Memorial of Saint Jerome

Winter at MSF

But as for me, I know that my Vindicator lives,
and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust;
Whom I myself shall see:
my own eyes, not another's, shall behold him,
And from my flesh I shall see God;
my inmost being is consumed with longing.

Belief in eternal life for the individual soul arose slowly in human history. It was not taken for granted, as many do today, that everyone will pass into eternity and “live happily ever after” in heaven or the happy hunting ground or anywhere else.
Ancient religions of the near east, in particular, saw the human being as rather helpless before the gods. They might, in their better moments, give a moment’s notice to human need. But people often assumed the gods were busily taking care of themselves, indulging in their own pleasures, and trying to win favor from the higher gods. Why would a divine entity that has everything he wants (but always wants more) bother with the poor wretches who toil on earth? What do we have to offer such personages? To the ancients, eternal life with these arrogant characters didn’t even look attractive!
But the Jews, under the direct impact of Revelation from the only God who truly exists, after long experience with this compassionate and caring God, came to believe He cared for all of them and each one of them. He would even take them one by one into eternity.
Today’s reading from the Book of Job seems to mark a moment in the development of that doctrine.
Job complains about the punishments which have fallen upon him. He even has the temerity to demand a hearing in God’s presence. His suffering has disturbed his belief in a caring, compassionate God and so he demands that God explain himself and justify what He has done to Job.
In today’s reading, when he speaks of a “vindicator,” he is speaking of an advocate or a lawyer who will speak for him before the Supreme High Judge. As ancient societies became more complex and law codes were developed to manage large numbers of people, maligned individuals needed lawyers to speak for them before the magistrates.
Job declares he will not be satisfied with the promise that someday his name and reputation will be vindicated. He wants to see and expects to see his Vindicator; and finally he will hear the decree of vindication.
Given that many defenseless and innocent people suffer horrible injustice and die under those circumstances, we have to stand with Job, waiting for God’s reply. “Well? What do you say to him?”
Our faith in Jesus Christ replies in two ways. “Yes, there is an eternal life, a life beyond the grave, when this world’s injustice will be corrected.” and “Yes, your vindicator is God the Son of God, someone far greater than you could deserve or expect. He not only stands with you in your helpless innocence; he stands with you in your guilt. He does not accuse you before the throne of God but he claims you as his own beloved.”
Job’s final remark is mine and yours, “My inmost being is consumed with longing” for the coming of the Lord. 

Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, archangels

War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon.
The dragon and its angels fought back,
but they did not prevail
and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.

Every day and many times a day, we pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” On this feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael we hear of the victory Saint Michael won over Satan when; The huge dragon, the ancient serpent,
who is called the Devil and Satan,
who deceived the whole world,
was thrown down to earth,
and its angels were thrown down with it.

With the Lord’s Prayer we devoutly pray to see the same victory here on earth that John of Patmos saw in the skies of the Mediterranean.

Modern thinkers would like to dismiss the tradition of angels as passé, unnecessary, insubstantial and/or unprovable. But they appear in every book of the Bible and are deeply imbedded in our religious imagination. I don’t watch much television but I suppose that lovely Irish woman Roma Downey is still appearing in reruns of Touched by an Angel. There was a hugely successful Broadway production about the AIDS epidemic called Angels in America. Writers have been cashing in on the popularity of angels as they report apparitions and conversations with divine beings. I read a book some years ago about animal angels, such as those that appear in the writings of Ezekiel, and the angelic horses that drove Achilles’ chariot. So long as the Bible remains in our hands, angels will remain in our religion.

In the scripture angels first appear as messengers of God. They seem to be a part of God’s bureaucracy. As ancient civilizations developed into empires that perforce needed writing, courier services, and minor dignitaries to manage far-flung realms, the Jews supposed God must have his assistants as well. In the Book of Tobit we see two petitions crossing God’s desk from Tobit and Sarah, which He passes along to Raphael:
At that very time, the prayer of these two suppliants was heard in the glorious presence of Almighty God. So Raphael was sent to heal them both…

Isaiah describes the fabulous appearance of God – the  King of kings and Lord of lords surrounded by fiery seraph angels crying Holy, Holy, Holy day and night.

However, in the later days of the Old Testament angels became apocalyptic figures, signaling the abrupt intervention of God into human history. Something long awaited and utterly unpredictable was beginning! 
By the time the New Testament was written we had come to expect angels to announce the birth of the Messiah. They appeared to Mary, Joseph, Zechariah and the shepherds. Finally, when John of Patmos saw the war in heaven, he saw angels and demons duking it out; and, in the twinkling of an eye, the forces of evil vanquished.
When we celebrate angels today we celebrate the victory and eternal sovereignty of God. As my minister friend in Louisiana used to say, “God is still in charge!”
We’re going to face hard time, and doubts will inevitably arise in our minds; but we practice our faith daily and we know, no matter how dark the night, God is still in charge. Angels attest to that! 

Tuesday of the Twenty-sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Cornerstone of MSF school building

Why is light given to the toilers,
and life to the bitter in spirit?
They wait for death and it comes not;
they search for it rather than for hidden treasures,
Rejoice in it exultingly,

and are glad when they reach the grave….                                                                    

Mysteriously and tragically, suicide has become an option for people today. Many, perhaps most, of us have considered it at some point in our lives. Most of us have known people who took their own lives. We read about it almost daily in the newspapers.
I heard recently that fifty thousand men and women were killed in Vietnam, but seventy thousand Vietnam veterans have killed themselves since then. The VA is profoundly aware of this crisis, and instructs everyone from administrators to nurses to housekeepers to ask the downhearted veteran, “Are you thinking of suicide?” We want to do everything we can to prevent the killing.
Many have made a bizarre ritual, almost a liturgy, of self-destruction. Where they used to write a note in the solitude of their last moments, now they kill others – spouses, children, parents, hostages – and themselves, moments before the media and law enforcement close in on them. Invariably the media report the details and then close the rite with a question, “Why did he do it? That remains unanswered.”
But there is nothing new about suicide. Dr. Kevorkian did not invent it. We might ask why it is so common now, but we should remember it has always been an option. If it is more common today, it exposes something rotten in the heart of our culture.  

With his curses upon the day of his birth, Job raises the question of suicide, which is the question about life: “Why am I here?”
As a hospital chaplain I sometimes ask the patient, “Why do you want to get well?” “Why do want to beat this cancer?” or “What do you want to do with the time you have left?”
Some of them are suffering as Job suffered, with little hope for relief. Many are in palliative care. They have an incurable, progressive illness that will certainly lead to their death.
Some want to see their children married with children. Some want to attend their grandchildren’s graduation. Some believe they must care for their ailing spouses. Some only want to go home to smoke and watch television. One fellow, who could take nourishment only through a tube in his abdomen, was determined to walk to the corner tavern one more time.
Our Christian faith gives us a reason not only to live but to live well, with discipline, focus and energy. As servants of the Lord who came to serve and not to be served, we take care of ourselves so that we can care for others. If we cannot quite explain the meaning of our existence we know that God has one for us. He is our joy and our delight, our privilege and our purpose. Even our suffering has meaning as we gaze upon the crucifix and share it with Him. 

Memorial of Saint Vincent de Paul, priest

"Naked I came forth from my mother's womb,
and naked shall I go back again.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
blessed be the name of the Lord!"

The Book of Job is considered one of the finest pieces of literature in all history. Not only does it raise some of the most fundamental questions of human life, it also has the decency not to answer them. Rather, it teaches us to ponder deeply the meaning of our own experience.
The Book may be confusing without some introduction. Modern scholars believe that an ancient scholar – a redactor -- collected stories about a mythical person, Job, who is, by definition, a totally innocent man suffering extreme tribulations. The ancients pondered, as we do, “How that could be?” Why do the innocent suffer; why do the wicked prosper?
Because it came from different sources, the book is a pastiche of different stories with different endings. We have one story about a Job who was finally rewarded for his fidelity under trial; a contradictory story about the Job who was not satisfied with anything he heard; and a third story of a Job who is stunned into obedient silence by an apparition of God. And, of course, none of the answers are very satisfying, not even the one that “God” says. But they’re all declared with wonderful eloquence.
The longest part of the book was supposed to be a series of remarks by Job’s counselors and his rebuttals. But that text, if it was ever complete, was garbled up somewhere and we only have significant fragments.
Can a book be wonderful even if it’s not complete? Many people admire the Venus de Milo, although she lost her arms centuries ago. Few people hesitate to hear Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, and many people have studied Coleridge’s Kublai Khan. What we have of Job is awe-inspiring.

Today’s passage from the Book of Job concludes with the peaceful resignation of our hero. God is God; God will do what God wants to do; blessed be God! This is one answer to the question of suffering. As a mortal human being I have no claim on the immortal God. Everything God gives is grace, whether I like it or not. God is supreme; I am little better than the dust. There must be a God, but he doesn’t need me.
This teaching is not the last word in the Bible about human significance, but it is worth our reflection. It contradicts the entitlement so many of us expect. 
How do you feel when you read those four lines? Insulted? Angry? Relieved? Grateful? Puzzled? Do you think something more is owed to you? Would Jesus want you to think this way? Do you think he felt that way about himself? Do these words make you laugh or cry? If they make you weep, what are you crying about?
The Book of Job is a book of questions, and for that reason all the more faithful to the mystery of human life. 

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Below the dam at MSF

Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours.'
You’ve heard it before: the three most important considerations when buying a house – location, location, location.
Where people live still says much about their income, their family and their politics. They may profess Catholicism, Protestantism or Hindi; the only thing that matters is where they live.
And there is always a great chasm set between the wealthy and the poor. If they could see one another in Jesus’ day, as Lazarus saw Dives through the gate of the rich man’s demesne, we watch one another across the electronic divide. The poor watch Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous; the rich watch the local evening news, which is always purple with stories of shootings, robbery and mayhem.
Who set that chasm? The Hindus believed it was karma, a mechanical process that rated one’s moral behavior and determined what you would be in the next life, a prince, a pauper, or a maggot. Christians supposed it was God’s will, like the “Divine Right of Kings.” Didn’t Jesus bless the way things are with his caustic remark to Judas, “The poor you always have with you?”
Only recently, do we realize the great chasm has been "set" by our own economic practices. It is our own creation. But, with the American Revolution, we have acquired the myth of upward mobility; and it might be crossed with hard work and ingenuity. Indeed we have created a "middle class" where the vast majority of people can live in reasonable security, with sufficient food, shelter, health care, education and recreation to enjoy life. 
But the myth is dying. The chasm has been growing wider since the salad days of the 1960’s. One in seven Americans lives in poverty today. Most children in the Louisville public schools live below the poverty line. Many have no home. The kitchens that provided thirty homeless people with food in the 1980’s now feed three hundred people.
And the numbers keep getting worse. 
In his magisterial work, The Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says of Amos and the great prophets of pre-exilic Israel:
Indeed, the sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitations of the poor – is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us, injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them a catastrophe, a threat to the world…. To the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions.

Our Mass should remind us weekly of the cosmic gulf that still remains impassable between the rich and the poor. Lazarus cannot enter the rich man’s house; Dives cannot imagine letting him in -- he begs the poor man for a drop of water to “cool my tongue.”

Saturday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Brother Hugo's Bird House

Rejoice, O young man, while you are young and let your heart be glad in the days of your youth.
As he comes to the end of his book Qoheleth complains of the burdens of old age and urges the “young man” to enjoy the privilege of youth while it lasts. I think there may be at least the shadow of a smile on his face as he mourns the loss of eyesight, hearing, teeth, and the satisfactions of a good laxative (the caper berry.)
His advice to the young is surely timeless wisdom, and the kind of advice an old man of any age, nation or religion might give. So why is it in our Bible? And why should we hear it today?
I am struck by his religious assumptions, especially his references to the God who judges and The Creator.
Modern philosophy does not accept these assumptions. A radical philosophy of individualism, such as that of Ayn Rand, declares there is no judge. The existentialist Sartre famously declared, “If there is a god, there shouldn’t be!” They and their ilk believe the human being is the supreme being; there is no one to judge us, and no one to save us – even from ourselves.
They dispute our creation. We’re here, that’s certain, but why we are here is not. We can only speculate as to how we came about, but there was certainly no God who did it. Or none they can detect. Ultimately, each person must create her and his own reason for being. Salvation, if there is any such thing, belongs to those (few) who successfully answer that question.

Despite all his philosophical grumbling, Qoheleth did not doubt the existence of a creator/judge who would validate his existence. If he raised imponderable questions, he still hoped and believed they are somehow answerable.
Faced with the same questions many centuries later, believers in the Jewish/Christian tradition accept the existence of God -- some with Qoheleth’s resignation; others with joyous gratitude. 

Friday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Wooded hillside and creekbed

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every thing under the heavens.

In 1959 Pete Seeger wrote the song, Turn,Turn,Turn based on this passage from Ecclesiastes, adding only the words, “ I swear it's not too late.” The band, The Byrds made the song briefly famous, and some of us old folks still remember their plea for world peace.
But Qoheleth's poem is less about world peace than a teaching about life and its mysteries. There is a time for everything. And the wise person knows the time.
In its original Greek language, the word is not chronos but kairos. Chronos refers to the hour of the day as calculated since midnight or sunup or whatever. It counts the hours by number.
Kairos refers to the moment or the season when something is appropriate. There is a time for bawdy jokes but not usually at a funeral. There is a time for mourning the dead but not usually during a cocktail party.
A wise person knows the time and acts accordingly. Some might call it “common sense” or maturity and they would not be far wrong.
But the road of wisdom is a long one and, even among sensible adults, there may be hard discussions about the time. Should we invest in new projects or save our money for another day? Should we now wage war or peace? Is it time to invite immigrants or exclude them?
Many people remember British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement in dealing with the tyrant Hitler in 1938. Even today his stance is regarded as cowardly, foolish and insane. The time had come for all-out war -- or so it seemed to many – and nations threw themselves with terrible energy into the worse war in human history. Seventy years after the fact, we look back and wonder why anyone hesitated to enter that war.
But it’s never easy to know the time. Should we have invaded Afghanistan after 9/11? And Iraq a few months later? Is it now time to withdraw from that chronically troubled part of the world?
Qoheleth understood there is a time for everything under heaven and the sage knows the time, but he also knew that awareness is given by the Spirit of Wisdom.
With this song Qoheleth teaches us to pray continually that we will know the time, and act accordingly. 

Memorial of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, priest (better known as Padre Pio)

Below the spillway at MSF
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!

The inclusion of Ecclesiastes in the Bible demonstrates the remarkable open-mindedness of our Jewish/Christian tradition. The book refutes the hopefulness and optimism of our faith, and yet we read it. It reflects a cynicism that always lurks at the edge of our awareness, testing our faith, inviting us to just let it go.
Ideologues know only one way to think, they have no patience with disagreement or doubt. They’ve always been among us, sometimes courageously demonstrating their faith even to the point of death; sometimes embarrassing themselves and us with boneheaded nonsense.
In the Book of Job they are represented by the three sages who came to comfort him but could not abide his challenging God’s justice. In many ways the Book of Job is a companion text to Ecclesiastes.
Both books remind us that our reasoning, as beautiful as it is, cannot penetrate all the ineffable mysteries of life. There are some things that don’t make sense, and whatever we say about them is nonsense. Very often we must sit before these mysteries and be silent. Job’s friends were doing fine until they opened their mouths.
As a chaplain in the Veterans’ Hospital I practice this silence. I cannot answer the Veteran who wants to know, “Why is this happening to me?” Even if he has cirrhosis of the liver after a lifetime of heavy drinking, I do not know why he is dying. Lots of people abuse alcohol, only some of them get cirrhosis. Not all smokers get COPD. Obesity doesn’t always lead to diabetes.
For that matter, virtuous living doesn’t always lead to earthly happiness. Children of the devout sometimes spurn their parents’ religion. Non-smokers get lung cancer and non-drinkers get cirrhosis. Go figure!
We should use our minds to unlock nature’s secrets, as they say; but we should use our lips to keep us silent before the unknowable. If we really need an explanation for everything, God will provide it in God’s own time. In the meanwhile we sometimes nod our heads in silent agreement with the cynic Qoheleth,
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!

Wednesday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

A place in the shade
at the MSF Picnic 2010

Every word of God is tested;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Add nothing to his words,
lest he reprove you, and you will be exposed as a deceiver.
A fellow in recovery once told me, “After I sobered up I discovered it’s so much simpler to tell the truth all the time. That way, I don’t have to keep track of what I told each person.”
He described an incredibly difficult and dangerous life. Lying, he told his wife one thing; his girl friend, something else; and his boss, a third story. How do you keep track of all these stories? After a while, you can’t remember which is true, if any is true. After a while, you don’t even know the truth. Talk about stress!
Life in the Lord is so much simpler. But it takes courage because we must continually own our shortcomings. “No, I didn’t finish that report.” “No, I didn’t wake up in time.” “Yes, I said that.”
The liar thinks he can control the stories people believe, and manipulate the way they think. Terrified of reality, he must continually control the illusions, like a juggler managing too many balls, plates, and bowling pins. When confronted with his own falsehood he echoes Chico Marx, “Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

Some people doubt that the practice of faith is reasonable. But fidelity is far more reasonable and infinitely simpler than turning fiction to truth. 

Feast of the Apostle Saint Matthew

I, a prisoner for the Lord,
urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
bearing with one another through love,
striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit
through the bond of peace:
one Body and one Spirit,
as you were also called to the one hope of your call;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
one God and Father of all,
who is over all and through all and in all.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul urges his people to live peaceably with one another. I get the impression as I read these words that keeping peace and practicing peace didn’t come easily to them. Notice the words he uses: urge, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing, striving to preserve the unity, and bond.
Are these the words you would expect to hear when someone invites you to join a community? That you should prepare to be humble, gentle, patient, and bear with them? You will have to strive in this fellowship? Wouldn’t you rather join a community that is easy to get along with?
But this Church is not a garden club. It’s not a business community or even a military unit. It will dig deeper into your resources and demand more of your personal life than any of those organizations. You will almost certainly be scandalized at how persistently sin remains in this fellowship of the saved. And you will be dismayed at how your own selfish habits remain.

I have found it helpful to remember I did not join the Church, the Franciscan Order or the priesthood to save them. I may have been sent here by God but it wasn’t for their benefit! It was for my sake. I need this church and I need these people – more than they need me. 
True, I should bring my gifts and share them generously; but more importantly, I should honor the gift of each person in the community, and the opportunity to be among them.

Memorial of Saint Andrew Kim Taegŏn, priest and martyr, and Saint Paul Chŏng Hasang, martyr, and their companions, martyrs

Ferns at MSF

For there is nothing hidden that will not become visible, and nothing secret that will not be known and come to light.

The Evangelists could not have imagined the dangers of live microphones when a muttered remark might be broadcast to the world. They never dreamed an embarrassing photograph might amuse millions of strangers. They didn’t suppose a long forgotten incident might lurk eternally on the Internet to destroy careers and reputations. But they knew about gossip and how difficult it is to counter a particularly malicious falsehood.
Perhaps most people, hearing the above verse from the Gospel of Saint Luke, suppose it is about their shameful secrets coming to light. If they fail to emerge in this world they might surface on That Day when the Lord judges each of us before the nations. How embarrassing that might be!
However -- this verse is not about our unfortunate sins; it’s about the gospel. Sometimes Christians have to hide their love for Jesus. Since the day Christ died until now, his goodness has sometimes aroused violent hate, and we have found it necessary to whisper the Gospel to one another.
In Ireland, the Mass was celebrated on quiet roads far off the beaten path, when peripatetic priests gathered the country folks to worship. In Holland they created secret chapels in the upper floors of homes, where guests never came unless they were invited to midnight Mass. In Japan Catholic Christians kept the faith for centuries despite a vicious persecution. Without priests, they had no sacraments but baptism and marriage and their closest friends had no idea they were secretly Catholic. Even when Catholic missionaries were welcomed back to Japan after Admiral Perry’s opening of Japan in 1854, these secret Catholics would not come out in the open.
Today’s gospel is a promise to all those who have kept the faith in secret, when they dared not share it with anyone. Their courage, integrity and fidelity will be honored on That Day when the Lord comes to judge the nations. 

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

MSF Picnic 2010

No servant can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other. 

You cannot serve both God and mammon."

In today’s first reading, the Prophet Amos berates his contemporaries for their exploitation of the poor, the foolish and the defenseless:
We will buy the lowly for silver,
and the poor for a pair of sandals;
even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!"
The Lord has sworn by the pride of
Never will I forget a thing they have done!

In his classic study of The Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes,
There are more scandals, more acts of corruption, than are dreamed of in philosophy. It would be blasphemous to believe that what we witness is the end of God’s creation. It is an act of evil to accept the state of evil as either inevitable or final. Others may be satisfied with improvement, the prophets insist upon redemption. The way man acts is a disgrace, and it must not go on forever. Together with condemnation, the prophet offers a promise. The heart of stone will be taken away, a heart of flesh will be given instead. (Ezek. 11:19) even the nature of the beasts will change to match the glory of the age. The end of days will be the end of fear, the end of war; idolatry will disappear, knowledge of God will prevail.

If Amos was horrified by what he saw in his day, he would be no less appalled by what happens routinely in our banking and business sectors. He would see our “democratic” government corrupted by powerful lobbies who care neither for justice nor compassion, who play only to win and game the system for everything they can take. He would discover the cheating, the short-changing and the corner-cutting that happens in every industry from medicine to education to government to infrastructure. He would see an entertainment industry consistently exploiting the basest instincts of the populace with no concern for consequences.
The prophet could pull up a thousand studies to show how our entire civilization teeters on the edge of collapse with our refusal to conserve energy, maintain infrastructures, protect the unborn, assist the poor, care for prisoners, discipline our consumption, or provide for the elderly. He would not be amused by our passion for sports or our obsession with powerful weapons, powerful cars, and powerful computers. In fact he would condemn our obscene worship of power, even as we gaze with pious eyes upon the powerless God who died on a cross.
Speaking with the terrible wrath of God he says again, “Never will I forget a thing they have done!”
Jesus speaks to us today through the Gospel of Saint Luke, somewhat more gently but with no less urgency: You cannot serve both God and mammon. Etching a pious phrase on your coinage – In God we trust – may mollify the foolish but it does not cancel Jesus’ warning.  Like Lot in the doomed city of Sodom, we find ourselves surrounded, enmeshed and deeply compromised by the culture in which we live.
Saint Paul, in the tradition of Jeremiah, has taught us to pray for our civil authorities and to support just laws. But we should never confuse the Kingdom of God with any nation or constitution. Nations rise, nations fall; we have seen them come and go. We belong to God and have been sent to be a “sign that will be contradicted” by our contemporaries. We are sojourners in a strange land, and can never be satisfied with improvement. Our passion is for salvation. 

Saturday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

So also is the resurrection of the dead.
It is sown corruptible; it is raised incorruptible.
It is sown dishonorable; it is raised glorious.
It is sown weak; it is raised powerful.
It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual one.

It’s odd to me that the resurrection of the just is so very important in our Christian tradition and of secondary importance to the Jewish tradition. At the time of Jesus the Pharisees believed in a personal afterlife for the just; Herodians and Sadducees rejected the new doctrine.
The Pharisees, despite their reputation in the Christian gospels, were the most faithful of the various Jewish sects at the time. They were neither wealthy nor influential but they were more adaptable and progressive when Judaism needed to adapt to the changing times. The controversy of Jesus and his disciples with the Pharisees, which grew more heated as the gospel spread throughout the Roman empire, was exaggerated precisely because Pharisaism represented the best alternative for those who sincerely sought the Truth. When Jerusalem was crushed by Roman armies in 70 A.D and the entire Jewish world reacted with consternation and grief, the Pharisees had the wherewithal to respond to the new situation.
To this day many faithful Jews show little interest in the resurrection of the just. They are content to know that God is good and that God in his infinite mercy has chosen them as his people.
But the doctrine, as Saint Paul insisted, is essential for us:
If there is no resurrection of the dead,
then neither has
Christ been raised.
And if
Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching;
empty, too, your faith.
We believe in and rightfully expect an eternity of bliss with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We look forward to singing God’s praises with all the saints and angels, to an ongoing revelation of astonishing mysteries, to a growing sense of wonder within hearts that are ever-expanding with gratitude for pure goodness.
But it is, when we sit back and think about it, hard to imagine. Where will all those people go? Where will they all come from? The Catholic Church no longer believes that only those who were fortunate to hear the name of Jesus Christ will be saved; we suppose that God’s grace reaches to “anonymous Christians” who lived as Jesus lived wherever they might have been. If they were basically decent human beings, seeking goodness and truth and beauty and avoiding egregious sin then God will surely show mercy to them.
The apocalyptic traditions of our religion would divide the human race into good and evil, sheep and goats. That’s a worthy metaphor because it reminds us that salvation, which didn’t come easily for Jesus or Mary, will not come easily for anyone else. But that either/or paradigm may be too simplistic to describe the mercy of God.
Returning to the question of imagination, it’s clear that some of Saint Paul’s contemporaries were trying to imagine how the dead might appear when they are raised. If they could not imagine it, they supposed, then it’s nonsense.
Saint Paul, in his usual inimitable fashion, scolded them, “You fools!” He might have said, “If you can’t imagine it, does that mean God cannot?” Then he pointed to the inexhaustible creativity of nature, which can imagine an oak tree out of an acorn, and a butterfly out of a caterpillar. “Did you see that coming? Did you expect the crucified Lord to rise from the dead? Of course not!
“Have you ever successfully predicted the future?”
No one can see the future. No one can imagine the limits of God’s merciful creativity because there are none! How God will pull this off we do not know. We can have fun with it, imagining family reunions and streets of gold and so forth. Personally I am hoping for a good set of eyes, good hearing, and a slim 36-inch waistline.
But it will be wonderful, in any case, because God is good and nothing is impossible with God.  

Friday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Fun in the Trash and Treasure
MSF Picnic 2010

If there is no resurrection of the dead,
then neither has Christ been raised.
And if Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching;
empty, too, your faith.
As the Catholic chaplain in the Louisville VA hospital, I often visit dying patients and their families. Sometimes I provide their last liturgical prayers, Viaticum and the Commendation of the Dying.
"Viaticum" is  "food for the journey," that is, the Blessed Sacrament for the last time. 
The "Commendation of the Dying" begins with one or more readings from the scriptures. Often I read the words of Jesus as found in the Gospel of John, chapter 6: 
Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me,
Then I invite all the saints and angels to join us in prayer, with the Litany of the Saints. Finally, I invite the dying patient: 
Go forth, Christian soul, from this world 
in the name of God the almighty Father,
who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God,
who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit,
who was poured out upon you.
Go forth, faithful Christian!
May you live in peace this day,
may your home be with God in Zion,
with Mary, the virgin Mother of God,
with Joseph, and all the angels and saints.

On several occasions the patient died shortly after my reading of this prayer. It seemed as if the portals of eternity swung open for a moment. We felt the presence of saints and angels as they welcomed the new arrival. We solemnly handed him over to them and the doors closed. Suddenly he was gone and life resumed for the rest of us.
Working in the secular, but very spiritual environment of the VA hospital, I have become all the more convinced of the power of our Christian liturgies. In today’s reading from First Corinthians, Saint Paul uses arguments to remind his people of the promise of everlasting life. Argument has its place, but it is not half so convincing or a tenth as beautiful as our ceremony. From within the cathedral of our sacraments and through its stained glass windows, we can see rising sun of God. We need no arguments to persuade us that morning has broken.

Memorial of Saint Cornelius, pope and martyr, and Saint Cyprian, bishop and martyr

MSF picnic 2010

He said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."
The others at table said to themselves,
"Who is this who even forgives sins?

Despite our daily prayer declaring our readiness to “forgive those who trespass against us,” forgiveness never comes easily. In many cases it is almost unimaginable. Can we forgive the perpetrators of 9/11? If we were willing, what atonement might we demand, and of whom? Can we forgive the lesser offenses that happen daily in our families and work places?
“Who can forgive sins but God?” the Pharisees demanded. And they were right. Only God has the freedom to forgive sins, and only God can affect forgiveness. “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God.”
The best we can do is undergo a two step process: 1) become willing to allow grace to bring us to forgive, and 2) with the grace of God, forgive.
There are alternatives:
  1. We can forget, burying the incident in the past and acting as if it never happened.
  2. We can get over it, saying “That’s just the way life is.” or “That’s the way people act.”
  3. We can chalk the disappointment up to a learning experience with the decision never to trust that person again. (First time, shame on you; second time, shame on me!)
  4. Or we can seek revenge. (I don’t get mad; I get even.)

But these alternatives cannot give us the satisfaction of forgiveness. Forgiveness reopens our hearts and minds to life. Even if I decide that I can no longer trust this person as I did, I can still respect the person as one who is made in God’s image. Perhaps I realize my trust was premature and misdirected. I may have hoped this person was someone else, a projection of my own unresolved issues for love, attention or affection.
Forgiveness heals my ability to enjoy without the barriers and guarded boundaries that resentment needs. I can breathe freely in that person’s presence, confident that the wholeness I have found, which originates in God, will protect me.
The martyrs teach us this lesson. That’s why it's so necessary to study their  lives. Under the most terrible situations, in the face of hostility they demonstrate gentleness. For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. For God, all things are possible.