Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 99

I say, then: live by the Spirit
and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh.
For the flesh has desires against the Spirit,
and the Spirit against the flesh;
these are opposed to each other,
so that you may not do what you want.
But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

In today’s gospel we hear of Jesus setting out for Jerusalem and the reaction of the crowd around him. Some are eager to go with him though they’re not invited; and some are invited but not eager to go.  And some of the invited are ready to burn anyone who appears disinterested in Jesus and his tribe. Not much has changed in two thousand years. No one seems to have the right spirit.

Recently I had a Sunday afternoon argument with a good friend who insisted the moral law can be summed up with “What Would Jesus Do?” (By Sunday afternoon argument I mean an entertaining contest of wit that’s not terribly important to either of us.) I never liked “WWJD” when it appeared twenty years ago and I argued that it misses the point.  

Saint Paul never used such a phrase, rather he taught us to “Live by the Spirit.” What does he mean by that?

He was at least partly informed by his own Greek philosophy. Living in the Spirit assumes suspicion of the flesh and its natural desires.
             For the flesh has desires against the Spirit,
             and the Spirit against the flesh;
             these are opposed to each other,
The Greek stoic, especially, would prefer discipline over indulgence, sleeplessness over sloth, fasting over satiety, and homelessness over security. The greatest stoic teachers were peripatetic, wandering from city to city, living off the generosity of strangers and speaking to crowds about “the good life.” Saint Paul and his colleagues lived like that though they were motivated by a different cause.

The stoic seeks freedom from the constant demands of the flesh, which always want more – more food, more alcohol, more leisure, more love, more security etc. There seems no end of bodily demands and some people have completely surrendered to their cravings. They whine and pule like children in the candy aisle of a grocery store; they want it all and can’t have most of it. The stoic despises people like that; he loathes the human body and its cravings.  He prefers the life of the mind with its delight in knowledge, wisdom and aesthetic beauty.

Saint Paul knew that way of thinking but turned away from it as he learned a deeper respect for the body. He could think of nothing wiser than the cross of Jesus, and nothing more beautiful than the Sacred Wounds. The Resurrection of Jesus demonstrated God’s eternal love for the human body. Even its cravings are beautiful, provided they are governed by the Holy Spirit.

Life in the Spirit begins with a confident knowledge of Jesus Christ. More than a teacher, more than a friend, Jesus is our guide, inspiration, encouragement and healing. He sends us like soldiers into the line of fire, then heals us and sends us back. We don’t preach the gospel to promote ourselves; we are no more inclined to exploit others by our preaching than disciplined soldiers want to loot the cities they capture. We have better things to do. (Tolstoy’s War and Peace documents the collapse of Napoleon’s army when they sacked Moscow.)

The Acts of the Apostles shows us Jesus’ disciples moving from Jerusalem to Antioch and Rome under his direction, as if he were still in the flesh and speaking to them. He inspired them to preach, impelled them to heal, directed their steps, blocked them from useless adventurism, and protected them from snakebite, storms and angry mobs.

In today’s gospel we heard Jesus calling some to go with him and leaving others behind. But all were placed under obedience, just as you and I must live in obedience to his Spirit. We pray daily that his spirit will impel and guide us.
“Live by the Spirit.”

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

Lectionary: 591

I, Paul, am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand.I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.
From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge,
will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.

Saint Paul was not a shy person who would not, on occasion, boast of his struggles, sufferings and achievements. So we can well imagine the Apostle writing the above paragraph. But scholars generally agree it was written by one of his disciples in his honor, probably after his "departure." It is appropriate that we should hear this kind of reading on this "solemnity." 

Though not a holy day of obligation, a solemnity is higher than a memorial or feastday. Today we celebrate Saints Peter and Paul, the two most important apostles of Jesus, the men who were most instrumental in the foundation of the new religion based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

This new religion, unlike Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish or Muslim religions, honors the "Church" which always existed in the Spirit and Mind of God. It was clearly revealed to us at Pentecost, after Jesus had built its human foundations upon the apostles. Its fullest revelation remains to be seen. When God appears in glory on the Day of Judgment, then the universe will recognize the Church Faithful, Beautiful and Triumphant. In the meanwhile, we are a Church on pilgrimage, sinful and repentant, hopeful, patient and suffering in travail. If we boast at all, it is only in our weakness. The world may think our faith is ridiculous but we will not lay down the crosses the Lord has assigned to each of us. We carry them with confidence and quiet joy to Calvary. 

On this particular solemnity we remember Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It is probably no accident that we have such clear insight into the frailties of these two men. The Spirit of God wanted us to see what we cannot see in Jesus. No one, not even the evangelists, can probe the mind of Jesus. Novelists and pop psychologists will try to tell us what the Savior thought and felt and how he reacted to various situations -- and I've tried my hand at it on occasion -- but he remains shrouded in the Cloud of Holiness. To understand that the Gospel is truly approachable and in some measure comprehensible, we contemplate these two saints. 

Peter was loyal and impetuous, a natural leader. As one Veteran reminded me lately, one cannot command obedience unless one is obedient. Peter knew how to rebuke because he had been rebuked. He knew how to allow the Spirit to guide him beyond his own expectations, as when Saint Paul insisted that gentiles should be equal members of the Church. 

Saint Paul was a tireless missionary. After the Lord had revealed what he should do, no human authority --civil or religious, Jewish or Christian -- could dissuade him. He shook off beatings and imprisonment, scorn and contempt as a dog shakes off rain water. But he had a heart soft like a fresh cupcake, and he was intensely loyal to his friends. His shortcomings are there in his writings for the world to see. Anyone who thinks the saints are perfectly unlike the rest of us has never read his letters. 

This solemnity celebrates the human messiness of the Church and the purity of the Holy Spirit which drives us. Although we are vessels of clay;  we are vassals of God. 

Memorial of Saint Irenaeus, Bishop and Martyr

Lectionary: 375

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him
and said: “I am God the Almighty.
Walk in my presence and be blameless.”

Last year, I heard author Charles Murray on the radio speak of his book, Coming Apart. He sees American society splitting into two classes, the wealthy and the poor. These were not the 1% versus everyone else, nor even the 10% who are said to own half of America. His book is more broadly concerned about the two largest groups, the "haves and have-nots." They are not separated by race or ethnic background but by differing neighborhoods, schools, churches, shopping districts, and entertainment.

Interestingly, the upper class continues to maintain fairly high moral standards. Although they divorce, they marry and remarry and have children within marriage. When they get addicted to alcohol or drugs they pursue therapy and recovery. They maintain a work ethic, find or create employment and attend church. 

The new lower class, however, often have children out of wedlock, are under-educated, unemployed and unemployable with physical and mental disabilities. They are prey to chemical abuse of every sort with little hope of escape.

Oddly, the upper class makes no attempt to set moral standards for their lesser brethren. Their multicultural, non-judgmental, laissez faire philosophy tolerates bad behavior. Some profit by that corruption with indiscriminate investments; they pour money as readily into alcohol, drugs, arms and entertainment as into hospital care. The only value is profit.

Today, in the first reading, we heard the Lord’s challenge to that Christian upper class, “I am God the Almighty. Walk in my presence and be blameless.” Leviticus insists, “Be holy as I am holy.”  

It is not enough to say, “I practice virtue as I understand it but I don’t judge others.” or “Who am I to say what others should do?” We are all in this together and there are no barrier walls or gated communities sturdy enough to shield the privileged from social decay.

Thursday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 374

So Sarai said to Abram:
“You are responsible for this outrage against me. I myself gave my maid to your embrace; but ever since she became aware of her pregnancy, she has been looking on me with disdain. May the LORD decide between you and me!”

Recently I presided over a wedding in the family and reflected upon the gift of marriage. This is, as Saint Paul said, a great mystery but I speak in reference to Christ and his Church.

I began by reminding the congregation of the Greek philosophers who discovered by observation and reasoning there exists a spiritual world. In that world are, among many things, numbers. Mathematics is as real as any rock, but you can’t throw pi at someone. The formulas for determining the hypotenuse of a right triangle, the square root of two, the circumference of a circle: these definitely exist but only in another reality. It doesn't matter what language you speak, god you worship or culture you inherit; even if you lived on a distant exo-planet in a galaxy far, far away: two times two is four. 

The philosophers also discerned the existence of Truth, Goodness and Beauty; the doctrine of the two ways, good and evil; and that there is a Supreme Being. 

But believing that such a God exists did them little good because they had no way to speak to the deity. They had no name for God. That revelation could only come from God through the Jewish/Christian tradition. Jesus, the Son of Supreme Being revealed the deeper mysteries like the Trinity, Incarnation, Grace, Church – and Marriage

Until God reveals the mystery of marriage we suspect it exists and have some ideas what it should be, but no solid evidence. We can discover something about sexuality; we can explore endlessly the similarities and differences of men and women. Somewhere in the millennium before Jesus people realized that the sexual embrace of man and woman generates children. 

But can a man have several wives? Or a wife, several husbands? Is there union a bond for life or only a temporary business transaction? Should we expect three spouses in one’s life: a lover of one’s youth, a parent of one’s children and a companion of one’s old age? Do sexual desires mean that one must "have sex" or die? Is marriage a human invention to keep women in bondage? 

Before God spoke to us through Jesus, these and many other questions remained unsettled. And so Abram could, at his wife’s suggestion, beget a child by her slave Haggai and expect it to work out for everyone. It didn’t. Haggai and Sarai became mortal enemies and Abram had to choose between them. You might suppose that bitter experience settled the issue but many centuries later David and Solomon were still trying to manage their contentious harems.

To this day people who do not know the Lord experiment with marriage. They try new configurations of sexual relationships and hope their novelties will lead to a more just and peaceful society. But they forget that marriage is a mystery which exists in the spiritual world. Like pi and the the number 0, it is not subject to human redefining. We might understand it better from one century to the next, and a married couple can hope to grow in appreciation of its height and depth and breadth but God revealed marriage to us for our edification. We did not invent it to suit our needs. 

They forget too, that marriage is a sacrament, a sign which:

  1. gives graces, 
  2. blesses the Church and 
  3. points to a reality infinitely more beautiful than itself. 

I speak in reference to Christ and his Church.

Marriage is not just about the well-being of the spouses, nor even of them and their children. It blesses the whole world as we see in the married couple the incarnate love of God. Because a husband loves his wife we believe that Christ loves his church. Because a wife trusts her husband we find in ourselves the willingness to trust the Lord. Because a husband and wife faithfully and certainly work out their difficulties, we believe that every human being can make peace with God and with others. Because they take pleasure in one another’s company we know that God takes delight in his spouse.

Their children are the first beneficiaries. They just know the love of their parents is as certain as the solid foundation of their homes. They can even take it for granted, though in their maturity they will know better. They grow up in the knowledge that a child has a right to parents who love each other. The world always suspected these truths but lacked the wisdom, assurance and grace to practice them. They had to be revealed by  God to us.

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.

P.S. As you know the Supreme Court yesterday made a dramatic decision to reinvent civil marriage according to current ideological definitions. We can pray it will not lead to the catastrophe like those in the wake of Roe v Wade, but it's hard to expect otherwise.

Abraham Lincoln once asked an opponent: "If you call a dog's tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?"
"Five." the fellow said.
"Four." replied the President. "Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."
Calling the friendship of two men or two women "marriage" doesn't make it so. 

Wednesday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 373

Abram put his faith in the LORD,
who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

As the first theologian of the newly-founded Christian religion, Saint Paul passed over the great king David and the law-giver Moses to prefer Abraham, the "father of faith." Ours would be neither an ethnic religion or a religion of rules. We should be a people of faith.
In his Letter to the Romans (4:3) he cited this verse from Genesis. Saint James, in his letter also cites this passage,
Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called “the friend of God.”
Saint  John the Evangelist also recalled Abraham in his eighth chapter. Far more important than the nationalism that David might represent, or adherence to laws, customs and traditions as Moses represented, was the fidelity of Abraham. He predated the Law of Moses by many centuries; he knew nothing of civil authority; he was only a homeless merchant/shepherd who relied on God for direction and security.

In his Introduction to Christianity, Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope Emeritus, reminds us that the Jews received the long-awaited revelation of God's name. Greek philosophers had figured out by reason that there should be a supreme being. But without a personal name they could not relate to that God. They could not pray to or worship God, nor hear his voice. They could not say whether the Supreme Being cares about human beings and our troubles, or even that this Deity wants us to live by a moral code.

This is why the Greco-Roman world admired the Jewish religion, and why many paid close attention to Jewish affairs. They found in the Jewish religion a fulfillment of their philosophical expectations. As the Christian movement spread it easily leaped over the dividing wall to the gentiles to embrace these friends of God. They had only to believe and be baptized.

But we will always face the temptations of reverting to Greek deism, Jewish nationalism, or legal moralism.
  • Many of our contemporaries believe there is a "God" but they also believe God has removed himself to a faraway place. He is an absentee father, a deus absconditus. 
  • Some Christians will insist that God is an American who gave to us a Manifest Destiny to recreate the world in our own middle class, consumer image.
  • Other Christians will boast of their adherence to rules and regulation, like the Pharisee in the temple. Life should be so simple!

As a people of faith -- who are justified not by our heritage or our observance of rules but by faith -- we beg God to give us his Spirit and we do everything we can to keep the Spirit. It is a life of discipline and freedom, of joyful confidence and daily insecurity. It is, as my mother used to say, "a great life if you don't weaken."

Tuesday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 372

Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.
This is the Law and the Prophets.

We distill cider and wine into hard alcohol, coca into cocaine and cocaine to crack. We extract nicotine from tobacco to make stronger cigarettes; excitement from love to make pornography; persuasive reasons, to talking points; information, to factoids; and news into sound bites.

Can we also boil down the gospel to this Golden Rule? Some people have assured me that is precisely what Jesus meant. The customs and practices of the church with its tiresome congregations and overbearing clerics can be sidestepped in favor of these eleven words?

But just as alcoholics know nothing of the pleasures of alcohol, sexual addicts have no joy in love and those who hear nothing but sound bites are sadly misinformed, the Christian without a deep knowledge of “the Law and the Prophets” will do all the wrong things and offer all the wrong help. She will not know “whatever you would have them do to you” because she would not know her own needs as an inspired disciple of Jesus.

Some would reinterpret the Golden Rule as “enlightened self-interest;” but that rarely goes far enough. James A. Michener said of the Christian missionaries who went to Hawaii, “They went to do good and they did very well indeed!” While the Hawaiians remained in their poverty the missionaries and their descendants prospered as bankers, lawyers and land owners.

The one who remains apart from the community – be it church, family or neighborhood – cannot imagine the needs of others. When she does for others she will dole out books to people who can’t read and shoes to those who can’t walk because she likes to read and thinks everyone needs to walk more. And if her bank account is fattened by the deal, what’s the harm of that? Every year the NFL gifts thousands of people with free t-shirts and sweatshirts, adorned with the name of the losing Superbowl team. These gifts to the poor are a tax write-off.

Charity, if it is to do any good, demands rigorous honesty, personal discipline, research into what might be truly helpful, and willing obedience to the Holy Spirit. It does not permit a hidden agenda of self. Doing for others feeds the hungry because there is no difference between my hunger and yours. A hungry mouth should be fed. A grieving soul should be heard; a lost sinner should be found; injustice should be undone. For the Christian, “My life is not about me or my needs; it is driven by the Holy Spirit and my concerns are the concerns of all.”

Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Mass During the Day Lectionary: 587

Queen Anne's Lace
Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.

Six months ago and six months from now we will celebrate the nativity of Jesus Christ. Because the Angel Gabriel told Mary her kinswoman Elizabeth was in her sixth month, it is fitting to celebrate the nativity of John the Baptist today. Jesus heaped the highest praise on his cousin when he declared,
Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist....
I wonder if every generation, or every American generation, believes it should and must "make a difference." The world will be a better place for my having been here. 

Some will set out for school only because they have to; and others because they intend to make a pile of money; but many want to make a difference. They hope their work will be more than a job or career; it will be a profession whereby they improve the life of others. Hopefully their religion will strengthen that conviction as they see how important their work is. Even when their careers stop careering and they seem to have reached their own personal level of incompetence, they will believe the Lord has placed them there to do the best they can. 

(I am happy to say I reached my own L-of-Inc several years ago and have happily ceded that place to an abler friar.) 

We must wonder how John the Baptist coped with his predicament as he lay in the darkness of Herod's dungeon waiting for he-knew-now-what. I would suppose he felt that he had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength....

He would not be the last Christian to think such thoughts. Paul of Tarsus landed in the clink many times as he preached Jesus Christ Crucified in one Jewish ghetto after another. Sometimes his own fellow Christians plotted against him! 

But, in the Spirit of Jesus who had also pored over these texts from Isaiah and suffered his own catastrophe, we trust the Judge of All to show mercy to us, and we let the Spirit work out the problems.

Who can say what is failure or success in the long run? Some debacles prove to be "the best thing that ever happen to me" and some victories are revealed as pyrrhic. I suspect God doesn't know the meaning of the words success and failure

Sun-bent daisies
John the Baptist, Paul of Tarsus and, most importantly, Jesus lead us to put our faith in God. 
...yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.
 When I have utterly forgotten the meaning of success and failure, perhaps I will have learned the lesson of faith. 

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 96

On that day there shall be open to the house of David
and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness.

In summer, when the air is dry and hot winds cause rapid evaporation, we should feel thirstier and we should drink lots of water. Especially old people, who don't as readily feel thirst, run the risk of dehydration. 

This is also a good time to reflect on our spiritual thirst. If it is less apparent it is just as urgent as physical thirst, and spiritual dehydration can be just as fatal. 

Today's responsorial psalm" is taken from Psalm 62 and our refrain is, My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God."

Today's Old Testament reading from Zechariah recalls the death of a messiah, King Josiah. This vigorous boy-king had dismantled the statues and altars of pagan deities and given the Yahwist priests exclusive control of the temple worship. He encouraged the reading of scripture and permitted worship of only the One True God in the temple. But he and his army attempted to block an Egyptian invasion and were defeated. When he died on the battlefield of Megiddo, the reform ended and idolatry returned. Faithful people wonder "Where is God?" when catastrophes like that happen. 

Centuries later the disciples of Jesus would wonder the same thing as they fled from Calvary and Jerusalem. How could God permit such a thing? Eventually, after Jesus rose from the dead, they would remember that he predicted his passion and death and resurrection, but they had not listened. During those long hours of Holy Saturday they felt in their grief an insatiable spiritual thirst. It seemed nothing could replace the One who had been taken from them. 

We are all too familiar with that spiritual thirst today. Alcoholics, especially, are thirsting for the word of God and tragically attempt to quench their thirst with lesser spirits. Even more people turn to cigarettes, recreational drugs and prescription drugs as they search for relief. Some  people tell themselves "Food is Love" and eat their way to an early grave. 

Always we are searching for "a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness.

Saint John's gospel insists the fountain is the heart of Jesus: 
On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and exclaimed, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says:‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’ He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive.  (John 7:37)
The same gospel describes the thirst of the Samaritan woman who discovered Jesus at Jacob's cistern. She asked him, "Sir, give me this living water!" When she realized who he was, she left her water jar and ran into town to tell everyone the Messiah had come. The thirst-quenching spirit was flowing from within her heart; she didn't even need a water jar to carry the Living Spirit to her people. 

Finally, Saint John will tell us Jesus cried out, "I thirst" as he died on the cross. And then blood and water flowed from his heart. As the last drop of life flowed from his ruined body, we found our hunger sated, our thirst quenched and our hope renewed. 

The cynic will wonder how our attending Mass each Sunday, eating his flesh in the form of a small wheaten wafer, and drinking his blood with the tiniest sip of (what appears to be) wine, can quench the thirst of an alcoholic, sate the hunger of the morbidly obese or ease the distress of pill-popping addicts. To which we can only answer, "Come and see.

Saturday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Soft grass in a forest glade
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,
what you will eat or drink,
or about your body, what you will wear.
Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds in the sky;
they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns,
yet your heavenly Father feeds them.

Are not you more important than they?

I still have the binoculars and a few bird books from my birding days, and I still enjoy looking at the birds in the sky. Sometimes, when the winter remains entrenched and spring never seems to be coming, as I labor at some useless toil at this desk, I like to see in the mind's eye Canada geese honking northward. They push the winter north, drawing a linen sheet of spring behind them. Beneath them, closer to the ground, fat robins and noisy wrens flit from bush to tree, pressing northward.
"Look at the birds in the sky." It helps to do that when worries crowd out the fun of one's daily labor. Industrious as they are, they don't fret about their next meal or what they should wear. They'll sleep wherever they find themselves -- on a pond, open field or sturdy tree -- until they build their baskets of straw and leaf to nestle their young. For all they know their tribe might fall into extinction within a few years. That too is God's problem, and ours, but not theirs.
Are you not more important than they?
Saint Francis (who preached to the birds) and Saint Anthony ( fish) heard the command of Jesus to "preach the gospel to every creature." They did it precisely by living like the birds and fish, relying wholly and entirely upon God for their provender. If they wondered where their next meal was coming from, they prayed their worries into peace of mind, and offered hunger as a form of sacrifice.
Their mendicant movement changed the course of history. Their confidence in God inspired people to support one another in that volatile region between abject poverty and obscene wealth. Eventually, that impetus would generate a revolutionary experiment -- a middle class -- with low interest loans, insurance, health care systems, representation in government, equable taxation, social security and so forth.
We call it democracy. Under that same inspiration this tentative but sturdy experiment must Look at the birds of the sky and care for their needs.
But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given you besides.

Saturday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 370

Therefore, that I might not become too elated,
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan,
to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,
but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.”
I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,
in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.

Since ancient times preachers, scholars and lay folk have endlessly speculated about Saint Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Nearly everyone supposes, “He must have suffered what I am suffering.” which is perhaps narcissistic but not a half-bad approach to that all-important project of finding oneself in the scriptures.

In its context the thorn seems to be Paul’s quarrel with fellow Christians, the “super apostles” who were promoting their own interpretation of the gospel. No matter where he went he encountered their misdeeds; and no sooner did he leave town than they’d arrive to undermine the foundations he had laid.

But, because he was a genius and the Holy Spirit was with him, his “thorn in the flesh” has proven to be endlessly useful for generations of Christians. For the past 20-25 years, since my own personal train wreck, I’ve often reassured penitents, “If you get to 40 years of age and haven’t screwed up big time yet, you’re not even trying.” Every one of us has an unsavory history of what we’ve done or what was done to us. Every one of us has tried and failed, but tried again and failed again. Insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting different results. (Welcome to my world.)

“For power is made perfect in weakness.”

Many critics want the church to be not so fallible. They complain that we don’t practice what we preach, that we don’t do what Jesus would do, and we don’t think what God thinks. (They assume that God thinks, and has opinions on every little thing, which also -- as it happens -- agree with their thinking. And they fervently believe the next pope will finally bring the whole church around to their way of thinking.)

Sunshine through the tree
reveals its skeleton.
But God has never wanted to make it easy to be disciples of Jesus. He provides each of us with a thorn and all of us together with bramble bushes of thorns, so that we might boast of our weakness, and that the power of Christ might dwell in us.

But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair

Memorial of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, Religious

Lectionary: 369

If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

When you read today’s first reading from 2 Corinthians, it helps to remember Greek soldiers did not hesitate to boast of their past and future triumphs. They were not subject to our standards of modesty or humility. If their boasting before battle was proven presumptuous, they wouldn’t be there to suffer the humiliation because they died in battle.

Saint Paul will upend their pretentions. At his wits’ end after being informed of his rivals’ many accomplishments, he boasts not of his achievements but of his suffering. As he has said to the Galatians: But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

He did, however, apologize for his madness. Cooling his heels in another Roman jail, he was all the more distressed by the news from Corinth.

Saint Paul, more than anyone else in the New Testament, allows us to see and feel his personal experience of being a Christian. He shows us how one can view both sides of pain, its misery and its satisfaction. Jesus had told us to take up our crosses and follow him; and he had certainly led us on that road; but Saint Paul allows us to know how it feels.

At one time he had vigorously opposed the Christian “way,” now he supports it. At one time he stored up this world’s accomplishments, now he despised them. At one time he caused suffering, now he called it down upon himself – in imitation of Christ.

Saint Paul eagerly entered the door Jesus had opened and assured us it’s not really that bad. The repulsive becomes desirable; and the formerly desirable, insipid. As we face our occasional crises, daily trials and the chronic illnesses that seem to pile up the longer we live, the Apostle teaches us to rejoice in the Lord always.

Thursday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 368

But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning,
your thoughts may be corrupted
from a sincere and pure commitment to Christ.
For if someone comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached,
or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received
or a different gospel from the one you accepted,
you put up with it well enough.

Some contemporary scripture scholars have scrutinized the teachings of Jesus and sorted them into several categories. There are sayings he would have learned from his Jewish religion and passed along to his disciples; teachings the church might have formulated later on; and, finally ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus. This last category should also be “back translated” into Aramaic, Jesus’ language, and still have some resonance. If they sound better in Greek than in Aramaic, they’re probably not ipsissima verba, things he actually said because no one else could have.  

These scholars put Jesus’ miracle stories to a similar test. Do they sound like something Jesus would have done, or something he should have done to fulfill the ancient prophesies? Feeding five thousand sounds too much like the gift of manna in the desert; and walking on water bears a suspicious resemblance to the parting of the Red Sea. Even the last supper may have been only a Passover meal.

With these and other devices these scholars attempt to separate Jesus from the gospels. They want to determine who Jesus was before the Church permanently altered the story to fit its own purposes. They assume, of course, that the Church got it all wrong and that they might, just might, be able to rediscover “the real Jesus.”

Saint Paul was familiar with these 20th and 21st century scholars because he met the same opposition in Corinth. Certain “super apostles” were preaching “another Jesus” with “a different gospel” and a “different spirit.” And gullible Christians were eating it up. As they still do.

Just as Saint Paul insisted upon his own authorization to preach the gospel, the Church in every age must reassert its authority. There will always be outsiders who make some claim to knowing Jesus with their better sciences, ideology or philosophy. Confident that Jesus remains unassailably popular for all time and with every demographic, they attack his Church rather than the man himself.

Surprisingly, unaccountably, the Church rides out every storm. A woman told me the other day that Jesus had been drugged while on the cross and revived on the third day. I reminded her of Matthew 28:15: And this story has circulated among the Jews to the present [day].” They always have and always will fabricate alternate gospels to fit their purposes.

Faith is not simply believing in Jesus anyway.  It is also believing that the Holy Spirit will always preserve the Church in Truth. For without her, there is no salvation.

Wednesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 367

Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.

Today’s teaching from the Gospel of Saint Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount illustrates one of the great paradoxes of our Christian faith. Each of us must set out on the road to personal salvation, like Christian in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress; and yet none of us can be saved alone. Or, to put it in more current phrases, I must identify myself and my individuality; but I must also lose myself in the community. Or, I must recognize and honor my unique identity (haeceity) and, at the same time, recognize my interdependence with and upon others.
This paradox has been a flash point of recent history. Communist ideology would suppress the individual with his talents, insights and personal experience to serve the needs of the “masses.” Democratic states, on the other hand, insist upon the individual rights and freedoms of every person, especially the right to be left alone. But neither ideology can ever ignore its antithesis. In the United States libertarians represent the extreme of personal freedom; they are so far right they’re left. Conservatives and liberals  generally quarrel about both sides of every issue. Is the abortion controversy about the unborn’s right to life or a woman’s right to privacy? Is ubiquitous surveillance of phone calls, emails, Facebook and credit cards a violation of personal privacy or an assertion of the public’s right to security?

The Christian faith is no stranger to paradox: We believe in one God who is Trinitarian. We believe in Jesus Christ who is fully human and entirely divine. We believe Jesus’ mother is the Mother of God. We believe there is no salvation outside of the Church, and yet not everyone must be Catholic or Christian to be saved. We believe the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, although it still has all the accidental appearances of bread and win. And so forth. If anyone has compiled a list of all Christian paradoxes, it is (paradoxically) incomplete.
In today’s gospel, which is also proclaimed on Ash Wednesday, Jesus teaches us the necessity of acting for oneself in righteous deeds, prayer and fasting.  It is not sufficient to belong to the Church; one must also cultivate behind closed doors a “personal relationship” with God. No matter how well others think of me, I cannot be saved if the Lord doesn’t know who I am. As Thomas Merton said, “The Lord cannot save one who does not exist!” One’s reputation is only an idea shared by many. It has no reality in itself.

Finally, the Christian is one who is comfortable with paradox. This One enjoys private and public prayer, but suffers through long, boring sermons and desolate wastelands of personal prayer. This One gives generously to worthy causes and also sets the example for others. This One consumes no more than is necessary to sustain life, but also enjoys wedding feasts and banquets with sinners.

On this Juneteenth, thank God for the freedom to live in service to others.

Tuesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 366

You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

Recently, during the memorial of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I recalled her growth "from grace to grace and freedom to freedom."

This freedom of obedience is mysterious. How can one be free if she is always obedient? 

Perhaps it's easier to describe the lack of freedom which we experience with sin. Although the decision to sin was freely taken, it inevitably leads back into slavery. A bad decision immediately sets a precedent. If I can steal a cookie from the cookie jar, I can swipe a slice of pie from the refrigerator, and a five dollar bill from the cash jar. If I can get away with it once, I can get away with it twice, and thrice and so forth until a single exception has become a habit that grows out of all proportions. 

But the decision not to take the cookie in the first place remains as a road not taken, at least for another day and another decision. 

In today's gospel Jesus urges us to "love your enemies." That commandment precludes a great many thoughts, words and deeds against one's enemies. I may have to imprison him but I cannot kill him. Imprisoned he will need and deserve as a human being who is created in God's own image all the attention of any other human being. He has the right to food, clothing, shelter, protection, medical, psychological, psychiatric and spiritual care, educational and work opportunities, and dignity. We put him in prison to protect him from harming others and to protect him from harm by others. But even there we do not have the right to judge or punish. Revenge in mine, says the Lord

The fact that we don't like this person is irrelevant. We cannot disrespect his human integrity without endangering every other human person. 

I heard that point raised in a radio discussion about torture. Where will the American torturers -- who were supposed to serve our security and our national interests with their violence against defenseless human being -- be in ten years, or twenty or thirty? Might they be serving their communities in police stations? And how will they deal with difficult citizens who are suspected, but not convicted and still legally innocent, of crime? How will they address their children and grandchildren, not to mention their wives and lovers, when those relationships get complicated? Will they have forgotten how to extract information from their enemies? Will they remember how to inflict agonizing pain without leaving scars.  

How will the decision to torture change those individuals for life, and the people who authorized that treatment? Isn't it better not to take that road in the first place? 

Love your enemies may feel like an extreme limit upon our freedom; there are so many attitudes we cannot indulge, and so many forbidden thoughts, words and deeds. But the law prevents us from taking a road through slavery into hell; and it leads us on the road to respect for the dignity and rights of every human being -- born and unborn, innocent or guilty.