Feast of Saint Andrew, Apostle



If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved.

I have never figured out what people mean by the words spiritual and spirituality, and I rarely use them. I understand that Franciscan spirituality is different from Carmelite or Benedictine or Jesuit. I can see that Roman Catholic spirituality is different from Lutheran and Methodist spiritualities. But once you get beyond religious communities who express their spirit with rituals, doctrines and works of charity, I don’t know what the words mean.
It’s ironic that Saint Paul would redefine the word spirit in his Epistle to the Romans, as he struggled to express clearly what it means to belong to Jesus Christ, and many of today’s spiritualities intentionally ignore Jesus Christ. If I were in control I’d tell them to find another word to mean something which transcends but is not connected to the human body or a recognizable community. In today’s usage, so far as I can tell, spirituality often means irreligious, which I think is oxymoronic. But (fortunately) I am not in control.
In today’s reading from the Epistle to the Romans, Saint Paul expresses what he means by The Spirit. It refers to that ancient, human problem of words. What does a word mean if its speaker is lying?
Muriel Rukeyser has a wonderful poem about this conundrum. When a lazy soda jerk pours the grape drink into the orange dispenser, and the orange into the grape, it rocks her universe. Suddenly words don’t mean what they were intended to mean and the foundations of civilized life crumble.
In Romans, Saint Paul assures his disciples they are saved because they confess with their lips “Jesus is Lord,” and believe the same in their hearts. There is no difference between what they say and what they mean. In effect he says, “Because your word and your spirit and your flesh are all in perfect agreement, you have nothing to fear.”
That is the meaning of Baptism and Eucharist and Confirmation, the sacraments by which a non-believer becomes a believing member of the Church. All the other sacraments are built on that foundation.
For that matter, our entire civilization is built on that firm foundation. When a contractor signs an agreement to build a bridge according to the exact specifications of a dependable bridge, he pours his word into the very cement of that structure. Several months later, when the mayor and governor come together to cut the ribbon for that bridge, the whole world knows we can drive on that bridge without fear. Its foundation is not simply the base rock in the earth below that river; it is also the Truth to which the contractor has sworn his name.
But if he took liberties with the materials and workmanship of that bridge, if he “tried to follow the spirit of the contract but not the exact wording” then we have something less dependable. If the bridge fails we’ll probably find that contractor missing; his corporation went bankrupt and he is now working under another pseudonym.
In our Christian tradition we use the word incarnation to indicate God’s commitment to human life. God has sworn, his word has become flesh, and he will not relent.

Monday of the First Week of Advent


Fallen oak leaves
make an interesting desktop!

Then will the Lord create,
over the whole site of
Mount Zion
and over her place of assembly,
A smoking cloud by day
and a light of flaming fire by night.
For over all, the Lord’s glory will be shelter and protection:
shade from the parching heat of day,
refuge and cover from storm and rain.

The Hebrew Shekina indicates the presence of God; it is usually represented in scripture by “a smoking cloud by day and a light flaming fire by night.” In our Catholic churches candles and clouds of incense remind us of God’s awesome, gentle presence.
On this second day of Advent the church reminds us of God’s protecting shekina. It is shade from the parching heat; it is refuge and cover from storm and rain. Which of us has never moved to the shade of tree on a blistering hot day, or sought refuge and cover from storm and rain? So gentle and sure is God’s presence.
As people of prayer we move habitually to the shelter of prayer. Whether we’re hearing of earthquakes around the Pacific rim or ominous spots on our x-rays, we turn to prayer. The ambulance’s siren and the hurricane’s alert call us to prayer. Like baby chicks to the hen or foals to the mare, we rush to God’s presence. He abides in our hearts and we always find him there.
But this habit did not come easily. We learned to do penance for our sins as we invited God to take up residence. We had to invite his “blast of searing judgment” to be purged of our filth, and daily we must clean house to rid ourselves of potential resentments, envy, greed and fear.
Like the centurion, we recognize God’s goodness. It is pure, delightful and wholesome. And we acknowledge God’s authority. We tremble in fear as we invite the Lord to come under our roof, knowing we are not worthy of so honorable a guest. And yet we insist, he is our God; there is no other.

First Sunday of Advent


The Crucifix at
St Meinrad Archabbey
...it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.
For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed;
the night is advanced, the day is at hand.

Winter is a great time to sleep. Out on the farm the roosters crow and the donkeys bray later in the morning. Long nights invite us to stay abed and wait for the sun to rise. In ancient times, before the advent of the light bulb, people in the temperate zones of the earth enjoyed their long, winter naps.
But medieval monks, eager to chant their psalms in praise of God and to finish all their chores, invented a gravity-powered device they called a clock. The word is German for bell, as in glockenspiel. The first clocks had neither face nor hands; they were designed to chime in the early hours of the morning, to waken the monks and call them to prayer. Their melodious sounding meant, “It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.” It’s ironic that modern life is driven by the clock but the first clocks assisted prayer.

Advent invites us to consider the mystery of time. What is it all about? Why do I have time? How should I use my time? Some of us are living on borrowed time. I suffered a serious accident in 1993. Some people at the scene thought I would never make it to the hospital. I meet people in the hospital who just want more time; they realize their night is far advanced, the day is at hand. Others, to the very end, never understand they have run out of time; they just don’t believe it.

Advent invites us to pay attention to time. It is not unlimited; sometimes it runs out unexpectedly. Advent says, “Now is the acceptable time.

Ceremonies, both secular and religious, remind us of time. If they have any meaning it’s because we stop what we’re doing to shake hands, to say “Good Morning!” to celebrate a birthday party or a Mass or Christmas. There is no future or past during a ceremony, there is only the present moment and our attention to it.

Ceremonies lead us into the eternally present. Christmas remembers last year’s Christmas and next year’s. It has roots in prehistoric and mythological times. What year is it when we celebrate Christmas? It doesn’t matter. The earth gave us Christmas with its clock-like orbit around the sun. Should the day come when humankind will disappear from the earth, Christmas Day will still come round.

Because of its eternal significance we bring enormous expectation to the holiday. It promises so much, more than we can receive in this world, and yet we want it all. We love Christmas but -- sinners that we are -- we make it complicated. We expect too much and want too much of a simple feast. Sometimes we smother it, as if we’re throwing logs onto a tiny flame and expecting it to burst into a bonfire. We’re often so busy preparing for Christmas that when it comes we’re glad it’s over.

To appreciate Christmas we have to recognize it as a gift. We cannot make it happen but we can receive it as it arrives. Because Christmas is a long awaited moment in time, we must sacrifice time in preparation for it. Doing good works is good; giving money to the needy is wonderful, but neither replaces spending time in God’s presence.  

Prepared as we are to take the time to prepare for Christmas, many of us find the Liturgy of the Hours especially rich and satisfying. Each year I love to hear the First Vespers antiphon: Proclaim the good news among the nations, our God will come to save us.
If you’ve not yet made your plans for how you will observe the Advent season, think about taking up the Liturgy of the Hours. It’s actually available on line, accessible to everyone.
Come let us worship.

Saturday of the Thirty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time



Our Lady of
St Meinrad Archabbey

They will look upon his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.
Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun,
for the Lord God shall give them light,
and they shall reign forever and ever.
And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true…

These words bring us to the end of the Book of Revelation and the end of the liturgical year. They promise everlasting bliss to the faithful.
Sometimes I wonder how a human being – myself in particular – could be content forever. That’s seems like a very long time.
Revelation is addressed to people who live with great distress; they long for nothing so much as peace. They have seen enough of ostracism, mistreatment, persecution and war. They have lived with anxiety and fear and doubt even as they courageously cling to their faith in Jesus Christ. They have been tossed hither and yon by the hatred of enemies, the contempt of their neighbors and betrayal in their own trusted circles. Heaven for them is freedom from fear, reasonable prosperity, contentment and eternal rest. It is a place where they can sing and dance and sleep and pray and enjoy one another’s company under God’s protecting eyes.
What should people who have never known such distress expect? As a Catholic born in post-war America, I have enjoyed the prosperity of these years. No foreign nation has invaded my country. In fact my nation has dominated the earth throughout my life, threatening mortal peril to anyone who might threaten not just my life but my “way of life.” At one time, like others in my class, I supposed the entire world could – and eventually would -- enjoy my middle class entitlement to prosperity, mobility, education, health care, longevity, retirement and leisure. 
Only recently do I realize that day will never come, even as the American way of life becomes the apparent goal of billions of people. The earth cannot afford very many more Americans.

Revelation reminds us that no one can imagine the future. Saint Paul says of eternal bliss: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart… God has prepared for those who love him…" (I Cor 2:9)

He once described his personal contentment as he cooled his heels in another Roman jail:
I have learned, in whatever situation I find myself, to be self-sufficient. I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me. (Philippians 4: 11-13)

His satisfaction with less than luxury -- with nothing more than sufficiency -- may well be an opening to eternal bliss in the Lord.

Friday of the Thirty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time


The Altar in Saint Meinrad
Archabbey Chapel

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.
The former heaven and the former earth had passed away,
and the sea was no more.
I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God,
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

There is a surprising number of fundamentalist Christians in the United States who take their literal reading of this passage as seriously as Catholics regard our literal reading of “Take and eat, this is my body.” Unfortunately they have no papal authority to define their belief as clearly as ours, and their ranks are deeply divided over a million different interpretations of the millennium. Broadly divided into two groups, pre-millenniums and post-millenniums; some expect the Reign of God to appear in our earthly, political experience. Others regard earthly life as already doomed and beyond the authority of grace; they say the end of history will come first and then God’s kingdom.
The Catholic Church has no official teaching on this “thousand years” of which Revelation speaks. We neither expect it to be an historical event, nor disregard its possibility. However, we expect the second coming of Jesus at any time, as we have for the last two thousand years. And, of course, we make plans for the future because it might be as important as the past.
Had I been a church historian, I would have written a book on the history of millennialism. If you have read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose you might have some idea of how rich and exciting that story is, and continues to be. It's fascination continues with the pot-boiler novels of the Left Behind series. 
Some have bemoaned the fact that Christianity was born out of Judaism at a moment when the ancient religion was pregnant with apocalyptic and messianic expectation. When else could it have happened? But we brought that first century Jewish anxiety and earnestness with us, as history and their philosophy took them elsewhere. 
Sometimes we get carried away with expectation. Christian Europe was rich with divine expectation when Columbus discovered America. Gutenberg invented the press and the Protestant reformation began around the same time. Change was in the air. Evangelical zeal drove gold-seeking explorers into the jungles of South America and the deserts of North America, followed by missionaries and colonists. They, in turn, wreaked havoc on the natives of both continents and the Caribbean Islands – a tragedy still seeking atonement.
And sometimes, in our expectation, we Christians get on each others’ nerves, as during the Protestant Reformation when Catholics and Protestants went at each other hammer and tong.  Long before Islam invented jihad, Christians were killing pagans and one another in the full expectation that heaven would reward them for their labor.
We cannot and should not try to temper the heat of our expectation, but we must learn to practice our spiritual warfare, our jihad, within our own hearts. There will be occasional millenniums -- lasting perhaps a thousand seconds, minutes, hours, or even a thousand tranquil days -- when we experience true inner peace. But during most of our lives we wait for God’s Kingdom by practicing penance, patience and charity toward all. 

Thanksgiving



Saint Meinrad's Monastery
Chapel
To be fully human, to be anything remotely like what God intended when he created human beings -- in his own image and likeness, male and female, he created them – we must be grateful. We must say thank you a thousand times in a hundred different ways every day of our life. Every religious tradition knows this. The Buddhist monk goes down to the stream with his ladle, raises a bowl of water to the sky, pours some of it back in the stream to show his appreciation, and then drinks. If his tradition does not name the deity he worships he must express his gratitude nonetheless. Catholics, Christians of all denominations, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, even Wiccans (I suppose) have their distinctive ways of saying thanks.
The story is told of the old farmer who went to the big city for his occasional shopping. He went into a diner and ordered a plate of food. When the food arrived he paused for a moment of prayerful gratitude. A young fellow happened to see this and, to entertain his buddies, said, “Hey old man, does everybody in your hick town pray like that before they eat?” The old man thought a moment and replied, “No, son. The pigs don’t.”
A companion once asked me a similar question, but more politely. “Why do you pray before you eat?” I told him I don’t know how not to. Gratitude is what we do.
And yet the world picks away at our human nature. They’d rather demean the occasion by calling it “turkey day” and crowd it with football games. 
Or they’ll bypass the feast altogether. Tim Burton’s “Nightmare before Christmas,” segues from Halloween to Christmas without mention of All Saints, All Souls, Veterans Day, Christ the King or Thanksgiving. They have places to go, people to see, things to buy, and money to make. They have no time to give thanks.
Nor do they know what to thank God for. They haven’t the time to think about it, much less time to appreciate it. They’re concern is all about the future – “How much money will we make?”
Thanksgiving is today; it is now. Gratitude sees eternity in a drop of water. Its satisfaction is a crust of bread. Its roots are the love of God. Its spirit is a breath of wholesome, clean air. It’s delight is to share with family, friends and neighbors the blessings of security and sufficient prosperity.

Memorial of Saint Andrew Dũng-Lac, priest and martyr, and his companions, martyrs


Then I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire.
On the sea of glass were standing those
who had won the victory over the beast…

Catholic scripture scholars, as opposed to fundamentalist scholars, insist the essential message of the Book of Revelation is comfort. It begins with Isaiah 40: Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.
Despite the violence and wrath that shimmer on every page of the book, the news is good for God’s people. You have nothing to fear. Those who should dread are those who will never hear the message, who refuse to hear the Gospel.
In our American tradition our African-American co-religious, especially, offer us this good news. During the days of slavery, when white ministers misread the Epistles of Saint Paul to reinforce “the peculiar institution,” slave preachers heard and announced the story of Exodus and Moses and the long sojourn in the land of Egypt. They knew the day must come when they would be delivered by the Hand of God into the Promised Land. As Union armies invaded the south, liberation moved ahead of them. Black slaves fled their homes, many to enlist in the federal army to form their own fighting units, even as their shocked former masters grieved over their “ingratitude, after all we did for them!”
At the time of the writing of Revelation, Christians found themselves despised by Jews and scorned by gentiles. They suffered sporadic persecution because they would not offer the perfunctory sacrifice in the temples of Roman gods. Romans were pretty generous toward traditional religions. They didn’t mind if their subject nations continued to honor their ancient gods, so long as they recognized the supremacy of Rome and its all-conquering pantheon. But they were suspicious of new religions. New doctrines could only mean political trouble. That is why Saint Luke was at such pains to show the traditional links between Judaism and Christianity, and Saint Paul advised his disciples to obey the civil laws.
But Christians suffered nonetheless and wondered how long must this ostracism and mistreatment continue. Revelation (12:14), recalling the Book of Daniel (7:25), assured them it would be brief -- a year, two years, and a half-year. That is one half of the usual seven years.
In our time, in the United States, suffering no persecution for our Christian beliefs but rather enjoying an unfamiliar hegemony, we must practice restraint, hospitality and tolerance toward people of other religions, especially Native Americans, Jews and Muslims. Remembering how we were treated – as the Israelites remembered their suffering in Egypt – we must not be found guilty of discrimination, unfairness or rudeness toward other faiths. You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)

Tuesday of the Thirty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time


The old water tower at MSF,
now a radio tower

The Lord comes to judge the earth.

There seems to be no shortage of judges in the world. The newspapers daily recount their judgments on government policies, political statements, movies, books, and art shows. Everybody has an opinion and most are eager to share them.
But is there a real judge whose opinions are right and just, and whose decisions, matter?  As the world goes about its business most people would say no. for them life is a matter of struggling, negotiating and compromising toward one’s goal.
One time, when I was much younger and more elastic, I participated in a two-part group exercise. In the first part, everyone was asked to choose a place in the room he would like to stand. There was a certain amount of interaction and conflict but each man and woman soon settled on a particular spot.
Then we were invited to link arms with one another in one large circle, and return to our favorite spots. The struggle was fierce, disappointing and finally instructive. I got within four feet of my spot and, being pulled away again, decided that was good enough. But the movement continued for ten or fifteen minutes. There was no end of it because some people still struggled to attain their goals. Perhaps the most determined outlasted the rest of us and finally got there. I don’t know. But the point was, we’re all linked to one another and no one gets everything she wants.
That’s life. That’s economics and politics and family and church. Even to break away from the group does not satisfy because the linked contestants will inevitably sweep the individuals away from their chosen spots. They’ll end up in a corner of the room, continually scurrying away from the mass of energy.
But is there one man whose position is rock solid, whose justice is beyond question, whose verdict will withstand every challenge?
Christians believe so, but we hedge our belief with the hope that judge will finally prevail after we die. He will have the final word when every person is reduced to helplessness in the realm of death.
Today’s first reading describes the harvest of wheat and grapes. The wheat signifies the just who are gathered from the earth into God’s granary. The grapes are the wicked, crushed in his winepress. We’ve heard a like simile in Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and goats.
Although this is good news, a promise of justice and mercy that abides for those who have suffered sore injustice in this life, it is not the final word for those who have the right to vote. Our religious belief in a pending judgment reminds us that our decisions make a difference and we are obligated to make them well. Our opinions, attitudes and decisions have everlasting consequences. Although we may do what seems right for us in the moment, something in “our national interests,” the Lord of the Nations will finally decide whether they were right.
We have seen, in the last few years, a shift in the political landscape, from a politics of interests (especially labor and management) to a politics of values (especially abortion, immigration, health care, prison, etc.)  The shift may be good but it certainly is more complicated. Inevitably we have to compromise.
Can I vote for the party that is pro-life but anti-immigrant? Can I vote for the party that is pro-gun control but pro-abortion? This new political game demands all the more investment of time and study and interest. Like Saint Joseph, (Matthew 2:22), we have to pay attention to what’s going on out there. We have to know our candidates for local office (school boards, alder persons, etc) and for national positions. We have to recognize who is trying to influence our votes and why.
Fortunately, the Judge of all guides us with his Holy Spirit as we navigate the treacherous shoals of this world. 

Memorial of Saint Cecilia, virgin and martyr


November Roses

I, John, looked and there was the Lamb standing on Mount Zion,
and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand
who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.

This is a week of transition from the end of the liturgical year, Christ the King, to the beginning of the new year, with the First Sunday of Advent. I think of this week as a moving wheel turning, or the minute hand moving, as it crests the top and starts into a new cycle. This is that momentary pause between breaths that a healthy person enjoys, as he has sufficient oxygen for a few more seconds and no immediate need to inhale.
Our readings continue the momentum of apocalyptic expectation from last year into next year. They urge us to expect and hope despite the frightful violence that is coming down all around us.
Today’s reading describes the Seer’s vision of the elect one hundred and forty four thousand. They are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. The number twelve times twelve times one thousand has a round fullness. It stretches the imagination and suggests satisfaction for the sacrifice of Jesus.
In our own day, familiar as we are with cities of several million people and an ever-increasing world population of several billion, 144,000 people seems far too few. But we need not take it literally. It's about fullness, completeness. As Jesus said from the cross, "It is consummated." 
This group, who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads, represents the purity which Jesus’ passion and death bestows upon sinful humanity. They are chosen from every nation, not just the Jews, because Jesus’ mission is universal. Because most Jews refused to join the new Christian community, and because so many gentiles eagerly crowded the door, the leaders saw clearly their mission was to the whole world. The saving grace of Jesus is channeled not through his Jewish origins but through his human nature to all people. We take that for granted but it was quite a revelation to the early church.

They have been ransomed as the first fruits
of the human race for God and the Lamb.
On their lips no deceit has been found; they are unblemished.

As we hear of unblemished saints we also celebrate the feast of Saint Cecilia, virgin and martyr. We should understand that God has the authority to, and will, restore our innocence. This is a healing process that goes beyond both atonement and forgiveness. I may do wrong to someone and, by the grace of God, atone for my sin and be forgiven; but I still need healing for what I have done to myself. The shame, grief and proclivity for that particular sin remain where atonement and forgiveness have been given.
Sexual sins, in particular, leave long-lasting psychic and spiritual scars that seem never to disappear. Perhaps that is why virgins are celebrated as the first fruits of the human race for God and the Lamb.
As we approach Advent and Christmas to celebrate the New Jerusalem we will celebrate the Holy City that, despite its history of infidelity and treachery, remains always and forever the virgin bride of God.

The Solemnity of Christ the King


"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
He replied to him,
"Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with me in Paradise."

Pope Pius XI instituted the Solemnity of Christ the King in 1925, reminding Christians and Catholics throughout the world of the authority that rightfully belongs to Jesus. Even as monarchies were being dismantled – often by dictators – the Church recalled the spiritual foundations of kingship. In effect, the Church gathered to itself and now treasures what the world no longer needs.
Kingship is the sole prerogative of Jesus. It is like the priesthood which belongs solely to Christ as he stands alone in the heavenly temple offering his own body and blood for our salvation. If other men are called priests, it is only in reference to the priesthood of Jesus. If other men have been called kings, they had only as much authority as He gave them. 

In the eleventh century before Christ, Israelites reluctantly adopted monarchy. Up to that time their religious leaders were judges and their secular leaders were tribal chiefs. The judges were charismatic individuals, gifted with Moses’ talent for mediation and discerning God’s will. They also had authority to call the tribes together to resist a common enemy. But the Israelites found safety in the poverty of their hills and mountains and, more often than not, were ignored by the prosperous Canaanites. Only when the Canaanites and, later, the Philistines threatened their mountain homes did the Hebrews unite and fight back.
But when the times changed and the enemy became more oppressive, the Hebrews demanded that the judge Samuel appoint a king. He relented, against his better judgment but with God's consent, and anointed a heroic young man, Saul. You remember that Saul was replaced by his protégé and rival David, whose kingdom, according to the Prophet Eli, would never end. That was the beginning of kingship. 
In the last two centuries we saw the age of kings come to an end and, with today’s feast, the title restored to its rightful owner.

I’m sure that many secular philosophers regard the Kingdom of Christ as similar to the galactic empires of Star Trek or the quaint provinces of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It’s a harmless fantasy for people who need that sort of thing. And they may well be right in many cases; a lot of people pay lip service to their Christian religion but live under an entirely different regime.
They do not recognize that all men and women are children of God with equal rights to education, health care and opportunity. They cannot imagine that the King might live among the world’s refugees or America’s “illegal aliens.” Enchanted with royal images of orbs, scepters, crowns and thrones they cannot see him living in the filth and squalor of our broken cities. But the royal trappings never belonged to real kings; they were the world’s honors, used to co-opt befuddled rulers in their castles of sand.

Our gospel today dispels that myth. Jesus once again appears on the only throne he will claim, wearing the only crown he will choose, receiving the only homage this world can afford. In today’s gospel he most graciously welcomes his true subjects, those who stay with him in his agony and plead, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Saturday of the Thirty-third Week in Ordinary Time


My brother Rick and sister Mary Lou
compare hearing aids.
It's a family thing.

Then they heard a loud voice from heaven say to them, “Come up here.”
So they went up to heaven in a cloud as their enemies looked on.

Today’s reading from the Book of Revelation is one of the most mysterious in the book. Scholars make suggestions about the identity of the two martyr but the best scholars admit we don’t know who they are.
The story seems to refer to a very specific incident, at least in part. Two Christian disciples come to Jerusalem; they preach, are rejected and killed. But the story becomes more outlandish as we’re told their bodies lie in the streets for a brief period while the citizens celebrate. And then they are reanimated and taken into heaven.
The narrative is also confused by the writer’s use of tense. He seems to describe an event that is happening (present tense) or will happen (future tense), and then has happened (past tense). So which is it?
If the science of history relies on at least two different witnesses to account for anything, we cannot call this a historical event. There is no other testimony about it. And when the story recounts the reanimation of the martyrs, an event without precedent, the skeptic will dismiss this as fantasy. 
So what do we make of it as we look for spiritual nourishment? If we cannot name the two martyrs or recall the incident of their killing, we are all too familiar with the violence that befalls Christians. In fact our tradition insistently recalls the martyr's faith and persistently urges us to imitate their courage.
Our tradition also recognizes that the age of martyrdom has never ended. Although the New Testament is a closed book and the age of prophecy has passed, the spirit of God still leads some Christians to martyrdom. 
Even this month we have witnessed the massacre of a priest and several parishioners in Baghdad, while they celebrated Mass. A group of Iraqi soldiers pursued several Al Qaida terrorists into the church and defenseless Catholics died in the melee. If the worshipping community did not volunteer for their death, they were nonetheless slain, one suspects, for being members of a minority both Sunnis and Shiites despise.

But moving beyond our own history of martyrdom, the story reminds us of the tragic violence of human life. It doesn’t have to be this way. Murder is a dreadful thing in every case, whether it happens to Christians or someone else.
Our response is two-fold. We grieve at the violence we and our loved ones and all people suffer in this violent world of our own making. And we hope for the resurrection. As we see these two witnesses rising in a cloud while their enemies look on, we remember the glory God has promised to his faithful. 

Friday of the Thirty-third Week in Ordinary Time


My sister Becki,
born on 10/31

He said to me, “Take and swallow it.
It will turn your stomach sour,
but in your mouth it will taste as sweet as honey.”
I took the small scroll from the angel’s hand and swallowed it.
In my mouth it was like sweet honey,
but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour.

In his book, The Prophets, the mid-20th century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschl makes a distinction between the experience of the Hebrew prophets and that of mystics. All religious traditions have mystical traditions and those who claim mystical experience.
They, in their turn, insist that mystical experience is a very normal human experience.
If it seems unusual that is only because our tainted cultures cannot imagine the height and depth and breadth of human potential. 
Just as, a half century ago, women warriors seemed like nothing more than a Greek myth and today make up 15% of America’s armed forces, so we could welcome mystical knowledge if only we would allow it to happen. Even 1950’s America supposed some people might have mystical experience though it seemed bizarre at the time. 

But the Hebrew prophets’ experience is something else altogether. For one thing, it’s no fun! All of the prophets of the Old Testament describe their reluctance to be God’s spokesmen. Jeremiah especially complained of the isolation that fell upon him because he spoke the truth to his contemporaries. His book records some of the shabby treatment he suffered, including being ignored, imprisoned and abandoned in a dank well. Non-biblical tradition says he was sawn in half after he was kidnapped and taken to Egypt. This is not a vocation most people would choose. The Seer of Patmos also suffered through his visions, as we hear in today’s passage, although his pain is relatively mild.

The point is, those who speak prophetically can expect only contempt and misery for their reward. The Church habitually and rightly regards prophets with suspicion. Those who claim the title are usually insane or dangerous. They bring disruption and distress to their communities and their answers are not reasonable solutions to anything.
John Brown, who is given some credit for triggering the American Civil War, was hanged. But his vision, we’d have to admit, came from God. The age of slavery was ending – he saw that clearly -- but only a civil war could draw the curtain on that tragedy.
Today’s religious community might not include Mr. Brown in the canon of Christian prophets. He was pious in the manner of a mad man, and his murder of citizens certainly annuls any claims to sainthood. But his soul is marching on.
Nor would Rabbi Heschl include Mr. Brown. He believed the age of prophets ended with Malachi. Christians saw it reopened with John the Baptist and Mary, and ending once again with the death of John of Patmos. However, we also believe the spirit of prophecy abides in our Church. This is why we anoint our newly baptized as “priest, prophet and king.”  

But it’s still not fun. When the Church condemns abortion, capital punishment, drug abuse and suicide as immoral we don’t expect the world to stand up and say “Amen!” When the Church reminds the nations they have an obligation to care for the poor, the sick and dying, refugees and aliens, the orphaned, the imprisoned and the despised we don’t expect encouragement from the powerful, the affluent and the comfortable. When even secular journalists report:
the best we can expect is condescension: “Wonderful sermon, Father!”

The Word may taste sweet in the mouth but as we digest its full meaning we will inevitably feel sick in the stomach. And then we’ll take up the cross of Christ and follow in his steps.


Thursday of the Thirty-third Week in Ordinary Time


My gooberhead niece. 

Then I saw a mighty angel who proclaimed in a loud voice,
“Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”
But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth
was able to open the scroll or to examine it.
I shed many tears because no one was found worthy
to open the scroll or to examine it.

In the Jansenistic religion of my childhood, worthiness was a big deal. Devout confession, intense prayer and studiously avoiding sin rendered one “worthy” of receiving communion on Sunday or First Friday. But, of course, thinking you were worthy proved that you were proud and, therefore, not worthy! It was a lose-lose spirituality that only encouraged the Irish Americans among us to go out and have a drink. Traces of that spirituality persist even today, especially among non-practicing Catholics in Kentucky.
Unfortunately Jansenist Catholics were also told not to read the Bible. They might have read the Book of Revelation and its proclamation: No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth… was found worthy to open the scroll. Only Jesus Christ is worthy.

But we should ponder the question of worthiness. Like the Seer of Patmos, we might  find ourselves weeping because no one was found worthy. This is shocking, especially when we consider all those we hoped might be worthy. How many times a week is another politician, minister, entertainer or athlete exposed as an adulterer, alcoholic, drug abuser, wife-beater, child-molester or embezzler? Just when you thought Glee was a pretty good show for your children, the actors exposed themselves for a men’s magazine.
Is there no one worthy of my admiration and trust? Despite the wisdom we think we might have, despite the cynicism we want to show toward the whole question, we still look for someone who is worthy. And no one is found. And we feel intense sadness.

But that is not the Bible’s final answer. An elder rebukes John for his weeping:
Do not weep.
In fact, the question was rhetorical! Meaning, the Mighty Angel and everyone else in heaven knew the answer. Only the foolish visionary lacked the vision to see:
The lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has triumphed,
enabling him to open the scroll with its seven seals!”

The question of worthiness was not raised to make John or you or me feel bad about ourselves. It’s not about us.  It’s an introduction to the song; as when, during a musical, a series of remarks lead up to an aria. Suddenly everyone in heaven bursts out in a mighty and glorious song:
Worthy are you to receive the scroll and break open its seals,
for you were slain and with your Blood you purchased for God
those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation.
You made them a kingdom and priests for our God,
and they will reign on earth.

And silly me. I thought they were looking for me.  

Memorial of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, religious


Saint Elizabeth
of Hungary

A throne was there in heaven, and on the throne sat one
whose appearance sparkled like jasper and carnelian.

The visions of Revelation are a delight for the eye. We can see these splendid, triumphal images of God’s victory. The gold glitters and diamonds sparkle. Thrones impose; crowns impress; a sea of glass radiates; robes proclaim royalty and irresistible power. Meanwhile, songs and shouts and trumpet blasts and kettle drums rattle our very bones. Our spines tingle and our knees tremble. If we plug our ears against the uproar, our chests amplify the din.
The New Testament would not be complete without the Book of Revelation. The crucifixion of Jesus requires such visions. It is very hard to see splendor and glory in the cross. It was appalling in every way. But Saint Paul and the evangelists recognize the cross as Jesus’ most glorious throne.
No visual artist has yet pulled off such a feat, depicting his crucifixion as his moment of supreme triumph; but our traditional crucifix – depicting his body as suspended over the earth with outstretched arms – goes a long way. It describes his total surrender to God’s mercy and human cruelty. And the same image announces his readiness for the day when every nation will call him Lord.

Today is also the Memorial of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, a co-patron saint with Saint Louis of the Franciscan Third Order Secular. She was a queen who abandoned the treacherous wealth and prestige of her position to follow Jesus on his road to Calvary. Despite the ravages of history she is revered to his day in her native land and especially among Franciscans.
Saint Elizabeth saw clearly the foolishness of amassing earthly wealth as she pursued the glory Saint John so richly described in his Book of Revelation

Tuesday of the Thirty-third Week in Ordinary Time


The roots of a fallen tree
by the lake. 

I know your works, that you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.

During the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church finally agreed that democracy is a good idea. Until then the Vatican preferred monarchies and even dictatorships, provided they were Catholic. In fact next Sunday’s Feast of Christ the King was instituted in a last ditch effort to support the crumbling monarchies of the 19th century.
Democracy, especially with the American principle of non-interference between church and state – Jefferson’s so called “wall of separation” – has allowed the churches a free hand in teaching, proselytizing and evangelizing. The Christian churches have gratefully responded by encouraging citizens to participate in democratic governments and fight their wars.
It’s a bit embarrassing when Christian nations go to war with each other, as during the American Civil War; but the churches seem to cope with that apparent scandal. Even the Catholic Church was sorely divided during the American Civil War and survived.


But Christian churches within a democracy, relying on the weekly contributions of their members and without government support, sometimes avoid the scathing challenges of their own prophetic traditions.  It is a rare bishop who can say to a given parish, “I know your works, that you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”
The pastor of that church will certainly come storming into the bishop’s office to report the collection has dried up! It has happened, but it costs!

But “the power of the purse” can work in both directions. It can also remind a pastor or bishop that the congregation has a right to good stewardship, sound teaching, and courageous leadership. The Catholic priest who allows his inner demons freedom of speech in the pulpit should be yanked out of office pretty soon! He cannot get away with irrational harangues, whether they concern abortion or women’s hats. The bishop, if for no other reason than finances, will see to that.
In the United States only the smallest churches assume an apocalyptic posture. Their mercurial preachers, who may be moonlighting as ministers, can afford to be outrageous as they lambaste the dominant culture. They have nothing to lose! And their sympathetic congregations may actually enjoy the entertainment at someone else's expense.

The Church of New Testament times could welcome these challenges from within because they lacked the rigorous structures of today’s Catholic Church. When Saint John of Patmos penned the words of Jesus to the churches of Sardis and Laodicea, he didn’t have to worry about their collections, nor his own income. Likewise the churches, who never supposed their names might be fixed forever in The Bible, could choose to heed or ignore John’s message. But we can suppose his messages stirred up some lively discussion.

And that, I suppose, is the best we can hope for. The apocalyptic writer, of ancient or modern times, would like to subvert the political process and dictate the way things should be. But that is always a mistake. Remember Jim Jones and his Kool-Aid. 

Rather, we should welcome the two-edged sword, God's Word, ponder it deeply in our hearts as Mary did, make our decisions and move together as God’s graceful, holy people. In a democracy, if one person wins, the community loses. But when everyone is unhappy with the final decision, it was probably the right one. 

Monday of the Thirty-third Week in Ordinary Time


Self-portrait
with pipe

Bishop Berkley, the Protestant scripture scholar, once observed there are two kinds of churches: those who ignore the Book of Revelation altogether and those who ignore the rest of the Bible altogether. His observation was pithy if not quite accurate.
During these final days of the liturgical year we turn to the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him, to show his servants what must happen soon.
(Please notice the title of the book is singular, Revelation, not plural.)

This last book of the Bible is all the more influential for its being so hard to understand. Readers have pondered its cryptic language and symbolism for centuries; and there are passages that even scholars cannot decipher. But the imagery of Revelation makes it impossible to ignore. Its symbols spring to life in our stained glass windows, altars, candlesticks, chalices and other paraphernalia. It was the first book of the Bible I ever read, way back in grade school. 

In fact the imagery of Revelation is, for Catholics, the key to the book. When, in the first chapter we see “one like a son of man, wearing an ankle-length robe, with a gold sash around his chest” standing amid seven gold lamps stands we should recognize a deacon surrounded by candles. The two-edged sword might remind us of our Knights of Columbus; more importantly, we remember the word of God is like a two edged sword. (Hebrews 4:12) 
Catholics are familiar with the censor and incense, the clouds of smoke, the altar, the cantors and lectors with voices like thunder. Occasionally our churches rock with the sound of blaring trumpet and clanging cymbals.
The setting of Revelation is the liturgy! Saint John describes the heavenly liturgy in which we participate with our own terrestrial liturgies. 
I might add, with tongue in cheek, that if readers don’t always know what’s going on in the Book of Revelation, lots of Catholics haven’t a clue what goes on in our liturgy!

As we open Revelation today and will continue to read it over the next two weeks, we welcome the blessing given to those who proclaim the book and to those who listen to it. It is such a privilege to hear the word of God. Every time we hear it we say “Thanks be to God,” “Glory to you, O Lord!” and “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ.” When the Gospel is read we stand to show our reverence and trace a cross on our foreheads, lips and heart saying, “May the word of God be on my mind, on my lips and in my heart.”
We understand that the place where the Bible is read is the Church; and its time is the liturgy. Private reading, study and prayer are important, indeed essential because they help us prepare to hear the word when we worship with the Church. But reading the Bible without the Church is like reading the Boy Scout Handbook without joining the Boy Scouts. 
Finally, we hear in this brief passage the warning of Jesus to his disciples, “…you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen.
Our God is a jealous God; he wants our love. God wants to be present in our lives day and night, in work and play, in our conversation and in our meals. We are always God’s people and he is always our God. With our daily devotions we cultivate this awareness and that is good. And it’s good to be reminded. We welcome this warning with excitement and gratitude. How sweet it is to be loved by you! How beautiful we are in the sight of God; he finds us irresistible!