Tuesday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

My eyes are upon the faithful of the land,
that they may dwell with me.
He who walks in the way of integrity
shall be in my service.

Today's responsorial psalm picks up on the theme of leadership from 1 Timothy. Psalm 101 is one of the royal psalms, probably written for the grand ceremonies when a king was crowned or welcomed for a state visit.
In the selection above the king speaks, announcing his benevolent gaze upon the "faithful of the land" and his policy of employing in his service the "upright." The king of Judah, a descendant of David, the protector and sponsor of God's temple, sets the tone for just government.
It didn't always happen that way but the Jewish religion allowed critics of the government -- God's prophets -- ample freedom.
Of course, this being a divinely-inspired religion of human beings, the king found ways to influence the prophets, by special favors or outright threats. There were prophetic guilds in Judea just as there are religious communities in Catholicism; they could be devout or impious, zealous or lazy, intelligent or stupid, perspicacious or dull. Inevitably the question arose, "How do you know if a prophet is from God?" That too was the king's problem, which he and his capital city had to address.
Jewish kingship disappeared with the Babylonian exile and was never restored. Prophets remained and guided the people through the turbulent centuries that followed, but they too fell silent long before Jesus was born. The Jewish religion persisted with a restored priesthood in Jerusalem until 70 CE, and rabbis provide guidance to this day.
The new Christian religion adopted a different system of leadership as the apostolic missionaries disappeared. Bishops, deacons and presbyters led churches scattered throughout the Roman world, from Britain and Spain to India. The system was built around the Mass with the bishop presiding, the deacons providing physical and clerical assistance, and the presbyters acting as elders. In many cases the deacon had more authority than the presbyters but the bishop, representing both Jesus as high priest of the altar and the enthroned God the Father from his presider's chair, ruled the assembly.
During apostolic times the bishop might have been appointed and ordained by an apostle. After that halcyon era he would be elected by the presbyters and formally ordained by an assembly of neighboring bishops who laid hands on his head, thus ensuring the unity of the Church.
Given the external hostility of Roman authorities and the Jews, and the internal challenge of managing money and personnel, the bishop's job was never easy. Not then; not today. Many, like today's martyr Saint Januarius, were executed as reward for their zeal.
Anyone who wants the job probably wants it for all the wrong reasons. If he gets the job he will suffer even more for the inevitably disappointment; no amount of privilege can balance the misery.
Which is why we must pray for the leaders of our church, from the pope, through the cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, ushers, greeters, readers, Eucharistic ministers down to the altar servers, not to mention virtually everyone else in these trying times. Amen.

Monday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 443

First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.

In recent years many critics have raised concern about the Church's support of the state. When Saint Paul urged Saint Timothy and his disciples to offer prayers for kings and all in authority, few authorities were even aware of their Christian subjects; they were so few.
By the time of Saint Augustine, the Church had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Seeing the Empire disintegrating before his eyes, he wrote his City of God, a book-length essay that foresaw the rise of the Church to political eminence during the middle ages. There was no single state for many centuries but virtually all rulers in Europe claimed allegiance to the Catholic Church, even as they waged continual warfare with one another and the City of God, Rome.
Many Catholics, citing Augustine's work, believe the Church's greatest century was the 13th, when the pope and bishops had enormous political, financial, military, economic and social power. This, despite Pope Innocent II's recognition of an inner corruption and his promotion of the mendicant orders to reform the Church. More than ever before, Europe needed to hear of Jesus' poverty and helplessness.
By the dawn of the 20th century secular governments had regained authority and the Vatican empire was reduced to 110 acres; the Pope's influence, mostly moral. But it took a Second Vatican Council to recognize the rightness of that arrangement.
Throughout these many centuries we have found justification for our attitudes toward secular authority in today's passage from Saint Paul's letter to Timothy and a similar passage in his Letter to the Romans
The Church has an obvious preference for economic and political stability. We pray for our rulers because we want civil authorities, of whatever religious persuasion, to govern wisely and justly, and so to maintain peace. 
We have a long memory of injustice, both those we have suffered and those we have imposed upon others. The Magisterium might deny our support of racism, bigotry and persecution, maintaining as it does the purity of God's action within the Church, but we know that sinful societies, acting in fear and greed, fighting for stability and defending their prosperity, can do terrible things. Catholics recall the hostility we met arriving in the United States and we remember the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre, which spawned such suspicion. We remember too, Catholic Spain's expulsion of Jews and Muslims in 1492. We're not innocent. 
Since Saint Paul wrote his letters to the Romans and to Saint Timothy, we have devised ways to select our governors and change our laws. The Apostle would have supposed God himself willed the Empire, it was so deeply entrenched and settled. We know we have the duty to support, criticise and challenge our governments. They are only secular institutions set up to serve a purpose.
Christian patriots are profoundly aware of their own sins and those of governments. They demand justice especially when it might cost them some measure of comfort or security. Habitually they make sacrifice and they don't mind asking the same of their authorities. 
The Lord himself sent us from Jerusalem to our native or adopted lands to be a blessing. We remain as staunch supporters of good government and fearless critics of corruption; and thus we contribute to God's work of building the Kingdom. 

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 130

Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.

Jesus tells us today a shocking-but-not-surprising story. We've all met people like this. Jesus ben Sirach says, they hug tightly wrath and anger.
Ignoring everything else, wrath, anger and the desire for revenge are their most prized possessions.
But they are also possessed by their diabolical possessions and cannot act reasonably.
People sometimes ask me about diabolical possession. Perhaps they've seen again the movie The Exorcist, or the History Channel has broadcast another of its pseudo-religious theories. After watching that outlandish entertainment they don't want to hear that most of us are possessed from time to time by passions of anger, fear, greed or lust. It's a very common experience and yet profoundly disturbing.
The servant in today's story has apparently been beyond the pale of reasonable behavior for a long time. He seems to believe he can actually pay back in full his overwhelming debt. Supposing he was competent to begin with, we might ask how did he get into this predicament. I met a very competent postmaster one time who lost his job when he gambled with government money. For a mere $700 his career and marriage were destroyed.
Perhaps the mean-spirited servant was always in over his head, but was clever enough to distract others from the obvious. I knew another fellow some years ago who was cruising the gay bars of the local city. No one suspected it despite certain obvious signs of his proclivity because he was habitually aggressive. Thrown on the defensive by his manner, we didn't ask what was he hiding. (The best defense is a good offense.) Finally the crisis erupted and the scales fell from our eyes.
Sinful behavior is insane behavior; it is the behavior of the diabolically possessed. They have given their lives over to a lesser god. They are owned by a master who is unworthy of love or trust.
But we all do it once in a while.
The real failure is not so much this fellow's incompetence, indebtedness or habitual denial; it is his lack of mercy. Shown extraordinary mercy, he shows no mercy.
Perhaps, despite his new freedom -- being forgiven and all -- he is still possessed by the humiliation of being found out. Spared of punishment, he must punish another man who owes him a pittance.
The Gospel of Saint Matthew makes much of mercy. In the Lord's Prayer we ask God to "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."
Jesus only comment on his Prayer follows directly,
"If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.
If we didn't get the message from Matthew 6 (the Sermon on the Mount) this story in Chapter 18 drives it home. Any Christian who expects mercy had better show it to others. Any Christian who thinks he has not already found overwhelming mercy had best look again.

Memorial of Saints Cornelius, Pope, and Cyprian, Bishop, Martyrs

Lectionary: 442

This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.

In the twentieth century, philosophers and theologians began to pay more attention to the identity and experience of the individual person. A philosophy of existentialism was born. I have been laboriously reading Martin Heidegger's 415-page Being and Time for the past month and am now fifty pages into it. Perhaps on the third reading I'll begin to understand his teaching.
     Nevertheless, these philosophers and theologians are onto something. Like Saint Paul, they know that we cannot ignore personal experience. That may seem obvious, and it is; philosophers generally point out the obvious because we're obviously overlooking it! 
     If our thinking begins in personal experience, our communications are framed in traditional language and we assume others know what we're talking about, although they can only hear and understand from their own personal experience. 
     Saint Augustine pondered that mystery. How does a thought in my mind, he wondered, move through my words, mouth and breath to other ears and into their understanding? Does the word I use to mean this, mean this to them? Very often, if not more often than not, what I say is misunderstood. It is always a struggle, as the Captain said of Cool Hand Luke, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."  
     So when Saint Paul wants to reassure his disciples of salvation, he begins with, "This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance!
     With the understanding this next statement is underlined and in bold, he declares. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.How do we know that? "Of these (sinners) I am the foremost!" 
     If you believe his personal experience; if you accept his credibility, you will accept his doctrine about Jesus Christ. 
     It seems -- and I am no philosopher but it seems to me -- that the Church has sometimes tried to divorce personal testimony from the Truth. In other words, the doctrine is floating out there in the ethereal world of Reality, regardless of anyone's acceptance or belief. "You should believe it not because I said it but because it's true!" We might even add to our moral/ethical teaching, "Do as I say, not as I do." 
     Saint Paul knew better. He asked people first to believe in him; and secondly, to believe in his word. He was amazed and grateful when they "took it not as the word of men but as the Word of God."
     If they can't believe in us, they probably cannot believe in our word, even if it is the Word of God, the Truth
...for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.
Saint Paul moved from place to place throughout his career, but not so quickly that people didn't come to know him. He was not the itinerant preacher who gives a weekend mission in a parish, wowing the congregation with erudite oratory, and then moving on before they discover his dark side. He stayed for months and years at a time; they knew his irritability and impatience as well as his humility and zeal. He was apparently grounded in Galatia by a disgusting eye disease; and they tenderly cared for him. They believed in his gospel despite his frail human condition, and he never forgot their kindness.
     Today the Church celebrates the martyrs, Saints Cornelius and Cyprian and, once again, we are astonished by the testimony of our martyrs. Whatever their personal failings -- and we all have them -- they stood by their faith in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit invites and challenges each of us to accept this as my personal credo, not as the word of men but as the word of God: 
"Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."

Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows

Lectionary: 441/639

At the cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.

Through her heart, his sorrow sharing,
All his bitter anguish bearing,
Now at length the sword had passed.

Oh, how sad and sore distressed
Was that Mother highly blessed
Of the sole begotten One!

The Latin poem Stabat Mater Dolorosa is generally attributed to Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi, although this has been disputed. It is a fine example of religious lyric in the Franciscan tradition. It was inserted into the Roman Missal and Breviary in 1727 for the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated on the Friday before Good Friday. Following changes by Pope Pius XII, it now appears on the Feast of Our Lady's Sorrows celebrated on 15 September. wikipedia

[Forgive me if I crow once in a while about our Franciscan heritage. It was quite a movement in the 13th and 14th centuries. Jacopone, a nickname meaning "Crazy James" was part of the excitement.] 

On the day after the Exaltation of the Cross, (it seems to me) the Church might more appropriately celebrate the Ever Glorious Virgin Mary. But I suppose we do that anyway, in many ways. Our Franciscan province celebrates Our Lady of Consolation in October. That title seems to fit today's memorial. 

In Carey Ohio, where I was ordained, there are two altars on either side of the main altar. On the left side is an image of Our Lady of Sorrows. It is a pieta image. The marble Virgin sits in desolation above an altar; below the altar is a marble image of Her dead son. That altar doesn't get much attention; I've not found a photo of it on the website or the facebook page. Pilgrims go immediately to the right side of the basilica and the more familiar image of Our Lady of Consolation, a dressed statue with many fabulous clothes which are changed periodically. 

But Mary is the Consoler of the Afflicted because she has suffered the death of her Son. Saint Paul described that mystery at the beginning of his second letter to the Corinthians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow. If we are afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation; if we are encouraged, it is for your encouragement, which enables you to endure the same sufferings that we suffer.
Because we have suffered much, we comfort others. Veterans sometimes remark about the calm I bring to them as they tell me their sorrows. They might be surprised by it; I needn't tell them my own particular story; they haven't come to meet the chaplain. But I recognize what the grace of God is doing in my presence. God has encouraged me in every affliction so that I may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction. 

It is not an extraordinary grace. Many people entering the church on a Sunday morning find the reassuring presence of a congregation around them. They cannot imagine what sorrows the faithful in that room have suffered; there are too many stories to tell in a year! But the consoling grace manifests itself. 

Our Lady of Sorrows is Our Lady of Consolation; Our Lady of Prompt Succor, and the Consoler of the Afflicted. We honor her with many similar titles because she too has been exalted with Jesus Christ. 

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Lectionary: 638

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

A Veteran told me of his failure in Baghdad. He had come upon the scene too late; a woman and her daughter were dead in the street. Had he been there sooner he might have saved them. He had volunteered to serve in Iraq not because he believed in the American presence there, but because he hoped to save lives.

Seeing mangled bodies in a market street where consumers shopped for their daily bread broke the spirit of this young man. 

The enemy discovered the weakness of the American invasion. They could not resist the warplanes or tanks; there was no weakness there. They could not interrupt the supply of food to feed American soldiers, nor munitions to arm them. But they could exploit our weakness, women and children. An American believes non-combatants, especially the "innocent"should be exempt. All fighting should stop when a child wanders into the kill zone. When the American soldier sees the mangled bodies of toddlers and children something within him dies. The Vietnamese figured that out a half-century ago. Everybody knows it today. 

We should consider that the next time we go to war (with North Korea or Iran?) They might kill their own women and children. Then our demoralized warriors will return home to drink heavily, consume drugs, abuse their loved ones and finally commit suicide. We can afford to lose personnel and materiel in war, but we can't afford endless years of not knowing how to care for our morally wounded Veterans. We thought they would "do the job" and come home to resume the normal lives of civilians. We know better now; the whole world knows we have no stomach for real war. Even the "virtual war" of drones and smart bombs is proving too much for our joystick warriors. They're breaking down even as they sleep with their wives and children in comfortable, suburban homes. 

The Exaltation of the Cross celebrates God's weakness. He could not stop loving us even from the cross. He poured out his last drop of blood with his dying breath. Americans also have weaknesses, though we hate to admit it. We love children. Perhaps our enemies can exploit that weakness and help us to stop going to war. 

Memorial of Saint John Chrysostom, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.

When I was a boy a neighbor kid told me that Heaven was inside the moon. It made sense to me. Heaven was supposed to be up in the sky and the moon was up in the sky; ergo, the moon is heaven.
    Not long after that a Russian cosmonaut reported that he was high in the sky and he saw nothing resembling heaven. When American astronauts looked down they saw a place that was unutterably beautiful but they hesitated to call it heaven.
    Saint Paul used traditional images to describe Christ seated at God's right hand; it was up there above the heavens. Ezekiel, among other prophets, had seen the Lord God Almighty roaring around the heavens in an angelic chariot. Daniel saw one like a son of man approach the One Seated on a Throne in the sky.
    When the highest human structures were stone towers and the heights were mountain tops it made sense that God should be up there in the highest places. The author of Genesis mocked human arrogance when he described God's coming down from his high place to get a look at the Tower of Babel, and further down to confuse their language. No one had ever seen the Earth from above before the inventions of hot air balloons, airplanes and spacecraft.
    Now that we have been there, that air travel has become commonplace, it's more difficult to imagine exactly where Christ is seated at God's right hand.
    Most of us handle that shift pretty well; the more difficult one is to understand Saint Paul's exhortation, "Think of what is above, not of what is of earth."
    Saint Augustine apparently considered hunger, thirst, cold, weariness, fear, anger, sexual desire and desires in general as things of earth. The Christian ascetic, like the Greek stoic, should rise above such things.
    In many ways that neo-Platonic attitude denied the mystery of the Incarnation. Christians supposed that Jesus had not suffered those weaknesses; or he had certainly not let them overcome him. Even sadness seemed a betrayal of faith as graveside mourners urged each other not to weep or cry. "Be strong!" they said.
    In Vietnam, when soldiers died their comrades would say, "It doesn't matter," as they suppressed their grief and horror.
    In recent years we have seen a change of heart about human emotion. Philosophers have moved beyond stoicism and idealism as psychology discovered the cost of repressed feelings. Like the proverbial whack-a-mole, suppressed anger reappears as fear, hate or lust.
    Even Christian ministers have begun to recognize human feelings first in themselves, then in Jesus, and finally among their disciples. We finally notice that Jesus wept, Jesus got angry, Jesus could flirt with women, and Jesus could feel despair. He is, after all, one of us, a chip off the old block!
    In the face of irrepressible human feelings, what does it mean to, "Think of what is above, not of what is on earth?"
    I suppose it begins with the assurance that the Lord God of Heaven and Earth has looked upon you and me with the human eyes of Jesus. He has loved us with the affection of a son or brother, nephew or neighbor. As a child he has looked up at us and admired our courage and generosity in the face of adversity.
    And he has recognized our fearfulness, anger and sadness because he has felt them too; he cannot condemn those who feel as he felt. He has been caught by surprise, as when a centurion asked for his favor and a pagan woman demanded a cure. He has laughed at what was funny -- the Pharisees who strutted about town with their fat bellies and their arrogant manners -- and assured us we can be irreverent at times. He has withdrawn in the face of danger, as when he heard that John the Baptist had been murdered.
    In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that those who are born of the Spirit are born from above.
The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes...
Christians are impelled by the spirit as a sailboat is impelled by the wind. We may not know where it is leading us but we're sure it comes from God. The Spirit of Jesus teaches us to trust our natural feelings of compassion for others, courage in the face of fear, and generosity in the face of need.