was written, reveals a Triune God who enfolds otherness into divinity. The Father is not the Son and is not the Spirit; nor are the Son and Spirit the same. Although they are not the same they embrace one another in perfect love and acceptance. (We don't suppose they love each other because they should. We have seen it in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.) 
Where human beings quarrel with one another, and the most quarrelsome pairs are those who most resemble each other, we meet a God who is one substance yet three persons. The only difference between the Father and Son is the Father is not the Son. But they are substantially the same.
What really bothered Cain was his own brother! They were like each other in every way, but Abel was a shepherd! A shepherd, for God's sake! How can any reasonable person want to be a shepherd? It makes no sense. And then when God favored the shepherd, that sent Cain over the edge.
There are as many ways to read Genesis 6 as there are people to read it; but I see in the story a developing understanding of God. This God is unwise; he has not yet learned that threats and punishment -- even catastrophic punishment -- change nothing in the human heart. If the experiment of a creature in his own image has gone badly, the punishment by deluge will go worse. Noah and his kin will be no better than their ancestors. Confusing the languages of Babel is mischief and the destruction of the cities of the plain by fire will be an exercise in futility. 
A new story, beginning with Abraham, represents another tack. God will stoop down not to flood the earth or to confuse the languages but to befriend a man and make of him a great nation. The birth of Jesus will go further -- God will be born of a woman and suffer at the hands of men. He will become totally subject to the otherness of this creature, allowing himself even to be despised, accused, judged, condemned and executed.
Our salvation begins when we accept the otherness of God. Although I am created in God's image, God is not me writ large. I am not god; I cannot have my way. There is no reason I should expect to have my way but I can expect to die like anyone else.
Nor should I be disappointed by this fate. Quite the contrary, I am delighted! I am not God! Thank God! I cannot have my way! Hurray! If I am saddened by the way things turn out, it's a healthy sadness, a full participation in the sorrow that accompanies pain and suffering. I will drink deeply of that cup even as Jesus did in the Garden.
But, fortunately, most of us embrace the monotony of daily prayer, sipping pleasure and disappointment in small amounts. We take shelter in prayer, looking through the psalms at this tragic, beautiful world which God has made. We don't pray for a deluge though we might fear one. We don't stand outside at night expecting an apocalypse, though we do hope for one -- in God's time.

Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 335

He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”

With today's first reading we remember the tragedy of Cain and Abel. Genesis tells us that Cain was "resentful and crestfallen" because, "the LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not." This resentment was a variant of the original sin of Adam and Eve, an impingement on God's authority. Where the first couple had intentionally eaten of the forbidden tree, Cain apparently regarded God's favoring his brother Abel as unfair. 

But God did regard Cain and warned him about his attitude, "Why are you so resentful and crestfallen? If you do well, you can hold up your head...." 
Cain's sin begins with a lack of self-respect. He does not hold up his head. Cain has presented God with "an offering from the fruit of the soil." Why his gift is not favored should not be his problem. The Lord favors whom he will for reasons of his own, reasons that may involve future plans beyond anyone's imagination, or a thousand other reasons, or no particular reason. 
Created in God's own image everyone has preferences that need no explanation. One person is right-handed; another is left-handed. One person likes red; another favors yellow. Some people like baseball; others prefer football. Most people are heterosexual; some people are homosexual. Cain prefers farming; Abel raises sheep. There is rarely a scientific explanation for these preferences. Nor should there be. To each his own. Let it be.
This diversity represents a problem to some people. They don't understand it. They don't like it. They think it should not be. They would rather not consider it as they deal with other people. 
And yet this diversity is as fundamental as sexuality. Men are from Mars, women are from VenusAnyone who thinks all people should think, act and be alike will never find a home on this planet, although they may loudly insist that their neighbors should go back to Asia, Africa or Europe. Inevitably, their resentment turns violent, even as Cain murdered his brother -- because they lack self-respect. 
The Pharisees in today's gospel have enough information to know Jesus represents a new reality. And they can clearly see God's favor upon this new Abel. They resent him deeply. But there is nothing Jesus can say to relieve their distress or reassure their fears. "No sign will be given."
Those who are ready to let God be God, and others be others, who are willing to be confronted continually by the mystery of otherness will be saved.

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.

Whether you study the Sermon on the Mount found in Saint Matthew's gospel or the Sermon on the Plain of Saint Luke, you must be challenged by Jesus' words. 

Christians are more familiar with Saint Matthew's beatitudes; Saint Luke's are markedly different. There are half as many blessings, only four; but these four are balanced by something not found in Matthew's list, four curses, "But woe to you...."
We often reflect upon the promises of the gospel, we don't reflect as often upon the threats:
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.”
If we suppose that God's promises are worthy of our faith, we should not dismiss his threats as old fashioned nonsense. 

Recently there is a family on trial for the manufacture and sale of opioids to unsuspecting citizens whose lives were wrecked by the "medicines." The story is necessarily complex but some people who suffered minor injuries or minor surgeries were prescribed huge numbers of pain-killing pills. Following their doctors' recommendations, they found themselves addicted. These were not criminals. They were law-abiding, tax paying citizens who suffered a minor mishap. Many worshiped in their local church. They suffered pain long after their injuries should have healed because the medication actually prolongs the suffering. Some have died of overdose, of suicide or of criminal violence.
People place blame in every direction: manufacturers, sales representatives, doctors, patients, insurers, federal regulators, and therapists who are moving into the field of pain management and opioid addiction. Federal courts will sort it out but only God knows who should be punished.

Here's my own particular contribution to the discussion: "If you hope to do well by doing good, be careful. Be very careful."

Many people in the pharmaceutical industry -- especially the manufacturers, sales personnel and doctors -- did very well indeed. They became extremely wealthy on the backs of suffering patients. Some of them have fled the country. A few will be prosecuted but most will be acquitted since no one forced the victims to swallow the pills or inject the drug. You can be sure the accused will have the best justice money can buy.
In today's gospel Jesus warns the rich, the content, the happy and the well-respected of their impending doom. They might argue they did nothing illegal and meant no harm. Most would not be accused of crime in any city, state or federal court; much less convicted. They only intended to do well in a system that rewards the ambitious and punishes the unwary.
If accused by a meddlesome stranger they could reasonably ask, "I sold pain relieving medicine. Isn't pain relief a good thing? Am I responsible for the patient who failed to follow precise medical advice? Am I responsible for the doctor who over-prescribed a medication that has been proven useful? Hospitals feared a loss of market share if their patients complained of pain! Is that my fault?
"Am I my brother's keeper?"

The Gospels reveal a God who rewards virtue and punishes wickedness. Human societies have been trying -- and failing -- to do that since prehistoric times. We have lawyer jokes that are nearly as old for we know every human system of justice is profoundly corrupt. It protects the powerful and punishes the weak. The Hebrew prophets railed against it even in the holy city of Jerusalem and could not prevail. But they believed what Jesus taught, that justice will prevail.

If you expect to do well by doing good, remember Hebrews 10:31
We know the one who said: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,”
and again: “The Lord will judge his people.” 
and “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

Saturday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Then, taking the seven loaves he gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to his disciples to distribute,
and they distributed them to the crowd.

This gospel story of Jesus feeding four thousand people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish must remind us of the Eucharist. Saint Mark gives us the four part formula we still use in our Mass: 1) he took the bread; 2) he blessed it; 3) he broke it, and 4) he gave it to his disciples. These four parts correspond to the Offertory, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Fraction and Distribution of the Eucharist. On a Saturday, with our traditional references to the Virgin Mother, we can suppose Jesus learned this four part formula from his mother. It was the tradition she and her generation had received since ancient times.

In our time, when one of every three meals is taken in a restaurant, we should reflect on the civilizing effect of Jesus' action. Despite the desperate circumstance of "seven loaves and a few fish" to feed four thousand people, we do not imagine a panicked rush when the food was distributed. Later, when the story reappears in the sixth chapter, we learn that, "he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties." Calm prevailed as they watched Jesus and waited upon the ministry of his disciples.

When human beings feed we should do it with ceremony. We are not cattle or savage animals that eat without awareness of the blessing of food and our need for it. When they eat they do so because their instincts tell them they must. They need no more ceremony than that. We eat with the realization that eating forestalls starvation and death.

But with our complex ability to think, we bring more than that existential desperation to our feeding. We have our cultural expectations of food (American, French, German, Italian, etc) each one representing a tradition with roots in antiquity. We have our nutritional concerns and habitual preferences. (I know people who won't eat vegetables despite innumerable recommendations from recognized authorities.) We have table etiquette and customs, including placement at the table and place settings. If someone were suddenly teleported from a table in the United States to a table in Asia he might not know what to eat or how! There is nothing simple about human feeding.

So, there in the wilderness, Jesus fed four thousand people with a few loaves and some fish. They had to notice how dependent they were on his mercy even as they found their places under his authority. We can imagine they were tempted to rush at the food. Even cultured people in tuxedos and high heels can get testy when the food is delayed, and when the doors are finally opened to the dining room they struggle to do it with decorum. This mob in the desert had no such pretensions. Only their respect for Jesus' authority could restrain them. Apparently it did for, "They all ate and were satisfied."
Of course, this meal also had its traditions as the four thousand must have known. They remembered the Lord had led their ancestors into the Sinai wilderness where they survived by God's mercy for forty years. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob provided manna, quail and water for their survival as they left it. Nor had they suffered the loss of essentials like clothing and sandals. More recently, only five centuries before, the prophets had described that desert sojourn like a honeymoon.
This day with Jesus augured a new beginning, a new marriage of God and his people, of Jesus and his church. We celebrate this wedding feast with every Mass, and take particular delight in his company.

Friday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

He took him off by himself away from the crowd.

Twice we hear in the seventh chapter of Saint Mark that phrase, "away from the crowd." Not everything that Jesus said or did was for public consumption. The man had secrets which he would disclose only to a select few. He told more to the seventy-two than he revealed to the crowds; and more to the twelve than to the seventy-two; and more to Peter, James and John than to the twelve. In the Gospel of John he whispered only to the beloved disciple, the identity of his betrayer. Plus, he often went apart, into the wilderness, to pray alone.
Many people have complained about our culture war on solitude. We seem to confuse public and private space so that neither is secure. Politicians, entertainers and clergy apparently have no right to privacy. If clergy and elected officials still expect a degree of privacy, entertainers recklessly squander theirs in a bid for notoriety.
When I demurred about a minister's ugly remarks about Jackie Kennedy he insisted the deceased widow had no right to privacy, since she had been married to a president.
I have seen media-weary Americans flock to the church for a moment of peace and quiet. Despite the opening collect, they cannot be collected into a congregation because they are so desperate for inner solitude. They find it nowhere else. Their homes are ablaze with advertising, their cars scream the radio, their restaurants maintain unwatched but noisy televisions; even their hospital rooms and lounges are flooded with distraction. Arriving in the sanctuary of a church, they cannot sing, they cannot hear the scriptures. They can only use the time to recuperate some personal energy.

Christians gather frequently to worship God as a church but our assemblies must be enriched by our solitary practice. The "feast" of our public liturgy requires a "postprandial" of  private contemplation as we consider the scriptures we have heard and the virtues we have celebrated. Without it the gathering is little more than cheap entertainment, a pep rally or a political demonstration.

"What a man is in God's presence," Saint Francis said, "is what he is, and nothing more." Our religious tradition cultivates solitary prayer and a sense of one's standing alone in God's presence. With practices like the daily examen, Lectio Divina, discernment of spirits and centering prayer the Christian discovers her identity in God's presence. We're often driven to these practices by a personal crisis but, having set out, we realize we cannot turn back. The knowledge of God is too precious to be ignored. His reassurance, even as we discover our sins, is too compelling to be dismissed.

Memorial of Saints Cyril, Monk, and Methodius, Bishop

The LORD God said: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.”

Several months ago there was a minor furor among the chattering classes about a virtual fellowship of men who believe they are unfairly denied their right to women. A "virtual fellowship," of course, is not real. It exists in the fantasy world of the Internet. These guys "meet" online to commiserate their loneliness and inability to engage with women in the real world. 
But illusions sometimes have real world consequences. One of the members, pursuing his dream, committed a heinous crime.

Americans are dying of loneliness. Just plug that statement into an Internet search and see how much documented tragedy you find. The nation that fancies itself to be "Christian" shuns community and companionship, preferring the loneliness of Facebook friends and channel surfing.
Many desperately hope their dogs and cats might be their friends, a work for which animals are entirely unsuited.  Because of that belief, which in another age would have been termed heretical, many pets suffer barbaric mistreatment. Their owners, disappointed because the animal could not provide "unconditional love" -- another absurd idea -- turn their frustration to violence upon the animals.
But that story is not new. Genesis records it as a comedy skit:
So the LORD God formed out of the ground
various wild animals and various birds of the air,
and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them;
whatever the man called each of them would be its name.
The man gave names to all the cattle,
all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals;
but none proved to be the suitable partner for the man.

Human community is hard work. When two human beings meet in an intimate space each must discover the mysterious depths of their separate existence, and the vast space between them. And then they must try to bridge the gap with little more than words and gestures.
A wife and husband meet as two rivers from separate mountain ranges. Each brings assumptions they have never challenged, and beliefs they have never doubted. If they are blessed their disparate stories will come together, becoming a shared history. But even yet they will have different memories of the same incidents, and very different opinions about them. Periodically one or the other will look across the table and wonder, "Who is this stranger?"
If they are wise neither will expect the other to satisfy all their needs for support, understanding and companionship. They still need a matrix of family, friends, neighbors, coworkers and a community of faith. They must still work for peace with their enemies. 

We're seeing in the United States the sad wages of that choice to live solitary lives. The automobile, a mobile hermitage, doesn't reach isolated individuals in rural counties. They cannot walk to the grocery store, the doctor's office or the community center, and they're too old to drive. Some people are homeless in our cities because they never learned the give and take of family life. Even in the cities people die alone, their mortal agony unnoticed. 
"It is not good for man to be alone." Religion provides the spirit, skills and give-and-take willingness to share life with other people.  

Happy Saint Valentine's Day